Message Received

Matthew 10:40-42

I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric.  I remember how Eric was attracted by the crowd one Sunday evening when we were doing Stories, Songs, and Supper.  I was pretty sure when I first saw him that he was homeless although to be fair, his clothes were cleaner and neater than most in that condition.  

He stood at the church door and asked what was happening as he saw people gathering, greeting each other, laughing, and we told him, “It’s a thing we do called Stories, Songs, and Supper.  We share a meal then sing a bunch of old familiar songs, then someone tells a story, then we sing a little more.”  We invited him to come in and join us.  So he did.

While he was eating he told us a bit about himself—he had a gift of gab—then after supper he helped clear the tables.  He joined right in with the singing and he had a pretty decent voice.  Somewhere in the midst of all that let it be known in his own gregarious way that joining with us that evening was a particular treat for him because it happened to be his birthday.  So we all sang Happy Birthday to him.  At the end of the evening, as he was leaving, he asked if he could borrow a book from the book table in the fellowship hall.  He took a novel and promised to return it.

The next Sunday, Eric was there for Sunday morning worship.  Soon he was participating in Adult Education classes and Bible study.  He joined in with one of our small groups in the work they were doing with Lutheran Social Services.  In almost no time Eric had become an important member of our little family of faith. 

We welcomed Eric into our lives and Eric welcomed us into his.  And we were all richer for it.

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me,” said Jesus in the tenth chapter of Matthew.  This is the same gospel in which Jesus later says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Christ often comes to us in ways we’re not expecting.  When we welcome the unexpected stranger, or graciously accept a welcome when we are the unexpected stranger, we experience the presence and grace of God in new and enriching ways.

I remember one dreary afternoon when the sky was the color of lead and the rain was relentless.  The light coming in my office window had unconditionally surrendered to winter and my mood matched the weather.  Suddenly I heard this bright, jazzy music coming from downstairs.  I ran down the stairs and there in the Fellowship Hall was Eric, pounding out boogie-woogie on the old out-of-tune piano.  Who knew?  He had come in to the hall to get out of the rain and the mood had come on him to just sit down and play.  He apologized for disturbing me and I told him, “No apologies necessary!  You brought light into a gloomy day! Keep playing.”

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

We learned a lot from Eric.  We learned a little about life on the streets.  We learned more than we wanted to know about our neighbors’ attitudes toward the homeless.  We learned how the police and the justice system in our city respond to those who are experiencing homelessness.  We learned about our own attitudes toward those living rough.  Most of all, though, we experienced an energy and vitality that’s been missing since he left us.  All this because we welcomed one gregarious man into our party on his birthday.

As I read the scriptures and the history of the Church, I see a story where the Holy Spirit is always trying to open the door of welcome wider.  Sadly, though, every time the Spirit pushes the door open wider, there are more than a few trying to close it.  

God made a covenant with Abraham and told him that his descendants would be a blessing to all nations, but then his descendants tried to make it a “descendants only” club. 

Jesus welcomed “tax collectors and sinners” to his fellowship table but the Pharisees were scandalized and critical.  How could he be from God if he associated with such people?  Then down through the years, even the followers of Christ, people calling themselves by his name, would make all kinds of gateway tests of belief and morality to decide who was worthy of coming to Christ’s table.

When the Church was barely up and running Peter, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, baptized Cornelius and his household, Roman gentiles.  In response, James and the other Apostles back at headquarters in Jerusalem had a tizzy fit and raised all kinds “who gave you permission” questions.  

St. Paul placed women in the pastorate and leadership ranks of the congregations he established (Junia, Julia, Prisca, Lydia, Euodia, Scyntyche), but before he was cold in his grave other patriarchal hands were editing his writing (1 Cor. 14:34-36) while still others borrowed his name to write  the women out of their jobs (1 Timothy 2).  

Not exactly welcoming.

This month in the ELCA we celebrate the 50th anniversary of a change in wording in the bylaws of the Lutheran Church in America and the American Lutheran Church, two of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA.  Fifty years ago they voted to change the word “man” to the word “person” in their bylaws, thereby opening the door for the ordination of women. 

Fifty years later, women clergy often struggle with challenges that male clergy do not.  They deal with sexual harassment, disrespect, and often lower pay due to gender-based discrimination.  Some congregations still refuse to call a woman as pastor even when there are no other candidates.  The saddest part of that is that in doing so these congregations are depriving themselves of the gifts these talented women bring with them, gifts that could revitalize and renew them.  

When I think of the women pastors I know, I feel a tremendous hope and confidence for the future of the church.  If anyone can lead us to a brighter day, they can.

“Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

Eric taught us this lesson well: When we welcome the unexpected guest, we receive unexpected gifts. 

Fifty years ago the Spirit moved to open the door wider so that the church could receive the bountiful gifts that women bring through ordained service.  Eleven years ago the Spirit opened the door wider again when the ELCA voted to allow the ordination of LGTBQ persons.  And the church is richer for their ministry.

Today we stand at the edge of a tidal shift in our culture in regard to race, economic structures, and societal systems.  The Holy Spirit is pushing the door open yet again and maybe, maybe even pushing down the walls.  Church will be different.  There are new prophetic voices to hear.  New righteous persons to receive.  New gifts being given.  The only question is, will we welcome them?

In Jesus’ name.

 

Don’t Be Afraid

Matthew 10:24-39

[Jesus said,]   “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  25 it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household! 

26  “So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  27 What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.  28 Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna) 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  31 So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. 

32  “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven;  33 but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven. 

34   “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. 

35       For I have come to set a man against his father,

         and a daughter against her mother

         and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; 

36       and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.  37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;  38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.  39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Standing up for what you believe in, standing up for the right thing, can cost you. 

When Tommie Smith and John Carlos won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter dash in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, they stood on the awards podium with their black-gloved fists raised in what the press called a Black Power salute to call attention to  the ongoing fight for civil rights in the United States.  Tommie Smith and John Carlos called it a Human Rights Salute.  Standing with them on the podium was the silver medalist, a white man, an Australian named Peter Norman.  Norman didn’t raise his fist but he did something else that brought down the whirlwind.   In solidarity with Smith and Carlos, he wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge on his uniform.  

After the race, Carlos and Smith had told Norman what they planned to do during the ceremony and Norman encouraged them.  They asked Norman if he believed in human rights.  He said he did.  Then Smith and Carlos asked Norman if he believed in God.  He said he believed strongly in God and that what they were about to do was more important than any athletic accomplishment.  And then he said, “I’ll stand with you.” On their way to the medals ceremony Norman saw the Human Rights badge being worn by Paul Hoffman, a white member of the US rowing team and asked if he could borrow it for the ceremony.  He didn’t feel it was appropriate to raise his fist because that particular symbol belonged to the people whose civil rights were being denied.  But he could wear the patch.

That moment of solidarity was costly for Peter Norman.  He never returned to the Olympics.  Back in Australia he became a figure of controversy and got somewhat lost in his own life.  “If we were getting beat up,” said John Carlos years later, “Peter was facing an entire country and suffering alone.”

A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;  it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!” says Jesus in today’s gospel reading.  In other words, if they’re going to call Jesus himself the devil, don’t be surprised if they call you worse.  

This comes near the end of a long  section where Jesus is sending his disciples out on their first mission to proclaim the Good News—remember the good news?  the Reign of God is arriving?—but  now he’s telling them that this Good News, this news that people have waited for for eons is going to be disruptive, and some people aren’t going to like that.  

