The Hope of the Hopeless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                        And by night but find no rest…

I am a worm, and not human;

                        Scorned by others, and despised by the people…

I am poured out like water,

                        And all my bones are out of joint;

My heart is like wax;

                        It is melted within my breast.

My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,

                        And my tongue sticks to my jaws;

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

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

In you our ancestors trusted;

                        They trusted, and you delivered them.

To you they cried, and were saved;

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

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

It was you who took me from the womb;

                        You kept me safe on my mother’s breast.

On you I was cast since birth,

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

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

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

                        Neither is the Lord’s face hidden from them;

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

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

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

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

When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears,

                       and rescues them from all their troubles.

            The Lord is near to the brokenhearted,

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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

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

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

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


The Stories We Pass Around

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 2nd Sunday after Epiphany + January 14, 2018

Reading: John 1:43-51

Early in November I went to Houston for a training session for the ELCA National Youth Gathering, which will take place there this summer. As part our training we did a practice run-through of our Synod Day worship and activities, and the pastor of a local congregation gave the sermon. I remember one of the personal stories he shared.

It had been a little chilly in Houston in October, well, at least chilly for Texas, and at least before the sun came up, which is when Pastor Jackson liked to go running. So one of those chilly mornings he pulled on a sweatshirt and pulled the hood up to keep his head warm, and went for his usual morning run. As he jogged around the quiet streets of his suburban neighborhood, a police car pulled up beside him, and the officer stopped Pastor Jackson to ask him a few questions. “When the police officer first saw me,” Pastor Jackson said to us, “He saw a black man in a hoodie running around a nice neighborhood in the dark, and that’s why he stopped me. I explained who I was, that I lived in one of these houses, that I was pastor at Living Word, that my accent was from my home country of Liberia.”

I think the point of this part of the sermon was how important it is to get to know one another, to share our stories and to listen to others’ so that we can live in a stronger, more caring community. “He saw me and thought of one story,” Pastor Jackson said, “but when we said good-bye, he knew my real story.”

Tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when our nation remembers the work of Dr. King and the others who fought for the rights of African-Americans and other people of color in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember how, eighty-eight years after the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, after eighty-eight years of Jim Crow laws kept people of color segregated, prevented them from voting, relegated them to schools with poor funding, and backed a host of other abuses, finally civil rights were again legally enforced and protected through things like the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the desegregation of schools and other public facilities, and the more general protection of the Civil Rights Act.

But even more important than looking back on those important dates and pieces of legislation, we ought to remember the most difficult challenge faced by Dr. King and others who fight for the protection of civil rights and for recognizing the worth of all humans: the harmful stories that get passed along in our culture (sometimes unintentionaly), the harmful stories that automatically come to our mind as we observe and understand our world.

Dr. King and his contemporaries had to deal with these stories in order to affect any legal changes. They had to work to contradict the stories that undergirded the laws and common practices that harmed people of color. Some of these stories were outrightly racist, stories like: People who are black are dangerous; people who are black are less intelligent; people who are black are from an entirely different race and ancestry than people who are white. Other harmful cultural stories were simply apathetic: People who are black are exaggerating; they have all the same rights I do; they just need to work harder; why are they causing all this trouble?


Memphis sanitation workers during a 1968 strike. Via

Though much has changed in the United States since 1965, harmful and incorrect stories continue to be passed on in our culture. It’s one of those human-nature things that’s been going on since ancient times.

Jesus had to deal with his own share of cultural stories as he did the work of God’s mission. In church we talk a lot about the various stories some of the Jewish people told in the first century about the coming messiah. The messiah will be a mighty warrior; the messiah will take back the throne of Israel; the messiah will judge us all according the law of God (and make the same judgements I would make). It was hard for Jesus to be seen as the messiah when his work was humble, he stood against the religious leaders, his judgments were either gentle or unexpected, and he won his great victory through public execution on the cross. His story was not the story people expected.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us that Jesus had to deal with the misguided stories people told about him on a personal level, too. There were people who knew only one or two things about Jesus, and immediately judged him to be lesser, they completely sidelined him. All Nathanael had heard about Jesus was that he was from Nazareth, and already he’d put Jesus into the cultural story of what people from Nazareth were like. Maybe he was repeating a common hometown joke when he said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus had to almost supernaturally shock him out of that story in order to get Nathanael to see Jesus for who he really was. People form Jesus’s hometown dismissed him because they did know him, and couldn’t shake the story they knew: “Isn’t this the carpenter? Mary’s son?” they ask, offended when he starts to teach in the synagogue (Mark 6:1-6).

