Making God Come Alive

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Feast of Christ the King + November 20, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43


Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lit a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out over and over: “Where is God? Where is God”?

There were many people standing around who did not believe in God, and they thought this madman was ridiculous. “Why, is God lost?” one person asked. “Has God wandered away like a child?” said another. “Or is God hiding? Is God afraid of us? Has God gone off in a boat? Did God emigrate to another country?” All the people were calling out jokes and laughing.

The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his eyes. “Where is God gone?” he called out. “I’ll tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers. But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Where’s it going now? Where are we going?…Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? …Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? …God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers?”

…Here the madman was silent and looked again at the crowd; they were silent, too, and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground; the light went out, and the glass broke into pieces. “I came too early,” he said. “The event is still on its way, it’s coming…and yet they have done it!”1

That story is one of the most famous passages written by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. How most philosophers understand that passage — as far as I can tell, which is honestly not very far at all; my apologies in advance to anyone who, like, actually took Intro. Philosophy at some point and knows more about this than I do — is that Nietzsche was writing metaphorically about how people were coming to think about God and religion differently in the 17- and 1800s; God was, in a sense, losing the absolute place in human thinking. Or something.

But anyway, I live a strange life, and I happened to read that story for the first time this week, as I was preparing to preach on another story that talks about the death of God: today’s gospel reading. Luke’s story describes how humans killed God incarnate: executing him publicly, with torture and shame, between two criminals. With the madman’s words still echoing in the back of my mind, the craziness and absurdity of Christ’s crucifixion caught me once again: How did we kill God? “How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon?”

So this week I’ve been reflecting on these two stories about the death of God and how they relate to this day on the church calendar: the Feast of Christ the King. At first it seems really out-of-place to be focusing on the death of Christ on the day where we celebrate Christ’s leadership in our lives. But here’s one way to make sense of it: Luke’s story reminds us of what kind of King Jesus is: the king who was an enemy of the powerful; the king who sacrificed himself, who lived and died among the outcast; the king who, in his final acts, forgave his enemies and welcomed the sinner. He was not the king the world is used to, the king that makes everything he has power over bend to his will, and he is still not. Today he still works in the world in humble ways — like through us.

The story I’m adding to the mix — the story of the madman — points to the essential role that we play in making that King real for the people around us. Whereas Luke’s story tells us that humans killed God incarnate thousands of years ago, Nietzsche’s story tells us how humans may continue to kill God, in a more spiritual sense. I’m definitely not representing Nietzsche’s viewpoints here (the man did not like Christianity very much at all), but I’m playing around with a general idea I got from reading his story: How can we — how do we — humans kill God? And, on the positive side, how do we make God come alive?

I believe very strongly that we who state publicly that we are Christians make God come alive for the world around us — or we make God seem dead for the world around us. This is not to say that God might not be doing God’s own thing, apart from us, working in people’s lives and throughout creation. But I do want to acknowledge that we Christians are our God’s representatives in a very powerful way. St. Paul frequently called the church “the Body of Christ,” recognizing that we, together, are the presence of Christ in our world. The teachings we receive from other Christians influence how we see and understand God. The way Christians act publicly proves or disproves our God for many people. What we say, and the way we live, and the way those two things match up — that is some of the best evidence people have of God. Because as we each know from our own struggles to figure out God — God is not easily seen or understood.

So today when we say “Christ is the King,” we are not stating the obvious; we are making an argument. When we look out at the world — it’s history and what’s going on today — it does not seem like the loving God that we preach is in charge. Hunger and disease haunt so many people; violence and war still plague our planet; racism and sexism pervade entire cultures; greed and fear constantly come out on top. When we read our history or look at today’s headlines, we must understand why people ask the question: “How can you believe your God is in charge?” and “What kind of God is that?”

So when we say “Christ is the King,” we are issuing a call to ourselves: Christ is our King, and we must live in a way that shows it. In the words of our baptismal promises: we must “renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God.”2 We have to struggle against the ways of this world in order to make God known, to make God alive for others. And this is not easy.

The world so often finds its wisdom in things like fear and self-protection and greed. But Christ’s wisdom focuses on hope, sacrifice, and compassion.

