Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, March 27, 2017

Mud in our Eye

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Congratulations on making it through another long and memorable story from the Gospel of John! Though I should warn you that we aren’t quite out of the woods yet. We have one more reading from John this Lent, though I promise you that this is the longest reading from John we have. And John is not all that easy to get through sometimes. John is full of double meanings and conversations happening on many levels at the same time, enough to make your head spin.  John likes to speak in code, which we’ve already seen much of this at work already, with Nicodemus and the woman at the well. Nicodemus talks to Jesus in the dark, Jesus meets the woman in the light. Nicodemus struggles to believe, while the woman at the well gets her WHOLE TOWN to believe. For John, those who don’t believe in Jesus are in darkness, and those who do are in the light.

So it is for most of scripture – God created light, and it was good. Those who walk in darkness have seen a great light. Jesus is the light of the world. The darkness shall not overcome it. The dark is full of the unknown. Scary things happen in the dark.

But does darkness and night deserve this kind of reputation of so much fear and avoidance? Pastor turned Seminary professor and writer Barbara Brown Taylor doesn’t think so. She embarked on a project to explore our complicated relationship with darkness, to prove that darkness and night have value. In her exploration, she has done a lot of adventurous things. She sat in a cave all by herself with no lights. She ate at a restaurant in Germany that serves their food in the dark. She even went to a completely dark exhibit in Atlanta that imitates what life is like for a person who is blind.

 She and a group of sighted people were led through a life-like simulation by a person who is blind in real life. They crossed a fake street with real traffic sounds, navigated through rooms, and all the while running into walls and bumping into each other. When Dr. Taylor ran into the man in front of her, she “did not know if he was old or young, white or black, pleasant to look at or not.” She had no visual information to judge him, or any of the other people stumbling along in this terrifying new world of noise and darkness and pretend danger. She only knew that he probably felt just as lost as she did. This experience left her with a question: how is it that seeing makes us blind?

Jesus had just finished teaching in the temple, and he and his disciples were walking along the road, when they came upon a man who had been born blind. The man existed outside of his community because of his disability, and he might have been begging along the road to support himself. When the disciples saw this man, they instantly judged him and his parents as sinners. Surely someone is to blame for this man’s blindness. In their minds, his disability was an outward sign that someone did something wrong, and this man was being punished for it. Therefore, this man was pushed to the margins of his community. To many, this man was invisible.

But Jesus did something that the disciples didn’t expect. Jesus refused to participate in the accepted culture of victim-blaming. Instead, Jesus saw the man with something more than just his eyes. He saw him through the eyes of God, the one who sent him, and viewed him as a created child of God, worthy of his attention and love, instead of judgment and rejection.

What did this man DO to EARN Jesus’ attention and healing that day? This man didn’t have extra strong faith. This man didn’t “pray hard enough.” He didn’t do extra community service or was an “extra good person.” He was in need. He was on the outside. And Jesus found him.

This is what Jesus is in the habit of doing – finding people on the outside of the rules that we are so good at creating for ourselves. Those of us who are able to see rely – perhaps too much – on the visual. We are really good at making judgments about what’s on the outside – skin color, biological gender, difference in dress because of religion, cultural values or economic status, weight, height, athletic ability, physical differences or visible disabilities.

We are really, really good at finding ways to separate ourselves from other people, making divisions between one another, whether physical or emotional walls, fences, or barriers. And once we are divided, we can judge and weight the importance and worth of US verse THEM. THEY do things because they are lazy, less smart, or loved less by God because of what we perceive as their deficiencies.

I recently saw a picture on Facebook that shows a group of people with pencils drawing lines between each other, and Jesus following right behind with his eraser, erasing all the lines. Because that’s what Jesus is actually all about. Erasing the lines we have drawn between one another. When we make lines and rules to keep people out, Jesus is always with the people on the outside. Which makes the people who are the ones drawing the lines very angry.

Case in point – just in case you were thinking that surely Good Protestants like us were beyond such things. This last week at Princeton Seminary, affiliated with a branch of the Presbyterian church, it was announced that a well-known preacher named Tim Keller was to receive a prestigious award. There was one problem though. Princeton Seminary represents a branch of Protestantism that affirms the ordination of women and also those who are part of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, as does our own denomination, the ELCA. The Reverend Tim Keller does not. When a public outcry came from both current students and alumni, the seminary decided to rescind the award but still allow Keller to speak. The most surprising thing, though, was the counter-outcry that came from some male heterosexual pastors, who minimized the legitimate calling of women and whose who identify as part of the LGBT community. Their pencils were sharp and full of lead, ready to redo the lines that Gospel has erased, blind to the inclusive power of the message of Jesus.

The man born blind in today’s story had not sinned, but the sin of the Pharisees and those in power trying to stop Jesus made them blind. And what was that sin? It was the certainty of the Pharisees that God was on THEIR side – the side of rules, walls, and dividing lines.
In their minds, Jesus was doing this Messiah business ALL WRONG. He healed the wrong person – a blind beggar. Jesus healed on the wrong day – on the sabbath, the day that no “work” was to be done. Jesus hung out with all the wrong people – women at wells, fishermen and tax collectors, revolutionaries, and outsiders. Jesus was doing this “God thing all wrong.” And so, Jesus must be stopped. The people in power got angry too. Angry enough to take matters into their own hands. This made them blind to all the amazing things that God was doing in their midst.

“How has seeing made US blind?” as Barbara Brown Taylor asks. How have WE too missed out on what is God is doing in OUR midst? How have we missed seeing Jesus at work because he uses people we don’t expect?

In fact, could God be doing amazing things in our midst RIGHT NOW, just as we are?
We may look around at ourselves and think what we see not enough for God to use. We may feel like we are on the outside, looking in, compared to others. We may look around and feel like we are incomplete as we are and not fit to be useful for God’s kingdom. Right now – TODAY -  Jesus sticks mud in our eyes and washes us in the pool called Sent, revealing to us that we are worthy to be claimed as part of God’s family and worthy of doing God’s work. NOT when we are more of this and less of that. But right now. So, we go out following Jesus’ lead – erasing the lines, breaking the walls, ripping up the fences that come between us and those the world says are not worth our notice.