People are funny.  We can pray week after week, day after day, year after year “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  But when it gets down to actually working to make that happen, people get cranky because then we actually have to change things—our politics, our religious practices, our structures and systems…even ourselves.  “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” makes a lovely needlepoint but it can turn everything upside down when you actually put it in practice, especially the do  justice part.

Don’t be afraid, says Jesus. Do not be afraid of opposition.  You know it’s coming so just face it.  If you trust me, if you believe in what I’ve been teaching, then live by it.  Proclaim it.  Act on it.  Shout it from the rooftops. What’s the worst they can do to you?  Kill you?

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Gehenna)

Okay, two things here, and I’ll take the last one first.  Hell.  Hell isn’t hell. The actual word here is Gehenna which was a valley just outside Jerusalem where all the city trash was dumped and burned, including the carcasses of dead animals. It’s not the Hell of popular imagination.  Think city dump.  So, fear the One who can toss your whole self into the trash heap.

The second thing:  Soul.  The Greek word here is psyche.  Soul is one translation.  It can also mean life.  In this context, though, maybe think of it as your true self.  Jesus is saying don’t be afraid of those who can only kill your body.  Save your fear for God who can completely undo you.  Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 where Isaiah stands before the throne of God and says, “Woe is me for I am lost.”?  The Hebrew word there which we translate as lost is nidmeti.  It can mean lost or silenced.  It can also mean unmade. It’s the same idea here. 

Fear the One who can destroy both body and soul.  Fear the One who can destroy your true self.  God is one of only two entities in the universe who can unravel your true self.  And, spoiler, God won’t.  God will not.  God loves you with a passion.  God may work furiously to reshape you, to rid you of poisonous thoughts, ideas and attitudes, to smooth certain rough edges, but God will not destroy you.  

God may, however, let you destroy yourself.  God loves you enough to give you free will.  And you are the only other entity in the universe who can destroy your soul, you should be careful and thoughtful with that gift.  

One of the reasons, I think, that Christ gives us the high honor and calling of announcing and building the beloved community is to help steer us away from the numerous rabbit holes of self-destruction we could dive into, and also to give us trustworthy companions for the journey of life.  But, to take us back to where we started, Jesus knew that doing this, announcing that it’s time for a systemic do-over, would bring opposition and confrontation.

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” 

There’s a similar passage in Luke 12 where Jesus says, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it was already kindled.”  I don’t think that Jesus is saying in these passages that he is intent on creating conflict.  I think he is simply acknowledging that conflict is inevitable when we proclaim the kingdom and work for it because the whole and healthy society that God envisions, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God is very much at odds with business as usual in the earth of empires and economies.

There will be opposition.  There is opposition. And some of it is brutal.  That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Scholar and theologian John Howard Yoder points out that the cross was “the standard punishment for insurrection for the refusal to confess Caesar’s lordship.”  The phrase ‘take up your cross’ was commonly used by Zealots when they were recruiting.  It was a call to stand in defiance and opposition to Rome and the systems of empire that perpetuated oppression.  

But there was another dimension to it.  Roman citizens could not be crucified.  If a citizen was guilty of a capital offence, even insurrection, they would be beheaded.  Crucifixion was reserved for those of lesser stature, the invisible non-persons of the empire who opposed it.  “Take up your cross” was not just a call to stand in defiance of Rome, it was also a call to identify with the people on the margins.  It was a way of saying “Stand with the poor, the downtrodden, the nobodies.” 

“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And here we find the word psyche again in the Greek text, this time translated as life.  Life. Soul.  Self.  This is such a cryptic saying from Jesus.  Here’s how I understand it:  If you go looking for yourself, you’ll lose yourself, but if you lose yourself in the life of Christ, you’ll find yourself.  

I think maybe Jesus is saying stop worrying about the meaning of your life or what, exactly your soul is, or even who you are deep down in your soul.  Let go of all those esoteric questions and lose yourself in the business of the reign of God.  Work for equality and equity.  Feed the hungry.  House the homeless. Take care of the sick.  Bring hope to the hopeless.  Stand with those who need you to stand with them.  Act on your faith.  It may cost you.  There will be opposition.  Don’t be afraid.  The reign of God, the kingdom of heaven is in reach.  In Jesus’ name.

When the Spirit Speaks

On the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks and one day after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the day of Shavuot which the Hellenized Jews call Pentekosta, the streets of Jerusalem were filled with people from every tribe and nation, from the far reaches of the empire and beyond, some even from Cush, Iberia and Ethiopia, from Scythia and the Parthian empire.  Jews and proselytes, curious gentiles and ambitious traders had come from everywhere to be in the Holy City for the festival of the first fruits of spring and to remember the giving of Torah to Moses.  

The followers of Jesus were in the city, too, gathered all together in one place, in one room, waiting as Jesus had instructed, waiting for a signal, waiting for what was to come next.  Then suddenly the house where they were sitting was filled with a sound from heaven, a sound like a hurricane.  It filled the house and drove them to their feet while something that looked like tongues of fire danced between them until a flame seemed to alight on the head of each one of them.  They felt a presence swell up inside them and knew it was the Holy Spirit.  

The Spirit drove them out of the house and into the street where they began to speak to the crowd in languages they had never known as the Spirit spoke through them proclaiming the love and grace of God as it had been made known to them in Jesus the Christ.  They spoke of God’s works of power through Jesus, his feeding of multitudes, his healings, his teaching.  They spoke of how he welcomed strangers and touched lepers.  They spoke of how he challenged the self-righteous and embraced the neglected.

On the day of Shavuot, the Festival of Harvest which was also called Pentekosta, the day on which Moses had been give the Law, the Holy Spirit began to spread the good news of the Reign of God through Jesus, the Christ, across the empire of Caesar and beyond.

Now two millennia later, on the 31st day of May, on the day that Christians call Pentecost which is also called Whitsunday or Whitsun, we are not all together in one place.  We are not all together in one room, though we may be gathered in one ZOOM.  

This is a strange birthday for the Church as we begin to contemplate moving back into our facilities, our sanctuary, after months apart in our homes.  There are so many practical questions to consider.  Is it really safe yet?  Will our people be able to adapt to the new practices required for safe worship in this time of pandemic or will they revert to old, ways of doing things simply out of habit—ways which are now unsafe?  With all the restrictions and safeguards, is it even worth doing now?  Should we wait until there is a vaccine?   Those are all good questions.  Necessary questions.

But I have other questions.

What have we learned from this time of isolation?  How has the Holy Spirt spoken to us?  Was this, somehow, the work of the Holy Spirit—not the virus, to be clear—but the separation?  Was it the work of the Spirit to send us out of our sanctuary and into our homes for a time—a time of contemplation and reflection?  Have we used this time to reflect on what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ?  Have we used this time to listen to the Spirit, to discern what Christ is calling us to do and to become?  Are we listening now?

The Spirit has been speaking as always.  I’ve been hearing the Holy Spirt, not in the tongues of xenolalia or glossolalia, but in the everyday voices and silences of the congregation.  I’ve been hearing the Spirit and seeing the Spirit in phone calls, in prayer requests, in ZOOM meetings, in emails, in cards, letters and postcards, and on social media.  The Church is alive even if we are not all together in one place.  The church is open even if the building is closed.  The Spirit is still speaking.

On that first Pentecost the Spirit came upon them with the sound of a hurricane.  What kind of sound is the Spirit making now?

Sometimes, certainly, the Spirit speaks in silence.  The silence of our isolation.  The silence of our thoughts.  Sometimes in that silence the Spirit speaks to us with sighs too deep for words about our own lives and hearts and hopes and dreams.  As I listen to the Spirit in silence, I have been hearing the silence of a nation that has not yet grieved for 100,000 dead.

