Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Christmas Day - The Hero we need and deserve

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, born to us this day. Amen. 

The lights go down, the theater goes silent, and the black screen is suddenly ablaze with light. Across that screen, movie after movie about heroes and villains, epic battles, countless explosions, good guys saving the day when things looked at their darkest. And when it’s all over, and the good guys have won the day, the lights come up so we can safely be on our way without tripping. 

Light is such a wonderful thing. Our psyches crave light to keep our energy up, our bodies need light in order to stay healthy, and we need light to function in basic daily tasks, especially to do anything after dark, or even on a cloudy morning like this one. 

So for centuries we’ve sought to control light – first from fires, then making candles from animal fat, then later by oil burning lamps. Now, thanks to the wonders of electricity, light is at our command. WE can shine light on the darkness, by the flip of a switch, or even by an app on your phone.  

But there is still just something about light… a wonder that we can’t shake. We buy more lamps that we know what to do with. We decorate our homes and our Christmas trees in lights. We use light to celebrate birthdays on cakes and light up the night sky on the fourth of July. We turn off the lights on Christmas Eve, and sing Silent Night, as candles are slowly lit from one solitary flame, and the sanctuary grows brighter and brighter, like the coming dawn. 
But now it is daylight, the dawn has come, and we can see more clearly the humble surroundings of Jesus – the details of the damp feed trough he was in, the dark circles under Mary’s eyes after a long night without much sleep, the dirt that the shepherds tracked in, and the bloody towels in a heap in the corner. 

We see that the dawning of Christmas morning might reveal more than we want to see. With more light shining into the world, more things are revealed, and perhaps too some parts of Christmas we may not want to see that the darkness of last night hid. In the dark we could pretend that this year felt way too warm to be Christmas.  It’s easier to hide disappointment in the dark. The darkness more easily hides the a giant wrapping paper mess in the living room, and that half of the ornaments have fallen off the tree, and the cat just threw up two feet of half-chewed ribbon. 

The light can reveal that our holidays are more like “National Lampoons Christmas” than “Miracle on 34th Street.” 

In one of my favorite holiday movies “Little Women,” this difference between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day is also a stark one. This movie introduces us to the four March sisters, as they wait up late for their mother to get home from handing out Christmas baskets to needy families on Christmas Eve. Their father away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. After their mother arrives home, they read a letter just arrived from their father, and then sing a Christmas hymn together by candlelight and bid their mother good night, one by one. A true heartstring-tugging scene.  

But the next morning we see that these four girls and their mother, though living in a fine house, have fallen onto hard times. In the next days, as they weather out the bitterly cold New England winter – remember those? – The oldest sister, Meg, remarks that it just doesn’t seem like Christmas this year without presents.

Amy, the youngest, expresses that she is desperate for pencils to draw sketches with, and Jo wishes she didn’t have to work as the companion for her grumpy but well-off aunt March. They turn to their selfless sister Beth and ask her for her Christmas wish. 

“I’d like the war to end so Father can come home” Beth says.

And her sister Jo responds: “… we all want that.”

Yes, Jo. We all want that. We all want an end to violence and war and the darkness it brings.
Characters like these “little women” are no more than dancing light on the TV screen. But the movies we chose to watch shed light on the world as we would have it. Where Christmases are always merry and bright, even in hardship or catastrophe. Where the joy of the holiday always wins our over our family’s tendency to bicker, over our loneliness or grief, and over things that are beyond our control. 
Epic gods? Epic robots? Not quite sure... Just one example of the epic movies coming out

I think that that it’s no accident that the movie theaters now seems flooded with stories of heroes fighting epic battles against the forces of evil. We, like these fictional “little women,” are caught up and pushed around by forces we have no say in, and sometimes our loved ones are at its mercy. And we are the ones forced to pick up the pieces. 

We want to be saved from darkness in the world that still exists. We want a hero that will fight for us. We want a victorious warrior of the light that kicks butt and takes names. 

What the light of Christmas morning shows us is that God has a bright future in mind for this dark world, plans for a future with hope. But what we GET is not a savior who is might and fearsome warrior, but a savior who dwells with us, who pitches his tent among us, and moves into the neighborhood. 

What we GET is a savior who decides to have skin in the game. What we GET is a window into the very heart of God, with hands and feet and a face. Who was born into the world just as regular people are born, with blood and pain and drama. What we GET is not an unapproachable super hero we could never aspire to be, but instead a savior who looks just like us. 

