What Keeps Us Turning Back to God?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday in Lent + March 11, 2018

Readings: Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

What’s up with that weird snake story in our first reading?


Bronze Serpent by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, from Die Bibel in Bildern (1853). Via Emory University’s Pitts Theology Library Digital Image Archive.

Moses and the Israelites were out wandering in the desert some place between Egypt and the Promised Land — no surprise there; we know that part of the story — and the Israelites were not happy. They were complaining: We’re hungry. We’re thirsty. This miraculous manna stuff is gross.

That part should probably not be a surprise to us, either. The wandering band of Israel complained a lot. In the story of their escape from Pharaoh — which some of you heard on Wednesday evening — they hadn’t even gotten to the Red Sea yet when they started begging Moses to turn the car around: This is dangerous! Why couldn’t you have left us alone, with our slavemasters, where we were safe? And God said, Why are you freaking out? Just keep walking, I’ll part the sea for you. Haven’t you figured out that I’m saving you yet? (Exodus 14:10-18).

Apparently that lesson never did sink in. God had sent plagues on the Egyptians –always sheltering the Israelites in Egypt from all the frogs and the bugs and the livestock diseases — trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. God had shown them that God was with them by sending a pillar of cloud to guide them by a day and a pillar of fire to light their way at night. God had provided them with bread and quail from heaven. But after God had done miracle after miracle to free them and protect them and provide for them, still the people had no faith — no trust — that God’s taking care of them. They just kept on complaining every time something went wrong: We’re hungry; we’re thirsty; seriously, what is this manna even made out of? Why did you take us out of Egypt?

And then there were snakes. Why did it have to be snakes? But this time the Israelites were wiser. Instead of wanting to run back to Egypt, they ran to God. Or rather, they ran to Moses, begging him to run to God: “Pray to the Lord to take away these serpents from us.” And God told Moses to make up a bronze serpent and lift it up high on a pole, and everyone who got bitten by a snake could look up at the snake-on-a-pole and be instantly protected from its venom.

More seriously this time: Why did it have to be a snake? Why a bronze snake on a pole? Why not, “and then God scared all the serpents away”? Why not, “and then the Lord God revealed unto Moses the formula for the antivenom”? It almost seems like — in total contradiction to what we learned in the 10 Commandments and in Pastor Lippard’s sermon from last week — God told Moses to make an idol that the people could worship, an idol that could save the people. Was God trying to get them to finally stop complaining by giving into their need for a golden cow or some kind of metal animal to worship, like when a parent finally gives up and gives their crying child a piece of candy?

Ancient Jewish commentaries on this story say: No! Of course not. The snake-on-a-pole was not meant to be an idol or a talisman with magic powers; instead it was a helper, a device to help the Israelites remember to turn to God — the God who told them to make that snake-on-a-pole; the God who gave them manna when they were hungry and water when they were thirsty; the God who parted the sea and saved them from slavery in Egypt. As one modern Rabbi put it: “In the story of the bronze serpent, the people are not sick, but sinful. The serpent is elevated to direct the thoughts of the people upward to God and away from the danger at their feet.”[1]

We sometimes need helpers to turn our thoughts to God, too. After all, how often are we distracted by the snakes slithering around our feet? We, like those ancient wandering Israelites, can forget about the bigger story we are a part of. We forget the story of what God has done for us; we forget the promise that God will be with us; and then we worry about what is happening to us right now as if we were without hope. We forget who God has said we are — a beloved child of God — as we worry about what other people think of us, as we let the media tell us what we should be, as we let the voice in our heads tells us we are not good enough. We forget the core message of the gospel — you are forgiven and accepted — and instead mire ourselves in guilt or regret or isolation.

Maybe even more importantly, we forget the full story of that famous verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Our individual salvation stories are all part of this global salvation story, the story of God loving the whole world: God showing God’s presence through the traditions of other cultures; God by the side of those drinking contaminated water in Michigan or in Bhutan; God hearing the prayers of mothers who worry their children will be shot in classrooms or on the streets or in war; God’s work being done through people in Haiti and El Salvador and the Congo and Vietnam and Iran.

