Sunday, April 15th, 2018 – God’s Scars and Ours, a sermon on Luke 24:36b – 48

Luke 24:36b-48
36 While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 


Prayer: Spirit of the living God, come now and thaw out our hearts with your fire of love. Come and open our eyes to see that it really is you hidden within the people we meet today. Come and strengthen our love and deepen our hope. Amen

I invite you to close your eyes for just a moment.

Raise your hand if you have a scar somewhere on your body.

Look at that – who knew scars were something so many of us had in common.

Certainly our scars don’t all fit in the same category. I have a friend who has a scar on his abdomen from donating his kidney to a woman he barely knew. I also have a friend who has a scar on her neck from the seatbelt that saved her life in the car accident that took her father’s life.

Life has a way of leaving its mark on us all. Our bodies can often tell our stories.

I have a scar on my left thumb and the continuous tingling nerve to remind me of the time I used a knife to open a package but did not follow the rule of cutting away from myself.

If I had much shorter hair (which I’ve heard is on the wish list for some of you), you would see a scar across the top of my head from when I was 4 years old and in trying to impress my babysitter, I hung upside down by my knees on the bar in my closet, only to then fall head first onto a toy fire truck. My mother said it was quite a mess.

I wonder what stories your bodies have to tell. I’m sure that among us some of them are hilarious and some of them are crushing.

I have been thinking a lot about scars this week. And a story I cannot get out of my head comes from this past fall. This past October on Reformation Sunday, some of you will remember when we had that Reformation Hymn sing down at Imminent. One of the members of the group who lead the Hymn Sing is Rolf Jacobson, Old Testament Professor at Luther Seminary. He is also a child of this congregation as his dad was one of the pastors many years ago.

And, as some of you will know and remember, Rolf doesn’t have any legs. Early on in his life, on two separate occasions, he was diagnosed with cancer, each time leading to the amputation of a leg.

Well, my son Elliot was at the Reformation Hymn sing where Rolf was leading us in song, and after it was all over and people were cleaning up, Elliot saw Rolf for the first time. And in his beautifully inquisitive and brave way, Elliot leans into my ear and says, “Daddy, how come that man doesn’t have any legs?” He had never experienced this before.

Not entirely sure how best to explain this to Elliot, I asked Rolf what the best practice was when a child is curious about someone living with a disability. And he graciously said that the best practice for him was to ask him about it.

So right there, my son asked Rolf about his legs and Rolf explained to my son about how he got cancer in both of them which meant that the doctors had to cut them off.

After Rolf said that, we could tell that something wasn’t computing for Elliot.

Finally Elliot asked, “So what did they do with the holes?”

“What holes?” Rolf asked.

“The holes in your legs,” Elliot said.

“They sewed them up,” Rolf said.

“But how?”

“With stitches.”

“But how?” Elliot just couldn’t comprehend how this was possible.

And then Rolf did this profoundly gracious thing.

 He said to my son, “Would you like to see?”

Elliot quietly nodded and there in the middle of everything going on, Rolf opened up his pant leg to let my son touch and see his scars. So that Elliot would understand.

In that moment, there was something profoundly human, and vulnerable, and at the very same time sacred.

I’ve been thinking about that story and about the scars we carry with us in our bodies because of what happens in our gospel reading for today.

Our reading for today comes right after the road to Emmaus story. The story when on Easter evening two disciples are walking alone on a road, exhausted and defeated by the news of Jesus’ death and confused by the rumors of Jesus’ resurrection. And it is there, on the road, along the way, that the Resurrected Jesus appears to them as a stranger. They don’t recognize him. It is a story that gives us that great promise that Jesus can still be with us even when we do not recognize him.

But then it gets dark out, and being faithful Jews, these two disciples offer hospitality to this stranger among them. Stay with us, they say, for it is evening.

And then at their meal together, Jesus takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it for them, just like he did at the Feeding of the 5000. Just like he did at the last supper. And it is in that moment, of breaking bread, of table fellowship, of eating together, that their eyes are opened and they realize this is Jesus among them, God in their midst.

Immediately, Jesus vanishes from them, and these two rush back to Jerusalem to tell their friends that Jesus has appeared to them.

Once all the disciples are gathered together, swapping stories of the resurrected Jesus appearing to them, all of sudden Jesus’ is standing among them again.

And they’re terrified, because despite the ways he has appeared to them already, they still think they are seeing a dead man. Jesus, the friendly ghost.

But to show them that it really is him – alive, in front of them – he doesn’t tell them that one story about that one time with the disciples that only Jesus could have known. He doesn’t say, “Listen to the sound of my voice – it’s me!”

No. Jesus does this profoundly gracious thing – he shows them his body. And not just his body, but his hands and feet bearing the bruised scars of crucifixion.

He let these fearful and doubting disciples touch and see his scars. So that they would understand. So they would understand it was really him and would understand something about the Resurrection.

As one preacher has said, we tend to think of Resurrection as this moment of fixing everything, of making all things right, making all things new, this state of perfection.

And yet… the Resurrected Jesus bears scars.

Think about what that means.

It means that what happened to Jesus in his earthly life still matters in his resurrected life. It means that the whole human life, scars and all, are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven and life of God. It means that the human body and what happens to the human body is not forgotten by God but matters deeply to God. It means that the divine life participates in the human life – fully. Scars and all.

Two theologians, whose theological work has centered on the topic of disability, think Jesus’ Resurrection wounds are significant to showing God’s commitment to all of creation.

Roy McCloughry writes that Jesus “has taken up the marks of disability into himself” and that “his body, in showing how he suffered, offers solidarity with all who remain disabled.” Similarly, Nancy Eieslund says, “Resurrection is not about the negation or (the erasing) of our disabled bodies in hopes of perfect images, untouched by physical disability; rather Christ’s resurrection offers hope that our nonconventional, and sometimes difficult, bodies participate fully in the (image of God) …”[1]

With scars on his hands, we are assured that whatever the Resurrection is, it is not a disembodied spirit, floating in the heavenly ether. But rather Resurrection has something to do with this world. Resurrection has a body. Resurrection has scars. Resurrection includes flesh, and frailty, and food. Resurrection includes the whole human life. Even the broken parts. Resurrection will be found in the ordinary.

And in case that wasn’t clear enough, Jesus does perhaps the next most human move of all.

He says, “You got any snacks? I’m kind of hungry.”

And then they share yet another meal together, this time of broiled fish.

Which wouldn’t be my choice, but Jesus didn’t ask me.

We learn that resurrection is not escape from this world; resurrection is solidarity with this world.

And then Jesus does this wild thing. He takes those disciples whose faith was a mixture of joy and doubt and wonder, and he says to them, “You are the ones to bear witness to this now. I am sending you and your scarred bodies to go and be the presence of my scarred body in the world.”

Father Greg Boyles tells the story of a gang member named Sergio who at a very young age, lived an abused life at the hands of his mother. Sergio says that his mother would beat him every day “with a lot of things you could imagine and a lot of things you couldn’t.” Everyday his back was bloodied and scarred, so much so that he had to wear three t-shirts to school just to hide the bleeding wounds.

