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.

L23-Goodshepherd-medium

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.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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.

 

eye_dilate

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.

The Story God Tells About Us (Ash Wednesday)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN +  Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103:8-14; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21


Human beings are story beings. For as long back as we can remember we have been listening to stories around fires or radios or TV screens. We make sense of the world through stories: fairy tales teach us the rules of good behavior; our political views are rooted in the stories we tell about how the world is and how it should be; the gospel is the story by which we seek to live our lives.

We also tell stories about ourselves in order to understand who we are and what we want to be. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves can be harmful: someone might tell herself, “I’m not good enough,” so often that she can’t get passed her insecurity, and she needs to learn to tell herself a different story. We can tell ourselves encouraging stories, like when someone tells himself, “You are doing enough, so stop comparing yourself to others.” We tell ourselves the story of who we want to be, of our goals and hopes for the future, and these stories give us encouragement and help us make decisions.

Of course we also hear stories about who we are and who we should be from other people and from the culture we live in. Through TV shows, advertisements, songs, and newspaper articles, we constantly receive messages about what a good human should be like. Women hear about exactly how we should be beautiful; men hear about how they should be strong. We all hear that we should be perfectly kind and successful in our work but also spend a lot of time with our families and also be rich and of course be happy all the time. Sometimes it feels like we’re hearing: you need to be all things to all people, and you need to enjoy doing it.

Then we come to worship today, Ash Wednesday, and we hear a different story. We hear the story God tells about us.

First, we hear that we are limited. We hear that we are imperfect, sinful. We hear that we are mortal: our bodies will get weak; we will die.

Does gathering to hear those stories come as kind of a relief to anyone else?

Here is a sacred place where we can lay down all the pressure that is put on us to be perfect. Here is a sacred place where we can lay down our pretenses and our strivings and our performing, a sacred place where we can admit for a moment how we feel sometimes: not good enough. Not able to be perfect. Worn out sometimes, selfish sometimes, hypocritical sometimes.

Here is a sacred place where we can acknowledge our fear of dying, of losing those we love; a sacred place where we can acknowledge our frustration with the frailty of our bodies, our grief for those who have died or whose bodies are hurting or minds are fading.

Most of us hide away all that vulnerability most of the time: because it’s not polite conversation, or because it’s painful to talk about. But today we gather to be marked with a reminder of it all: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

For this moment we can admit together all our weakness and vulnerability, and it is good, it is true, it is honest.

But to stop the story there would not only be a recipe for a very depressing day: it would be wrong. Our sin and our frailty are only the first part of the story God tells about us. The story we will act out in the ritual of being marked with a cross of ashes will continue as we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

Today we hear not only that we are mortals and sinners but also that we are beloved, forgiven, sainted children of God. God sees us exactly as we are — sees us even more clearly than we see ourselves — and God chooses us exactly as we are. Jesus Christ came for us exactly as we are. God welcomes us into God’s kingdom exactly as we are.

First we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And then we hear, “The body of Christ, given for you.” / “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear the story of who God says we are. We hear that we are vulnerable and sinful. Then we hear that God loves us as we are. And, finally, we hear that God does not leave us as we are.

When we hear that, we may think first of God’s law, which convicts us when we do wrong or fail to do right, which holds us to God’s standard. We may also think of the vision of the Kingdom of God, the vision we get through the words and lives of Jesus, the prophets, and the saints: the stories of the Kingdom of God help us see how God is working to transform our world and call us to be a part of that work.

But most of all we should remember that we are not called to repent and to change and to work all on our own — that would eventually lead us back to the first part of the story, our imperfections, and leave us stranded there. This third part of the story is not about what we are striving to do: it is about what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. God holds all of our weakness and transforms it into something new; God takes on even our mortality and with it creates new life.

As we enter into the season of Lent, pay attention to the ways God is transforming you now. What fear may God help you make peace with? What grief may God help you make beautiful? What weaknesses may God turn into to strengths?

Listen to the story God is telling about you. Listen to the story God is writing in you. Let that be the story you tell yourself, too.

Transfigured Moments

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 26, 2017

Reading: Matthew 17:1-9


This morning during Sunday School, Sandy Vollmer — our director for youth and children’s ministries — will take the confirmation class to the baptismal font to talk about baptism. Earlier this week she showed me some of the “props” for her lesson: thin, dry, brittle pieces of sponge, cut into the shape of hearts. They were so dried out, I almost didn’t recognize that they were made out of sponge material when she showed them to me. She and the students will place their dried-up hearts in the baptismal font and watch them swell up with the waters, looking full, and — in a way — healed and whole.