Throughout the gospels we also see that Jesus engaged in the work of contradicting common stories and telling new ones for the sake of other people, namely, those people who are most vulnerable in society. In fact he does this so often that it must have been a major part of his ministry. Some examples: Samaritans were hated figures in Jewish culture, yet Jesus made a Samaritan the hero of one of his most famous parables (Luke 10:25-37). When men pointed out to Jesus that the woman in their company was a sinner, Jesus evened the judgement playing field by pointing out that those men were sinners too — aren’t we all? (Luke 7:36-50; John 8:1-11). When his own disciples said that little children weren’t worthy of Jesus’s time, he encouraged all the adults to be more like children (Mark 10:13-15). While it was seemingly natural to admire the religious and political leaders, with their beautiful clothes and obvious righteousness, Jesus told a different story, calling those leaders hypocrites, pointing out all they did to hurt the poor, and instead lifting up the example of the people who were lowly but faithful as the better examples of righteous living (Luke 20:45-21:4). And of course there are the famous Beatitudes, where Jesus turned our idea of who is blessed upside-down: “Blessed are the poor… blessed are the hungry…blessed are those who weep…” (Luke 6:20-26)

Jesus constantly contradicted the cultural stories that did harm and told new stories to help people see the world differently. Jesus called his disciples to be part of his new stories. He wanted them to hear the new stories and also to live those stories. To hear the story that all are sinners, but that God extends grace to all, and then to live it by befriending those society cast out as “too sinful.” To hear that God blesses people who are poor, hungry, suffering, misunderstood, hated, and then to be a blessing to them.

Today Jesus continues to call disciples, to call us, to be part of this work of spotting the harmful stories and telling new stories. We do this when we tell and retell the stories of Jesus, so that his stories are always louder in our minds than the harmful stories of our culture. We do this when we listen to the stories of other people and reflect on them. We do this when we tell our own stories. We do this when we don’t let the harmful stories go unchallenged.

And Jesus calls us to live his stories. To live so that through our actions others may see the truth of God’s story in action: what it looks like in everyday life when every person is valued as a child of God and grace abounds.

Made in the Image of God

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Holy Trinity Sunday + June 11, 2017

Readings: Genesis 1-2:4a; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; Matthew 28:16-20

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that is often called one of the best episodes in the whole seven seasons of that TV series. I’m not sure I’ve even seen the whole episode, but still its story sticks with me; I think about it all the time.

That story — translated as well as I can from nerdy language — goes something like this: the crew of the starship Enterprise (aka the main characters of the show) come into contact with a spaceship from another world — Tamaria. Although the beings on each ship speak in what we would call English, they can’t understand one another. The Enterprise crew knows most of the individual words that the Tamarians say, but when those words get strung together, no one can figure out what that sentence is meant to communicate.

For instance: Captain Picard ends up on a planet alone with the captain of the other ship. The other captain says, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” and then tosses him a dagger. Picard has no idea what’s going on. Is he going to have to fight this man? What does he want?

Eventually Picard and the crew figure out the key to understanding the Tamarian language. Every phrase they say to one another is a reference to a story from their culture. Every short string of words communicates a whole world of characters and emotions and morals. And so when the other captain said just those five words to Picard— “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” — he was telling Captain Picard so much: he was referencing a story about two warriors who were forced to fight dangerous beasts on an island together and then became friends; and when he referenced that story, he was telling Picard that there was a dangerous beast near them; he was telling him he would fight by his side; and he was telling him that he hoped they could become friends; and maybe he was saying even more — all with just five words.[1]

Maybe you actually have a similar language with family or close friends: a bank of stories you draw on together, stories you can reference quickly but that communicate a history of inside jokes or shared memories and meaning. I notice that we Christians do that a lot with our most well-known Bible stories: making quick references to a snake in a garden or “loaves and fishes” and immediately knowing the whole story behind it.

Stories sometimes explain things better than straightforward language or precise definitions. This week during Vacation Bible School, we taught the kids a verse from the Psalms: “God is our refuge and strength” (Psalm 46:1). In order to help them understand what refuge means, we could have given them the dictionary’s definition: “shelter or protection from danger or distress.”[2] But instead we told them stories: Here’s a picture of elephants at a place called an elephant refuge. The elephants go there so they can be protected and taken care of. What would that feel like?

When it comes to explaining the important, technical words of our faith, I think stories work better than definitions. After all the stories came first: scholars formalized the words and concepts later. We tell the story of a holy man who fed the hungry and healed the sick and made friends with sinners, who preached things like, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” who was executed and raised from the dead. And from that story we get words like grace and salvation, Trinity and justification and sacrificial atonement and hypostatic union. And then too often we trip all over ourselves trying to explain those concepts, or we get into really convoluted arguments with one another, or tie ourselves to the definitions we’ve made, and sometimes the story gets lost — the very story that made us think up all those concepts in the first place, the story that teaches us all those things best of all.

Stories — old stories, new stories — are a better language for learning our faith. Like those short phrases from that Star Trek episode, stories communicate on so many more levels than definitions, and they reach us in a different way.