The world says: “Hate your enemies; stop them with violence if you need to; take revenge.” But we hear Christ say: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) The prophets painted visions of days of peace (cf. Isaiah 11).

The world says: “Build up your borders high and strong. Push away those who are different. Protect yourselves and your people first.” But God gave laws commanding that God’s people treat native and immigrant the same (cf. Roger E. Olson’s “Biblical Injunctions Regarding Aliens in our Midst”). Jesus reminded us to love our neighbor, and then he reminded us that our neighbor includes the people from the “wrong” side of town, the “wrong” religion, the “wrong” country (Luke 10:25-37). The Holy Spirit opened the church beyond the nation of Israel to the world at large (cf. Acts 10 & 11).

When we confess Christ the King, we are being called to fight against the ways of this world. We are being called to hold ourselves to the way of Christ, to keep lifting up the world-changing values we find in Christ, in scripture, and in our tradition, and to ask every day, in every situation, both political and personal: how can we better live the Christlike life?

It’s not easy to figure out how to live our lives in the way of Christ. But here is what I do
know:

Under the wisdom of this world many people live their lives as those who are feared, those who are mistrusted, those who are pushed away. They are graffitied, and they are scarred. They lose hope of ever feeling safe and accepted.

Under the wisdom of this world many people are treated as worthless, as tools, as expendable. They are overlooked, and they are used. They lose hope that anyone else even cares about their suffering.

These people are not far away. “They” are really part of us. Sometimes, we may be one of them. So hear the good news:

Christians, we are the representatives of a king who spent his earthly life offering hope and acceptance to exactly those kinds of people: the people the world finds useless or deplorable. We are the representatives of a king who spent his earthly life speaking up on their behalf to the people with power. We are the representatives of a King who spent his final breaths asking for forgiveness for his enemies and then offering acceptance and hope to a dying criminal.

Even in all our own pain and brokenness, we are gathered up into this story; we are given the good news for our own hope and healing, and then we are made part of the life of Christ in our own time and place.

We have something to offer. We have a response to the fear and the hopelessness in our world. We have work to do.

When we hear voices speak as if fear or greed were wisdom, we need to speak up loudly with the wild wisdom of Christ’s love. When we hear the voices of those who suffer, we need to listen, and then to respond in compassion and hope.

We are called to live with Christ as our King, to make God come alive for the world around us. Let’s get to work with boldness.


1. Very closely paraphrased from Friedrich Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom (also called The Gay
Science), § 125.]

2. Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 235.

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WWJD? Serve and suffer.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 18, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

My brother, John, is a senior in high school this year. I called home the other day, and he answered: “You’re talking to the new president of the Science Olympiad Team!” I congratulated him, and he continued, “I don’t know why they voted for me. My campaign wasn’t very strong, and the other candidate was really good.” I asked him what his election platform had been. He said he’d run under the slogan “What would John do?” I laughed first, but then I thought: well, that’s not such a bad slogan. If I trust what John would do in most situations, that’s a good reason to give him my vote. And I guess it worked.

Later I told a friend that story, and that got us reminiscing about those “WWJD?” bracelets that were so popular in the ‘90s. Kids all over the school had brightly-colored bracelets tied around their wrists to remind them to ask “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.

But since my time at Lutherock this summer, I can’t think about those bracelets without hearing Pastor Alex Hoffner’s voice in my head. He was in seminary when the bracelets were popular, and he told us — in his unforgettably intense, southern preacher-storyteller way — about a professor who hated the bracelets. When he saw a student wearing a WWJD? bracelet, he would get in real’ close to them and say: “What would Jesus do? Jesus would die! Are you ready to die? Then take that thing off!”

I guess that professor thought the WWJD? fad represented a watered-down form of Christianity, like it just skimmed the top of the question of what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. A lot of the time, when we think about what Jesus would do, we think about being kinder. Being nice even to those that are mean to us; being generous in giving to charity and maybe the occasional beggar; if we’re feeling particularly spiritual, we might even ask the “weird guy” if he might like to sit at our lunch table. Which matches how we remember Jesus most of the time: as a kind, compassionate man who knew how to turn the other cheek and love everyone. And being that kind of person is difficult. It is a way of putting other people before ourselves that requires some suffering on our part, some acting out of the “dying-to-self” part of our baptism. But that image of Jesus is just one facet of who Jesus is. It kind of makes Jesus into a teddy bear.

