Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nevertheless, Justice Persists

Sermon 8-20-17
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Every year, my parent’s get a calendar from the local farm co-op as both a Christmas and Thank You gift for being loyal members. As you can see, it’s filled with all kinds of farm pictures you might expect… tractors, farm animals, and amber waves of grain. Last winter, they received this calendar, and as one of my brother flipped through it, something about the August picture nagged at him. It seemed familiar, except not. Time after time, he, my mom, and my dad would gaze at the picture and wonder why it stuck out to them… until it hit them. It was a picture from OUR FARM. Not from the front or even from the side. It was a picture taken… from the back. Everything was there… the silos, the barn, the cows, the tractors…. The different angle just made it harder to see.

As F. F. Bruce wrote his book Hard Sayings of Jesus –– “His yoke is easy and his burden is light, but his sayings are often hard.” And the ones we heard from Jesus today are certainly no exception.

So much ink has been spilled over the centuries to explain, soften, or justify what Jesus does here, and I don’t think any of them are completely satisfying. Figuring out this text turns out to be rather elusive, like the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price. Perhaps what we need to look for is more like a crumb, or rather, a trail of crumbs.
For this Canaanite woman, the hope of just a crumb was enough for her. It was all she felt that she deserved. She was, after all, an outsider in nearly every possible way.

This woman was descended from these indigenous people, isolated to the backwater of her own country. She was the “wrong” race to be asking for Jesus help. She was likely a single mother in the wrong century, and her only child was the wrong gender, and if that wasn’t enough, her daughter was suffering from a very wrong-sounding illness. Even this woman’s whole approach to getting Jesus’ attention seems all wrong. Nevertheless, she persisted.

In fact, this woman could not have been more right about Jesus.  She called him Lord and Son of David while the religious leaders of Jesus’ own people despised and rejected him. She knelt before him and engaged in spirited dialogue with him, while his own disciples seemed almost totally in the dark. She knew what she needed from Jesus, and was not afraid to do whatever she needed to get it, for the sake of her daughter. Even when facing a tired, frustrated, and over-booked savior. Nevertheless, she persisted.

This woman knew what it was like to barely scrape by on crumbs. She was used to having men ignore her, dismiss her, and shoo her away. But not this time. She was going to be heard by Jesus, no matter what it took. She was going to lay hold of the grace that Jesus has to offer, even if the people of her time thought she was no better than a dog. Nevertheless, she persisted.

One poem by Jan Richardson begins by imagining the woman saying these words to Jesus: “Don’t tell me no. I have seen you feed the thousands, seen miracles spill from your hands like water, like wine, seen you with… crowds pressed around you and not one soul turned away. Don’t start with me...”

She knew that in the end, he would not and could not go against his nature. She knew he would do the right thing – that he would “throw her a bone,” so to speak. And she was right. She called Jesus out, and Jesus listened to her, and I think that’s why he called her faith great.

I wonder if Jesus remembered her as he blessed the bread and broke it, and watched the crumbs from the broken pieces fall onto the table and roll to the floor. I wonder if he thought about her great faith, as he was breaking bread with people who would later betray, deny, and abandon him in the coming hours.

And apparently, even Jesus needed to take his own advice sometimes, to stop and listen to someone else preach to him. Even Jesus needed to be reminded to see people from a different perspective. This woman reminded Jesus of a different angle in God’s story – that even though God had chosen the Jewish people, that all throughout history God has never ignored the needs of the “stranger,” the foreigner, the immigrant among them. Stubborn women throughout the Old Testament have faithfully and persistently gained God’s ear, and wrestled a blessing in their own right. The stories from the margins, from the edges, from underneath are just as important as the stories of God’s chosen people.

While it is true that all lives matter to God, some lives are treated as mattering less than others. That is while throughout the Bible God has stood with and continues to stand with the oppressed and the downtrodden. While we say with our actions that certain lives don’t matter, Gods insists that they do. To God, oppressed lives matter. Canaanite lives matter. Jewish lives matter. And in our own time, LGBTQIA lives matter. Trans lives matter.  Women’s lives matter. Differently abled lives matter. Chronically ill lives matter. Latino, Middle Easter, and Black lives matter.

I have the privileges of looking back into my family history. I have the privilege to know that my ancestors voluntarily left their homes in Bavaria and Saxony to immigrate to the United States, to settle on this farm that my family has owned for five generations – featured on the cover of the Co-op 2017 calendar. My past can be celebrated. I can go to German Festivals and eat German food and wear German things. 

Imagine that you come from a people who could never know their own history. This group of people had ancestors that were kidnapped from their homes, hauled on a filthy ship for months at sea, only to be sold into slavery once they got to the United States. It is nearly impossible to tell from which country in Africa their ancestors came from – Senegal, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana, Cameroon? There is no way to know. But their past, it matters to God. Their present matters to God, and their future matters to God too. Just as much as all of ours lives matter to God.

The Canaanite woman knew that, while her voice and her experience did not matter to the people around her, they mattered to God, and she refused to leave Jesus alone until he listened to her.  

The Canaanite woman would not wait patiently for salvation to be granted to her “in due time.” She instead persists in laying hold of what she knows to be true:

That there is enough Jesus to go around. There is enough room in the Kingdom of God for us to make room for the experiences of our neighbors, no matter how different their experiences may be. Their experiences matter. And when we have heard the stories of our neighbors and hear they have experienced injustice, we must do as Jesus has done – we act. We heal the injury where we can. We cast out the demon that have harmed others where we encounter them – the demons of hate and fear.

