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, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QuTAerbeGA

[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: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=72

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A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil: God the Creator

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Lenten Midweek Service + February 21, 2018


The theme for our midweek services is “A Lenten Journey to the Easter Vigil”[1] — a great theme, since the essential purpose of Lent is to prepare for Easter. So on each of these Wednesday evenings we will gather to focus on one of the scripture readings we will hear at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday evening: readings that are all about how God has saved God’s people over and over again throughout history, until finally we get to hear the greatest story: the story of the resurrection of Jesus.

And I love the Easter Vigil worship service so much that I will definitely be using this as an opportunity to explain some things about it and to talk about how beautiful and awesome it is. Here we go.

At a Jewish Passover Seder, the youngest child sings a question over and over throughout the liturgy of the meal. Following the rules of tradition, she notices how this meal is different than the family’s usual meal: the rituals are different, the foods are different, and everything seems more important. Everything about this meal is special. So four times, the child asks, “Why is tonight different from all other nights?” And the older people teach the youngest generation the stories of their people and the saving works of God.[2]

The Easter Vigil might inspire us to ask the same question. It’s a worship service so different from our usual Sunday worship: we begin by gathering outside around a fire; we go through more rituals, and we add more Bible readings; there are more candles in the nave; and everything seems more special, more important. Attending the service for the first time, we might ask: Why all this extra-special stuff? Why a longer service? Why come to church on a Saturday night? “Why is tonight different from all other nights?”

The first song we hear together at the Vigil answers that question. That first song is called the Exsultet or the Easter Proclamation. Over and over again the Easter Proclamation sings “This is the night!”:

This is the night in which, in ancient times, you delivered our forebears, the children of Israel, and led them, dry-shod through the Sea.

This is the night in which the darkness of sin has been purged away by the rising brightness.

This is the night in which heaven and earth are joined, things human and things divine.

The Easter Vigil takes all of God’s saving works from all of history, and brings them into this moment, right here, right now. We gather in darkness, our nave bare of its usual ornaments after Maundy Thursday’s ritual of stripping the altar, and the somberness of Good Friday’s service hangs around as our last memory of worship here. We gather in darkness, carrying thoughts of whatever evil currently haunts the news headlines or our own lives. And together we celebrate the good news of Easter: this is the night when Christ was raised from the dead. And the idea of time fades to the background as we remember the work of our eternal God. This is the night when it’s all happening, everything God has ever done to save God’s people, all God continues to do for us. This is the night when God creates light in the darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. This is the night.

And then we hear those stories of what God has done. God holding up the waters of the Red Sea for Israel to escape. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones being restored to life, a symbol of what God was about to do for Israel. But the first story we tell is The First Story: God creating the world.

Reading: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

This Creation story explains why we begin celebrating Easter on Saturday night. Some people — and some churches — think of the Easter Vigil as “keeping vigil,” like waiting by the tomb of Christ for him to rise in the morning. The church I went to in high school actually had people dress up as Roman centurions and stand outside the church in shifts from Good Friday evening till Easter Sunday morning. But that is not what we do in the Lutheran church; we celebrate a vigil, like, “Oh my gosh, Jesus is risen! This is so amazing we all have to get together and stay up all night partying!” And we can already say “Jesus is risen!” on Saturday night, we can say “this is the night” when it all happened, because of the Jewish way of keeping time. In the Jewish tradition, a new day begins at sundown. This is because of the Creation story we just read, which says over and over: “And there was evening and there was morning: the first day.” So according to the Jewish way of keeping time, each day begins with God bringing light out of darkness.

And that means that Jesus’s third day in the tomb began when the sun set on Saturday, and sometime before the women disciples discovered the empty tomb during the early hours of dawn on Sunday, sometime in those hours of darkness, God raised Jesus from the dead. Sometime during that night, God again created light out of darkness, hope out of hopelessness, life out of death. God acted, and that action was so grand and so cosmically meaningful that it can only be compared to Creation itself. Christ’s resurrection, we believe, is the beginning of God’s re-creation of the whole world.

So we begin our Easter readings with this Creation story because it is the first story of God doing what God does. Creating light. Creating life. Bringing order out of chaos. Making sense of things. Giving food and creating beauty and blessing us.