I did not expect this when I googled “teddy bear Jesus.” From the Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju Island, South Korea. (More pictures here.)

But while Jesus was compassionate, that compassion could sometimes come out fiercely — less like a teddy bear, and more like a mother bear ready to defend her cubs. Jesus publicly condemned the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed and thirst for power and position (Matt. 23); Jesus dares to say that the rich will lose their position in God’s kingdom (Lk. 6:24-26); Jesus speaks up for those who are being abused by those in power. Jesus welcomes not just the outsiders, but the sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus is arrested, suffers, and dies, and Jesus demands that his followers carry that same cross. How many of us saw all those harsh stories when we looked down at our WWJD bracelet?

It’s been said that the Gospel of Mark was written for an early group of Christians who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to the work of the messiah and who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to discipleship.[1] The cross — meaning suffering, shame, death, and not just death, but laying down our lives — is not just an accidental part of Christ’s mission; it’s not just an incidental part of God’s plan that we have to get past in order to get the “real” stuff of the plan. The cross is the real plan. Jesus could not have been the messiah without being a suffering servant; and we cannot be true disciples without being suffering servants as well. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

In today’s gospel reading, we see that yet again the disciples themselves are missing that point. Just a few weeks ago we heard a story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest of the disciples (Mark 9:30-37). And Jesus explains, “You’ve got it all wrong. Whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant to everyone.”

And now, just a few stories later, they’re at it again. Two of the disciples ask to be granted special places of power in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus answers in the symbolic language of “drinking the cup that I drink” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.” Because we know what is about to happen to Jesus, we know what he is warning them about: those who wish to be leaders like Jesus must be prepared to suffer like Jesus.

Then the rest of the disciples get word of this conversation, and they’re mad: Who are you two to ask for a special place? Who are you two to be rulers over the rest of us? But Jesus gives them almost exactly the same speech he gave them before: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark tells these kinds of stories over and over because the people he was writing to didn’t get it. He thought they needed to hear over and over that following Jesus is not about getting rewarded; it’s about suffering like Jesus suffered.

But Mark wasn’t alone in this effort. The entire New Testament is filled with the language of crucifixion, suffering, sacrifice, servant, slave, death.[2] It seems every writer felt the need to make the same points, because so, so many early Christians were having trouble taking in the same message: following Jesus is not about “living the good life” or about being better than others because we believe or because we go to church or because we follow a strict moral code: it’s about being willing to sacrifice and suffer so that others might live.

From the very beginning Christians have struggled to take in that message, and America’s Christian culture today is missing it, too. We tend to focus on what God’s love for us gives to us: forgiveness, peace of mind, strength, comfort, assurance, hope. We think sometimes about what God’s love for us demands of us, for our own good: repentance, change, obedience, courage.

But it’s more difficult to think of what God’s love for others demands of us: sacrifice, sharing, giving up our rights, speaking up on behalf of others, taking the place of servant so that others may feel the real effects of God’s love in their lives. We are called to sacrifice and to suffer not just so that our own lives may be better for it, but — and perhaps even more importantly — so that others’ lives may be better for it. And if we are truly called to do what Jesus would do, then we are called to be suffering servants — and that might mean making our lives worse for the sake of others. And if we are called to sacrifice and suffer for others even in ways that do not make sense, that do not seem fair, it is because we are called by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not flow from reason or fairness — thank God — but from love.

We are about to sing the hymn “By Gracious Powers,” (text / choral recording) which is based on a poem written by German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before he was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for two years for undercover work against the Nazis, and was executed when he was linked to a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer with confirmation students, 1932. Image from German Federal Archive, available via wikimedia commons.

