Listening for God? Listen to Others.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday after Epiphany + January 28, 2018

Readings: Mark 1:21-28; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Our Monday Night Bible Study group has been reading the Gospel of Luke. For months. Very slowly. Very, very slowly. We started back in September, and tomorrow we’ll be reading chapter 10. Well, the first half of chapter 10.

But we’ve been going at such a slow pace for good reason. This gives us the opportunity to really think about each passage: to pay attention to the details of the the story, to trace back to roots in Old Testament passages, to ask any question that pops into our heads from, “What do you think Elijah and Moses said to Jesus during his Transfiguration?” to “Why did Jesus get so crabby with those people?”

A question we come back to over and over is, “What would it have been like to be there?” What would it have been like to see Jesus stand up in the synagogue and declare that he was the messiah promised in the book of Isaiah (Luke 4:16-30)? Would I have believed him, or would I have been part of the crowd ready to throw him off a cliff? What would it have been like to see fishermen abandon their boats and follow him (Luke 5:1-11)? Was something about him so engaging and powerful that he just drew people to leave their lives for him? Would I have been one of them, or would I have just paid attention from afar?

Our gospel reading for this morning, from the Gospel of Mark, inspires questions along those lines. What would it have been like to be there? To hear Jesus teaching “a new teaching — with authority!” The passage doesn’t give us much detail about how exactly Jesus taught, or even what he was teaching at that moment. How would we have recognized his authority? Was it in the way he spoke and held himself? Was it — like some Bible scholars say —  that he just taught on his own merit, not referring back to “what Rabbi so-and-so” said like the scribes did? Was it — as others say — that he was so amazingly genuine, that he proved his teachings by his actions: by his compassion, by his miraculous healings and exorcisms? The people who heard him that day had not been taught that Jesus was the Son of God. He was just a stranger from down in Nazareth. But somehow they recognized — maybe not that God was speaking to them, but at least that this teacher had authority like they had never seen before. How did they know?

Our wondering about these ancient passages comes from the deep longings of our own lives as people trying to know God, to follow Jesus. What would it be like if I could hear God speaking with authority that directly? How do I know what God is trying to teach me today? I want to know what God wants me to do — but nothing feels clear. What I’d give to have Jesus standing in front of me, speaking with such authority that there is no room for question.

Today we usually turn to the Bible as our in-person source of God’s authority. But even with the Bible, things aren’t so clear. This passage seems to point in one direction; this passage in another direction. Or, I heard one pastor interpret a reading this way, and another pastor tell me it meant something different. We hold the Bible to be an authority for us — but we still need an authoritative interpretation. And maybe that’s why so many people flock to churches that emphasize that they “read the Bible literally,” that they know the true interpretation, that they have a clear picture of what God is telling us and what God wants from us. We want to hear something certain, but we find God to be bigger than a simple answer or a single interpretation. God just keeps being mysterious.

As we tune in to what we do have right in front of us — this mess of questions and readings and interpretations — as we tune in, trying to hear the authoritative voice of God, we face the constant danger of shaping God’s will in our own image, of interpreting God’s Word in a way that kind of fits our own desires or expectations of God or the way we were raised. We may do this on a personal level, and it is really hard not to do it on a group level: interpreting God and the scriptures in ways that match the pattern of our culture or the groups we belong to. Like, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the Bible passages American Christians almost never take literally are the ones about giving all your wealth to the poor or to the community. Just like we tend to interpret the news from within the political or ideological bubbles in which we are comfortable, we interpret God’s will from where we are. It’s what comes naturally — but it can be a problem, something that keeps us from more clearly discerning the God who is bigger than us and our groups.

Christians have been doing this around the world for thousands of years, even right after the time of Jesus. Paul wrote the letter which we just read from a few minutes ago, 1 Corinthians, within twenty years of Jesus’s death. Jesus’s closest disciples as well as others who had seen and heard him teach face-to-face were still alive, travelling throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond, sharing their firsthand knowledge of Jesus. But despite being so much closer to Jesus in time and space, these ancient Corinthian Christians had the same problem of thinking God’s will was pretty similar to who they were, what they thought, and how they wanted to live. And Paul had to keep telling them, No, wait, try to think of things from a perspective outside of your own.

We can see that in today’s reading. A group of Corinthian Christians thought among themselves, We know that some of the meat for sale in the market or served up at our friends’ houses has probably been sacrificed to pagan gods. But we know that those gods aren’t real, so it’s not like the sacrifice actually does anything to the meat. It’s totally fine for us to eat that meat like it’s just regular food. The one true God won’t mind.