Sometimes the snakes that distract us from the bigger story are our own refusals: to hear the other side of a story, to climb outside of our politics, to see God in people who don’t look or act like “us.” Sometimes we don’t even know we are being plagued by snakes — we don’t realize we are being distracted from God’s true mission.

So we need something like that bronze snake-on-a-pole to help turn our attention to God. In our times of fear, in our times of hopelessness, and even in the times when we feel fine. We need habits that keep us turning back to God.


Brazen Serpent, sculpture by Giovanni Fantoni (20th century), Mount Nebo, Jordan.  Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

The cross serves as one helper for us. Our reading from the Gospel of John said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We turn our minds towards Christ on the cross to remember God’s saving work in the world and in us. Many of us wear crosses or hang crosses on the wall as a reminder to turn towards God, God’s promises, and God’s mission.

Coming to worship is another habit that can help us turn our attention to God. Here we come to God in prayer; we hear the promises and the challenges of God through scriptures and sermons; we cross our foreheads with water, we taste bread and wine on our tongue to remind ourselves that God is with us. Here we are forced to see God in ways we wouldn’t on our own, as we hear how other people understand God and God’s work in the world.

How do you keep yourself turning back to God outside of Sunday mornings?

St. Ignatius of Loyola, who lived during the time of Martin Luther, developed a daily check-in system to help him always keep turning to God’s presence and work in his life and in the world around him. His official followers — the Jesuits — call it “the daily Examen.”[2] The Examen has five steps:

  1. Give thanks to God. Look back over your day for any and all good moments, even little things, and thank God for them. This first step is not only about realizing all the good things in life; most importantly it draws us to focus on God.
  2. Ask for grace to know your sins. “Where did you act contrary to your better judgment or to God’s voice inside of you?”[3] Where did you neglect to “see the image of God in others?” The goal is not feel guilty, but to help us realize that we need God, and where we most need God, and to ask for that help to continue evolving as disciples of Christ. Again, the purpose is to help us move closer to God.
  3. Review your day. Run through it like a movie, from start to finish. “Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving…[Recall your] thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says. Each moment offers a window into where God has been in your day.”[4] What is God up to in you and around you?
  4. Ask God for forgiveness. This step reminds us of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and never-ending love.
  5. Ask for God’s grace for tomorrow. Ask God for whatever it is you feel you need help with most: seeing God’s presence with you; trusting God’s promises; breaking harmful habits; learning to see God in others.

Maybe you’ll find that steps like these can help keep you turning to God, too.

Today’s reading from John 3 said: “those who do what is true come to the light.” The Gospel of John is full of this image of light: Jesus is the light who has come into the world, revealing God’s presence and God’s love, revealing God’s will and mission, revealing God’s hope and purpose. How can we keep coming into that the light of Christ to help us keep our lives in God’s perspective? How can we keep our eyes on God and our minds on God’s story, so that we could see our place in that story as people who receive God’s promises and share in God’s mission to our neighbors and to the world?

Let us pray.

Holy God, we thank you for your patience with us when we get distracted by the worries of this life, when we turn away from your promises and your mission. Help us to keep turning back to you. Give us faith to trust your promises and give us clarity as you reveal your purpose in our lives. We ask these things in the name of Jesus, the light of the world. Amen.

[1] Fred N. Reiner, “Healing by Looking: Seraph Serpents and Theotherapy,” ReformJudaism.org, July 8, 2006. Available online: https://reformjudaism.org/learning/torah-study/chukat-balak/healing-looking-seraph-serpents-and-theotherapy

[2] My reference for the Examen is James Martin’s The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), pp. 86-102.

[3] Martin, 89.

[4] Martin, 91.