Amazingly, while in prison he was still working as theologian, writing essays on what he learned of God from his experiences. He planned out a book with this as the main point: that the greatest and most fundamental thing about Jesus Christ is that he existed for others. His power, his wisdom, his might — all this is grounded in his existence for others. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[3]

And for Bonhoeffer this wasn’t just abstract thinking. This was something he knew about because he was living it. And he knew exactly how painful it could be. Bonhoeffer was saintly in his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of others. He had taken a teaching position in America in 1939 in order to escape the necessity of swearing an oath to Hitler, but soon returned to Germany because he felt he must suffer with his people. Later, while he was in prison, a guard offered to help him escape and go into hiding, but Bonhoeffer turned down the offer, because he feared it might bring further suffering on his friends still in prison.

But what is most amazing in all this is Bonhoeffer’s faith that God was with him in the midst of his sacrifice and his suffering. This is what we hear in the poem, in language that sounds like it comes straight from today’s gospel reading:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.[4]

God’s love so filled Bonhoeffer that he could not help but choose to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for others. And even in the midst of his very human fear and despair, Bonhoeffer found some joy in that participation in Christ’s existence for others.

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called up to be a spy for the sake of the gospel, or to be imprisoned, or to die. But we are called to make radical, sacrificial choices every day as bearers of God’s grace to this world. May we listen more closely for those calls and be ready to sacrifice what they demand, in Jesus name. Amen.


[1] This is a common interpretation of Mark, but I’m riffing directly off of Fred Craddock, who was quoted by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton on the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week. The show’s blog is available here.

[2] This idea, too, comes from the work of Rev. Dr. Chilton and Rev. Dr. John Fairless in their Lectionary Lab Live Podcast.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition), ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 381.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “Powers of Good,”  Letters and Papers from Prison, 400.

Where’s God in the Book of Esther?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 18th Sunday after Pentecost + September 27, 2015

Texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Ps. 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Today is the day St. Andrew specially recognizes the Women of the ELCA. It is also the only Sunday in which the lectionary offers us a Bible reading from the book of Esther, one of two books in the Bible named for a female character. When I first realized that, I thought: that coincidence is just too cool for me to pass up. I have to preach about Esther’s story.

The story starts off with the king of the Persian Empire giving a huge banquet, inviting all his officials and all the governors of his empire…just to show off how rich and powerful he is. It goes on for 180 days. And then he throws another, little banquet — only seven days this time — where he includes the “little people” of his kingdom.

Then comes the first power struggle of the story. The King wants to show off one more thing — his beautiful queen — but she refuses to show up at his party. The king is infuriated and calls his advisors to help him figure out what to do with this disobedient queen. They say the queen’s refusal is not only an insult to the king, but to all the rulers, and to all men everywhere. If the other women hear about this, won’t they all start ignoring their husbands, thinking they can do whatever they want? Won’t they start taking away our power? They have to make an example of this disobedient queen, and so they banish her and start looking for a new wife for the king.

Next we are introduced to someone with very little power: Mordecai, a Jew. Mordecai’s great-grandfather had been captured and carried away from Jerusalem when the Babylonian Empire conquered Judah. Mordecai is still living in the land of exile, and he is raising his young, orphaned cousin, Esther. As you probably remember, Esther is one of the many young women who are paraded before the king, and she is the one he chooses to be his new queen.

Now comes the main power struggle of this story. We are introduced to Haman, the most powerful man in the king’s court. When he walks in the court gates, all the servants bow before him. All of them, except Mordecai.

Haman is furious about that. But he thinks it’s beneath him to punish this one, lowly man. So he decides to put Mordecai in his place by killing all of Mordecai’s people. He’s going to kill all the Jews in the kingdom.

But to do that, he has to get the king on his side. So he goes before the king and says: “There is a certain people living in your land, scattered among your other peoples. But these people won’t assimilate. They keep their own laws, and their laws are totally different from every other people’s. They don’t keep your laws; it’s really not appropriate for you to tolerate these people. So I propose that you issue a decree that these people be destroyed. And I’ll put 10,000 talents of silver into your treasury to help make it happen.” The king gives the plan his blessing.

Mordecai finds out what Haman is doing, and he and the other Jews start tearing their clothes and wearing ashes and wailing and fasting. Queen Esther sends her servant to find out what is going on. Her servant comes back, explains everything, and tells her that her uncle has charged her to go before the king and plead for her people’s lives.