As Sergio grew into an adult, he said that he still wore three t-shirts a day, because he was ashamed of his wounds. He didn’t want anyone to see them. “But now,” he says, “I welcome my wounds, I run my fingers over my scars. My wounds are my friends. After all…how can I help others to heal if I don’t welcome my own wounds.”[2]

How can I help others to heal if I don’t welcome my own wounds? That’s the solidarity of God lived in a human life.

Jesus said to his friends, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is me.” Showing them that his resurrected and wounded body is in solidarity with their bodies. That all of who they are is welcomed into the divine life that will be touched and seen and experienced in this world.

As I have been reflecting on this story this week, something dawned on me for the first time. The bread we use for holy communion, regardless of whether it is real bread or that wafer thingy…it too is scarred. Have you seen it? There is a mark, a cross, an X on the top of the bread, the wafer. And I’ve always thought it was just a cross – you know to symbolize Jesus. And let’s be honest, that’s probably why it is put there. But this week, I’m seeing that cross tipped on its side, as an X. As a mark, as a scar on the body of the Resurrected One who is among us. Feeding us and sending us as his body to live the resurrected life, of God’s solidarity with the world.

You know, I find myself in the same spot as the disciples this Easter season, in both great joy and in utter disbelief at the resurrection.

And yet my heart burns within me knowing that the Risen Christ is the Crucified Jesus. Knowing that in the mystery of living as Resurrection people, my past isn’t erased but rather is welcomed and held fast by God.

Perhaps yours scars are known and visible to the world already or perhaps they are known only to God. But know that God reaches out to you, showing you God’s own scarred hands and feet, saying with love, “Me too. Me too.” Amen

[1] Jonathan Evens, “Beautiful Scars, found at https://s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/smitf/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/24153304/april-19-je.pdf. Jonathan misnames Nancy Eiesland as Nancy Eisler.

[2] Gregory Boyle, Barking to the Choir, pg. 54.

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Maundy Thursday, March 29th, 2018 – A New Commandment: To Be Loved, a sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35

John 13:1-17, 31b-35
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am.14 So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16 Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 31 Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32 If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33 Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, “Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34 I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

Beloved people of God, grace, peace and mercy are yours as we begin these three days.

Can I really make any difference?

That’s the question he asked. Can I really make a difference?

A couple of years ago, I was talking with a soon-to-be college graduate and he was considering a year of volunteer service – through the Peace Corps. If he accepted the opportunity, he could be sent to Mexico or Guatemala or Israel. His excitement was palpable. He desperately wanted to live out the new commandment that Jesus gives to his disciples – that we love one another as Christ has loved us. He wanted to go and wash people’s feet, so to speak, through a year of humble service, on his knees and in the trenches with those on the margins.

But I could also sense his hesitation. After a moment of silence, he finally said, “I guess what I am wondering is…do you think I should do this? Is this a good thing for them? Can I really make a difference?”

Fresh out of colleges classes, this young 20-something was sharp and thoughtful about this sort of volunteer work. In this world we live in, it can be important to slow down and wonder what good our volunteer acts of service or our charitable donations do.

We live in a complicated world where what looks like a good benevolent act of service, can sometimes cause more harm.

One example is Tom’s Shoes. Tom’s is an organization that, for every pair of shoes purchased, donates a pair of shoes to an impoverished child. Because of this, Tom’s Shoes were all the rage in 2007 among my white, middle-class friends. By purchasing a pair or two, we felt like we were doing something good for the world and we felt good about ourselves.

However, it was a few years later when people started questioning how good this actually was. What happens to the shoemaker and her business when suddenly a truck load of free shoes start showing up in her impoverished town.

Is this a good thing for them and their economy? Can we really make any difference this way? It is an important question to ask. A question that in fact has now led TOMS shoes to work toward a business model that creates jobs rather than disrupts local markets.

Or perhaps a little more personal example. In 2005 I was on leading a mission trip in Green Bay, WI with a group of middle schoolers. We were there to help out those in need in the name of Jesus. We were there to do some good. We were there to get down on our knees and wash the feet of those in need through serving in soup kitchen, leading a day camp for children, repairing people’s homes and cleaning up the neighborhood. We were there to give back and we felt good about ourselves.

But the tone of this service trip changed in a split second. One day when we were painting the garage for an elderly woman who was confined to a wheel chair, a man came riding down the sidewalk on his bike and when he passed us, he yelled, “Oh goody! The white Christians are here to help us black folks again!”

It stopped us in our tracks. Any good feelings we carried for the service work we were doing were crushed in that moment, as we all feared and knew that there was some truth in what this man just called out.

Is this a good thing for them? Can we really make a difference here? By parachuting into an impoverished city for 5 days of painting garages and weeding sidewalks and then leaving?

It is an important question to ask.

Tonight, we heard Jesus say to his disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” 

The Church has gotten a lot of mileage out of that text alone. It is a go to text for what we are called to do in this world as Christians. We are called to love one another. And in fact, it provides the primary image for what we might call servant ministry – the image of kneeling down and humbly washing the feet of another person. As Christians, we are called to a life of service.

So much of our ministry, so much of our faith is centered around serving others. In fact, for a good portion of the year, we end our services with “Go in peace and serve the Lord.”

Serve the Lord…by loving our neighbors as ourselves. By giving generously of our time, talent, and treasures to those in need.

And we know what that looks like. It looks like signing up to help in church when your hospitality group’s turn is up. It looks like donating to the local food shelf. It looks like bringing a pan of bars for yet another funeral. It looks like waking up early to fry some bacon for kids who shrug off school and responsibility because they’ve too have been shrugged off by the people their life. And sometimes this servant ministry looks like going on a mission trip or giving up a year of your life to help out those in need.

These are just some of the ways we live out our faith, washing the feet of others in humble service.

But there is also problem with this kind of servant ministry – it only addresses half of Jesus’ new commandment.

If all Jesus wanted his disciples to be were servants and to wash people’s feet, he could have just told them that. Jesus could have simply gathered them for a last meal and said, “Okay, folks. This has been fun. Don’t forget to be good, humble servants and be sure to wash people’s feet.”

But he didn’t do that.

Instead, before he said anything, Jesus got up from the table, he knelt at their feet and with their feet in his hands, he asked them to be recipients. Recipients of his love and grace.

In his last night with his disciples, Jesus doesn’t just command us to love. He commands us to first be loved.

And that is the part of the command that is the easiest to dismiss and the hardest to embrace. Peter tried – Lord, you will never wash my feet. But Jesus wouldn’t let him avoid it.

 Peter unless I wash you, you have no share with me.

You see, too often, we hear Jesus’ commandment to love one another as asking us to give, give, give, give away love to others. When in fact, he is also asking us at the same time to open ourselves up to receiving love from those others. To see the people around you not simply as people in need of your love, but as people who just might have love to offer you.

Wash each other’s feet Jesus says. Which means at some point, you’ll have to stick out your feet and allow yourself to be loved.

Which can be the hardest part. We either don’t think we are worthy of such love, or we feel guilty thinking that there are other people who need it more.

As pastors, we hear all the time from people who don’t need our time or our help because they think those other people need it so much more.

Oh, how we avoid being on the receiving end of love. Lord, you will never wash my feet.

When we do this – when we only see ourselves as givers of love and avoid seeing ourselves as recipients of love – we get stuck in our presumed roles of servanthood and we set up a power dynamic in servant ministry that corrupts.