First, we listen. Then, we speak. The time is now. No more waiting. No more ignoring the truth or shooing it away.  Justice will not wait until it’s “more convenient.” Truth will not be unseen.

Right now, though, we may only be able to see a glimpse of the vision of peace and justice that God has for the world. Right now, we only get a crumb, just a taste, really, of the final victory feast over sin, death, and the evil in this world. Right now, we are only getting sips of the freedom Jesus has in mind for all of his people.

But the crumbs and the tastes are enough – because we know there is plenty more where that came from. We know what Jesus can do with a little bit of bread and some persistent faith.

On his deathbed, Martin Luther said – We are all beggars. Much later, Sri Lanka pastor D. T. Niles continued his thought by saying - "We are beggars telling other beggars where to find bread." There is more than a crumb for all. There is enough. Amen.  

Rosa Parks was my kids sermon

Monday, August 14, 2017

Standing against the Storms of Hate

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

St. Paul Lutheran Church in Beachville NJ – which is about 45 minutes from where I used to live - has a beautiful sanctuary that is shaped like an upside-down boat. Actually, there are a lot of churches around the country that have sanctuaries that look like upside-down boats, inspired by ships such as the ones my ancestors took to reach America as immigrants from central and Northern Europe. Take a moment and look up… doesn’t our sanctuary remind you of being underneath an upturned boat?

Three years ago at St. Paul in Beachville, I was hanging out with sixty Lutheran youth from the Nebraska Synod who were in NJ on a mission trip. They drove two straight days cross-country – one way - through East Coast traffic to spend 3 days in New Jersey - to literally flood the Jersey shore with their time and presence. They arrived to help with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, still very much present even two years had passed. They their days spent clearing logs at a Lutheran Camp in North Jersey, and canvassing entire neighborhoods to find out their needs, all in the in the hot July sun.

These young people got out of their comfortable little Nebraska boats about as far as humanly possible. Jesus said, “Come,” and they responded. In fact, their pastors who I met that week I ran into again this past week at the clergy event in Georgia.

Now, it’s been almost five years since Hurricane Sandy. But I don’t think I need to tell you that there are people who are suffering still, in different ways. Five years out, it just might be harder to see. It’s easy to spot a collapsed house. But it is harder to recover an interrupted life.

There are plenty of other storms that have hit all of us in the meantime. These storms might not show any external damage. But we can feel the devastation all the same. These storms damage the heart: The hurricane-force winds of shame and hopelessness that knock you down, all the while shouting in your ears – you are not enough.

Wouldn’t it great if our little community here in this little boat would be a haven from all the terribly frightening storms raging in the world, and raging in our own hearts? Wouldn’t it be great if there was “Check your Storms at the Door” or a “No Storms Allowed” sign somewhere out in the parking lot?

While this place IS a safe space for us to gather, the storms are still very present here with us, even on this warm summer morning. Being Jesus’s own disciples, and following orders from Jesus’ own lips did not stop the storm for Peter and the rest of the disciples as they battled their own storm that day.

But the mighty winds and waves DID not and COULD not prevent Jesus from coming to their aid. Our storms CANNOT and WILL NOT prevent Jesus from coming to us, or from getting into our boat with us.

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton preached on the last day of our time together of the ELCA Rostered Leaders Gathering in Atlanta. Pastors and Deacons from all over the country from all different kinds of contexts gathered for connection and renewal. Bishop Eaton reminded us that human beings are not meant to walk on water. That part was completely Peter’s idea, she said. Just like when we try to take some things into our own hands that should stay in God’s. 

Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton
But when it turned out to be too much for Peter, Jesus has Peter’s back. Jesus doesn’t say he had little faith because Peter fails at something that he shouldn’t actually be able to do in the first place. Jesus is reminding Peter of something that he forgot, something that we all forget – Jesus says instead, “I’ve got you.”

And then, Jesus climbed INTO the boat. And Jesus climbs into the boats we find ourselves in too. He climbs into our tiny boats WITH us, through all the storms, and it is only then that the storms cease.

Rachel Held Evans, a Christian writer and speaker who also spoke last week at the Rostered Leaders Gathering, reminded us that God has already given us everything we need – word, sacraments, the Holy Spirit, and each other. And we have a God who walks through storms. We have a God who jumps into boats with us. We have a God who jumps OUT OF TOMBS… because "our God knows the way out of the grave." (Rachel Held Evans)

Our upturned boat sanctuary here can remind us that we are all in this boat together. But also, it is not up to us to keep this boat from sinking in the storms we find ourselves in. It is NOT up to us to work up the courage to jump out and chase after the next thing that might save us from feeling like we’re sinking.

You know what else looks like a boat, besides our sanctuary here? Our upturned hands, open and ready to receive Christ’s body. Week after week, month after month, year after year, through all the different kind of storms that life throws at us – Jesus still comes to us. Whether we are ready to jump out of the boat or clutching the railings for dear life, Jesus comes to us. In the breaking of the bread and the sharing of wine, Jesus comes to us. When we come to the table, with hands open, God gives us everything that we will ever need to face whatever storm comes our way.

Jesus gives us what we need for the storms that rage within us. And Jesus also gives us what we need to stand firm against the storms that are raging all around us too. Storms that come with fearing and hating those we don’t think belong in our boat – people who are different from us. People who are of a different religion, a different race, speak a different language, are of a different sexual orientation, or of a different gender or gender expression. We don’t see that we have all been created by God, beautiful in diversity, but equally loved. We don’t see that we are all in the same boat together, one body of Christ, members of one big family of God. We don’t see that our words - and our silences - do damage to other members of the body of Christ.