In this way, in plain sight, God chose to reveal his glory. In this way, in plain sight, God has spoken to us by his son, In this way, in plain sight, light shines on a God who is near us and with us and for us. In this way, in plain sight, God offers the world an actual hand, reaching out to us in love– not a hand closed in anger or fear or carrying weapons of war. Instead, open and welcoming. Instead, the very reflection of God’s glory is a helpless infant. The mighty arm of God comes to us in the form of a chubby baby. The savior comes to us as God disarmed. 

The Prince of Peace has come, and right now he is being rocked to sleep by his mother. He came to dwell with us, not in palaces but in poverty. When he grew up, he did not resist violence with more violence, even when the powers that be threaten his life. He defeated the powers of sin and death, not through bombs and guns in fierce combat, but in the silence of an early morning and an empty tomb. 

And that doesn’t exactly make for a big box office hit. 

But, if the Christmas story is any indication, that’s not how God works, anyway. Not in big explosions or impressive battle scenes against a clearly marked bad guy dressed in black. Instead Christmas sheds light on the fact that God is at work in the ordinary moments, of births and booger-y babies and diaper changing. God is at work, not in heroes but in ordinary people, like shepherds and fishermen. God is at work in ordinary hearts, whether or not we are feeling particularly Christmas-y this year. Though the ordinary light of that first Christmas morning revealed an event that was anything but ordinary. 

When the rest of the world moves on from Christmas tomorrow, thinking that the bright and cheery Christmas movie is over, we know that today is only just the opening scene.  The floodgates of God’s light has been opened – the love that never ceases has come, the light that never grows dim or burns out is shining.

This light keeps shining, from that manger in Bethlehem to now. 

This light keeps shining, in every ordinary moment of love between people. 

This light keeps shining, even in the midst of evil and fear and hate and greed.

The light keeps shining, and darkness has not, cannot, and WILL NOT overcome it. AMEN. 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

God's Catchy Tune


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

Finally! We made it. We FINALLY get hear something that remotely resembles the familiar Christmas story.  After four longs weeks, we get Bethlehem. Mary. Babies. And we FINALLY get to bask in the gentle pre-Christmas glow of this visit between these two pregnant women, literally swelling with emotion, like a scene straight out of a musical. Mary, right on cue, even bursts into song.

But unfortunately we’ve come in part-way through a musical we all THINK we know by heart. We saw the title of this number, read the words, “Mary,” “Child,” “Womb,” “Mother,” and “Blessed,” and we just know we’re going to get a tear-jerking scene fit for the best of the Hallmark channel, or at least something set in soft light and nice music to gently usher us into Christmas.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but SPOILER ALERT! Forget the songs you’ve been singing along to on the radio - “Silent Night,” “O Christmas Tree,” and “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town”! Buckle up, buttercup, because we’re still in ADVENT, and the heavens are about to be shaken  (ADVENT 1), the ax is poised at the foot of the trees (ADVENT 3), and the mountains are a’coming down (ADVENT 2).

This song of Mary’s is not just a pretty song, it’s not just tender blessing that Elizabeth offers, and it’s not just cute baby bumps these women are sporting. This blessing is for a woman who should be ashamed. Those babies will grow up to change that world. And that song describes how God is going to change that world through reversals and revolution, through hormones and the Holy Spirit. In the ultimate SPOILER ALERT, this song gives a way God’s entire plot.

But first, we have to go back to the prequel, if you will, the start of Luke 1, to Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and her priest husband Zechariah, a good couple who tried and failed their entire lives to start a family. One day, though, as Zechariah was taking his turn doing priestly things in the temple…in the exact spot and to the exact type of person where you might exact God to show up… God does. An angel appears. Zechariah is terrified. The angel says, “Fear not….Elizabeth will have a son.” Zach asks for proof. And for that he is struck mute - very unfortunate thing in his profession. But the pregnancy the angel foretells does come to pass, and Elizabeth will be the mother of John the Baptist, who will announce the coming of the Lord by baptizing people out in the wilderness.

Anyway, fast forward 6 months. A poor young girl, probably her early teens, living in a town in the middle of nowhere, Hicks-ville. It was the LAST spot and the LAST person we might expect God to make things happen… and yet, God does. An angel appears. Mary is terrified. The angel says “Fear not…. You will have a son.” Mary is confused, but believes. And she is given proof – her older relative Elizabeth is pregnant.

