Hidden Burdens/Come to Jesus

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 5th Sunday After Pentecost + July 9, 2017

Readings: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


Over the last month or so y’all have been involved in a flurry of casting prayers and blessings on members of this congregation as we’ve headed out for youth event after youth event. It started with Vacation Bible School, which was only about a month ago but, to me, already feels like a lifetime ago. This morning, Sandy Vollmer, Pastor Lippard, and a pile of our youth are in a van somewhere between here and Lutherock in North Carolina. In between were other events – Affirm in Alabama, Nights Alive in Nashville. It’s been almost non-stop, and it’s been amazing. You shouldn’t be surprised if you strike up a conversation with me and I eventually start rambling about watching 400 youth dance around to the “holy, holy, holy” song during communion, or how I asked a group of kids what the word “behold,” means, and one little preschooler raised his hand and said, “It kind of means, like, ‘TA-DA!”

Last week Rand Smith and I were chatting before a Worship Planning meeting, and our conversation turned to Affirm: the synod-wide youth gathering that took place a few weeks ago. Rand’s wife, Beth, served on the camp medical staff, as she has for many years, and I’m sure various members of their family have been involved with Affirm for most of its existence. Rand shared with me some of the feedback he’d heard about this year’s Affirm, and eventually he mentioned, “I just learned about ‘Weepy Wednesday…’”

Weepy Wednesday is one of those unofficial traditions at Affirm. According to a conversation I had with Bishop Gordy in the line for the cafeteria salad bar, the Wednesday evening worship service was once intentionally built to be an especially emotional experience, or in Bishop’s words, “They tried to make the kids cry.” But even though that tradition was dropped some years ago, the phrase, “Weepy Wednesday” hangs on – but now it applies to something that happens more naturally but still almost predictably: on Wednesday evening, for some reason, campers will cry.

Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the lesson plans each group follows build to their most intense point in the middle of the week. Maybe Weepy Wednesday happens because the campers have started to feel safe with their small groups after a few days together. Probably some combination of things: but regardless, it happens.

My first Weepy Wednesday experience felt like it came totally out of the blue. I was on staff with a unit called Bridges, and we spent the week focusing on the differences between people, the things that turn those differences into things that divide us, and how we can “build bridges” over those divides. So from the very beginning we’d been having intense conversations about our own identities and experiences and a lot of tough topics: racism, sexism, stereotypes, violence. I’d thought we’d already been getting deeply personal.  But for some reason when Wednesday evening came, it was like a floodgate burst open. All of a sudden a dozen teenagers were lying on the floor, crying and sharing their deepest, most hidden hurts with one another. My heart broke when I heard the heavy burdens some of the teenagers were bearing.

This year, at least, I saw my Weepy Wednesday experience coming. One of the units, called Exodus, spends the first part of the week focusing on some of life’s toughest issues, like sin and death. Everyone in the unit carries a brick with them everywhere they go; it’s supposed to symbolize the burdens they bear. On Wednesday evening they finally lay down their burdens: they let go of their brick; they write burdens or sins on pieces of paper and watch them dissolve in water; they participate in a service of group confession, and they are given the option of meeting with a pastor for a time of private confession. Later in the evening, they will lie down on the floor, then someone will take their hand and physically raise them up to their new life in Christ. And the next morning is an Easter party.

I was asked to be part of Exodus’s Wednesday evening because they needed a female pastor for the time of private confession. So once again I found myself experiencing Weepy Wednesday: teenagers crying and sharing the hurts they hid from the world.

And as, once again, I found myself shocked by the stories these teenagers shared with me, I thought: we just never know what burdens other people are carrying, hidden away so carefully.

In today’s reading from Romans, Paul described the burden of his own sinfulness in what I think are some of the most relatable words of the whole Bible (I catch myself thinking them a lot): “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

Some of the burdens we bear are like that: Struggles with our own sins, our own tendency to make poor choices, our own bad habits and addictions.  Along similar lines: we might bear the burdens of focusing on our insufficiencies, we might insult ourselves, we might feel like we will never be good enough. We might feel like Paul: trapped and overpowered by something within us.