Like Jesus, you are the light of the world. But you are also the erasers of the world, too. Amen. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Living Water for a Parched Life

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Today we again find ourselves reading from the Gospel of John and meeting a very memorable character along the way. Last week we met Nicodemus, a prominent religious leader a powerful Jewish group called the Pharisees. This week we meet a woman with no name, a member of the wrong religion and ethnic group, a person who the disciples would never want to be seen with. And yet, we see Jesus do something shocking. He talks to her.

Lately I have been reading a great novel called “Wonder” by R J Palacio. It’s about a memorable character named August who was born with a severe face deformity. When we meet him, at age 10, he has endured many surgeries, and has been homeschooled by his mom. Until now. August enters directly into the anxiety of middle school, you all remember what that’s like! Only August faces his peers with the added disadvantage of a face that causes people to stare, making him a person that no one seems to want to be friends with.  

On his first day, he enters the cafeteria with his lunch, looking for an empty table and praying to be left in peace. But after he sits down, someone joins him. Her name is Summer, and together they decide that the only people who can sit at their table are other people who have names that are associated with warm weather – you know, like Summer and August. This conversation is seemingly about nothing important, but there is something else going on beneath the surface. Wonder of wonders, on his first day of school, August makes a friend.

by Chinese artist He Qi
The Gospel of John also has a lot going on underneath the surface. And today is no exception, with Jesus and his surprising encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Surprising because it was not acceptable for respectable men to talk with women unless they accompanied by their husband, brother, or other male relative. And yet, Jesus strikes up a conversation.

She was also a Samaritan, “strike two” against her, since Jews did not interact with Samaritans, because of a long history of bad blood. Samaritans were related to the Jewish people but had intermarried with other groups and worshiped God in different ways. 

If that were not enough, this woman has a third strike against her in being married 5 times and living with a man who was not her husband.

Was this woman sexually immoral, promiscuous, or “loose,” as centuries of male theologians and preachers have led us to believe? Or was she actually more of a loser in her own culture and society? This woman lived before no-fault divorce. She lived before women could vote, or have jobs outside the home, or control their own bank accounts, or have much say at all over their own lives. We can never really know what her life was like, but there are other options besides being “loose” woman. She could have been widowed five times and now considered cursed. She could have been unable to have children and so cast off by each husband through divorce. Perhaps she lived with the sixth man because, by then, no one else would take her in and take care of her, since she would not be allowed any kind of job to support herself on her own.

In any case, she was judged by the other people in her community, so much so that she would prefer to carry her heavy water jar in the heat of the day – alone - rather than face the whispers and stares of the other women who came when it was much cooler, in the morning of evening. By doing so, she could avoid the shame of knowing no one wanted to associate with her. But even that didn’t help. She is still being whispered about and stared at, two thousand years later, by preachers and theologians who continue to hang the label of “loose” on this woman like a scarlet letter.

When this woman came to the well that day, she was not just physically thirsty, but emotionally and spiritually parched too. Her relationships have failed her; her culture has failed her; and historians and preachers throughout the ages have failed her. She might have wondered if God had failed her too. Her world had become a harsh desert of shame. 

So the last thing she expected that day was to have a conversation with the savior of the world. The last thing she expected was to be a part of the longest theological discussions with Jesus in any of the Gospels. The last thing she expected was to be offered living water to quench her parched life.

To Jesus, she is not defined by her past, what she has or hasn’t done; she is not defined by who she’s with; she is not defined by gender or race or creed. To Jesus, she is a thirsty person in need of living water.

To Jesus, WE are not defined by our past, or by what we’ve done or haven’t done, or by who we’re with or our race or gender or if we believe the “right” way. To Jesus, WE are thirsty people in need of living water.

Jesus didn’t offer this woman living water once she’d gotten her life “straightened out” into something more socially acceptable. He offered her living water at her moment of greatest need.

Likewise, Jesus won’t wait to give US living water once we’ve gotten our lives all in order, because, frankly, that’s never going to happen. We’re too weighed down by the past, or too overwhelmed by the present, or too afraid of the future. We desperately need Jesus and the living water he provides.

That living water is a relationship with Jesus and a place in the community that Jesus has been called to save. It is a gift that will never expire, a well that will never run dry, a light that never goes out. And WE, just as we are, are invited to be part of this community, this family.

You are enough. You are loved. You have a place here in the family of God. That is news that the world desperately needs right now. That’s exactly where Jesus meets us, at the deep well of our need, and offers to us something way better than anything else out there. And that’s also exactly when Jesus turns us into bubblers.

Now, what’s a bubbler? Its what people like me from Wisconsin call “drinking fountains.” A bubbler does what it sounds like – water bubbles up out of it for us to drink. That’s what living water does, too. It bubbles up in you, sometimes quietly, sometimes with gusto, and always spilling out onto the people around you. This is the joy that Jesus gives us, that he called us as his beloved children and followers, and THEN send us OUT into the world to splash other people.

And that’s exactly what happened to this outcast Samaritan woman. She leaves her water jar at the well in her haste to tell others about this man who just might, maybe be the Messiah, the savior of the world. She became an evangelist, a preacher for her community. In fact, she converted her entire town! All because she left her jar at the well and splashed the entire town with living water.

The Samaritan woman didn’t have all the answers. But instead of being paralyzed by confusion like Nicodemus last week, this woman invited people to wonder with her. She invited everyone she knew to meet Jesus for themselves.

Like the woman at the well, we are invited to lay down our empty jars, so that we can be filled with living water. Like the woman at the well, we become the vessels Jesus needs to carry this water to a very thirsty world. Like the woman at the well, we all get to be bubblers by sharing the living water from Jesus.

