Real-izing How Inclusive God Is

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 29, 2018

Reading: Acts 8:26-40

We’re going to start off today with a little interactive sermon time. But those of you who are on the shy side: don’t worry, I won’t make you talk to anybody. All I’m asking you to do is get in touch with all the memories of Bible stories you have stored up in your brain. Think back through whatever ways you have learned the stories of our scriptures: Sunday school and Bible studies; sermons and your own reading; Jesus Christ Superstar and flannel boards and references in Bob Dylan songs. OK, now I’m going to give you a little Bible trivia quiz — but again, don’t worry, you’ll only be answering in your own head, and nobody’s keeping score. And none of these are trick questions: each one really does have an answer. Ready?

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really, really old.

Think of a Bible story with a character who is really young.

Think of a time the Bible talks about someone who is grieving.

About someone who is poor?

Someone who is rich?

About someone who is African?

About an immigrant?

About someone who can’t have children? Or someone who chooses not to have children?

About someone who is in prison?

About someone who has a lot of doubt?

About someone who feels like they aren’t up to the job they are given?

About someone who feels like they don’t fit in?

About someone who feels like they failed?

Given enough time, and access to experts or Bible dictionaries or Google, we can find a Bible reference to just about any life circumstance — so long as that circumstance also existed when the Bible was written. No Bible stories about misplacing your cell phone and having no one else around to call it for you so you can find it. But for all the really important, timeless things humans go through — things like loss and hopelessness and joy and hunger and wonder; even things like poverty and flawed government — we can find something in the Bible that speaks to that situation. We can find an example of a time that what we’re going through now has been on God’s radar in the past. And that can help us feel like we are on God’s radar now.

It doesn’t always feel like that carries over into the church, though. We might visit a different congregation on a Sunday morning, look around, and immediately feel like: There is no place for me here. Everyone else looks like part of a family, and I’m here by myself. Or, It looks like everyone here can afford to dress much better than I can. Some people might not come to church at all because they feel like — based on the church’s reputation, fair or unfair though it may be — that they don’t have the political beliefs or scientific beliefs or total lack of doubt in God’s existence or the infallibility of the Bible that the church requires. It’s often easy to feel like we have to fit a certain mold to even walk through the doors of a church.

And sometimes the church says more explicitly, “People like you aren’t welcome here.” Today in the United States we still have “white churches” and “black churches” — both as individual congregations and as entire denominations — because for so long in American history African-Americans were told “you can’t worship with us,” or, “you can sit in the pews, but you can’t be a leader here,” or “if you are here, the preaching will tell you that slavery or segregation are the way God wants things to be.”

Many of my friends who are gay look for churches that say explicitly that they are welcome in worship, because experience has made them assume that most churches will reject them – sometimes in hostile ways. Some of my female friends who felt a call to ministry have had to leave denominations where they were not allowed to preach or teach. Families with children with mental or physical disabilities might wonder if they will be welcomed or gawked at it, if sudden outbursts will be tolerated, if special needs will be met or just met with frustration. The church is often not nearly as inclusive as the Bible.

The Bible paints us a picture of God’s Kingdom: where poor and rich have dinner together; where the powerful genuinely care for the lowly; where people who have disabilities are vital parts of the community; where the people society calls “sinners” and people society calls “saints” are recognized as equals; where people of all nations and cultures are gathered together into one People of God. It’s a radical vision for the Church to try again and again to get closer and closer to embodying in our own communities. It’s a vision we have to work actively to keep in our minds and to live out in our lives, because if we are not actively working at it, we will slip into existing just like the world around us.

The biblical writer we call Luke — who wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts — focused on helping his readers keep the radical, inclusive vision of God’s Kingdom alive in their minds and in their lives. He was always trying to drive home that God’s work included even more people than we would think to include on our own.

