What If

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 7th Sunday after Pentecost + July 8, 2018

Readings: Ezekiel 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13 


How would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you?

Sometimes that can be a very hard thing to believe. We feel comfortable confessing that God is at work in those really exceptional, saintly people: the Mother Theresas or the Pope Francises. Or maybe we’re willing to admit that God might be at work in people with great skills or expertise: brilliant scientists or inspired musicians. Or maybe we are comfortable thinking that God is at work through the powerful people — surely, we might think, it was God who put them in that position, and for a reason. But God working through me? Well, maybe that will happen one day, when I get better at praying or patience or love.

At the ELCA National Youth Gathering last week we heard lots of speakers who shared a similar theme: that God is at work in us and through us, even when we were are at our least saintly or brilliant or powerful. People who had struggled with eating disorders or drug addiction or terrible diagnoses told us about how they felt and saw God working in them even in the midst of their struggle. God never gave up on them, even when they gave up.

Nadia Bolz-Weber — who is probably the ELCA’s most famous pastor; you might know her as that tall lady with tattoos from the House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver — may have summarized the theme most powerfully during her sermon to the 30,000 youth gathered together in Houston:

[There’s a] burden that we carry of always knowing the difference between, like, our ideal self and our actual self…But if you think about it, no one’s ever become their ideal self. It’s a moving target. It’s a false promise. Your ideal self is a lie…Your ideal self doesn’t exist. The self that God has a relationship to is your actual self. The self God loves is your actual self. And there’s a word for this, and that word is “grace.”

Martin Luther taught that God’s grace made us — miraculously — sinners and saints at the same time. Yeah, of course we do wrong things and we’re prideful and sometimes mean and whatever our particular flaws might be. But at the same time, the Holy Spirit is in us, forgiving us, leading us, working through us to build God’s kingdom and share God’s love…even though we’re also going to go on being imperfect and un-ideal for our whole lives. Even the most saintly of us.

As a pastor I might be in privileged position to see how true this is. Many of you share your struggles and your hurts and even your weaknesses with me and Pastor Lippard, and I get just a glimpse of what you are struggling with, where you see imperfections in yourself, what your doubts are, how you feel that things aren’t good enough. I get to know that broken side of you. And then I turn around and see God working through you. You’re taking care of someone else here at church; you’re going to St. Paul’s breakfast or helping with Room in the Inn; you’re helping get supplies to victims of hurricanes. I get reminded all the time that God is not waiting for us to get more perfect to bring us on to God’s mission team: God is working in us just as we are, and making us holier along the way. God gives us on-the-job training.

So, how would you treat yourself differently if you really believed that God is working through you? Would you give yourself more grace? Would you feel more empowered to do the work God is calling you to do? Would you let yourself think that you do have something important to offer this world? Would you recognize what you have to offer — great strengths and little skills and even weaknesses — as holy things that God can and does work through?

And then: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them?

This is closer to the situation we see in today’s Bible readings. In our Old Testament reading, God warns the prophet Ezekiel that God is sending him to rebellious, impudent, and stubborn people. The great majority of them will not take seriously that God is speaking to them through Ezekiel. They’ll refuse to hear his warnings and deny his wisdom. They won’t recognize God at work in him.

In our gospel reading, we see that the people of Jesus’s hometown could recognize Jesus’s wisdom, his miraculous healings (either genuinely or sarcastically)…and yet somehow they could not believe that these things were the work of God. Wasn’t this the kid they’d known his whole life, the guy who used to be a day-laborer down the street? Someone just like them, not someone special. Instead of standing in awe of what Jesus was able to do, they took offense at him. They would not recognize God at work in Jesus.

And then Jesus sent out his disciples, and he warned them that some people would reject them. They would not see God working in that ragtag group of ex-fishermen and ex-tax collectors and ex-rebels.

What stopped all those people from seeing God at work in the people around them — people we now revere as prophets and saints and the Son of God? I mean, those guys were doing miracles: casting out demons and curing the sick and revealing divine truths. Was it that they were, aside from the miracles, just ordinary people?

Was it that the rejecters did not like what Ezekiel and Jesus and the disciples were saying? Was it a pride thing — Who are these guys, to think they’re so special?