Which is where we find Mary today, entering the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth - these two pregnant prophets, wondering what in the world God is up to in their lives. These are smart women; they know how the world works. Mary questions the angel, perhaps from knowing that such a “sign of God’s favor” as a fatherless pregnancy will cause her to become an embarrassment to her family and to her fiancĂ© Joseph. That this would likely be a stigma that would follow her and her son for their whole lives.  That for HER - an impoverished unwed teenage mother from the wrong side of the tracks - to be chosen to bear the Son of the Most High doesn’t makes sense.

Mary knows very well the song that the world would rather sing: The powerful rule from their thrones of influence and wealth. The full get more and the hungry get less. Might makes right; and more guns means more safety. Mercy is for the weak, and blessings are for the famous and successful. THIS is the song that makes sense to our world.  This is the song that we hear sung to us ALL. THE. TIME, the moment we enter a mall or turn on the TV.

And yet, here Mary is, radially trusting God’s promise that don’t make sense. Here she is, singing away in her praise to God. Singing even though she is thrust into the epic struggle between good and evil.  But she knows how the story ends. Spoiler alert –Good wins. GOD wins.
No spoilers of the new one!

This very weekend millions of people – including myself - will see a film that continues a story that began with a poor young man from a planet in the sticks who is DESTINED to bring down an empire that spans an ENTIRE GALAXY. This young man is quite literally catapulted from the quiet existence he had always known into the middle of an epic struggle between the powers of good and evil. And he does this as a follower of the Force - which embraces the way KNOWLEDGE, PEACE, and NON-VIOLENCE. Sound familiar?

"I will not fight."
In the end, the mighty Galactic Empire is toppled, not by brute force or superior firepower, but by the weak rising up over the strong. By the triumph of teamwork and friendship over power and intimidation. By Luke Skywalker laying down his weapon in the final fight with infamous Darth Vader, and vowing not to fight anymore.  By instead singing a different kind of song altogether.

The first chords of this song were heard at the creation of the world, and variations have been heard echoing in the ears of God’s people ever since. A song that Mary gives words to, words that set the stage for the ministry of the child who is growing in her womb, “a long time ago in a Galilee far, far away.”

This is a song that is picked up by Zechariah when he is finally able to speak, and then by the heavenly host that announces the good news of Jesus’s birth to an unsuspecting audience of shepherds. A song that grows and takes shape over the course of Jesus’ life, in his preferential treatment to those considered weak and lowly by those strong and in power. A song that crescendos on a Friday in the presence of cross, then holds its breath in pregnant anticipation in a long, three-day silent pause.

A pause that was ended by the deafening crash of a sealed tomb bursting open.
*the entire alto section really did get totally lost once...

This song still persists, even now, in this musical number with no beginning and no end, and no spectators. That’s right, this is a musical like the annual Princeton Chapel Messiah Sing-A-Long, where the audience members ARE the participants. This is God’s song, and no one is left sitting on the bench, and if the entire Alto section gets lost,* oh well, you just keep going and find your way back into the song when you can.

Because we will get lost and lose track of the song; we will find it difficult to hear it over the other songs clamoring for our attention. Because we will find ourselves starting instead to sing along with the songs that the rest of the world would have us sing. Especially when we are feeling powerless, that life is out of our control.  Especially now at this time of year, in the busy-ness, stress, and the emotions that come with the holiday season. Especially now, with so much in the news that would give us cause for fear and worry. So at these times, we ask ourselves, “Which song am I singing along to right now?”

Am I singing along with the dominant culture to the tune of fear, hate, and scarcity?

Or am I singing along with Mary? Do we dare sing with her about how God has blessed the lowly and powerless, about how God has and will continue to bring down the mighty, and fill the hungry? About how God has done and will continue to do great things for us and through us?

We do. We do dare join in to this grand participatory musical, where all our different voices and roles have a part and a place. We dare, along with Mary, in our different ways, in sharing the good news in the ordinary moments and rejoicing with every fiber of our being in our God who has looked on us with favor. We dare, and we do so together, with Jesus to lead us. So let’s practice doing just that. Let’s practice making Mary’s words our words too, so we can take the song God is singing in our hearts to a world that is dying to hear it. Amen.  

(And for the hymn of the day we sang a version of the Magnificat) 

Thursday, December 3, 2015



(Do be done in the local mall of your choice with teams of 4-5 with one adult)


Stay Together!
Be respectful! Be creative!
Include everyone!
No running! Have fun!

TAKE A SELFIE WITH or DOING the following:

biggest item/signs you can find that says “JOY,” “PEACE,” “HOPE,” or “LOVE”

A big star and pretend to be the wise men/people following it

The most unusual animal you can think of to be in a nativity scene (panda, elephant…etc)

Ugliest holiday sweater you can find

Corniest Christmas card with you and your teammates reading it with very serious faces.