Luke emphasizes, even more than the other gospels, Jesus’s care for the poor and the sick and the sinful and the outcast, and Jesus’s teaching that his disciples should do the same. Luke mentions the women who followed Jesus and supported his ministry more often than the other gospels. And then in the book of Acts, that same writer tells the story of how the Holy Spirit broke through the Church’s original boundaries; where at first people had thought the Jesus movement was meant for observant Jews, the book of Acts tells story after story of God moving to include people of other nations and religious backgrounds.

This special emphasis of Luke’s, this emphasis on how God’s mission keeps reaching out past human expectations and social boundaries and religious regulations and national borders — this is probably why he included the story we read earlier this morning, where Philip the Apostle is sent to a eunuch from Ethiopia, and this man is so moved by the story of Jesus that he asks to be baptized immediately.


Stained glass window depicting the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Hendersonville, TN

This one, brief story tells us so much about how far the Holy Spirit expanding the Church. For one thing, first-century Mediterranean people would have thought of Ethiopia as the southernmost edge of their world, so this story shows how the disciples are doing what Jesus said, spreading the gospel “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).[1] But this Ethiopian eunuch also represents a number of groups of people who have been left out of church life — both then and now.

This man was a foreigner, even working for a foreign government. Being Ethiopian, he was probably black-skinned. Because he was reading the book of Isaiah and had traveled to Jerusalem to worship, there’s a good chance that he was Jewish, though it is also possible that he was a seeker, someone curious about other religions, and had come from a different religious background himself. And the fact that he was called a “eunuch” opens up a huge range of possibilities: he may have been a slave or an ex-slave, as many eunuchs were in the ancient world. And as a eunuch – a man who had been castrated — he definitely didn’t fit the gender norms of his day, probably being seen as not-exactly-male, not a “full man,” unable to have children and pass on an inheritance – which was perhaps an even bigger deal back then that it is now.[2] He would have been an outsider to the early Church in so many ways, and he would still be an outsider in most parts of the Church today, and yet it seems the Holy Spirit went out of her way to include him in the spreading of the gospel.

Many people who see themselves as outsiders in the eyes of the Church hear the story of the Ethiopian eunuch and find themselves included in the mission of God, welcomed into God’s Kingdom.

Lutheran churches hold that the Bible is the “source and norm” for our faith and our life together. Sometimes we have a tendency of taking that in a pretty legalistic direction, focusing on figuring out the “do”s and “don’t”s the Bible lays out for our behavior and our beliefs, and — quite frankly — focusing on what that says about who and what is “out” of the Church life.

But the Bible is more than just laws and teachings. It is also a record of God’s promises to all sorts of people in all sorts of situations, a record of God’s love for imperfect people, and a library of teachings and stories about how God’s mission keeps breaking down human boundaries to include more and more people in the Kingdom of God.

And if that is the “source and norm” for our life together — then we should also be paying attention to God’s promises to the poor, the sick, the people who don’t fit our social norms, the immigrant, the widow, the uneducated, the sinner-with-a-capital-S, and all sorts of people we may not think of in our day-to-day lives, and striving to make those promises come alive in our community. Striving to help all sorts of people see that there is a place for them in God’s Kingdom and here in the Church, and striving to help them figure out that place.

And if the Bible is the “source and norm” for our lives as individuals — that means that when the Church fails us, when we feel left out or unwelcome or unforgiven, we can always turn to scripture to find the story of how God is reaching out to call us in to God’s grace, and God’s transforming Spirit, and the mission of God’s Kingdom.

Let us pray.

God of all people: help us to see your Spirit at work even in the places we least expect, even among the people we least expect. Sometimes, when we don’t feel good enough or right enough, that unexpected place is our own lives. In those times help us to hear your word of grace and welcome anew. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

[1] Demetrius K. Williams, “The Acts of the Apostles,” True to Our Native Land: An African American New Testament Commentary, ed. Brian K. Blount, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 226.

[2] Sean D. Burke, Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013). Introduction available online.