That storm seems so powerful, so overwhelming, and we seem to be so small and powerless to stand up against it, much less do anything to change it. Why rock the boat for a storm that we personally, a congregation in Pennsylvania from a mostly white denomination, might not even feel the effects of? Why stick our necks out about something that is happening in Charlottesville, Virginia? Or Charleston, North Carolina? Or Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, or Little Rock, Arkansas?

There is a storm that happened yesterday that will leave it’s mark just as clearly on this country as any hurricane. White supremacists and members of the KKK descended on Charlottesville, Virginia from all over the country on Saturday, and clergy from across the region and beyond gathered in protest. The night before, at St. Paul Memorial Church just outside of the University of Virginia campus, a torch-bearing mob surrounded the church during the evening church service as clergy and other people inside prayed for strength to stand for God’s light and justice and truth, to fight against some people’s opinions that other people are not enough.

The disciples were terrified of the storm, and Peter was terrified of sinking into the turbulent waters, Elijah in our first reading was terrified that God had abandoned him, and we also may be terrified of what will come next on the news, and what can we possibly do about it.

Timely words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s are written inside of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia, where he was pastor for a time. The words are from Dr. King’s biography. He writes: “..It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And Lo, I will be with you, even to the end of the world.”  Tragically, these words could have been written yesterday.

Some storms must be faced again and again, it seems. But as God’s people, we have been called to never tire for standing for what is right, even in the face of such voracious storms. Now, even in this place, Jesus says to us, his beloved church - “I’ve got you. I’m not going to let you fall. Now stand, Family of God. Stand up for justice. Stand up for righteousness. Stand up for truth. For I will be with you. Always.”

As the man for whom Martin Luther King Jr. is named after spoke nearly 500 hundred years ago – “here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.”

Well, Family of God… God will… and God DOES. Amen.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A tale of Two Celebrations

Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.

Wedding season is in full swing, and after the wedding service comes… the reception! With dancing… food…friends and family… and best of all, cake! But with weddings also come comparisons. I’ve attended two weddings already this summer, and they could not have been more different. The service for one couple was relaxed and full of laughter and joy. The other felt much longer than it actually was because the sanctuary did not have air conditioning! I know I shouldn’t complain, since I was not the one wearing a floor-length formal gown! One wedding took a while to serve dinner, but we didn’t mind so much while we were listening to the dynamic live band. The other served us our food impressively fast, and it was delicious, but after dinner in the extended time between dinner and dancing, the party fell flat for a while.

No matter how perfect the wedding seems to be, how smoothly everything seems to go, or how well-behaved the family is, something unexpected and memorable usually happens. I have a lot of cousins, so I’ve been to a lot of weddings over the years. At one outdoor service, the bride’s cathedral length train blew straight up in the breeze and almost clobbered the pastor. At another, the unity candle refused to light. At yet another, they ran out of cake. 

But some things about weddings are always the same. Two people get married. And friends and family come celebrate, and there is almost always food – and plenty of it. Have you ever gone to a wedding and left hungry?

There are no weddings in today’s readings. But there are two different gatherings with food and surprises. The first party happened just before the reading we heard day. We begin by hearing of Jesus’ reaction to the beheading of John the Baptist, his cousin and the prophet who prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry. John had run into some trouble in speaking out against King Herod, who ruled the region. Now, this is NOT the King Herod that threatened to kill young Jesus earlier in Matthew, but THIS Herod was ALSO bad news. Herod is not the kind of guy you go around criticizing, and that is exactly what landed John the Baptist in prison.

Herod threw a huge party for his birthday, and was so pleased with the dancing of his step-daughter that he swore before all his guests that he would give her whatever she wanted. The girl, prompted by her mother, the current wife of Herod and the target of John’s criticism, told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And because he had made his promise so public, Herod HAD to go through with it, or lose face in front of all his guests.  

Of course, when Jesus heard about it, he wanted some time to grieve for his friend. And perhaps to regroup, since surely once John was gone, Jesus would be Herod’s next target. But the crowds would not let Jesus lay low for long. And instead of sending crowds away, Jesus had compassion on them and healed their sick.

As people compare weddings, we also can compare these two feasts. At Herod’s birthday banquet, the guest list was limited to a very exclusive and elite group of powerful people. In this select assembly were the regions’ rich and powerful, and they feasted on the best food and had the best entertainment.

And in the end this party lead only to death – the death of a prophetic voice at the hand of a king who did it to safe face at his own birthday party.

At the surprise feast of Jesus, what some have named “the feeding of the five thousand,” it was not just the rich and powerful who were given food – all the people present were satisfied. The feeling of being full is so common to us, we don’t realize that it was a rare occurrence for the people of Jesus’ time.

These people at Jesus’ party may not have feasted on rich food, but had their fill of a simple meal of bread and fish. There was no music, expect for the grateful cheering and laughter of people made whole, and no dancing - except perhaps by those newly healed.
This is a party that leads to life – it is a feast where compassion is the host, where all are fed and all or healed – men, women, and the children there too. Actually, some estimates say as many as twenty thousand people – or more! - might have been present, since Matthew only decides to mention the number of men.

Jesus has no guest list. He doesn’t ask them for their credentials, call their references, or demand they prove their need. Instead, he heals. He feeds. He has compassion on twenty thousand people. The menu might not be as fancy as Herod’s feast, but with Jesus we know that our host is kind and compassionate, not driven by greed or self-preservation.
At Jesus’ party, there is always enough for everyone. Even when there only seems to be a little bit – just five loaves of bread and two fish – even that little bit is enough for Jesus to work miracles.