Symbols of other December Holidays (menorah, kwanza candles…) Hanukkah begins Dec. 6!

Your team meditating on the meaning of Advent in front of TEAVANNA

Stand under a lamp or bright light - “A light shines in the darkness…” (John 1:1)

Act perplexed like Mary was in front of Motherhood Maternity - “How can this be?”(Luke 1:29)

All of you pretending to be the “angels we have heard on high” while riding the down escalator

Non-Caucasian (non-white) Nativity scene/set

Look for the coming of Jesus underneath the “WATCH” sign

A sign that says “Believe” and your team making crosses with your hands/arms

A Christmas tree the color of the Advent season (hint – you were asked to wear it today!)

A Christmas tree the color of the Christmas season (hint – it’s not red or green. Extra hint – it’s the same color as the season of Easter)

A toy road and car set or a train set - “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4)

“Swaddle” one of your teammates in your hats/ scarves/gloves/coats like Jesus was (Luke 2:12)

Under a large potted plant, one of you is a shepherd caring for the rest of your team as sheep

Magnifying glass – Mary sang that begins “My soul magnifies the Lord!” (Luke 1:46)

Pretend to “make haste” (run in place) like the shepherds to see Jesus, the savior and Lord by the LORD & TAYLOR sign

Act sleepy by Starbucks ‘cuz Joseph was told about Jesus in a dream, and we are to stay awake for when Jesus shows up!

A (fake) fur coat and your best “John the Baptist” preaching poses

Next to a tent – Jesus “pitched his tent” (dwelled) among us (John 1:14)

Holding a baby doll, hold your nose & remember that baby Jesus filled his diaper too!

Treasure chest – Mary treasured all these events in her heart (Luke 2:19)

Make some peace signs in front of Justice to remember that Jesus came to bring peace and justice to the world

A crown – Jesus is our “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6) (BONUS if you are FROM Prince of Peace Lutheran!)

Shoes the color of Advent because Jesus will “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Lk. 1:79)

Bread, since Bethlehem means “house of bread”

Sparkly ring, since Mary and Joseph were engaged (but not married) (Luke 2:5)

With “wise man” Yoda

Key chains with names from the Christmas stories – Mary, Joseph, John (the Baptist), John’s parents Elizabeth & Zach (Zechariah), Harry (King Herod), Maggie (for the Magi), David (city of), Angela (for the heavenly host), Luke and Matthew (Gospels that tell the Christmas story as we know it)

a JESUS name tag or Key chain

Monday, November 30, 2015

"Jesus is coming... Look up!"

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

Nothing gets us in the “Christmas spirit” like talking about the end of the world.

Every once in a while, I notice a car (normally the one I happen to be behind going 5 under the speed limit) that has a bumper sticker that says, “Jesus is coming – look busy.” I’m not sure how exactly I’m supposed to be “looking busy” at least while I’m driving. Definitely not by texting, that’s for sure. I wonder if this means we should have some “holy busy work” at the ready. That way, when Jesus arrives, like an absentee boss, he won’t think we’re a bunch of slackers.

Were you ready for Jesus the last time he was supposed to come? Three years ago, when we last heard these words in the lectionary cycle, it was December 2012 - the month the world was actually supposed to end, according to some. It didn’t – at least not that I noticed.

While the end of the world failed to happen on a global scale, the end of the world did happen in December 2012, for the parents of children who attended Sandy Hook Elementary. For that community, what they had previously believed about the safety of their loved ones was shaken and came crashing down around them, as the rest of the nation watched with alarm and grief.

And here we are, three years later, with Jesus yet again seeming to be quoting right out of the news. There is plenty for the nations of the world to be in distress about right now, plenty of confusion, chaos, and fear: Paris, refugees from Syria, ISIS, tension between countries and races, airplanes being shot at, people being shot at… just to name a few of the events in the recent news.  So much pain, so much fear, so much suffering has happened just the last few weeks.

So much so, it might cause us to question whether or not these are the very signs Jesus was talking about. Should we be getting ready for the end? Should we “look busy”? Or should we duck and cover? Perhaps keeping our heads down and stockpiling things for “just in case” might be a better way to get ready than “looking busy,” at least by how Jesus describes the end.

Which leads us to wonder in the meantime, whether the end comes and Jesus returns, in the midst of all hell breaking loose right now, we wonder, where is God?

