What If

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if God is working in you?

What then, Child of God? What then?

B_AshWednesday-medium

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

 

 

 

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Martin Luther on Baptism

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Midweek Lenten Services on Luther’s Small Catechism + March 29, 2017


One of the local organizations which will receive part of our midweek Lenten offering is the Church of Another Chance, a church whose membership is made up of men who are in jail in the Davidson County system, or who have been, and the volunteers who support them.

In the Church of Another chance, having a baptism means dragging a huge rectangular pool (thankfully, it is equipped with wheels) to the front of a room that looks more like an undecorated and unloved classroom than a chapel, then snaking a hose down the hallway from the janitor’s closet to fill the pool with warm water. They push some steps up against the outside of the pool so that the man dressed in a baptismal robe can climb in — with the help of a couple of other guys, since the steps get wet and slippery — and then the man steps down and sits in the pool, the water sloshing up around his chest.

I was in worship for a baptism at the Church of Another Chance once. The whole room felt electrified as the man took his spot in the pool. Pastor Scott stood behind the pool, held one of the man’s hands with one hand and supported his back with the other, and said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” then plunged the man backwards and fully under the water.

The man came up out of the water, took in a deep breath of air, and the whole room exploded into applause. And then the man started weeping. He sat there in the pool in the plain room in the jail, his head in his hands, his back shaking, weeping and weeping. He went on weeping after the applause had died down; and he want on weeping as people started shouting encouraging things; and finally someone started singing “Amazing Grace” as the man continued to sit and weep. It took him a verse or two to catch his breath enough to stand and be helped back out of the pool.

How can water do such great things? Martin Luther asked in his Small Catechism. In his Large Catechism he spends a lot of time on this question. Because, he says, water is not a flashy thing. It’s “just” water. It’s everywhere. The act of sprinkling or pouring water over someone’s head, or even of fully immersing someone in a river, does not have the same power to awe as a healing miracle or even the grand authority of a letter bearing the pope’s official seal. But still Christians have held baptism in water as a central ritual for centuries and centuries; and for this simple act of applying water, we attend classes, we gather family and friends from far away, we buy nicer clothes, we throw big parties — and yes, we lose ourselves to smiling and weeping. How can water do such great things?

If we look at the “Holy Baptism” section in the Small Catechism, we can see how Luther answers this question.

The first question Luther asks is simply, “What is Baptism?” His answer is, “Baptism is not simply plain water. Instead it is water used according to God’s command and connected with God’s word.”

Here Luther references the definition of a sacrament: in order for something to be a sacrament it must (1) use a visible, earthly element — baptism uses water; (2) have been commanded for us to do by Jesus; and (3) give to us the promised gifts of God, especially forgiveness. Lutherans across the board celebrate two sacraments: Baptism and Holy Communion.

So, to be specific: the first thing that makes the water and the act of baptism holy is that Jesus commanded us to baptize; here in the Small Catechism, Luther quotes Matthew 28, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The command of God means that what’s going in baptism is more important than any old bath.

The second important thing that makes baptism holy is that through this ritual we receive the promised gifts of God. Luther talks about this in the second question of the catechism’s section on baptism. “What gifts or benefits does baptism grant? It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes the promise of Jesus in Mark 16: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

Luther’s next question is, “How can water do such great things?” It’s like Luther is concerned that even after those last two questions and their focus on the Word of God, and even after all the core Lutheran teaching that nothing we do earns us the gifts of God, we still might think baptism is all about one person pouring water on another person. So Luther makes sure to say, one more time with feeling:

“Clearly the water does not do it, but the word of God, which is with and alongside the water, and faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without the word of God the water is plain water and not a baptism, but with the word of God it is a baptism, that is, a grace-filled water of life and a ‘bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit,’ as St. Paul says to Titus in chapter 3, ‘through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure.’