The truth is we would never have been invited to Herod’s party. Maybe, if we were lucky, we would have been servants and gotten to eat the leftovers – if there were any. But in reality, we are like the ones in the crowd, desperate to see Jesus, hungry and dusty and in need of healing.

But we can also be the disciples too. We can look around us and wonder how can Jesus care about all THOSE people, too. Send them away, Jesus. Surely you have better things to do with your time. Surely there could never be enough of Jesus for everyone. Better keep some back, just in case.
But, like the woman in Jesus’ parable from last week, the woman takes just a little yeast and mixes it into dough in order to make it rise, Jesus only needs just a little bit in order to do great things. Five loaves of bread and two fish to feed twenty thousand. Just a small seed is needed for faith to grow. Just a few sproutlets of wheat among the weeds. Just twelve blue-collar common men who would later do miracles in Jesus name. Just a small hope tucked away deep in the heart that the sun will rise on a new day. That’s all Jesus needs in order to do amazing things in our lives.

But the story doesn’t stop there. After Jesus takes the bread and the fish, he gave it to his disciples to hand out the life-giving meal, to do his work. We are the ones sent out. It may be God’s work that we do, but it is our hands that make it happen.

Just as Jesus gives life to people in something as simple as a full stomach, we are called to do the same. After all, there are plenty of hungry people in our own time.

But we certainly can’t feed the whole world by ourselves. Let alone twenty thousand people. But Jesus can take something as small as a two-hour time block and turn it into meals for hundreds of hungry people around the world – through us and using organizations like Feed My Starving Children. In fact, this fall we are starting to put together a group from here to go over to Del Val University to take a shift in packing meals for people all over the world. And all it takes is a few hours of our day.

The feast that Jesus provides for us – rather than the feast of the Herods of the world – is about sharing what we have been given by our generous God, no matter how insignificant the offering seems. Jesus shared his life with the likes of us, giving us his life so that we may live too. And then Jesus hands the work over to us, to keep on healing and feeding in his name, until of God’s people are filled and made whole. 

(Here I impromptu shared my children's sermons, for which I brought 12 leftover containers as a visual of how much God's overflowing love is for us.)

And even after all that, there will still be LEFTOVES. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Wonder Seeds


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

What new crop did the farmer plant? (Beets me!)

Why shouldn't you tell a secret on a farm? (Because the potatoes have eyes and the corn has ears!)

There is a joke in my family, who are farmers, that a farmer is a man who is outstanding in his field. Or out, standing in his field.

And let me tell you, farmers earn a meager celery, come home beet and just want to read the pepper, turn-ip the covers, en-dive into bed! (I got all these jokes from a website) 

Let anyone with ears…. Listen!

While it is true that a week of running around with 35 kids of all ages probably effects one’s mental state, these jokes DO have a point. Much like the stories that Jesus told his followers, like the one that we heard today, which often gets the name “the Parable of the Sower.” 

These stories get a fancy name – parables – which comes from a Greek word that originally means “to throw alongside.” Sort of like when you have two rows of three to five-year-old lined up facing each other, and get them to gently toss water balloons to one another until they fall and pop. It has varying degrees of success.

For those of you who are gardeners or have experience farming, think about the parable that Jesus just told for a minute. Is this how you plant your gardens? Is this how your rows of crops in the fields get planted? Even during the time of Jesus, this was NOT how people planted their crops. Jesus’ people didn’t have big farm machinery, but they still took great care with their seeds, vineyards, and livestock. After all, this was their livelihood, and could mean the difference between being full or starvation.

So, what is Jesus getting at when he tells this story? What two (or more) things is he casting side-by-side for us to link together?

When I was a youth, I remember hearing this story at a youth event and the leaders asking us what kind of soil we thought we were. However, at this point in my life, I am less interested in that question. Thinking this way reminds me of those funny online personality quizzes I take every now and again. Can’t you just picture this going around Facebook? “Which kind of soil are you? Take this quiz NOW!”

My theory now is that if we are asking ourselves what kind of soil we are, we probably aren’t rocky soil, soil on the path, or soil with weeds. Or maybe we are all of these things at the same time, or we even have been all of these kinds at different stages of our lives. This is not an all-or-nothing label, which sticks to us forever and ever, amen – “Too bad, you are rocky soil… good for you, you are good soil.” Like a personality quiz with an obvious right answer.

I also think Jesus left something out when he – or Matthew writing after – tried to make sense of this story. What I wish would have been added is an explanation for good soil. 

My Dad could tell you about good soil – while out standing in his field, ha ha ha – and every day he does go out to his fields, to make them good soil… by spreading cow manure.  That’s right. A key component of good soil is a waste product that are left over from what the cows could not digest, and smells bad, and is gross to talk about, is exactly what makes soil rich and robust for new life to grow out of it.

The rest of the world sees something that should be thrown away, cast out, criticized, forgotten, disregarded, and shamed.

But God sees… good soil.

Good thing for us… that God is actually a terrible farmer. God sees the good soil, and casts seeds like crazy, looking and hoping for growth. But then God sees the rocky soil… and does the same thing… and the same with the soil on the path! And the soil with the weeds! God’s idea of farming is not unlike being a guest on an Oprah show… YOU get seeds… and YOU get seeds… EVERY SOIL GETS SEEDS!!!

