God Wants to be Found

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 6th Sunday of Easter + May 21, 2017

Readings: Acts 17:22-31; 1 Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21


A few days ago I attended a luncheon, and the coordinators had arranged a “pastors table” — either so that we could “network” or to keep us contained, like a spin-off on the “children’s table” at nice family get-togethers. Maybe both: because even small talk and networking among pastors tends to hover around some generally unusual topics: all the best Bible jokes from seminary; whether we’d prefer to officiate a wedding or a funeral; memories from visits to our people in the hospital.

In one of those conversations, about visiting people in the hospital, a retired United Methodist pastor shared some of his wisdom with me. The times when people are facing illness or injury, he said, are often the times when we feel most connected to the holy. He told me that a question he liked to ask people while they were going through a difficult time was “How have you seen God during this time?”

He shared some of the answers he remembered, and I thought of some of the ways our people have answered that question, even without me asking it directly. I think the most common answer would be that people feel God working through the special care of nurses, who provide not only information and medical attention, but also comfort and kindness when they are most needed; in fact I heard a nurse described as “an angel of God” just last week. People talk about feeling more sure of God’s care for them as they hear that friends and congregations all across the country are praying for them. People talk about times when someone shared a Bible verse with them, and that verse was so well-tuned to their situation that the gift of that verse at that moment must have been a “God thing.”

In the midst of my conversation with that retired pastor, I thought of one story in particular: one morning, when our late sister Josette Starkey was going in for a chemotherapy treatment, her hope running low, she got on the elevator to find a man with a big box of chocolate-frosted donuts. Donut Guy was the only man on an elevator full of women, all of whom were no doubt in some kind of stress, being in the hospital and all. And it turns out he had more donuts than he needed, so donut guy did the most saintly thing possible: he offered donuts to all those hospital elevator-riders. Josette said, “Oh, I’ve been craving a donut for days! Thank you!” and instantly became the happiest woman in Williamson County. She ate that donut like it was food sent down from heaven, and then she told every other chemo patient, every receptionist, every nurse about that donut as if it were the gospel. Whether he knew it or not, Donut Guy became a bearer of God’s presence that day — just by reaching out to people in a dark place and offering them a little light and a little kindness.

There’s a phrase that comes down to us from the Celtic tradition — “thin places” — which is used to describe the places where the wall or the distance between heaven and earth, between the everyday and the mystical, between the secular and the sacred — where that “between” barrier feels thinner. Places where it feels like we can almost see through into the invisible realm of the holy, where it feels like we could almost reach out our hand and touch God.

One travel writer described the power of thin places like this:

“[Experiencing] thin places does not necessarily lead to anything as grandiose as a ‘spiritual breakthrough,’ whatever that means, but it does disorient. It confuses. We lose our bearings, and find new ones. Or not. Either way, we are jolted out of old ways of seeing the world…”[1]

“Thin places” was originally used to describe physical locations: mesmerizing places like a mountain peak rising out of the mist at dawn, or the ocean reaching out forever towards the horizon. But, I think, thin places can also come to us: moments when an everyday place suddenly becomes a thin place where we feel God nearer to us than usual. Suddenly we find ourselves in a thin place: there in the pew during worship; at the kitchen sink while praying; in an elevator.

Even painful, confusing, difficult places can become thin places; even hospital rooms and chemo sessions and bedside goodbyes. In fact maybe those painful moments are most likely to become thin places, because in those times we are so desperate for God that it opens our eyes to see God anywhere we can: even in things as ordinary as a phone call from friend or a man with a box of donuts.

I think that God wants to be found so readily all the time. And that seems to be one of the messages Paul preaches to the philosophers of Athens in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

You know how a lot of writing teachers will say, “Show, don’t tell?” Well, Paul shows his listeners that God is available to be found by all people — that God wants to be found by all people. He does this by telling these philosophers how the God he’s been preaching about can be found in their own philosophy and traditions. He says he found an altar in the city dedicated “to an unknown god,” and then he says, “Well, I do know about this God. Let me tell you.”