And Paul wrote to them: Yes, that all makes sense, but have you considered what you eating sacrificial meat might look like to others? Some of your Christian siblings – newly converted from their pagan beliefs — are so used to these sacrifices being important, so used to thinking that food has been changed now that it’s part of that ritual, that they can’t help but see you as participating in pagan worship when you eat it. God might be ok with you eating the meat, but God’s not ok with you confusing others in the Church, maybe leading them in the wrong direction, to think that going back to their old ways is ok. Actually what Paul wrote was more extreme: “But when you thus sin against members of your family…you sin against Christ.”

In another part of the letter, Paul criticizes the wealthier members of the church for the way they celebrated Holy Communion (which back then was more like a meal). You sit down and eat your food, Paul wrote, which seems fine to you. But did you notice the rest of the church? Others can’t afford what you have. Or they’re still working for their small portion while you’re already free to sit down and feast. So “one goes hungry [while another has so much to eat and drink that he] becomes drunk.” It’s humiliating for those who have so little. And it’s completely ignoring the whole point of Communion: to come together as one body, sharing what the Lord has given.  Again Paul wrote in strong language: “For all who eat and drink without discerning the body [meaning the church, the Body of Christ, the community], eat and drink judgement against themselves” (1 Cor. 11:17-34).

In both of these examples, Paul told subgroups or cliques within the Corinthian church to look to the wider church community to better discern what the will of God might be. By forcing cliques of Corinthians to imagine how another might see things, or feel, or what another person’s life was like compared to their own, Paul helped them see how God’s will might be different than what they could discern from within their bubble. After all, God’s plan, God’s care, encompasses all people — and so God’s will must surely take into account all those perspectives and experiences. Paul reminded them, over and over: You are one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than you realize. And keeping with the understanding of God shown through Israel’s holy stories and prophets and Jesus himself, Paul always assumed that God will would lean toward the needs of those who were more vulnerable, more in need.

These examples remind us of something we easily forget: the Bible is not the only authority left to us now that Jesus has ascended. Jesus’s physical body is gone, but God has given us the mystical Body of Christ, the Church. That doesn’t mean the hierarchy or the rulings of denominations; the Body of Christ means our one-ness in Christ, the holy way that we belong to Christ, and how through Christ we belong to one another in a holy way. Not just the “one another” we experience in-person here at St. Andrew or with other friends; but the “one another” that, in Christ, connects us with the Church around the world: with other denominations, with Black churches, with churches in other countries, with people wealthier and poorer, with people facing famine and war, with people facing racism and sexism, with people facing apathy and self-centeredness.

God has made us one with a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. God has made us responsible to a bigger, more diverse group of people than we sometimes realize. That responsibility to one another is a voice of authority in our lives, and it is another way that God speaks to us today.

We have to work out God’s will for our lives situation by situation, leaning on all the means God uses to speak to us: the teachings of Jesus, the Bible as a whole, the traditions of the Church, the experiences of our lives, and the Body of Christ. And as we learn to better “discern the Body of Christ,” to consider a wider circle of people and their perspectives and understandings, we will be less constrained by our own image, and better able to discern the Word of the God of all Creation.


Hidden Burdens/Come to Jesus

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday After Pentecost + July 9, 2017

Readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Over the last month or so y’all have been involved in a flurry of casting prayers and blessings on members of this congregation as we’ve headed out for youth event after youth event. It started with Vacation Bible School, which was only about a month ago but, to me, already feels like a lifetime ago. This morning, Sandy Vollmer, Pastor Lippard, and a pile of our youth are in a van somewhere between here and Lutherock in North Carolina. In between were other events – Affirm in Alabama, Nights Alive in Nashville. It’s been almost non-stop, and it’s been amazing. You shouldn’t be surprised if you strike up a conversation with me and I eventually start rambling about watching 400 youth dance around to the “holy, holy, holy” song during communion, or how I asked a group of kids what the word “behold,” means, and one little preschooler raised his hand and said, “It kind of means, like, ‘TA-DA!”