This seems incredibly wasteful! Especially when God only seems to expect a 25 percent success rate. Image, for those out there who are teachers, that your students need just a 25 percent to pass.

It’s outrageous, it’s irresponsible, but it is also who God IS. God is a farmer who takes chances. God is a wasteful fool who takes an infinite amount of chances on us, as much as it takes for as long as it takes.

This week our heroes learned a verse from the Psalms – “Do good, seek peace, and go after it.” That became our hero code to inspire us to be God’s heroes… because that is what God does for us. Even when we don’t always act like heroes. Even if we don’t always feel like we deserve it.

Last week I mentioned how many super hero movies are coming out now. I of course had to go see the new Wonder Woman movie, for research purposes. Diana is Wonder Woman, and she is raised by women who are strong and fierce, chosen to protect humanity. Young Diana wants to train for this too, but her mother, the queen of the Amazons, won’t allow it. One night, the queen tells a disappointed Diana, “be careful of mankind, Diana, they do not deserve you.”

Later, of course, when Diana grows up she defies her mother and goes off on a quest to save human kind, seeking to defeated the god of war himself to end World War One. She collects along the way her posse – a rag tag bung of heroes who are brave and loyal. At once point the group is trapped in a trench, and hear the cries of innocent civilians – women and children – who are trapped on the other side.

Diana tells her new friends, “We need to help these people.” But she is told, “We can’t save everyone…this is not what we came here to do”

Diana sheds her coat and brings out her shield, ready to go into the fray. “No.” she replies… “but it is what I’m going to do. I’m willing to fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.” Then she stepped into the no-man’s-land, and with her shield she took all the fire while her friends charged the trench on the far side, and liberated the captives.

In that movie, Diana had to learn the hard way that humanity would too often rather scatter bullets of hate rather than seeds of love. We are capable of truly terrible things. We would rather bury the son of God in a tomb rather than face this God who relentlessly loves us, and also loves those we don’t think deserve it.

But still, God the bad farmer keeps throwing seeds at us, hoping that at some point, someday, something will take root. Because when it does…. AMAZING things happen, and the yields are AWESOME.

We certainly threw out a lot of seeds this week at Vacation Bible School. Most of these kids were members of this community. And we have no idea if they will EVER darken the doorway of this church on a Sunday morning. But we were faithful heroes of God, scattering the seeds just as Jesus did, not knowing what kind of soil they were landing on…. But trusting that God does give the growth.

It may take months…years… or even decades to sprout sometimes. We may never see the yield that comes with our planting. But the words about the love of God that we spoke last week will not return to God empty.

God’s word returns full, and the tomb is empty. The seed that was buried sprouts and yields a hundredfold. Manure becomes good soil. Mountain and trees burst into song and clap their hands. Death becomes life. All soil gets a chance. Let anyone with ears… listen! Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Heroes and Villains

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

When was the last time that you went to see a movie? I’m willing to bet that it was either super hero movie, or at the very least one of the trailers before it was for a super hero movie.  We sure do love our super heroes and heroines, don’t we? We wear their logos on T-shirts and are inspired to be more like them. Our entire Vacation Bible School theme next week that is entirely about super heroes!  

 We like heroes, because heroes are strong. They beat the bad guys. They rescue people. They always save the day, without fail. All of those hero movies make the world make sense - the bad guys are bad, the heroes are good, and for the most part it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

Sadly, real life is not like this at all. For us regular, non-super-hero types, the epic battles we face are not external, but inside our very selves. In the real world, I find that I have the capacity to be both hero and villain, sometimes in the same moment.

There are times when I know that I shouldn’t do something, especially when it will hurt someone else, but I do it anyway. I know that I shouldn’t buy clothes that are made by children in sweatshops, but I want them anyway. I know that the poor and the homeless need help, but I turn from the man with the handwritten sign asking for help. Sometimes it’s like watching myself from the outside do what I don’t want to do. And those times I DO want to do the right thing, something keeps me frozen in place.

I think that most of you know what I’m talking about. The Apostle Paul knew all about this, which he shares in his letter to the Romans from our readings for today. He writes to them, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” He goes on, “Now if I do what I do not what, it is no longer I that do it, but the sin that dwells in me.”

I know it’s hard to talk about sin sometimes, because it is so sneaky. It’s more than just when we do bad things or don’t do good ones. Sin is part of all of us – it is the cause of the broken world that we live in. Our relationships are broken – relationships with our family, friends, the earth, and even with God. This sinful state creates all the things that you see on the nightly news: war, violence, greed, discrimination, oppression, and extreme disparity between rich and poor. We “should” know better, and sometimes we DO know better, and yet, here we are. Doing the very things we know we shouldn’t do.

I read an article a few years ago about computer viruses that really stuck with me. It was about a kind of virus program called a “worm.” A “worm” will sneak into a vulnerable spot in your computer. Then, while inside your machine, it lies in wait for a message from whoever created it. The worm could theoretically do anything it wants to your computer, and once that happens, there is nothing that you can do to stop it.

How could it be that the computer that I own, that I purchased and use every day, could somehow be out of my control? It’s mine. We could very well ask the same question of ourselves – how can I not be in control of myself? I belong to me. How could it be that, as Paul says, we do not understand our own actions sometimes? How is it that we sometimes play the villain, even when we should know better?

“Wretched man am I!” Paul rightly exclaims. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Who is going to save us from ourselves, from the wreckage of broken humanity that we find ourselves in?