The Stories We Pass Around

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018

Reading: John 1:43-51

Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.

It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”

I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.

But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.

Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?


Memphis sanitation workers during a 1968 strike. Via CNN.com

Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.

Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).

Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)

Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.

Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.

And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.

The Joy of Easter and the Cost of Discipleship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They cast their nets in Galilee

Just off the hills of brown

Such happy simple fisherfolk

Before the Lord came down


Contented peaceful fishermen

Before they ever knew

The peace of God That fill’d their hearts

Brimful and broke them too.


Young John who trimmed the flapping sail,

Homeless, in Patmos died.

Peter, who hauled the teeming net,

Head-down was crucified.


The peace of God, it is no peace,

But strife closed in the sod,

Yet let us pray for but one thing–

The marvelous peace of God.[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.

To See the Kingdom of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Second Sunday in Lent + March 12, 2017

Scripture Reading: John 3:1-17

It was nighttime in ancient Jerusalem, in the days before streetlights or lit-up signs. Nicodemus the Pharisee made his way through the dark streets to find Jesus. This teacher from Galilee had been in the capital city for only a few days, but already he had caused enough trouble to make a bad name for himself: he had stormed the Holy Temple itself with a whip, driving out the animals being sold, grabbing sacks of coins from the moneylenders and pouring them out on the floor, flipping over tables while yelling things about “his father’s house.” Many of the people, many of the other Pharisees, and many of the powerful leaders in the Temple called Jesus dangerous, a troublemaker, a rioter. But Nicodemus couldn’t stop thinking about the signs and miracles this Jesus was doing; he had to speak with him. Still, with Jesus’s reputation, better to do it under the cover of night.

Jesus immediately turned their conversation to the kingdom of God: how to see it, how to be a part of it. “No one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” he said to Nicodemus. “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.”

Those two statements bring up a lot of questions. Nicodemus focused on the physical questions: How can an adult be born again? That doesn’t make any biological sense. But for me the big questions are: What is the kingdom of God? Why is it so hard for us to see and to be a part of? What keeps us from seeing it and joining in? If we can understand the answers to those questions, maybe we can get a better idea of what Jesus means when he says we need to be reborn in a new way.

I had those questions in my head while I was watching one of my favorite science-fiction shows this week. The episode followed a soldier named Stripe on his first real mission. His team’s main job is to find and kill what they call “roaches,” and we hear about these creatures little by little. They steal food from towns; they commit other crimes; they spread disease; they carry mental and physical problems that are bad for the gene pool; they are the enemy. After all that build-up, we finally we see these roaches: Stripe is searching a suspicious house and pulls back a hanging sheet to discover a group of humanoid creatures with weird, pale skin, sharp teeth, discolored eyes. They shriek in alien sounds and leap out at him, and one of them keeps pointing something that looks like a high-tech pen (or maybe a sonic screwdriver or one of those Men-in-Black memory-wiping-sticks) in Stripe’s face. When he’s taken them all out, Stripe picks up the pen-thing, pushes a button, and an intense green light flashes. He blinks, drops it to the ground, and returns to his troop.

When Stripe goes out on his second mission a few days later, he experiences everything differently. And I mean everything. The colors of nature are brighter: the green of the trees, the blue of the sky. He picks up handfuls of grass and holds it up to his nose, breathing in deeply as he realizes he hasn’t smelled something like that in a long time. The other soldiers wonder if he’s going crazy.

Suddenly his team is under attack. Stripe and one other solider, Raiman, are the only ones left standing. They run for cover, then they head into a farmhouse to find their attackers — and Stripe is shocked when Raiman starts taking out bystanding civilians. Stripe knocks out Raiman and escapes with a woman and her child. When they reach a safe place, the woman, with a mix of fear and hope, asks Stripe, “You can see me as I really am? You don’t see a roach?”[1]

Slowly Stripe discovers that he and the other soldiers have all been implanted with devices that change the way they perceive the world. These devices are supposed to lessen the the trauma of combat: they can’t smell the awful smells of war; they literally see and hear enemies as monsters. The flash of green light from the pen had broken Stripe’s device, changing the way he perceived everything and everyone, turning upside-down the way he understood himself and his job and his world. To use the metaphors of today’s gospel reading, Stripe had been reborn.