I believe, though, that there is also a sound that is carrying the presence of the Holy Spirit, a sound louder and deeper and broader than a hurricane and more turbulent than an earthquake, and yet often we seem deaf to it.  I wonder if we haven’t been sent out of our places of worship and into our homes so we could hear it better and learn to see the hand of God at work.  I wonder if our ears and minds and even our souls haven’t been so preoccupied with our hymns and liturgies and the pageantry of worship that we’ve been deaf and blind to the things the Spirit of God is engaged in, the things God is call us engage with.

At the beginning of creation the Spirit moved over the turbulent welter and waste of the waters to bring order out of chaos.  On this day of Pentecost is the sound of melting glaciers and rising seas the sound of the Spirit calling us to begin an era of re-creation, to take meaningful action in the battle against climate change?  Are we being called anew to fight pollution, to restore the earth, to cherish God’s creation?

In his day, the prophet Amos was filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered to challenge the economic disparities of Israel and to predict catastrophe for the wealthy.  In a country where 10% of the households have 70% of the wealth, in a country where 40 million have filed for unemployment as businesses have closed due to the pandemic, where Wall Street seems disconnected from Main Street, is the Spirit calling us to reexamine our priorities and restructure our economic systems?

In an era when the people of Israel thought that all God cared about was religion done rightly and in the right place, the Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah and later through Micah and said quite literally, “I do not want your bull.  Not while the poor are languishing.  Not while there is rampant injustice.  Take care of those in need.  Give justice where it has been subverted. Bring me a contrite spirit and a broken heart and then we’ll talk about worship.”  In a day when we get caught up in discussions about the propriety or impropriety of on-line communion, when we’re deep in discussions about when and how to open our sanctuaries, when the very issue of reopening our churches has become a political flash point and fodder for the political divide, is the Holy Spirit, maybe telling us to cool our jets, to make sure first that our ministries and priorities are in order, that our hearts are in the right place, and then we can talk about worship in our buildings?

On that first Pentecost the Holy Spirit used a sound like a hurricane and tongues of flame to move the followers of Jesus into the streets.  On this day of Pentecost there is another sound and another fire as the Spirit of God moves through our streets.  It is the sound of the grief, the anger, and frustration of those who have been unheard, a grief and anger long suppressed and now unleashed.  The flames are flames of rage that have long been suppressed in the hearts of our sisters and brothers of African descent.  It is the wail of mourning for George Floyd, for Ahmaud Aubrey, for Breonna Taylor, for Eric Garner, for Trevon Martin, for the 9 killed at Bible Study at Mother Emmanuel AME Church, for Emmett Till, and for countless others.  The raging wind we hear is the sound of millions of voices sighing together the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, that they as a people and as individuals, are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  It is the Spirit, the Breath of God, squeezed from a people who are crying out “I can’t breathe.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear all of this.  A voice says, “Cry out!” and I say “What shall I cry out?”  And I hear the Spirit say, “Fix This!”  

When I listen to the Spirit I hear the words of Jesus reading from the scroll in the synagogue, words we drank in with our baptism when his mission became ours: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.  The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to open the eyes of those who have been blinded by ugly ways of thinking, to liberate those who have been oppressed by hideous words and evil ideas, and to set the captives free.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost I hear the narrative voice of the Gospel of John, words about Jesus that also became words about us in our communion: “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to judge or condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved, healed, made whole through him.  Fix This.”

When I listen to the Spirit at this time of Pentecost that’s what I hear.  I hear the brokenness.  I hear the lament and anger.  

But I also hear the promise and the call of God.  I hear the reminder that we have been anointed, empowered and called by the Spirit to be God’s tools of healing and restoration.  I hear the Spirit calling us to fulfill the promise.  

I hear the Spirit saying Fix This.  Fix it in your heart and in your mind.  Then help others fix it in theirs.  The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, calling us to transform the flames of anger and fear into flames of love.  May the winds of lament become the breath of grace and kindness and healing.  And with the power of the Spirit, immersed in the love of Christ, we will fix this.

That’s what I hear.  

What do you hear?

Doubt and Wounds and Overlooked Things

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.  21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24  But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

26  A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.”  28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30  Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

 

I have a tendency sometimes to overlook very important things because I’m focused on other important things…or even, sometimes, not so important things.  I think we all do that to one degree or another.

Last year, for example, there were a lot of important events:  the US/China trade war, Brexit, tensions with North Korea, tensions with Iran, the migrant exodus from Central America, the burning of Notre Dame, fires in the Amazon, wildfires in Australia, and, of course, the impeachment of President Trump.

But here are some important things that also happened last year that seem to have got lost in the shuffle.  Humpback whales in the South Atlantic came back from the brink of extinction and now number almost 25,000.  Dolphins are breeding in the Potomac for the first time since the 1880s.  100 seal pups were born on the shores of the Thames 60 years after the river was declared “biologically dead.”  Millions of Ethiopians working together planted 353 million trees in 12 hours.  The Netherlands became the first country in the world to eliminate all stray dogs—not by euthanasia, but through education, free veterinary care and pet adoption.  In Kenya, poaching rates dropped by 85%.  In Mozambique, one of Africa’s largest wildlife reserves went an entire year without losing a single elephant.  Malaria infections dropped by 76% in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam and deaths fell by 95%.  Algeria and Argentina officially eliminated Malaria altogether.   The WHO announced that not one single case of H1N1 Bird Flu had been reported worldwide since 2017.  The CDC announced that cigarette smoking among US adults was at an all-time low of 13.7%.  Type 3 polio was declared officially eliminated—now only type 1 remains and it can only be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan. [1]

So why am I telling you all this?  Well, in this familiar story about Thomas being absent when the risen Jesus appears to the other disciples, I think there are some important things that we tend to overlook.  So let’s adjust our focus for a minute.

First of all, let’s not call it the story of Doubting Thomas.  For one thing, it’s not at all fair to Thomas.  Remember in chapter 11 of this same gospel, when the other disciples tried to tell Jesus not to go back toward Jerusalem because certain people were trying to kill him, Thomas is the one who said, “Well we might as well go with him so we can die with him, too.”  So maybe we could call him Brave Thomas.  Or Stalwart Thomas.  Or even Fatalist Thomas if you’re feeling cynical. But Doubting Thomas?  Let’s put that name aside because it slants how we read or hear the story.  But maybe we should take our eyes of Thomas altogether for a moment.

This chapter, chapter 20, was where the Gospel of John originally ended.  Someone other than the original author later added chapter 21 as an epilogue, but John’s gospel originally ended at the end of chapter 20.  That being the case, I would think that the things Jesus says and does in this concluding chapter are particularly important.  I have to wonder if focusing on Thomas hasn’t distracted us from what Jesus is saying and doing here.  Make no mistake, Thomas is important here, but is he really supposed to be the central character?

I think maybe we’ve made him the focal point of the story because his “doubt,” his original disbelief of the news that Jesus has appeared to the others, resonates with the doubts and disbelief we all feel sometimes if we’re honest with ourselves.  That’s normal.  That’s human. As Frederick Buechner said, “If you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”

Doubt is an important thing for us to think about and to come to terms with, and it seems pretty clear that belief and disbelief are among the themes in this story.  But again, are we missing something else that’s at least as important because we’ve focused so much on Thomas and his skepticism?

