Made in the Image of God

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Merriam-Webster.com

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

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

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God Wants to be Found

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down

 

Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.

 

Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.

 

The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

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?

emmaus-rembrandt-medium

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: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html 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.