That’s right – we may not be back in middle school, but I’m giving out homework.  

Tell one person this week about where Jesus has met you at your well and gave you the living water to sustain you. I

t can be someone you know well, or it can be someone you don’t know. 

Be a bubbler during coffee hour. 

Be a bubbler in ACME to a cashier having a hard day. 

Be a bubbler at the dinner table with your kids or grandkids.

The world needs us. It’s time to be bubblers for Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Nicodemus Might Have Been A Lutheran

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

One summer my sister babysat for our neighbor’s daughter, who was three at the time. All day every day, she would point to everything within reach and ask “what’s that?” ‘What’s that?” Driving us all up the wall. I’m sure none of you has EVER known a toddler to do that, right??

The story goes that Martin Luther’s toddler Hans was running around the house, pointing at everything and asking “Was ist das?” What is this? (This story is in the introduction to the Small Catechism by Augsburg Fortress). And probably also driving his parents up the wall. But questions are how we learn. And so Luther used his son’s question to teach his students about the basics of Lutheran teaching. And so the Small Catechism was born.
So you might say that our Lutheran faith is built on asking questions. There is space for questions here. Questions are part of our DNA, in our most formational Lutheran documents like the Small Catechism. And things that happen in worship can cause us to ask questions too. For example, why are we reading from in the Gospel of John so much during Lent when we are in the year of reading Matthew?

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good answer for you. But I can say that it is only in John that we get the stories about Nicodemus, the woman at the well, a man born blind, the raising of Lazarus, the foot washing, and the post resurrection conversation between Mary Magdalene and Jesus in garden. A few of these stories we get to hear this Lent -  the woman at the well, the blind man, and Lazarus, and Nicodemus.

Who was Nicodemus? He was a member of a group called the Pharisees, and a leader of the Jews. Wait, leader of all the Jews? What does that mean? Well, most scholars agree that “the Jews” was John’s shorthand for the Jewish authorities who later opposed Jesus, not the whole nation or religion of Judaism.

But why would this leader of a group who opposed Jesus try to meet with him? And why might Jesus agree to such a meeting?

Perhaps Jesus has hope when Nicodemus admits his fledgling belief that Jesus comes from God. But Nick – from now on I’m going to shorten up his name – has trouble tracking with Jesus after that. Once Jesus starts in with the birth and spirit and wind stuff, Nick gets totally lost. He seems to stop asking questions, throwing up his hands, and exclaiming “How can this be?” in complete confusion.

Now if Nick had been Nicole, it might have been obvious to her that the tricky Greek word Jesus uses was not meant to be taking biologically. This word could mean many things, including born “from above,” born “again,” or born “anew”. We know, even if Nick didn’t, that Jesus was talking about another birth that most of us have experienced AFTER our physical birth. Water is still involved. But for this birth, it is God who carries us to term, and pushes us out into the world to be born. Jesus was talking about baptism.

Was is Das? What then is baptism?

Baptism is our rebirth into the family of God. In our baptisms, God chooses us as beloved and chooses us to be that love in the world. We no longer are defined by what family we are from, how much we make, or what orientation, gender, or race we are. We are defined only by the power of that love, reborn by water and the Spirit of God.

We may be baptized once, but its something that we need to remember as often as possible. According to Luther, in our baptisms our Old selves and our old desires are drowned daily and a new person rises daily. We are buried with Christ in our baptisms, and die to sin, so that we may rise to new life in Christ, as he has risen from the dead.

So why then, with all this death talk, do we baptized babies? Well, a baby can’t do anything on his or her own. She can do nothing to earn your love or to earn God’s love. God has already decided on you from the day you were born. God chose you when there was literally nothing you could do to choose God. Before you could even believe in God, God believes in you.

Jesus believed in Nick even when Nick found it hard to believe in Jesus. We shouldn’t be too hard on Nick, though. Nick does show up again in the Gospel of John. A little later, the Pharisees and Chief priests wanted Jesus arrested, and Nick uses his question-asking powers to defend Jesus, by asking, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” (John 7:50-51).

Nick returns a third time, when he along with Joseph of Arimathea, ask for Jesus’ body and brings one hundred pounds of burial spices to anoint the body of Jesus (John 19:39). Here we see that Nick is now “all in” with his faith in Jesus, bringing way more spices than necessary, and doing something that was considered at the time to be “woman’s work.” Imagine, a prominent leader of the Jewish authorities rolling up his sleeves to give a criminal a proper burial. What a “180” for a man who first met with Jesus in the secrecy of darkness, who now is instead drawn out of the darkness as a believer in Jesus.

Somewhere along the line, Nick learned to trust Jesus even in the confusion. Perhaps the conversation that he and Jesus had stuck with him, and Nick saw Jesus live out that famous verse that we all know, John 3:16 – that God loved the world enough to send Jesus to save it. And for those who believe and have faith, Jesus shares eternal life.

The Chinese character for “faith” is actually two symbols put together. The first looks like a stick person if you squint a bit, and the second looks like an open mouth with lines rising like words. When I was in China for a two-week cross cultural trip in seminary, I learned from our guide that this word has these characters for a reason. It looks like a person standing next to their word. You might say that faith looks like trusting that a person will stand next to what they say.

Who does Jesus stand for? And what is God saying?

Jesus stand FOR God’s love at work in the world, by standing WITH us.

Jesus stands with those who are lost in the darkness, those who have questions, and those who don’t have it all together. Jesus stands with those who are misunderstood and abandoned, with the voiceless and the powerless, and those who work to bring them justice. Jesus stands with people that others have forgotten and pushed aside.

We will see at work next week, with the woman at the well. She too had questions, but was at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Nick. She was a woman, a foreigner, cast out by all the men in her life and stigmatized by her community.  But we will see that Jesus spent time with her, took her seriously, and showed her that “people like her” have worth in the eyes of God. This is what Jesus does, over and over again. And Jesus does not stop doing this, even when the people in power would do anything to make him stop, even going so far as to silence him forever by nailing him to a cross. What Jesus said to Nick that night came true. Jesus was lifted up on a cross, so that he might save us all.