Let’s go back to the beginning of the story.  It’s the first day of the week.  The doors of the house are locked because the disciples are afraid.  So right off the bat we see something important.  Fear locks doors.  Fear locks us into small places in our hearts, in our minds, in our thinking, in our lives.  Even physically.  As we are all sheltering in place with stay at home orders right now during the pandemic, I think we can sympathize.  Fear locks us down.  It might be a very sensible, reasonable fear—theirs was.  Ours certainly is during this pandemic.  Staying behind closed or even locked doors might be the safest, most right thing to do.  But the fact remains that behind all that sensibility is fear.  In our case with the Covid pandemic I’d like to think the fear is tempered by love—we stay home not just because we’re afraid of catching the disease but to avoid spreading it to others.  But the lesson here is that fear locks doors.

But look what happens next.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  Jesus comes into the locked down places in our lives and speaks peace.  Jesus speaks peace to our hearts, to our minds, to our anxieties, to our fears.  Jesus speaks Shalom, that word of wholeness and well-being and blessing that bleeds all the strength and energy out of our fears.  Peace.

Our dog, Tramp, is a brave little guy, but for some reason our smoke alarms scare the feisty right out of him.  If one so much as chirps from a low battery he panics.  He tries to be brave and stay close to us but I think that’s mostly because he can’t find a place to get away from the sound.  He tucks his tail between his legs trembles and quivers until Meri wraps him in a blanket and speaks gently to him to tell him everything’s okay while I change the battery on the alarm.  She speaks peace to him until he calms down.  She goes into the locked down place in his little canine psyche and speaks peace until he can stop trembling and come back to normal.  That’s what Jesus did for his disciples in that locked house.  That’s what he does for us when we’re locked in our anxieties.  Shalom.

After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.

 Jesus, risen and eternal, still has his wounds.  That alone is worth thinking about.  What does it mean that, resurrected from death, Jesus still has the wounds from the cross?  Don’t rush to an answer.  That’s one of those questions that’s better to sit with than to answer.  And there’s also this to wonder about: the disciples don’t seem to fully recognize him until they see his wounds.  His wounds authenticate him.

They see his wounds, they recognize him and, the Greek text says, they are filled with joy.

I wonder.  I think I would feel a lot of things.  Joy would certainly be in the mix, but looking at those wounds on the body of someone whom I knew had been dead, even if he had predicted his resurrection… hearing that voice… Yes, there would be joy, but also fear and wonder and hesitation and a whole confusing cocktail of wrestling emotions.  Which is probably why Jesus had to say a second time, “Peace be with you,”  just to get their attention, because the next three things he said were really important.

As the Father sent me, so I send you.  In saying this they went from being disciples to being apostles.  Messengers.  Evangelists.  Ambassadors for the Resurrection and the Love of Christ.  They now had a mission: they were being sent into the world to proclaim Jesus as the Christ and announce that the Reign of God had begun.

When he had said this he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  He empowered them for the mission he had given them.  With his own breath he breathed the breath of life into their ministries.  This is not the rambunctious, noisy and fiery Day of Pentecost described in Acts.  This is the personal and intimate trinitarian empowerment for a life of service.  This is the Word who became flesh breathing into them and us the Breath of the Creator who hovered over the waters of creation, breathing into them and into us the Spirit of creation for the work of re-creation.  And then…

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.  Jesus authorizes them and us to unlock the closed doors in the human heart and soul.  If a person is to become a new creation, as St. Paul so beautifully described it, there has to be an end to the old business that keeps people locked in destructive patterns and thinking.  There has to be a way to let in the light and fresh air.  Forgiveness unlocks transformation and Jesus empowered them and us to pronounce forgiveness.  Or not.  It’s a tremendous responsibility.

And now back to Thomas.  When Thomas finally does get to see the risen Jesus, note that he doesn’t berate Thomas.  Again, the first thing Jesus says is “Peace be with you.”  Shalom.  And then he invites Thomas to touch his wounds, a deeper more intimate encounter than merely just showing his wounds.  Then Jesus says to him, I like to think gently, “Do not doubt, but believe.”

 Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.”

Dorothy Sayers, writing about this moment, said, “It is unexpected, but extraordinarily convincing, that the one absolutely unequivocal statement in the whole gospel of the Divinity of Jesus should come from Doubting Thomas. It is the only place where the word God is used without qualification of any kind, and in the most unambiguous form of words. And he does not say it ecstatically, or with a cry of astonishment but with flat conviction, as of one acknowledging irrefutable evidence that 2 + 2 = 4, that the sun is in the sky. Thomas says, you are my Lord and my God!”[2]

Jesus’ response to Thomas’ spontaneous confession of faith is meant, I think, more for us as it was meant for him: “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have experienced the living Christ.  It’s the living Christ who moves our eyes past what we expect to see so that we notice the other important things we might otherwise have overlooked.  It’s the living Christ who moves past our locked doors to breathe the fresh air of the Spirit into our lives so that we can be transformed and empowered.  It’s the living Christ who sends us out as apostles, ambassadors of God’s love, with a message of forgiveness.  It’s the living Christ who eternally shows us his wounds to show us the authenticity and depth of God’s love and forbearance.

We may not have seen the risen Jesus with our own eyes, but we have been shown the living Christ, and by the breath and Spirit, we show the living Christ to the world and carry the renewing breath of the Spirit out to restore the world.

[1] FutureCrunch, Angus Hervey

[2] Dorothy Leigh Sayers, Dramatic Readings on the Life of Christ, BBC, 1943

Tonight’s the Night the World Begins Again

Christmas Eve Sermon, 2016. 

I’ve been thinking about some Christmas gifts…and by that I mean some of the gifts that Christmas gives us.

It’s a season of giving – yes, it’s over-commercialized –but in the right spirit that can help us develop a habit and spirit of generosity.  And that’s a gift.

The months leading up to Christmas are a good time to practice delayed gratification.  Don’t buy that now…Christmas is coming.   I know I need to practice that sometimes.  So that’s a gift.

For some it’s a change of habit just to be thinking about what to get for other people, thinking more about others—who they are, what they need.  It can feel like an obligation but it can become a healthy, joyful, even life-giving habit.  That’s a gift.

At Christmastime we are intentional about asking people what they want.  That’s a good exercise for keeping us from being “curved in upon the self.”

Christmas, itself, is a gift.  It’s a change of focus.  It comes with some built-in themes that are important.  Giving.  Receiving. Gathering.  Family.  Peace. Hope.  Joy.  Love. Remembering.  Birth.  The Presence of God.  Wonder.

I don’t know about you, but I  really need the gift of Christmas, itself, this year. It’s been that kind of year.

I need to be reminded to stop and breathe and think about giving and receiving and gathering and family.  I need time to stop and remember.

I need to let words like hope and peace and light fill up my soul for awhile.

I need a time to stop and listen to songs about beauty and joy and angels and promises fulfilled…and God showing up in surprising ways and surprising places.

I need the wonder of it all.

I need the songs.  I especially need the songs and carols… because the music goes straight to my heart and heals me and rekindles my hope and my joy and my faith faster than words alone can ever do. “Those who sing pray twice,” said Martin Luther.

Do you have a favorite Christmas song or carol? Is there one—or maybe there are several?—that touch you in some particularly powerful way?

There are a lot of Christmas songs and carols that I dearly love and I listen to them over and over and over again.  But there’s one Christmas song in particular I keep coming back to these past few Christmases.  And this year, especially, I’ve been listening to it a lot.  In fact I’ve been listening to it off and on all year long.