Sometimes our burdens come from outside of us: other people’s sin affects our lives; in their brokenness, they hurt us; and sometimes the world just turns in ways that injure us – seemingly without reason. We can feel trapped and overpowered by things outside of us, too.

We express this feeling of being trapped by wrong forces within or without in different ways: Christianity has terms like “original sin” and “total depravity,” and in the Bible we often read about people’s “hardness of heart.”

And sometimes we make up complicated rules or formulas for how to escape that feeling of being trapped. If the problem feels so complicated and inescapable, surely the solution must also be complex, some specific set of things that will, like a combination on a lock, click into place and set us free.

Making things too complicated – and being stubborn and prideful and hypocritical about it — what Jesus seems to have been criticizing people for in the beginning of today’s gospel reading. They said they were open to receiving God’s messengers, but when those messengers came, they never fit the bill. First, John the Baptist was too strict and weird. Then Jesus was too lax: he ate and drank too much and hung out with the wrong sort of people.

Next there’s a part of Jesus’s speech left out by our lectionary: where Jesus proclaimed “Woe to you!” to the cities who had refused his message. He did not fit their bill, either.

And then suddenly Jesus switched tone. We hear his prayer: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The idea seems to be: all these people are applying their complicated rules and expectations, but it only leads them to deny me and you. They stay trapped in themselves and in the ways of the world. But really your offer of freedom is so simple, a baby could grasp it.

And how does Jesus say we can get that freedom from our entrapping burdens?

Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

 That’s it. The big key the messiah offered to finding rest from our burdens and our feelings of being trapped is: Come to me, and I will give you rest.

For us, I think that means two things:

First – and this is probably what you’re already thinking about – is coming to Jesus in that personal, spiritual sense. Coming to trust in a God who cares for you; who offers you forgiveness for your own sin and fights against the sinful forces outside of you. Coming to find peace and rest in giving your burdens to God in prayer, knowing that God will bear those burdens with you. Like in that famous hymn:

What a friend we have in Jesus,

All our sins and griefs to bear!

What a privilege to carry

Everything to God in prayer![1]

 There is also another way we who are weary and carrying heavy burdens can come to Jesus, and this one is more physical and more communal. We remember that the Church is now the Body of Christ on earth, and so we learn to come together. We come to trust one another, to get past our fear or our pride and to share our burdens with one another. We come to find in yet another sense that we are not alone in bearing our burdens. And, like the Affirm kids on Weepy Wednesday, maybe we can find a sense of relief and peace in sharing our burdens with one another.

In coming together, we come to Christ.

Let us pray:

We rejoice, O Christ,
for in your tender compassion
you shoulder our burdens and ease our heavy hearts.
Give us the strength to carry each other
as you have carried us. Amen.[2]


[1] Joseph Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship 742.

[2] From Vanderbilt Divinity Library’s Revised Common Lectionary prayer resources, Proper 9 (14), Fifth Sunday After Pentecost, July 9, 2017. Available online: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/prayers.php?id=149 Accessed July 8, 2017.

For Good Friday (and the Moments Like It)

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + Good Friday + April 14, 2017

Reading: John 18-19


In 1928 Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just 22 years old and still too young to be ordained  — preached these words as part of a sermon:

On Good Friday let us not think right away about the fact that with Easter things were given a new direction. We want to think about how with the death of Jesus the disciples saw all hope dashed. Scattered from each other, they brooded in hopeless sorrow about what had happened. Only when we can take the death of Jesus just as seriously as they did, will we rightly understand what the resurrection message can bring.[1]

So I want us to dwell in this hopeless moment with the disciples for a while. They didn’t know would happen next. We may look back and say: they should have known; Jesus told them he would be raised from the dead. But would we have been able to believe that after the whirlwind of betrayal and violence? All the hopes raised by Jesus’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the people taking to the streets with palm branches to welcome him, shouting “Hosanna!” — all those hopes shattered just a few days later, after one of Jesus’s closest disciples led the police right to him, after the crowds of Jerusalem suddenly changed their cry from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” It had all changed so quickly, and all the disciples’ dreams of following their beloved leader into a new world hung there on the cross with him, crucified by the same old cruel world that always had been and always would be. The disciples hid themselves away and let that truth dig its hopeless hole inside them: Jesus was dead. It was over. It had all been for nothing.