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

While this text is beautiful for funerals, Jesus is not just speaking about those who have lost a loved one. Jesus is speaking to us, right here, right now, wherever we find ourselves in our own stories – hero, villain, or somewhere in between.

Just before this passage from Matthew, John the Baptist is in prison, wondering if all his preaching and angering the people in power been worth it. Is Jesus the one that they have been waiting for? Like John, we too wonder, is Jesus the hero that we want? Or is Jesus the savior that we actually need?

To the religious leaders of his day, neither John nor Jesus measured up. John was too preachy, harsh, and had weird dietary habits and fashion choices. Jesus came along on the scene, eating with sinners and breaking rules, and they labeled HIM as too free and irreverent. Like a new twist to the story of Goldilocks– this one is too hot, and that one is too cold, but in their eyes, NO ONE can EVER be “just right” to be the messiah, or their super hero.

In our own world that loves superheroes and superhero movies, Jesus just doesn’t measure up, either. In fact, Jesus would make a terrible superhero. Heroes aren’t supposed to be weak, let themselves be beaten, and hand themselves over to die…. which is that is exactly what Jesus did. Jesus gave up his power, gave up his life, gave up everything in order to prove that his love for us was stronger than anything. Stronger than human hatred and fear. Stronger than the burdens we carry. Stronger than the struggle between hero and villain that we find our selves in. Stronger than death, symbolized in the cross, an instrument of death and brokenness that weights on us so heavily.

What has been the cause of weariness in your life lately? What heavy burdens are you carrying? Perhaps you have been worried about money and financial security. Maybe you are worried about a family member’s health or upcoming surgery. Perhaps you don’t know if you will be able to pay the rent or the light bill, or feed your family. Perhaps you or a family member or friend is having a hard time with a harmful addiction. Maybe you have a son or daughter in the military who may be facing dangerous situations while doing their duty to their country. Perhaps you are missing someone you have lost, either recently or years ago.

You know very well the burdens that are weighing you down, and there is nothing that you can do on your own to give you peace and help you sleep better at night. “Wretched men and women are we” is our lament along with Paul. Who will free us from this body of death?”

Come to Jesus, and Jesus will give you the rest that you so desperately need. Not because Jesus will take away all your worries and make your life perfect with the wave of a magic wand. No, Jesus gives you rest because Jesus takes on our burdens for us. Jesus took on YOUR burdens, YOUR sins, YOUR fears, YOUR broken relationships. All these things that bring death to you were all nailed to the cross, along with our lord Jesus.

All power that these things had over you was SHATTERED that early Easter morning when Jesus burst from the tomb, ALIVE. Your BURDENS couldn’t hold him. Your SINS couldn’t hold him. Jesus defeated them all and so YOU are truly free. This is how Jesus became the super hero and savior that we need.

And like any good super hero, Jesus has super friends in a hero league to help to justice in the world. We all become super heroes in our baptism – and Emma is the newest hero in our ranks, sealed and marked by the Holy Spirit forever, as we all have been before her. She is a newly minted superhero for Jesus, called to bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world. She will grow up to learn from the example of Jesus’s love and sacrifice, wearing Jesus’ yoke of freedom and grace along with us. She will join us in working for justice and peace in a world where both are desperately needed.

 Now, neither Emma nor we will be called on to leap tall buildings, or defeat bad guys with a magical truth lasso, or dramatically save the world with lots of explosions. But we WILL be called to scale over the walls the divide us. We will be called to tell the truth about things like hate and fear. And we will be sharing the news about the savior OF the whole world… with explosions of love, perhaps.

It’s a tall order, but we won’t be doing it alone. Jesus bears the yoke of heroism with us, and stays with us through all parts of our superhero journey, through our burdens, from baptism… the cross… and beyond. So that the world will say,

“It’s a bird, it’s a plane, its…. God’s super heroes!” Amen. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Hurry Up and No Waiting

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

A few weeks ago, I shared with you about the Global Reformation service I attended in Windhoek, Namibia. Along with the thousand Lutherans from around the world there for the Lutheran World Federation Assembly, about nine thousand other Lutherans from all around Africa came by the bus loads. They had warned us ahead of time that this service was expected to be about 4 hours long… and they were pretty accurate.

That day was full of Hurry up and Wait, as my mom calls it. Hurry up and wait to get to the busses on time… only to go through security before you get on. Hurry up to get on the bus… only to sit and wait for all the buses to be full before all leaving together in a bus caravan. Hurry up to get in the stadium to be seated… to wait for the Namibian President to arrive in state. And don’t even ask me about how the distribution of communion went. It was beautiful, holy chaos, that’s all I will say about it.

Though we were only half way through the service after we were done with communion, we all had already been awake for hours and hours, sitting – under tents, fortunately, but still outside on a warm day – and most of us were hungry. Actually, by this time, I think many of us were quickly reaching the state of mind that is now called “Hangry.” Which of course is the combination of hungry… and angry.

Soon the volunteers began passing out boxed lunches down the rows. I was sitting with some other Americans, and we hungrily waited as they drew closer … and closer… to our row… only watch them be delayed. A clearly upset white man had accosted the African volunteer, wanting his food sooner rather than later. The volunteer very patiently told the man that she would get to him, if only he would sit back down. Like the rest of us.

Finally, we got our boxes, opened them up, to find a boiled hot dog, a buttered dinner roll, a bag of chips and a muffin. No Ketchup, mustard, relish, nada. Just a dog and a roll.