Esther hesitates. She knows that if anyone approaches the king without being summoned, they are to be executed — and he has not asked to see her for a full month. And she remembers what happened to the last queen. But Mordecai sends her a message: “Esther, if you don’t go to the king, all your family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”

Esther asks all the Jews to fast for her and summons up all her courage. She puts on her royal robes, then, knowing it might be the last move she ever makes, she steps into the king’s throne room.

He is delighted to see his beautiful queen, and he immediately offers to give her anything she asks for. She invites the king and Haman to a banquet, where she will make her request.

At the banquet Queen Esther pleads for the lives of her people, and she is crafty about it. She knows that she has to spin her request so that it sounds like something the king needs to happen in order to keep and display his power — just as the king’s advisors did when they got rid of the first queen, and just as Haman did when he asked for the decree. When she pleads for her people’s lives, her reasoning is: “no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” And the man who would dare do such a thing to the king is sitting right there with them — Haman.

The tables are turned. Haman is hanged on the gallows he had specially prepared for Mordecai, and his family goes down with him. The Jewish people destroy the enemies who would have destroyed them.

It’s a violent ending, one we wouldn’t want to use as part of our ethical codes. But it is a happy ending for Esther and her people.

As I retold this story, I tried to point out who had power and how they were using it. Maybe you noticed: I never mentioned God, or God’s power. That’s because this book of the Bible never once uses the word God. It doesn’t even allude to God acting in the lives of Esther and Mordecai.

But that’s the thing about this book that feels most real to me. The story of Esther is outrageous, like a fairy tale: a feast lasts 180 days; the women who parade before the king have to spend a year getting prettied-up first; the hangman’s gallows Haman builds is 75 feet tall — all that is kind of ridiculous, and it’s supposed to be. But that when we look for God in this story we have to read between the lines — that is exactly what we have to do in our own lives, most of the time.

And when I read between the lines of Esther’s story, I see God working. Most of all, I see God in this: there are a lot of very powerful people in this story, but nothing goes according to their plans. Something or someone else seems to hold the real power.

The king of the Persian Empire is one of the most powerful people in the world: but he is just a ball of emotions that other people play with to get what they want. Haman is the second-most powerful, and rich enough to buy what he can’t just command, but all his plans backfire and destroy him. And although the story begins with the king’s advisors warning, “But imagine what could happen if women think they have power!” in the end, a woman disobeys the law, approaches the king, and makes a request — and she is the victor.

So why does all this happen? If all the people we recognize by earthly standards as having the most power don’t get their way, where is the real power? As the story is written, Esther and the small community of Jews in Persia come out on top because of a string of coincidences and good fortune: the first queen decides (for unknown reasons) to disobey the king, and he gets rid of her; Esther is naturally beautiful, and so the king chooses her as his wife; when Esther approaches the king’s throne, he is delighted to see her despite having ignored her the last 30 days. The story is full of coincidences like this. The Jews are saved because Mordecai and Esther hear and respond to their callings in the midst of all these bits of good fortune.

Though God is never named in the story, this story ends the same way all of our stories about God end: with the lowly being lifted up, with God’s people being saved. And so we look back, and see God in the details, in the coincidences, in the “good luck.” We see God in Mordecai’s entreaties to Esther; we see God in Esther’s courage to respond to the call.

And aren’t those the same places we find God in our own lives? Those times when a scripture passage we really need to hear keeps coming up, over and over. The times when a friend just seems to know you needed a phone call, or a hug. Or when you find you have the courage to do what God is calling you to do, or you make a hard sacrifice in the name of Jesus.

Most of us don’t hear God’s voice like you’re hearing mine now; most of us don’t see God like you can see the person sitting next to you. But, I think most of us believe that God speaks to us, guides our lives somehow, believe that God is at work here among us.

Maybe part of why the book of Esther is in the Bible despite never mentioning God by name is to remind us: God is at work even when we’re not seeing angels or miracles. Sometimes, God is doing powerful things even in places where no one is even saying God’s name at all.