The Hope of the Hopeless

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday in Lent + February 25, 2018

Readings: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22

I doubt that Sarah had any hope left that she would have her own children when God made this covenant with Abraham, the one we just heard read from Genesis 17. She probably wasn’t even dreaming of children anymore. After all, she was about ninety years old. Her biological clock had stopped ticking a few generations ago. And this was not the first time that God had promised Abraham a child; even last time, Sarah was so certain she would never bear her own children that she suggested Abraham father children with her slave, Hagar (Gen. 15 for the promise; 16:1-4 for Sarah’s idea). Y’know, like in The Handmaid’s Tale.

Sarah and Abraham both seem to have given up totally on having children together. Our reading for today ends with God’s glorious promise: “I will give you a son by [your wife, Sarah]. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” It conveniently cuts out before we can see what Abraham thought of that promise. The very next verse says, “Then Abraham fell on his face laughing, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” And he basically tried to correct God: You must be talking about Ishmael, my son by Hagar. Technically, according to our customs — which will creep out my 21st century descendants — Ishmael is Sarah’s child (Gen. 17:17-18). And later when Sarah overheard the Lord say that she will have a son, she laughed, too (Gen. 18:9-12).

By this point in their lives, Sarah and Abraham had learned to live with the idea of never having children together. Things were the way they were. They had long ago lost all hope for things to be any different.

When do we feel like that? Like there’s no reason left to hope, like things just are the way they are, like we just have to deal with it? There are so many things in our private lives that can wear us down to that level: chronic pain or terrible disease; hurtful patterns in relationships; struggles against our own sin or addictions or bad habits; prayers that seem to go unanswered. There are so many things in our public life together that can wear us down, too: politicians who seem to work for money or power rather than for the people; the age-old struggle to help keep our neighbors from going hungry or homeless; the way prejudices never seem to die, just change forms in each generation; the way our nation spends so much time arguing about what to do about mass shootings, but never seems to actually make any positive changes. It’s no wonder so many people choose to get at least a dose of their news from comedians, who help us to turn our frustrations into laughter, like Abraham and Sarah did.

A few minutes ago we sang David’s words of joy and hope from Psalm 22. But that psalm begins in a dark place of total hopelessness. You might be familiar with its first lines as words Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” David continued in the psalm:

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

                        And by night but find no rest…

I am a worm, and not human;

                        Scorned by others, and despised by the people…

I am poured out like water,

                        And all my bones are out of joint;

My heart is like wax;

                        It is melted within my breast.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

                        And my tongue sticks to my jaws;

                        You lay me in the dust of death. (Psalm 22:1-2, 6, 14-15)

So how does David get from those miserable words to a place of hope and joy in the Lord? According to at least some interpreters, it’s not that his suffering comes to a sudden end;[1] but somehow, in the midst of all that’s happening to him, he grabs hold of a renewed trust in the Lord. And what we can see happening throughout the psalm itself is David remembering what the Lord has done for David’s people:

In you our ancestors trusted;

                        They trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

                        In you they trusted, and were not put to shame. (Ps. 22:4-5)

And we see David remembering what God has done in his own life:

It was you who took me from the womb;

                        You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast since birth,

                        And since my mother bore me you have been my God. (Ps. 22:9-10).

And we see David remembering qualities that are essential to who God is:

For the Lord does not despise nor abhor the poor in their poverty;

                        Neither is the Lord’s face hidden from them;

But when they cry out, the Lord hears them. (Psalm 22:24)

Remembering what God has done in the past helped David to trust God, and to have hope that God would act again. And, we might imagine the specific stories David could have remembered, the great stories of Israel: Abraham and Sarah conceiving the promised child, Isaac, when they were 100 years old; the people of Israel escaping to freedom after 400 years of slavery; even David himself defeating Goliath or surviving repeated attacks on his life. These are all stories of God coming into a situation that seemed totally hopeless and changing it. These stories reminded David, and they remind us, that there is no situation so hopeless that God can’t transform it; there is no cause so lost that God can’t redeem it.