In the midst of all this, in the middle of the meantime, a voice speaks. A voice with a word of hope. This voice, echoing down through all the turbulent eras of the world, is a voice that tells us that this is not how things are always going to be. Another kind of future is on our way to us – not our future, but God’s future, where we will live not as part of the kingdoms of this earth, but as part of God’s kingdom. Another kind of future has always been and is already breaking in.

During another time of great upheaval in human history, the prophet Jeremiah shared this word to a broken people. The people of Israel were conquered by a foreign nation and forcibly became refugees in a strange land. Defeated, defenseless, and dejected, they might have given up on God and given in to their fear. Would they continue to believe that God would still be present in the chaos? Would God be faithful to the promises God made to their ancestors? How long would they have to wait for this coming day that Jeremiah describes?

Some things never change, I guess. We fast forward to the first followers of Jesus hearing these words written by Luke. When Luke was writing, Jerusalem had yet again been destroyed, this time by the Romans. The temple was gone, the city devastated, countless people were dead, and their world was unrecognizable. As if the sun had stopped shining and the stars had fallen out of the sky. 

Which left the early followers of Jesus wondering, can God still show up, even after all this? Is God’s kingdom still near, will God be able to break in to all the darkness that surrounds them?

If this is the kind of thing that Jesus isn’t going to save us from, it’s no wonder we could rather not hear it, and instead skip over Advent completely, and get right to Christmas carols and peppermint lattes. Especially when the things we hear in church on this first Sunday in Advent has nothing to do with Mary, Joseph, angels or birth announcements, or baby Jesus anyway. It seems like WE are the ones who have skipped over the Christmas story entirely, and jumped right ahead to what sounds like the end of the world.

But I will let you in on a little secret. In Advent, time refuses to behave properly. From the past we find hope for the future, and the future becomes the “now.”

During the season of Advent, Jesus comes to us as a baby and as a grown man. He is on a cross and he is raised. He came, he is here, and he will come again, but we don’t know just when and how until he shows up. Maybe tomorrow, two years, or two thousand years from now. And at the same time, Jesus shows up all the time. His kingdom will come, and at the same time his kingdom IS ALREADY HERE among us.

From Jeremiah to Jerusalem to Jersey, God has given God’s people a head’s up, to lift our heads and look up, that from the dead stump of tragedy, a branch is going to spring up, to show us that despite all the chaos and the fear and the pain, God is still going to SHOW UP. Even when all hell breaks loose. While the rest of the world is telling us to duck and cover, or look busy, Jesus says to stand up and look. Because otherwise we might miss where Jesus and the kingdom are breaking into our world RIGHT NOW.  Look up, your redemption is drawing near.

In these dark days of violence and fear, this is where I have seen the kingdom coming near to us:  In two teenage Syrian refugees who are helping the homeless in Seattle. In my friend and other white allies who are keeping the vigil for justice with Black Lives Matter movement in Minneapolis.  In this past month, the Rescue mission of Trenton made it into the Guinness World Record for most clothing donated to people in need. On Tuesday night our youth served a thanksgiving meal at Hightstown Methodist for those who needed a hot meal. In our own generosity in Christmas gifts for kids through RISE and the Tree of Hope for Hightstown Head start, and in our financial support of the ministries of the greater church and the ELCA.

And in most unlikely places, even in the full-on advent of the Christmas shopping season, there is plenty of opportunities to witness the kingdom come. We can continue to be grateful for what we have, beyond just sharing what we are thankful for around the table last Thursday. We can remember the humanity in a cashier who had to work all weekend. We can make choices in our purchases that honors the work and gives the worker a far wage. Your family might even choose to forgo the gift-go-round all together and instead opt for giving to your favorite charity. I might even choose to be courteous of the slow car ahead of me, even if they have that bumper sticker that says “Jesus is coming, look busy!” All these things, and more, are signs of the kingdom of God arriving, even in all the Christmas frenzy. Imagine that.

I’m going to let you in on another secret, one that is perhaps not so secret. Every Sunday when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are looking toward a time where God’s justice and mercy will reign supreme. When there is no more racism, sexism, classism of any kind, where fear and war and violence and greed and death no longer rule us. And every time we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we are allowing ourselves to be open to being part of that coming. And not just by “looking busy,” but by being busy bringing in God’s kingdom.