Good Friday is a holy time to reflect on this moment of hopelessness and the millions of other moments like it. Such times — when all seems lost — are tragically commonplace. We know them from history: people being captured and enslaved; stock markets crashing; boats sinking; trains of people pulling into internment camps; wars being declared and wars being surrendered. We know hopeless moments from the news: shootings; human trafficking; starvation; bombs dropping. We know hopeless moments from personal experience: job loss; a bad diagnosis; injury; depression; broken relationships; death.

And yet as Christians on this side of Easter, even in such hopeless moments, we hold on to hope. We call this Friday, where we remember Christ’s crucifixion, “good.” We believe that God is there in our moments of tragedy. Why do we hold on to hope? How?

We hold on to hope because we know what comes next in this story and in stories like it. We know stories from the Bible: Joseph was left for dead, sold into slavery, and then imprisoned; but then he became a powerful leader in Egypt and saved his family from a famine (Genesis 37, 39-45). Moses killed a man and ran away from Pharaoh’s punishment into self-exile, but during his exile he was called by God to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 2-3). We know stories from our own time: John Garrett suffered from a terrible heart condition, but he became a great spokesperson for organ donation. My grandmother was a fairly young widow, but in her widowhood she has learned to drive and overcome her fear of flying and made so many new friends. Your world probably once felt like it was ending, but you made it through.

Jesus was crucified, but the resurrection morning is coming.

As, in the Old Testament, Joseph said to his brothers, so we can say to the moments where hopelessness threatens us: “Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). We believe that one day we will look back on the darkest moments of our lives and be able to see them as the blessed dirt out of which God grew new life again. Jesus taught us this in the Beatitudes:

“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh” (Luke 6:21).

The Good Friday moment, which seem so senseless, which feels like it must be an ending, or a pit we can’t climb out of — God will helps us make meaning out of it and find the good on the other side.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke once wrote to a student who going through a time of suffering:

“So don’t be frightened, dear friend, if a sadness confronts you larger than any you have ever known, casting its shadow over all you do. You must think that something is happening within you, and remember that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hand and will not let you fall. Why would you want to exclude from your life any uneasiness, any pain, any depression, since you don’t know what work they are accomplishing within you?”[2]

When Jesus was crucified, the disciples felt hopeless, afraid, left with nothing. Even Jesus felt abandoned by God in that moment. But we believe that God was there, suffering with them in the face of the world’s injustice and sin, but ready to use that evil moment for good. Ready to turn tragedy into a miracle, ready to turn death into new life.

And so we can remember in our moments of loneliness and loss, depression and hopelessness: even those moments are blessed by God with the promise of the future.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, sermon in Barcelona for the third Sunday in Lent, 11 March 1928. Quoted in God is on the Cross, trans. O. C. Dean Jr., ed. Jana Riess, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 102.

[2] Ranier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet.

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.

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

But for the Grace of God, There go I

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin TN + Third Sunday in Lent + February 28, 2016

Readings: Isaiah 55:1-9; 1 Cor. 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9


 

“There but for the grace of God go I.” That’s one of those phrases most of us have picked up somewhere or other along the way, and we’ve long forgotten who said it first.

The oldest story about that phrase gives credit to John Bradford, a Protestant reformer in England during the violent religious upheavals of the 1500s. He served as chaplain to King Edward VI — the Protestant son of Henry VIII — and then he was burned at the stake during the Catholic backlash of Queen Mary’s reign. But even before his martyrdom he was known as “Holy Bradford” — not mockingly, but because of his reputation as a remarkably unselfish and humble man.

The story goes that whenever Holy Bradford saw criminals being led to their execution, he would exclaim, “But for the grace of God there goes John Bradford.” In other words: that could so easily have been my fate; I’m standing here not because I’m a better person by nature than they are, but because of God’s grace — because of forces beyond my sin or morality.[1]

This is close to the message Jesus communicated to the crowds in today’s gospel reading. Some of the people brought him news: Pilate ordered the death of some Galileans who were in Jerusalem, offering sacrifices at the Temple. Jesus responded, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” In other words: But by the grace of God, there go you.