Last week Rand Smith and I were chatting before a Worship Planning meeting, and our conversation turned to Affirm: the synod-wide youth gathering that took place a few weeks ago. Rand’s wife, Beth, served on the camp medical staff, as she has for many years, and I’m sure various members of their family have been involved with Affirm for most of its existence. Rand shared with me some of the feedback he’d heard about this year’s Affirm, and eventually he mentioned, “I just learned about ‘Weepy Wednesday…’”

Weepy Wednesday is one of those unofficial traditions at Affirm. According to a conversation I had with Bishop Gordy in the line for the cafeteria salad bar, the Wednesday evening worship service was once intentionally built to be an especially emotional experience, or in Bishop’s words, “They tried to make the kids cry.” But even though that tradition was dropped some years ago, the phrase, “Weepy Wednesday” hangs on – but now it applies to something that happens more naturally but still almost predictably: on Wednesday evening, for some reason, campers will cry.

Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the lesson plans each group follows build to their most intense point in the middle of the week. Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the campers have started to feel safe with their small groups after a few days together. Probably some combination of things: but regardless, it happens.

My first Weepy Wednesday experience felt like it came totally out of the blue. I was on staff with a unit called Bridges, and we spent the week focusing on the differences between people, the things that turn those differences into things that divide us, and how we can “build bridges” over those divides. So from the very beginning we’d been having intense conversations about our own identities and experiences and a lot of tough topics: racism, sexism, stereotypes, violence. I’d thought we’d already been getting deeply personal.  But for some reason when Wednesday evening came, it was like a floodgate burst open. All of a sudden a dozen teenagers were lying on the floor, crying and sharing their deepest, most hidden hurts with one another. My heart broke when I heard the heavy burdens some of the teenagers were bearing.

This year, at least, I saw my Weepy Wednesday experience coming. One of the units, called Exodus, spends the first part of the week focusing on some of life’s toughest issues, like sin and death. Everyone in the unit carries a brick with them everywhere they go; it’s supposed to symbolize the burdens they bear. On Wednesday evening they finally lay down their burdens: they let go of their brick; they write burdens or sins on pieces of paper and watch them dissolve in water; they participate in a service of group confession, and they are given the option of meeting with a pastor for a time of private confession. Later in the evening, they will lie down on the floor, then someone will take their hand and physically raise them up to their new life in Christ. And the next morning is an Easter party.

I was asked to be part of Exodus’s Wednesday evening because they needed a female pastor for the time of private confession. So once again I found myself experiencing Weepy Wednesday: teenagers crying and sharing the hurts they hid from the world.

And as, once again, I found myself shocked by the stories these teenagers shared with me, I thought: we just never know what burdens other people are carrying, hidden away so carefully.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul described the burden of his own sinfulness in what I think are some of the most relatable words of the whole Bible (I catch myself thinking them a lot): “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Some of the burdens we bear are like that: Struggles with our own sins, our own tendency to make poor choices, our own bad habits and addictions.  Along similar lines: we might bear the burdens of focusing on our insufficiencies, we might insult ourselves, we might feel like we will never be good enough. We might feel like Paul: trapped and overpowered by something within us.

Sometimes our burdens come from outside of us: other people’s sin affects our lives; in their brokenness, they hurt us; and sometimes the world just turns in ways that injure us – seemingly without reason. We can feel trapped and overpowered by things outside of us, too.

We express this feeling of being trapped by wrong forces within or without in different ways: Christianity has terms like “original sin” and “total depravity,” and in the Bible we often read about people’s “hardness of heart.”

And sometimes we make up complicated rules or formulas for how to escape that feeling of being trapped. If the problem feels so complicated and inescapable, surely the solution must also be complex, some specific set of things that will, like a combination on a lock, click into place and set us free.

Making things too complicated – and being stubborn and prideful and hypocritical about it — what Jesus seems to have been criticizing people for in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. They said they were open to receiving God’s messengers, but when those messengers came, they never fit the bill. First, John the Baptist was too strict and weird. Then Jesus was too lax: he ate and drank too much and hung out with the wrong sort of people.

Next there’s a part of Jesus’s speech left out by our lectionary: where Jesus proclaimed “Woe to you!” to the cities who had refused his message. He did not fit their bill, either.

And then suddenly Jesus switched tone. We hear his prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The idea seems to be: all these people are applying their complicated rules and expectations, but it only leads them to deny me and you. They stay trapped in themselves and in the ways of the world. But really your offer of freedom is so simple, a baby could grasp it.

And how does Jesus say we can get that freedom from our entrapping burdens?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 That’s it. The big key the messiah offered to finding rest from our burdens and our feelings of being trapped is: Come to me, and I will give you rest.