But maybe the more important question is: What keeps us from seeing God at work in the people around us? Not that they’re all going to have their names on the calendar of saints one day…but God is at work even in imperfect people. Ordinary, boring people; people who make us mad; people who make our food at restaurants; people we disagree with; people who do obviously bad things; I think even in people who don’t “know” God themselves. Of course not everything everybody does is of God, but I think God is at work somehow in all people.

So: how would you treat the people around you differently if you could better recognize how God is working through them? Would you give them more grace? Would you try harder to understand them? Would you look harder for what God is offering through them?

And then: how would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations?

For a solid period of time Western Christian missionaries believed that their culture was closer to God’s way than the cultures of the peoples of other lands — even the parts of their culture that really had nothing to do with following Jesus: things like dressing in the same style, taking on the same social customs, listening to the same music, using the same first names. As they sought to win converts to Christianity, they demanded that the converts also turn away completely from their native way of doing things and essentially become foreign Westerners.

Individual missionaries had a whole range of personal experiences in their work, and I’m sure that many of them were changed and inspired and grew as Christians through their encounters with other peoples. But at least at the theoretical level — and often at the practical level, too — it was thought to be the missionaries who carried God to others, and there was little to no reciprocation: they did not go out expecting to see God at work in these other lands, did not expect to be changed or challenged back.

In some ways this idea still persists: we often think of mission or outreach work as one group doing the work of God for another group rather than as something more reciprocal and relational. It takes a lot of thought — and probably some real experience — to be able to see the prisoner ministering back to the chaplain or the homeless man providing something to the Room in the Inn host. And, admittedly, it can still be easy for us to think of Western culture and Christianity as one and the same — for some this is unintentional, because it’s what we’re used to, and we need the reminder that God is already at work in other places and cultures, and has been since ancient times. But for some other people the idea that Christianity is Western culture, that’s a creed they hold on to…and that easily becomes harmful to mission work and to Christianity.

But today many missions groups — including ELCA Global Missions — teach that their work is something more interdependent and mutual. Our Global Missions website talks about how our missionaries work with and among the people they travel to, seek to empower them, build relationships, and open themselves to what they might learn from other people and other cultures.  These missionaries go expecting God to work through them and also expecting to experience God working in others, in the midst of different traditions and styles and histories. As one of our Young Adults in Global Mission put it: “You always hear about ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ so that’s not, like, a totally new concept for me…but I’m just really feeling it lived out here.”

How would you look at the world differently if you could better recognize that God is working in all sorts of people, in all sorts of places, in all sorts of situations? What situations would you consider with more grace? What would you try harder to understand? What preconceptions would you have to let go of? What things about the way the world is going would you want to challenge? What new things might God teach you?

Jesus came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” And they took offense at him. (Mark 6:1-3)

Sometimes we, like these people from Jesus’s hometown, may fall into the habit of limiting God. We might think, “God can’t be here, or there, in that person, in me.” There might be great teachings. There might be great signs. But for some reason, we can’t quite get ourselves to believe God is working in people or places that don’t seem right or holy enough, that seem too ordinary or too strange. Maybe it’s because of our pride or because of our shame; maybe it’s because we’re too comfortable with what we’re used to, or too uncomfortable with a new experience. But what would change if we did see God working in places we aren’t used to expecting?

What if God is working in all those strange and contentious parts of our world?

What if God is working in the people you see every day?

What if God is working in you?

What then, Child of God? What then?

B_AshWednesday-medium

“Ash Wednesday,” San Francisco, CA, Feb. 6, 2006. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

 

 

 

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The End is Only the Beginning

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + April 1, 2018

Reading: Mark 16:1-8


The end is only the beginning.[1]

Because otherwise, this is a really unsettling ending to the gospel reading on Easter morning, right? These faithful women heard the news — “[Jesus] has been raised!” — “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In the earliest copies we have of the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel written down, that’s it. The end.

But the end is only the beginning.

