When God Tells a New Story

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday of Easter + April 24, 2016

Readings: Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-16; John 13:31-35


 

“Millennial” is one of the biggest buzzwords of the day. It’s the label given to my generation: people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. One of the hottest topics right now is classifying Millennials, and I’m sure you’ve all seen some of these articles; the stories range from “Millennials are self-entitled and refuse to wear anything but flip-flops” to “Millennials are optimistic and highly likely to volunteer and donate.”

In my experience as a Millennial I’ve noticed something that all these articles seem to neglect: there is a huge swath of us Millennials that really, really likes Harry Potter. Even nine years after the release of the last book in the series and five years after the last movie hit theaters, not a day goes by without a Harry Potter-related post — or ten — popping up on my Facebook newsfeed. A seminary classmate of mine told me that if she hadn’t gotten married by the time she turned 30 — if she hadn’t gotten to have the bachelorette party and the wedding reception — she was going to throw herself a party with her best friends at the Harry Potter-themed amusement park at Universal Studios. I’ve spent hours with friends — and strangers — talking about which Hogwarts House we’d be sorted into. (TEAM HUFFLEPUFF!) Maybe once or twice we even pondered which House Jesus might belong to, and how the answer might explain our understanding of the gospel.

Jesus Hogwarts

“Which House would Jesus belong to?” — just a snippet of the conversation.

All that to say: I know I’m kind of a nerd, but maybe it’s not that strange that as I mused about this sermon, my thoughts wandered to the Harry Potter story. The main conflict of the Harry Potter series is, on the surface, the fight between Harry and the evil wizard Voldemort. But really the conflict is wider and deeper than that: it is a fight between two opposing stories of how the world should be, two opposing stories of who belongs in the community of wizards and who is an outsider.

Voldemort’s story might be titled “Magic is Might.”[1] People with magical abilities are obviously the most powerful, and so they are a higher class, the ones meant to rule. People without magical powers are lesser beings, and creatures of different species — magic or not — are low on the ladder. And even within the group of magical people are different classes: “Purebloods” — people born of two magical parents — are the cream of the crop, and those born from non-magical parents are openly insulted. Voldemort’s followers aren’t exactly supporting him; they are supporting the story he tells about the world.

Harry Potter represents a different story. In this story people are not judged by birth or ability, but by their love and compassion. And even for those who do wrong there is room for forgiveness and redemption. Those who fight on Harry’s side are fighting for this story of how the world should be.

If we can get past all the crazy Harry Potter vocabulary — wizard and muggle and mudblood — that conflict begins to sound very, very familiar. We are all constantly telling stories that define and redefine who is “us” and who is “them.” And those stories can be messy: they change depending on the people involved and the issue at hand. My story is obviously right to me, and your story is obviously right to you, and a third person might offer a completely different interpretation. And our stories play out in how we define what is right and wrong, just and unjust, necessary and flexible.

Despite all that gray area and disagreement in our world of stories, it’s hard to imagine someone reading the Harry Potter books and thinking, “Harry is so misguided. Purebloods are clearly superior to mudbloods.” That’s because of the way the story is told: even though it is told with some sympathy toward the villains, there is no gray area about who is right in the series. The storytelling leads us to side with Harry; and not just with Harry, but with the enslaved house-elves, with the werewolf Professor Lupin; readers even feel sympathy for the giant spiders that live in the forest behind the school — all because of the way the story is told.

The stories we are told have a great impact on the way we feel and think and act in the world. The stories we hold on to give us the structure by which we make sense of facts and statistics, Bible passages and the face of the person next to us. Our stories often affect whether we see God active in the world around us, where we see God, what we hear from God.

But then, sometimes God says, “I’m overriding your story,” steps in, and tells us a new story.

That’s what happened to Peter according to the story we just read from the book of Acts.  Peter was praying on a rooftop, started to get hungry, and then had a vision. Something like a sheet descended from heaven, and all these different creatures were hanging out on it together: pigs and sand lizards and ravens. Peter heard a voice say: “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

But Peter had God figured out. He knew this vision was a test. He knew the story that God had told to Moses: in this world there are clean animals and unclean animals. And God’s people do not eat the unclean animals (Lev. 11). So hungry Peter replied obediently, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean.”

I wonder if Peter expected to hear something like, “Well done, Peter! You passed the test!”  Instead, the voice reprimanded him: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter and God went through this routine three times before the sheet-thing went back up to heaven (Acts 10:9-16).