As we spend our time this Lent preparing for the Easter celebration, we might reflect on all the ways we still need God to be who God is. The Creator, who gives us light, who helps us make sense out of our lives, who brings newness and life. The Re-Creator, who restores relationships, who forgives sin and makes us new, who works to transform our world. Looking toward the Easter Vigil, we are reminded to claim all that God does in the Creation story for right now. This is the night. This is the moment. God is creating and recreating now, in our lives, in our world. Thanks be to God.


[1] From Sundays and Seasons, Year B 2018, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017) pp. 100-101.

[2] This way of beginning to talk about the Easter Vigil, as well as the basis for much of my interpretation of the Vigil, come from Gail Ramshaw’s The Three Day Feast: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), kindle edition.

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!”

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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.

The Longest Night

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek Service + December 21, 2016


A reading from the Gospel according to Luke:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’ (Luke 2:25-35, NRSV)


Tonight is the longest night of the year. Despite our efforts to harness the sun through the great trick of Daylight Saving’s Time, the darkness of night has taken over more and more of the morning time, and the sun has been setting earlier and earlier in the evening. I’m sure many of you feel like you hardly get to experience the sunlight at all, and it’s an even stronger feeling when those few hours of sun are clouded over. If we didn’t know better – if we hadn’t been through this before – it could seem like the darkness was slowly overtaking the light.

We might have that same feeling at other times that have nothing to do with the length of daylight. Shadows fall with illness or injury, loneliness or over-exertion, bad news or brain chemistry, and life just seems so dark.

Maybe Simeon and the others who longed for the coming of the Messiah felt that kind of heavy darkness. The Messiah was the hope people clung to in the darkest times: the fire that would burn away evil and suffering; the “sun of righteousness”; the dawning of a new day; the light that would brighten the future.

A few weeks ago the Monday Evening Bible Study group talked via Skype with Lois Tverberg, the author of the book we’d been reading, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. It’s a book that taught us to better understand Jesus by studying the Jewish culture that he lived and breathed. We asked Lois about what Jewish people believed — and still believe — about the Messiah: what were they hoping for? What were they expecting? It’s a complicated question to answer in a few minutes, but she gave us a general picture of the wide spectrum of beliefs about the longed-for Messiah.

You are probably familiar with one common belief: that the Messiah would come as a warrior-king, conquering in the name of God, striking down the wicked, lifting up the righteous, and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven. Another school of thought said that the Messiah would only come after the world became what God wanted it to be: we would have to perfect ourselves and repair our world first, and then the Messiah would arrive. You might say that for those believers striving for righteousness was a way of “preparing the way of the Lord.” On either end of the spectrum, the coming of the Messiah was a sign of the perfection of the world.

What tonight’s story, what Simeon’s song and his prophecy tell us about Jesus the Messiah is much messier than that. This is a messiah born in the midst of darkness and brokenness, with more on the horizon.

In the Gospel of Luke, it is already obvious that this infant Messiah was born into the midst of an imperfect world. He was born into the midst of the global constants of our brokenness: wars, disease, poverty, greed…And the hurt of our world also surrounded Jesus’s own birth in specific ways: his mother had been forced to travel while heavily pregnant so that she and her husband could be placed on the registry of a far-away Emperor; and when it came time to deliver her child, she and Joseph could find no shelter. The Bible doesn’t even mention a stable; for all we know, our savior was born in the streets.

And now, a few weeks later, Mary and Joseph present the baby Jesus at the Temple. But the words that Simeon speaks over this little baby do not paint visions of a King who will easily conquer the world; instead, Simeon’s words to the young parents are haunting: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed — and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

We, who know what happens in the rest of Jesus’s story, might hear in those words the foretelling of conflicts, ridicule, persecution, and crucifixion. And those things continue for Jesus’s disciples even after his resurrection.

And today, two-thousand years after the birth of the messiah, our world is still not perfect. In the midst of celebrating Christ’s birth, we are haunted by images from Aleppo; we are reminded of the hungry families in our own community; we mourn those who are not with us in our celebrations, and we grieve those we fear to lose. And so something about today, December 21, rings true: that in so many ways we are living in the longest night.

And yet we know that tomorrow – December 22 — there will be a little more light, and the next day a little more, and the next day, a little more.

And we know that a light shone in that manger 2,000 years ago. It was not the sudden, bright, light of a world made perfect; but it was the quiet light of a slow dawn: the gentler, humbler light of love — but with all the strength of divine love in action.