His response seems harsh, but it makes a little more sense in context. Before these people brought him the news, Jesus had been teaching and telling stories with a common theme: Be ready. Expect the Kingdom of God. Live and work like the Kingdom is about to knock down your door.

He told one parable about a servant who is left in charge of the property while his master is away. The servant thinks, “Well, I’ve got some time before the master comes back,” and he starts acting like the king of the place. The tyrannical king. This guy beats the other servants, gorges himself on the food, gets drunk on the wine. But then the master comes back sooner than he’d been expected — and the servant is in big trouble (Lk. 12:41-48). At the end of the parable, Jesus spoke another of our now-common phrases: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

Then Jesus gets on the crowd listening to him: Why is it that you can look at a cloudy sky and figure out that it’s going to rain, but you can’t figure out what’s going on in this time? And why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right, instead of waiting for a judge to punish you (Lk. 12:54-59)?

The author of this Gospel linked these teachings directly to the scene in our gospel reading for today. He wrote, “At that very time there were some present who told [Jesus] about the Galileans” who’d been killed by Pilate.

Why did they pick that moment to tell Jesus about the tragedy? Based on Jesus’s reaction to them, it seems like they were saying that the Galileans got what was coming to them. Were the messengers trying to prove that they were on the same page as Jesus? “Oh, we can see what’s going on in this time. God’s judgement is here; just look at those sinners who got punished in Jerusalem!” Were they thinking, “Oh, I see what you mean, Jesus. Those Galileans got punished, just like that bad servant in your story”?

But they didn’t get it. Jesus’s point had been that we must each be ready, we must each live like the kingdom is here. But these guys deflected the message: they weren’t taking in Jesus’s words and thinking about how they could live differently; they were saying, “Hey Jesus, those are the guys you’re talking about, right?”

But Jesus defended the victims of the tragedy. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” You’re not that different than those Galileans cut down by Pilate’s viciousness; you’re not that different than the 18 people who died when that tower fell in Jerusalem. But by the grace of God, there go you, too.

When we see tragedy befall others, we often tell ourselves that it couldn’t happen to us; we’re different. It’s a way of protecting ourselves. Even if the tragedy is so horribly random as being in the wrong place at the wrong time: underneath a tower that collapses; on a street corner in Kalamazoo when someone drives by with a gun. We’ll do mental gymnastics to try and make up a reason why this would happen to that person, but not to us. It helps us feel safe.

I always remember the time I took a group of college students to New Orleans for a mission trip. We were staying in the Lower Ninth Ward, freaking out a little about the size of the bugs in our sleeping area. One young woman said, “I reminded myself that God wouldn’t let a bug hurt me.” I was unnerved by that statement, since we sat in a building that had once held water up to its ceiling, in a neighborhood where houses were still spray-painted with the number of bodies that had been found inside. Did we have a special status in God’s eyes compared with the people living there when the levy broke? No: but by the grace of God, there go I.

When the tragedy is more obviously human-made, we even more frequently tell ourselves it couldn’t happen to us. When a pattern of racism or sexism emerges, the majority of people find ways to explain that each individual in that pattern somehow deserves it. When there is a report of a rape, there is always a contingent of people explaining how the victim did something to encourage it, or to let it happen. In the U.S. there is a common attitude that if a person is poor it has to be because they’re lazy.

Even when a person did do something to cause their fate, can we really think of ourselves as so very different? The guys I meet in jail definitely did something to land themselves there. But when I hear their stories, I can’t help but wonder: “If I had grown up in a neighborhood where I had to watch my back for shootings; if all the people around me were addicted or dealing; if my own father had pushed me in front of a moving car…if I’d been born into your life, would I have been so different?” I know some heroic people are able to climb out of such horrible situations with more righteousness; I’m just not so sure I would be one of them. But by the grace of God, there go I.

If each individual is totally to blame for their suffering, than that means we have enough control over our lives to protect ourselves. But today’s gospel reading reminds us of what we all already know: life is much more chaotic and fragile than that. Bad news can come at any time. Accidents happen. Sickness happens. Housing markets crash. People hate one another and hurt one another for stupid reasons. And we all struggle with sin. But by the grace of God there go all of us.

But Jesus said more to the bearers of bad news than, “Be thankful; that could have been you.” He says, “Repent.” He says, “Change your ways.”