Remembering the stories of how God has saved God’s people has helped generations of believers keep hoping even when their struggle seemed hopeless. For example:  the people enslaved here in America — many of whom, but some great miracle, came to really believe in the religion of the people who enslaved them — told and retold the story of the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Their songs are filled with stories of God saving people: Daniel saved from the lion’s den; the three men saved from the fiery furnace; Joshua’s miraculous victory at Jericho. These stories could refuel the enslaved people’s hopes as they dreamed and fought for freedom. As one spiritual sings: “God delivered Daniel from the lion’s den, Jonah from the belly of a whale, and the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace — then why not every man?”[2]

Stories of God’s deliverance are powerful, because the memories of what God has done for hopeless people in the past are tied to God’s promises to always hear the cries of those in need and to act on their behalf. Psalm 34 confesses this faith:

When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,

                       and rescues them from all their troubles.

            The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,

                         and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:17-18)

Responding to hopeless people, transforming hopeless situations — that is an essential part of who God is.

God came through for Sarah and Abraham, and for so many others who were sunk deep into hopelessness. Over and over again, God has worked through situations that seemed totally hopeless to create something unexpected and good. Even Jesus’s story sinks down into the hopelessness of the crucifixion, but God made that hopelessness into salvation. With all these memories and all these promises, our hopeless situations are no longer hopeless. We can always expect God to bring change, to give new hope and new life and new meaning. Even when things are not going the way we want them to go, even when all seems lost — we can always expect God’s action.

That lesson ought to give us the hope we need to keep working for change ourselves, to keep struggling against the harmful and oppressive patterns of our world; the hope we need to encourage those who are running low; the hope we need to keep looking for the bright corners where God’s new day is dawning.

Let us pray.

God of Sarah and Abraham, long ago you embraced your people in covenant and promised them your blessing. We remember the stories of how you saved your people throughout the centuries. Strengthen us in faith, that, with your disciples of every age, we may proclaim your deliverance in Jesus Christ to generations yet unborn. Amen.[3]

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Jr., Commentary on Psalm 22, The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Petersen, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] African-American Spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?” You can listen to Moses Hogan’s arrangement, performed by the Nathaniel Dett Chorale,

[3] Amended version of scriptural prayer for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers: Proposed by the Consultation on Common Texts, (Minneapolis, Augsburg Fortress Press, 2002), via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary resource website:

A Glimpse of Glory

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 11, 2018

Reading: Mark 9:2-9

A few years ago I helped lead a group of college students on a service trip to New Orleans. We stayed in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Even seven years after Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth bore obvious scars of the natural disaster: injured buildings; FEMA’s spray paint; abandoned houses, reminders of neighbors who left to shelter with family in other cities and never returned.

Our home for the week was the Lower Ninth Ward Village, a warehouse turned into a community center — or rather, turning into a community center. It was clear that a lot of work had gone into the place: walls were painted with bright murals; a garden grew in the backyard; one of the rooms had been converted into a computer lab for the neighborhood’s students. This place was an amazing refuge and beacon of hope for its community. But it was also clear that this was a work in progress: we kept discovering, as we cooked, that the kitchen was missing some basic equipment; one afternoon we saw a rat scurry across the kitchen floor, and we hurried to move ALL of our groceries behind the protective walls of the fridge.

On one of our first mornings, one of the young women described the huge bugs she’d seen in our sleeping room the night before. She said she had kept awake for a while, imagining all the kinds of bugs could be crawling around the floor, crawling up the legs of her cot, wondering if they could be dangerous. Finally, she said, she’d fallen asleep, reminding herself, in all seriousness: “God won’t let a bug kill me.”

I think I kept a straight face when she said that. But inside I was shocked. How can you say “God won’t let a bug kill me” while we are sleeping in a building that once had floodwater rising up over its windows? While all around us buildings are still marked with codes showing whether any deceased people had been found inside? While our neighbors for the week are people who were already poor, suffering from a continuing history of systemic racism and poverty, and then were hit by a disaster, and now are still struggling to recover while most of the rest of their city has gone back to normal?