By Greyson Orlando, via Wikimedia Commons

Jesus said that we need to be “born from above” or (in other translations) “born again” or “born anew” in order to even be able to perceive the kingdom of God. The gospels talk about the kingdom of God in a few different ways: in some ways, it is already around us; but it is also still coming, getting closer, growing; and one day it will arrive in fullness. But, Jesus said in today’s reading, we can’t just naturally see that. We can’t see the kingdom as it already is around or as its time of fullness is drawing near without being born anew. Maybe that’s because we can’t automatically see the world as it really is, as God sees it. Like the device implanted in Stripe’s brain, there is something in us and around us that keeps us from seeing as God sees.

The writings in the Bible offer us some ideas about how God sees the world and about what God’s kingdom looks like and will look like. Over and over in the prophets, in the great Old Testament stories, in the song of Mary, and the words of Jesus, we hear that God cares for everyone, desires everyone to have enough, to thrive, to experience the blessings and love of God and others. That means that God and God’s messengers often speak up on behalf of those suffering or being oppressed, the overlooked and the avoided and the misunderstood.

The Bible also tells of a kingdom of God which will be made up of all nations. Rob Bell elaborates: “That’s everybody. That’s all those different skin colors, languages, dialects, and accents; all those kinds of food and music; all those customs, habits, patterns, clothing, traditions, and ways of celebrating — multiethnic, multisensory, multieverything.”[3] All those things we see as foreign and maybe uncomfortable…all of it looks familiar to the God who created all people and dwells with all people.

And then, trying to get an idea about the kingdom of God, we might think not only of the way God sees the world but also the way God works in the world. As Christians we believe that God works with a justice that understands all sides, a justice rooted in love and concern for all people. We believe in a God who chooses to be merciful without end, a God of radical grace. We believe in a God who forgives things we could never forgive and loves people even in the midst of their sin. We believe in a God who is bringing both justice and grace to fruition all around us.

And all of that sounds wonderful when we’re hearing it from our pews on Sunday morning. But when God’s kingdom takes to the streets, it can be hard for us to handle, hard for us to see as something coming from God. That’s why Nicodemus went to see Jesus at night: because so many people — especially the people with power or good social standing — couldn’t see the kingdom of God in what Jesus was doing. Wreaking havoc in the Holy Temple? Spending time with prostitutes, with scammers, with obvious sinners? Hanging around lepers and other sick people? Speaking publicly against the ways the government and the religious institution mistreated those in need? Sometimes the kingdom of God comes off as offensive.

So what prevents us humans from seeing the kingdom of God when it’s happening around us? Why do we sometimes just not notice it; why are we — like some of the Pharisees of Jesus times — offended instead of joyful? What keeps us from seeing the world as God sees it?

The Bible talks about sin, about having hard hearts. I think part of it is just that we humans are limited beings. The way we see and understand the world is bound by so many factors, some of them outside of our control; the time and place and culture where we grow up and where we live our lives (think of how often we say, “Of course that person thought that way; they were just a product of their times!”). Our perception is affected by the things other people have taught us, through word and example. Our perception is affected by what we have opportunity to learn and experience. Our perception is affected by our own needs and desires: whether they are for basic things like safety and security or our more selfish wants. So how could we possibly see like the God who is beyond all of our situations and knowledge and limitations?

And yet Jesus says we can, if we are born again, born anew, born from above. If we are born of water and the Spirit.