And maybe that’s part of why the women were so afraid that they “said nothing to anyone.” I mean, granted, I’m sure the main reasons for their reaction had to do with the sheer and otherworldly unexpectedness of what they found at the tomb. The Gospel of Mark tell us that these same three women — Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome — witnessed Jesus’s crucifixion (Mark 15:40-41). And now they came to his tomb, ready to care for his dead body. That’s the kind of terrible scene they prepared themselves for. But instead, when they get to the tomb, they see that the huge stone has been rolled away already. And what would your first thought be in that situation? They had just seen Jesus arrested by the authorities, the riots at his trial, his public torture and humiliation, and finally his gruesome execution, and now all of his followers were in hiding — so maybe they saw that stone rolled away and could only think in panic: “What are they doing to him now?”

And then they entered the tomb and saw a stranger sitting where Jesus’s body should have been. And he told them that something supernatural had happened: Jesus had been raised from the dead. The man that they had watched die on a cross — they would see him again, alive. And maybe that supernatural message was way too much to take in from a strange man sitting in their dead friend’s grave. It makes total sense to me that they would just go blank with “terror and amazement;” or jump to the conclusion that this stranger was lying to them and yet another horrible thing was being done to them, to Jesus and his followers and his legacy; or that they wouldn’t think at all, just start running as their whole world turned chaotic for the second time in a week.

But even after that initial burst of terror and confusion had settled, there were more questions to deal with. If Jesus had been raised from the dead, how would that affect their lives? Maybe that was a reason to be afraid, too…or at least intimidated.

wom-tomb_detail-new

Bob Quinn, “The Empty Tomb.” Bronze. See more images here.

These three women — like the twelve disciples, like many others — had been following Jesus from Galilee and helping to support his ministry (again, Mark 15:40-41). They had followed him all the way to Jerusalem, about 100 miles. They followed him while he healed people and cast out demons — Mary Magdalene was one of those he freed from demons (Mark 16:9); they followed him while he fed thousands with a just a few loaves of bread and some fish; they followed him while he clarified the ancient laws and taught about God’s love; they followed him while he rioted in the Temple and challenged the authorities; they followed him all the way to the cross. Witnessing his life on earth, they had felt God’s pull to follow Jesus, to support him, to be part of his mission — even though it demanded everything from them; even though it got dangerous.

Jesus’s life had changed their lives — not just a little, but totally. Jesus had changed their priorities, their plans, their relationships. Everything had been transformed by that pull towards the life of Jesus.

And maybe when he died, they felt like their transformation might die, too. In the last day, while Jesus’s body laid in the tomb, had they thought about what they would do next? Maybe they felt like everything Jesus meant had been extinguished. Maybe they were thinking about admitting defeat and returning to their old lives.

But now — a resurrection. Jesus had been given new life. And if Jesus’s “regular” life had pulled them into a new way of being, had so fully transformed them — what would Jesus’s resurrected life demand of them? These women suddenly found themselves called, pulled into something bigger and more life-changing than they could have expected– and maybe that was terrifying at first. Because now this was about more than a prophet, a healer, a wise man of God; this was about even more than another revolutionary — this was about something completely new, something no one could expect, something that reconfigured history and opened up a future no one could imagine. Now this was about death and resurrection: the death of the way things always had been, of all mortal dealings and plans, and the resurrection of God’s future.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new.

Christians hold that the resurrection of Jesus was a cosmological change. Jesus was the first to be raised to new life, and his resurrection ignited the transformation of the whole world: one day we will all be raised, all of creation will be raised to new life, fully redeemed from the evil ways of the world, “set free from bondage to decay” (Rom. 8:21), made whole in God’s future. In the resurrection of Jesus, the transformation has only just begun.

God’s work is as big as the world, as all of history and all the future days: but often it is through our everyday actions that God works the transforming power of the resurrection.

God started with those three women at the tomb: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. We know that they did eventually tell the other followers of Jesus what they saw and heard at the tomb. And those followers — the Church — took on the resurrected life of Christ. They healed people; they freed people from guilt and demons; they fed the hungry; they clarified Jesus’s teachings; they preached about God’s love; they challenged the authorities and the status quo when they were out of line with God’s will. God pulled them — even with all their imperfections — into the work of transformation; God called them to die to the ways of the world and to rise into the resurrected life of Christ, into God’s future.

God continues transforming the world through each person that feels the pull of Christ’s resurrected life.