Luther emphasizes this point over and over again. It’s not the power of water that makes Baptism so important. Nor is it the power of a human being pouring water over another, or the power of the human choosing to receive the water, or the power of the the human speaking the words. Like just about everything in the Lutheran faith, the power of baptism does not come from something humans do, but from the Word and action of God. It’s all something God does for us, not something we do for ourselves. That means it doesn’t matter whether we knew what was happening to us when we were baptized; it doesn’t matter if we were choosing to be baptized with a sincere heart, or if we weren’t choosing it at all; it doesn’t matter whether we were baptized in the Lutheran church of the Catholic church or the Baptist church; it doesn’t matter if the pastor who baptized us was a “good person” or believed exactly the right things. All that matters is that God worked through the baptism, because God promised to do so.

And God promises to continue working through our baptism. While we only get baptized once in our lives, that baptism is a daily gift to us. That’s why we “remember our baptism” so often in the church and in our private lives. Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, “…a Christian life is nothing else than a daily Baptism, begun once and continuing ever after.”

Here, in the last part of the Small Catechism’s section on baptism, Luther talks about how our baptism is part of our lives every day:

“What then is the significance of such a baptism with water?” he asks, like asking, “But how do this ritual and those old scripture verses actually apply to my life?”

He answers: “It signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Luther draws on Romans chapter 6: for this teaching; I’ll read most of that chapter for you now.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

Each day Christ’s death and resurrection work in us; each day we are granted another chance to turn from the things we wish we didn’t do and to become more and more the person God made us to be. Thanks be to God for that daily gift. Amen.

The Story God Tells About Us (Ash Wednesday)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN +  Ash Wednesday + March 1, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-12; Ps. 103:8-14; 2 Cor. 5:20-6:10; Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21


Human beings are story beings. For as long back as we can remember we have been listening to stories around fires or radios or TV screens. We make sense of the world through stories: fairy tales teach us the rules of good behavior; our political views are rooted in the stories we tell about how the world is and how it should be; the gospel is the story by which we seek to live our lives.

We also tell stories about ourselves in order to understand who we are and what we want to be. Sometimes the stories we tell about ourselves can be harmful: someone might tell herself, “I’m not good enough,” so often that she can’t get passed her insecurity, and she needs to learn to tell herself a different story. We can tell ourselves encouraging stories, like when someone tells himself, “You are doing enough, so stop comparing yourself to others.” We tell ourselves the story of who we want to be, of our goals and hopes for the future, and these stories give us encouragement and help us make decisions.

Of course we also hear stories about who we are and who we should be from other people and from the culture we live in. Through TV shows, advertisements, songs, and newspaper articles, we constantly receive messages about what a good human should be like. Women hear about exactly how we should be beautiful; men hear about how they should be strong. We all hear that we should be perfectly kind and successful in our work but also spend a lot of time with our families and also be rich and of course be happy all the time. Sometimes it feels like we’re hearing: you need to be all things to all people, and you need to enjoy doing it.

Then we come to worship today, Ash Wednesday, and we hear a different story. We hear the story God tells about us.

First, we hear that we are limited. We hear that we are imperfect, sinful. We hear that we are mortal: our bodies will get weak; we will die.

Does gathering to hear those stories come as kind of a relief to anyone else?

Here is a sacred place where we can lay down all the pressure that is put on us to be perfect. Here is a sacred place where we can lay down our pretenses and our strivings and our performing, a sacred place where we can admit for a moment how we feel sometimes: not good enough. Not able to be perfect. Worn out sometimes, selfish sometimes, hypocritical sometimes.

Here is a sacred place where we can acknowledge our fear of dying, of losing those we love; a sacred place where we can acknowledge our frustration with the frailty of our bodies, our grief for those who have died or whose bodies are hurting or minds are fading.

Most of us hide away all that vulnerability most of the time: because it’s not polite conversation, or because it’s painful to talk about. But today we gather to be marked with a reminder of it all: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.”

For this moment we can admit together all our weakness and vulnerability, and it is good, it is true, it is honest.

But to stop the story there would not only be a recipe for a very depressing day: it would be wrong. Our sin and our frailty are only the first part of the story God tells about us. The story we will act out in the ritual of being marked with a cross of ashes will continue as we gather around the table for Holy Communion.