Then Sandy and the students will talk about the ways these soaking hearts represent what God does for us in baptism (what God just did in Spencer and Oliver’s baptisms): God fills up our hearts with the Holy Spirit; God heals us and makes us whole; God comes into the places in us that are dry and broken and dead-looking and sets to work on creating new life in us.

Those sponge-hearts can also represent something we keep seeking from God throughout our lives: in moments when our hearts or lives feel dried-up or empty or brittle or small, we come to God hoping for that divine touch to help keep the life alive in us, to fill us up, to make us stronger. We look for a glimpse of transcendence, for a moment outside of our moment, for an experience that helps us see beyond this time we feel stuck in, that helps us see the big picture when we feel trapped in a smaller part of the story, that gives us something to hold on to, something to fill us up and keep us going through the hard times.

When Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John up the mountain to witness his Transfiguration, they must have experienced one of the moments of transcendence of their lives. And I imagine that the timing of that mountaintop experience could not have been more perfect.

In the Gospel of Matthew the story of the Transfiguration is sandwiched in between stories in which Jesus tells the disciples about his impending death and all that they will suffer in his name. At that point in his ministry Jesus was starting to look ahead towards Jerusalem and arrest and execution; just a few verses before the Transfiguration, we read:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). It’s the first of four predictions of his death. And then come those famous words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

After this conversation comes the story of the glorious Transfiguration, which we just read together. But our gospel reading for the day cuts off the conversation between Jesus and his disciples as they came down the mountain. After he told them not to tell anyone about the vision, the disciple asked him: don’t all the teachers say that the ancient prophet Elijah is supposed to return before the Messiah does his work? And Jesus responded, “‘…but I tell you Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:11-13).

Over and over again Jesus talked with his disciples about how the prophets that came before had suffered, how he was going to suffer, and how they were going to suffer, too.

I used to think of speeches like those as moments when Jesus’s divinity showed through, and he predicted the future with his godly knowledge-of-everything. But I have forced myself into a new habit of reading these stories: to think about how everyone must have known that danger was coming, because it was obvious. It would not have taken prophetic powers to see what was on the horizon for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was publicly speaking against a lot of powerful people; he was drawing large crowds to hear him teach; his message and his ministry were rallying too many people — and he was ready to go to the capitol and cause even more trouble. He and his closer followers must have known they would be in danger. They lived with that knowledge, and they moved forward toward Jerusalem with that knowledge.

So I wonder how Peter, James, and John felt, living like that, living with that sense of danger just around the corner. I wonder how they felt every time Jesus, their beloved leader, brought up the fact that he was about to be arrested and executed. Did they ever get weary? Dried-up? Feel empty or hopeless or afraid or wonder if it was all worth it?

In the midst of whatever they were feeling, Jesus took them up the mountain. Jesus took them out of the dangerous moment they were living in, led them off of the doomed path they were walking, and gave them a glimpse of something better. They saw their leader and friend — yes, that one who was preparing for death — they saw him shining with a light as powerful as the sun; they saw the ancient holy prophets Moses and Elijah speaking with him; they heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In that one, bright-shining moment, their faith in Jesus was confirmed. He was indeed the Son of God, the messiah sent into the world.

And yes, they walked up that mountain with the knowledge of the dangerous future they faced; and yes, when they walked down the mountain Jesus reminded them yet again of the cost of being his disciple. But that brief moment on the mountaintop must have filled them up like a sponge in the baptismal font. And maybe they kept that moment with them, and they could remember it during difficult times, and through the memory God would fill them up again, strengthen their faith, and help them keep pressing forward.

The Church carries memories like the Transfiguration and passes them on to new generations of Christians. We gather in worship, in Bible studies, and in so many other ways to hear and tell these community stories. And we discover and share our own stories of mountaintop experiences. We come together again and again in faith that God still works through these stories to strengthen us along the way.

And as we hear these stories, it’s like we are being trained to see God in our everyday lives. Ordinary moments can be transfigured as we sense God moving in moments of silence, or in the wisdom of children, in an act of kindness, in a cry for justice. We hear stories from mountaintops in faraway places and long-ago times, but they help us see God’s story continuing around us now. May God transfigure our hard times and our dry hearts with the light of God’s presence. Amen.