Until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, and Jesus does come riding in on the clouds, we wait and we hope and we be God’s lights shining in a very dark world. We don’t know what the world will bring to us around the next corner or in the next news cycle. But we can keep our heads up knowing God is going to show up. Jesus is coming… so look up! Your redemption is near. AMEN. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

All Saints Sermon - Out of the Tomb

All Saints, Nov. 1st, 2015

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

Two weeks ago, on our way to the cheese factory to stock up on cheese curds, my sister, my mom, and I first made a stop at the cemetery.  My grandpa - my dad’s dad, who died two years ago last September – is buried there next to the church I grew up in, and I go “visit” him and Grandma in there every time I’m in Wisconsin.

Myron Wittmann, saint

In the very same cemetery is the grave of the father of a friend and pastor here in New Jersey. And that very day we went to the cemetery, my friend’s wife texted to ask if I would go to his father’s grave too. I let her know I found his headstone, and she replied that the thought of me being meant a great deal to them.

Just a few days before that, on a clear and sunny 48 degree day, my brother and his now wife said their vows in that very same church. They made their marriage promise surrounded by those of us present, and also surrounded by the cloud of witnesses of family members who have died, including my grandma and grandpa, buried just yards away.

Loma Jean and Raymond Posselt, saints
Some of the stones in the cemetery, like my friends’ father and my grandpa’s, are fairly recent additions, with fresh stones and fresh grief. Others were buried so long ago the headstones are leaning and the writing unreadable. Regardless, these stones stand as reminders to what we have lost. They stand to mark the place where the earth swallowed up Grandpa, and we would see him no more. They stand as witness to our grief which also swallows us whole.
Raymond Posselt, saint

When you last heard many of today’s texts, you might have been in grief’s grip as you and your family stood graveside. Perhaps you still have yet to emerge from under that grief’s heavy shroud. For many of us, we wonder, along with Mary and Martha, where Jesus is when our loved ones have died and all we are able do is sit at the tomb and weep.

This episode in the Gospel of John began with Mary and Martha sending word to their dear friend Jesus that their brother Lazarus is ill. They assume, as we all would, that being friends with Jesus might also come with the “benefits” of miraculous healing. So they must have expected him to show up in a hurry. 

But by the time Jesus arrives, he was four days late for the funeral. Mary and Martha are still grieving, and surrounded by supporters When they hear that Jesus has arrived into town, Martha got up and met him, while Mary stayed behind.

The very first words out of her mouth were “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And later, when Mary confronts Jesus, she echoes Martha, and doesn’t even know it – “Lord, if you had been here, our brother would not have died.”
“Lord, if you had been there…”

We can all join in with Mary and Martha here, and ask where Jesus was… when the chemo stopped working, or when your parents got divorced, when your spouse lost their job, when your son became addicted to drugs or any number of things that happen to us. Lord, where were you when we were swallowed up by grief, loneliness, anxiety, depression, or regret? Lord, where are you, it’s been four day… four weeks… four years… four decades….?

Well, Jesus finally DID show up for Martha and Mary. And when leveled with this hurtful accusation, Jesus did not try to ignore their hurt feelings, make excuses for his delay, or leave in a huff, blaming their lack of faith.

Instead, Jesus wept.

Not just a couple of tears, hurriedly and discreetly dabbed away. This was some full-on sobbing – the completely consuming, can’t breathe, knocking you to the floor, eyes streaming, entire tissue box necessary type of crying. The type of crying when the grief is so immediate, so raw, so painful that it simply has to get out, no matter who is around or what people might think.

And this was JESUS… doing…the crying. In public. In front of Mary and Martha and all the others who were present.

Which made them all wonder – if Jesus cared about Lazarus so much, WHY the DELAY? What about the OTHER healings? Why did Jesus goof up Lazarus?

But, ignoring all that, Jesus, still full of emotion and grief, goes to the tomb where Lazarus lay. No to mourn and grieve, but instead to confront death head-on. And we know what happened next. Jesus – 1, Death - 0

This would not be the last time that Jesus and Death go toe-to-toe. In fact, in John, the raising of Lazarus is the last straw and sets into motion the events that lead to Jesus’ own death: his arrest, trial, suffering, his crucifixion, and burial in a borrowed tomb.

It seemed to everyone present that even Jesus could not escape being swallowed up by death. And a stone was rolled into place as a reminder and witness. Those who sealed Jesus’ tomb may have remembered Lazarus, and perhaps thought to themselves, “Maybe the one raised that Lazarus guy could have kept HIMSELF from dying. But I guess not.” Point, set, match. Death wins.

Three days later, another Mary came to his tomb to mourn. But she found there a surprise waiting for her: a tomb without a stone and a grave without a body. Death, so used to swallowing up people, had instead found itself swallowed up by Jesus, just as Isaiah said– he will destroy the shroud over all the peoples, and the sheet over all the nations, and he will even swallow up death forever. The way things were has been turned upside down. All things are being made new.