The healer stays the healer and the wounded stays the wounded. The helper stays in power and the helpless stay powerless. The generous ones stand above and the needy ones stand below.

And as a result, the givers of love grow tired of being called upon all the time – can’t someone else help for once? Tired of still seeing poverty and hunger despite their regular donations. Tired of not seeing any change in a person’s life after all the help they’ve given.

Meanwhile, the recipients of love grow tired of never being seen as having anything to give.

That’s what the man on the bike in Green Bay was calling out. Why are you white Christians always the generous ones and I’m always the needy one? Don’t I have something to offer you?

When we love others as Jesus has asked us, but never allow ourselves to be loved by others, this love becomes a one-way street and this ministry of compassion withers and fades. Because “compassion (and love cannot be) a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It (can only be) a covenant between equals.”[1] Where both can love and be loved.

In his powerful book, Tattoos on the Heart, Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest tells stories of working with gang members in LA. And in the very beginning of his book, he says this,

“I was born and raised in the ‘gang capital of the world’…but as a teenager, though, I would not have known a gang member if one came up and, as they say, ‘hit me upside the head.’ I wouldn’t have been able to find a gang if you’d sent me on a scavenger hunt to locate one. It is safe to declare that as a teenager growing up in LA, it would have been impossible for me to join a gang. That is a fact. That fact, however, does not make me morally superior to the young men and women you will meet in this book. Quite the opposite. I have come to see with greater clarity that the day simply (will not) come when I am more noble, have more courage, or am closer to God than the folks whose lives fill these pages…There can be no doubt that (these people) have returned me to myself. I’ve learned, with their patient guidance, to worship Christ as He lives in them.”

What I love about Greg’s story is that he went into this ministry to love and serve gang members in LA. And along the way, he learned that a critical part of his ministry, of following Jesus’ new commandment, was learning to stick out his feet and be loved and served by them. They have returned me to myself, he said.

Beloved people of God, we have too often missed half of Jesus’ commandment. We are not simply called to love one another. But we are also called to open our hearts and be loved. By God and by one another.

I wonder what would happen if that college graduate went abroad for a year, to Mexico or Guatemala or Israel, not first to love others who needed his help. But rather to experience and receive the love and wisdom and gifts God has given this community of people to share with him.

I wonder what would happen if we the Church saw opportunities of service and ministry not simply as a way to give back to those in need, but also as a way to receive from those who have much to give.

I wonder what would happen if tonight we would all kneel down and stretch out our hands to receive the grace and love of God that God so longs for us to have. Amen.

[1] Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart, pg. 77.

Sunday, March 25, 2018 – A Preacher Thinks about the Donkey, a sermon on Mark 11:1-11

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 11:1-11
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, 

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

I would like to begin this morning with a prayer that comes to us from the Iona Community. Please pray with me

Liberator Christ,
you came into a holy place
and read the sacred word
about sight for blind folk and freedom for prisoners.
Come to this place now.
Read these words to us
till our own eyes are opened, our faith is unlocked,
and we can see the world as it is,
and as it could be;
till the yearnings of ordinary people are taken seriously,
and the visions of the young are valued,
and the potential of the old is released;
till your kingdom is celebrated everywhere,
and your church is good news to the poor.
Amen.

Well. Welcome to Holy Week.

A couple of weeks ago, I said that we put a lot of pressure on the Bible.

I think we do the same with Holy Week.

Or at least I do. This expectation creeps up in me that I am supposed to feel something extraordinary and transformative this week. And then as one of your worship leaders I have this overzealous expectation that the same needs to happen for you. That we need to help make sense of this most sacred of weeks so that you will know all of the details of Jesus’ last week, you’ll understand theologically what each part means and why, and in the midst of all that heady stuff, you’ll feel something extraordinary and transformational at each service of this week too.

That your life will find purpose again on Maundy Thursday as Jesus commands us to love one another we have been loved. That your heart will shatter on Friday when God’s beloved is taken out, silenced, assassinated, pierced by the Empire’s bullets of power, control, and fear. And that your soul will burst back to life on Easter Vigil and Easter morning with resurrected trust in a God whose love for you and this world cannot be destroyed.

And then come Monday morning, you’ll think to yourself, “Wow. Holy Week at my church is awesome!” And then you’ll tell your co-workers about it and they’ll be so moved by it, that they’ll just have to join you at St. John’s Lutheran on April 8th, when worship times at 8:30am and 10:45am.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on one week.

But I have a different approach for myself this year. And maybe it can be for you too.

Perhaps we live out this week together not to make sense of and explain it all. But rather just simply to remember. To remember this central story of ours. To hear it again. And in remembering, begin to trust in the slow work of God that over time meaning for our daily lives out there will be found.

You see the act of remembering was so important in Jesus’ day. Not simply because they were an oral culture, receiving their stories and their news by word of mouth, but also because remembering their story and the people who have gone before plugged them back into the long-arched story of who they were as a people. And to what kind of God they belonged.

In fact, the day Jesus entered into Jerusalem on a donkey was all about remembering. It is the beginning of Passover, the Jewish festival which remembers the time when the Jewish people were freed from their slavery in Egypt. Do you remember the story of when Moses says to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”? They would remember that story – their freedom from slavery – in Jerusalem that week. It is one of the ways they kept the third commandment – to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. In Deuteronomy 5, part of keeping the Sabbath it says is to remember that you once were a slave in Egypt, and remember that God set you free from that empire. Which is to say, do not forget who you are and to whom you belong. You are a freed people who know the struggles of this world and you belong to God. Remember that.

That act of remembering matters. It re-members us. It draws us back to each other.

Families whose loved one has died know this well.  When I meet with families that are grieving and, in the midst of that grief, are planning a funeral, we always take time to just start telling stories.

Tell me about your dad, I’ll say. Or What adjectives would you use to talk about your mom? Or what drove your crazy about your husband?

And what amazes me is that everyone in the room doesn’t have to remember everything. Every story. But rather each person offers up their own little contribution to the quilt that was this person’s life. And it is in the midst of remembering that meaning starts to take shape. When the detail or the story happened years ago, they couldn’t tell you what it meant. But now in remembering it, suddenly a deep cavern of meaning starts to open up from the tiny details of a human life.

Like the fact that Myron Solid would write upside down for the sake the student seated across from him. Or that Wes Pearson would walk home for lunch every day. Or that Thelma Nitz Lee saw just about everything as “perfectly good” and worth keeping.

And so during this Holy Week, I want to invite you into the spiritual practice of remembering. Find one thing during each of the services to remember from this sacred story of ours. Not to make perfect sense of it, but to carry with you. And trust that in time, meaning will arrive.

This morning, I am remembering that young donkey that has never been ridden. Did you catch that little detail? Jesus sends two of his disciples to be donkey-fetchers – not a highly sought after job, I suspect, for these hand-picked disciples. But Jesus says to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a donkey that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it.”

Now this act of Jesus riding on a donkey – that would have triggered a memory for everyone there. They would immediately remember what the story – their story – from long ago when the prophet Zechariah said, Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.

And in remembering that story, the meaning of this moment for them would become clear.

This moment, during this time of Passover, when on the opposite side of the city, the Roman brigade is entering the city on war horses, with shields and spears, you know to keep control of this little freedom party these Jewish people are having…it is in the midst of that that Jesus arrives into Jerusalem as a king long awaited. Your king. And he comes to you. But he is a different kind of king than the world has ever known. He comes triumphantly and victoriously without a chariot or war horse. Without a battle bow, without a weapon. Without a military parade to show off our killing power. No, he comes triumphantly on a donkey in peace.