Peter knew the old story that had been passed down to him. The story of clean and unclean animals was important to his people, his culture, and his religion. During the Maccabean Revolt against the foreign armies occupying Jerusalem, about 200 years earlier, people had been martyred for refusing to betray their Jewish identity by eating pig meat (2 Maccabees 7). It must have been terribly difficult for Peter to believe that God was telling him a radically different story.

But the main point of God’s new story was not “go ahead and eat all the animals.” The new story really started when a Roman centurion asked Peter to come visit him.

Peter would have had a good reason to avoid visiting Cornelius. Cornelius was a Gentile, a non-Jew, someone from outside the circle of God’s chosen people. But Peter interpreted this fact through the new story God had just told him: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10:28).

This visit got Peter in trouble. Our reading started with a group of Jewish Jesus-followers criticizing Peter: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Why did you fellowship with the unclean gentiles?

They were living in another story; Peter had to bring them into the new story God had told him. Peter told them about the vision with the sheet and the animals and the voice. He told them that this Roman centurion had been visited by an angel, and that while Peter preached the gospel, the Holy Spirit fell upon Cornelius and his family; they began speaking in tongues and praising God. Peter explained, “If then God gave them the same gift that God gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

16450

Pentecost, Estella Louisa M Canziani (1887-1964)

It is a testament to how difficult this story was to the early Jesus-followers that it appears twice in a row in the book of Acts: we walk through it with Peter in chapter ten, and then in chapter eleven Peter tells the whole thing, in detail, to those who criticized him. In fact much of the New Testament is devoted to telling and re-telling God’s new story: a redefinition of who is part of God’s people and what it means to be God’s people.

God continues to tell this story to us today. And the story is always new, because God is continually updating the categories. To hear that God is at work among the Gentiles does not surprise us here today; after all we are Gentiles, and we believe that God is at work among us. But what if the story is: God is not only at work within the ELCA, but also within Methodist and Roman Catholic and Baptists churches, and even — gasp — within the Missouri Synod? What if the story is that God is at work within Democrats and Republicans and those who have given up on the political system? What if the story is that God moves in the prayers of both illegal immigrants and border patrol agents? What if God is still transgressing the laws we thought God had given us?

If God is moving in all those different places — does that change how we understand one another? If those are the stories God is telling — does that change our own stories?

On the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus, that great storyteller, told a few last stories to his disciples. We catch a very short one in our gospel reading for today: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” Okay, so that’s more a commandment than a story, but I call it a story because it asks us to remember the entire story of Jesus’s life, and all the little stories that make it up. It makes us remember and tell all those stories through a certain framework, and that framework is love. He didn’t say “As I proved the Pharisees wrong, you also should prove others wrong,” or something like that. He said very clearly: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Love ought to be the basic framework for every story we tell as Christians, every story we tell about others and about ourselves. Love ought to be the framework for the stories we use to make sense of what is going on in the world — and even the stories we tell of our enemies, impossible as that feels. And when stories of love become hard to tell, we need to listen in again for the story God is telling us.


[1] This is the title of a statue put up in the Ministry of Magic after it is taken over by Team Voldemort. The statue features a wizard and a witch sitting on thrones made of humans. (Described in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.)

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Lovestruck Discipleship

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday in Lent + March 13, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4-14; John 12:1-8


 

Today’s gospel is full of things to talk and think about. The thing I’m zeroing in on this morning is an argument about what makes for good discipleship.

Mary poured an abundance of valuable perfume on Jesus’s feet; Judas asked, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” The narrator tells us that Judas actually just wanted all that money for himself, but the way Judas phrased it was an accusation against Mary: That is not good stewardship. She is not being a good disciple.

This reminds me of another story: a story from the life of Dorothy Day. During the Great Depression, Dorothy helped to begin the Catholic Worker Movement, which sought to give a voice to those who were suffering from poverty, poor working conditions, and discrimination, and to minister to their needs. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality sprouted up all over the U.S., providing food and shelter to those in need. The story I’m thinking of took place in one of those hospitality houses; I’ll share it in the words of an eyewitness. One of her fellow Catholic Workers remembered:

One of my favorite stories of Dorothy was the moment when a quite well-dressed woman came in to the Worker. She took a diamond ring from her finger and handed it to Dorothy. Why she was moved to do that, I have no idea. Dorothy thanked her politely with no more fuss than she would if the woman had brought a dozen eggs.