One of the problems with thinking that “they got what they deserve” and “It didn’t happen to me, because I’m different,” is: that response doesn’t demand anything of me. In that way of thinking, the world is as it should be. Nothing needs to change. Certainly I don’t need to change.

But one of the fundamental messages of Christianity is that the world is not as it should be. The world is broken and tangled up in its own sin. And each of us is part of that tangled mess.

The “good news” side of that message is this: There is some suffering we can work against; some sin we can turn away from, some goodness we can build up.

One of Jesus’ main messages to the crowd that had gathered around him was: don’t wait till you hear death’s knock on your door. Don’t wait till you see the Son of Man coming on the clouds to judge what’s right and what’s wrong. Start untangling yourself from that mess of sin now. Start living in God’s Kingdom now.

Our gospel reading ends with a parable: the landowner wants to cut down a fruitless tree; the gardener wants to work at it for one more year. I don’t think Jesus is saying: “God wants to you down for your lack of good works, but I’m trying to buy you some time.” That doesn’t fit with what Jesus said, just a little while before: Do not worry; God cares for you. “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your fathers good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:22-32).

I think what that parable is getting at is: if we take the hard, nihilistic but not unreasonable view of life: we’re all waiting for the ax to fall, one way or another. But now, we have time. Now, we have a gardener caring for us. We are being fertilized with the good news of the gospel, with God’s love and mercy, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with all the material blessings we receive. Now is the time to repent; now is the time to bear fruit. Now is the time to live like God’s kingdom is already here.


 

[1] “John Bradford,” Wikipedia. www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bradford. Accessed 2.29.2016. The earliest extant mention of Bradford’s use of the phrase is in Edward Bickersteth’s A Treatise on Prayer (1822).

Testing the Messiah

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 1st Sunday in Lent + February 14, 2016

Readings: Deut. 26:1-11; Rom. 10:8b-13; Luke 4:1-13


 

Many of you know by now that I have a German Shepherd Dog named Hugo, who is not quite two years old. And that dog, at that age, needs a lot of exercise. One trick I’ve found that helps me to both wear down some of Hugo’s energy and get some work done is to listen to podcasts that help interpret the Bible readings for the week.  A side effect of this is that my neighbors probably think I’m crazy. I’ll be throwing a Frisbee with my dog, then suddenly stop, and my jaw will drop open, and then I run into the house to take notes on some exciting insight that just came through my earbuds. That happened twice with the commentary on this week’s gospel reading.

The first exciting insight was this. In this passage, the devil tests Jesus by suggesting three different things: (1) turn stone into bread; (2) worship the devil in exchange for worldwide political power; (3) throw himself off the top of the temple to prove that God will save him. Jesus refuses all three suggestions, proving his obedience to God. But — so the cool insight goes — what if the devil was testing Jesus about something even more specific than his obedience to God? What if the devil was testing Jesus’s obedience to his calling? Testing Jesus’s understanding of what it means to be the messiah?[1]

That idea fits pretty well with what’s going on in the story. Something really monumental happens right before the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tested for 40 days. Right before all that happens, Jesus is baptized. When he comes up out of the water, the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descends upon him, and a voice from heaven says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). This is the moment when Jesus is publicly anointed as the messiah, the moment when his mission officially begins. But first: he is tested in the wilderness. He is already anointed, he is already chosen. But does he know what that means?

The devil begins two of the temptations with the same words: “If you are the Son of God…” And we can hear all that he is implying: If you are God’s chosen one, if you are God-made-flesh, if you are the one they’ve all been waiting for, if you are the messiah…let’s see it. Let’s see your miracles. Let’s see how much God loves you. Let’s see your power and blessedness.

 But Jesus resists the temptation to think that being the Son of God means getting power and honor and angelic bodyguards. Instead he tells the devil what it truly means to be chosen by God: to live on God’s word, to worship and serve God, to trust God and obey God’s will. None of those things are motivated by guarantees of blessings; they are simply the faithful way to be. The life of the messiah is not marked by glory but by faithfulness.