The journey of Nicodemus took him far out of his comfort zone. It started in the safety of darkness, but even there in the dark womb of God he was being prepared for his rebirth. Nick knew then that he had everything to lose, but slowly came to realize that this didn’t matter. Because he had everything to gain.

So Nick believed and he trusted. He acted in his life as if Jesus would stand by his word. And so he took chances and put himself at possible risk in order to do live that out. Nick didn’t know how it would work out. But as Dr. David Lose said yesterday at the seminary in Philadelphia to a room full of dedicated church volunteers out to talk about Sunday School on a Saturday: “Faith isn’t about having all the answers.”

Perhaps, faith is trusting God in the middle of all the questions.

What other questions do you wonder about? Perhaps these questions don’t have answers right now. But I WILL leave you with one more question today. It’ is a question I hope you think about, and I hope one that you will ask one another as well. This is a safe space here, and together we can help one another as we put words to how we may feel about God and faith.

So I ask you to think about this question today. What does having faith in Jesus mean for you? 

Monday, March 6, 2017

Temptations in Our Wildernesses

3-5-17, Lent A1

(I read from the end of chapter 3 before the usual reading, which began:) 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

In light of the announcement that I knew I would make to all of you this morning…. I confess to you that writing this sermon was really, really hard. It is, after all, a PREACHING honor I have received, and so naturally that mean that ALL of my sermons from now until eternity are going to be AMAZING. No pressure! But as I stared at the computer screen, I could feel the blank white space whispering in my mind something like this: “Since this happened to you, you should have no problem composing a sermon to really knock everyone’s socks off. So, you had better be ready to prove that you are the real deal, and that was not just some fluke.”

That voice is going strong today, since last night I read what I had submitted, and found 3 typos! Oy.

We have all heard that voice. It’s the same voice has probably spoken to JK Rowling right after she finished the Harry Potter series, or former President Obama on January twenty-first, or Lin-Manuel Miranda after leaving the cast of his wildly successful musical Hamilton. For all of us, after a big, life-changing moments, we wonder – who am I now? Was this just a big accident? Or did I actually deserve this? And now that this has happened to me, NOW what do I do? How do I live? Do I have to keep proving to the world that I matter? In times like these, we suddenly be experiencing an identity crisis.

Now we may not find ourselves lead out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit right after our baptisms, as Jesus did. We may not face a serpent or the devil face to face. We may not have the ability to turn stones to bread or ever be offered all the kingdoms of the world. But we DO have an identity given to us by God, just as Jesus did. Jesus had just come from his baptism, still dripping, when his freshly recognized and newly blessed identity as the Son of God was called into question. And we too have an identity given to us by God, being called Children of God in our baptisms, and we too are under the world’s scrutiny before the water on our heads has a chance to dry.

In the wilderness Jesus found himself in, his was identity tested. On the verge of starting his earthly ministry, Jesus had to define what it meant to be “the son of God.” Here the tone is set for the Jesus administration. Was is going to reflect a kind of power and glory that the world could easily recognize? Or would Jesus set his agenda according to God’s definition of power and glory?

In the end, would Jesus be able to “prove” that he was “good enough” for the job as the Son of God?

The first temptation does seem pretty harmless, though. After all, it wouldn’t hurt anyone if Jesus did a little magic on those rocks so he wouldn’t be so grumpy as he seems to be later. And not just one loaf, which would be plenty for one person, but why not many, as the devil suggests, just in case Jesus wants a snack later? But Jesus tells the devil “No Dice,” and saves his divine breadmaking skills for another time, to feed 5,000 hungry people, later in the Gospel of Matthew.

The same happens with the other two temptations. Instead of throwing himself off a roof to test God plan for him, Jesus instead shows his resolve do follow God’s will, which will result in Jesus being lifted high on a cross and not on the pinnacle of the temple. And instead of seizing the opportunity to rule all the kingdoms of the earth for himself, Jesus instead will open the kingdom of heaven to all who follow him. In the rest of his ministry, we can see how Jesus’ time in the wilderness prepared him to fulfill his baptismal identity. 

In the wildernesses we find ourselves in, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual, we too find our identity tested. We are constantly tempted into thinking that, as we are right now, we are not good enough to be children of God. I would have turned those stones into bread in a heartbeat, and probably added some hummus too, faster than you can say “Hangry.”

Most of us are aware of our limitations and our hang-ups, and the tempter takes every opportunity to remind us where we fall short with a never-ending commentary in our brains – Surely, we are mistaken if we think that God has chosen us in our current state.  Surely, God wants us to work a little harder at being God’s children. Surely, we need to prove that we are worthy of being chosen.
From a mural by Ken Green in St. Paul MN

I imagine something similar going through Eve’s mind while she listened to the clever arguments of the serpent in the garden. When the serpent told her that eating the fruit would make her more like God, to have knowledge of good and evil, she jumped at the chance. Why would she listen to the words of the serpent? Perhaps because she did not trust God to be God. She did not trust that God had created her good, just as she was. Perhaps she thought that she could help God out a little bit, to prove her worth. Both Eve and Adam trusted the words of the serpent more than the words of God.

The Adam and Eve in all of us all too often trust the words of the crafty serpents around us, rather than the incredible promise that we are loved and claimed as God’s children. When the rest of the world tells us the opposite, God tells us that we are worthy, we are loved, and we are enough.

It’s hard for us to see ourselves as God sees us. We look into ourselves and only see what is lacking, and so comes our tendency to reach for too much power, too much security, too much comfort in order to fill the gaps. But God sees us a different way. God sees us in a way that is not unlike how parents see their children when they are born, or how brides and grooms see one another as they say their vows on their wedding day.  