Law & Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday after Epiphany + February 12, 2017

Readings: Deut. 30:15-20; Matt. 5:21-37


The Bible passages we just heard are the kind that tend to make people squirm.

“If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today…”

 “I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment…”

 “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…”

We got a good dose of law and judgement — which, from what I’ve heard in so many Bible studies, are not the parts of the Bible that Lutherans usually like to focus on. We are all about grace and forgiveness. Judgement? That’s for those other Christians. We’ve seen the light. We’ve gotten beyond the judgement hang-up.

But today’s readings offer the opportunity to remind ourselves that the Lutheran way of reading scripture is to listen for God’s Word in the law as well as in the gospel. The convicting words of the law that make us squirm are as much a part of God’s work of salvation as are the comforting words of the gospel.

The official Lutheran way of explaining it is known as the Three Uses of the Law:

  1. The law acts like a curb that keeps both Christians and non-Christians from doing wrong.
  2. The law acts like a mirror, reflecting what God created life to be like so that we can see how we don’t measure up, and repent.
  3. The law acts as a guide: those of us who know we are forgiven seek to thank God for this great gift and to embrace God’s work in our hearts to make us new creations, and the law helps us understand how to live as thankful children of God.

Contrary to a lot of misunderstanding of Luther’s teachings, we don’t say, “God forgives us! We’re free!” and throw away the law. We just know that its judgement on us is not the final word and should not make us panic, but rather the law should help us — even when it convicts us first.

I’ve also come to understand the connection between the convicting work of the law and the redeeming work of the gospel in another way. What most helps me to see the God who gave all those laws in the Old Testament as the same God doing the same gospel work as the God who came to us in Christ —- What helps me to understand how the Jesus who said “this is my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins,” could also say something like, “anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement” — is to think about how the law and the gospel are so inseparable, connected like two sides of the same coin. Let me begin to explain what I mean with a story.

This story comes from the life of a pastor who served a tiny rural congregation in southern Illinois in the early 1970s. Early in his very first call a member of his congregation, Rose, asked to speak with him. The pastor knew that her husband, Seth, had a reputation for drinking too much. But Rose told him that the problem was much, much worse than that: Seth beat her and the children, and he knew how to do it in ways that would not leave bruises, so no one else would suspect anything. He was paranoid to the point of being delusional, he carried a gun, and once he stormed into the emergency room of a hospital, pulling a gun on a nurse and demanding that “she remove the electrodes from his head.”

The pastor begged Rose to do something, to call the police, to file a complaint with Social Services, but she refused. Finally one evening the pastor answered the phone to hear Rose say, “He punched me again. We’re scared.” The pastor called the sheriff, and they all met at Seth and Rose’s house. The pastor wrote about that night:

 The sheriff consulted with Rose, who complained that Seth was threatening the entire family. But Seth, who could pretend rationality for limited periods of time, dismissed her fears, reminding the lawmen, “Look, boys, I’m standing here on my own property. Nobody’s been hurt, I hahn’t done nothing wrong. You can’t arrest a man on his own front lawn for not doing nothing wrong, can you?”

 The sheriff was stumped. “I reckon he’s got us.” Then summoning his full authority, he declared to Rose and me, “I cannot arrest a law-abiding citizen on his own land.”

 I said, “This man has used his fists on his wife and son repeatedly. Sure, he’s standing on his own property. And when you leave, he’s going to walk in his own house and beat the hell out of her. Can’t you see that he is menacing her right now? Sheriff, I am going to hold you responsible for this. By the way, did I tell you he usually carries a gun?”

 At this last revelation, the sheriff’s eyebrow twitched. “Now, look, Reverend, you can climb down off’n your high horse. It ain’t my fault that this little lady has four kids and a crazy man for a husband, but it ain’t no law against being crazy. If’n I arrest him for nothing, like you want me to, you won’t bear the blunt of it. I will. Do you have a restraining order? Of course you don’t. The man ain’t trespassing on his own front yard.”

 “What if he were trespassing?” I asked.

 “Then I could cuff him,” he said with a chortle. “Let’s say he was at your house and you didn’t want him on the premises, then I could take him.”

 “Then let’s go to the church office,” I said, “and we’ll let him trespass there, and you, sir, can arrest him.”

 So Rose and the kids, the pastor, and the sheriff get into their cars and head to the church. “To my amazement,” the pastor wrote, “Seth hopped in his truck and followed the patrol car.”