Because the message of the birth of the messiah —surprisingly — was not perfection. It was Emmanuel: God is with us. In the midst of our brokenness, our grief, our suffering, Emmanuel: God is with us. Even in the middle of our longest nights, Emmanuel: God is with us.

God cares for us — enough to take on flesh and dwell with us in this imperfect world. God grieves with us. God weeps with us. And God moves in us and around us to fight against that darkness and bring light into our world: God brings the light of love, through family and friends and even strangers sent to support us and help us to smile. God brings the light of joy through music and art that uplift us, through good memories, through the practice of thankfulness. God brings the light of hope for another dawn and a little more light. God brings the light of faith that Christ will come into our lives again, and again, and again — to “make our darkness bright.” We are not fighting the darkness alone. Emmanuel. God is with us.

Ready for God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 12th Sunday After Pentecost + August 7, 2016

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40


Almost every movie about teenagers at some point includes the line, “His parents are  out of town this weekend, and he’s having a huge party!” And then inevitably the party gets out of hand, the house gets trashed, and suddenly the parents pull up in the driveway, home a day early, and everyone is rushing to escape or clean up or hide all evidence of the party. (I expect some of you have more experience with these things in real life than others: as a parent or as a teenager.)

That stereotype has been popping up in my entertainment more than usual this week: in one tv show, the kids’ mad-scientist grandpa froze time so they could clean up the party mess before their parents got to the front door. (They left time frozen for six months, so they could take their time).1 In a book I read, the parents returned from vacation to find their house trashed and zombie-teenagers still slumped at their kitchen table.2

Anyway, those stories got into my head enough that as I was trying to interpret Jesus’s parable about the wedding banquet — a parable about slaves and masters and situations that don’t directly relate to our experiences — my imagination started re-writing it as a parable about one of those legendary teenage parties:

Be like those who are waiting for their parents to return from their weekend trip, so that they may open the door for them as soon as they knock. Blessed are those children whom the parents find alert when they come; truly I tell you, the parents will put on their aprons and serve their children snacks. If they come during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and find their children so, blessed are those children. […] You must also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

I may not be so off-the-beaten-path in this interpretation, since a few verses later Jesus talked about one of the slaves taking advantage of his master’s absence to eat and get drunk and beat up the other slaves (Luke 12:42-48).

But, of course, there is one major difference between teenagers being ready for their parents to come home and us being ready for God. Being prepared for parents to return — or the boss to come back — requires some common sense, some responsibility, and maybe some impulse control. But what does it take for us to be ready for God? First and foremost: it takes a whole lot of faith and a whole lot of hope.

When I still lived at home, I saw my parents come and go all the time: sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for a couple of days. Plans might change and accidents can always happen, but I basically knew my parents would return. When I worked at Panera, I knew that if my boss said she was going on a ten-minute break, she’d be back in nine. It didn’t take faith or hope to make me prepare for her return (and to keep me from eating all the chicken salad on the sandwich line) — it was just…obvious that I should expect her.

But expecting God to show up is not obvious. Even those of us who have had very strong experiences of God speaking to us or guiding us or taking action in our own lives can probably also explain those moments away: maybe it was just a coincidence; maybe I was just taught to see God in moments like that. God tends to be invisible and intangible and — most frustrating of all — unpredictable. God is much easier to doubt — and therefore much harder to trust with anything as precious to us as our present and our future.

Consider today’s Old Testament reading: the story of God promising Abraham, an old man with no biological children, that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Imagine yourself as Abraham. Imagine having no idea how the story turns out. Imagine that the one thing you want most in the world — something that you had long ago given up hope every happening, something you were powerless to control, something that seems impossible —imagine that thing had been promised to come to you. Even if you had the direct connection to God that Abraham had: how difficult would it be to really trust all that depth of emotion and longing to something that sounds so impossible?

Abraham trusted enough in God’s power and faithfulness that Abraham made himself vulnerable to hope and expect and plan for this promised future. And maybe it would be worth the risk of being disappointed and brokenhearted to put that kind of faith and hope in God’s promise — even for those of us who don’t hear from God so directly as Abraham — just to have hope and joyful expectation for our futures. Isn’t living that way more pleasant than living in despair, anyway — even if in the end we don’t get what we want?