For us, I think that means two things:

First – and this is probably what you’re already thinking about – is coming to Jesus in that personal, spiritual sense. Coming to trust in a God who cares for you; who offers you forgiveness for your own sin and fights against the sinful forces outside of you. Coming to find peace and rest in giving your burdens to God in prayer, knowing that God will bear those burdens with you. Like in that famous hymn:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer![1]

 There is also another way we who are weary and carrying heavy burdens can come to Jesus, and this one is more physical and more communal. We remember that the Church is now the Body of Christ on earth, and so we learn to come together. We come to trust one another, to get past our fear or our pride and to share our burdens with one another. We come to find in yet another sense that we are not alone in bearing our burdens. And, like the Affirm kids on Weepy Wednesday, maybe we can find a sense of relief and peace in sharing our burdens with one another.

In coming together, we come to Christ.

Let us pray:

We rejoice, O Christ,
for in your tender compassion
you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.
Give us the strength to carry each other
as you have carried us. Amen.[2]

[1] Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 742.

[2] From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary prayer resources, Proper 9 (14), Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 9, 2017. Available online: Accessed July 8, 2017.

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

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

Reading: John 13:1-17, 31b-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United in Christ, Bound to the Gospel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Degrees of Separation

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 16th Sunday after Pentecost + September 4, 2016

Readings: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

How many of you have heard of a game called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon? In the game a player is given a Hollywood name — an actor, a director, whatever — and the player has to connect that person to Kevin Bacon in six moves or less. So, for instance: someone might say, “David Bowie!” and someone with a lot more movie trivia knowledge than I have would say, “David Bowie was in Labyrinth with Jennifer Connelly. Jennifer Connelly was in A Beautiful Mind with Ed Harris. Ed Harris was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon.”

The game became so popular that Kevin Bacon even began to play into it. Some of you may remember a commercial from a few years back: Kevin Bacon wants to write a check to buy a book, and the cashier asks to see his ID. Bacon doesn’t have it on him, so he leaves for a moment and returns with a string of people. He says to the cashier: “Okay, I was in a movie with an extra, Eunice, whose hairdresser, Wayne, attended Sunday school with Father O’Neill, who plays racquetball with Dr. Sanjay, who recently removed the appendix of Kim, who dumped you sophomore year. So you see, we’re practically brothers.”

The game is based on the theory of “six degrees of separation.” In that theory each of us — not just Kevin Bacon — can be connected to anyone else in the world in six steps or less. As far as I know this theory hasn’t been proved to be totally reliable, but I’m sure each of us has had experiences that make it seem believable. Bernie Anderson and I went to the same college, and so did Wayne Higbe’s dad (Go Pipers!). Kaye Bradley’s niece was my boss during my time at Luther Seminary. I was once in the same room as the 14th Dalai Lama (hearing him give a lecture), and Richard Gere has met the Dalai Lama, which I think counts as a three-degree connection between me and the entire casts of Pretty Woman, Chicago, and An Officer and a Gentleman.

Connection matters. We feel differently about people because of our connection to them. We feel different levels of obligation to people based on how connected we are to them. We treat friends differently than we treat strangers, and strangers differently than we treat friends of friends, and friends of friends differently than we treat friends of influential people.

The difference that connection makes in our obligation to another person shows itself in all sorts of ways: How much time should we spend making small talk with them? How much of ourselves should we share with them? To what extent do we need to take care of them or help them?

The difference connection makes shows itself most obviously in our family relationships. We expect parents to make sacrifices for their children that we wouldn’t expect them to make for anyone else. We expect partners in marriage to support one another in ways different from even really close friendships. When friends do become especially important to us, we call them family. If someone is willing to give one of her kidneys to her brother, we’d probably think she is amazingly generous and saintly, but if she gives a kidney to a complete stranger, we might wonder if she’s crazy. There’s something deep inside of us that recognizes family relationships as special, more demanding, and more essential.

Maybe that’s why Jesus’s words in today’s gospel reading are so very disturbing: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Jesus cut down our most primary connections. The people we are not only socially expected to put first, but the people we are naturally inclined to put first — Jesus says they are not primary in a life of discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples that if they are going to be part of his mission, they must change the way they understand connection at its most fundamental level.

If we just glance at this passage, taken apart from the rest of the gospel, it sounds like Jesus is saying the only connection that matters is between the individual disciple and Jesus. It sounds like he is saying, “The only thing you should care about is me and your relationship with me. Hate everyone else, even your own family, even your own life.”