At the church I hastily opened the sacristy and arranged the desk and chairs as if for a counseling session. Rose quickly led the children into the parish hall and then entered the sacristy. The sheriff and his deputy stood to the side of the entrance. With Rose seated nervously in front of the desk, Seth, who by this time was focused like a homing device on his wife, walked up the steps and barged into the sacristy.

 I said, “Seth, Rose and I are having a counseling session. It’s private. I’m asking you to leave.”

 Seth said, “This is my church, and this is my wife. I’m not leaving without her. What are you going to do about it?”

 I stepped to the door, motioned to the sheriff, and said, “He’s trespassing. Arrest him.”

 The law entered the church and took him without a struggle.[1]

What this pastor did is definitely a sketchy legal move; he even admitted it was entrapment. I’ll leave it to all the lawyers and law enforcement officials we’ve got around here to debate whether he did the right thing from that perspective. What I want to think about this morning is why he did what he did. And I imagine that one of the things running through his mind that night was, “What is the law for? Who is the law for?” Based on his actions, it seems he believed that the law’s number one purpose was to protect Rose and the kids. The law was there for the victims of violence and injustice. He was willing to do some manipulating, to make some questionable choices, in order to make sure the law was doing its job of protecting the people that most needed protecting in that moment.

For Seth the law was intrusive, it kept him from being free to live as he was living, it was demanding and threatening (even as it tried to work for him). But for Rose, that same law must have felt more like gospel.

I think the same can be said for the times we hear God’s law through scripture. We hear, “anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery…” and maybe we start to worry about our own divorce, or our friends’ divorces, which were arranged on very different grounds. We hear the big scary law. But at the time, women hearing that may have breathed a sigh of relief that their husbands could not cast them away from home and their only source of economic security without cause…they may have heard gospel.

We hear, “If you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire,” (by the way that part about hellfire is probably a common turn of phrase, an exaggerated metaphor, not an actual rule of damnation). But even so, we hear that and think, “Well, that’s pretty harsh.” But if we’re the ones constantly being insulted or called names or verbally abused…we might hear gospel there.

Laws are for both perpetrator and victim…laws are not individualistic, they are for the whole community. And while they bring some people down, they lift up others — and they offer life to the community.

Like it says in our Deuteronomy reading: “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.”

Today we continue the age-old journey of seeking to live according to God’s will in the midst of laws and interpretations, in the midst of biblical laws and secular laws. It can be difficult to know when to obey to the letter, and when to say, “I’ve heard it said, but Jesus said to us…” But if we “choose life,” if we seek the good of the community and of God’s creation, perhaps that will keep us a little closer to God’s path. And most of all we can be confident that we will always be surrounded by God’s grace, guiding us in the law and forgiving us in the gospel.


[1] Richard Lischer, Open Secrets, (New York: Broadway Books, 2002) pp. 132-134.

United in Christ, Bound to the Gospel

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday After Epiphany + January 22, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 9:1-4; Psalm 27:1, 4-9; 1 Cor. 1:10-18; Matt. 4:12-23


I’m going to cut right to the point, to the topic I assume is at least near the top of everybody’s minds this weekend: Donald Trump’s inauguration as 45th President of the United States of America.

 Words spinning through the media include: conflict, polarized, worry, divided.

 Our congregation reflects that national reality, if not on the surface of our interactions here at church, then at least in the viewpoints we carry in to worship with us. Within our membership directory are some who supported Trump for President since the days of the campaign, because they thought he could bring the right changes to our nation, and there are some who took to the streets this weekend to lift up their rights and those of others which they believe will be ignored by the new administration. And of course there are some here who turned off the TV and said, “I don’t want to hear any more about all of this.”

 All of that floated to the top of my mind this week as I read Paul’s words to the early church in Corinth: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”

 Apparently the Corinthian church was divided over a whole lot of things. Paul spent all of 1 Corinthians — one of the longest letters in the New Testament — trying to settle dispute after dispute and to remind the Corinthians of the importance of their unity in Christ.