When Jesus leaves the wilderness and returns to society, we see that he does indeed live his life by these marks of faithfulness. He sides with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, and the sinner. He stands against the powerful, the wealthy, and the religious people who are abusing their gifts and abusing their fellow humans. Eventually, he is put in handcuffs. He is brought to trial. He is executed. That is what happened to the most faithful man that has ever lived. This is what happened to the Son of God.

The second exciting insight has to do with us. Can we be faithful to this understanding of what it means to be the messiah? Can we follow in the way of the messiah?

Often we are not. Often we fall into thinking that following the Son of God ought to guarantee us a good life…or at least less suffering and more blessings. We end up expecting God to give us the good stuff.

The biblical scholar talking to me through my earbuds this week put it this way: when we read stories of Jesus talking to the Pharisees, we usually imagine ourselves in the place of the Pharisees. When we read stories of Jesus talking to the disciples, we imagine ourselves in the place of the disciples. So what if, when we read this story of Jesus talking to the devil, we imagine ourselves in the place of the devil?

The result sounds pretty familiar: If you are the Son of God, fix my problems. If you are the Son of God, lead me into wealth. If you are the Son of God, protect me. Turn this rock into bread.

 It’s a mistake we Christians often make, and it’s a common criticism from people outside the faith. “If your God really loves you, why do bad things happen to you?”[2]

But living a successful, comfortable life has never been a guarantee of faith. Yes, Jesus heals people. Yes, Jesus multiplies the fishes and loaves. All these things are possible. But the only thing he ever guarantees his disciples is that they will suffer for the gospel, just as he did (ex., Matt. 24:9; Luke 21:16-19).

In a culture where Christianity is so often marked by the prosperity gospel, can we be faithful to that understanding of being a Christian?

The season of Lent can help us be faithful to our suffering messiah. Lent begs us to remember the suffering side of the Christian life: on Ash Wednesday we remember that we are mortal, that illness and ailments and accidents and time still have power over our bodies. During Lent we remember that we are sinners, and we need to do the work of confessing and changing. During Lent we remember the ways sin has built the world around us: many are poor, many face discrimination, many are sick, many are trapped — and we are called to know those who suffer, and to help.

During Lent we are reminded that the Son of God did not come into the world so that he could tap it with a magic wand and make everything perfect. That would have been nice, but that’s not what he did. Instead, he freed people from bondage to sin and fear and social status, and he showed them that they were welcome into a relationship with God. He redefined what it means to be blessed. He took up our weakness and our pain, and he made them holy.

When I worship with the guys in one of the Davidson County jails, we begin almost every worship service with the same song. It’s called “Glory, Glory;” it’s this up-beat gospel number that praises for God for the blessings we receive when we give our burdens over to God.

But at one service one of the guys — this beardy fella called Tweety — described one of his burdens as a blessing from God. Tweety struggles with controlling his anger; when someone steps on his toes, his first reaction has always been to get mad, yell, start a fight. Over the months I’ve known him, I’ve often heard him ask for prayer to help him react in love instead. He even talks about trying to change the angry culture that exists among his bunkmates.

Last week he stood up and said, “I’ve been struggling this week. I’ve been backsliding; I’ve gotten mad and lost it a couple of times. Then I get back to my bunk, and I realize that I’ve sinned. My sin weighs on my heart. But I’m glad for that burden, I love that burden, because I know it’s God helping me get back on the right track.”

When we lay our sin and our suffering before God, they become part of what God is doing in us. They become part of what God is doing in the world through us.

That is one of the strange “good news” messages of Lent: that our weakness or pain are not signs that God is weak or nonexistent; they are not signs that God does not love us or that we are not faithful enough. They are part of the beautiful, broken reality of being human. And when we bring that weakness and pain into our life with God, God can use them for good.

This is, after all, the God of Jesus Christ, who did not throw himself off of the Temple to prove that the angels would catch him. Instead he took on sin, suffered, and died, so that our own sinning, suffering, and dying would not be the death of us — but the seeds of new life.


 

[1] “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent,” Sermon Brainwave (podcast) from WorkingPreacher.org, with Caroline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, and Matt Skinner. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx. Idea that the “tests” regard Jesus’s understanding of messiahship comes from Matt Skinner.

[2] Rolf Jacobson, “SB463 – First Sunday in Lent.”