Saying “God won’t let a bug kill me,” especially in that particular place, with the stories we’d been hearing…it sounded hollow and insensitive and, well, maybe a little ridiculous. But, this young woman was only doing something that we all sometimes do, something we are trained to do by a culture that does not want to face suffering or failure or grief or death. She was using her faith as a barrier against her fear of suffering. She was thinking of God as a powerful, protective figure that will make everything go her way, at least most of the time.

But that is not a promise God makes to us. That is not who God is. And there’s a big danger in that thinking: because — as many of you have already learned all too well — there will come a day when something really bad will happen, something that a god who makes things go our way would never let happen, and we will be left wondering if that god really exists. And if that is the only god we know, we will be left wondering if God really exists, or cares about us.

Today in worship we remember and celebrate the story of Christ’s Transfiguration. And I think this story can seem as unreal and disconnected from our experiences as that false god who only lets nice things happen. Jesus suddenly transforms, his clothes blindingly white, and he speaks with two of the greatest Jewish figures of all time, men who had walked the earth a thousand years before. God’s voice declares from the sky: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”


Transfiguration – Mosaic along the entryway to the Basilica of St. Peter, Vatican City. Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition

So few human beings in all of history have ever had — or even claimed to have had — such a direct experience of God’s power and glory, such a clear communication from heaven. So we probably come away from this story thinking, “Wow! What an amazing sight that would have been to see!” or “That must really have confirmed for those three disciples that Jesus was the messiah.” Or, if we are feeling cynical or doubtful this morning, “Yeah right, like this one actually happened.” In any case: how do we apply this story to the complications and questions of our life? How does this bright, shining vision of Christ’s glory have connection to our experiences, especially if we’re facing life’s most humbling or devastating moments: illness, death, loss, disappointment?

Here’s the thing that helps me: the Transfiguration was weird and out-of-this-world for Jesus’s disciples too. That’s why Peter fumbled around as he tried to react in the midst of all his awe and fear of what he’d just witnessed. This story is an out-of-place blip of shiny glory in a life otherwise spent staring life’s pain in the face. As far as we know, Jesus grew up like just about everybody else in his world: poor. In the years of his life we know most about, he wandered around with a rag-tag group of followers, surviving off of whatever food and shelter someone offered them, sometimes scavenging for their own food. And yes, he performed many, many healings: but those demonstrations of divine power also involved staring disease and death in the face, being surrounded by sick people, touching lepers. In Jesus, the God of all glory entered right into the midst of our suffering: experiencing pain physically and emotionally, spending time with the poor and the sick and the dying and the grieving and the angry people.

The Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was really trying to drive home the point that the messiah, the Son of God, did not come to ward off suffering. The messiah would have to suffer and die. Those who wished to follow him would have to follow him into lives of suffering and sacrifice.

The story of the Transfiguration appears in three of the four gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. And in each of those books, it appears as part of the same sequence of events — which doesn’t often happen with stories, since the writers arranged each arranged the stories in their own ways. In all three tellings, the Transfiguration is preceded by Jesus asking his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter confessed, “You are the messiah.” And then Jesus explained exactly what that meant: he would undergo great suffering, be put to death, and after three days, rise again. Anyone who wanted to follow him would have to “take up their cross” (Matt. 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-9:1; Luke 9:18-27). All three gospels link this story to the Transfiguration, saying it was about a week later that Jesus took three disciples up the mountain, where they saw him change before their eyes. As they came down the mountain together, Jesus again reminded them that he would soon be made to suffer.

When they reached the rest of the disciples at the bottom of the mountain, a great crowd was waiting for them. The crowd had brought the disciples a boy who was possessed by an unclean spirit. The disciples had been unable to cast it out. So immediately after that moment of dazzling glory on the mountain, Jesus again came face-to-face with the suffering of the world. Jesus healed the boy, and then went on with his disciples, teaching them, yet again, that he was about to be betrayed and killed (Matt. 17:14-23; Mark 9:14-32; Luke 9:37-45).