And even when he’s using that altar to talk about the God that would have been best called the God of Israel or the God of Jesus (especially at that time) — he uses the philosophers’ understanding of the divine, not the Bible or the story of Jesus, to explain who that God is. Many of his listeners would have agreed that the God who created the world was not contained in the idols or accurately described by the old Greek myths; Paul’s listeners were already on board with the idea that God beyond all of that.[2] In fact Paul’s sermon is constantly referencing and quoting a poem by a Greek poet.[3]

So first Paul shows his listeners how God is already there in their own traditions, wanting them to know God; and then Paul says it explicitly: the God I’ve been preaching about is the same God you talk about and think about. Not the God of one specific people, but the God who created all people, the God who hopes that all people “would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him — though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’, as even some of your own poets have said.”

The message I get from Paul’s ancient sermon is that God is not contained somewhere, but rather God is everywhere, among all people, waiting and hoping and longing to be found — calling out to all people.

Of course the frustrating thing about God not being contained — say, in a body we can talk to and audibly hear from — is that it’s much harder to believe God is present when we can’t see God or know exactly where God is. Would we rather have “thin places” and “in [God] we live and move and have our being,” or would we rather be able to approach God in physical form, see God, hear God respond to us, feel God’s physical touch?

As one scholar put it: When Jesus, in his farewell speech, promised the disciples that he would send the Holy Spirit to them after he died, the disciples may have felt like they were getting a raw deal. Yeah, a spirit who advocates and comforts is great — but we’d much rather have you, Jesus. We can hear you. We can touch you. We can know you.[4]

 That’s why that question from the United Methodist pastor can be so helpful: “How have you seen God?” That’s different than “What do you know about God?” or “Can you feel God in your heart?” or — heaven forbid — “What is the nature of God?”

How have you seen God? — That question makes us think about concrete experiences we’ve had which have communicated God’s presence to us. Almost like sacraments — something physical and everyday that gives us a little taste of God’s love and care — or maybe of God’s guidance or judgement or redirection.

And the stories we tell as we answer that question should remind us of something: God is not contained, but God is embodied — in us. As the Holy Spirit works in us, we become physical conveyers of God’s presence for others. As we care for the sick or the lonely, as we rake someone else’s leaves, as we provide food and a place to rest for people experiencing homelessness, as we share our donuts — we embody God’s presence for one another.

God wants to be found by all people, and shows Godself in all of creation — including in us.


[1] Eric Weiner, “When Heaven and Earth Come Closer,” The New York Times, March 9, 2012. Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/11/travel/thin-places-where-we-are-jolted-out-of-old-ways-of-seeing-the-world.html Accessed May 19, 2017.

[2] Riemer Faber, “The Apostle and the Poet: Paul and Aratus,” Clarion Vol. 42, No. 13 (1993); available online http://spindleworks.com/library/rfaber/aratus.htm Updated February 3, 2013; accessed May 22, 2017.

[3] Aratus, “Phaenomena.” Available online http://www.theoi.com/Text/AratusPhaenomena.html Accessed May 22, 2017.

[4] Matt Skinner on Working Preacher’s Sermon Brainwave podcast (SB541, Sixth Sunday of Easter: May 13, 2017).

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

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

Reading: Luke 24:13-35


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future?

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

Stricken for the transgression of my people.

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

Although he had done no violence,

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

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

emmaus-rembrandt-medium

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

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

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

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

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


[1]”Where Do We Go From Here (1967),” Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Global Freedom Struggle, online: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia_contents.html Accessed 27 April 2017.

The Lord has been/is/will be my Shepherd

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Fourth Sunday of Lent + March 26, 2017

Bible Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23


I’m going to begin this morning by thinking about the first of today’s readings. But I know that you all just heard a rather long gospel reading, and your memory banks may have been maxed out by that.  So let’s remember back to that first reading together: back in ancient Israel, in the days of the nation’s very first king, the Lord had decided that king, Saul, was no longer God’s chosen king of Israel, and so the Lord told the prophet Samuel to go and anoint the next king. Samuel was not a fan of his new divine assignment; God was sending Samuel to commit treason against the king — the same king Samuel had anointed himself not very long ago. “How can I go?” he asked God, “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” But “Samuel did what the Lord commanded,” in spite of his own fears.

The famous Psalm 23 — known as “The Shepherd’s Psalm” — had of course not been written yet when Samuel set off on his mission. According to tradition the young shepherd boy that Samuel would anoint that day would write that psalm years later, when he was known as King David. Still, I wonder if Samuel prayed something very similar to Psalm 23 as he travelled to Jesse’s home to commit treason for the Lord.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

The Lord makes me lie down in green pastures,

And leads me beside still waters.

Of course the Lord was not leading Samuel beside still waters; the Lord was taking Samuel into very dangerous territory, into white water rapids full of sharp rocks.