In one of my favorite books I read last year called Lila by Marilynn Robinson, the title character only saw herself through the eyes of those who looked down on her because of things she did in her past in order to survive as a homeless person in the 1930s. All her life she gave into the temptation to see herself as not deserving anything good that happened to her. Somehow, she ends up in a small town in Iowa, and met the local bachelor minister. 

Through their relationship and eventual marriage, Lila starts to see herself as God sees her, through the gentleness and kindness of another human being who saw her with the eyes of love.

On the day that preacher proposed to and baptized Lila, he remembered the day they met: “I expected to continue with [loneliness] the rest of my life. Then I saw you that morning. I saw your face.”

Lila replied, “Don’t’ talk like that. I know about my face.”

But he persisted. “I suspect you don’t. You don’t know how I see it.”

One night during a snowstorm after they were married, the two of them were talking, and Lila’s husband said, “Family is a prayer. Wife is a prayer. Marriage is a prayer.”

Lila, remembering her own baptism, adds, “Baptism is a prayer.”

To that, her husband replied, “No, baptism is what I call a fact.”

Your baptism is a fact. God’s love for you is a fact. God chose you – that’s a fact too.

Lent is the time of the church year that prepares us for the Ultimate Fact. That in Jesus, God’s love is shown to the world. In Jesus, we see that the love of God would go to any length for us, and would travel any distance, and would even go to death and back for God’s beloved children. And for Jesus, no wilderness is to wild or too forsaken to Jesus to travel with us.

Lent is not for us to improve ourselves with sacrifices to become more worthy or more holy come Easter Sunday. Lent instead takes us through the wilderness to reflect our own shortcomings, to remind us to let God be God. Not so that we can feel guilty at where we have fallen short. But so that we can get out of our own way and be nothing less than members of God’s family. It’s been said that when Martin Luther felt tempted to despair by the devil, he would shout in response, “I am baptized!” Not “I was”, but “I AM.” Present tenses. True in this very moment.

The trip through Lent every year takes us from a garden to a wilderness and back again, from human sin and transgression and death to resurrection, from the ash crosses of Ash Wednesday to the shadow of the cross on Good Friday, through the Garden of Eden, to the garden of Gethsemane, to the garden that contained Jesus’ empty tomb. Every year, we tell the story, to remind ourselves who we are and WHOSE we are. “I am baptized.” Present tense. Now and forever. Amen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Transfiguration: Where the Magic Happens

2-26-17 - Transfiguration Sunday
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, amen.

Sometimes the Bible can be pretty gosh darn weird. Every year, at the end of the season of Epiphany, and on the brink of the season of Lent, we get this strange little story told in three of the four Gospels where Jesus - literally - lights up brighter than the Griswold’s house at Christmas.

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. It began with the shining of a star high up in the sky, which led distant wise men to a child with the face of God, who would grow up to be the king and savior of all. So, it kind of makes sense that Epiphany ends with that same child, now all grown up, whose clothes and face and whole being are shining dazzlingly bright, high up on a mountaintop, also chilling with Moses and Elijah.

But we seem to have skipped a few bits. In the last few weeks we had been making our way through the Sermon on the Mount, in the 5th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and today we find ourselves in the 17th, just over half way through the gospel! What did we miss? What happened in the meantime? And how did Jesus get up on the mountain and start glowing like a lightbulb?

Jesus and his disciples were in the region of Caesarea Philippi, which is way on the north end of Israel, close to modern day Syria and Lebanon. Six days previously, Jesus had a very important conversation with his disciples, a literal “come to Jesus moment,” where he drops the news of the real reason that he is on his way to the capital, Jerusalem. He is not going there as a conqueror. He is going there to die. And Peter – Jesus’ most famous disciple – his reaction was to say, “no way Jesus, stop talking like that. That can’t possibly be true! Messiahs don’t DO that!”

It is then little wonder that Peter says what he does up on that mountain. He wants to avoid what Jesus said is just on the horizon. Peter wants the “heavenly Jesus” not the “Crucified Jesus.” But what Peter must learn is that to have “Heavenly Jesus” in all his resurrected glory, Jesus must first die.

The Transfiguration of Jesus is just about the midpoint on the Gospel of Matthew. It’s what in stories we call “the point of no return,” that moment when you realize that you can’t turn back, but to go forward seems almost too scary or unknown to bear. In the words of a poem by Catholic mystic John O’Donohue: (from his poem "In the Interim")

“The path you took to get here has washed out;
the way forward is still concealed from you."

This kind of moment smacks you in the face, and you realize that life will never be the same going forward, and yet this moment is so new that you can’t yet conceive of what life will look like tomorrow, or next week, or ten years from now. You have crossed a threshold that you can’t uncross. You are no longer even the same person you were just a minute ago. From now on, everything is different.

This is the reality of change, and it feels very uncomfortable, like we are being pulled in two different directions at the same time. As Lutheran preacher and seminary professor (happened to be one of mine) Karoline Lewis describes change, it is “by definition… a simultaneous holding on of what was and a looking toward the hope of what can be. …”

Holding on to what lay behind us…. While at the same time being pulled into a future that we can’t see yet… as someone who has had my life pretty recently upended, change even for a great reason can make me feel like that Mr. Stretch toy from when I was a kid. Big change, even when it’s good, can still feel new and awkward and still brings complex emotions – grief and loss for what is no longer, mixed with excitement and anxiety for what is to come.

Like the transfiguration story from the Gospel of Matthew, we too are in the middle of our own stories. Brene Brown, the writer and shame researcher famous for her vulnerability TED talk, reminds us that in order to be integrated and wholehearted people, we need to own our own stories, which includes the really messy middle bits (from her book Rising Strong). The parts where the road behind is washed out and we don’t yet know where we are going.