In 1960 Lucille Bridges convinced her husband, Abon, that they should let their six-year-old daughter help integrate the New Orleans school system. And so Ruby Bridges became the first African-American student to attend William Frantz Elementary. On that first day the other parents boycotted, rushing into the school to take their children home when Ruby entered. All the teachers refused to teach at a school where a black child was enrolled — all the teachers except Barbara Henry, who taught Ruby one-on-one.

On the second day of Ruby’s enrollment, one parent broke the boycott: Methodist minister Lloyd Anderson Foreman marched his five-year-old daughter, Pam, through a crowd of angry protesters to get her to school. Slowly other parents sent their children back to school, although Mrs. Henry continued to teach Ruby alone for over a year.

Four federal marshals escorted Ruby to school every day, through the crowds of people wanting to put a stop to integration. Some of them threw things at Ruby; some threatened her; one woman threatened to poison her every day, and so Ruby was only allowed to eat food she had brought from home. Yet Ruby seemed undaunted, and even somehow remained cheerful.[2]

Ruby Bridges

Federal marshals escorting Ruby Bridges from school, 1960. Via Wiki Gallery.

Her attitude drew the attention of psychiatrist Robert Coles, and he began to meet with her to try and figure out how a young child could remain so strong while crowds of adults yelled and threatened her every day, while she was ostracized to a separate classroom, even a separate teacher. Mrs. Henry told Dr. Coles that she saw Ruby moving her lips while she came to school every day. So Dr. Coles asked Ruby, “Who were you talking to?”

Ruby answered, “I was talking to God and praying for the people in the street. […] I wanted to pray for them. Don’t you think they need praying for?”

“Where did you learn that?” Dr. Coles asked her.

“From my mommy and daddy and from the minister at church. I pray every morning and every afternoon when I go home.”[3]

In this one story there are so many people answering God’s resurrection call. Ruby’s parents deciding to send her to integrate this school; and, along with their minister, teaching her to pray even for her enemies. Barbara Henry, choosing to separate herself from the other teachers’ boycott even though she was new in town, and facing danger and ridicule in order to teach Ruby. Lloyd Anderson Foreman, who changed the tides just by sending his daughter to her school. The U.S. marshals who, in doing their duty, helped to usher in a new world. Robert Coles, who helped counsel Ruby and her family, and whose work provided insights that would help others facing conflict. And of course Ruby Bridges herself, who at six years old found herself thrust into a terrifying situation and faced it with courage and grace given by God.

All these people were thrust into a terrifying situation. The usual way of things in the South was dying, but many people were fighting to keep it alive. Still, God was working to transform things, to bring about resurrection and new life, a new way of things. And God called these and many other people to be a part of that transformation — and they answered that resurrection call.

The end is only the beginning. The old ways must die, because everything is being made new. Through the resurrection God pulls us into God’s future.

This morning we meet the strange messenger at the empty tomb. This morning we hear the good news: “Jesus has been raised!” This morning we stare into the empty tomb and wonder, “What does this mean for us? How does this change our lives?”

And maybe that question should shake us up, like the three women were shaken up two thousand years ago. Because the story of resurrection begins by reminding us that we must die to the way things are in this world: we must die to our personal sins and to the webs of sin the world traps us in; we must die to our apathy; we must die to our hopelessness and our fear; we must die to our prejudices and our greed and our selfishness and our idols. The world as we know it must die to its abuses of power and humans and all creation. These things must die, so that God can raise all creation — so that God can raise us — to radically new and unfamiliar life.

God is pulling us into God’s future. God is transforming our lives. God is renewing the world.

The end is only the beginning.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed! Alleluia!


[1] Taken from a section heading in Emerson B. Powery’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark in True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), Mark 16:1-8, pp. 151-152.

[2] “Ruby Bridges,” Wikipedia. Available online: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruby_Bridges. Accessed April 1, 2018.

[3] Peter W. Marty, “When Ruby Birdges prayed for her enemies,” The Christian Century, March 24, 2017. Available online: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/when-ruby-bridges-prayed-her-enemies Accessed March 28, 2018.