And the painful truth of this scene that we already know is that this prophetic, protesting march, is a really funeral procession. A funeral procession for the King willing to die for this peace and for the people he loves.

And all I can think about, all I can remember is that young donkey, that has never been ridden, whom Jesus chooses as his vehicle of choice.

Maybe I cannot stop thinking about that donkey because I am having a hard time avoiding the connection between what is happening in our churches today and what happened in our country yesterday.  Today we gather in our churches for a march lead by Jesus, during Passover, which reminded the people of their pain and suffering and slavery in the past. And the people shouted, and we shouted, “Hosanna!”, meaning Lord, save us.

And then yesterday, the young ones among us gathered people all over the country. They gathered in the streets and at our capitals (our Jerusalems) and they marched against the pain and suffering that is in our all-too recent past. That of gun violence in our country and in our schools.

And the shouts and chants at this parade sounded a lot like Hosannas….Lord, save us. And do you know what people were carrying on big signs? Pictures and names of those who have died by gun violence.

So that we will remember.

So that we do forget who they are. So that we do not forget who we are and what has been done to us. And, truthfully, what we have done to ourselves.

The timing couldn’t be more profound for those of us who remember and begin Holy Week.

And so maybe that’s why I can’t stop thinking about the donkey that has never been ridden. Because sometimes Jesus calls on the young, and the vulnerable one. Sometimes Jesus calls on the one who has never been called on. Sometimes Jesus calls on the inexperienced ones who were never trained for this work and asks them to carry him into the center of our lives.

I heard a poem by Mary Oliver this week.

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight.

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof and stepped, as he had to, forward.

Today, I’ll be remembering that donkey. And all the young and untrained ones through whom God is at work in our world. For yesterday, Jesus entered our national story carried on the backs of our students. It’s a burden they do not deserve to share alone.

May we all have the ears to hear Jesus call out our names. And may we have the sturdy legs and the strong back to carry Christ to the center of the city and all the places we go.

May God bless you and encourage you in our re-membering this week.

Amen.

 

Sunday, March 11th, 2018 – A Sermon on Numbers 21:4-9


John 3:14-21
14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

Numbers 21:4-9
4 From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5 The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6 Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8 And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south. 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 19 Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress; 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction. 21 Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy. 


Ephesians 2:1-10
1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

This might be strange for me to say, but I get a little nervous when people actually start reading their Bible. I have been reminded over and over again in the past few weeks how dangerous the Bible can be to how people see the world but also for how people see God.

We put a lot of pressure on the Bible – we seem to think that ever verse needs to have some message or morality tale for my life. Or that we need to understand what every verse means in order to be faithful believers. Or that we need to be able to explain and make sense of everything in the Bible in order for the Bible to still be the true Word of God.

It is like we have been taught to think of the Bible as linked chain that connects us with God. And every single verse in the Bible is a link in this chain – and if any verse is not factually true or if we disagree with a certain passage that link in the chain breaks and the entirety of Scripture collapses and we lose our connection with faith and with God.

Which is a lot of pressure to put on the Bible.

You’ve seen those black and read warning labels that say, “DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care”? I think we should put one of those labels on every single Bible we give out. DANGER: Contents under extreme pressure. Handle with care.

 This is my fear when a story like the one we heard from the book of Numbers is read in church. When the Israelites are wandering in the wilderness complaining about the length of this road trip and the quality and quantity of the food and in response, it says that God sends them poisonous snakes to nip at their heels and kill them until they say they are sorry, in which God gives the magic antidote of staring at a bronze serpent to heal the people of their poison.

A story like this…either it convinces you that God is a god who rewards the obedient and who sends poisonous snakes to the disobedient. Then we start thinking that everything happens for a reason (like cancer, or snow storms, or open parking spots close to the doors of Target) and from there your life of faith is founded on fear and superstition.

Or a story like this…convinces you that God is cruel, this whole thing is a sham, and you abandon the church all together.

That’s a lot of pressure resting on one text in this linked-chain of scripture. That is a lot of damage one text can do.

But Preacher and Professor David Lose suggests a different way of looking at the Bible. Rather than a linked-chain, where each passage, each verse, holds an equal amount of weight, he suggests that we see scripture as a series of concentric circles. At the center are the foundational texts of our faith. The ones we are clear and confident about what they say about God. For me, at the very center would be Romans 8 – nothing can separate you from the love of God. But then in the middle and outer circles, are the texts that are less clear. We aren’t sure what they mean. They are still important but they’ve had less influence on our faith.

This morning, we’ve heard three  of what I think are our central texts.

  • From the Psalm: O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever
  • From Ephesians: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved useven when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ –by grace you have been saved
  • From John 3:16: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 

Those are the big and steady rocks of our faith. We can carry those central beliefs about God – that God is good, full of great love for us, non-condemning – into the outer rings of Scripture like Numbers 21. We got out trusting that our firm foundation of faith is not reliant upon understanding this one confusing text.

But now that we have grounded ourselves in our central beliefs about God, I want to venture a bit into the story about the poisonous snakes because there is wisdom about God and about us that we can find there.

Now, let me just say this first, and I’ve said this before when preaching, and I know some of you are a bit uncomfortable with it, but I feel like I have pastoral responsibility to say it, so here goes: I do not know for sure what this text means. But there are parts that speak truth into my life and perhaps they will for you.

Briefly, a little context. The Israelites have been set free from slavery in Egypt and they’ve been wandering in the desert looking for the promised land for many years. And they have a tendency to complain.

They complain against Moses – their leader – that they don’t like the bitter water, so God shows Moses how to sweeten it. They complain against Moses about the lack of food, so God gave them manna – the bread from heaven. They complained against Moses that they were thirsty, so God commands Moses to strike a rock, and out comes gushing water. They complained against Moses that there was no meat – no protein. So the Lord sends quails their way.

And then today we hear again about their complaining. But this time – it is different. This time they don’t just complain against Moses. They complain against God.

The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 

Now that is pretty whiney. And did you notice that there complaints don’t even make sense? We have no food! And we detest this miserable food! Clearly something is going on here.

But I think there is more going on here than just Israelites who are hangry – to use Bruce Benson’s word from last week.

It isn’t just their stomachs growling and their throats parched – their hearts are turning to stone.

We detest this miserable food. You see they’ve begun to resent the manna – the food – that God gave them when they were hungry. It had been for them a physical sign of the grace and love of God that they once were thankful for, but now they have grown bored with it. They became ungrateful and started to resent the gifts of God that once sustained them. They have started to distrust that it was enough to get them through. They thought they would die in the wilderness, which is to say that they no longer trusted in the grace of God to get them through the wilderness.

In short, they find the grace of God boring and untrustworthy.

Years ago, I had the joy of getting to meet and hear Jay Bakker speak. Some of you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Well Jay is their son. With his whole life in the public eye as Jim and Tammy’s boy, much like his parents, his life went into a tailspin.  At 13 years old, he started drinking and doing drugs just to get away from the chaos that was his life. But now he has been sober for 18 years and is a pastor in the Cities and a well-known speaker and author.