Peter, unfortunately, had not yet heard of Brene Brown, so he had a little trouble. He, like many of us in the middle of our stories, tried to find a much more comfortable way to move through his story, to avoid all the messy dying stuff, which Messiahs aren’t even supposed to do anyway. Peter of course, wanted to skip that part of the story and get on to the glory part. And we can’t blame him. We try to build tents in our own way to delay or cope with change, or to try to make permanent what is only meant to be a temporary phase. Too often we get stuck right along with Peter, trying to move forward into the future, while at the same time driving down the road and using the rear-view mirror to navigate! It’s not going to work out well.

It certainly didn’t work so well for Peter. This is where he ends up at the end of Lent: during Holy Week, he is all talk and no follow through, denying Jesus three times, and abandoning Jesus like all the rest during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.

And yet, even after Peter refused to accept that Jesus was going to be a Crucified Messiah, even though Peter all too often opened his mouth only to insert his own foot, even though Peter would turn his back on Jesus, Jesus still chose him. Jesus still invited him up the mountain. And I think that gives the rest of us hope.

We may not always “get” where Jesus is leading us. But Jesus calls us to be present with him in the transitional, transfiguration, threshold moments, even when we would do anything we can to stay on the mountain rather than go back down.

Much like Peter, one of my favorite characters from the Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis is also someone who acts a bit thoughtlessly, makes mistakes, often misses the big picture, and yet is still sent on a journey that will save all of Narnia. Her adventure also begins on a mountain top, too, and she is also told to listen. Her name is Jill, and Aslan the king of Narnia –  a talking lion and a thinly veiled representation of God – gives her this advice before she sets off down the mountain:  

“Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind…. Remember the signs. Nothing else matters.”

Just like Jill, and just like Peter, we don’t know exactly what is waiting for us down the mountain after our transfiguration moments. Or perhaps, we feel that the air is already thick with stress and distractions, or we have already lost our way down the mountain and missed the signs. We don’t want to be in the messy middle of the story, we’d rather be at the end. This is not where we wanted to go, but this is exactly where Jesus is calling us. Not back into the past, or back to the mountain top. But forward, and downhill, into the messy middle.

The messy middle is where life is happening, and Brene Brown says it’s also “where the magic happens.” We can’t go around change, we can only go through it, day by day, until we get to the other side. And there we will find another threshold moment, and then another. Much like Family of God has done in the past, worshiping in one place then another, then another… until building a permanent home… but your work was not over, there are more thresholds to be crossed and middles to muddle through as best we can.

Most of the time, when change happens, we don’t feel completely ready. Peter certainly wasn’t and we never will be. But we don’t have to be “ready.” We just need to listen to the voice at the top of the mountain. This voice is telling us to listen to Jesus. And what does Jesus then say to Peter and the other two disciples in their fear and awe of the moment? Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

The rest of John O’Donohue’s poem goes like this:

As far as you can, hold your confidence.
Do not allow confusion to squander This call which is loosening
Your roots in false ground, that you might come free from all you have outgrown.
What is being transfigured here in your mind…

We hold our confidence in being rooted in our past while at the same time being planted in the soil of our new future. We hold our confidence in this slow and hard process because we know how the story ends – Jesus went to Jerusalem to die, but he also went there to LIVE.  

And because Jesus lives, WE LIVE too. We live here, on the threshold and on the mountain and in the messy middle and in the magic. We live here, rooted in the resurrection. We live here, and we are not afraid. Amen.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Out of the Box


Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

A few weeks ago, I watched this video going around Facebook, created by a Danish television channel. It begins by different groups of people walking into a room and each group standing in a separate box marked out on the floor. Everyone was looking around a little nervously when the voiceover to the video begins to narrate: “It’s easy to put people in boxes. There’s us. And there’s them.”

“The high earners. And those just getting by. Those we trust. And those we avoid. There’s the people new to the country. And those who have always been here. The people from the countryside. And those who have never seen a cow. The religious. And the confident. There are those we share something with. And those we don’t share something with.”

Next, someone with a clipboard steps forward to ask questions and invite people to come out of their boxes, sort of like a getting-to-know-you game I’ve played many times at camp. Suddenly these very different groups mingle and reform into new groups. They become groups of people who were the class clown, those who are stepparents, those who believe in life after death. Those who have been bullied, and those who have bullied others.  The video ends with every member of every group out of their boxes and gathered together as ONE GROUP, as all the people who love their country, Denmark. The video ends with this thought: “So maybe there’s more that brings us together than we think.”

One person’s reaction to this video was “we all have the same color blood.” Unfortunately, this is not the natural mode that we operate in. Walking down the street, seeing someone who looks differently or acts differently from us, our brains automatically jump to the easy and simple conclusions and puts that person in a box. As the video shows us, it’s much harder to remind ourselves of our common humanity.

It’s human to fear what we don’t understand. And it’s also very human to lash out when we feel that we or the people that we love have been hurt. Because the truth us, part of being human is that we WILL hurt one another, whether on purpose or by accident. 

In today’s word, Jesus might preach these words to us – “You have heard it said on many a bumper sticker ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’ But I say to you, ‘Love the people who have hurt you, and even pray for their well-being’.”

Tell me to do something – anything – else, Jesus. Anything but THAT. Tell me that God is on my side when people make me angry. Tell me to be kind to my enemies… once I have subdued them. Tell me to ask for extra forgiveness after I’ve exacted my revenge. Tell me to do anything at all to my enemies, except to love them. Because I DON’T WANT TO. 

Because deep down in my heart of hearts, if I am really honest with myself, I don’t think that my enemies deserve my love…. And I don’t think they deserve God’s love either. Because how can God love people “like that”?

We are not alone in this sentiment. The disciples must have listened to this part of the Sermon on the Mount with growing horror and outrage. Because on the surface it looks like giving in and giving up to their oppressive Roman overlords. Some of the disciples wanted to FIGHT, to set up a new political system here on earth with Jesus as the one in charge, to turn the tables on the Romans to drive them out.