A little while later a woman that we didn’t particularly enjoy seeing showed up. I think her name was Catherine, but we called her “the weasel.” She was, as far as we could tell, genetically incapable of saying thank you. Dorothy reached into her pocket and said, “I have something for you”—and gave her the diamond ring.

I don’t know if it was me or somebody else who went to Dorothy afterward and said, “You know, Dorothy, I could have taken that ring up to West 47th Street to the Diamond Exchange, and we could have paid her rent for years to come.” She responded, “Well, if she wants to sell the ring and go to the Bahamas, she can do so. But she might also like to just wear the ring. Do you think God made diamonds just for the rich?”[1]

Dorothy and Mary both gave extravagantly, but not in what we’d say was the wisest or most reasonable way. Maybe that’s because they weren’t driven by being wise or reasonable so much as they were driven by love.

A discipleship driven by love is the kind of discipleship we see modeled and lifted up in today’s scripture readings.

To help us understand that kind of discipleship, I want you to think about a time when you fell in love. Like, really fell in love. The kind of love that makes you a little crazy, the kind of love that changes the way you want to spend your time, that reorders the things you care about, that makes you rethink the plan you’ve had for your life.

Maybe you’re thinking about a romantic love. Most of us have probably been there: those times in life when you’re totally distracted because you can’t stop thinking of that special someone, when you’d drop everything just to spend time with them. That’s the kind of love that leads us to commit to marriage, to building a life with another person.

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you felt at the birth of a child. Recently a friend told me about how having her first child totally changed her life, not just in terms of her responsibilities and how she spent her time, but also in terms of her desires, what she wanted to do with her life. Until then she had been all about her career, doing this job she loved; but then her daughter was born, and, she said, “I didn’t really care about work anymore. All I wanted to do was stay home and take care of this little person. I’d never thought that would happen.”

Maybe you’re thinking of the love you feel in a deep friendship. I always thought that when I finally had a paying job and vacation time, I’d want to go see all these cool places; now I’m realizing that what I actually want to do with that valuable vacation time is go visit my roommates from divinity school or my friends from college. And when my dear friend Shelly is in town, I will drive in Nashville rush hour traffic and stay up till three in the morning just to get every minute of time with her that I can.

There is a kind of love that has even greater impact on the way we see the world and the way we move in the world than reason does — and that’s the kind of lovestruck discipleship I’m talking about.

We see that kind of love in the Apostle Paul in this reading from Philippians. Paul described what his life had been like: he cared about his status as part of God’s chosen people; he cared about keeping the Jewish laws; he cared about protecting his faith and his culture from this upstart group of Jesus-followers. But then he encountered Jesus Christ, and everything changed. He said that all those things that used to be most important to him…not only were they less important in light of Jesus, they were nothing. They were less than nothing. Paul said he came to regard them as loss, as rubbish, as something to be thrown away in his pursuit of Christ. That is a life changed by love.[2]

And he wrote about Jesus in the language of a lover. His words are dripping with longing: longing to know Christ and to be with Christ. He was willing to suffer for Christ. All of this sounds like it could also come from the lips of Romeo (if only it were written the right poetic meter). In fact we have copies of four “romance novels” from around the time of Paul, and one of them contains a phrase that sounds like it would be right at home in Philippians; one lover says to another: “I have forfeited all things that I might gain you.”[3] And throughout his letters Paul uses marriage as a metaphor to talk about the church’s relationship to Christ and Christians’ relationship to one another as people bound together in Christ. Paul is a disciple in love with Jesus, and he encourages the Philippians to imitate him (Phil. 3:17).

We also see that lovestruck discipleship in Mary. She pours out her costly perfume on Jesus’s feet, then lets down her hair — which might have been scandalous in a culture that said women ought to cover their hair for the sake of propriety — and she uses her hair to wipe his feet. Jesus doesn’t rebuke her for her love-crazy show of devotion. He lifts her up for showing him such love even as he is about to die, for loving him “until death do us part,” for loving him even beyond death, in his burial.

Apparently loving Jesus with reckless abandon was what this Mary was known for in the early church. Earlier in John’s gospel he told another story of Mary and her sister Martha, and how Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. To clarify exactly which Mary he was talking about (we all know there are a lot of Marys in the gospels), John wrote, y’know, the Mary “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (Jn. 11:2). This is before he’d even told the perfume story.[4] And you probably remember Mary from another story, from the Gospel of Luke, where Martha was running around playing hostess while Mary sat devotedly at Jesus’s feet. (Jesus says that she is the better disciple in this story, too.)