But this is what Jay told us. He said that he was in church his entire life, but never discovered grace until he was 20 years old. Sure, he heard people talk and sing about grace, but it always sounded empty and meaningless. Instead, the message he was really taught was that God hated him and that he was bound for hell unless he could be a good enough person. Which is not grace, right?

But Jay said that grace, real grace, amazing grace, saved his life.[2] Because finally someone came along and told him – Jay, God loves you unconditionally exactly as you are. Whether you are drunk or sober. Whether you’ve got it together or whether you don’t. God loves you all the same.

 And then Jay told our group that when he was invited to speak to us, he was told not to spend too much time on grace, because we’ve all heard that before and the organizers didn’t want u getting bored and to start playing on our smart phones. And so Jay said, “Well, I know you guys know grace. But I’m afraid you’ve become bored with it. What you need to know is that there are thousands of people out there who have never heard about grace.”

The Israelites got bored with God’s grace, with God’s gracious manna from heaven, meant to sustain them. And here’s the truth: so do we.

Israelites stop trusting God will see them through the wilderness. And so do we.

Sometimes we stop trusting in that grace to actually have an impact on our lives and the lives around us.

And notice that in the story, it is then, in the very next sentence, that poisonous snakes show up.

I do not believe that God sends poisonous snakes to kill people but the Israelites thought there was a link. We complained against God, and now there are snakes. This must be God punishing us.

But could it be that the moment we stop trusting in a loving God, when we stop being grateful for the grace of God, when we stop trusting that God is here to save us and not condemn, when we stop believing that God sees us and all people as precious and beloved, when stop trusting that God will see us through the wilderness times of our life, that the moment we get bored with God’s grace, we get bitten by a snake. And then infected with a kind of venom of fear and resentment and ingratitude that hardens our hearts, and we die.

Now we need to be careful with death in the Bible because in the Bible you can be dead and still have a pulse. Did you hear the first line of Ephesians? You were dead in sin, but God who is rich in mercy has made you alive in Christ.

You can be dead and still have a pulse. Last Wednesday evening, during David Kelvie’s powerful message, he was telling us about his struggles in life, and his self-destructive decisions. And then he said these words (and David, I don’t know if you even remember this), he said, “Toward the end of my life…” and then he stop quickly and corrected himself, “Toward the end of my walk without God…” And I thought that moment was profound. I don’t think he misspoke. Because to some extent that was the end of his life – that life. He was dead back then. But then God made him alive again.

So, these Israelites have been infected with a poison and they are dying and they confess to Moses because they knew something was wrong and they pray for the snakes to go away. But notice that the snakes do not in fact go away. God tells Moses to fashion a bronze snake and put on a pole so the people can look at it and be healed. We learn that God does not take poisonous things out of our life, but rather God gives us the courage to look them straight in the eye. And in fact, we will be healed when we can look at them and face the poisonous parts of our life.

This season of Lent seems to be designed to get us to face the poisonous snakes in our lives. And so I want to close with two questions.

One: how’s the sense of gratitude in your life?

Brain science research tells us that if we can find one thing to be grateful for everyday, our life will be more joyful. Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of you are living through your own wildernesses right now and it can be overly simple to say, “Just be thankful for what you have.” That’s not what I am saying. What I am saying is that there is manna in the wilderness and when we stop looking for it or we resent it, our hearts grow hard and we die.

My second question: where have the snakes snuck into to your life? What’s poisoning you right now? And how are you avoiding that truth? I promise you, if you act like it is not there, they will just continue to bite you. But if you can lift that snake up into the light and look at it – you just might be healed of its poisonous power.

So, in the remaining weeks of this season, I invite you into the spiritual practice of gratitude – finding one thing each day to be thankful for – and the spiritual practice of staring snakes in the face – being honest about your life.

And now receive a blessing – may the grace and love of God never lose it’s flavor in your life. May you never grow bored of it. May it never leave you empty and hungry. But may it fill you up and sustain you and may it guard your hearts and your minds through the wilderness now and always.

Amen.

Sunday, February 25, 2018 – Jesus Will Ruin Your Life, a Sermon on Mark 8:31-38

You can listen to this sermon here.

Mark 8:31-38
31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Sermon

Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Years ago, pastor and preacher, Sam Wells, was the head of Duke University Chapel. One year, he was asked to speak with the entering class of students. He was asked to talk about the work of the chapel and the campus ministers, from all their different denominations. When the students arrived and when it was his turn to finally address them, he said this: “(All the denominations represented here in the chapel and the campus ministry) are different but we’ve got one thing in common. We’re here to ruin your life.”

All the other pep talks given that day told the students how to follow their dreams and how many facilities and support services there were to help them construct a successful, comfortable, well-regarded existence. But Sam thought he should be honest and acknowledge that if that’s what these students were looking for, faith would ruin their life. He wasn’t invited back.[1]

If you think Sam is joking about the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider the story of Shane Claiborne. In 2012, Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist spoke at the ELCA youth gathering and in his talk he shared a story about the ugly laws passed in Philadelphia against the homeless. Laws that made it illegal to sleep in public parks, illegal to lie down on the sidewalk. Illegal to ask for money, and eventually the mayor outlawed all public feeding of the homeless. Shane said that eventually there came a moment where he asked, “What’s a Christ follower to do? Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves.” One of the pastors said that if Jesus had tried to do the feeding of the 5000 in Philly, Jesus would’ve been arrested.” And so Shane and his friends started to think about and pray about what they should do. And in the end, they decided to throw a party that looks like the kingdom of God. They invited a bunch of their homeless friends and they gathered in the park. They brought their guitars and their drums and they sang worship songs. And then they did something sort of sneaky in one of those zones where it was illegal to give out food – they served communion.

All the police officers were like, “I’m not going to arrest anyone taking communion. I’m gonna have communion.” They continued the breaking of the bread by ordering in some pizzas. Which pushed it a bit. And then they slept in the park with their homeless friends even though it was illegal. And eventually, they were arrested.

In the end the charges were dropped because the judge realized the ridiculousness of charging these folks with a crime for feeding the homeless and sleeping in the park. But then Shane made his point very clear: before he became a Christian, his life was pretty well put together, but then he met Jesus and Jesus messed his life up. “I was never arrested until I became a Christian,” he said.

If that just sounds like a new age, hippie-liberal view of the work of the church and being a Jesus follower, consider this.

Recently, I learned about a letter that was found written by a person in public office to his brother. In the letter, he talks about his son who is doing well in his studies. He is set for a military career that could be followed by a career in politics and a settled family life that would make his father proud. But this letter goes on to talk about how this boy has gone astray. He seems to have joined some kind of a sect and he’s refusing to join the army because he says he won’t fight. And he says he won’t marry because there are things more important than having a family. And all his values have been turned upside down, the letter says.

The letter is an archeological find from the 3rd century. It is written by a Roman Senator. He’s talking about his son’s conversion to Christianity.[2]

Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

I wonder if you are getting the point yet.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life. It’s not a great sales pitch, I know. And it is not a highly sought after church mission statement. But it’s true.

Sometimes, I wish I could watch someone read Scripture for the first time. From a blank slate – just to see what their reaction to the story is. There are certain stories where the first reaction might be informative to those of us who take these stories for granted.