It’s fairly recent—it came out in 2005, so by Christmas Song standards it’s almost brand new.  It’s called Better Daysby the Goo Goo Dolls, written by John Rzeznik.  Yeah, I know.  Goo Goo Dolls.  Silly name, but a great band.  And a powerful song.  Listen to these words:

And you asked me what I want this year

And I try to make this kind and clear

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

 

‘Cause I don’t need boxes wrapped in strings

And designer love and empty things

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

Better days.  When all is said and done, isn’t that what we all want?  For ourselves, for our families and friends?  For….  Everyone? Better days.

I need some place simple where we could live

And something only you can give

And that’s faith and trust and peace while we’re alive

Those are some pretty good gifts we can give to each other.  For Christmas.  For every day.  And the song is right… we’ll only have faith and trust and peace while we’re alive if we give those things to each other.  Faith.  Trust. Peace.  But the song knows we need something else if we’re going to be able to give each other faith and trust and peace…

And the one poor child who saved this world

And there’s ten million more who probably could

If we all just stopped and said a prayer for them

The one poor child who saved this world. That’s why we’re here tonight. That’s what we’re here to celebrate. But we’re also here to be reminded that because of that child, Jesus, Emmanuel, God With Us, we have the example and the power to save the world together.  God came in person to give us what we need so we can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace. 

 I wish everyone was loved tonight

And we could somehow stop this endless fight

Just a chance that maybe we’ll find better days

The thing is, everyone is loved tonight—loved by God, at least.  But they don’t all know it and they certainly don’t all feel it.  If they did, if they all felt loved, if we all felt loved, maybe it would stop the endless fight that seems to be the curse of the human race.  But the only way for that to happen is if we take the love God gives us and let it be real and meaningful in our lives.  And then give it to each other in real and meaningful ways.

Brené Brown said,  “Jesus comes to show us what love looks like.  God is love.  But God knows that if God just comes down and says I am love and I want you to love each other, we’re going to go straight to hearts and unicorns.  We know it’s difficult and we don’t like difficult, so we’re going to romanticize it.  Hearts and unicorns.  But love is difficult.  So Jesus comes to show us how to do it.  He comes to show us that love doesn’t tolerate shaming.  Love doesn’t exclude people because they’re different.  Love reaches out and touches and embraces all the people we don’t want to touch or embrace. Love does the hard work.  Love does the hard things.”

But there’s something else that God shows us about love by coming as a baby, by coming, especially, as a poor baby.  Right at the beginning—Jesus shows us, God shows us, that love is willing to be vulnerable.  Love is willing to let down all its defenses.

When you think of all the ways that God could have come to us–all the ways we imagined throughout history that God would come to us—most of that imagery is all about power and royalty and thunder and smoke and lightning.  And then God shows up as a baby.  A poor baby. In a poor country.  A homeless baby.  A migrant born on the road on a journey his parents were forced to take.  A refugee baby forced to flee for his life.

One poor child who saved the world.

I haven’t quoted the refrain that runs through the song.  It’s repeated twice between the verses, but the song ends with it, too.  It’s both a promise and a call to action:

So take these words and sing out loud

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now

‘Cause tonight’s the night the world begins again

Take these words and sing out loud.  That’s the call to action.

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.  That’s the promise. It’s also another great gift of Christmas.  In this baby, who is God With Us, we have a chance to start over with a clean slate.

In this baby, who is love itself coming to us in its most human and dependent and vulnerable form, we can find forgiveness and we can learn to give forgiveness— and if we can forgive and be forgiven, if we can let go of old hurts and forgive others, then we really can give each other the gifts of faith and trust and peace while we’re alive.  And then there really is a chance that maybe we’ll find better days.

So take these words and sing out loud,

‘Cause everyone is forgiven now.

And tonight’s the night the world begins again.

 

Tonight’s the night the world begins again.

A Nation Possessed

Last week was very difficult for me, as it was for a great many of us. I get up early on Sunday mornings, so the very first thing I saw when I turned on my computer at 4 a.m. was the news of the massacre in Orlando. It was still an unfolding story when I saw it; the body count was still being estimated. I confess that I was at a loss as to what to do with that horrible news at that early hour.

For a number of reasons I didn’t mention Orlando in worship that morning. The biggest reason was that I was pretty sure that few, if any, of the people attending would have heard the news yet and I didn’t want such horribly shocking news to cast a pall over worship and especially not over our farewell to two much-loved members who were moving across the country. Also, I needed time to process it before trying to deal with it pastorally and theologically.

By Monday morning Orlando was the stark lens through which I was seeing the whole world. I was filled with a deep sadness tinged by more than a little anger. In an effort to shift gears I clicked over to read a sermon written by my friend and colleague, Pastor Jennie Chrien who serves in Oxnard.   Her sermon was on the same lectionary text I had preached on the day before but she had taken a very different approach from mine. In addressing the Gospel of Luke’s account of the woman who washes and anoints Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-8:3), she had focused on the moment when Jesus turns to Simon the Pharisee and says, “Do you see this woman?” From that simple question Jennie had built an eloquent, powerful and moving sermon.

That important question, “Do you see?” wouldn’t leave me alone, jangling up against the ragged wound of Orlando as I turned my attention to the Gospel text for the coming week, the story of Jesus’ encounter with the wild, demon-possessed Gerasene man running naked among the tombs (Luke 8:26-39). I was also remembering anew the horror from almost exactly a year before when a crazy young white supremacist murdered 9 African Americans after sitting through Bible study with them.

Do you see? The question still hangs in the air.

As I read the Gospel for the week with all these things echoing in my heart, I realized that we, the good old US of A, we are the demon-possessed man. We are the man made crazy by fears and anxieties and bigotry and scapegoating. We are the man made crazy by blind rage and unreasoned hatreds.

We are the man with a hopelessly divided mind, made bipolar and schizophrenic by a cacophony of opposing inner voices—entrenched political parties with no common ground—conservatives vs. liberals and ne’er the twain shall meet on any common ground of common sense, putting our party identity or our ideology ahead of everything else that’s supposed to define us, making even our faith subservient to our chosen place on the ideological spectrum. We are so blinded by the ideological lenses we wear that we see only what we’ve decided in advance that we want to see. And since our biases rarely completely align with or truly resonate with the Gospel we hear and profess, our cognitive dissonance creates the first degree of our madness.

Do you see? Do you really see?

Oh, we have our moments of clarity but then the rage wells up in us and we explode in violence.

For most of us it’s just a violence of rhetoric and attitude, but it opens the door and for those who would turn it into a horribly tangible violence of death and destruction. Even among the most enlightened among us, our racism or our discomfort with sexualities that are different from our own our anxieties about those other religions—all these things creep out in unguarded words and give permission to the violence that is always waiting to happen. We breed the craziness.

Do you see?

We cloak our prejudices in our religions. We project our own craziness, our own fears and anxieties and hatred onto the most vulnerable and marginalized then drum up a sacred text or two to support our bigotry and give us permission to treat them horribly.We are so blinded by our own interpretation of our religions that we can’t see children of God standing right in front of us.

Do you see? Do you see that more than a little of our craziness comes from being caught in the middle of an epic struggle between love and hate?

Do you see that if you’re not actively and passionately on the side of love then you are at least passively on the side of hate? Do you see that if you are not generating light then you are opening the door to darkness?

Do you see that we are not just the crazy man among the tombs? Do you see that we are also the craven townspeople afraid of our own shadows. We recognize our own craziness and try to lock it up, to bind it with chains but we know, deep down that that’s not going to work.

Do you see that even when God works a miracle and restores one of us to our senses we respond with more anxiety because that is just so different from our usual experience?