It was that “being born of water and the Spirit” that Martin Luther relied on so heavily in problems like this. He was the king of saying, “We can’t do anything good on our own” — maybe even to a sort of unhealthy extent. But I can imagine Luther reading this conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus and saying, “Well, of course I can’t see or enter the kingdom of God on my own!” But Luther believed that the Holy Spirit works within us to transform us into saints who can see and participate in the kingdom of God. Our rebirth — our baptism, the gift of the Holy Spirit — works in us daily to remove the things within us that keep us from God and the kingdom, and our rebirth works in us daily to grow our faith, our understanding, our goodness.

The Holy Spirit works in us as we read Scripture, helping us to see the world more like God sees it. The Holy Spirit works in us as we realize God’s love for us, and we share that love with other people. The Holy Spirit works in us as we meet others and try to see the image of God in them. The Holy Spirit moves us to grow in our own understanding, mercy, and love. I see all of these things in this congregation every day, and it helps me believe the Holy Spirit truly is working in us all, helping us to see God’s kingdom more clearly, helping us to enter that kingdom and be part of its work in our world.

[1] Charlie Brooker, “Men Against Fire,” Black Mirror, season 3, episode 5, directed by Jakob Verbruggen, (Netflix: October 21, 2016). Note: This show contains “adult situations,” and some episodes contain more potentially offensive content than others. Use discretion if you decide to check it out…and maybe skip season 1, episode 1.

[3] Rob Bell, Love Wins, (New York: HarperOne, 2011), p. 34.

Come and See

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday After Epiphany + January 15, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42

Being in my twenties means that at any given moment at least half of my friends are working on some kind of major life decision. We are all in the midst of graduating or going back to school, choosing careers and finding jobs, starting relationships and families, and maybe ending relationships or quitting jobs or moving across the country. I think I talk with at least three friends a week who are trying to make these huge decisions.

One night this past week a friend seemed to be going through everything at once: She was preparing for an interview for her dream job in her dream city — only was it still her dream job? It comes with a pay cut, compared the unexciting job she’d already settled for. And did she really want to move away from all the friends she’d made? And could she even do that job anyway? And oh, she wished she could talk to that old boyfriend about the whole situation, but that seemed like a really bad idea…

Making major life decisions seems to happen especially a lot during our young-adult years, as we are first trying to settle into our own adult lives. But as you all well know, those major transitions don’t just stop once you get your first job and a place to live and maybe a nice partner to marry and some children. Big decisions come again and again: because our desires change, or because the economy shifts under us, or because something happens in our family, or because of illness or injury, or because a new opportunity arises. All of a sudden we find ourselves looking at our lives and thinking, “OK, this is big. What’s the right decision here? What should I do?”

It makes me think of a famous quote: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”[1] It’s frustrating and inescapable: we want to know and understand now, to make wise decisions for our future…but we only become wise (especially about those specific life situations) by making choices, moving forward, and then looking back.

The same is true when it comes to our faith. We want to know all the answers: What are the right things to believe? What’s the right way to behave? What does God want me to do in my life? What does God want in our church? But — almost always — we aren’t given certainty to help us as we live our lives forward. We only find our way through the questions by prayer, by seeking the guidance of God’s Word through scripture and conversation, and then by moving forward in faith. Then we look back, and maybe we can see more clearly how God was at work. We ask our questions, and we most often hear in reply: “Come and see.”

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that when I was a teenager, I thought I had the answers to all of those big questions about God and life and truth. Especially when you know that I grew up in denominations that were very certain that they did have all the answers. And there was something very comforting and secure in that sense of certainty.

But then it broke.

In college I discovered that my church’s black-and-white teachings broke down under all the layers and complexities of real-life dilemmas. And I made Christian friends whose faith was different from what I’d been taught was the only way to believe in Jesus. And I did that dangerous thing of starting to take religion classes, where I learned that Christians have all sorts of beliefs about how salvation worked, and how to understand the Bible, and how God wanted us to behave…and they can back them up with the Bible and church tradition. With all that going on, I had to start thinking: maybe my church didn’t have THE answers after all. Maybe everything was way more complicated than I’d be told. And that thought was world-shattering for me. How could I know how to be faithful now that everything seemed less certain, less how I’d expected it to be?