As Pastor Pam pointed out last week, the story of Noah and the flood isn’t exactly the children’s story we’ve made it to be. Years ago, my sister-in-law was reading the Spark story bible with her daughter. It was one of their first times diving into the stories of Scripture. It was this beautiful, faithful, moment. A mother and daughter, reading the bible together. And then they read the story of Noah. And in the end, my 5-year-old niece looked up and said, “You mean they all die!??!”.

If we could watch someone read the gospel of Mark for the first time, chapter 8 would be the moment when everything turns. We’ve had 7 chapters of Jesus’ ministry – of healings and casting out of demons, caring for the outcast and the suffering, and Jesus being identified as God’s son. In fact, just before this passage, Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter gets the answer right.  You are the Messiah, he says. The anointed one of God come to make the world right again. The One who defeats the Roman empire once and for all.

So far, so good.

But then Jesus begins to teach them. That the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected, and killed, and after three days rise again. 

“You mean he dies?!?” both Peter and the first-time reader ask.

Peter couldn’t believe it.

And Peter’s life and hope are ruined.

Like anyone hearing something they don’t want to hear, Peter rebukes Jesus. He takes Jesus off to the side, privately and scolds him. Trying to contain this, in any way he can. But Jesus will have none of it.

And Jesus, looking around at the other disciples, says “Peter, you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. Get behind me, Satan!”

And then almost to heighten the tension and up the ante, Jesus gathers everyone around and says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

 Jesus has just revealed that his way of life leads to suffering, rejection, and even death. And now he has just asked for followers. In other words, “Come. Follow me. I’m here to ruin your life.”

Because, you see, that phrase – take up your cross – every one of Mark’s original hearers would have known what that meant.  It’s the first time the cross is mentioned in the entire gospel but for the 1st century readers, it would mean one thing – Roman political and military punishment. It was a humiliating and disgraceful death for those who resisted and did not follow in the ways of the empire.

The Roman Empire says, “Follow me, or you get the cross.”

Jesus says, “Go get your cross and follow me.”

It can be easy to underestimate what that word means for us today.

We’ve used those words, “Take up your cross” and trivialized them into crosses of annoyance – like that co-worker you just can’t stand but have to work with. Or into a cross of unnecessary suffering – like a cancer diagnoses. Again. Or into a cross of self-defeat – like staying with an abusive spouse.

This is just my cross to bear, we say.

But is that really what Jesus is saying? He’s just spent the past 7 chapters ending useless suffering and oppression. Why would he endorse it now?[3]

This isn’t divine permission to be a doormat to the world – letting whoever stumbles your way walk all over you.

But it is a call to action. A risky call to action. “To face the evil, sin and death of the world with goodness, courage, and love.” [4] And when one follows Jesus like that – the cross is the inevitable result. When you stand up to evil in your life and in the world, there will be suffering and rejection. And even death.

It’s like Jesus saying to the transgender kid, “Take up your parent’s rejection of you and follow me…into belonging and wholeness for the beautiful person you are.”

It is like Jesus saying to the politician, “Take up losing your campaign finances and re-election bid and follow me…into truth and integrity and justice and love of neighbor.”

It’s like Jesus saying to the high school students in Florida and across the country, “Take up the Facebook comments that diminish you as an entitled and lazy generation, and following me all the way to Washington.”

To take up the cross means to give up your life in order to stand against the powers of evil in this world the prevent the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.[5]

As Bonhoeffer said, there is a cost to discipleship. It will ruin your life. It will ask you to stand up for those in need. It will ask you to stand up for yourself. It will ask you to listen when one stands up to you. It will ask you to set your mind on divine things over human things. It will ask you to offer forgiveness over retribution, and grace over judgment, and justice over your own personal comforts.

Let me introduce you to Jesus. He’s here to ruin your life.

I wonder how that sits with you.

Are you rethinking your membership here at St. John’s?

Are you affirmed, knowing the cost this life of faith has had on you and your life, and knowing that it is true: by letting go of life and following Jesus through the streets of suffering, pain, hardship, and death…you actually can find your life once again.

Are you inspired to follow Jesus in a new way – not just with your Sunday mornings and your Wednesday evenings, but with your whole life?

If our faith costs us nothing, then we have wonder if we are really following Jesus.

I don’t know exactly what this means for all of us – to take up the cross and follow Jesus. Or what it looks like in your life. Only you can figure that out. But I do know that on this road of faith, we are not alone. There is One walking ahead of us. One who knows the way. Whose been down this road before. It will lead us someone where. We won’t know today. We maybe won’t know next week. That’s why we call it a life of faith, not a moment of faith. We will lose our lives. But we also just might find them.

May it be so.

[1] Sam Wells, http://s56.podbean.com/pb/2db7c8263afa728e1bf45f2ecd15359c/5a9222a4/data2/fs32/601733/uploads/13-12-22_Sunday_SW.mp3

[2] Ibid.

[3] Matthew Skinner, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1383

[4] Sam Wells, Hanging by a Thread, pg. 35.

[5] Matthew Skinner, http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?article_id=1142

February 14th, 2018 – When Hearts and Ashes Collide, an Ash Wednesday Sermon on Valentine’s Day.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
1 “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 Years ago, I was working at a congregation and we had a traditional Ash Wednesday service, with the imposition of ashes. It was a typical Ash Wednesday. The church gathered at noon and in the evening for the somber service that begins the season of Lent. Those of us who were at the noon service wrestled with that annual internal crisis – do I wash off my ashes or do I leave them on all afternoon? In the evening, we all ate soup together and we went home in silence.

It was a normal Ash Wednesday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.

And then Sunday rolled around. The church started to gather like it always did for Sunday worship. People arrived in their Sunday attire – some in a suit or a dress, others in jeans and untucked collared shirt. The pastors put on their robes, the acolytes struggled to tie that knot that goes around their waste.

It was a normal Sunday. Nothing unusual, nothing to see here.

Until Richard walked in.

Richard was an ordinary man who faithfully showed up to all the church worship services. He never said much, but his presence was predictable. He was at the Ash Wednesday service. And here he was, back in church on Sunday morning. Only this time there was something noticeably different about him.

You see it was Sunday morning, but Richard still had on his ashes.

Now, you could tell that they were ashes that had lived through about four days of life – a couple of wardrobe changes, a handful of nights on a pillow, maybe a scratch of the forehead or two. But one thing was clear…those were Ash Wednesday ashes still marking Richard’s forehead on Sunday.

And many of us couldn’t help but chuckle silently in embarrassment for Richard. Had Richard not showered since Wednesday? Had he not looked in a mirror? What’s going on here? Do we say anything to him? We all were just a little uncomfortable with this.

You see, Richard’s imposition of ashes had become an imposition to us and our Sunday routine.

Imposition. It is an interesting word we use on Ash Wednesday, isn’t it? The imposition of ashes.

Think about it for a moment. We don’t say, “The Anointing of Ashes” like we would with oil. We don’t say, “Blessing of Ashes” like we might with water at the font or sign of the cross at communion.

No, we say, “The Imposition of Ashes.”

Because that’s what this is. An imposition.

Meaning an action that demands someone’s attention.  An action that puts in place something that is an unfair or unwelcome demand or burden.

Imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.