Do you see a way out of all this?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Can you see the way Jesus sees? Can you put aside your politics, your ideology, your biases and prejudices, the less savory voices of your childhood, your inclination for self-protection, your fear of the “other,” your anxiety about a constantly changing world—can you put aside your own demons long enough to see the person in front of you?

Do you see how Jesus sees? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a prostitute washing his feet but a woman beaten down by the world who has had to make horrible choices in order to survive? Do you see that Jesus doesn’t see a crazy man running amok among the tombs but a human being bedeviled and enslaved by the legion craziness of the world?

Do you see that in Christ we are all children of God through faith, that in Christ there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave nor free, male or female, gay or straight or trans or bi, us or them?

Do you see that Jesus is our common ground even with our Muslim brothers and sisters? Yes, we understand Jesus very differently, but he is a central voice in both or our traditions and if we’re ever going to find peace with each other, Jesus, not Abraham, is our most likely common ground.

Do you see? Do you see that we are all going to have to learn to see differently?

No, we can’t afford to be stupid. No we can’t afford to be blind to real threats. But do you see that we are going to have to first recognize and deal with the real threats that arise from our own hearts and minds and souls?

Do you see that we’re going to have to stop listening to all the voices that divide us and pit us against each other? Do you see that we’re going to have to switch off the news channels and radio voices and web feeds and political voices that want to tell us how awful those “others” are, who want to tell us that “they” are not the real “us”?

Do you see that we’re going to have to really listen to Jesus—not the Old Testament—not even Paul, but Jesus—if we’re ever going to be freed from our own demons, our own contagious craziness?

Do you see that we are all of us, each of us, going to have to have at least one “come to Jesus” moment if we’re ever going to be freed from our demons?  Or to put it a more scriptural and Lutheran way, do you see that we are all, each of us, going to have to take off the lenses of our preconceptions and put down our guard long enough so that Jesus can come to us and cast our demons into the sea of God’s love?

Do you see? Can you see? Do you see that love—the love of Christ, the love exemplified and perpetually renewed by Jesus whether you know that’s where it comes from or not, is our only hope of ever being able to sit with each other calmly and in our right minds?

Do you see?

When John Came A-Wassailing

So here it came a singing toward us, the third Sunday in Advent. Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice Sunday. The Sunday we light the pink candle in the Advent wreath, the candle of Joy. As I looked at the lectionary texts for the week, it was easy to pick up the theme of joy. Well, it was easy to find joy in the first two readings anyway.

The first reading was from chapter three of Zephaniah. I think we only hear from Zephaniah maybe once every three years in the lectionary, but it’s worth waiting for. Did you hear that marvelous line in verse 17? “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing!” What a picture!  Have you ever imagined God singing about you? To you? I sing to my dog sometimes just because he makes me happy. He seems to like it.  It’s kind of fun to think of God singing about us, to us, like that. So there’s some joy. That one was easy.

And then came the second reading from Philippians, that wonderful passage from St. Paul’s love letter to the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say Rejoice!” Well that’s pretty clear, too. So okay! Right there in those first two texts I’ve got plenty to work with to lay the groundwork for Gaudete –Rejoice- Sunday.

But then comes the Gospel reading from Luke 3, and, frankly, John the Baptist kind of sucks the wind right out of rejoicing. “You brood of vipers.” “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” “The axe is at the root.” “The chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire.” Yeah. That’ll take you right to your happy place.

So I’m thinking about these texts and about Rejoice Sunday and about trying to tease some joy out of grumpy old John the Baptist, and in the middle of all that I found myself thinking about… wassailing.  What can I say?  It’s that time of year.

When the pagan Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain in the middle of the 5th century, they brought with them the tradition of wassailing. Wassailing, of course, eventually became Christmas caroling, but it started out as something very different.

The word wassail comes from the Saxon phrase Wæs þu hæl which means, “be thou hale” or “be thou healthy” or “be thou well.” At their celebration of the Winter Solstice, the Anglo-Saxons would go out into their orchards and sing to their cider trees, their apple and pear and cherry trees, to wake them up from their winter sleep and to encourage them to be healthy, to produce good fruit so that they could have a plentiful harvest of good cider. “Wæs þu hæl!” they would sing. “Be thou healthy.” And it occurred to me as I thought of all this, that this is kind of what John the Baptist was doing as he was preaching at the Jordan. He was wassailing. He was singing out that it was time to wake up and be healthy. So maybe there is some joy there somewhere between “You brood of vipers” and “the chaff will be thrown into the fire.” Or at least a calling to joy.

With all that in mind, I began to re-imagine my picture of John preaching by the Jordan. Instead of seeing him as a voice of foreboding, instead of hearing him cranky and impatient, I imagined him singing. I imagined him wassailing to wake the people. So I decided that this was what I would do in my own orchard, my own parish, on this third Sunday of Advent. I wassailed to them.  I sang to them.  And it went like this…

When John Came A-Wassailing

In the fifteenth year of sovereign rule of the Emperor Tiberius,
In a time of ruthless potentates and wrongs both small and serious,
The Song of God fell into John, the son of Zechariah,
And he sang it out so strongly they thought he might be Messiah.

But he said, “No, I am not the one you all have been expecting.
I am just the song that sings out where our paths are intersecting.
I’m not worthy to receive him or to tie his sandal thong!
He is the Maker of all Music and I am just one simple song.”

Like a wassailing in the orchard to wake the cider trees,
The song of John cut through their crust and brought them to their knees
As they heard a new reality and began to realize
That the reign of God might now unfold before their very eyes.

So he sang them to the river, saying time was of the essence,
And immersed them in the cleansing flow of forgiveness and repentance,
And his song filled up the wilderness with a Word to spear the heart
Until the crowd was all convicted as their masks were torn apart.

He sang, “You children of the covenant, you children of the promise,
You children of the circumstance and times that are upon us,
All you questing, anxious seekers, all you folk both awed and flawed,
Are you ready to stand naked in the searching gaze of God?

“All you tax-collecting schemers, all you servants of the sword,
All you noble trees and saplings in the orchard of the Lord,
Yes, your roots go deep as Abraham and you’re clothed in your tradition
But that’s not enough to save you from your pathway to perdition.

“O you brood of sneaky vipers, O you children of the snake,
Who warned you of the wrath to come? Who told you what’s at stake?
Did you think that life was something you could skate through or could fake?
Well, my sleeping trees of Zion, it’s time for you to wake.”

Then in dismay the people cried, “John, tell us what to do!
If our heritage means nothing is our fate left up to you?”
And he said, “No that’s not in my hands, but it is somewhat in yours,
For the Winnower we’ve waited for is at the threshing floor.

“So now’s the time to change the way you think and see each other,
Now’s the time to change the way you treat your sister and your brother,
Now’s the time to change your heart and mind and show it by your fruits
With more honest and more decent and more generous pursuits.

“So give away your extra coat to the person who is shivering,
And give up half your sandwich to that hungry kid who’s quivering,
Don’t take more than what you’re meant to take, don’t lie, extort or cheat,
For the Winnower is coming and he’ll sift us all like wheat.

“Yes, the time has come to bear the fruit of new life and repentance
For you’ll reap the harvest that you’ve sown, you’re writing your own sentence.
Even now the axe is at the root, even now your options dwindling,
So will you produce good cider? Or will you be so much kindling?

“For the One who fashioned every soul finds a use for each and all.
Will you be the cider in the cup or the fire that warms the hall?
Will you be the sweet aroma drawing others to the table
Or dissipate as so much smoke in a cautionary fable?

“And I know this all sounds frightening– to be assessed, appraised and weighed–
Every one of us has cause to fear, but I sing, ‘Be not afraid!’
For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.