WWJD? Serve and suffer.

Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 21st Sunday After Pentecost + October 18, 2015

Readings: Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

My brother, John, is a senior in high school this year. I called home the other day, and he answered: “You’re talking to the new president of the Science Olympiad Team!” I congratulated him, and he continued, “I don’t know why they voted for me. My campaign wasn’t very strong, and the other candidate was really good.” I asked him what his election platform had been. He said he’d run under the slogan “What would John do?” I laughed first, but then I thought: well, that’s not such a bad slogan. If I trust what John would do in most situations, that’s a good reason to give him my vote. And I guess it worked.

Later I told a friend that story, and that got us reminiscing about those “WWJD?” bracelets that were so popular in the ‘90s. Kids all over the school had brightly-colored bracelets tied around their wrists to remind them to ask “What would Jesus do?” in every situation.

But since my time at Lutherock this summer, I can’t think about those bracelets without hearing Pastor Alex Hoffner’s voice in my head. He was in seminary when the bracelets were popular, and he told us — in his unforgettably intense, southern preacher-storyteller way — about a professor who hated the bracelets. When he saw a student wearing a WWJD? bracelet, he would get in real’ close to them and say: “What would Jesus do? Jesus would die! Are you ready to die? Then take that thing off!”

I guess that professor thought the WWJD? fad represented a watered-down form of Christianity, like it just skimmed the top of the question of what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes. A lot of the time, when we think about what Jesus would do, we think about being kinder. Being nice even to those that are mean to us; being generous in giving to charity and maybe the occasional beggar; if we’re feeling particularly spiritual, we might even ask the “weird guy” if he might like to sit at our lunch table. Which matches how we remember Jesus most of the time: as a kind, compassionate man who knew how to turn the other cheek and love everyone. And being that kind of person is difficult. It is a way of putting other people before ourselves that requires some suffering on our part, some acting out of the “dying-to-self” part of our baptism. But that image of Jesus is just one facet of who Jesus is. It kind of makes Jesus into a teddy bear.

I did not expect this when I googled “teddy bear Jesus.” From the Teddy Bear Museum in Jeju Island, South Korea. (More pictures here.)

But while Jesus was compassionate, that compassion could sometimes come out fiercely — less like a teddy bear, and more like a mother bear ready to defend her cubs. Jesus publicly condemned the religious leaders for their hypocrisy and greed and thirst for power and position (Matt. 23); Jesus dares to say that the rich will lose their position in God’s kingdom (Lk. 6:24-26); Jesus speaks up for those who are being abused by those in power. Jesus welcomes not just the outsiders, but the sinners (Lk. 15:1-2). Jesus is arrested, suffers, and dies, and Jesus demands that his followers carry that same cross. How many of us saw all those harsh stories when we looked down at our WWJD bracelet?

It’s been said that the Gospel of Mark was written for an early group of Christians who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to the work of the messiah and who could not get their heads around the idea that the cross is essential to discipleship.[1] The cross — meaning suffering, shame, death, and not just death, but laying down our lives — is not just an accidental part of Christ’s mission; it’s not just an incidental part of God’s plan that we have to get past in order to get the “real” stuff of the plan. The cross is the real plan. Jesus could not have been the messiah without being a suffering servant; and we cannot be true disciples without being suffering servants as well. That’s what the Gospel of Mark is all about.

In today’s gospel reading, we see that yet again the disciples themselves are missing that point. Just a few weeks ago we heard a story about the disciples arguing over who is the greatest of the disciples (Mark 9:30-37). And Jesus explains, “You’ve got it all wrong. Whoever wants to be the greatest must be a servant to everyone.”

And now, just a few stories later, they’re at it again. Two of the disciples ask to be granted special places of power in Jesus’s kingdom. Jesus answers in the symbolic language of “drinking the cup that I drink” and being “baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with.” Because we know what is about to happen to Jesus, we know what he is warning them about: those who wish to be leaders like Jesus must be prepared to suffer like Jesus.

Then the rest of the disciples get word of this conversation, and they’re mad: Who are you two to ask for a special place? Who are you two to be rulers over the rest of us? But Jesus gives them almost exactly the same speech he gave them before: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Mark tells these kinds of stories over and over because the people he was writing to didn’t get it. He thought they needed to hear over and over that following Jesus is not about getting rewarded; it’s about suffering like Jesus suffered.