We understand the Transfiguration best when we see that it is a glimpse of glory in the midst of a life turned towards human suffering. It’s like a peek behind-the-scenes, a vision of the glorious God present there in the suffering of Jesus; and it’s like a promise of the resurrection that would come after the crucifixion. The divine power in Jesus would not keep him from suffering, but it would bring God nearer to our suffering, right into death, and then the divine power would bring new life. That is the promise of the Transfiguration.

Maybe you have a memory bank of moments like the Transfiguration; memories or stories or Bible verses that remind you that God is with you even when life feels awful, that remind you that God will bring new life even from our tragedies.

We would prefer it if God kept suffering from happening in the first place. And I will always insist that getting angry with God after a tragedy or asking why God “let something happen” is a biblical reaction: there are psalms and whole books of devastated and furious laments in the Bible. Still we must remember what we have been shown and promised: what we see revealed in Jesus Christ is not a god who keeps us protected from all harm, but a God who is right there with us when we are suffering, a God who transfigures our suffering from something devastating to something meaningful (even if still painful), a God who leads us to new life even after death. Our lives may never be the same; but God will use the change for a new creation, a resurrection that — like Jesus’s resurrected body — bears the marks of the pain we suffered even while we begin our new life.

These were the promises that sustained the disciples through their years of persecution and martyrdom. These are the promises that we can lean on today, even when we come to our own times of suffering. Amen.

“Overcome evil with good”

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 13th Sunday after Pentecost + September 3, 2017

Reading: Romans 12:9-21

If you were here for worship last Sunday, you probably remember Frank Hale giving a Temple Talk about the Navigators, our men’s group, which meets monthly for breakfast and also coordinates a lot of volunteer work to help people in the congregation and the community. Frank began his talk by mentioning the issue of Time magazine he’d seen sitting on his coffee table; its cover said in big letters: “Hate in America.”

“If we were making headlines,” Frank asked, “what would we want them to say? What about ‘Love at St. Andrew?’ How about ‘Christ is victorious?’”

I love that question. If a reporter were to look at St. Andrew, or at the Church of Jesus Christ as a whole, what is the headline we hope that they would write? If we were living up to our own highest standards of discipleship — or better, put, if we were living as close to God’s way as we could, what would that headline read?

I thought of that as I read this week’s lesson from Paul’s letter to the Romans. In this chapter Paul set forth the ideal image of Christian life. The introduction to that reading (printed in your bulletin in italics) says it like this: “Love is the unflagging standard of our behavior. When we encounter evil, we do not resort to its tactics but seek to overcome it with good. While Christians cannot control the actions and attitudes of others, we seek to live at peace with all people.”[1]

It can feel like we encounter evil a lot. As Frank pointed out, our news headlines often highlight the evil for us. Hatred, violence, and crime; abuse, discrimination, and infighting; corruption, lies, and terrorism — the news can make it feel like that’s all there is in the world.

And we may experience evil more close to home, in our own personal lives. We suffer from broken relationships, we feel caught in webs of manipulation or defensiveness or anger. Someone may lie to us or treat us unfairly or make us feel betrayed. People we love hurt other people that we love.

Sometimes all that evil seems overwhelming. We want to be part of the good that overcomes that evil, but how do we do that? How do we even start?

A podcast series I’ve been listening to spent its final episode trying to answer the question of how we can help overcome one specific evil: racism. What can we actually do about it? The hosts of the podcast did one of the classic bits: asking random people on the street for their opinion. First they stopped a man named Robby and asked him, “I was wondering what you feel like the solutions to our race problems are.”

At first Robby joked about being asked out of the blue to answer such a conundrum “Oh, just a little, quick question like that. Not anything deep…” But then he gave his actual answer, which made me think of this week’s reading from Romans. Robby said:

I think it’s humility. I think that even when we’re communicating our frustration or our anger, we do it from a very selfish place because I want to feel a certain way, and the fact that you’re not doing something that makes me feel that way, I’m offended by it. So I think selfishness is a huge, huge barrier to us being able to have an open and honest conversation. We have extreme challenges and things that have happened in the past that are absolutely unacceptable. But we bring that anger to the conversation from both sides, and that selfishness that I want to feel a certain way, I think really hinders our ability to move the conversation forward.[2]