“And I’m simply here to tell you in this wild and holy place
You have another chance to be made new, a chance to live in grace,
For one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.

“So this song that sounds so ominous, it really is Good News!
For the God of second chances hopes that you will not refuse
To change your heart and mind and ways and show it by your fruits
With more loving and more honest and more generous pursuits.

“For the one who does the winnowing, the one who does the sifting,
Is the Soul of grace and love and life, the Giver of all gifting.
Yes, the one who does the sifting does not come here to condemn
But to find every seed of love and good and make it grow again.”

—–

So now as the lights of Advent, hope, peace, joy and love light your way to Christmas, Wæs þu hæl!  Be thou hale.

When the World Won’t Go Away

When the World Wont’ Go Away

Mark 6.30   The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.  31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things….

Mark 6.53   When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.  54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him,  55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.  56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. 

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There are a lot of nuggets we could look at this morning in our gospel lesson from the 6th chapter of Mark. We could talk about the disciples’ enthusiasm as they return from their first mission. We could  look at the parts of the chapter that are cut out of the middle of this morning’s text— how Jesus uses the disciples to feed 5000 with  a few loaves and fish.  Right after that, also pulled out of this morning’s chapter and saved for another day is the story of Jesus walking on water.  There’s a lot in this chapter we could talk about.

I was planning to focus on those words, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” I was planning to talk about how important it is when you’re doing the hard work of ministry to take a retreat now and then, even if it’s a mini retreat.  I was going to talk about how even when you plan your retreat with the best intentions and take steps to protect that sacred time alone with Jesus, the world can run ahead of you and be waiting for you when you get there.  As people who bear the compassion of Christ we need to remember that even in our retreat places we will probably run into the world’s great, never-ending hunger in one way or another because even today the people of our world are like sheep without a shepherd.

Sheep without a shepherd. That’s actually a veiled political statement in Mark’s gospel, and it would be worth a conversation some time to talk about the Messianic promise hidden in that terse little phrase and how no emperor, no appointed governor, no high priest, and nobody we elect can ever fill that slot— it’s a space created by God to be filled by God—  by Emmanuel, God with us.

I was going to talk about what to do when the world won’t go away, about how Jesus still finds time to go up to the mountain to pray. I was going to use this time and this text to talk about Gloria Dei’s Strategic Planning Team and how we are now thinking of ourselves as the Mission Discernment Team because we’ve realized that our very first and most important job is to take time to listen to Jesus, to listen to the Spirit, and carefully to try to discern what Christ is calling us to be as a congregation, where Christ is calling us to go, what Christ is calling us to do. We realize that when we know more about that we can get on with the business of strategy, but if we don’t know where Christ is calling us to go, then even if we do a meticulous job of planning we’ll be planning a trip to nowhere.  And we realize, of course, that the Spirit may change our plans midstream.

Things happen that change your plans. That, too, is a lesson from today’s gospel. The disciples never do arrive at Bethsaida. The wind fights them all night. They make no headway at all, stuck in the middle of the lake until Jesus gets in the boat with them— and that’s worth noting— we don’t make any headway until Jesus gets in the boat. Notice, too, that when they give up on getting to Bethsaida and pull ashore at Genessaret, Jesus seems perfectly okay with that. And there’s a crowd waiting there, too.

I was going to touch on all those things this morning. I was going to talk about how the need of the world is always there and it’s our job in Christ to meet that need, but that it’s also important to take a break. I was going to talk about how to take a deep breath and get on with it when the world won’t go away.

And then the world did something worse than simply not go away. On Friday morning the insanity and anxiety of the world exploded in our faces once again with horrifying violence in a mass shooting in Aurora, CO.

I confess that part of me wants to use this moment to talk about our nation’s love affair with guns and what it says about us that so many followers of the Prince of Peace have such a passion for these lethal instruments of mayhem. I would like to raise the question about why it is that so many followers of Jesus, persons of genuine faith, resist efforts to more effectively register and control these instruments which are, quite simply, designed for killing. I would like to tell you about my own experience with guns, about the death of my friend, Dennis, when we were only 12 years old, about the death of Meri’s Uncle Orren.  I would like to ask how many times we have to live through Aurora and Seal Beach and Columbine before we insist on some kind of stronger preventive action.

But now is not the time to start a conversation that would almost surely be divisive and the fact is, we have bigger questions in front of us because of Aurora.  The wounds of our own grief over what happened here in Seal Beach only 10 months ago are reopened for many of us this morning. I suspect that many of you feel the way I do this morning— not so much like a disciple of Jesus, full of adrenaline for our mission— but like one of those sheep without a shepherd.

I want to share with you an article that appeared yesterday in the Huffington Post. It’s entitled An Open Letter to All Who Suffer From the Shooting in Aurora. It was written by Pastor Meghan Johnston Aelabouni, the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.

You don’t know me. I’m a pastor at a Lutheran congregation 65 miles north of you, in Fort Collins. You may have your own pastor, or rabbi, or imam. You may not believe in God. But I am also your neighbor–and like many of your neighbors in Colorado and across the country, my heart breaks for you today.

We, your neighbors, may not have been in that movie theater, but we could have been. It could have been our children, our friends. We want to share words of sympathy, but we know no words can erase what has happened to you, as you grieve for the dead and wait in hospitals for news of the injured. What words we do share may bring little comfort.

I am only one of many voices who will speak to you, and about you, in the days to come. As a pastor, a parent, and a neighbor, here is what I want to say.

To the victims, the survivors, and their loved ones: I am so sorry. I cannot imagine the terror of being inside the theater in those deadly moments, or the anxiety of not knowing at first whether someone you loved was among the victims. I pray for the hospital staff and emergency personnel who continue to treat your wounds, and I pray for your healing. And for those who have received the worst possible news, the news of death, my head bows in sorrow.

In the coming days and weeks, you will probably encounter well-meaning people who will say to you, it is all part of God’s plan, even if we don’t understand it now. Everything happens for a reason. If these words are helpful for you to hear, I’m glad. But if these words tear at already-raw places in you and fill you with anger or despair, please know this: not all people of faith believe these things. I do not believe them.

The God I know in Jesus Christ does not use natural disasters or human-caused massacres to reward some and punish others. I believe God is able to reach into sin and death and pull out healing and life; this is a different thing from engineering tragedy for a so-called greater purpose. The God I serve and proclaim to others does not cause or desire human suffering.

I also suspect many of you, like us, may be asking why. Why did this happen? The media and the justice system will do their best to answer this question in the literal sense, trying to determine why James Holmes apparently entered a movie theater and began shooting at random. In a sense, however, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, because even if we get a “why”–an explanation from the shooter, or a more comprehensive understanding of the circumstances that comes with time–these answers will still not be enough.

In its deepest sense, the question “why?” is not a request for a logical explanation; no logical explanation will justify or make sense of what is indefensible and senseless. It is a cry of the heart, an expression of grief. It is a cry as ancient as it was new again this morning. In the Bible, it is “Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

As a person of faith, I say to you: there is holiness in grief, in tears and in anger. In the refusal to be comforted, there is the understanding that these bullets have torn a rent not only in individual lives but also in the fabric of life itself, in an understanding of community as it ought to be. Such refusal proves that we have glimpsed and can imagine a better way of being together in the world. The fact that this event is one of many tragedies and episodes of suffering around the world doesn’t diminish its magnitude; in many ways, it makes it sadder.

One of the twelve dead in the Aurora shooting was aspiring Colorado sportscaster Jessica (Ghawi) Redfield. On June 5, after she had narrowly missed being present at a similar shooting at a Toronto mall, she blogged about the event, asking, “Who would go into a mall full of thousands of innocent people and open fire? Is this really the world we live in?”