More often than not, and by design this imposition demands attention. Specifically, your attention. The one upon whom this cross is placed. But it grabs the attention of those who can see it too. Wear your ashes down the sidewalk or to the grocery store and it will demand someone’s attention. But this imposition of ashes is also a burden. Place an ashy cross on the forehead a young child, and it will very much feel like putting in place something that is unwelcome and a burden. The burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.

As a kid, this smudged cross was always more attention grabbing than burden. I can remember each year rushing to the nearest mirror as soon as we got home from church just to look at my ashes. How was Pastor Carol’s smearing this year? My siblings and I would sort of giggle at the sight of each other’s crosses made of ash. Some looked like they were applied with a q-tip and others with a paint brush. No two look exactly the same, but they represent the same thing.

Now as an adult, it is more burden. It startles me when I look up from washing my hands in the bathroom. Or when I glance in the rearview mirror on my way home. Or when I peak in on my sleeping children and see that smudge on their resting foreheads.

The attention grabbing, burden of truth – we are dying. All of us.

And it is the burden of truth we work so hard to hide. We hide it when we refuse to use a walker after a fall, because, c’mon, don’t be ridiculous, I’m just fine thank you very much. We hide it when we conveniently forget to make our annual doctor’s appointment two years in a row. My health is fine, we say. It’s a truth we hide when we keep children home from funerals or when we say, “Jessica passed away” rather than “Jessica died.”

And yet, on a day like today, it is a truth that cannot hide. The secret is out. We are dying. All of us.

In our gospel reading, it’s a bit odd to hear Jesus encourage so much secrecy on a day like today. Like giving alms with your right hand in such a way that your left hand has no idea. Shhh…it’s a secret. Or when you pray, go into a room and close the door. Shh…it’s a secret. Or when you fast, wash your face, put on some make up – don’t make it look like you’re fasting. Shhh…it’s a secret. I don’t understand Jesus’ effort at secrecy in faith on a day like today when the biggest secret is let out. When our mortality and our faith are on display like no other day of the year.

But there is one thing that Jesus says today that rings true.  Jesus’ concern about the honesty of our faith. Don’t be hypocrites, he says. Which in some ways is the worst thing you can be in our society, it seems. Someone who says one thing and does another.

But there is a deeper meaning to that word I think, both for Jesus and for us. The word hypocrite comes from theater. It was a word that described actors who hide who they really are behind a dramatic theatrical mask.[1]

Don’t be a hypocrite, Jesus says. Don’t hide behind the mask. Come out as you really are.

Which is a fitting message for today. On this Ash Wednesday, Jesus asks us to let down our masks and look at who we really are – vulnerable, fragile and frail creatures whose time is limited.

Ash Wednesday is the day when we take off the mask. When we stop being hypocrites, when we stop pretending, even if just for a moment. Because sometimes a moment, a glance at this shadowy cross imposed on us and our beloveds is all we can bear.

Back to Richard and his Sunday ashes.

I wonder if seeing those Ash Wednesday ashes on Sunday wasn’t as embarrassing as it was disturbing. You see, in some ways, Richard that morning  had become a walking preacher, prophet, parable of truth that we really didn’t want to think about. We had done the dying thing. On Wednesday. Couldn’t it stay there? Why did he have to remind us that we are fragile on all days of the year. That the mark of death will be as true this Sunday as it is today.

The imposition of ashes. An imposition indeed.

And that’s the link to today as Valentine’s Day as well. Valentine’s Day, like Ash Wednesday, is an incredibly vulnerable day too. On a day when some will profess their undying love for their beloved. On a day when the young one’s among us sign box after box of Nerds candy or fold their Transformer valentines for each one of their classmates, hoping that their brown paper bag will overflow with Valentine’s too. On a day when we pray that the box of chocolates and flowers will be a sign of love that is true. On a day when we rely on that the card, the email, the text, the spoken word to jump our heart back to beating again. On a day that we pray that there is love out there to be found – whether in a lover or a friend, a playmate or a neighbor, we are reminded just how vulnerable we are.

Our fragility in love and our fragility in death are about as human as it gets, and both are on display today.

And it is in the midst of all of that, on this day when hearts and ashes collide in a bizarre and yet somewhat fitting event, we learn this: that we are marked by God’s love. Even unto death. Because that mark on your forehead, it is not just ash. It is not just a scar across a human life. It is ash with shape to it. In the form of a cross. The cross, that place where God’s beloved died because of his very big heart. That shadowy cross, now mark on you in the very same place we mark oil in baptism. In the same place we mark with water in blessing. All in remembrance of your belovedness.

Hymn write, Thomas Dorsey know that deep promise of belovednesss. Hear now his story. A story where the fragility of love and the fragility of death collide, and amongst the rumble is the enduring promises of God.

In 1932, as Thomas Dorsey was leading a service at the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Chicago, a man came on to the platform and handed him a telegram that said, ‘Your wife Nettie has died giving birth.’ He rushed home, only to find the baby also died shortly afterwards. In this moment, Thomas was living a nightmare. He was hanging on to faith, and sanity, by a thread. Sitting in a friend’s house a few days later, he experienced a peace the world cannot give. He began to sing words that could have only come from the Holy Spirit.

“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn; Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light: Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.”[2]

 And suddenly a hymn was born. And a heart was saved.

Even in the face of death, a faith and a peace that surpasses all understanding can be found in this promise: You will be cared for with the love of God. Always.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics.

[2] Adapted from a telling by Sam Wells in Hanging By A Thread, pg. 36.

Sunday, February 4th, 2018 – My Life is (Not) Over – A Sermon on Mark 1:29-39

Audio will be posted.

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Mark 1:29-39
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. 32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him. 35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” 38 He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.

My life is over.

My life is over.

I wonder if you have ever said those words.

Perhaps when a loved one died suddenly.
Or maybe it was the moment you were arrested.

Perhaps the moment you lost the big game.
Or maybe when your high school girlfriend broke up with you. And did so using AOL Instant messenger of all things.

Perhaps it was the moment you took that new job or retired to a new town and just wasn’t what it seemed.

Perhaps it was when a marriage ended because of something you did. Or something that was done to you.
Or maybe it was the moment the doctor came in with that shaken look in her eyes.

My life is over. I suspect we all have said or thought those words at some point. We have a tendency to invest our hearts and our souls…and reputations in fragile bodies and fragile people, high achievements, precarious jobs, and fear of failure.[1] And when one of those collapses, it can feel like our whole life is collapsing too.

It’s a moment we all recognize.

I wonder if Simon’s mother-in-law ever said those words. My life is over. It’s not hard to imagine how dire her situation was. We don’t know much about her – not even her name. But she’s worth a name. Let’s call her Sophia. All we know about her is that she is Simon’s mother-in-law. Was she married? Probably. Widowed? Most likely, if she’s living in her son-in-law’s house. Where is her daughter? We don’t know. She is nowhere to be found. With just those observations alone, we can imagine she has experienced immense suffering and loss in her life. Times when surely she might have said, “My life is over.”  And in case we missed it, the only people seemingly left in her life, Simon and Andrew, have just been called as disciples and would be hitting the road with Jesus. In some ways, it could seem like Jesus has ruined her life, leaving her to fend for herself.

And now, she’s sick with a fever in a bed, a potentially fatal condition in a world without antibiotics. My life is over, she whispers.