Katharina von Bora Luther

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church+ Midweek Advent Service + December 20, 2017


A Reading from Colossians:

…you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

(Colossians 3:9b-17)


Some of the most exciting parts of Katharina von Bora Luther’s life — at least from our outside perspective — happened before she ever met Martin Luther face-to-face. She came from a noble family, but one who had fallen on hard times, and her family gave her over to the care of a convent when she was five or six years old. Sometime in her early twenties, while living the life of a nun in a cloister, she heard the teachings of Luther’s reformation, and something in those teachings must have affected her deeply — because one Easter Saturday, she and eleven other nuns sneaked out, abandoning their vows, the convent, and the only life they knew, taking a leap of faith into a dangerous and unknowable future. Abducting nuns was a crime punishable by death even if the nuns were willing escapees. But some reformers were willing to risk it, and so in a plan master-minded by Martin Luther himself, a man named Leonard Koppe smuggled Katie and the other women in a wagon full of fish barrels (or so the legend goes).

What were these ex-nuns to do now? How were they going to survive? Since there was still little respectable space for a woman outside the home, their best option was to marry. Katie looked lucky at first: she met a man she actually loved; he was of noble birth to boot, and he loved her back. They dreamed of getting married. But his family intervened; she was an ex-nun: too scandalous, too poor, and too old. Katie became the last ex-nun still without a husband.While she suffered from a broken heart, Luther and a friend kept trying to set her up with old pastors. Although she should have been thankful for any opportunity for a stable life, she rejected the matches, finally saying she would only marry one of two men: Nicolaus von Amsdorf, “a devoted bachelor,” or Martin Luther himself. Whether because Luther admired her spunk, or wanted to “irritate the pope and the devils,” or get his parents of his back, he agreed to marry her — making Katie the most famous of the very first women to fill the role of pastor’s wife.[1]

Katharina-v-Bora-1526-1

Portrait of Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1526). Katie lived with the Cranachs for a time before she married Luther.

Martin Luther wrote his second-to-last letter to his wife on February 10, 1546, a week before he died. It gives us a little peek into their twenty-year marriage:

To the b[lessed], anxious L[ady] Kat[therin] Luth[er], Doctor of Zulsd[orf] at Wil[tenberg], my g[racious], dear wife

Grace and peace in Christ! My most blessed Lady Doctor! We thank you most kindly for your great concern, which has prevented you from sleeping. For since you started worrying about us, a fire at our inn, right outside my chamber door, nearly engulfed us. And yesterday – no doubt through the power of your concern – a stone almost fell on our heads and crushed us, as in a mouse trap. For in our private chambers, lime and mortar crumbled above our heads for two days, until we sent for some people, who merely touched the stone with two fingers, causing it to fall down. It was big as a large pillow and as wide as a large hand. For this, we would have had to thank your holy worries, had the dear angels not been guarding [us]. I fear that if you do not cease worrying, the earth will finally swallow us up and all the elements will persecute us. Is this how you learned the catechism and faith? Therefore, pray and leave it to God to worry, you have not been commanded to look after me or yourself. It is said: “Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall sustain thee,” as in Psalm 55 and many other places.

We are, thanks be to God, hale and healthy, except that we are growing weary of the whole business. And [Justus] Jonas so desperately wanted to have a bad leg that he bumped into a chest; so great is human envy that he begrudged me being the only one with a bad leg. With this, I commend you to God. We would now like to leave and go home, God willing. Amen. On the day of St. Scholastica, 1546

Your Holiness’ willing servant
M. L.[2]

Though Luther teases her for her all her anxiety, maybe Katie felt like she was justified in worrying so much about her husband — and not just because he had received death threats for years. Katie had to worry over Luther from the very start of their marriage. When the couple married in 1525, she was 26 and he was 41. He had been a bachelor all those 40 years, and on top of that a monk (which I’m sure comes with its own quirks) and a professor single-mindedly devoted to his work in reforming the Church. We can imagine Luther’s type: a brilliant scholar and revolutionary so absorbed by the workings of his mind that he comes off as absent-minded in the day-to-day works of life. And this imagining probably isn’t far off: there were times when Katie entered Luther’s private chambers to find his bed stinking and rotting: he’d neglected to change the straw that made up his mattress.[3]

When Katie married Luther, she immediately felt the need to take control of the financial situation. Though Luther’s fame had spread throughout Europe and so had his writings, he had not been collecting any payments for his books.[4] He had no fixed salary, either, and on top of that, he had a hard time saying no to people in need. Luther changed the world, but struggled with his own upkeep. So Katie immediately got to work: collecting money for his writings and fixing up all the disrepair in Luther’s home, the Black Cloister or Black Abbey (and yes, that’s where the Nashville brewing company gets its name, because Katie Luther, one of the first preacher’s wives, was renowned for her skills in beer-making).