But that interpretation doesn’t fit with Jesus’s other teachings on connecting with others. After all, this is the same man who reminded us that the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself,” is a close second to the commandment to love God, and the two may even be inseparable (Matt. 22:35-40). This is the same man who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:43-44).

The idea that we are to love only Jesus and hate everyone else doesn’t fit with the way Jesus lived and related to people, either. Jesus built strong relationships with his twelve closest disciples. Jesus talked with and healed people he met along the road or at the local well or who interrupted him while he was teaching. Sometimes even when Jesus was trying to get away from people, maybe to find some time to be alone with God, crowds followed him, and he took the time to speak with them, heal them, and feed them (Matt. 14:13-21). Connecting with people was clearly very important to Jesus.

So with all that in mind, I don’t think that today’s gospel reading is asking us to be more individualistic or more hateful. I think it is part of Jesus’s consistent attempt to turn our understanding of our relationships and connections on its head. We are generally taught — and maybe naturally inclined — to love our families first, other people we know second, strangers not really at all, and to hate our enemies. But Jesus ripped that to shreds: If you are my disciple, your family is not your only important connection anymore. You need to care about strangers. You need to love your enemies. That is a radically different way of being in the world than what is normal, and it demands a lot more of us. That’s why Jesus made sure that those who followed him knew what discipleship demanded — he tried to make sure they were counting the cost.

I wonder if we might reason all that out for ourselves with the “six degrees of separation” theory. If as Christians our number one connection is to God, and if God loves everyone, created everyone in God’s image, then in a way we are connected to everyone by only two degrees. And if we are so closely connected, that must change our feelings about how we ought to be relating to one another and treating one another — even strangers, even enemies.

Paul’s letter to Philemon is an example of how a person’s connection to God can change his relationship to others. We don’t know any details about the situation between Paul, Philemon, and this guy Onesimus. What we do know is that Onesimus had been working for Philemon in some capacity, and then he spent time with Paul while was Paul was in prison, and then Paul wrote this letter of recommendation for Onesimus to Philemon.

We can’t be certain about the details of the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon. Maybe Onesimus was Philemon’s slave (that’s overwhelmingly the most common interpretation); maybe he was just of a lower status in the household. Maybe Onesimus ran away, or stole something, or is indebted to Philemon. Maybe Onesimus became a Christian while he was away with Paul. There are a lot of maybes. But what we can assume pretty safely is that Philemon, for whatever reason, did not treat Onesimus as a close connection.

Paul wrote to Philemon asking him to relate to Onesimus differently, to treat him differently, to love him differently. The reasons Paul gave were all based on connection: Onesimus had become like Paul’s own child, like Paul’s own heart. “So,” Paul wrote, “if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Perhaps even more importantly, Paul wrote that Onesimus had become a “beloved brother” to both of them in the Lord. The fact that all three of these men were disciples of Jesus formed a connection between them that overrode social status, a connection that automatically built new family ties, a connection that demanded new hospitality, love, and care.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, here in Franklin (and Nashville and Spring Hill and Thompson’s Station) how can live out that radical connectedness that Jesus demands of us? Whom can we reach out to with a new degree of hospitality? Whom can we make more welcome? Whose needs can we help meet? Whom do we need to treat more like a fellow child of God? During the election season, how will we comment and debate? What opportunities do we have show the world how God sees it: as a totally connected family of beloved children of God?

Some Sources of Inspiration:

Eric Barreto. “Philemon 1:1-21 Commentary.” Working Preacher. September 4, 2016. Available online.

Larissa MacFarquhar. Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. (New York: Penguin Press, 2015).

Kevin Bacon.

When Jesus Brings Division: On Conflict

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday After Pentecost + August 14, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

Usually when I go and stand closer to the congregation seated in the pews, I get to say things like, “May the Lord bless and keep you,” and “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Today I had to proclaim: “Jesus said, ‘I came to bring fire to the earth!’ and, ‘Do you think that I come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!’”

Those aren’t the kind of words we expect to hear from Jesus, and they’re not the kind of words we like to hear from Jesus. People are drawn to Jesus by his message of radical love, by sayings like “Just as I have loved you, you ought to love one another” (John 13:34), and “Turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39), and “Even the hairs on your head are all counted [by God]” (Matt. 10:30).

Those words about division and fire aren’t what we expect from our Christian community, either. Often we expect our church to be a place of love and forgiveness, a little slice of heaven on earth. Even if we acknowledge that we are a group of humans coming together and that therefore we will be flawed, we tend to think the the ideal we should be striving for is perfect peace and harmony — because isn’t that what Jesus was all about?