You restore my soul, O Lord,

And guide me along right pathways for your name’s sake.

But was this really the “right pathway”? Setting up a new person to be king, potentially stirring up rebellion, dividing the allegiance of the people?

I’m sure Samuel had a lot of questions for God, and a lot of doubt and fear. Still he moved forward, following God, trusting God even when it must have seemed crazy. On his journey to Jesse’s home Samuel must have been thinking back over all the times God had already been his good and faithful shepherd: God had caused Samuel to be born to Hannah, who had been unable to have children (1 Sam. 1). God had called Samuel by name to be a prophet and leader of God’s people (1 Sam. 3). God had led the Israelite army to victory against the Philistines, and Samuel had been there serving as their priest (1 Sam. 7). And perhaps Samuel thought back on all God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel: leading them out of slavery in Egypt; leading them into the promised land. These memories could have served as reminders, as a foundation to support Samuel’s faith in a difficult, trying moment.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord has been my shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want.

 Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil;

For you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Looking back on God’s faithfulness would have helped Samuel to see God being faithful to him in his present moment. He would have remembered that the same God who had been with him and his people for so long, who had guided them and protected them, was there with him on that strange and dangerous journey to anoint a new king. He would have had faith that God would still be with him after the journey and the anointing, come what may.

Of course I don’t know what Samuel actually prayed or thought on his way to Jesse’s home. But whatever his prayer was, it helped keep him moving forward through a time of doubt and fear.

I think people (myself included) tend to look back on prophets and saints and other “special” people of God and assume that somehow they were more certain than us “regular” people. They were more sure of God’s guidance; they had a greater sense of clarity; they had miraculously less doubt and fear and confusion. It’s especially easy to assume that for stories like Samuel’s, where the biblical accounts seem to tell us that Samuel and God were exchanging audible words, that God was speaking loudly and clearly to Samuel in a way in which we long to hear from God.

But many of the people we hold up as special saints admitted feeling doubt and fear and frustration, admitted feeling like God was silent or maybe even absent.

Many of us admire the pastor and scholar Dietrich Bonhoeffer for the faithful life he lived. He chose to stay in Germany during Hitler’s reign there, though he could have stayed in the U.S. or England or any number of safer places. He spoke out publicly against Nazi takeover of the church. When the Nazis suppressed the church that spoke out against them, Bonhoeffer worked underground to train students of the faith. He worked as a spy. After he was caught, he spent a year and half in prison, where he ministered to the other prisoners and continued his writing. He was executed along with fellow conspirators. The story of Bonhoeffer’s death, passed on by a physician who had been an eyewitness, sounds like something out of an ancient book of saints:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.[1]

Bonhoeffer is a renowned example of inspiring faith and action in the midst of terrible times. But Bonhoeffer’s outward faith emerged from a storm of inner struggle and doubt. While imprisoned, he wrote this poem about the difference between how other people saw him and how he experienced his own life:

Who am I? They often tell me

I would step from my cell’s confinement

calmly, cheerfully, firmly,

like a squire from his country-house.

 

Who am I? They often tell me

I would talk to my warders

freely and friendly and clearly,

as though it were mine to command.

 

Who am I? They also tell me

I would bear the days of misfortune

equably, smilingly, proudly,

like one accustomed to win.

 

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?

Or am I only what I know of myself,

restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,

struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,

yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,

thirsting for words of kindness, for neighborliness,

trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,

tossing in expectation of great events,

powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,

weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,

faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

 

Who am I? This or the other?

Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?

Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,

and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?

Or is something within me still like a beaten army,

fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?

 

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.

Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.[2]

Bonhoeffer, like other remarkable saints, experienced the feelings familiar to us: loneliness, helplessness, fear, second-guessing. But still he and the other saints threw themselves on God: remembering God’s faithfulness to their ancestors in the faith, remembering God’s past faithfulness to them, they opened their eyes to find God’s faithfulness even in the darkest of times. Praying until they trusted more, praying in a way that kept them walking with God and trying to be part of God’s work in world.