With thanks to Kathryn M. Schifferdecker for her commentary on this passage from Esther at workingpreacher.org.

Lives of Faith: King David, John the Baptist, and Us

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday after Pentecost + July 12, 2015

Texts: 2 Sam. 6:1-5, 12b-19; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:14-29

This morning we’ve read about two men of great faith: King David and John the Baptist. When we’re trying to figure out how to be faithful people of God, when we try to get an idea of what trusting God and submitting to God might look like, we often turn to these great men. David: the small boy with enough faith to bring down the giant Goliath, the king who trusted God to protect him against his enemies, the composer of many of the psalms. John: the great baptizer and fearless preacher, the voice in the wilderness preparing the way for Jesus, the leader willing to step aside when he saw Jesus coming. These two men are so, so different — David wears a crown and rules a kingdom; John dresses in camel hair and eats locusts — but both show us how a person  might live in faith.

They also remind us that living a life of faith can lead to drastically different outcomes.

I’d guess that most of us hope that if we are faithful, God will give us lives that look more like David’s. David went through a lot of pain: he spent years on the run from King Saul and his sons; he suffered the deaths of his best friend and some of his children; his son went through a rebellious phase, where he tried to take over the throne. But overall, David’s faithfulness leads to blessings. He wins his battles. He’s made king of two kingdoms. He’s rich. He’s popular. When he gets old and sick, a beautiful young woman cares for him until he dies quietly in his own bed. And before he dies, God promises him that his dynasty will last forever. (See 1 and 2 Samuel).

This is what we hope for from a faithful life. There may be hard times, God might call us to repent, but if we truly trust in God and seek God’s will for our lives, we will be blessed. God may not lead us where we were planning or hoping to go, but God will lead us somewhere even better.

But the story of John the Baptist reminds us that the faithful life can lead to different places, too. John was a miracle baby, born to parents too old to have children, born to fulfill prophecies. God created John to have a special and important role, to prepare the world for the coming of the messiah, for the fulfillment of God’s promises. While we don’t know much about John’s life, we know that he was faithful to his calling. And he was successful: he pulled in great crowds of people and had a big group of devoted followers. Even so, he lived down by the river and ate bugs dipped in honey. Even so, he suffered for his preaching (cf. Lk.1:5-25; Mk. 1:1-11).

When he was arrested, for a while his followers must have held out hope that God would redeem this chosen one: King Herod seemed to respect John and his preaching. He protected John and listened to what he had to say. Maybe John’s disciples hoped that the King himself would repent and be baptized, and then John would be in a position of real power. Society would be transformed, and there would be a great revival.

But instead, a young woman entrances the king and his guests with her dancing, and she makes a request, and John loses his life. If God saves him, if God blesses him, it all happens after death.

Marble sculpture of St. John the Baptist by Igor Mitoraj at Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri in Rome.

John’s story reminds us that being faithful to God does not guarantee us a good, blessed life. God certainly does bless us and love us and care for our well-being. But when we hear the story of John the Baptist, or the prophet Jeremiah, or Peter and Paul and Andrew, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Jesus Christ himself, we must remember that God’s will is not something simple and happy. Being faithful and obedient does not guarantee us anything; it is risky.

I’m reading a book right now that says welcoming God into our hearts is like welcoming a stranger.[1] After all, God is holy, God is something beyond our grasp, something we can’t predict. Welcoming God into our hearts and lives and is like welcoming a stranger into our homes. We can’t be sure what’s going to happen next.

God might ask us to change something major in our lives. God might ask us to give up something we like or even something we need. God might ask us to be uncomfortable or humble. God might ask us to go against popular opinion, to do things that aren’t socially acceptable. God might even ask us to do things that are dangerous to our reputation or our standard of living or our lives themselves. God might ask us to suffer. Sometimes God leads us to blessings like David’s, and sometimes God leads us to a life like John’s.

Here’s the good news in all this: through faith God changes us, makes us willing to live as God calls us to live, whether that means we become like David or like John. It’s not too different from our experiences of falling in love or starting a family or forming a deep friendship. We know these relationships will demand a lot from us: our kids will wake up in the middle of the night with aching stomachs; our spouses will have surgery and need extra caretaking; our best friend will call, crying, while we’re trying to get dinner ready. Yet we find ourselves committed to these relationships because of the deeper meaning they add to our existence.