What Jesus proposed seems like becoming a doormat. And that is not what Jesus is proposing at all. Jesus won’t FIGHT or take FLIGHT, but instead, shows us “a third way.” A way that breaks the mold and breaks the cycle of violence, and publicly exposes and names injustice. The way of non-violent resistance. Jesus shows his disciples how to assert their own dignity as beloved children of God and not allow themselves to be put in a box by others.

Jesus is absolutely NOT talking about domestic violence or abuse here. He is not leading a Christian marriage seminar. He is talking to a people who have been systematically oppressed by people in power, and those people in power have created laws and systems to keep their power in place by degrading the humanity of an entire people. In Jesus’ time, it was legal for a Roman soldier to conscript a Jewish man to carry his 60 pound bag of gear for one mile – and one mile only - when they were on the move. So, you know, they were at least nice about their oppression, or something, because there were punishments for soldiers who abused this rule. Imagine then, the reaction of a Roman soldier when a Jewish man kept going into a second mile, and the poor soldier is running after to get him to stop! Who is in control now?

Similarly, if someone struck you on the right cheek, that doesn’t mean they are left handed. That means that they hit you with the back of their hand, which was a kind of blow reserved for people who were considered beneath you – women, slaves, servants, children, anyone lower on the social strata. If you were to turn your face so that you could also be struck on the LEFT, they would be forced to use their palm, which was reserved for striking an equal. By turning your cheek, you are telling them that not only are you refusing to hit them back in revenge, at the same time you are forcing them to treat you as an equal, a fellow human being.

Sometimes turning the other cheek means leaving a relationship. Sometimes turning the other cheek means a police report and a restraining order. Sometimes turning the other cheek means getting out of a situation, because then you are acknowledging that you are human being with wants and needs, a human being that deserves to live a life that free from violence and fear. As we all do.

But Jesus - being Jesus - also flips the tables back on US. Just as we are called to refuse to stay in the boxes that others put us in, we are not to put other people in boxes, either. And according to Jesus, that means loving our enemies and praying for those who threaten us.
The enemies of Jesus’ disciples were pretty obvious and pretty brutal – the Roman government and those in power who colluded with them. In our time and place, I think the people who are truly our enemies are much less obvious, but just as powerful.

Our enemies are not our opposites, as many would like us to believe. Our world does not have to be about white verses black, men verses women verses transgendered people, gay verses straight, Christian verses Muslim. I happen to think that our true enemies right now are those who want us to view those people as our enemies. They want us to stay in our boxes, to fear those who are in other boxes, and to continue to operate out of hate and fear. But we all know, because we can see it on the news and all around us, that this keeps us stuck. Hate creates more hate, and fear creates more fear. It’s a cycle we can’t break by acting in the same way.

The Reverent Doctor Martin Luther King Jr, who was a champion of non-violent resistance during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, once said “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Love gets us out of the box, even though we would rather put that love back IN the box. But we all know what God does with boxes. When love had every dignity taken away, when love was violently murdered on a cross, when love was sealed a way in a dark tomb, when death thought it had won the day… Jesus broke out of that tomb, broke free from the chains of death, to show us that the darkness cannot and will not win.

Love is busting out of the tomb all over the place. Jesus calls us our boxes to see that there is “more that brings us together than we think.”

Just this last week, in the Los Angeles area nearly two hundred thousand people were told to evacuate because of a hole in a local dam. Sikh temples all over the area opened their buildings to give the evacuees shelter, food, and supplies, just five years after a tragic shooting happened in a Sikh Temple in my home state of Wisconsin. The Sikh community in California opened their doors to complete strangers, because they were in need. They had every reason to say no. But they said yes. “We all have the same color blood.”

 Love knows no bounds and destroys every box we try to create. Thanks be to God. AMEN. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love and the 12 Commandments

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

I am a big Jane Austen fan. I’ve read her books, I’ve seen the movies, multiple times, so I was both surprised and delighted when last year it was announced that one of her little-known novellas made it onto the big screen. Imagine, the first big Jane Austen hit in YEARS! It was a BIG DEAL! (At least for me!)

It’s called “Love and Friendship,” based on Austen’s short story “Lady Susan,” a widow who uses ever person and situation to her own advantage. Not even the 10 Commandments are safe from her. She tried to convince her daughter to marry a very silly but very rich farmer by using the fourth commandment. Which is……? Take a wild guess? That’s right, “honor your father and mother.”

But this rich farmer-gentleman, named Sir Martin, has his own opinions about the 10 commandments. While on a visit to Lady Susan’s family, he hope to impress them by talking about “the old prophet who came down from the mount with tablets bearing the Twelve Commandments.”

When he is told that there only 10, he exclaims, “Really?? Only 10 must be obeyed. Excellent. Well, then, which two to take off? …Many of the ‘thou shalt nots’ – don’t murder, don’t covet… one simply wouldn’t do anyway! Because they are wrong.”

Yes, Sir Martin, they indeed are wrong. I think that many of us, myself included, can tick off most of the 10 commandments and think “well, this week I didn’t murder anyone, I didn’t rob a bank, I didn’t go on a date with someone who is married, and I haven’t wrongfully used the Lord’s name. All things considered, I think I’m actually doing pretty well.”

The Atlanta Falcons in last week’s Super Bowl game might have gone into half time thinking the same thing, when the score was 21-3 in their favor. That they had this “winning the Super Bowl thing” locked in, in the bag, and for the rest of the game they could sit back and phone it in. But we all know what happened in the second half. The lesson of that game was clear – you gotta show up for the second half of the game.

The last two weeks in the Sermon on the Mount were the wind up, believe it or not. You are blessed. You are salt and light. And now, this week Jesus is really digging into the hard stuff, the kind of topics that would have make most people walk away if he had started his sermon here. This is the second half of the game, where the rubber meets the road about what it means to be a disciple. Following Jesus doesn’t give us a pass. In fact, the standards will be higher and the stakes will be greater, and our actions under more scrutiny.