In so many places in the Bible this lovestruck discipleship is held up as the model to follow as we grow in our discipleship. Maybe that is because loving Christ like that comes close to loving God like God loves us. Throughout the Bible we hear that God loves us like a parent, like a lover, like a friend. God loves us with the kind of love that breaks God’s heart when we are unfaithful; God loves us with the kind of love that drives God to forgive us.

In Jesus Christ we see just how recklessly and foolishly God loves us: that God would become human, that God would become like a slave out of love for us, that God would go to the executioner’s block for us (Phil. 2:5-8). Like lovestruck Mary lavishly poured out her perfume, lovestruck Jesus lavishly poured out his life.

That reckless, lavish love is the foundation Jesus gave us for the Christian life. It is the model for our discipleship, for how we ought to love God, and for how we ought to love one another. It is the untamable basis for our ethics, our decision-making. It’s not necessarily wise or reasonable — at least not by the world’s standards (1 Cor. 1:18-31). But it is the way of the cross, the way of amazing grace, the way of God.


 

[1] Jim Forest in an interview with the U.S. Catholic, November 2010 (Vol. 76, No. 11, pp. 18-21). Found online at http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2011/09/work-hard-pray-hard-dorthy-day-and-thomas-merton Accessed March 12, 2016.

[2] Sarah Henrich, “Commentary on Philippians 3:4b-14,” Working Preacher, March 13, 2016. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2776

[3] Quoted by David Fredrickson in his course Philippians and Corinthians, Luther Seminary, Fall 2013; lecture on September 10, 2013. Much of this sermon is inspired by Fredrickson’s lectures and his book, Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul’s Christology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013).

[4] Pointed out by Susan Hylen in “Commentary on John 12:1-8”, Working Preacher, March 17, 2013. Available online http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1582

Peace & Love (aka the Hippie Sermon)

Written for Saint Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 4th Sunday of the Epiphany + January 31, 2016

Readings: Jeremiah 1:4-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30


 

This week I spent a couple of days at Lutheranch, a Lutheran retreat center about an hour west of Atlanta. I was there with a handful of other new pastors as part of our First Call Theological Education program. This is a program for all new pastors; we are required to meet a few times a year for the first three years of our ministry. It’s an opportunity to continue learning more about ministry, to ask questions that come up in our first calls, and to support one another. Bishop Julian Gordy and an assistant to the Bishop, Ben Moravitz, lead the retreats.

The main topic for this retreat was worship. (I should let you know that Bishop Gordy mentioned St. Andrew quite a few times during our class sessions, since we are a congregation that puts a lot of consideration into how we worship, creating beautiful and meaningful services.)

One part of the worship service that kept coming up over and over, even in our free time conversations, was the Exchange of Peace. Here at St. Andrew, we do a pretty good job of maintaining a sense of worship as we shake hands and tell our neighbors “peace be with you.” But in a lot of congregations, this moment drags on for a long time, and people start talking about the game or the party. Bishop Gordy told enough stories about that kind of sharing of the peace to make me sure it’s one of his special pet peeves. When passing the peace becomes a social hour, it takes away from its true, historical, and religious purpose.

The Exchange of Peace has been a part of Christian worship since the time when the New Testament was being written. The idea behind the practice can be traced to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matt. 5:23-24). The Exchange of Peace was built into worship as an opportunity to go and make peace with someone you need to make peace with before joining with them in Holy Communion.  This helps to keep the whole community strong and united.

And for those of you who are not a fan of shaking hands or hugging: you should be glad we’re not asked to kiss each other anymore. There are five places in the New Testament where Christians are encouraged to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 1 Cor. 13:12; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14). In the ancient church this instruction was folded into the Exchange of Peace. In fact, if you want to research the Exchange of Peace, you’ll probably find more information by searching for the “kiss of peace” — even on Wikipedia.

There’s a sermon from the late 4th/early 5th century (just to name drop: it was written by St. Augustine) that describes where the Holy Kiss fit into worship: the priest would bless the wine and the bread, the people would say the Lord’s Prayer together, and then they would say “Peace be with you” and kiss one another on the lips. Augustine explained the point of this: “When your lips draw near to those of your brother, do not let your heart withdraw from his. Hence, these are great and powerful sacraments.”[1]

This practice was from a time and culture where kissing people on the lips as a greeting was common. The way the Exchange of Peace is practiced has changed as those cultural norms have changed.