Can you imagine John the Baptist saying, “Man, I really wish I hadn’t called out the king and his wife. Then I wouldn’t have been arrested, and I’d still have my head”? Can you imagine St. Peter saying, “I wish that I hadn’t preached the gospel. I wish I’d just gone back to fishing after Jesus died. Then I wouldn’t have been martyred”?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer left Germany for the U.S. in 1939 to get away from the Nazi regime. He knew he couldn’t swear an oath to Hitler, and he knew that would get him in deep, deep trouble. So he avoided the problem by accepting an invitation from Union Seminary in New York. But he couldn’t stay. He felt God calling him to the dangers of resisting the Nazi regime. And though I’m sure he was conflicted and terrified, God gave him the strength and the courage and the peace to answer the call, to live the faithful life like John the Baptist.[2]

God might give us a life like David’s, or God might give us a life like John’s, and very probably we will relate to both men at different times in our lives. But as we read their stories side by side, we should remember that whether we end up like David or like John, that is not the point. We don’t become Christians because of what it will get us. We become Christians because God claims us. God sweeps us up into God’s love for us and for our neighbors, and for all of creation. And God fills us with that same love, so that by God’s power we are able to repent, to make sacrifices, to love the rejected, to be courageous when we face sin and evil.

God gives us the faith we need to welcome God into our lives, and though we don’t know what will happen next, we still trust this God who won’t let us go. We trust this God who wouldn’t let us go even when he was threatened, even when he was arrested, even when he was killed. We welcome this God because, like Martin Luther said, we can do no other.


[1] Caputo, John D., The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps, (Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013), esp. ch. 3, “Insistence and Hospitality.”

God’s Call, Like Gravity

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday After Epiphany + January 18, 2015

Texts: 1 Samuel 3:1-10; 1 Corinthians 6:12-20; John 1:43-51

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending the ordination of my friend Scott. I met Scott during my first hours at divinity school, and if I could take you back in time to that day, to tell Scott that in four years he would be wearing a stole and presiding over communion, I think his eyes would have popped out of his head. He had come to divinity school with a deep sense of call to ministry, but also with a deep distrust of all religious institutions and with a heavy load of cynicism. And that’s still pretty true of Scott: Actually, when we had coffee a few weeks ago and he told me about his ordination process, he still seemed totally shocked about where he is today. But he also felt in the very core of his being that he was exactly where God had called him to be.  And so he titled his service of ordination: “The Miracle in Nashville: The Bet Las Vegas Lost: The Ordination of Scott Jamieson.”

Our Bible readings for today tell other stories of miracles and lost bets — of God calling surprising people to surprising work. First, we heard the story of the young child Samuel, called by God (rather than the much more experienced priest Eli) in the middle of the night to challenge the rulers of his nation. Next we heard the story of the Christians in Corinth, who were surprised to hear that God’s call on their lives included claims on their bodies as well as their souls. And finally, we heard the story of Jesus calling two of his disciples: Philip, who seems to follow Christ immediately, and Nathanael, who needs to see a little proof that this Jesus guy isn’t just another weirdo from Nazareth. Three people and one group, each called to different tasks in very different ways.

Last weekend the Companions in Christ Sunday school class shared their own call stories with one another. And just as if we could ask Samuel, Nathanael, or Scott about their experience of God’s call, and each of those people would give a different story, so each person in the class had a unique story to tell. Some people could vividly remember a single experience that changed their life and faith in an everlasting way. Many, though, could not really name a single grand moment, but rather thought of their faith-life as a series of less dramatic — though no less significant — calls from God. Some emphasized the call we all receive through our baptism.

But even though we have all these examples of call stories, I don’t think we can set down a specific formula for figuring out when a person is being called by God. Each call story we know is a little different, and a little differently miraculous. The Bible doesn’t even seem to suggest that we can get to such a formula: after all, Samuel’s story is the most-clear cut of all of these calls stories — the little boy actually hears the voice of God calling his name, and runs to a priest for help — and even the priest can’t figure out what’s going on until God’s third try at calling Samuel.