But as Jesus reminds us in today’s reading, being ready for God and God’s promises demands more of us than that kind of feel-good faith and hope. In fact faith and hope themselves demand that we not only feel differently, but also see and live differently. As Jesus said: we are to be “dressed for action and have [our] lanterns lit.” Through our faith God asks us to shift our priorities and take action and make sacrifices. God asked Abraham to leave his land and his family to travel to a new land — when Abraham was 75 (Gen. 12:1-6)! Faith and hope in God are serious commitments that change not only our outlook, but also the way we live our lives every day. We are called to live with confidence that God’s promises will come to be. We are called to be ready for God.

So what does that look like? What did Jesus ask of his disciples? We could make a long list of examples, but in today’s gospel reading we hear: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return.”

This is a very different set of priorities than that which comes easily to most of us. American culture encourages us to be more like the rich man from the story Jesus told just a few verses before today’s reading, the story we read in worship last week: the rich man grows crops and accumulates and accumulates stuff and builds bigger barns to store it in, all so that he can feel safe and secure and rest easy (Luke 12:13-21). Sound like a familiar message? It even sounds reasonable.

But Jesus says that all the rich man’s work is meaningless; it comes to nothing when he dies. Instead of being rich toward himself, Jesus said, the man should have been “rich toward God.” He should have had a different set of priorities. He should not have placed his hope and faith in material wealth, but in God: and then his life would have been different, more meaningful.

In today’s gospel Jesus told his disciples to redefine what it meant to be doing well in life: what matters is not how big our barns are or how much we have stored up or even by how much safety and security we can build up. What matters is trusting that God will fulfill God’s promises to love and care for all people and living out of that trust. Not to accumulate for our own security, but to help meet the needs of others. To treasure God’s mission above treasure. When our heavenly parent pulls up in the driveway, we should be found living as if the promised kingdom of God were already here among us, prepared for God’s grace and mercy and justice to come in full. Faith and hope call us to live in God’s promises even now; to change our lives and take risks for those promises even now.

Today’s parable reminds us to be ready and waiting: to live prepared for God’s promises to arrive. We should be on the lookout for signs of God already present, already at work around us and among us. See the world through faith and hope. See where God is already bringing promises to life, and be ready to jump in and share those promises with the world.

Caspar David Friedrich

Woman Before the Rising Sun (Woman Before the Setting Sun). Caspar David Friedrich, 1774-1840. From Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library.


1. [Rick and Morty. “A Rickle in Time.” Season 2, episode 1. Directed by Wes Archer. Written by Matt Roller. Adult Swim (Cartoon Network). Aired July 26, 2015. (Not recommended for children or most people.)]

2. [Charles Burns. Black Hole. (New York: Pantheon Books, 2005). (Also not recommended for children or most people.)]

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]

Expect Life

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Resurrection of Our Lord + March 27, 2016

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; Luke 24:1-12


 

At dawn on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 years ago, a group of women walked toward a tomb. They were prepared to see death: they brought spices to wash a dead body, to wash away the scent of death from one they had loved so dearly.

And of course they were prepared to see death; they were walking toward the tomb where they’d seen Jesus’s dead body laid two nights before (Lk. 23:55). Of course they were prepared to see death; they had watched as Jesus hung on a cross; they had watched as he cried out “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” and breathed his last (Lk. 23:46, 49). Of course they were prepared to see death; they’d seen so much of it in their lives already: friends who died in childbirth; children who didn’t survive to adulthood; fellow Jews killed on the orders of Pilate (Lk. 13:1). Disease, starvation, the cruelty of people in power, violent rebellion. They had seen so much death; they expected only to see more.

We can be a lot like those women. We, too, have seen so much death. Death pops up in news alerts on our phones or TV screens: another terrorist attack, in Brussels or Afghanistan; another shooting; another accident. Death gets closer to home, too: we hear diagnoses; we feel disease or pain in our own bodies; someone we love dies, slowly or suddenly. We have known death, too; and we expect to see more of it.

And what we expect, we prepare for. We don’t come bearing spices, but we may come bearing arms, or fear, or distrust. We go into the world bearing grief and anger, we go with our defenses up. We go ready to fight or to hide away, to keep other people out. We go ready to give up hope in life in the face of the reality of death, much like the women who approached the tomb of the person in whom they’d placed all their hopes.

The women arrived at the tomb, the stronghold of death. If there was any place to feel certain of death, to feel certain that death wins, this was it.

But death was gone. The stone was rolled away; a spring breeze whistled into the empty tomb. Two living men appeared and asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

wom-tomb_detail-new

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

They weren’t looking for the living. They were looking for the dead. They were prepared once again for the harsh reality that death had taken someone they loved. What they weren’t prepared for was life. They weren’t expecting the power of God.