Today we hear not only that we are mortals and sinners but also that we are beloved, forgiven, sainted children of God. God sees us exactly as we are — sees us even more clearly than we see ourselves — and God chooses us exactly as we are. Jesus Christ came for us exactly as we are. God welcomes us into God’s kingdom exactly as we are.

First we hear, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” And then we hear, “The body of Christ, given for you.” / “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

On Ash Wednesday we hear the story of who God says we are. We hear that we are vulnerable and sinful. Then we hear that God loves us as we are. And, finally, we hear that God does not leave us as we are.

When we hear that, we may think first of God’s law, which convicts us when we do wrong or fail to do right, which holds us to God’s standard. We may also think of the vision of the Kingdom of God, the vision we get through the words and lives of Jesus, the prophets, and the saints: the stories of the Kingdom of God help us see how God is working to transform our world and call us to be a part of that work.

But most of all we should remember that we are not called to repent and to change and to work all on our own — that would eventually lead us back to the first part of the story, our imperfections, and leave us stranded there. This third part of the story is not about what we are striving to do: it is about what the Holy Spirit is doing in us. God holds all of our weakness and transforms it into something new; God takes on even our mortality and with it creates new life.

As we enter into the season of Lent, pay attention to the ways God is transforming you now. What fear may God help you make peace with? What grief may God help you make beautiful? What weaknesses may God turn into to strengths?

Listen to the story God is telling about you. Listen to the story God is writing in you. Let that be the story you tell yourself, too.

Moments of Grace

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 11th Sunday After Pentecost + July 31, 2016

Readings: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14 & 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21


In fairy tales the world usually makes sense. There may be crazy things like talking frogs and  snacks that give people the ability to fly, but in the big picture things make sense. The hero succeeds in the name of what is right; the innocent village is saved; the villains face the consequences of their evil ways, and the good characters live happily ever after. In fairy tales things almost always happen the way we feel they are supposed to happen.

Maybe that is the most fantastical thing about fairy tales, because real life isn’t very much like that. In real life there is some chance that what we do will lead to the expected results. Like in Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper: the grasshopper spends all summer partying, while the ant toils away, storing up food. When winter comes, the grasshopper has no food and goes hungry, but the ant is able to live off of his rations. There’s definitely wisdom in this story: it’s a good idea to do the work you need to do in order to meet your needs, and hopefully if you work hard like the ant, you’ll be full like the ant.

But sometimes even when we try our best to be good, to work hard, and to be healthy and wise, things don’t go according to plan. Sometimes life is much more like the parable Jesus told in today’s gospel reading: the rich man is blessed with an abundance of crops, figures out a way to store them so that he can retire to rest and live off his stores…and then that night he dies. His work and his planning come to nothing.

wenceslas_hollar_-_rich_man

“Rich Man,” Wenceslaus Hollar, 1607-1677. Via Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

This kind of story is far too familiar. Hearing Jesus’s parable makes me think about people in our community who work long hours — maybe juggling two or three jobs — and still can’t make ends meet. It makes me think of people I’ve known — in the hospital, in my family, in this congregation — who have tried their best to live healthy lives and still find their bodies taken over by diseases while they are young. It makes me think of children who do their very best and yet can’t escape the addiction or the abuse or the poverty of their families. It makes me think of sudden accidents and betrayals by friends or family, of children who die before their parents…it makes me think of the simple fact that we’re all going to die one day. Sometimes these realities can make all our hard work and even life itself seem so meaningless.

This is the mental space the “Teacher” writing Ecclesiastes is living in. “Vanity of vanities,” he says, “all is vanity!” The Hebrew word translated to “vanity” means something like “vapor” or “breath” or “smoke.” Using that word to describe life paints a picture of how fleeting life is and how impossible it is to grasp it and control it. The Teacher laments about the futility of working: sure, he may earn good money, but then he will leave it to his children — it will be for them to invest and to enjoy, and who knows if they’ll use it wisely or foolishly. He laments the futility of being righteous: righteous people and wicked people both suffer and die (Eccles. 3:16-22). In the end, what can we control, what can we enjoy, what meaning can we make? “Vanity of vanities. All is vanity!”

(Those of you who like to read the Bible first thing in the morning, let me warn you from experience: Ecclesiastes is not a good way to start your day.)

Grace is many things. As I meditated on Ecclesiastes this week, I began to think of grace as the gift of meaning in the midst of all that meaninglessness. For instance: the point of Jesus’s parable is not “The man did all that work, and it was all for nothing. Isn’t life meaningless? All is vanity!” That’s how the Teacher from Ecclesiastes might sum up the story, but Jesus did it differently. Jesus ended his parable by pointing toward another way of living, a truer source of meaning in life: here, he called it being “rich toward God.” At other times he talked about living in the Kingdom of God, or following him, or taking up our cross.

All these phrases describe a life that is lived from a different perspective. Christian faith does not —or should not — mean denying all those unfair results and surprising tragedies that sometimes make life seem meaningless. That our main symbol is the cross — and that “taking up our cross” is one way of describing discipleship — ought to remind us to pay attention to the hard facts of mortal life. Our history is full of martyrs. Our scriptures call over and over again for us to pay attention to injustice: to poverty, to those in pain, to widows and orphans and social outcasts. Christian ethics ask us to sacrifice, to give of our blessings and the fruits of our labor, even beyond what is fair or reasonable. The cross reminds us that life necessarily involves letting go, suffering, unfairness, and, yes, death. But the cross also reminds us of grace, and moments of grace help us see all this in a different light.

The first gift of grace is the gift of acceptance — a gift in which God is rich toward us. It says, “Yes, life treats you unfairly. And yes, you do wrong sometimes. And yes, you will die. But there is Someone beyond all this that says you are loved, you are forgiven, and you are meaningful — and that Someone wants better for you.” This gift of grace gives us “the courage to be,” the courage to stand against a world that seems like its trying to make us feel small and meaningless and afraid, the courage to find meaning in our lives, to feel hope and joy and love. We have the courage to see all those things — to take hold of all those things as they come — because God says they belong to us; God has given them to us. Grace gives us the faith to see that our lives do have meaning.1

The second gift of grace is the gift of vocation, of a calling; this is where we are rich toward God. Grace takes us beyond ourselves and gives us a purpose as part of God’s mission in the world. We get beyond those questions of “what will happen to us if…” We get beyond trying to control the way life will go when we — as Pastor Lippard said in last week’s children’s sermon — “just do it,” when we are rich toward God, when we love our neighbor. And then when we look back at a moment helping someone, or using our talents well, or just spending time with a friend, and think: now that was a good use of my time. That was meaningful. And these moments of grace remind us that life does have meaning.

I call these moments of grace because I know how easy it is to slip into that Ecclesiastes mindset. I know that I need to be pulled back to faith and meaning over and over again. But I also know that God comes to us in moments: moments where that still, small voice says, “You are accepted,” and helps us believe it; moments where we lose ourselves in meaningful work or in the experience of joy; moments where the company of a good friend seems to give us all we need; moments where we can focus on the good things in our lives and let the negatives fade into the background. In Ecclesiastes we see how wisdom and realism can show us a bigger picture, where life seems meaningless; but moments of grace take us one step further, beyond our usual measures of meaning. These moments of grace help us find meaning not through logic, but through a pure experience of meaning, meaningfulness, of being loved and loving others.

In moments of grace we find ourselves confessing: yes, this is meaningful, this is what life is all about. Thanks be to God.


1. [Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, (New Haven): Yale University Press, 2nd edition: 2000); Tillich, “You are Accepted,” (sermon) online at http://www.areopagus.co.uk/2012/05/you-are-accepted-paul-tillichs-famous.html]

Freedom from…

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday After Pentecost + June 26, 2016

Readings: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62


For the last week I was at Berry College in Rome, Georgia for Affirm, a summer gathering for youth from all over the Southeastern Synod. Beth Smith, Sandy Vollmer, Bishop Gordy, Anna Gordy Montgomery, and six St. Andrew youth were also there.

As a whole group we focused on a theme verse, Micah 6:8: “God has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” We talked about what it means to act in the cause of justice, to stand with God on the side of those who are vulnerable or in need. We talked about what it means to love mercy, grace, and forgiveness and to live mercifully in a world where anger and retribution and fear are too often our guiding values. We talked about how we can walk through our lives not pridefully or demandingly, but humbly, alongside our God who “came not to be served, but to be serve” (Mark 10:45; Matt. 20:28). By the end of the week I felt like this huge group of people from all over Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama had come together in conversation about what it means to live as a Christian in today’s world. I can’t speak for everyone there, but for me, it helped to renew my sense of call to the Church and the work of Christ.

And that’s just the big picture. We also spent time in separate “units,” where we focused on unique themes and lessons. For instance, Sandy was a leader in a group called Missionaries, which helped youth discover their own gifts and how they could use them for service in the world. Chloe Stiles and Emma Tallyn were part of this group. They spent some of their days out in the community, volunteering at food pantries, the Salvation Army, and the Boys and Girls club.

I was part of another group, called Bridges. Our group spent time talking about the barriers that divide people from one another: things like prejudice, assumptions, classism, racism, sexism. Then we talked about how we can “build bridges” to get over these barriers and form real relationships with those who are different than us, to know them and to feel known, and in that way make help us and others feel the love of God that seeks us out just as we are and binds us together in community.

Each day our group began by focusing one of the five promises we made in baptism: to “…live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people following the example of Jesus; and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”[1]

We made posters of these promises and hung them on a wall in our classroom space, surrounding a bowl of water. Whenever our students came to unit time, this was the first thing they saw: a reminder that they were claimed by God as God’s children in the waters of baptism, and a reminder of the lives they are called to live through their baptism.

About halfway through Affirm we added something to this wall. We had spent the day talking about stereotypes, but the youth weren’t getting as riled up about the topic as the leaders had hoped. So we asked them about the stereotypes that affected them personally: how do other people judge you automatically based on one thing they see about you? We had the students write down one way they felt unfairly judged, and then took their picture with that judgement. That night the staff added these portraits to our baptism wall.

The posters reminding us of the promises of our baptism, reminding us that God loves us and sees us as beloved children, still hung on the wall, but now scattered among them were pictures with a jarringly different message: reminders of how the world sees and judges us. Pictures of teenagers I’d come to know and love holding up heartbreaking judgments from their own experiences: “I’m black, so I must be dangerous.” “I have a mental illness, so I must be fragile.” “I’m a man, so I must not have feelings.” Suddenly that wall looked a lot more like life in the world: a confusing mixture of what God says about us, what others say about us, and our own sense of who we are and what we can be.

Since I knew I’d be preaching this morning, I’d been carrying today’s reading from Galatians in my head throughout the week at Affirm, looking for connections between what we were doing there and what Paul wrote about thousands of years ago.

Paul wrote to a group of Christians who were struggling with how the requirements of the Jewish law should be applied to the Christian community. Specifically, the were fighting — and I mean fighting, like Fox News vs. MSNBC — about whether gentile converts to this Jewish Jesus-movement had to be circumcised in order to join the community. Paul’s answer to this debate was strong and clear: “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6).

This strong statement flows from one of Paul’s core principles: it is not the law that saves us, that makes us righteous, that brings us into the strongest covenant of God’s love: it is faith. It is not obedience to the law that makes us a community of God’s people; it is the faith of Christ. We are freed from the demands of the law by this faithful welcome into relationship with God. This is what Paul was talking about in that first phrase from today’s reading: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

At Affirm, as I looked at our baptismal wall — how those images of the world’s judgments sliced into the images of the promises and claims of baptism — I thought again of Paul’s statement: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Too often our the judgments of others become a “yoke of slavery.” There is a way in which the assumptions and expectations of society become like a law for us. They are the basic means by which we judge one another and ourselves. We often bind ourselves to them, not because it is the right thing to do, but because if we don’t we will suffer the consequences. We will be judged; we will be outcast; we will be treated with disdain. Maybe especially as teenagers — but definitely as adults too — we measure ourselves by these social expectations to decide whether we’re good enough, to see where we have to change or where we will take a stand as rebels. We define ourselves based on these social laws, and we judge others by them too.

But as Christians we stand on the promise that these laws are not what makes us “good enough.” And obedience to these social expectations is not what makes us into a community. What matters is how God sees us. And God sees us as beloved children, as people who are sinners and yet saints, as part of the God’s community.

The church, in its ideal form, represents this reality on earth. In its best form, the church is to be a place where God’s grace defines us rather than obedience to laws, assumptions, and social expectations. In the church people of different nations fellowship together, the poor are welcome alongside the rich, criminals and outcasts are given mercy.

I’m reminded of a story Nadia Bolz-Weber tells: when she was young, she had a lazy eye. At school they called her all sorts of horrible nicknames: but her church was the one place where they called her by her name.[2]

May we strive to be that kind of church: a church where people are known by the name God calls them and not by how they mold to human standards; a church where people may truly feel that “for freedom Christ has set us free,” may truly feel the truth that God has called each of us to a life of love and mercy and community, not because we deserve it, but because God says it shall be so.

This is both grace and commandment for us. As Paul wrote: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Let us pray: O God, you set us free in Jesus Christ with a power greater than all that would keep us captive. Grant that we might live gracefully in our freedom without selfishness or arrogance, and through love become slaves to the freedom of the gospel for the sake of your reign. Amen.[3]


[1] Affirmation of Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 236.

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix (Nashville: Jericho Books, 2014).

[3] Scripture (Series 1) prayer, June 26, 2016, Vanderbilt Divinity School’s Revised Common Lectionary resource site, http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=268

Seen Differently (“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense”)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday After Pentecost + June 12, 2016

Readings: 1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3


We’ve got three main characters in today’s gospel story: Jesus (I’m pretty sure we all know who he is); a Pharisee named Simon, who’s hosting Jesus for dinner; and a woman. She doesn’t have a name. Well, presumably in real life she had a name, but in the story she doesn’t. In the story the only details we are given to identify her are: “a woman in the city, who was a sinner.”

If we look at this from up on the Christian high road, it seems odd. Don’t we believe that everyone is a sinner, that everyone is in need of God’s forgiveness?

But if we look at that description – “a woman in the city, who was a sinner” – a little more honestly…of course we know what it means. She is one of those special sinners. One of those offensive sinners. The kind that are so obviously sinful that’s its okay to judge them, to identify them as sinners. She is one of those sinners we get to put in a special category and treat differently than all us regular sinners: we can avoid them, or openly shun them; we can turn them away and refuse to help them; we can hold them up as particularly bad examples. The story doesn’t tell us what kind or kinds of sin this woman is so well-known for, but, whatever they are, they are public knowledge, and polite society is not willing to make excuses for her. Polite society is openly offended by her.

In the history of the Church people have tended to assume that this woman was a prostitute. But, like I said, that’s not written anywhere. And there were so many different people in Jesus’s time that could have been placed in the category of offensive sinners. Often, it was assumed that people with long-lasting disease or blindness or the inability to walk were especially sinful. You might remember that tax collectors often got thrown into the lists of especially despicable people in the gospels. Then, as now, there were some sins that stood out in common society more than others did.  And of course there are certain sins that are just more obvious or more fun to talk about – but you could probably do those things and still not be labeled “a sinner” if you were wealthy or powerful enough. Getting thrown in with the offensive sinners often had less to do with the grievousness of the sin or legal matters or religious obedience and much more to do with what was and wasn’t socially acceptable. Little has changed when it comes to that.

So this “woman…who was a sinner” slips in to the dinner party. Simon the Pharisee sees her and immediately recognizes her as one of “those” sinners. When she touches Jesus, Simon is obviously deeply offended.

The woman must have known that this was the reaction her presence and her touch would give – that she was offensive. So what inspired her to come in to this dinner? And what gave her the boldness to reach out and touch Jesus – this well-known teacher – to touch him over and over again, intimately: to anoint his feet with oil, to weep on him, to dry him with her hair?

The only answer we get from the story is: she had heard that Jesus would be eating at this Pharisee’s house.  We can’t assume that’s she’s ever even met Jesus face-to-face before. All we know for sure is that she has heard of him.