A “call” — Christians tend to believe — is God’s doing. It has something supernatural about it. So maybe it makes sense for it to be confusing, ungraspable, outside of our ability to understand and control. Maybe it makes sense for it to be less like a memo from the boss and more like “the bet that Las Vegas lost” – an experience no one can really predict.

As I prepared this sermon, trying to figure out how exactly I can talk about this weird “call” experience that we all seem to share but which is so hard to pin down, I’ve been thinking of the feeling of a call like the feeling of gravity. As I understand it, Einstein described gravity like this: think of space as having substance and shape. Think of space as a trampoline. If you put a bowling ball on the trampoline, its weight pulls down the fabric. Then, if I roll a baseball onto the trampoline, it follows the fabric and rolls down to hang out with the bowling ball. The trampoline is space, and the bowling ball is a planet. When a smaller object, like the moon, feels that forceful pull that we call “gravity,” it is actually just following that curve made by the large object in space. (For a great video demo, click here.)

From TheConversation.com

OK, enough with the physics. But what I’m trying to say is that there are moments in life that seem to have the weight of planets. There are people, places, events, ideas that seem to so strongly shape my space that I start rolling towards them, almost as if I am being pulled towards them, or as if my life is moving towards them and I’m just following the curve. Joining the ELCA was like that for me: I had not been an official member of a church for at least a decade. I’d been going to Christ Lutheran for only a couple of months when Pastor Gordy mentioned that the congregation would soon be receiving new members. I knew I was going to tell her I wanted to join before I’d ever even thought about it. I felt a pull I could not bring myself to resist, like gravity. Maybe, I think, that pull was from God.

Tomorrow is a day set aside to remember one person who served as a planet for many people: Martin Luther King, Jr. He was a name, a voice, a message, that pulled others into his mission. His speeches moved people to action like the Earth moves us to touch the ground. But King always pointed beyond himself, to the source of his own sense of call. King always believed he had one real mission: he was called by God to preach the gospel. His civil rights campaigns for minorities and for the poor were to him one more way that he preached the gospel. And through King this gospel message moved others to join in the work of God in that time and place.

I think we all have the opportunity to be planets like Martin Luther King, Jr. — beings which shape the space around us so that people are drawn to God. After all, we are all members of the Body of Christ. We are members of the big church on earth, which is undoubtedly one of those places that God uses to call people to God. Most of us here today are members of St. Andrew or another Christian group, some specific organization that God uses to call people to God. And as individuals, too, we can be sources of that mysterious sense of call.

Now, I’m worried that some of you are thinking “Yes, there are sure are some people in this congregation who draw others to God!” Now I don’t know why you jumped to that thought: maybe you just really admire that person a few pews ahead of you. But I’m worried that you feel like your faith isn’t good enough, your gifts aren’t fit enough, your call isn’t strong enough.

So let’s take a minute to return to my friend Scott, whose ordination was “the bet that Las Vegas lost.” Or, better yet, to Martin Luther King, Jr., since you’ll be reminded of him a few times tomorrow and have to think about this. Did you know that he had serious doubts about God since he was 13 years old? And though he’d responded to an altar call at the young age of six, he later confessed that he was just a young kid following his older sister, and that he had no idea what was happening at his baptism. He spent his years in college and in seminary wrestling with his doubts about miracles and the truth of scripture and the divinity of Christ. And if he’s like all the other pastors I know, he never really stopped wrestling. But he also felt himself pulled with all the force of gravity in the direction of the gospel. And as he followed the shape the gospel made in his life, he shaped the lives of others in the gospel direction, too.

So, where are the “planets” in your life? What draws you toward itself, and through it, towards God? Some might feel that way about the bread and wine we are about to share. Or about a program you’re involved in, or an important person in your life, or a powerful moment from the past. Take just a moment now to think about those times you have felt God’s call on your life most clearly.

As we sing our next hymn together, remember that you are called – like Samuel, like the Corinthians, like Philip and Nathanael. You are called – somehow, someway – to shape the space around you as the gospel shapes you. Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening.