Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, March 12, 2018

John 3:16 - Not What We Think It Means

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

My favorite movie has a plot familiar to most fantasy stories – the most beautiful woman in the land, destined to marry the prince, has been kidnapped. As the bad guys escape with her across the sea, a mysterious stranger, dressed in black, pursues them. At every turn, as the stranger keeps up with them, despite the traps they set... and every time, the leader of the bad guys exclaims “Inconceivable!” At one point, one of his henchmen says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

If you are familiar with the rest of the movie – I’m taking about the great cult 80s classic “The Princess Bride” – you’ll remember that this is a different kind of fairy tale - the princess doesn’t want to marry the prince and the prince turns out to be the bad guy. As it turns out, the mysterious man is an infamous pirate, but he is also the princess’s actual true love. He pursues her and overcomes every obstacle to rescue here… perhaps a bit similarly to the mother bunny who assures her child that there is nothing that he can do to outrun her love (I read The Runaway Bunny for the children's sermon). …which if course is exactly like the love that God has for each of us, God’s beloved children.

All through Lent, we have been exploring the depths of God’s love and how far that love will go for us.... and today we have the mother of all Bible verses about love to explore, don’t we?

If someone in your daily life stopped you and asked you to recite a Bible verse by memory, I would be willing to bet that you could do a decent job with John 3:16, right? This is a pretty familiar one. We see it a lot of places OUTSIDE the church, too – like sporting events and billboards - and hear it quoted in books and movies often enough. But, do we have something in common with the lead bad guy in the Princess Bride in our misunderstanding of the familiar? Do we understand the wealth that is contained in these twenty-eight words? Does this verse mean what we think it means?

Supposedly the whole Bible, and the whole Christian faith, is boiled down to this one verse. Martin Luther once said that this is the whole Gospel in miniature. But unfortunate, how our chosen readings for today are selected might make us forget that this one verse – as important as it is – does not exist floating around by itself in a vacuum. 

Like famous sayings that we love to misquote, what happens when we put the word of John 3:16 back in Jesus mouth, where they belong? What happens when we put these words back into the Gospel of John in it’s entirety?

John 3 begins right where last week's Gospel reading left off. Jesus has just driven the money changers and all the animals being sold at unfair prices out of the temple, throwing over tables and chasing people out with whips … all very dramatic, if you recall.

After this, a man came to talk to Jesus named Nicodemus. A Pharisee and a leader of Jews, Nick here was part of a group that was against Jesus… and yet, here Nick was, wanting to have an in-depth conversation about who and what Jesus is. Nick even admitted “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who as come from God; for no one can do these signs (he means the wedding at Cana and the cleansing of the temple) apart from the presence of God.” Jesus’s response to this could be a paraphrase out of Princess Bride – Jesus is not exactly who Nick THINKS Jesus is. Jesus is not just a rabbi, or someone who does signs. Jesus is the son of God, sent to save the world. 

John 3:16, as it turns out, is only one small part of a larger conversation – well, fairly one-sided really, since Jesus ends up doing most of the talking – that ranged all over the map, from being born from above, the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit, the judgement of God, believe in Jesus, light and darkness. Most of which goes over poor Nick’s head… and over ours too.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is continually opening wide the horizons of people’s notions about God. It is here in John, that Jesus says all of his famous “I am” statements:” I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the gate for the sheep, I am the way, the truth, and the life.

In John, his gospel starts in such an epic way as to emulate the great poem at the beginning of Genesis itself: “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the word of God became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory… full of grace and truth.”

In John, Jesus gives hope and living water to the woman at the well, and she opens her mouth to testify to this encounter. Jesus opens the tomb of Lazarus and calls him out of the darkness of death. On the last night Jesus spends before his crucifixion, he humbles himself among his followers – the very ones who would later betray, deny, and abandon him - and washed their sweaty, travel-worn feat.

All through John, Jesus challenges people to open their eyes, minds, and hearts to the fact that the Word of God became flesh and was walking among them.

But why did Jesus come to us in this way? And what did Jesus arrive here to do? Perhaps that is why we cling to John 3:16 so much, because we get a who, why, and how… which are actually pretty few and far between in the Bible.

Who did God send? Well, that would be God’s son Jesus…. But to whom did God send the son? Jesus says to Nicodemus… and to us… and to the whole world…. God loved the whole world, just to certain people in the world …  not just people who have seem to have it all together, or who mentally subscribe to all the right doctrines, or even just for those who come to church every single Sunday. The whole world MEANS the whole world, and Jesus proved that in every part of John’s Gospel.

Why did God send Jesus? “So that …. whoever believes in him... may have eternal life.” And, dare we go past verse 16 into verse 17, we find out that what God has in store for us is NOT judgement, but instead that we might be rescued through our rescuer, SAVED through our SAVIOR Jesus. Saved, that is, so that we may have eternal life NOW. Present tense. Not just for some far-off time when we need to reserve our place in heaven. Not someday, in the sweet by-and-by. Eternal and abundant life happens NOW. We get to truly live before we die AND after we die.

How we can participate in this eternal life gets a bit tricky. Jesus tells us, “all who believe” in him may have this eternal life. All throughout John’s Gospel, and all throughout Jesus’s life, belief is not a box that gets checked off. Belief is a road that is created by walking in the footsteps of where Jesus has gone before us. Believe in Jesus is actually a verb, and action, a way of life, where we live as Jesus lived, and we choose love over hate, we choose compassion over fear, we choose to place our hope in the coming dawn rather than trust that the night of sin and brokenness have the final say.

Inconceivable, you might be tempted to think, as we sit here in our own dark times and dark nights, even as dawn has come an hour earlier because of Daylight Savings. Well, perhaps that word doesn’t mean what we think it means. Perhaps we don’t have to fully conceive to believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, March 5, 2018

NOT Showing at a Movie Theater Near You!

Sermon 3-4-18
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

You’ve found the best seats in the movie theater -  lights go down, your popcorn is buttered and ready to go, and for two hours you are immersed in the world of Wakanda, a peaceful, highly technologically advanced country with a rich history, thriving under the rule of King T’Challa… whose alter ego is the super hero Black Panther. But all is not peaceful in Wakanda for long – soon, challenges from both within and without threaten to shroud Wakanda and the rest of the world in war and violence. Will King T’Challa be able to thwart the villains’ evil plans? Will Wakanda survive? I won’t spoil the end of the movie for you, though you can probably guess how things work out. It is a super hero movie, after all…. And one I would highly recommend, if you haven’t seen it yet!

While we may be experiencing a golden age in super hero movies, we all know that super heroes are not new. We read about their adventures in comic books as a kid, we watched them in Saturday morning cartoons, we pretended to be them during recess. We keep going to movie after movie …. And we even have super hero vacation Bible school themes, like we did right here last year.

Let’s face it - we just love super heroes and heroines. We love to watch them win. Heroes are strong. Heroes rescue innocent people. And for two hours we get to escape our own complicated and divided world. For two hours we are instead immersed in a story where it seems so much simpler to tell good from evil. No wonder Hollywood is making money hand over fist. Because we find that our own world is not like this at all.

For as long as there has been people, there have been stories of super heroes that come to the rescue us from ourselves.  We long for a world where a super-human being comes to save the day, to right all the wrongs in the world, and to defeat the bad guys – and it’s even better with epic explosions and high-tech gadgets. We long to have such a super hero at our disposal, because perhaps then we would not feel so powerless about the world we live in.
For as long as there have been people, the reality is that the strong overpowers the weak, and the mighty oppress the vulnerable, and some have lorded their power over others. We have conquered, exploited, persecuted, and disposed of one another, in more ways that we can count. It is no wonder that we long for God to swoop in to right the wrongs, to free the captives, and break every yoke that we have created for one another.

When Jesus arrived on the scene… at first, he seems to be just the super hero that God’s people have been waiting for. By now, the Jewish people have been oppressed by a rotating carousel of empires for hundreds of years – living for generations under so many thumbs of so many foreign powers.  Enter Jesus, ready to do something big.

Just before this story in the Gospel of John, Jesus attends a wedding and preforms his first sign – the infamous changing of water into wine. And the next thing we know, Jesus is entering the temple – the very center of the grand worship complex of his time – and shaking things up with his righteous anger. Just add some explosions and an epic-ly loud soundtrack, and you have a scene straight out of one of these super hero movies. Here Jesus is doing exactly what a super hero might do –Jesus confronts the people in power who are taking advantage of the “little guys” as he busts up their stuff, overturns tables, and drives them out with his whip of cords.

This gets Jesus in trouble with the religious authorities: Jesus threatened the source of their power and refused to play by their rules. But Jesus also refuses to play by OUR rules as well. We THINK that we want a big strong super hero to conquer the world … as long as we benefit. We THINK we want a super hero on a big white war horse to kick butt and take names in order to usher in the Kingdom of God. But this is not exactly how Jesus’s story goes.  

The truth is, Jesus would make a terrible super hero. It’s true that he starts strong by the cleansing of the temple, but it all goes downhill from here. Instead of going right to the top, to directly take on the powers-that-be, Jesus goes straight to the bottom. He chooses as his inner circle a group of rag-tag fishermen, social outcasts, radicals, and others who flunked out of rabbi school. Jesus surrounded himself with the weak, the powerless, the suffering, those who are sick and demon possessed, with women and children and tax collectors and sinners. Jesus healed the chronically ill, fed people without checking their credentials, and taught these people that the kingdom of God is FOR THEM TOO. It’s not just for the rich. It’s not just for the powerful or the strong. The kingdom of God is for ALL PEOPLE.

But where Jesus really fails at being a super hero comes at the end of the story, as we look to the end of the season of Lent and toward Holy Week, when we remember the last days and hours of Jesus life. This part of Jesus’ story is not filled with epic battles and triumph and winning. The last hours of Jesus life is full of failure, betrayal, suffering, and death.
Jesus makes a terrible super hero, because super heroes aren’t supposed to be weak. Heroes aren’t supposed to give up all their power. Heroes don’t hand themselves over to the evil people of the world to be beaten up, humiliated, and then to be killed in a painful and disgraceful death on a cross. But this is exactly what Jesus did.

Jesus was rejected because he did not live up to our standards of what power looks like. To the people of his time, and to us too, Jesus looks weak and pathetic. What kind of super hero is this? Dying on an a cross? Certainly not a very good one. What super hero would willingly choose a cross, anyway?

As Paul wrote to the fledgling Christian communities in Corinth, who also struggled with living in a very conflicted and divided world…. The cross does not compute. Not to them, and not to us. The cross seems like a stupid, foolish, and weak way to save the world. And yet, it is exactly the way that Jesus chose to save us. And it is exactly the way that we need to be saved.

As it turns out, what seems like God’s foolishness is wiser than our best wisdom… and what seems like God’s weakness is stronger than any superhero might.

Just what is the foolishness of God? Exactly what is God’s weakness, God’s kryptonite, as it were?


Let me say that again. God’s weakness is love. God’s love for us, specifically. God loves us SO MUCH that God would do anything, go to any length to share that love with us. God would gladly look foolish, weak, and moronic if it means being present and entering into our suffering with us. God would rather show us unequivocally the endless bounds of this love, than play by the perverse rules of our power games. Even if that means submitting to those power games, even if that means submitting to death itself…. All So that in the end, death would no longer have any power over us. To borrow from another super hero movie, Jesus may not be the hero we want, but he is the hero that we need.

Jesus became fully human and fully embraced everything that meant… which if you think about that for more than a few seconds you realize this is a TERRIBLE idea. Humans are MEAN and we do lots of BAD THINGS to one another. We have invented so many ways to hurt one another. And yet, by coming to us, Jesus says that WE ARE ALSO WORTH SAVING. We are also worthy of LOVE.

We don’t have to earn this love. We don’t have to be strong, or powerful, or influential, or successful, or healthy, or have it all together. There is nothing we can do. This love is just THERE. And it belongs to all of us. Which is perhaps the most foolish, most moronic, most amazing and wonderful thing of all.

Martin Luther wrote a prayer intended to be prayed before receiving communion: “My Lord Christ, I have fallen, I would gladly be strong. For this purpose, you have instituted the sacrament, that which with it we may rekindle and strengthen our faith and be helped. Therefore, I am to receive it... I now come to be helped.”

So, like Luther, here WE are to receive this help and this love. Jesus proved that his love for us – which could be perceived as weakness – was stronger than human hatred and fear. What looks like foolishness to others - following a man who lived love so fully he died a humiliating death on a cross – turns out to be our path to new life.

So, this becomes the beginning of our own super hero story – what looks like an end becomes a beginning. After the night comes the dawn. After death comes resurrection. After Lent and Holy Week comes Easter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, February 26, 2018

1,2,3, Eyes on Jesus

Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

By now most of you are well acquainted with the fact that I have some pretty hair-brained ideas sometimes. And… that I don’t always think things all the way through. Thank goodness for our office administrator Veronica for asking me some good follow-up questions when I have a particularly half-baked scheme.

Two years ago, or so ago a group of women pastors I’m a part of met for a retreat at a camp in NJ…for some reason and they put me in charge of doing some kind of creative craft. I was of course very excited and wanted to try something new, so, inspired by someone else’s bright idea, I suggested making crosses… out of  broken pottery, that we would actually be breaking ourselves. I got these wooden crosses and some crazy glue and suggested to the group that everyone in the group bring – not a dish to pass, but a dish to break.

We all brought with us something that was meaningful for us to smash, so that the broken bits might be transformed into something beautiful as part of the cross. Some of us brought dinnerware from previous marriages that ended in broken vows and divorce.  Others brought with them the frustration of situations at their churches that were challenging. Some brought worries about toxic climates at home and in their churches. Some brought personal grief, challenges, and questions. Between all of us, lots of heavy stuff weighed us down.

I had THOUGHT that I had thought through everything. We went outside where we could be messy. I laid down a plastic table cloth to catch all the broken bits for easy clean up. I even brought a hammer so that we didn’t have to do a lot of throwing of pottery (unless we wanted to). But I forgot one thing…Band-Aids. So, of course, one of us ended up bleeding, and it wasn’t even me, much to my surprise. Fortunately, we were able to raid the first aid kit in the health hut.

But despite the bleeding and the extremely big mess we made - with a little crazy glue and some bandages, we were able to make beautiful art out of our brokenness. We exchanged broken bits of our own mess and we created something new on one another’s crosses. Much the same way that God can make something beautiful out of us when we feel too broken for anything more than the trash bin.

As a pastor, I have a LOT of crosses. People seem to want to gift them to me. But this one is probably one of my favorites. It went up on my wall right away when I returned from this retreat with these dear friends. And it was one of the first things that went up on my wall when I moved here to Pennsylvania to take this call.

Just about every cross I own has a story, whether it’s on my wall or I wear it around my neck. One cross necklace I own was created out of Peace Bronze, which is an alloy created from disarmed and recycled American nuclear weapon systems. Another one was given to me by a woman named Irene from my last church, a German woman with a grumpy exterior but underneath loved people deeply and fiercely. She was forcibly conscripted into the German army under Hitler as a youth and bore the scars on her arms until her death a few years ago. It would have been completely understandable for her to spend the rest of her life hiding from that trauma. Somehow, she instead choose to spend the rest of her long life giving herself away to other people.

The cross Irene gave me is very pretty and has gemstones on it, which was so totally NOT her…. She presented it to me without ceremony and totally out of the blue one day. She thought I might like it, I was honored to have it. Every time I wear it, I feel like I am channeling her strength and resilience. Every time I wear it, I feel the weight of carrying her life, which was a life of service and love for her church and for her community.

When Irene died, the sanctuary was almost not big enough to hold all the people who came to celebrate her life - people whom she had helped, taken care of, provided for, and mentored over the years. We also discovered just HOW MUCH Irene was doing for the church behind the scenes… perhaps she had given a little bit TOO much to the church over the years… but no one could deny that this was a woman who had been a follower of Jesus and gave her whole self in caring for her neighbor.

When Irene was baptized, she was marked with the cross of Christ with water. Every year on Ash Wednesday, she would be marked with an ash cross and told to remember that she was dust, and to dust she would return. Over the course of her live, she bore the cross of Jesus until she got to meet him face to face.

Like Irene, we are marked with Jesus’ cross in our baptisms, named and claimed as God’s beloved. At the start of every Lent, we receive the cross of ashes on our foreheads too, to remind us that our lives do not belong to us. We do not belong to ourselves. Our lives belong to God, and to one another.

Our lives are to be spend in the service of the world, not in seeking after all that glitters in it. Our lives are to be spent caring for and carrying one another, especially the suffering, the rejected, and the innocent. Our lives are to be spent walking and living in the way of the cross, which for me, means that I need to set my mind on the things that are important to God, other than get completely caught up in the things that the world sees are important.

Every day, but especially now, need to ask ourselves, as people of God – what will be most important to us? God’s priorities… Or ours? 

What do we see as most important… Our “right” to bear arms, or our call tor one another’s’ burdens? 

Our “rights” to carry weapons that are specifically designed to kill people… Or the right of our children to grow up happy and healthy and free from fear? 

Don’t children have the right to get to grow up AT ALL? My cousin’s wife is going to have a baby this summer…. And yet… my cousin has expressed seriously consider purchasing an AR-15, and clearly defends the right to do so, over the safety of his future child. Hearing and knowing this just about broke my heart, for his future child, and for all children.

I’ve worked with a lot of children over the years, mostly in churches and camps. I even did a – very short - stint as a substitute teacher at one point. Anyone who works in education will tell you that getting the attention of children of any age is challenging. I already a few ways to get attention from squirrely kids from my camp experience, but one I learned during that time went like this – the teacher would say “1, 2, 3, eyes on me.” To which the children SHOULD respond, “1, 2, eyes on you.” This is a little lesson that Peter could have used, right? When Jesus says to his followers something to the effect of “1, 2, 3, eyes on me…. I’m going to suffer and be rejected by the people in power, die, and rise again 3 days later, all for your sake” …. Peter obviously did not take it well. After all, no one wants to follow a loser. No one is too keen on denying themselves and losing their lives. We would rather be winners, and follow a leader who is clearly on the path to success.

Instead of learning from the teacher, Peter tried to do some teaching himself, which got him into some hot water. Like Peter, we all would rather be the leader, or at least have some input in where this Jesus parade is headed. As it turns out, Peter gets it completely wrong sometimes.

But Jesus does not reject Peter outright. Instead, Jesus tells him to “get behind me.” Not necessarily to kick him out of the group or to get out of Jesus’ sight… but get behind Jesus… because you need to be BEHIND the person you are following in order to SEE how to follow them. We can’t walk the way that Jesus would have us walk if we are not looking AT Jesus.

1, 2, 3, eyes on Jesus… and we will see a life lived suffering WITH and for the lost and the least. 1, 2, 3, eyes on Jesus… and we will see a life binding the wounds of those that life has left bleeding and broken. 1, 2, 3, eyes on Jesus… and we will see how God takes an instrument that humanity specifically designed to kill people (holds up cross) and transform it into a symbol of new and abundant life. New and abundant life given to us, and ALL of God’s beloved children.

This is the person we are called to follow, and the life we are called to live. It won’t be easy, but we won’t have to go it alone. The path has even been cleared for the one who has gone on before us, who both leads us and also walks by our side.

1, 2…  eyes, on you, Jesus. Help us bear our baptismal crosses out into the world. Amen.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Ashes to Ashes, and Dusty Hearts

Ash Wednesday 2-14-18

Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, amen.

Lent really snuck up on us this year, didn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down Christmas decorations… and frankly my Christmas wreath is still up on my door! Sure, it’s getting browner and browner by the day… but have I had time, mental headspace, or the energy to take it down…? not yet obviously! And now, here we are. It’s Ash Wednesday already, and I don’t think I AM ready for Lent to start!!! Are you?

I feel SLIGHTLY better that Christian mystic Henri Nouwen felt the same way… he wrote, “I am certainly not ready for Lent yet…. I could have used a few more weeks to get ready for this season of repentance, prayer, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.” And yet here it is again, like it is every year.

It’s a heavy season, not to be traveled lightly, and I feel like I could have used a few more weeks, too. I’m not ready to go back into the wilderness when so much of my life is spent trying to get out of it. I’m not ready to take a hard look at where I fall short. I’m not ready to wear ashes on my head and to remember that I will die someday and become so much dust. I’m not ready to take a close look at my unclean heart. I’m not ready to let go of the things in my life that I should let die. I’m not ready for this journey, even if it is with Jesus at my side.

But ready or not, Lent happens. Just like life. Ready or not, life happens. Like Lent, life arrives like an unwelcome guest. We go about our days and regular routines and whoa - suddenly our lives have been interrupted our own personal Ash Wednesdays, when we become marked by death, grief, and pain. When we are suddenly not the person we were before, but aren’t yet the person we will become. And this feeling is certainly not fun.

As Lent sneaks up on us, like a thief in the night, the rest of the world has been reminding us CONSTANTLY - the moment that Christmas is over, really - that another holiday is coming… Today the world celebrates a holiday full of red hearts, flowers, and chocolate gifts, romantic love. Today seems to be a strange clash of a “holiday” and a “Holy Day” 2 days that seem to have nothing to do with one another… much like the premise of so many romantic comedies. Ash Wednesday and Valentines Day. What a strange couple. Or maybe… just maybe…. They go together better than we might have originally thought.

Imagine a valentine for such a day - “Valentines are Red, Wednesdays ashes are gray… You can’t spell valentine without LENT on this day.”  Or:

“Ashes to Ashes, and dust to dust. Being my valentine is an Ash Wednesday must.” These cards might be pretty hard to find at the Hallmark store. Which is a shame, because maybe the rom-coms are onto something…. Opposites attract in this case because love and death are two sides of the coin we call human experience.

After all, God IS LOVE… right? God created us to love one another. And as Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian Minister and beloved children’s television host, was known to sing on his show – “there are many ways to say ‘I love you’. There are many ways to say ‘I care about you.’” And it’s true.
There are as many ways to show love to one another as there are people on this earth. However, what Mr. Rogers did not sing about, is that too often there just as many ways to HURT one another. And by now, we have had thousands of generations of practice at it, and we have thought of every way under the sun to cause one another pain.

Not even our children are immune from our desires to hurt one another… it’s in our homes, our schools, we cannot seem to get ourselves from death’s grip, as reports came in this afternoon of yet another school shooting in Florida… yet more deaths because we cannot seem to agree as a species to priorities the health and safety of the youngest and most innocent among us over the widespread availability of instruments of death and destruction.

Even this holiday of love is not escapes the shadow of death. The origins of today are lost to the eons, but according to legend, today is the death day of Saint Valentine.  He was a rogue priest who supposedly performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, while also ministering to persecuted Christians… but he got caught. The story goes that he wrote a letter before he was executed and signed it “Your Valentine.” This was no cute note saying “be mine” with candy decorated with hearts. This was a heart-wrenching letter written by a man marked for death. And so weirdly, his holiday has become famous for being full of everything “cheesy LOVE” related - shiny, red, cute, and heart shaped.

I’m guessing, if you are human and have lived on this planet for more than a few seconds, your heart is not pristine red, shiny, or intact like the decorations. If you are human, your heart has become a bit smudged and wrinkled from life.

Of course, we all know that love and other feelings don’t originate with the half-pound blood-pumping muscle in our chests. But our hearts CAN so full of love we might burst. Our hearts can ache with compassion and empathy, or with longing or loneliness. Our hearts can sting from being hurt. Our hearts can get bruised. Our hearts can even get broken.

We have a saying that we “put our hearts into” things that we care deeply about. Some of these things seem innocent enough – family, friends, country, living a comfortable life, freedom. But, as Jesus says about treasures being stolen and rotting away… these things we think we should love above all else WILL fail us. Our homes and our cars, our careers, our health, our stuff we buy to fill the empty void we sometimes feel in our hearts…. They will let us down.

We are human. We love what we shouldn’t. We cling to what will consume us. We possess what eventually will possess us. We become lost in a wilderness of our own desires. Like the seductive tunes of the Pied Piper, our hearts lead us down a path that will end in our destruction and death before we know it.  We tend not to realize what is happening until we are already well on our way through the wilderness. It sneaks up on us, like Ash Wednesday, the start of our 40 days in the season we call Lent. Perhaps, on a day like today, with the headlines of death we hear all too often, it seems like we are already there, and there can be no hope for us.

One meaning of Lent is “to lengthen,” like the daylight hours in the coming spring, that hopefully will arrive someday soon.  We long for right spirits that love what will not leave us dusty or damaged. We long to stop causing and receiving heartbreak.  We long to be out of the wilderness and we long for the coming dawn. We long for hearts that are clean so that we can love as God has called us to love. We long to be able to store up treasures not of this world but treasures worthy of heaven, true treasures like love and justice and mercy and forgiveness and kindness and working toward the safety and well being of all people.

Ready or not, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, is the time to take stock of our dusty, sore hearts. And we often find what we don’t want to find. We find our sinful and broken human states have left scars on our hearts. We find we are lost in a wilderness we don’t want to be in. We find that, like St. Valentine, we are marked by death.

God uses a mark of death, however, in order to claim us for new life. In a dusty cross smudged across our foreheads, we are marked for love, a beloved treasure that belongs in the heart of God.

We are not left in our dusty, heartsick state. We are not abandoned to the wilderness of our own misguided treasures. Our damaged hearts are not cast aside and thrown away, like unwanted valentines on February 15th. Instead, God renews our hearts, minds, souls, our whole being. The good, the bad, the ugly, the parts that feel unlovable and unworthy. All of it. All of us.

And so, we wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the INSIDE Of us. The confessing our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. Beginning the slow and painful process of the transformation of our dusty and broken hearts into ones that are healthy and whole…. All the better able to love the other dusty and hurting hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world.  To love one another with our whole hearts… with hearts that are broken AND healed. With our Valentine’s Day selves AND Ash Wednesday selves.

We know that will likely take more than forty days. It will likely take our entire lives. But forty days is a good start.

It helps us to remember that at the end of these long, dark forty days -  or however long our particular transformation may take -  at the end of this journey there is hope. There is resurrection. There is light. There is love. There is life. And we aren’t doing this alone.

Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. God loves you always, and in that you can trust. Amen.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Transfiguration: "Don't hide yourself away... let it shine!"

Sermon 2-11-18 Mark 9:2-9
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Frankly, sometimes the Bible can be pretty gosh darn weird. Every year, at the end of the season of Epiphany, right before we cross into the of the season of Lent, we get this strange little story from three of the four gospels - Matthew, Luke, and this year we hear from Mark– where Jesus - literally - lights up brighter than the Griswold’s house at Christmas.  It just seems particularly strange on a dark rainy day like today!! 

But perhaps it’s not quite as weird as we may think. After all, the season of Epiphany is all about light shining in the darkness, remember? It began with the shining of a star high up in the sky, which led wise men from far away to a child with the face of God, who would grow up to be the king and savior of all. And so, it kind of makes sense in its own way, that Epiphany ends with that same child, now all grown up, whose clothes and face and whole being are shining as bright as any star…. And this is something to celebrate.

Forget for a moment that the Eagles won the Super Bowl last week…forget all the Valentine’s Day candy and the onslaught of President’s Day sales. THIS is a story to get psyched about! Because it isn’t just a story about Jesus. It’s also a story about us. It’s a story… about… you.

For Mark, Jesus’s story begins with his baptism, where the heavens are torn apart and a voice from heaven says, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Doesn’t this sound familiar? Today we find ourselves right in the middle of the story of Jesus that Mark tells, at the event of Jesus’ transfiguration, where Jesus is transformed before his disciples and revealed his true resplendent nature.

Did you catch that word - “resplendent” - in the prayer of the day? I think it’s such a great word: Resplendent – adjective; attractive and impressive through being richly colorful or sumptuous. Synonyms: splendid, magnificent, brilliant, dazzling, glittering, gorgeous, impressive, imposing, spectacular, striking, stunning, majestic; splendiferous.

Yeah, I think it would be fairly accurate to say that Jesus is splendiferous, as well as resplendent. Up on that mountain top, God made Jesus resplendent and God called him Beloved, just the same as God did on the day of his baptism.

The day that YOU were baptized, you likely wore a brilliant white gown – perhaps not quite AS white Jesus’s was. But you might have still had a special glow about you, the glow that comes from being surrounded by the love of your parents, the love of your family, the love of your sponsors and congregation, and the love of God. That day, YOU became beloved, AND YOU became resplendent.

But the glow fades, and life moves on. We grow up, and it becomes easy to think that over time we tend to out-grow our baptisms, like we outgrow our baby clothes the fancy little white shoes that we might have worn. But what if our baptisms are something that we are always growing INTO? –sometimes (maybe too often) in fits and starts… hopefully, though, always moving forward, more or less, toward working out what it really means to be BELOVED and RESPLENDENT.

So perhaps THIS is why the baptismal gowns that we put on our babies tend to be much too long for the babies who are actually wearing them. As if it’s going to take a little time for them to grow into their baptism and figure out how to wear it out in the world. And for most of us, this is a process that we’re still figuring out, year by year, day by day, moment by resplendent, transformational moment.

But most of the time, I don’t FEEL very resplendent. Being resplendent, LIVING resplendent is kind of uncomfortable, and even scary at times. People notice. Much easier, much more comfortable, is it to stay up there on the mountain, where we feel safe and secure. After all, that’s exactly what Peter suggests. He knows full well that the world down there is a very dark and fearful place. Better to dig in and put off dealing with that scary world for as long as possible. Better to hang out with shiny Jesus where no one else will notice him up here on the mountain top, where it’s safe.

I think that the poet Marianne Williamson, who I have quoted in the past, shines a spotlight on our fear being noticed. She writes, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?” (Here I would add RESPLENDENT and AWESOME) But she goes on: “Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God….We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.”

I’ll say it again – YOU were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within you. Year by year, day by day, moment by resplendent, transformational moment.

Now these moments look different for everyone. Sometimes they are big, resplendent, beacon-on-the-mountain-top experiences. Other times, it’s more like a small candle that bravely burns in the blackest night. You can have them at five, fifty-five, or a hundred and five. And they tend to happen to us when we are least expecting them. But once they happen, we are often never the same again. And often they become part of our “call” stories.

One respondent moment of transformation that happened in my journey changed the course of my life and I believe leave led be directly to the path of ordained ministry. It was such a small moment at the time, but I can remember it as if it happened yesterday.
Let me set the scene for you: The summer after my freshman year of college. My first week of my first summer of as a Counselor at Pine Lake Lutheran Bible Camp in central Wisconsin. Believe it or not, I used to be a shy introverted college kid who loved confirmation camp as a teenager…. but at this point during staff training I was wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. I was being stretched and coaxed out of my comfort zone. 
Let's play, Find Pastor Lydia!
One afternoon was spent in team-building activities as a staff, and our camp director LOVED to throw in a wrench here and there, to make them even more challenging and make us work together!  She would suddenly jump in and blindfold one person, or tell another they can’t speak or use their right arm to finish an activity, to up the ante for every challenge!

In the middle of one game, the camp director suddenly yelled “for the rest of this activity, Lydia is the only one with the ability to speak!”

After the initial moment of panic, I wanted to call a time out, remove myself from the game, insist that I am a much better follower than a leader. Surely, she didn’t mean for ME to be in charge.

But in that moment, a spark lit a light that God had created and instilled in me from the moment of my baptism, just waiting for the right moment to ignite. Before I even knew what was happening, I was putting a plan into action, guiding the group to a solution, and suddenly the task had been successfully completed. I … did it. That was around fourteen years ago, and I still remember how accomplished I felt at this moment. And I believe that this resplendent – transfiguration – transformation moment is what God used to launch me to where I am today.

Now your story is going to be different. And it’s your job to come down off the mountain in order to tell the tale.

When we tell our resplendent stories, the light of God that shines in us gets brighter and brighter. And the fear, though it might not go away completely, seems to become just a little dimmer. We can say, I am resplendent, and you are resplendent, because Jesus is the resplendent one shining out from our hearts. Through Jesus, we are witnesses to the shining, resplendent, lavish, dazzling love of God that refuses to be extinguished, even in the face of the dark powers of this world who try to snuff it out. We are resplendent, because we know, that, in the end, they cannot and do not succeed.

Arise, shine, for your light has come. “Don’t hide yourself away…. Let it shine.” Go out into the world… and be your resplendent self. Because, God knows, the world could use a little more light in it.  Because, God knows, it’s time to come down the mountain. It’s time for you to be who you are. Thank be to God. Amen. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Words that Matter

Sermon 2-4-18, Mark 1:29-39
Grace to you and peace from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Every so often an article by Sojourners magazine from a few years ago resurfaces and makes the rounds on social media. It’s called “Thetop 10 reasons men should not be ordained for ministry.” This list includes, but is not limited to, these reasons:

“The physique of men indicates that they are more suited to […physical work]. It would be ‘unnatural’ for them to do ministerial tasks."

“Man was created before woman, obviously as a prototype. Thus, they represent an experiment rather than the crowning achievement of creation.”

“Some men are handsome, and this will distract [some of the] worshipers.”

“The New Testament tells us that Jesus was betrayed by a man.”

And perhaps my favorite reason, appropriate especially for today: “Men are too emotional to be pastors. Their conduct at football games” such as the Super Bowl, clearly demonstrates this.

It’s easy to think this type of humor is funny because we think we’re passed all this…. It’s 2018, and little girls can grow up to be anything they want to be, including pastors, right? Especially when we contrast this world with other periods in our history, even recent ones, when women rarely held roles like senator, surgeon, or the owner of a prominent national newspaper like the Washington Post. Kay Graham, owner of the Post who faces many doubt that she could handle the crisis described in the movie of the same name, she uses a quote by Samuel Johnson to make fun of her detractors: “A woman's preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, and you are surprised to find it done at all.”

We laugh at this line… But really the joke is on us…. Though this is not the 1700 when this quote originated, or of 1970s of Kay Graham and the Pentagon Papers…. but we’re actually still stuck in a world that CLEARLY is not a safe place for women and those who identify as women, especially in leadership roles. We sometimes forget that there are still denominations that call themselves Lutheran who do recognize women’s ordination. I remember being shocked to learn that 18% of the member churches in the Lutheran World Federation do not ordain women, and just 2 years ago the Lutheran Church in Latvia voted to rescind women’s ordination entirely, after women have been ordained there for over 40 years.

As women in public ministry, myself and my female colleagues over and over again have been forced to defend our calls to other people who doubt that such a call could possibly come from God TO US. All too often, their interpretations of the “word of God” is used against us. All women I know have experienced inappropriate comments about how much we weigh, how we do our hair, the clothes we wear, how young we look. We have been mansplained, stalked, harassed, and called names online and in real life. Our calls are belittled when the culture automatically assumes that the operative pronoun for “pastor” is obviously “he.”

Fixed it. 
For example, the internet meme that makes the rounds this time of year that goes “You should be as excited about church as about the Super Bowl. So, when your pastor makes a point this Sunday, pour Gatorade over HIS head.” Did you notice what’s wrong with that sentence?

Words matter. And word choices matter. Especially when writing supplies are limited, and stories passed on must be copied by hand or remembered by heart. The Gospel of Mark is a short Gospel, and there is not a single word wasted. Do any of you remember the homework I have you a few weeks ago? How many of you have read through all the Gospel of Mark yet? Or even started? Don’t worry, there is still time…. We have Mark until Advent.

Mark isn’t wordy, but Mark knows what he’s doing. He’s painting for us a picture of Jesus who is a man of both words AND action. Jesus chooses his words carefully. He means what he says and leads by example. And when he calls us to follow, he expects us to do the same.
Marks is called a “cosmic Gospel” highlighting the battle between good and evil, such as last week when Jesus encountered the man with the unclean spirit in the synagogue. But today we’re going to cut through the cosmic to get to the core of the Gospel… Jesus’ encounter with a single person person, Simon’s mother in Law, in this case… and focus on one single, vitally important word Mark uses in reference to her, and why that single word changes everything.

Words matter. And the words we choose to use in every moment matters. And we’ve had two thousand years to pars to death the words written about Jesus… and we will still never know all there is to be know about him. Jesus will always still surprise and confound us. Like this week, when I actually cracked open my Greek New Testament. It was a little bit dusty…

Now, I’m going to get nerdy on you, and if you bear with me, I promise this will be worth chasing Greek words through the Gospel of Mark. We heard today about how Jesus healed Simon’s mother in law from a fever. Jesus took her by the hand …. And lifted her up. He touched her, and he raised her…. She was on the edge of death, and he gave her back her life.

And then she got up and began to make everybody some sandwiches… oh wait, what? The feminist in me rankles a bit at first to her response to the gift of new life…. as she seems to repeat the broken systems in place in her old life. Until, that is, we dig into Mark’s word choice.

After the fever left her, she began to serve… “serve” from the Greek word “Diakoneo…” where we get the word deacon (and deaconess). It means to serve, to minister, to wait at table, especially as a servant to other people. So, at first glance, not terribly counter-cultural…

But how and when words are used matters too, and this word diakoneo is used other times in Mark’s Gospel…. Going back in chapter 1, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, he was driven into the desert to be tempted by Satan. After his ordeal, angels came to wait on him… diakoneo.

And it turns out Simons’ mother in law, though she was the first woman to minister to Jesus, she was certainly not the last. After a man betrayed him, and Roman men had mocked and murdered him, and after all the other men disciples had run away and fled… the women stayed and kept vigil and mourned from a distance…the same women who had provided for Jesus over the course of his ministry…. diakoneo again.

And last, but not least, Jesus himself uses this word… about himself. As Jesus and the disciples walked along the road to Jerusalem, to where Jesus would be crucified, James and John – who also featured in today’s story – asked Jesus if they could be his wingmen in the coming kingdom. And the other disciples where ANGRY. So, Jesus called a “time out,” made them huddle up, and told all of them that those who want to be first should be last, and that he came not to be SERVED but to SERVE, and to give his life as a ransom for many… Diakoneo, yet again.

Clearly, James and John completely missed the point that day at Simon’s house. What they thought they saw was a woman healed and restored back to her previous role in a patriarchal society. What they didn’t realize they were actually witnessing was a woman who WAS healed and restored…. healed and restored, to respond out of her gratitude as a mode of true discipleship, following in Jesus’ footsteps. She is raised up by Jesus, to follow his call to service, and shows us the way by then opening her home and her doorstep to be the staging ground for the healing of an entire city in need.

Though Simon, Andrew, James, and John were CALLED first, SHE is first to live out her call - freed, restored, healed, and made whole again. SHE, who was not even given a name in Mark’s Gospel. SHE is the one who shows us the way – the way of Jesus. The way of service to our neighbors in need. And we would all do well to follow her lead.

She was the first woman who followed Jesus, and she certainly would not be the last. Women ministered to Jesus and even stood vigil at the cross. Women were the first to witness the empty tomb on Easter morning. Women like Priscilla, Tabitha, Junia, and a pretty cool one from Greece named Lydia, and also many, many others worked solo or side by side with their male counterparts to help be midwives at the birth of God’s kingdom here on earth. This is what all of us are called to do – members of the family of God with no exclusion for gender, orientation, income level, race, color, language, zip code, marital status, or age. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Meeting Jesus

Sermon 1-28-18, Mark 1:21-28
Grace and peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Who here likes meetings? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? I know, silly question. I’m pretty sure just about everyone here has never had the thought, “You know what I could use more of in my life?... Meetings!