But we can make some good guesses as to what she may have heard about him. In the passages that come right before this story, we get sort of a summary of Jesus’s reputation at this point in his ministry. John the Baptist is in prison, and he sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” In other words: Are you the messiah? Are you bringing in the Kingdom of God? And Jesus responds: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luke 7:18-23).

From this short interaction we can get a neat summary of what Jesus is up to, what he is known for: he’s spending time with the sick and the outcast and the poor; he’s bringing healing and new life to the people everyone else just pushes aside. And I especially love that last line Jesus says: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Because that means he’s offending people. He’s offending people because he’s spending his time with offensive people; he’s giving his healing and his good news to offensive people.

Well, that’s how the people who are being offended see it, anyway. But can you imagine being one of those “offensive sinners” and hearing about this man? This wandering teacher and miracle-worker who touches lepers and carries hope to the poor? Who is invited to table with the Pharisees, the religious leaders – but who also eats with prostitutes and tax collectors and other offensive sinners? You spend your life knowing your presence and your touch offend people; you notice people purposefully looking away from you; maybe you hear the nasty things people say about you; maybe you even get spat on in the street, or kicked out of the way. You know how just about everyone sees you. But this man sees you differently. This man who has kind words for the poor and harsh words for the elite; this man who has the power to heal and, they say, even raise the dead; he sees you as human being in need of compassion and healing and forgiveness. And he gives it to you.

From that perspective: Jesus is so obviously bringing the Kingdom of God. Jesus is bringing a whole new world for the offensive sinners: a world where they are not kicked away, but welcomed; not condemned, but forgiven; not identified as “a woman…who [is] a sinner,” but as “a woman who is a child of God.” And once Jesus sees them as a child of God, they are able to see themselves that way, too.

Maybe all of that is what is going on inside of this “woman…who was a sinner,” as she enters the Pharisee’s dinner party and weeps at Jesus’s feet. She is overwhelmed with love and gratitude for this man who sees her differently: for this new world that is opened up to her.

Of course this whole new world, the Kingdom of God, comes to everyone else, too. It comes right to Simon the Pharisee’s dinner table as this offensive woman lingers at his guest’s feet. And as Simon cringes, thinking about how he would never let a woman like that touch him, feeling much more pious than this wandering preacher he’s invited to dinner, and, I’d guess, wondering how we can get Jesus out of there before dessert —- Jesus catches him. And he holds up that woman, who was a sinner, as a better example of love than Simon the Pharisee.

You remember that frustrating line Jesus has, about how it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God? This story is a good example of what Jesus may have meant. That woman had been publicly labeled a sinner and had to bear that as the first marker of her identity; she had to struggle under the disdain of other people, and who knows what else she had to deal with…she was poor in spirit, and so she went running into the kingdom of God, weeping, ready to anoint the feet that brought her the good word that she was a forgiven child of God. But the Pharisee – we assume – had never felt that same desperation, had always thought he was behaving at least a little better than everyone else, had “a lifetime of doing right to cling to,”…he was rich in spirit and goods, and so when the Kingdom of God showed up at his dinner table, he found it offensive. It couldn’t be the Kingdom of God if people like her could get in.

So where does all that leave us?

I’m guessing that most of us, as individuals, finds ourselves relating a little more to the woman, or a little more to Simon the Pharisee. Some of us are feeling that overwhelming need to be forgiven and to be seen as a child of God – to see ourselves as a children of God – or feeling gratitude for that grace. And some of us are hearing God say “Wake up! Guess what – those people that offend you? I love them too. That’s the way it is — welcome to my Kingdom.”

But as a community and as a church, we have a calling, a responsibility, a mission to relate to that third character, Jesus: to be the Body of Christ. We are called to be the community that sees people differently; the community that causes offense by spending time with the offensive; the community that brings healing and compassion to those suffering with the realities of disease and hurt and loneliness, realties most of us would rather ignore. We are called to carry hope to the hopeless and forgiveness to the sinner. We are called to live in the Kingdom of God, where all people are seen as children of God, and we are called to invite others into that kingdom. We are called to be that new world that Jesus opened up when he saw people differently. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense. Amen.

Weave us Together

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

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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