After I bought my car last year, I got a Luther Rose magnet to put on the bumper. When that went on, and especially now that I have the official “Family of God” sticker on the back there too, I find have to check myself while driving. Just the other day, someone cut me off to get into the left turn lane, only to notice what I could already see: their lane had been blocked off by a police officer. I admit, I had some very not nice thoughts about them, and I almost didn’t let them back into my lane. But, not only was it the right thing to do, but I also knew that I had to do it because of who the back of my car advertises – Jesus and Family of God. Did I want to let them in? No way. But successful driving not just about what is lawful. It’s about what’s best for the flow of traffic as a whole. In other words, how would Jesus drive?

The rules of the road that God gave us is the 10 Commandments. But it seems that even these 10 are not enough for us. We always seem to find our way around following the rules. Squeaking through at the end of a yellow turn arrow because we know there is time buffer between lights. Parking crooked because we’re in a hurry. Following a little too close to the car ahead of us. Been there, done that. But… technically NOT illegal.

 So Jesus takes on a couple of the well-known commandments that we might feel pretty confident about, and – surprise! Jesus ups the ante for those of us who claim to follow him. Which is not very nice of Jesus at all.

“You have heard it said you shall not murder.” But, according to Jesus, it turns out that if we are angry with any of our fellow human beings, if we insult them and call them names, when we convince ourselves that this is acceptable behavior, we have made them into less than people. When we reduce the humanity of any of our neighbors, forgetting that they too bleed and have feelings, we are putting our own lives above theirs. It is as if we have killed them in our minds. Been there, done that.

In Martin Luther’s Small Catechism, Luther provided explanations for each of the commandments. For the 5th commandment, “you shall not murder,” Luther writes: “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all life’s needs.”

Keeping the 5th commandment is NOT about NOT killing, pardon the double negative. Truly keeping the 5th commandment in the Jesus Regime also means not labeling people or not insulting them and their families. AND, as Luther adds, it also means living together in unity and helping our neighbors out when they are in need. 

The same goes for Jesus’ take on the 6th commandment – “you shall not commit adultery.” Luther’s explanation reads: “you are to fear and love God, so that we lead pure and decent lives in word and deed, and each of us loves and honors his or her spouse.” Jesus takes it a step farther and says this shocking statement that is one of the banes of preachers everywhere this week: “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 

It could have been worse, folks. This could have been my FIRST week with you instead of my THIRD. But bear with me. This is not the first time that Jesus goes into some pretty uncomfortable territory, and it won’t be the last.

When a man looks at a woman in this way, he sees her only as function of what she can give to him, he denies her autonomy as a person, and he reduces her to commodity be acquired. Take a look at any magazine in the grocery aisle, every billboard, every commercial on TV. 

When a half-dressed, photo-shopped female body is used to sell a product, she too becomes an inanimate object rather than a person with hopes, dreams, desires, and a will of her own. And so it has been throughout human history, before advertising was even invented. Women’s bodies have always been feared, shamed, and controlled.

With this additions to the 6th commandment, Jesus isn’t telling women to cover up because “boys will be boys.” Jesus is instead calling boys to be men, to put an end to centuries of blaming and shaming, and to remind them that God created women to be people too.
Jesus lived at a time where women could not have a career, make a living, or live independently from her husband or male relatives. Marriage provided financial stability and the assurance of a future through children. The idea of romantic love, or our obsession with a holiday that celebrates romance and couples would be completely foreign to them.

So imagine divorce at this time. Divorce is a traumatic, life-shaking event no matter what the context. Imagine though, that a woman in Jesus’s time is divorced by her husband – because it is the husband who initiates this, not the wife – what are her options? She would either be homeless, or go back to live with her family of origin in shame and disgrace… or she could get married again. All pretty bleak options. All leave her with even less value in the eyes of her culture.

Imagine the kind of man who would pursue such a woman at her most vulnerable, after her previous husband had used his societal advantage to cast her aside. Such a man is taking advantage of this woman when she is at her most defenseless.  He participates in and condones in the first man’s sin for his own gain.

By calling this a sin, Jesus is affirming that, in the words of a colleague of mine, “Each person is sacred and deserves to be treated that way.” In Jesus’s time, and in ours, the sacredness of each life is threatened when anyone is treated as less than human. In Jesus’s time, Jesus said that meant for men to be faithful to their marriage promises in a world where women had much less power and choice than they do now. In our own time, I believe that Jesus would say divorce is the most loving option when it is the only way that the sacredness of human life can only be upheld, and that remarriage between two consenting adults who respect the sacred humanity of one another is never wrong.

Love in its truest form is more than just red hearts and a nice dinner. Love is seeing the needs of the other as important. Love is living in a relationship built on mutual kindness.  Love is seeing every person as sacred and deserves to be treated that way. Love is how we were created to live with one another.

God is love. And God created us to love. Love gives us life. Jesus is the love of God with skin on, literally love fully fleshed out.

Love is hard. It calls us to do difficult things. Love asks us for our words and our deeds to be life-giving, not life-limiting. Love calls us to walk the truth path of who we were created and called to be: no more and no less than beloved Children of God.

As it turns out, silly Farmer Martin from the movie “Love and Friendship” was right all along. When Jesus was asked which commandments were the greatest, Jesus actually gave us two more, clever man: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.” (Matthew 22:37–39)  Ten plus two equals twelve. There you have it. The Twelve Commandments. Only, we don’t get to “leave any of them off.”

When we leave here today, as we brush the crumbs from coffee hour from our coats, we’ll hop in the car, and I know I’ll probably break at least three commandments on the way home. But we keep driving, knowing that we don’t believe in a God of Rules. Our God is a God of Love and Friendship and Forgiveness. So don’t worry about trying to keep at the commandments all at once. Just keep the one that’s right in front of you. Take it one day at a time. We got this. And God’s got you. Amen.