As we received our boxes, a pastor from one of the Namibian churches greeted us from the pulpit and welcomed us in the name of Jesus. She said, “When you receive guests into your house, you feed then whatever you have in your kitchen. This is what we have in our kitchen. It’s not fancy. But it’s what we have ‘from our kitchen.’ You are welcome guests, and we are glad to have you.”

At the then of Jesus’ long pep talk to his followers as they are about to go out on his behalf, Jesus reminds his disciples of what it means to welcome and be welcomed. Whoever welcomes the one who comes in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus. And whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes God. And whoever gives even a plain hot dog on a buttered roll to one of these little one in the name of Jesus will not lose their reward.

I learned a lot about rolling with the hot dogs that came my way on this trip. There were so many parts of this experience that were beyond my control – more accurately the whole experience was a wild ride where I could only buckle up and hang on. I was smartly prepared as much as I could be – snacks, water, extra tissues, and so on - but for the most part I as a disciple of Jesus was often called on to graciously accept what I was handed. But doing that is not easy, is it?

It’s much harder to be a guest than it is to be a host, if you think about it. Yes, when you host someone at your house overnight, you have the inconvenience of having someone else using your towels and eating your food. But you know what’s in the kitchen and have control of what’s coming out of it. But as a guest, you sleep on someone else’s pillows and drink from someone else’ cups. You eat what comes out of someone else’ kitchen.

We as followers of Jesus may find ourselves in kitchens pretty different from ours. And it’s going to feel really uncomfortable. Like a pair of old shoes that we have outgrown, and it’s time to get some new ones.

The followers of Jesus found themselves traveling during a very uncertain time. They didn’t know if or when they would be welcomed or rejected. We, as disciples of Jesus live in some uncertain times as well.

As our country turns 241, there are citizens of our own nation, even of our own Lutheran denomination, who don’t know if, and when, they will be welcomed or rejected by the country they belong to or the denomination they love.

When I was in Namibia, often the only American or even the only white person in the room, this thought crossed my mind– “The great great, great, great grandparents of people in my country could have enslaved some of the great great, great, great grandparents of some of the people in this room.”

African American Seminary Student Lenny Duncan, in addition to studying to be a Lutheran pastor, created a documentary called “Do Black Churches Matter in the ELCA?” Now, why would he have to even ask such a question? Because the ELCA is the whitest denomination in the United States,according to the Pew Research Center. Even the MORMONS are more racially diverse than we are.

So, do black churches matter in the ELCA? When Mr. Duncan posed this question to our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, she replied – “[Black churches] matter to God, and therefore they should matter to us, but we don’t treat them that way.” Certain people don’t have access to our kitchens, and we are not willing to go to theirs.

When this happens, we lose a part of who we are. Without the mutual love and support of ALL of our diverse members – black, white, straight, gay, trans, rich, poor, differently abled, young, old - the body of Christ is incomplete. The outcast and the stranger bear the image of God’s face. But when we sing the hymn, as we did this morning, “all are welcome,” do we truly mean it? Do we extend the welcome that we ourselves have received from Jesus?

In Jesus’s kitchen, all are welcomed, and all are fed around his banquet table. From his kitchen, we are given “nothing fancy,” just some bread and wine, everyday things that are easy to find. And yet, in this simple meal we are given life… we are given welcome…. and we are given a new kind of family. We are given the body and blood of Jesus, a body that was broken so that humanity might be made whole, and blood that was shed so that someday treat one another as blood kin. This is what keeps us going, so that we may continue the work that Jesus started, of building houses “where all are named… where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew.” (from the hymn All Are Welcome)

This reign, this kingdom is God’s kitchen, and we are welcome to it. As Benedictine monastic Father Daniel Homan wrote in a book that is aptly titled Radical Hospitality, “…we are all guests, we are all travelers, we are all a little lost, and we are all looking for a place to rest awhile…. God is the host, but God also becomes the guest we received in others.” (xxxvi) 

When we welcome others, we welcome God, as God has welcomed us.  This is a welcome that is relentless in pursuit of us, in pursuit for love, peace, and justice in this world that God has created. Nothing will get in the way of God’s radical welcome in God’s kingdom. Not our own prejudices and biases, not institutional racism or white privilege, not travel bans or walls - not even sin, human brokenness, and death can stand in the way.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. This radial welcome is knocking on our door right now, and won’t leave us alone, like the worst kind of houseguest – respecting no boundaries we put up or excuses we make. Always getting in our faces. Always pushing us out and making us uncomfortable. Making demands on us we don’t always want to fulfill. And we will find ourselves doing things we don’t normally do, things we never expected we would be doing. Like eating hot dogs in Namibia. Like helping to welcome those who are homeless on a cold night. Like welcoming more than 30 rambunctious kids from the neighborhood through our doors for a week of VBS.

There is no Hurry Up and Wait in the kingdom of God. The welcome of the kingdom is right here, right now. We are being called out of our comfort zones and into other people’s kitchens. We are being called to eat the hot dogs of hospitality, in whatever form they come. Amen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

What's worth fighting for?

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

Not your grandma's Revolutionary War!
Before last year, Alexander Hamilton was just the dead white guy on the ten-dollar bill who did some stuff during the Revolutionary War but we really can’t remember what. He wasn’t as famous as Washington or Jefferson or Paul Revere. At least, not until Lin-Manuel Miranda read an eight-hundred-page book about Hamilton on vacation and thought to himself – this would make a great musical!

It tells the story of the young and ambitions Scottish immigrant Hamilton and his heroics in the Revolutionary war and his complicated role in setting up this country for success. Hamilton was a brilliant man, but, when he took a side, he was all in… and he made some enemies along the way.