Bonhoeffer wrote these words as part of a prayer for himself and other prisoners:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you. Help me to pray and to concentrate my thoughts on you; I cannot do this alone. In me there is darkness, but with you there is light; I am lonely, but you do not leave me; I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help; I am restless, but with you there is peace. In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience; I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me…Lord Jesus Christ, you were poor and in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am. You know all man’s troubles; you abide with me when all men fail me…Lord, I hear your call and follow; help me…O Holy Spirit, give me faith that will protect me from despair, from passions, and from vice…Restore me to liberty, and enable me so to live now that I may answer before you and before men. Lord whatever this day may bring, your name be praised. Amen.[3]  

(You can read the full prayer here.)

 When we gather for worship, one of the things we do is call to mind God’s faithfulness to our ancestors in the faith. We do this when we read the Bible, when we sing hymns, when we give thanks for our baptism, and when we celebrate Holy Communion. We remember in order to give thanks to God, but we also remember so we can hear that God’s faithfulness continues down through the generations and into our own lives. We remember so that our eyes will be opened to see God’s faithfulness to us now.

When you go through your own hard times, practice remembering God’s faithfulness to you and to others. Call to mind your favorite Bible stories or verses. Remember how God has worked in the lives of those you love. Remember the ways you have experienced God at work in your own life. Remind yourself of who God is, and then in prayer practice trusting God, even in the times it feels hard to do so. Maybe through that practice, you will come to see the goodness of God even in those hard times.

The Lord has been our shepherd.

The Lord is our shepherd.

The Lord will be our shepherd.

Amen. Thanks be to God.

L23-Goodshepherd-medium

Painting of the “Good Shepherd” found in a catacomb in Rome; from the mid-third century. (Source: Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition)


[1] Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Quoted in the Wikipedia article “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition). Ed. Eberhard Bethge. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1972). pp. 347-348.

[3]Bonhoeffer, 139-141.

Transfigured Moments

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + The Transfiguration of Our Lord + February 26, 2017

Reading: Matthew 17:1-9


This morning during Sunday School, Sandy Vollmer — our director for youth and children’s ministries — will take the confirmation class to the baptismal font to talk about baptism. Earlier this week she showed me some of the “props” for her lesson: thin, dry, brittle pieces of sponge, cut into the shape of hearts. They were so dried out, I almost didn’t recognize that they were made out of sponge material when she showed them to me. She and the students will place their dried-up hearts in the baptismal font and watch them swell up with the waters, looking full, and — in a way — healed and whole.

Then Sandy and the students will talk about the ways these soaking hearts represent what God does for us in baptism (what God just did in Spencer and Oliver’s baptisms): God fills up our hearts with the Holy Spirit; God heals us and makes us whole; God comes into the places in us that are dry and broken and dead-looking and sets to work on creating new life in us.

Those sponge-hearts can also represent something we keep seeking from God throughout our lives: in moments when our hearts or lives feel dried-up or empty or brittle or small, we come to God hoping for that divine touch to help keep the life alive in us, to fill us up, to make us stronger. We look for a glimpse of transcendence, for a moment outside of our moment, for an experience that helps us see beyond this time we feel stuck in, that helps us see the big picture when we feel trapped in a smaller part of the story, that gives us something to hold on to, something to fill us up and keep us going through the hard times.

When Jesus took his disciples Peter, James, and John up the mountain to witness his Transfiguration, they must have experienced one of the moments of transcendence of their lives. And I imagine that the timing of that mountaintop experience could not have been more perfect.

In the Gospel of Matthew the story of the Transfiguration is sandwiched in between stories in which Jesus tells the disciples about his impending death and all that they will suffer in his name. At that point in his ministry Jesus was starting to look ahead towards Jerusalem and arrest and execution; just a few verses before the Transfiguration, we read:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). It’s the first of four predictions of his death. And then come those famous words: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).

After this conversation comes the story of the glorious Transfiguration, which we just read together. But our gospel reading for the day cuts off the conversation between Jesus and his disciples as they came down the mountain. After he told them not to tell anyone about the vision, the disciple asked him: don’t all the teachers say that the ancient prophet Elijah is supposed to return before the Messiah does his work? And Jesus responded, “‘…but I tell you Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist” (Matt. 17:11-13).

Over and over again Jesus talked with his disciples about how the prophets that came before had suffered, how he was going to suffer, and how they were going to suffer, too.