Today’s Bible readings remind us that conflict is an inherent part of God’s work in the world. In the Jeremiah reading God said: “Is not my word like fire…and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” In Jeremiah and the other books of the prophets God complained that the people would listen to the happy messages of the false prophets while ignoring God’s messengers, because the true messages often brought news people didn’t want to hear, demanded change, and caused conflict.

Today’s gospel reading may point to the fact that what is good news for some is not good news for everyone. In the next chapter in Luke we read of the time Jesus healed a woman who had been unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. Good news for the woman and those who cared about her; good news for all people who need healing. But because Jesus healed on the Sabbath, his action brought conflict with those who preached a strict version of God’s command to rest on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-17). Other stories remind us that what is good news for the poor might cause conflict with the rich (e.g. Matt. 20:1-16); what is good news for a foreigner might cause conflict with the native (e.g. Matt. 15:21-28). The gospel is good news: news of peace and love and healing, of the hungry being fed and the poor being lifted up and the outcast being welcomed. It is the news of God making the world a better place for all people, but that does not make it free of conflict.

I am by nature a conflict avoider. A dramatic example: when I was in college I worked in our theatre department’s set building shop, and one afternoon I was working alone with my boss, putting big pieces of lumber through this new machine that made warped boards more straight. At one point I realized he was feeding the wood in the wrong way, but I couldn’t make myself say anything; even saying “Um, hey, I think it goes like this,” felt too much like conflict to me. When my boss figured out the problem, and that I had seen it a few minutes before, he was more perplexed than frustrated: “Why didn’t you just tell me? It would have saved time.” I like to think I’ve grown a lot since then and am not so ridiculously afraid of conflict anymore, but this story gives you a clear idea of how much I would rather think that following Jesus meant just serving people and making everybody happy all the time. So when I say that conflict and the gospel go hand in hand, know that I am not saying it lightly or easily or without demanding a lot of myself. To hear that being involved God’s mission means being involved with conflict makes me quake in my boots.

But I’ve learned that if we see conflict differently, even conflict can be a proclamation of the gospel. Most often people see conflict sort-of like a tug-of-war match: there are two sides, pitted against one another, and there can be only one winner. But if our conflict has been sparked by God, by a desire to be true to the gospel, then we should see conflict as an opportunity for both sides to hear something new from God. Through conflict the Holy Spirit may work to refine our sense of God’s mission in the world and of who we are as people of the gospel.1

Of course it can be really, really difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict. Maybe the main reason why is that God does not make it easy to for us to know exactly what God wants us to do.  As Lutherans there are things we count on as sources of revelation from God to us: first and foremost is scripture, and we also turn to tradition, to the wisdom of community, to the sacraments, and to prayer. If I learned only one thing during my time in seminary and during all these years of going to Bible studies, it’s that people can interpret scripture (and all those other sources of revelation) in so many ways. Though we like to think these things offer clear direction for our lives, when we try to apply these revelations to our lives, especially in a group, it can get really confusing.

Another reason it can be difficult to hear from God in the middle of a conflict is because of the way humans tend to behave in conflict. In all sorts of situations humans do this thing called mirroring, where we play off and copy each other’s attitudes and actions. A lot of the time this is a really good thing: if someone smiles at me, I smile back; if someone treats me with respect, I treat them with respect. Sometimes it works in a sort of complementary way: you take leadership of situation, and I naturally step back and become your helper.

But when we are in conflict and do that natural mirroring thing, the hurtful component of conflict will escalate quickly: you insult me, I insult you; you go behind my back, I go behind your back. We get caught up in the heat of our interactions, in trying to look stronger, in trying to win. When our interpretations of the Bible come into conflict, it can turn into that tug-of-war with each side yelling, “This is what God says!” / “No, this is what God says!” In the midst of all that noise, that strange mix of sincere faith, hope, fear, pride, and self-defense, it can be really difficult to open our hearts and listen for the movement of God’s spirit.

I heard stories this week about psychologists and sociologists (and even police officers doing counterterrorism work) who are studying the benefits of intentionally breaking that cycle of mirroring, something they call non-complementarity.