 In the section we read together this morning, Paul addressed one of the ways the Corinthian church had divided itself: by who baptized them or by whose Christian teachings they followed. Paul wrote that he’d heard rumors that the Corinthians were saying things like “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Peter”…

 …which definitely feels like what’s happening in the U.S. right now. Doesn’t it seem like a lot of people are dividing the conversation in terms like, “I belong to Trump!” or “I belong to Clinton!”? Or “I belong to the Democrats!” / “I belong to the Republicans!”? Even if it’s not said so explicitly, those allegiances seem to underlie the way we talk to one another and the way we post on Facebook and the news sources we read and the way we understand what’s going on.

 So maybe this is a particularly good time for Christians in the U.S. to reflect on Paul’s response to a similar situation from long, long ago: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul [or Clinton or the GOP] crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul [or of left-wing or right-wing politics]?” … “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” From thousands of years ago Paul calls us to focus on our unity in Christ and the message of the gospel.

 This is the point where it’s tempting to go with an easy interpretation of what Paul said there. Something like, “What really matters is that we’re all Christians and we need to get along, so let’s only talk about churchy things in church and sing kumbaya a lot.”

 But that’s not exactly what Paul was encouraging, nor is it what we see that Paul himself did. (And it’s definitely not what Jesus did – that’s why he got in so much trouble.) Yes, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to remember that they were one in Christ; yes, Paul wrote those beautiful words: “Love is patient, love is kind…” (1 Cor. 13:4). Paul encouraged compromise and setting aside our pride and all that good stuff. But Paul also set boundaries on what Christians could compromise, boundaries on what we could be patient about, boundaries where love had to “get tough” and stand its ground. And those boundaries were the truths and the demands of the gospel.

 For example: later in 1 Corinthians Paul gets tough about how the Corinthians are celebrating the Lord’s Supper. Back in that time the Lord’s Supper was still more like a meal than the simple ritual we have today. And Paul said, look you’re eating this meal and calling it the Lord’s Supper. But “when you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s Supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk” (1 Cor. 11:20-21). In other words, some Christians — probably the wealthier members of the community — had more time to sit at the table and more food to eat and more wine to drink. They would already be full and drunk by the time poorer members of the community arrived.

 That’s not what the Lord’s Supper is about. The Lord’s Supper is a sign of God’s love for the whole world: rich and poor equally. The Lord’s Supper is like a foretaste of God’s Great Banquet, where each and every person will have enough to eat. Paul held the Corinthian Christians accountable to the gospel in how they celebrated the Lord’s Supper; the way they gathered to eat and drink in Jesus’s name needed to show who Jesus was and the message Jesus brought: that God desires to “fill the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:53).

 Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper are a small example of the truth he communicated throughout 1 Corinthians: we need to be united in Christ, and our unity needs to proclaim the message of the gospel — in the way we live right now. It’s not just about getting along; it’s about holding one another accountable to the gospel. It’s about continuing the work of Christ in our time and place.

 And the problem, of course, is that the gospel is not only about what we might call “churchy things.” There’s a pretty strong pattern in history of diluting the gospel to “the good news about how to get into heaven.” But when we read scripture and study the life of Christ and the community of early Christians, it’s like being hit over the head with the fact that the gospel is about what’s going on here and now, too. The gospel — God’s good news to us — doesn’t just kick in after we die. The gospel is also about now: about spirits and bodies and neighborhoods and nations right here and right now.

 The gospel is about loving God and our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40).

 The gospel is about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, giving healing to those who need it, and setting the oppressed free (Luke 4:18-19) — here and now.

 The gospel is about caring for the foreigners and refugees in our midst (Lev. 19:33-34, 24:22; Mark 7:24-30).

 The gospel is about showing through what we do and say that “God so loved the world that he sent his only son…” (John 3:16).

The gospel is about mercy within justice, hope and faith in times of fear, forgiveness in times of wrongdoing, love in times of hatred.

 These are the boundaries at which we must take our stand. And together, Christians help one another figure out what these things mean for our day to day lives: how we speak, how we act, what we care about.

 As Christians united in Christ here at St. Andrew, we must help one another and our community as a whole to proclaim the gospel in word and in deed. And the political diversity of our congregation, which can seem like something that threatens to divide us, can be a great help to us in this. We come with our differing understandings and differing viewpoints, and we gather together around what we share: a deep need for the love of God and deep commitment to the gospel of Christ. With our differences, we can help open one another’s eyes to better ways to live out the gospel, to opportunities to do Christ’s work: to spread the message of God’s love, to serve others, to humble the proud and lift up the lowly.

 Let us join together as disciples called by Jesus, united in Christ’s love and bound to the gospel. Amen.