I used to think of speeches like those as moments when Jesus’s divinity showed through, and he predicted the future with his godly knowledge-of-everything. But I have forced myself into a new habit of reading these stories: to think about how everyone must have known that danger was coming, because it was obvious. It would not have taken prophetic powers to see what was on the horizon for Jesus and his disciples. Jesus was publicly speaking against a lot of powerful people; he was drawing large crowds to hear him teach; his message and his ministry were rallying too many people — and he was ready to go to the capitol and cause even more trouble. He and his closer followers must have known they would be in danger. They lived with that knowledge, and they moved forward toward Jerusalem with that knowledge.

So I wonder how Peter, James, and John felt, living like that, living with that sense of danger just around the corner. I wonder how they felt every time Jesus, their beloved leader, brought up the fact that he was about to be arrested and executed. Did they ever get weary? Dried-up? Feel empty or hopeless or afraid or wonder if it was all worth it?

In the midst of whatever they were feeling, Jesus took them up the mountain. Jesus took them out of the dangerous moment they were living in, led them off of the doomed path they were walking, and gave them a glimpse of something better. They saw their leader and friend — yes, that one who was preparing for death — they saw him shining with a light as powerful as the sun; they saw the ancient holy prophets Moses and Elijah speaking with him; they heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” In that one, bright-shining moment, their faith in Jesus was confirmed. He was indeed the Son of God, the messiah sent into the world.

And yes, they walked up that mountain with the knowledge of the dangerous future they faced; and yes, when they walked down the mountain Jesus reminded them yet again of the cost of being his disciple. But that brief moment on the mountaintop must have filled them up like a sponge in the baptismal font. And maybe they kept that moment with them, and they could remember it during difficult times, and through the memory God would fill them up again, strengthen their faith, and help them keep pressing forward.

The Church carries memories like the Transfiguration and passes them on to new generations of Christians. We gather in worship, in Bible studies, and in so many other ways to hear and tell these community stories. And we discover and share our own stories of mountaintop experiences. We come together again and again in faith that God still works through these stories to strengthen us along the way.

And as we hear these stories, it’s like we are being trained to see God in our everyday lives. Ordinary moments can be transfigured as we sense God moving in moments of silence, or in the wisdom of children, in an act of kindness, in a cry for justice. We hear stories from mountaintops in faraway places and long-ago times, but they help us see God’s story continuing around us now. May God transfigure our hard times and our dry hearts with the light of God’s presence. Amen.

Come and See

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But then it broke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Love Became a Refugee

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1 Christmas + January 1, 2017

Readings: Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13-23


Did anyone else find the experience we just shared kind of…jarring? Together we sang joyfully, “Love has come a light in the darkness! Love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies…” and then I read you a story about what happened to that love. That love was a child under two years old, already marked for assassination by the king. That child and his family had to run for their lives, away from home, away from family and friends and any kind of support system, away from mother tongue and familiar customs and religion, and settle in another country. Behind them, back at home, that king ordered the murder of babies, just because they could have been Jesus. When the king dies, the family returns to their home country, but they are still terrified to return to their hometown in case the new king is after them, too. So they rebuild their lives in another region, Galilee.

“Love has come and never will leave us! Love is life everlasting and free…”[1]

We would hope that when “Love has Come,” the whole world would react like the shepherds in Luke’s story of Jesus’s birth: staring in wonder, praising God, overflowing with joy and hope and goodwill (Luke 2:8-20). We would hope that when “Love has Come,” the whole world would change.

Instead what we see in Matthew’s Gospel is that love incarnate, the baby Jesus, thrown immediately into some of the hardest of human experiences. Like today’s reading from Hebrews said, “he…[became] like his brothers and sisters in every respect.” He (or at least his parents) even felt that feeling of being “held in slavery by fear of death” — not just “we are all going to die one day” fear, but a real and present fear that violence could have been waiting for them every time they opened their door.[2] That little baby and his parents became refugees — an experience shared by 1 in 122 people alive today.[3]

The Flight into Egypt - Matthew 2:13-18

Flight into Egypt, JESUS MAFA (1973). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.

A Somali-British poet, Warsan Shire, wrote a haunting poem describing what drives refugees like Mary, Joseph and Jesus (and like those we see on the news) to run so far away from home. It begins:

no one leaves home unless

home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well4

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

The poem goes on to describe fleeing in boats and in trucks and under fences, the violence along the journey, life in a refugee camp (waiting, waiting, waiting to go somewhere else, sometimes for years), finally going to a new land and being met with confusion and insults and hatred. The poem ends:

i want to go home.

but home is the mouth of a shark

home is the barrel of the gun

and no one would leave home

unless home chased you to the shore

unless home told you

to quicken your legs

leave your clothes behind

crawl through the desert

wade through the oceans

drown

save

be hunger

beg

forget pride

your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear

saying-

leave.

run away from me now

i don’t know what i’ve become

but i know that anywhere

is safer than here[4]

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we celebrated that God took on human flesh and blood and was born into our world as a child. We celebrated that love has come.