One story I heard was about a family who was held up at gun point. They try reasoning with the man with the gun: “Look, we don’t have any money!” They try shaming the man: “What would your mother think?” But then one of the people in the family has a crazy, backwards idea. She stops mirroring the man with aggression; she stops playing the complimentary role of the fearful victim. She flips the script. She says to the man, “Look, we’re here celebrating. Why don’t you join us, and have a glass of wine.” Immediately the man’s face completely changes. He drinks some wine; he eats some cheese; he puts the gun back in his pocket. A few minutes later, the man says, “I think I’ve come to the wrong place.” They forgive him. After a few minutes of silence, he asks for a hug, and as the family embraces him, he says that he is sorry. It’s a crazy story. It may not work every time. But it is powerful example of how breaking the cycle of mirroring and reacting can totally turn a conflict on its head.2

Maybe this idea — this non-complementarity thing — is where Jesus’s teachings start to come together. Maybe “I come to bring division,” does somehow fit together with “love your neighbor” and “turn the other cheek.”  We are always going to have conflict: in the church, in the world, in our homes. The gospel itself is always going to bring conflict as God changes the world. Jesus’s teachings about love and forgiveness are not meant to create a world without conflict, but to be a guide for how we react in conflicts. As in so many cases, Jesus-followers are not meant to act in the usual way of the world.

Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile” (Matt. 5:38-41).

These teachings are not about avoiding conflict entirely; they are not about being a pushover or letting other people do whatever they want and making yourself nothing. They are more about breaking the cycle of harmful mirroring, about flipping the script, about acting in a new way to change the way a conflict is headed. They are examples of who to stay true to the Christian values of peace and love even when conflicts arise. Through these teachings, Christ once again calls his disciples to be leaders, to go against the way the world usually works.3

That’s not to say that conflict will be easy and happy and peaceful. In today’s gospel reading Jesus talks about households being painfully divided: father against son, mother against daughter. (We probably know something about that picture, especially during an election season.) He talks about fire; he references his impending crucifixion, and in doing so, he points to the martyrdom of so many his disciples. Yet to know that God is present even in our division, ushering us and the world into God’s kingdom, ought to give us comfort and hope that even our conflict is part of God’s mission, and one day God will lead us to reconciliation, peace, and a better world. Amen and Amen.


Symeon Shimin. “Contemporary Justice and Child.” Washington, D.C. mural, 1940. Provided by Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

1. [Susan M. Lang. Our Community: Dealing with Conflict in Our Congregation. Congregational LEADER Series. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2002). ]2. [Lulu Miller, Alix Spiegel, and Hanna Rosin. “Flip the Script.” Invisibilia (podcast). July 15, 2016. Available online (with some great additional articles!) [See for example: Walter Wink. Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.) Especially chapter 2.]

Weave us Together

Written for the Women of the ELCA Spring Cluster meeting, March 12, 2016, hosted by St. Andrew Lutheran Church

 “I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God’s great mystery.” –Colossians 2:2, The Message


If someone asked you, “What is the story of the New Testament?” what would you say?

The obvious answer is that it is the story of Jesus Christ and his first followers. The gospels tell versions of the story of who Jesus was and what he did. The Acts of the Apostles and the letters tell the story of how his followers told the story of Jesus to others, how they built the church, and struggled to figure out how to be the church.

But as I thought about our theme for this retreat — “Weave Us Together” — I began to realize that that phrase could be another way of describing the New Testament. Throughout the New Testament we see God working to weave us together. We see Christians coming to grips with the reality that they are woven together – whether they like it or not.

In Jesus Christ himself, God weaves humanity and divinity together. And Jesus tried to get us to see that we are woven together with God: that God draws close to us.

Jesus also tried to get people to see that humans are all woven together. He ate with outsiders and sinners that everyone else rejected. He healed lepers and weaved them back into the community. He told people that even those who hated them or hurt them were woven together with them, and they ought to live out that truth: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). In the Gospel of John especially we see that Jesus promoted radical togetherness among his disciples: “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said over and over at his last supper with them (Jn 13:34; 15:12).

In the book of Acts we can see how the early Church struggled with just who is woven together in the name of Jesus Christ. One of the main struggles was about whether non-Jewish people (whom the Jews called Gentiles) could join the church without first becoming Jews. Did they have to obey Jewish laws? Did they have to take on Jewish customs? And the most talked-about question was: Did the men have to get circumcised — the sign of being part of God’s covenant (Gen. 17:1-14)?