Then there is a knock at the door. “It’s me,” Simon Peter says. And through her sweat stained eyes, she can barely make out the shape of his body.

“I’ve brought him with me,” he says. Just then, Jesus steps into the room. Have they met before? We don’t know. All we know is that he takes her by the cold hand and something happens. The fever breaks. Her forehead dries. And Sophia was lifted up in both body and spirit.

For the gospel of Mark, which moves at rapid speed, there is a specificity here that is tender. Jesus took her by the hand. I wonder why Mark takes the time to include that detail.

It reminds me of the power of touch, of simply holding someone’s hand and how healing it can be. When was the last time you held someone’s hand? There is something sacred about it. And I think we know that.

You know, I hold my sons’ hand all the time. At home when we are playing or going to sleep. When we are walking down the street. And sometimes for no reason at all. And then it dawned on me – when did my dad and I stop holding each other’s hands? I can’t remember, but it was a long time ago. What a shame.

Jesus takes Sophia by the hand and she is lifted up. Restored to good health.

And then there is that troublesome text. “And she began to serve them.”

More than enough jokes will be made in pulpits today about how she was healed so that she could make the taco dip for the big game. And surely there are some disparaging jokes being made at this moment about mother-in-laws.

But this text is worth not making light of.

You see it is this kind of text and its misreading and its cheap jokes that still do damage today in how women are viewed not only in society but also in ministry. As if a woman’s God given purpose in life is to serve the men. If your tired of this topic and think it is a non-issue, consider this. A very well-known leading public theologian, who has the ear of many young Christians, recently put out a blog post about how women shouldn’t be allowed to teach in the seminary, because how could they know how to train the men whom God has called to lead God’s churches.[2]

It’s out there, folks. And those of us who stand against such lies – we need to be louder.

And so, what can we do with this small little line, that Sophia was healed and began to serve them.

We can make it about Jesus and say that’s just how good he is at healing – no recuperation time needed. What a miracle!

Or we could make it about the culture – it would have shameful and embarrassing for her not to be able to host her guests. She would have been quite glad she had the opportunity to do so when she was healed.

Or we could make it about good manners – this was just her way of saying thank you for being healed by Jesus.[3]

But all of those answers close the book on this woman’s story. A woman was sick. Jesus healed her. She got up and served them. The end. And then we can forget about her and move on.

But Mark? Mark won’t let us forget about her. All because of that word “serve.” It is a troublesome word to us, but for Mark it is used like a trail of breadcrumbs in the gospel that keeps leading us back to Sophia.

The Greek word there meaning to serve is diakoneo. So, Sophia’s fever left and immediately she got up to diakoneo. Well, in about 10 chapters, Mark drops a breadcrumb when Jesus goes to tell his disciples that he has come not to be served, but to serve – diakoneo. (Mark 10:45). He has come to do what Sophia did – to diakoneo – to serve.[4] Maybe our bracelets should say WWSD – What would Sophia do?

And then a couple chapters later, Mark drops another bread crumb when Jesus is hanging on a cross, and when all of the other disciples (ahem… the men) have abandoned him, we learn that there was a group of women who watched from a distance. A group of mostly unnamed women who, as the text says, “provided for him in Galilee.” And the word there for “provided for”? Diakoneo. Here was a group of women who had diakoneoed , served, with Jesus. Which means maybe… just maybe… one of those women who has gone all the way to the cross with Jesus…was Sophia.

Just when we thought her story was over way back in chapter one, here we learn that in some ways, that was just the beginning for her. She was more than a blip on Jesus’ healing list. More than a tossed-aside example of thankfulness and hospitality. She was a disciple. With a new family of followers alongside her. And as a disciple, one who held the secret of the kingdom of God. That it has come near.

My life is over, she might have said. But it wasn’t. Her fever left her and immediately, she diakoneoed. She served. Whatever Sophia did after she was healed from her fever – well, it wasn’t what we might think as forgettable or menial work. It was divine work. She became a disciple of Jesus. And as one preacher put it, this isn’t just a healing story. It’s a call story. Sophia became an image of the kingdom of God come near. A model of discipleship from whom Jesus would shape his own ministry. She becomes the first of the resurrected people who belong to Jesus’ revolution of the kingdom of God that is dawning.[5]

So, let’s bring this home. How does any of this matter to us today?

I guess as I think back upon this past week and all the painful stories of life trajectories that have been thrown off course by the asteroids of disappointment and cancer and isolation and aneurysms and Olympic level doctors wreaking havoc on female bodies, I can imagine many people crying out, “My life is over.” And yet in this story, the story of Sophia, the Gospel says…no it isn’t.

We say, “My life is over.” And God takes us by the hand and says, “I know it feels that way. I know it feels over and ruined, but it isn’t. I am still with you.”

It is one of the Bible’s favorite stories to tell. God calls people whose lives are in the proverbial trash can, nearly dead and over, and raises it to new life.

Hagar, Abraham’s maidservant, and mother to Ishmael, is discarded to die in the wilderness. My life is over, she says. She then is granted her very own one-on-one conversation with God, who promises to make her and her son a great nation. And she is given exclusive naming rights over God – El Roi. The One who sees me.

Ruth, the Moabite, the outsider who has lost her husband and her father-in-law, bravely goes to care for her mother-in-law, Naomi, in a foreign land. My life is over, she says. And yet in the end, she lands herself on a branch of the ancestry tree for Jesus the Son of God.

My life is over, we say. And God’s favorite response is: No, it isn’t.

If we can step off the pages of Scripture and into our own context, and if you can bear reading any of the testimonies from the victims of Larry Nassar, what stands out to me is the fierce bravery of these young women to keep on living, despite what has happened to them. They recognize the destruction that was done to their life, the many ways in which life felt like it was numb and over. But then they defiantly declare that their life isn’t over.

Jade Capua said to her accuser, “You broke and shattered a lot of girls…but I am no longer broken by you. I am a survivor.”

Madeline Jones said, “I now understand that I lived because I’m meant to live.”

Kyle Stephens said, “Perhaps you have figured it out by now, but little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women.”

There may have been a time when these young women felt like their lives were over. But if you listen to them now, they’re far from it.

My life is over, we say. No, it isn’t, God says. When the kingdom of God is near, there is always possibility of new life.

That’s Jesus’ message embodied in the story of Sophia – that the kingdom of God has come near and things are not as they seem. For Jesus, no one’s life is ever over. There is always possibility. If the kingdom of God can come near in the midst of the Roman Empire. Nothing is over. Nothing is sealed. Nothing is beyond God’s reach and repair. That is Sophia’s story. That is our story.

And in the end, it’s God’s story too. Just when we think that God’s life is over on the cross, in the empty tomb, we see – no it isn’t.

Not for God. Not for us.

May you and all the ways you take up the divine work of diakneo in your life be signs of that hope in the dark.

Amen.

[1] Inspired by a sermon from Sam Wells, http://s56.podbean.com/pb/cffb9ca1413fe8263e4ae3b605ad73a5/5a7752ca/data2/fs32/601733/uploads/13-12-22_Sunday_SW.mp3

[2] I read this from Karoline Lewis, found here: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5052

[3] Matt Skinner

[4] Grateful to Karoline Lewis and Matt Skinner for their remarkable commentaries on this text. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2344

https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5052

[5] Dan Gonzalez Ortega, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3554