Today, on the First Sunday of Christmas, the Gospel of Matthew reminds us what that means. Love has come. But it is not the haughty love-from-above that an earthly ruler might claim to have for his people; it is not a fairy tale love that wipes away reality. It is the love that is willing to live the most difficult of lives, the love that runs toward suffering. It is the love of a God who lived a human life not in power and glory but replete with pain and fear and insults and hunger. Love has come, and it became one of the people that others would look at sideways and wonder “Where did he come from?” Love became the baby of an unwed mother; a refugee and an immigrant; a vagabond; love became a friend to the outcast, the sick, and the sinner; love became a prisoner, an executed man.

(And if we are wondering where God is in our world today, there are some good starting points.)

This passage from Matthew is not only a tale of hardship and violence, of God and God’s people suffering; it is also a story of how God is at work even in those most painful of times. In this story we read that at the same time that God was a child held in his mother’s arms as they ran from danger, God was also giving Joseph wisdom to lead his family to safer places. And we can imagine God at work among any kind strangers who helped the holy family on their way to Egypt; we can imagine God at work through neighbors who helped the family make a home in a new land. Later Jesus would continue God’s embodied work as he healed, forgave, taught, and saved.

God’s work continues today.

When we look for God among the immigrants and refugees of today, we can still see God there.

A few years ago I was the youth minister at Christ Lutheran Church in south Nashville, which is closely connected with a number of immigrant and refugee communities. My Sunday school class was made up mostly of children who had grown up in the war-torn Congo and refugee camps in Tanzania. We were preparing to baptize three young African boys who had just been relocated to Nashville, and Pastor Morgan Gordy mentioned in passing that she didn’t know where their family was going to keep their baptismal certificates.

“I think I’m going to have to get them some frames,” Pastor Gordy said. “They hardly have any furniture. I don’t think they have a dresser with a drawer to keep them in.”

The man standing next to me immediately said, “Why didn’t you tell me they need furniture? I know all kinds of people looking to get rid of furniture! I can get them furniture!”

God works for refugees and immigrants: through those who help them to safety; through those who help meet basic needs of food and housing, clothing and furniture; through those who help them find jobs; through those who smile and help them to feel welcome.

God also works through refugees and immigrants: through the skills they offer to their new community; through the help they provide to their neighbors; through the jobs they create in the businesses they start.[5]

And God works in so many other difficult situations, as many us have experienced first-hand: God is there when we are grieving; God is there in hospital rooms; God is in the jails and prisons; God is on the streets; God is near us when we are lonely or depressed.

There is nowhere we can go where God will not be. There is nothing we will go through that God won’t go through with us.

Today’s gospel story easily comes off as bleak and even horrifying. But it also reminds us: even in the darkest of stories the gospel truth rings out: Emmanuel. God is with us.

mfa_18-652-medium

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Luc Olivier Merson (1879). Via Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Art in the Christian Tradition.


[1] “Love has Come,” Ken Bible (text), copyright 1996: Integrity’s Hosanna! Music. Evangelical Lutheran Worship #292.

[2] Matt Skinner on Sermon Brainwave (podcast), “SB518 – First Sunday of Christmas, January 1, 2017,” Working Preacher. http://www.workingpreacher.org/?lect_date=01/01/2017&lectionary=rcl

[3] “Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase,” The UN Refugee Agency, June 18, 2015. http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/latest/2015/6/558193896/worldwide-displacement-hits-all-time-high-war-persecution-increase.html

[4]Warsan Shire, “Home.” Read online: www.seekershub.org/blog/2015/09/home-warsan-shire/ or hear Shire read it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=p50wrd2JiX4

[5] Immigrants are 30% more likely than U.S.-born citizens to start new businesses, according to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. See “Immigration Myths Busted” at lirs.org/mythbusters

Joseph’s Confusion

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Advent Midweek + December 7, 2016


A reading from the Gospel of Matthew:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. (Matt. 1:18-19).

I’m going to pause the reading here for a moment, and I want you to pretend as best you can that you don’t know the rest of the story. Instead of looking ahead to angels and the sweet scene at Bethlehem, try to fit your feet into Joseph’s shoes.