A theological scholar was once asked to define “grace”, and he said: “Have you ever stared up at the stars on a very clear night. You know how that feels? God’s grace is like that.”[3] That little story is more meaningful to me than any book or essay I could have read on grace.

Our readings this morning bring us a couple of those Christian vocabulary words. First we heard a story of God creating the world; and when it got to the part about God creating humans, we heard: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

“Image of God” is one of those phrases that scholars have picked out of that story and pinned down for examination and definition. How exactly did God create us in the image of God? Does God look like us? Does it mean that God gave us some quality that God has: the ability to create, the responsibility to care for this world, the ability to reason at a higher level than the other animals? There are thousands of years of ideas and debate to inspire us.

I thought of that question — What does it mean that we are created in the image of God? — this week after hearing a story an NPR. It was an interview with Will Bardenwerper, author of a book called Prisoner in His Palace, about the twelve U.S. soldiers charged with guarding Saddam Hussein for the months between his capture and execution.

The interview starts with Bardenwerper explaining how those soldiers reacted when they were assigned to guard “the most wanted dictator on the planet.” He said, “I think one of them just blurted out, we should kill him.” But then Bardenwerper explained how things inevitably changed as they spent time with Hussein. They saw a very private, human side of him: a man under house arrest but still carrying himself with dignity; a man spending his days pedaling a squeaky exercise bike. He would greet them with respect, engage them in conversation, play cards and drink tea and smoke cigars with them.

One of the soldiers developed enough of a rapport with Hussein that when the soldier got word that his brother, back home in the U.S., was about to die, he let Hussein know that he’d be gone for a week and why. “[Hussein] got up and embraced him and said…don’t worry. You’re losing one brother, but I will always be your brother.”

Bardenwerper made it clear that the soliders didn’t suddenly start to think of Hussein as a friend and a good guy. They always wondered how much of his behavior with them was genuine affection and how much was manipulation. They were there to do the job of guarding this prisoner, and that’s what they did. They still knew him as the infamous dictator, they remembered that he was on trial for crimes against humanity; but now they also knew him as a fellow human being.

Bardenwerper said that one of the main themes that emerged from his interviews with these soldiers was how much harder it was to guard someone and then watch him get led away to be executed when you’ve gotten to know him as another human being.[4]

That story told me something about what it means that we are made in the “image of God.” That divine image may be covered up by sin so that it’s hard for us to see in another person (or even in ourselves) —- but still there’s something at the basic level of each human being that we recognize, that we all share, that loves and cries out for love — some part of us that was so obviously created by a good and loving God.

And I think so many of our big Christian vocabulary words — salvation and community and mission and grace — are, in at least one simple sense, about how God helps us to see that divine image in ourselves and in others, how God helps us to pull that “image of God” part of us out from underneath our sin and our guilt and our bad habits and our insecurities and our complexes and whatever else is covering it up— how God lifts that “image of God” in us closer and closer to the surface.

God’s work to lift up the image of God in us is done through relationship: through our relationships with one another, and through our relationship with God. That was obvious in the story of the guards and Saddam Hussein. When we humans really get to know one another, the relationship breaks down our prejudices and helps us see the many layers of each person. It complicates our judgement of one another. It helps us remember that God created each of us and God loves each of us — even the most egregious of sinners. And it is relationship with God that helps to heal and restore the image of God in us.

Today is Holy Trinity Sunday, and so we are reminded of another one of those big Christian vocabulary words that is endlessly debated and — perhaps more than any other concept — endlessly confusing. But the story of the Trinity is what we’ve been thinking about all along: it is the story of relationship. The Trinity is the story of one God who is, somehow, also three Persons – the story of a God whose very being is relationship.

And that lofty idea of the Trinity was drawn out of the stories of the early church – the stories those first Christians told of how they experienced relationship with God: God the creator, Parent to us all; God the Son, who walked next to them in flesh like a brother; God the Spirit, who spoke in their hearts to comfort and guide them, who prayed with them, who made them always aware of the divine presence.

As the Triune God draws us into relationship, into the divine dance of compassion and loving judgement and never-ending grace, God helps us see the image of that very Triune God in ourselves and in others, and God sends us out into the world to love others and draw them into the “Dance of Trinity” with us. Thanks be to God.

[1] Star Trek: The Next Generation. “Darmok.” Episode 102 (season 5, episode 2). Directed by Winrich Kolbe. Story by Joe Menosky and Phillip LaZebnik. Teleplay by Joe Menosky. September 30, 1991. (Synopsis available online:


[3] Fuzzy memory of a lecture by Elsa Tamez at Vanderbilt Divinty School.

[4] Rachel Martin interview of Will Bardenwerper.“’Prisoner In His Palace’: Saddam Hussein and His American Guards.” National Public Radio Morning Edition, June 5, 2017. Available online: Accessed June 12, 2017.

The Story God Tells About Us (Ash Wednesday)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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?”


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.)