Katie turned the Black Abbey into a self-sufficient household. She grew fruits and vegetables, raised farm animals, fished, baked bread, and made butter and cheese. She increased their wealth by purchasing additional land: more farms and orchards.

All this work went into feeding and sheltering more than just Mr. and Mrs. Luther and their six children. The Luthers also raised six or seven nieces and nephews and four orphans.[5] The Abbey served as a boarding school for theological students and a hostel for other visitors as they came to talk with Luther and the other reformers. Katie regularly hosted meals for 30-40 people, and she often fed as many as 120 people.[6] In that time of great political and religious turbulence, Katie frequently sheltered refugees; and when the plague reared its ugly head, she turned her home into a hospital.[7] All this work shows Katie’s great hospitality and practicality, and also a skill for leadership and a strength of will to match Martin Luther’s own. It’s no wonder that Luther’s favorite pet names for Katie included, “my Lord,” “most holy Mrs. doctoress,” and “the boss of Zulsdorf.”

When we talk about saints, we often talk about their wondrous miracles passed down in stories: like St. Nicholas travelling in a dream in order so save sailors caught in a storm.

Katie Luther worked more down-to-earth miracles: figuring how to stretch the family income to not only meet her family’s needs but also to generously care for others; keeping up all the tasks of a self-sustaining farm; putting up with theological guests who thought Luther’s wife should keep her mouth shut on matters of faith and the Bible, even though she had her own share of religious education.

This difference between the miracles of Katie and the “classic” saints reflects one of Martin Luther’s teachings: the priesthood of all believers. Prior to Luther, the church had considered only certain occupations to be a “spiritual” calling: the obviously religious work of priests, monks, nuns, and the like. The rest of people fell into the category of “secular.”Luther rejected this divide, writing, “In fact, we are all consecrated priests through Baptism.”[8] With that idea, anyone’s work — both what they did for money and the role they played in their family and community — was a spiritual calling. Katie Luther was one of the first and most public models for living the roles of wife, mother, and house manager as a holy calling from God. Her holiness — the work of the Holy Spirit in her — showed in her dedication to her tasks and the grace-filled hospitality she showed to her guests and to people in need.

This was how Katie saw her work: as a way to live her faith. Martin Luther once told her he would give her $50 if she would sit still and read the Bible. She told him she had read enough back in the convent; now she wanted to live it.[9]

Katharina von Bora Luther reminds us to see all of the roles we take on and the tasks we perform as calls to embody our faith — an active, living faith. Whether what we do is as bold and extraordinary as running away from a convent or as ordinary as waking up at the crack of dawn to take care of our family, all these tasks may be holy if we do them in service to God. As the scriptures say: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Amen.


Bibliogarphy

Katie Luther: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, (documentary) The Evangelical Lutheran    Church in America. Posted by the ELCA on YouTube, October 13, 2006. Available         online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4h6NoxNhmE

Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Women, (documentary) DW Documentary.       Posted by DW on YouTube, October 31, 2017. Available online:                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KBMLO1MomWU

Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).


Notes

[1] Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), 51-56.

[2] “The Reformer as Husband – Luther and His Wife,” German History in Documents and Images, online: http://germanhistorydocs.ghi-dc.org/docpage.cfm?docpage_id=4421 Source of original German text: “Luther an seine Frau. [Eisleben,] 10. Februar 1546,” in D. Martin Luthers Werke. Weimarer Ausgabe (Sonderedition). Part 3: Briefwechsel. Vol. 11, pp. 290-92. Translation: Thomas Dunlap

[3] Kirsi Stjerna in the documentary Katie Luther: The Morning Star of Wittenberg, (ELCA). Online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4h6NoxNhmE

[4] Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, 62.

[5] Stjerna, 58.

[6] Stjerna, 61.

[7] Stjerna, Women in the Reformation, 60.

[8] Martin Luther, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation. Quoted in Timothy Wengert, “The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths,” Valparaiso University Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional papers, 1-1-2005, p. 12.

[9] Stjerna, 61.

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.

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.”