In beginning of the musical, Hamilton is gathered at the pub with his friends in the thick of the Revolutionary war. He wants to fight so badly he can taste it, and he says this to his fellow soldiers - “I am not throwing away my shot! …I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot!”

Hamilton’s friend Aaron Burr, however, is NOT anxious to stick his neck out, and responds - “Geniuses, lower your voices. You keep out of trouble and you double your choices. The situation is fraught…If you talk, you gonna get shot!”

I’m more of an Aaron Burr than an Alexander Hamilton. Burr is observant, checks out all his options, looks before he leaps, sees where the wind blows before deciding the best course of action. Gets all the facts. Doesn’t rock the boat unnecessarily. Burr says of himself, “I'm not falling behind or running late. I'm not standing still, I am lying in wait.”

So, I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in finding today’s quotes from Jesus very uncomfortable. After telling the disciples what NOT to pack last week, Jesus informs his followers – and us - of some bad news. Following Jesus, the Prince of Peace, does not always lead to a life of peace and harmony, ice coffee and cupcakes. In fact, most of the time, it WILL be the cause of conflict.

Following Jesus means that we don’t follow other things. Following Jesus means that we have priorities that seems strange to the world. Following Jesus means we have to be a little less Aaron Burr and a little more Alexander Hamilton. Following Jesus is going to ruffle some feathers. Following Jesus means that the world will make us pick a side. And I for one really do not like that one bit.

And I am sure that Jesus’s hearers didn’t like that at all either. After all, Jesus was putting the thumbscrews on the primary source of identity at the time – the family unit. Your family was your security, your social status, your comfort zone, your whole world. When Jesus monkeys with that system, he sends shockwaves across society that causes divisions across even families – daughter against mother, father against son, people who grew up in the same house.

But the Prince of Peace who brings a sword isn’t the oxymoron that it seems to be. Jesus doesn’t bring division for the sake of division. Jesus causes division because of OUR LACK of UNITY. Us verses them. We’ve had thousands of years to become really really, REALLY good at that.

The world makes us choose sides. Or really, the world tries its hardest makes us choose THEIR side. The world tells us daily and even hourly that some types of people are worth more than others - that some should be hated and feared because of the color of their skin, because of what part of the world they come from, because of the name they call God, because of the kind of people they love and want to marry, because their bodies don’t fit the “right” body shape or ability.

The world tells us constantly that buying more stuff will make us happy, and to blind ourselves to the high cost to creation and to people feeling the effects of climate change in third world countries. The world tells us to be busier, make more money, put ourselves first, to use people and things up and throw them away. We see this every day, and we know how this plays out in our lives.

But let me tell you about Jesus’s side, what we call the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it is harder to see, because the works of this kingdom don’t often make the news. This kingdom tells us that all people, regardless of country of origin, skin color, orientation, gender, economic status, ability or disability is a beloved child of God created beautiful and worthy of being treated with dignity and love. The kingdom of God is for righting the wrong, freeing the oppressed, healing bodies and relationships, feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, resurrecting what has become dead, and losing our lives for the sake of others.

This kind of thing doesn’t get a lot of press. But this is the side Jesus calls us to mobilize for.
Hamilton, as in-your-face and brash as he was, and as much as I don’t like him because of it, was actually right. In the musical, he confronts his friend Aaron Burr with words that still ring true: “The revolution’s imminent. What do you stall for? If you stand for nothing, Burr, what’ll you fall for?”

Jesus tells his disciples – which includes us – that if they don’t stand for the kingdom, they will fall for the lies of the world. 

We have to pick a side. And the side we’re supposed to pick leads us down a road of misunderstanding at best, and outright hostility at worst. The world rejected Jesus when he picked God’s side. They even nailed him on a cross for the audacity of his choice.  How dare he choose love over family and country?

The world has much more power, more funding, more stealthy and crafty, has more support, and is better equipped and armed than we are. The odds seem overwhelming to little old US, when even Jesus did not escape their wrath?

The odds seem overwhelming, both then and now. How can we possibly have any chance of going up against all this? Do we have any chance at all?

When the movies we watch or the books we read are at their darkest, when it seems that there is no hope at all for the characters to get out of this mess, that they are going to give up and succumb to the darkness…. In the stories that we remember, at that moment, they are given just a little bit of hope.

In the Lord of the Rings, when Frodo and his friend Sam seem on the brink of being defeated by the evil that seeks them, Frodo is about to give up. But Sam says to him, “I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were…Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”

Frodo asked, “What are we holding on to?”

Sam responds, “That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”

Yeah, not this! 
In another part of the Return of the King, Aragorn sees the signal of his people that they are in trouble, and runs to his friend the king of Rohan, shouting “Gondor calls for aid!”

To which the king of Rohan responds: “and Rohan will answer.”

The good in this world, the kingdom of God, is worth fighting for. The world… NEEDS us. The downtrodden and disenfranchised call for aid… Jesus answers…..and so WE will answer.

Someday we hope that we will get the beat our swords to plowshares. Until then, we hold onto the cross, our weapon of love and hope and new life conquering death. Until that day, we fight and persist. Seminarian Lenny Duncan, a student that the Lutheran seminary in Philly, wrote this psalm:

Free us in mind, free us in Spirit.
Resurrect these bodies, resurrect this nation….
Your voice rises in my throat
Your justice is true
Your servant is ready
I will worship you until my legs give out
My lungs rise and fall one final time
I will stand on the watchtower until your kingdom come