As that introduction to our Romans reading reminded us — and as any therapist will tell you — we “cannot control the actions and attitudes of others.” But what Robby’s thoughts and Paul’s teachings share is the encouragement that we do have power over our own actions and attitudes. And as good, orthodox Lutherans we should say, better yet: it’s not us alone trying to change our own actions and attitudes — if you’ve tried to make conscious changes in yourself, whether that’s changing your eating habits or changing the way you treat the people around you or changing your outlook, you know how hard it can be to work transformation even in yourself. But we believe that we are not trying to change ourselves by ourselves, but the Holy Spirit is also working in us to transform us, to bring our thoughts and actions more and more into line with God’s will.

As Paul wrote earlier in this chapter of Romans:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom. 12:1-2)

And when we are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds,” when we — with the Holy Spirit — do change our actions and attitudes, we can have big impacts in our conversations and our relationships.

If we can be a change from the usual way of doings things, if we can break the usual pattern, then the people and things around us have to respond to us and to the change we’re bringing. And at least that opens a door for things to change for the better.

When we do this as individuals, we can bring change to our own spheres. When we do this as a community — as St. Andrew here in Williamson County, and as the Church at large — we can change the world. Our lives can be one of the means by which God overcomes evil with good.

Let’s read the Romans lesson one more time. If you tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might your life change? And if we all tried to cling closely to Paul’s advice, how might our community change? How might our nation change? How might the world change? You might even underline the parts that really jump out at you as we go.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.


“Wonders by Their Hands,” Len Matthews (photograph). “Wonders are still able to be done in the city by our hands of compassion, mercy, humility and justice.” [Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition]

[1] From Sundays and Seasons: Year A 2017, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), September 3, 2017, Romans 12:9-21, pg. 257.

[2] John Biewen, “Transformation,” Scene on Radio, episode 45, (episode 14 of the series Seeing White), podcast, August 24, 2017. Available online:

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.

In Moments of Chaos: Where Do We Go From Here?

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Third Sunday of Easter + April 30, 2017

Reading: Luke 24:13-35

Last weekend I was away at a conference entitled, “Confronting Chaos, Forging Community.” That title came from a book written by Martin Luther King, Jr.; his last book, in fact, written in 1967, the year before he was assassinated. By that time the Civil Rights Movement had seen many successes: a new Civil Rights Act had passed in 1964, outlawing discrimination based on race when it came to hiring people for jobs, ending segregation in schools and other public places, and protecting voting rights for African-Americans and others who faced discrimination. Another victory had come in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act, which did even more to tear down laws and practices that kept people from the polls based on their race.

And so in 1967 the Rev. Dr. King took one of his few real breaks from the movement, retiring for the months of January and February to an island in Jamaica with only his wife and two close friends and co-workers. No telephone. No cameras. Just time and space to reflect on the state of things in U.S. society. African-Americans still faced resistance to their demands for equality, and they would need to work to ensure that the new laws were enforced. Black nationalism was on the rise, and King condemned its militarism and its cry for black separatism. Poverty was growing among all the races. The Vietnam War was going on and on. There was still so much work to do. His reflections and plan for the future were published in that last book, entitled Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?[1]

 Back in around 33 A.D. Jesus’s disciples may have been asking themselves that same question in the days after Jesus’s crucifixion. They, too, had seen a number of victories during their time with the Jesus movement: They’d seen Jesus heal lepers and blind men and people who had never been able to walk. They’d seen a few fish and loaves of bread feed a crowd of thousands. They’d heard promises of good news for the poor and food for the hungry and God’s love for the least of us, even the most obvious of sinners. They’d seen a wandering preacher from Nazareth enter the capitol city to waving palm branches and cries of “Hosanna!”; they’d seen him enter the Temple, overturn the tables of moneylenders, and call out the hypocrisy and greed of certain religious leaders. They saw in this man the whole kingdom of God setting foot on the ground with them.

And then chaos. The betrayal. The arrest. The mockery and torture. The crucifixion. Hopelessness.