The ELCA worship guidelines recommend that the Exchange of Peace occur between the Prayers of Intercession and Holy Communion; this can also be traced back to the ancient church. One ELCA resource explains how meaningfully this fits into the flow of our worship:

…the congregation prays for peace in the Church, peace in the world, and peace for all those in need. Then the congregation follows through [on their part in fulfilling these prayers] with the people offering peace and reconciliation to one another. This is not human peace alone, but the peace which is possible only through Christ. Then, after the exchange of peace, we receive the gift of Christ’s peace in our sharing Holy Communion.[2]

 The Exchange of Peace has been part of Christian worship for thousands of years, and it is meant to help us live with one another in the spirit of the peace Christ gives to us not only as individuals, but as the Church. It is meant to help us sustain our life together as a community united in Christ.

This is also the purpose behind the letter we know as First Corinthians. The church in Corinth was having trouble acting as a community that was truly united Christ. In the course of the letter Paul touched on a number of places where the Corinthians divided themselves: they divided themselves based on which apostle they followed; some claimed Peter, some Paul, some a man named Apollos (1:10-17).  They divided themselves by accusing one another in a court of law (6:1-8). They divided themselves over whether it was alright for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols (10:23-11:1). They divided themselves when they celebrated Holy Communion, as wealthier members gathered together for a feast while the poor members were left hungry (11:17-34). They divided themselves over which spiritual gifts were more impressive and important than the others (12:1-11).

As he addressed each issue, Paul worked to help the Corinthians see the importance of doing everything for the good of the community. Quit boasting about who brought you to Christ; you are all in Christ (3:5-9). Quit bringing each other to court, and forgive each other (6:7-8). Quit feasting while others get weak and sick; wait for one another before celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:27-34).

Paul dedicated a large chunk of this letter (ch. 12-14) to advising the Corinthians on how to use their spiritual gifts for building up the community rather than dividing it (14:26). And as part of that instruction Paul wrote the beautiful words of 1 Cor. 13. These are some of the most well-known and well-loved words in all of literature. “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol. […] Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. […] Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.”

We often place Paul’s words in the same category as love poetry, as if Paul’s words would fit neatly with a Robert Burns poem…

O my Luve is like a red, red rose

That’s newly sprung in June;

O my Luve is like the melody

That’s sweetly played in tune.[3]

…or with a Shakespeare sonnet…

…Love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove:

O no! it is an ever-fixed mark

That looks on tempests and is never shaken.[4]

But really, Paul’s beautiful words might fit better with some more everyday phrases: “I don’t care who started it. Don’t hit your sister! Love your sister!”

Paul was writing to a community that was being broken apart from within. People were holding on tight to ideas of who was “worthy” or important in the church based on social status, on wealth, or on talents. But here in chapter thirteen Paul said: Look, the only thing that really matters, that is truly important, is that you love one another. In the end all these worldly things will end and fade away. In the end, even faith won’t be needed anymore, because we will see and know fully. In the end, even hope won’t be needed, because it will be fulfilled. But in the end, love will remain. So make love your priority now.[5]

All this brings me back to something else that Bishop Gordy said about St. Andrew this week. He talked a lot about our attention to worship, but he also lifted us up because we care about one another. We don’t agree on all issues, we don’t all believe in exactly the same way, but we are committed to loving one another. We know how to disagree and then share the peace with one another.

That is possible because it is not a peace that comes from within us; it is a peace that comes from Christ, who has intentionally gathered us together — with all our differences — in order to be his church here in this place.

Christ has gathered us to love one another with the love of Christ, and to welcome others into that love. This is our first and greatest calling.

May God continue to give us the love we need to truly love one another: to be patient and kind; to not be irritable or resentful; to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. Amen.


 

[1] St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 227, The Fathers of the Church, (1959), Sermons on Liturgical Seasons vol. 38, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari, p. 197. Admittedly, I found the quote on the Wikipedia article “Kiss of Peace.”

[2] “What is the ‘Exchange of Peace’?” Worship Formation & Liturgical Resources: Frequently Asked Questions, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, (January 2013). Available online at http://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/What_is_the_Exchange_of_Peace.pdf

[3] Robert Burns, “A Red, Red Rose,” (1796).

[4] William Shakespeare, Sonnet 116.

[5] Brian Peterson, “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 13:1-13,” Working Preacher, Jan. 31, 2016. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2734