The church was still a very Jewish movement in the time of the New Testament, but the Holy Spirit came to Gentiles, too. For many early Christians the thought of Jewish people being woven together with non-Jews was unbearable. The Jews had struggled for centuries to maintain their identity, separate from the other cultures that moved in on them. So when Gentiles started being baptized and eating with Jewish believers, many controversies ensued (see for example Acts 10-11 & 15).

But for many early Christians, the argument boiled down to the fact that God was already welcoming Gentiles into the Body of Christ. Simon Peter saw that the Holy Spirit had come on the Gentiles; they were speaking in tongues and praising God – even before they’d been baptized (Acts 10:44-48)! So he said to the critics, “If then God gave them [the gift of the Holy Spirit], the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” (11:17). Peter, and many others, accepted the Gentiles not because they wanted to, but because they saw that God had already woven them together with the Jewish believers.

Most of the rest of the New Testament is made up of letters written to early Christian communities. These letters encouraged the communities in their faith, taught them, helped set them on the right path. And many of these letters include reminders that Christians are woven together in a radical new way, even across the usual social boundaries of religion and class and gender.

Paul was especially passionate about the unity of the church. He waxed poetic about it; he made persuasive arguments; sometimes he even seems like he’s yelling through the words on the page. For Paul, unity and equality were some of the most important parts of life in the church.

Almost all his letters contain some kind of exhortation to greater unity; over and over he tried to get people to recognize that God had woven them together, and to live like it. Often he tackled the old conundrum about welcoming in the Gentiles (see Galatians, for example). Other times he tackled class issues, like when he came down hard on the Corinthian Christians for leaving out the poor among them (1 Cor. 11:17-34). In his letter to the Colossians — which our verse of the day comes from — he stood against people who claimed they were closer to Christ because they have had visions and special knowledge and because they kept special religious practices (Col. 2:16-19). That’s not right, Paul said. Christ died; Christ was raised. All Christians were baptized into that death and resurrection, and we are all woven together with Christ in our baptism. Period. End of discussion.

The way he stated that message transgressed all social boundaries: religious, ethnic, behavior differences, social class. “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, [savage], slave and free; but Christ is all in all!” (Col. 3:11).

One of the main stories shared by the entire New Testament is the story of God weaving more and more people together into the family of God. God weaves people together despite all the things of the world that try to separate them: social norms, personal preferences, culture, even the law.

It was not easy for those early Christians. There was conflict. Many people were offended. Many were uncomfortable. Many were resentful. A lot of the time the church continued to fail at living out its God-given unity. But when the church people showed how God had woven them together: when women were seen as equal with men, when slaves were seen as equal with their masters; when Gentiles and Jews fellowshipped with one another; when the poor were given a seat at the table of the rich; then the church became a radical sign of God’s love.

Two-thousand years later, it’s still not easy for Christians to acknowledge how we are woven together. We still like to imagine that our boundaries are also God’s boundaries, that God works within our system. We like to think that we know and understand what God wants…even when the Holy Spirit seems to be working in new and even transgressive ways…as it always has.


Since this is an election year, our divisions are cut extra-deep. We are encouraged with every news clip to see that group as stupid; that group as immoral; that group as dangerous; that group as second-class citizens. But the politicians and pundits never stop to invite us to ask how God sees all those people, and that is what should matter most to Christians. How does God see Republicans? How does God see Democrats? How does God see Black protestors and Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees? How does God see each of us?

As Lutherans, our answer has to be: God sees us all with grace. As believers in the Bible, our answer has to be: God’s desire is to weave all of us together.

The message “Weave Us Together,” sounds so simple at first, like something everybody can get behind. (“Yay, unity!”) But when we turn from the news coverage and the talking heads to the message of the New Testament, we can see just how radical that message still is. We see that to profess our faith that God weaves us together across all of society’s boundaries is to take a powerful stand against the ways of the world; it is a rebellion.

It is a calling from God that can be hard to bear. Do we dare take a stand for unity in a world that thinks division is necessary for survival?

But imagine it with me: A community where all different kinds of people are woven together. People from different parts of the country and different parts of the world, people with different skin tones, people with different accents and dialects, people with no money and people with lots of money, people with different political views, people with disabilities, people with scars (inside and out) — all joined together in Christ, worshiping with one another, praying together, visiting one another in the hospital, gathering around the table together.

That is the radical sign that God calls the church to be. That is how God desires to weave us together.

Let us pray: Holy God, creator of all people and all the world, Weave us together into a tapestry of love. Help us to see one another as you see us and to love one another as you love us. Make us into a visible sign of your amazing grace for all the world to see. Amen.