And then more chaos. Stories of a missing body and of angels proclaiming resurrection.

So maybe we can imagine those two disciples of Jesus, walking on the road to Emmaus on the Sunday after the crucifixion and “talking with each other about all these things that had happened.” Where do we go from here? they may have been asked each other. Do we just go back to our old lives? Is that even an option? Do we try to keep doing the work Jesus started, or is that pointless now? Do we give in to the chaos, or do we try to hang on to our community?

 And that is one of those moments where an ancient Bible story just plugs right into our modern-day lives. The details may be vastly different, but I’m sure we all know what it’s like to face down a moment of chaos. Sitting with our hearts pounding in an emergency room waiting area. Suddenly losing a job, and thinking only “Now what?” Break-ups or divorce or fights with family and friends. We could each make our own lists of the times we’ve thought, helplessly, “Where do we go from here?”

As the two disciples on the road to Emmaus asked those questions, a stranger began walking with them — and though they didn’t recognize him, we know that stranger was Jesus. They told him about the chaos of the last few days, of their hope and faith in the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, and of how their own religious leaders had condemned him to death. Jesus the Stranger let them tell the story of their chaos, and then he turned them to scripture.

There are lots of ways to tell the overarching story of our scriptures. I wonder if at that moment, Jesus told the story like this:

God always creates something good out of chaos. You two may have expected a straightforward story of a savior: the messiah coming like a superhero to right all the wrongs and champion the “little people,” winning a clean, easy victory. But look back at our scriptures. God is always working through the mess of this world.

“In the beginning…the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters…” and from that chaos God created all this world (Gen. 1:1-2).

God saved the people of Israel from slavery and led them to the promised land; but it was not straightforward or easy; it was through plague and through the sea, through forty years in the wilderness where the people groaned and complained and almost lost faith.

David was God’s chosen king, and God gave him wisdom and prosperity and a great legacy, but even David sometimes cried out in psalms: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1).

God’s people were exiled from the promised land and from their homes, but God continued to send them prophets, and the people became more established in their faith and their culture and their community during that exile.

The prophets spoke of both God’s judgement and God’s mercy. And they spoke honestly about how those who were faithful and committed to the work of God would face suffering at the hands of this world — maybe most notably in the haunting words of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, found in the writings of the prophet Isaiah:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,

Stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,

Although he had done no violence,

And there was no deceit in his mouth (Isaiah 53:8-9).

Doesn’t all this sound so much like the life and death of your prophet Jesus of Nazareth? “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Can’t you understand that God is still working through the crucified one? Can’t you believe that chaos does not mean that God abandoned you?


Supper at Emmaus, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1628). From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

Of course we can hear those Bible stories and those promises over and over again; we can hear about how God has worked in the lives of others in our own time; and we can believe all of that with all our hearts and minds and souls — and still in our own moments of chaos, it can be hard to actually see God there with us amidst our pain and confusion. It can be hard to see much of anything through the chaos.

The same was true for those two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize the risen Jesus when he began to walk with them. They did not recognize him as he spoke with them or interpreted the scriptures for them. It was not until he did that physical act of breaking the bread and giving them that food that they realized he had been there with them all along.

We also need such physical, touchable acts to help us know that God is with us in our moments of chaos. This is why we break bread together here at church each week during Holy Communion. This is why we touch water to our foreheads to remember the promise of our baptism. And this is why we bring meals to one another when we are in mourning, why we visit one another in the hospital, why we reach out to comfort one another with a smile or a hug or a card. This is why we serve and speak up for those Jesus served and spoke up for: the hungry, the poor, the suffering, the sinner. God works through all those actions to remind those who need to hear it most: you are not alone and good will be resurrected from the chaos.

In the midst of our moments of chaos we need to go to our community and to seek Christ in one another. As we confront our chaos and forge our community, we realize that Christ has been with us all along and that God will lead us on.

[1]”Where Do We Go From Here (1967),” Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle, online: Accessed 27 April 2017.

For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19

In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.