First, imagine yourself as Joseph engaged to young Mary. Imagine being engaged to her in that time, in the first century. Their two families had formally agreed to the match, and the official ceremony was in the works. In a culture as communal and family-centered as Mary and Joseph’s, and in an economic position where each person in the family had to work hard just to meet their basic everyday needs, the marriage was part of a plan to strengthen and support the basic well-being of both of their families. We can add to that picture our best guesses as to what may have been going on in Joseph’s head and heart: Was his mind filled with plans of what his adult life would be like, now that he would be a husband, a father, head of his own household? Did his heart do a little flutter every time he thought of the young girl who would soon share his day-to-day life?

Then he finds out she is pregnant, and the child is definitely not his.

That news would be heartbreaking in our time and place. I would feel betrayed and furious and broken and who knows what else. But again, this was first-century Israel. It was a culture where adultery was a very serious offense, not just against Joseph but against the community; it was a culture where shame was a much more public phenomenon. Mary and her family would be disgraced; Mary may even have been in danger of being stoned.

Joseph, the reading tell us, was a righteous man, and decided that rather than seeking out revenge or at least public acknowledgement of how he had been betrayed by his betrothed, he would try to minimize Mary’s shame and punishment. He would cut off the marriage as quietly as possible and go on with his life.

At the moment of that heartbreaking decision, God sent Joseph a message.

The reading continues:

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matt. 1:20-25).

Notice that God doesn’t exactly make Joseph’s life easier. Joseph’s original decision to quietly dismiss Mary was probably the best for him and his family, and it was fairly kind to Mary as well. It was a good, balanced, moral decision. When the angel told him to trust that the child was God’s and to take Mary as his wife, that angel was not only asking for Joseph to take a huge leap of faith. He was also asking Joseph to adopt a child that wasn’t his as his firstborn, to perhaps take on some of Mary’s disgrace.

And he would have to defend his strange decision to his family. Would they believe him when he said, “No, it’s ok, the child is from the Holy Spirit”? I can’t imagine many people buying into that without the help of about a dozen more angelic visits. And from what the gospels tell us, it seems that certainty about Jesus’s divine conception didn’t make it past Mary and Joseph. Later on in the Gospel of Matthew we read that the people of Jesus’s hometown, Nazareth, were offended that Jesus made himself out to be a religious teacher and a miracle-worker; they said, “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matt. 13:55).  The Gospel of John says that “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5). An angel may have visited Joseph in his dream, but God did not clarify Jesus’s identity to the rest of the world.

When we are in the midst of a confusing and even heartbreaking situation like Joseph’s, seeking to know what God would have us do, it can be very frustrating that our dreams are not visited by angels with clear directions. But even Joseph’s story reminds us that God works in humble and not-so-obvious ways.

God asked Joseph to make a hard and maybe even crazy decision based on faith, based on trust in the grace of God. And the grace of God works in a very upside-down way. If a god-king were being born into the world, we might expect something grand and obvious: a worldwide announcement, a descent straight from the sky – something that would make everyone immediately fall to their knees. Maybe something that could be caught on video tape in such a way that there could never be any doubt that God had come into the world. Something so big and clear would be a much better way to get lots of people to believe and go along with the plan.

But the grace of God was better shown to the world by working through quiet, lowly means. By coming into the world through a young, poor, unmarried mother; by reassuring her fiancé through a private dream. The grace of God was shown in the life of Jesus as he hung out with the common people and the most needy people: with fisherman, with tax collectors, with the poor, with the sick and injured. And ultimately the grace of God was shown in Jesus’s arrest and public execution. It is through that most upside-down of God’s moves, Jesus’s crucifixion, that Christians best understand how God works in the world.

So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that in the midst of our own painful confusion, when we are searching hardest for God’s guidance, we have to listen for God’s voice through that pain and even in what feels like the absence of God…because, paradoxically, that is where God is most surely present.

A reading from 1 Kings:

God said to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

And that is when Elijah heard God.

Let us pray. O God who brings comfort and joy, when the world baffles us with conflicting messages and puzzling events, speak to our confusion. Comfort us with the knowledge that you are with us in times of clarity and times of confusion. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.[1]


[1] Emily Hartner, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy: A Midweek Advent Series,” Sundays and Seasons, Year A 2016, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2016), p. 27.