But Mark wasn’t alone in this effort. The entire New Testament is filled with the language of crucifixion, suffering, sacrifice, servant, slave, death.[2] It seems every writer felt the need to make the same points, because so, so many early Christians were having trouble taking in the same message: following Jesus is not about “living the good life” or about being better than others because we believe or because we go to church or because we follow a strict moral code: it’s about being willing to sacrifice and suffer so that others might live.

From the very beginning Christians have struggled to take in that message, and America’s Christian culture today is missing it, too. We tend to focus on what God’s love for us gives to us: forgiveness, peace of mind, strength, comfort, assurance, hope. We think sometimes about what God’s love for us demands of us, for our own good: repentance, change, obedience, courage.

But it’s more difficult to think of what God’s love for others demands of us: sacrifice, sharing, giving up our rights, speaking up on behalf of others, taking the place of servant so that others may feel the real effects of God’s love in their lives. We are called to sacrifice and to suffer not just so that our own lives may be better for it, but — and perhaps even more importantly — so that others’ lives may be better for it. And if we are truly called to do what Jesus would do, then we are called to be suffering servants — and that might mean making our lives worse for the sake of others. And if we are called to sacrifice and suffer for others even in ways that do not make sense, that do not seem fair, it is because we are called by the grace of God. And God’s grace does not flow from reason or fairness — thank God — but from love.

We are about to sing the hymn “By Gracious Powers,” (text / choral recording) which is based on a poem written by German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer just a few months before he was killed by the Nazis in April 1945. Bonhoeffer had been imprisoned for two years for undercover work against the Nazis, and was executed when he was linked to a conspiracy to kill Hitler.

Bonhoeffer with confirmation students, 1932. Image from German Federal Archive, available via wikimedia commons.

Amazingly, while in prison he was still working as theologian, writing essays on what he learned of God from his experiences. He planned out a book with this as the main point: that the greatest and most fundamental thing about Jesus Christ is that he existed for others. His power, his wisdom, his might — all this is grounded in his existence for others. Bonhoeffer wrote: “Our relation to God is not a ‘religious’ relationship to the highest, most powerful, and best Being imaginable — that is not authentic transcendence — but our relation to God is a new life in ‘existence for others,’ through participation in the being of Jesus.”[3]

And for Bonhoeffer this wasn’t just abstract thinking. This was something he knew about because he was living it. And he knew exactly how painful it could be. Bonhoeffer was saintly in his willingness to suffer and sacrifice for the sake of others. He had taken a teaching position in America in 1939 in order to escape the necessity of swearing an oath to Hitler, but soon returned to Germany because he felt he must suffer with his people. Later, while he was in prison, a guard offered to help him escape and go into hiding, but Bonhoeffer turned down the offer, because he feared it might bring further suffering on his friends still in prison.

But what is most amazing in all this is Bonhoeffer’s faith that God was with him in the midst of his sacrifice and his suffering. This is what we hear in the poem, in language that sounds like it comes straight from today’s gospel reading:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

we will not falter, thankfully receiving

all that is given by thy loving hand.[4]

God’s love so filled Bonhoeffer that he could not help but choose to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for others. And even in the midst of his very human fear and despair, Bonhoeffer found some joy in that participation in Christ’s existence for others.

It’s unlikely that any of us will be called up to be a spy for the sake of the gospel, or to be imprisoned, or to die. But we are called to make radical, sacrificial choices every day as bearers of God’s grace to this world. May we listen more closely for those calls and be ready to sacrifice what they demand, in Jesus name. Amen.


[1] This is a common interpretation of Mark, but I’m riffing directly off of Fred Craddock, who was quoted by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton on the Lectionary Lab Live podcast for this week. The show’s blog is available here.

[2] This idea, too, comes from the work of Rev. Dr. Chilton and Rev. Dr. John Fairless in their Lectionary Lab Live Podcast.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (Enlarged Edition), ed. Eberhard Bethge (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1972), pp. 381.

[4] Bonhoeffer, “Powers of Good,”  Letters and Papers from Prison, 400.