Is this the world we live in? Yes. And no. It is a world in which evil and tragedy erupt with shocking frequency and brutal intensity. It is a world in which, despite our attempts to separate “good people” from “bad people,” the truth in writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words stands: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”

And yet, this is also a world in which immense kindness and compassion can wash over us in times of greatest need. For those whose trust in humanity has been shattered today: as you remember a young man bursting into a place of supposed safety and turning it into a place of destruction, may you also remember communities, places of worship, neighborhoods and individuals bursting into this situation with love and support. May these times testify not to the power of evil to destroy community, but to the greater power drawing a community together to stand with one another. I call that greater power God; but whether or not we share the same faith, let us share that commitment to life and love that render hatred and evil ultimately powerless.

In the end, whatever his motives, Mr. Holmes will have neither the first nor the last word. Nor will I. That honor belongs, I believe, to the indestructible love of God. It belongs also to Jessica Redfield, whose life was ended, but whose witness was not destroyed:

“we don’t know when or where our time on Earth will end. When or where we will breathe our last breath…every moment we have to live our life is a blessing.”

To Jessica and our beloved dead: rest in peace, and may perpetual light shine upon you.

One of my heroes, Fred Rogers— we all knew him as Mr. Rogers— Fred Rogers once wrote, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers— so many caring people in the world.”

Look for the helpers. When tragedy erupts, when violence explodes in our faces, look for the helpers. In fact, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be the helpers. We are the ones called by God to wade into the mayhem to help. It is our hands God uses to care for the wounds. It is our voices God uses to speak comfort. It is our arms God uses to embrace. It is our shoulder that God uses to receive the tears of those who weep.

In his address to the nation in the aftermath of this horrible violence, President Obama said, “If there is anything to take away from this tragedy, it’s the reminder that life is very fragile. Our time here is limited and it is precious. And what matters most at the end of the day is not the small things; it’s not the trivial things, which so often consume us and our daily lives. Ultimately, it’s how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.”

Ultimately, what matters is how we treat one another, how well we love one another. That means that we who follow Jesus, who try to love the world as he loved and loves the world, will always have our work waiting for us. We are the helpers. We are the ones who carry the compassion and love of Christ into the heart of disaster. The world is still full of sheep without a shepherd. There will always be disasters. There will always be insane acts of violence. The world won’t go away. It is always there, reaching out with its hungers and its needs. And yes, as we do this work of Christ and reach out to the world’s never-ending hunger, sometimes we need to take a break. But if the world suddenly explodes even when you’re trying to take that break, then stop, take a deep breath, and find a way to love it.

In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Get Used To The Water

Get Used To The Water

Jesus’ birth is described in only 2 books of the New Testament: Matthew and Luke. His baptism, on the other hand is talked about in six books: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts and Romans. The Scriptures place more emphasis on his baptism than on his birth. Brian Stoffregen suggests, “Perhaps that should be a clue for us. Perhaps we should not only give greater emphasis to Jesus’ baptism but also our own baptisms. Should we not publicize baptismal anniversaries of our members as we do birthdays and wedding anniversaries?”

James R. Edwards (The Gospel according to Mark) makes this important point: “As the inaugural event of Jesus’ public ministry, the baptism tells us not what Jesus does but what God does to him” [p. 34].

Baptism is not about what we do. It’s about what God does. It’s not about my decision for God, it’s about God’s decision for me. God tears open the barrier between heaven and earth, God alights on me, possesses me and fills me with the Holy Spirit, it’s God’s voice that declares, “This is my child.” The only decision I can make is to get out of God’s way, to stop resisting God and to receive the gift that God has been trying to give me all along, the gift of my true self as God has always intended me to be. And even that decision is not entirely an act of my will; I come to that point of decision because God has enticed or nudged or shoved or dragged or persuaded or gently led me to that point. 

 There is an important difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism which is often–too often–overlooked. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance and a washing away of sin. Christian baptism is about receiving the power of the Holy Spirit and a initiating a special relationship with God. 

 Baptism, from the Greek word baptidzo, means to dip under, to dye, to immerse, to sink, to drown, to bathe, to wash. When we are baptized we dip under the surface of religion and into the depths of faith. We are dyed the color of Christ. We are immersed in the life and love of God. We sink down into the depths of God’s compassion. We are drowned in the death of Christ so that we might be raised into his eternal life. As St. Paul says in Romans 6.5: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” We are bathed in God’s cleansing grace. We are washed in the the flowing waters of new creation.

 Writing about baptism in Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes: “Christianity is about water: ‘Everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters.’ It’s about baptism, for God’s sake. It’s about full immersion, about falling into something elemental and wet. Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched…. In the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you haven’t dragged the old day along behind you. The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now. A day when you are emboldened to take God at God’s word about cleanness and protection: ‘When thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee.’”

 Baptism is not a one-time event. It is a way of life. Baptism is not fire insurance. We don’t baptize babies so that if, God forbid, something awful should happen they won’t go to hell. We baptize them so that they can be immersed from the very beginning in a life where they are always seeing and experiencing the presence of God, ideally within the family of faith–within the community of all those sisters and brothers who have also been given what St. Paul calls “a spirit of adoption.” We baptize adults because it is never too late to begin that new life as God’s child, never too late to become a new creation, never too late to receive that “spirit of adoption,” never too late to be embraced by and enfolded into the family of faith.

 There is always that hope, that desire, to be new, to start over, to be whole. Crosby and Nash in their song, Lay Me Down say it this way:

Somewhere between Heaven and Hell
A soul knows where it’s been
I want to feel my spirit lifted up
And catch my breath again 
Lay me down in the river
And wash this place away
Break me down like sand from a stone
Maybe I’ll be whole again one day

Baptism is all about God’s amazing grace, but it is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card. In fact, if you’re living out your baptism, it just my put you in jail.  Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonnhoeffer, Daniel Berrigan, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Perpetua, the 285 Muslim converts–including children–who were arrested in Iran last year, the 42 Ethiopian Christians arrested in Saudi Arabia on December 17… Baptism put them in jail. 

Romans 8:15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Baptism may call us to suffer with those who suffer for the sake of Christ. Baptism may call us to suffer with our brothers and sisters who suffer. We are God’s children. The heirs of God’s dominion. Baptism brings us not only privilege and blessings, it brings responsibilities. We have joined the family business–God’s family business. We have a job to help realize God’s vision for the world, to transform the whole world so that God’s justice, God’s shalom, God’s idea of equity and equality, God’s generosity and God’s compassion are the standard and norm “on earth as it is in heaven.” Sometimes that means we have to stand up to the powers and forces in this world that are in opposition to God’s vision. But baptism can give us the strength to do that, too.

Some of you no doubt remember how during the civil rights marches the authorities  in Birmingham tried to stop the marchers with fire hoses. Martin Luther King, marching at the front, felt the full force of those hoses. When he spoke about that later, he said that he and the other marchers had a common strength that gave them the courage and the power to keep going.  He put it this way, as “we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were a Baptist or some other denomination, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water.”

Brett Blair wrote, “You and I know the water. All of God’s children know the water. We share by our faith this common symbol, this initiation, this rite, this power of God over the deep and often raging chaos of life. We know water!”  All over the world baptism unites us. We are children of God… and it’s a very large family. That means that no matter what we’re facing, we never face it alone. We have Christ. We have our Abba. We have the Holy Spirit. And we have a whole world of brothers and sisters.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.