“Jesus is not here,” the two men told the women, “but he has risen. Remember how he told you…that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” It was not a question (“Don’t you remember?”); it was a message, almost a command: “Remember.”

The women remembered. They remembered what Jesus had told them about God’s plan: how death would not be the end of their hope. They remembered all the paradoxes he had spoken: you will die, but not perish (Lk 21:16-18); those who lose their life will keep it (Lk 9:24, 17:33). They dropped their spices – their death-preparations – and ran to the disciples to share the news of life.

For thousands of years Christians have gathered to remember that very news, to tell again the same story the women told to the other disciples.

So what happens when we remember? What happens when we remember that on a Sunday morning, long ago, life took over the tomb? What happens when we remember that God’s power is the power of life: the power to create life; the power to break free an entire nation of slaves and give them a life of their own; the power to transform hearts and minds and lives; the power of resurrection?

When we remember, do we dare to change our expectations? Do we dare to stop expecting death and start expecting life?

“The Easter message calls [us] from [our] old belief in death to a new belief in life.”[1] And that means having hope that, contrary to all appearances, life is stronger than death.

Even while I wrote these words, I heard sirens wail outside: an ambulance or a firetruck. I had just scribbled a note to myself, a reminder to send a condolence card to a friend whose wife died suddenly in the middle of the night. And just to complete the picture, I took a peek at CNN.com. The headlines read: terror attacks, a massive after-school fight that left one teenage boy dead, and the testing of a military attack submarine. Those kinds of things can make the memories of God’s acts of life seem like idle talk or a fairy tale.

That’s what the disciples thought of the women’s message. They didn’t believe the story about the empty tomb and the strange messengers. Jesus was dead. That was the end.

Still, Peter got up and ran to the tomb. He had to check. What if the story was true? Peter desperately needed it to be true.

The last time we saw Peter in this story, he was sitting around a fire in the high priest’s courtyard. While inside Jesus was being mocked and beaten, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.  Peter had just seen Jesus arrested, and he knew that execution was coming. And Peter knew that if word got out that he was one of Jesus’s followers, he would face death, too. So, expecting death to come for him, he hid from it; struggling just to survive, he denied Jesus, and Jesus saw it happen. It tore Peter apart; he left light of the fire, weeping (Lk. 22:54-61). Peter needed the story of the resurrection to be true, because he needed to say how sorry he was, he needed another chance to be a loyal disciple and friend. I can only imagine the rush of hope he felt when he peered breathlessly into the tomb and saw only a pile of cloths.

We need the message to be true, too. We need it because the more the world expects death, the more death it gets. We see the situation escalate every day in the way that some politicians (and voters, too) talk callously about bombings or people going hungry. We see it when we fear helping others, lest we get hurt. We put our trust in the power of death; expecting death to win, we figure we might as well live on its terms, terms like “kill or be killed” and revenge. And so when we take risks, whether with what we own or our lives or our moral code…we tend to bet on death rather than life.

But if we dare to expect life, that all changes. The risks we take will all be for the sake of life: we will risk making peace; we will risk forgiving; we will risk welcoming one another and loving one another. We will risk reveling in the moments of joy we are given. We will live on life’s paradoxically life-giving terms, terms like vulnerability and sacrifice and hope.

When we live expecting death, our struggle is only to survive – like Peter outside the high priest’s house. But when we live expecting life, our struggle is to build up all that makes for true life: justice, peace, truth, grace, love – like the disciples who, after the resurrection, dedicated their lives and even their deaths to spreading the word of Jesus Christ, the message that God’s love, grace, and justice is for all people.

So remember the Easter story. Remember all the stories of God bringing strength from weakness, victory from defeat, and life from death. And choose to see the world through these memories. Choose to expect life. Don’t live your life under the power of death; live your life in the promise and power of God. The promise and power of the resurrection.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia, alleluia.


 

Additional Sources of Inspiration

Curry, Michael (Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church), Easter 2016 message. Available online: http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/03/23/easter-2016-message-from-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/

[1] Koester, Craig R., Commentary on Luke 24:1-12, Working Preacher, April 4, 2010. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=558

Monroe, Shawnthea, ”Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary” (March 27, Easter Sunday) in The Christian Century, (Vol. 133, No. 6), March 16, 2016. Available online: http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-02/march-27-easter-sunday