I wonder if John the Baptist and Jesus’s disciples felt a similar sense of shock when the messiah actually showed up in their lives. A similar sense of “this is not as simple as I expected it would be.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and said, “That’s him! That’s the Lamb of God!”  Andrew and another man heard this and started following Jesus around. Jesus saw them out of the corner of his eye, turned around, and asked, “What are you looking for?”

What were they looking for? We can imagine that they all grew up on stories of the messiah: what he would be like, what he would do. Maybe they each had an image of the messiah that they carried around inside their heads. Someone that would come and save the day, like a superhero. Maybe some of them expected the messiah described in the book of Daniel: “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven…to him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). Maybe some were expecting to see Elijah, the prophet from the Hebrew scriptures, returning in a chariot of fire (Micah 4:5-6). When John declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” how did he picture Jesus doing that? I wonder if they expected someone sudden and shocking, or someone fierce and powerful, or someone that would change the world in an instant. Something big and obvious and certain.

Maybe they wanted answers to questions. Maybe they wanted a king who would make Israel the greatest of the nations. Maybe they wanted someone to cleanse the world of sin. What did they think when they saw a man just walking by, like any other man? No coming on the clouds of heaven, no prophets from thousands of years ago…just a man, living like they were living? A man they could doubt was the messiah, a man they would have to try and figure out?

The first question they ask of him is, “Where are you staying?” and the first answer they get from him is, “Come and see.”

That is probably the most realistic answer to all the questions we have for God — by which I mean, it’s the answer we get most often in our lives. God, what are you like? God, how should I live? God, what is the truth? God, where are you? We ask, and what we hear back is: “Come and see.”

The disciple’s life with Jesus was basically one big “come and see.” They followed him, trying to figure out what the messiah was doing: they watched him heal people; they heard his teachings; they saw the way he lived and heard his dreams for the kingdom of God, and gradually they understood more and more.

Even after Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead, the church continued in the model of “come and see.” How do we deal with these Gentiles who want to become Christians? they wondered. And as the Jewish Christians went and saw Gentile believers, as they tested the waters of fellowship, they saw how God was working to form a new community. They gradually understood more and more.

When I ask God my questions, I feel the best and most frequent answer I get is “Come and see.” God, where are you? Come and see how the church is the Body of Christ: how the people visit one another in the hospital, how they bring food to those in need, how they challenge and support one another. “God, what do you want me to do?” Come along and see: Keep walking forward, then look over your shoulder and see how I’ve been guiding you.

 When others come to us with their questions about life and faith, maybe “come and see” is the best answer we can give, too. Come and see what inspires me. Come and see the good that my congregation does in our community. Come and see how we wrestle with scripture. Come and see how we live with both doubt and faith. Come and see, and maybe you will see God.

We often long for clear answers to our big questions: how to make decisions, how to know the truth. But God offers us something much sturdier and more long-lasting than a quick answer: God offers us experience and relationship. “Come and see” is an invitation to experience God’s presence in our lives, to see God in the new questions that come up as we grow, to see God in new ways as our understanding of the world changes. It is an invitation to relationship with a God who is just as complex as our world and our questions. It is a reminder that God is with us on our journey, even when it’s not what we thought it would be. Even when it gets confusing and frustrating and painful. Come and see.

[1]As far as I can tell, this is sort of a simplified version of Soren Kierkegaard: “Philosophy is perfectly right in saying that life must be understood backward. But then one forgets the other clause—that it must be lived forward. The more one thinks through this clause, the more one concludes that life in temporality never becomes properly understandable, simply because never at any time does one get perfect repose to take a stance—backward.” (From Journals and Papers, quoted on the blog The Bully Pulpit, https://jrbenjamin.com/tag/soren-kierkegaard/)

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

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.

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.