Unfortunately, meetings are how we roll. We have monthly council meetings to do the business of the church. We have annual meetings once a year to see where we’ve been and figure out where we’re going. The pastors in the Lower Bucks Lutheran conference meets monthly. The council of our synod, the Southeastern Pennsylvania synod, has a meeting every couple of months… and then every year in May we get together as a synod for our Synod Assembly. Every THREE years representatives from across the entire ELCA get together too… Whew…. We Lutherans have a LOT of meetings!!

There were a LOT of
Imagine, though, if your annual meeting happened every seven YEARS, can meet anywhere in the world, with almost a hundred countries represented and more than that many languages spoken …. With translator headphones and points of order and amendments to amendments … I am of course talking about the Lutheran World Federation worldwide assembly, which I got to witness up close and personal last year…

THAT puts OUR annual meeting in a little perspective, doesn’t it?

Meetings are very necessary to keep us organized, to get the bills paid and keep the heat on, to focus our energy and attention on important issues, tasks, and preparing for the future… but we should never forget that it is the meetings beyond the meetings where the real work of God’s kingdom gets done.

At the start of Jesus’s ministry in Mark, Jesus gets right to tossing out the old agenda and surprising everyone with an agenda of his own – that the time has been fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has arrived here on earth, and big things are about to happen.

Jesus knows that he can’t go it alone, so last week Jesus started his movement by forming his discipleship committee. He nominated Simon, Andrew, James, and John from the floor – or rather from the wharf, and they accepted the positions for one three-year term with an eternal opportunity to re-up. It’s all right here in the minutes (holds up Bible).

The first item on Jesus’ agenda? To show the powers of evil in the world that he means business, and that he’s not going to put up with anything that comes between us and God’s abundant life promised to us as baptized and beloved children of God.

Two weeks ago, we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism and walked through the baptismal liturgy. If you recall, there is a remnant of an old rite of exorcism buried right there in our baptismal service. After the presentation of the person to be baptized, the parents, sponsors, and everyone gathered are asked, “Do you renounced the devil, all the forces that defy God… the powers of the world that rebel against God… and the ways of sin that draw you from God?” …To which the desired response is, of course: “I renounce them…. I renounce them… I renounce them.” We are to respond three times. That’s probably significant, because the next thing we do after these renunciations is to confess our faith in our Triune God in the words of the Apostle’s Creed.

There are forces in this world we cannot explain or control. There are forces at work around us that seek to draw us away from the abundant life that God has in store for us, powers that we are helpless against. And Jesus comes face to face with a kind of manifestation of that evil in the form of the unclean spirit who has decided to interrupt Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue that day.

Which brings us to the question: What do we do about this unclean spirit? Do demons exist? I think I’m with Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on this one. She is a pastor in Colorado, is a self-described wrestler of the demon of her depression and is the pastor of a Lutheran congregation, who has written books and speaks at a lot of Lutheran event. What are demons? she wonders. Who knows? What she does know is that demons are that which Jesus does not want for us, in whatever form they may take. She says, “Our demons what nothing to do with the love of God in Christ Jesus because it threatens to obliterate them, and so they try to isolate us and tell us that we are not worthy to be called children of God. And those are the lies that Jesus cannot abide.” (from her book Accidental Saints)

Whatever we may feel or believe about unclean spirits, demons, or manifestations of the power of evil, we have something and common with the man with the unclean spirit. There are things that seize us, bind us, and make us powerless. They whisper in your ear in the dark at 2 AM and remind you of every dumb thing you’ve ever done or said… tells you that you are worthless because you didn’t get that raise or that promotion… says you are a failure because your child can’t break free from their addiction…. Convinces you that you are not strong enough, or young enough, or smart enough, or beautiful enough, or successful enough to be worth of love.

To ALL THAT Jesus says, “STUFF IT, SATAN. Enough with your LIES. Shut your trap and GET OUT.”

The unclean spirit in this man was rightly terrified. It knew this was only the beginning of what Jesus had in store for them – an all-out assault on everything that holds humanity captive – sin, brokenness, fear, ever “ism” under the sun, hate…. Even death itself would not escape this battle unscathed.

With this exorcism, so begins the final phase in the cosmic battle between God and evil, one that still rages today, with our attempt at participation. And yes, sometimes God even uses meetings to birth the kingdom near. At the Lutheran Federation Assembly last May, Lutherans from all over the world ACTUALLY AGREE on some issues that need to be confronted: violence perpetrated against women in all varieties, the lack of care we have for God’s creation, the end of war and conflict in all it’s forms, human trafficking, rampant consumerism, and extreme nationalism. This meeting set a common agenda for all the member churches in the Lutheran World Federation, including to the ELCA, in how we can all work together in bringing God’s justice for all. Not bad for a Lutheran meeting.

And so the work continues and expands… with the Lutheran World Federation, with ELCA and the Southeastern Pennsylvania synod… and with Family of God. The original committee that Jesus started might originally have had 12 seats, but the mission expanded - we are all on it now, and our terms never expire.

So many things still bind us, though. Plenty of forces keep us from living fully into our lives as God’s beloved children. We are still possessed by so much that holds us back, we are paralyzed by fear of more things than we can even count. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of missing out, fear of change, fear of leaving behind the familiar, fear of running out of time.

Right in the middle of being bound by our fears - THIS is where Jesus meets us. And THESE are the meetings that really matter in the end – where we are freed to live as the Family of God, to “Share the embrace of God’s love as a family who welcomes, supports, and nourishes all … as a part of the body of Christ.” Which, by the way, is part of the Family of God mission statement.

As Jesus welcomes, supports, nourishes and makes us whole, we are called to go out and do the same. We begin by meeting Jesus here, in water, bread, and wine, and then by going out to meet Jesus in the faces of our neighbors. That is Jesus’ agenda… and ours too. So let’s get to it! Amen.