Like with his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, Jesus does not stand by to watch our grief from a distance. Jesus, the one who cried, is the one who wipes away our tears. Jesus, the one who died, is the one who removes the bitterness of death to instead promise us a rich feast and an end to separation, grief, and pain.

Jesus, the one who rose, knows what the inside of a tomb looks like. He knows what it like to be inside whatever kind of tomb we may find ourselves in, swallowed up by death, grief, illness, and suffering.

But Jesus is also outside the tomb, ordering the removal of the stone, and calling us by name to “Come out!”

This is what it means to be called a saint on this day, All Saints Sunday. To be a saint is to be called out of death to be part of God’s abundant life, right here and right now. To be a saint means being surrounded by the great crowd of the faithful who have gone before us into the glorious feast that God promises us.

To be a saint does NOT mean being extra holy, or pure, or having an immaculate life. There is nothing we can do to earn our way into sainthood. Rather, being a saint means living and trusting this notion that God loves us like crazy, and would even swallow up death for us so that we might have life. Living this way might leave us a bit dinged up from time to time, left over from our stints in the tomb. But that never stops Jesus from calling our name, to get out of the tomb and to follow him on the way.

Being a saint also means joining Jesus at the promised banquet with Grandma and Grandpa, those who have died in the last year, Lazarus, Mary and Martha… but also with other flawed, imperfect, and perhaps “unacceptable” people that didn’t expect to be there, with their own cracks and scars and tales of tombs to share. And who knows, they might be just as surprised to see US there, too.

But before we get there, between now and then, Jesus continues to show up, wipe tears from our faces, and call us forth from our tombs. And we continue to remember the saints who are no longer with us, who have gone ahead of us. And we remember that the title of saint is a gift, to all who have been in one kind of tomb or another, to all who cling to Jesus as he calls us forth into life and makes all things new. AMEN.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Blind Bartimeaus

Social Media Sunday 2015 Resources!

Websites and Blogs to check out:

Enter The Bible
Internet Monk
Rachel Held Evans
Nadia Bolz-Weber
Faith and Leadership
Common Prayer: a liturgy for ordinary radicals

Podcasts to listen to:

Krista Tippett, "On Being" Radio Broadcasts from 2015

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber on NPR's "Fresh Air"

Rob Bell, Pastor and author

Videos to watch:

ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit (Speakers, music, etc)

ELCA Discussion on Confronting Racism

"Super Soul Sunday" With Oprah: Barbara Brown Taylor

TED Talk; Brene Brown

Packing Light for Your Journey

Sermon 10-11-2015

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

When was the last time you took a trip? Think for a moment about what you usually pack.
Is there something that you usually pack too much of?  Shoes, clothes, maps, electronics?
So, confession time. I tend to pack way to many books. For example, in preparing to travel to be with my family in Wisconsin to celebrate my brother’s wedding, this is what I’m thinking about bringing with me.

Rising Strong…. I can’t put it down, so good, but I’m almost finished….

Accidental Saints… Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s newest book, can’t wait to start it.

Jane Eyre – rereading this old favorite

Texts from Jane Eyre… when I want something a little lighter than 18th century romance on the gloomy English moors…

Complete Psalms – modern translation, try to read a psalm every night…


A book on writing that my friend recommended to me…

A novel that Karen Repka lent to me that I haven’t started…

Seriously these are all books that I have sitting next to my bed. Because I never REALLY know EXACTLY what mood I will be in and what book that will require.  And though I probably won’t bring ALL of these with me, I will still probably pack MORE than I need, and will end up regretting it when I am dragging my luggage across country.

Speaking of luggage, when I was a camp counselor back in Wisconsin, we had to pack everything we needed for an entire summer and make it easy to take to a different cabin every week.

Some of these campers we had, though, in packing for one week rivaled what we counselors brought for the entire summer. Curling irons, , hair dryers, running shoes, baseball cards, sugary snacks, both girls AND boys were sometimes guilty of this …and I can’t even imagine what camp counselors of today have to deal with - iPhones, iPads, tablets, and all kinds of electronics.

I think we might be surprised at how few things we need when we are focused on what is right in front of us – making new friends at camp, or spending time with family, noticing what’s happening on this journey we call life, rather than worrying about what to pack in order to be ready for whatever might be around the corner.

Jesus was setting out in a journey. Maybe he was in the middle of packing, though I can imagine that Jesus probably packed pretty light. Perhaps he was just stepping out the door of the house he was staying, or had just left the city limits. In any case, he was not long on his trip when a man runs up to stop him. And the last thing Jesus must have wanted was to deal with more questions.  

In a graphic novel version of the Gospel of Mark, the rich man is actually carrying everything he owns on his back – toasters, bowling balls, golf clubs, a swimming pool, a couch, flat screen TVs, signs of the “good life.” As he talks to Jesus, he is literally sinking into the sand under the weight of all his stuff while he asks Jesus his burning question

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What an odd question. That’s like me asking my parents, what must I do in order to be your daughter? Or my cats, if they could talk, asking me what must we do in order to belong to you? Or perhaps like Syrian refugees might say to all the countries that refuse to give them asylum: what must we do in order to be treated like human beings?

These refugees shouldn’t have to ask this question. They already are human beings and deserve to being treated as such. My cats already belong to me. I am my parents’ daughter.
What do you do to earn an inheritance? What an odd question. Because the answer is simple: nothing. YOU YOURSELF do absolutely nothing to receive any kind of inheritance that you have coming to you. The only criteria is that you are yourself, the receiver, the child to whom your benefactor is leaving their legacy.

So what then, can we do to inherit eternal life? It is to be who you are. It is to be a child of God.

THIS is the inheritance that we all have received at our baptisms, as we were washed with water and with promises from God. At that moment, we were claimed as God’s own beloved children and received God’s mark as belonging to God forever. And nothing can ever change that, not success or failure, not perfection or mistakes, not wealth or poverty or anywhere in between.

But BEING a child of God also means we pack for this journey we call life in a particular way, and we travel together on this road in a particular way.  

We, as beloved children of God, are called to follow Jesus, and as we have heard in the last few weeks, this call to discipleship really hard. Following Jesus means that we take up our cross. Following Jesus means that whoever will be first must be last. Following Jesus means welcoming the vulnerable and undesirable among us. And sometimes, following Jesus means letting go of what causes us to sink.

This is not what the rest of the world wants us to do AT ALL. According to this country and this culture – the more you earn and the more you can buy, the more you are worth. And the more stuff we have, the more prepared we feel we are for whatever this scary world throws our way. “I need this, and this, and this, just in case.” Those most prepared, with the most stuff, are admired and revered. And that means we need to get more stuff. And this is how our possessions come to possess US.

We try to buy our way out of our fear of the unknown.  It is must easier to calm our anxiety with a few more things than it is to trust in a vague eternal something that can’t be bought or earned. It is much easier to try to fill the empty void in our hearts with stuff than it is to put our trust in a man who the world never understood.

In the world’s eye, this Jesus was a loser – hung out with working class guys, never owned a house, or much of anything for that matter. No clothing lines or fancy buildings were named after him. He was a poor peasant from the wrong side of the tracks who DIDN’T “pull himself up by his own bootstraps,” get rich, and write a book. He died at the hands of his enemies without fighting back, leaving no earthly possessions, and left his disciples – who abandoned him - with no legacy to speak of.  

No legacy to speak of, that is, except the promise that eternal life is ours. And the promise that Jesus will be with us to lead us there. Even if we are still possessed by our possessions. Even if it’s like getting a camel through the eye of a needle.

Does this seem impossible? Perhaps. But God has never let the impossible stand in the way before. The losers of this world are actually winners in God’s kingdom? Impossible. The poorest and the least served first at the heavenly banquet? Impossible! The refugee and the stranger given premier status? Impossible. Giving up everything which results in receiving even more? Impossible! Death? Defeated? Impossible. Eternal life is really ours? Impossible!

For us, if we were to try to do all this on our own, it WOULD be impossible. But we were created by a God who laughs at impossible things. A God who welcomes rich people into heaven but gives poor people a place of honor. A God who gives the powerful a place, but not the place of honor. A God who demands everything of us while at the same time freely gives us everything. For us, this would indeed be impossible. But for God, the possibilities are endless. AMEN.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Peter and the Messy Middle

Sermon from 9-13-15

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

I really enjoyed seeing all the “first day of school” pictures on Facebook! Everyone dressed in their brand new clothes with their new backpacks filled with fresh notebooks, pens, pencils, and crayons. Just a few weeks ago, stores were filled with sales of schools supplies and full to the brim with all the college dorm essentials. Futons, pillows, lamps, crates, mirrors, rugs, bean bag chairs, matching sheet sets, everything you see in the “perfect dorm room” pictures can be yours at your local Target!
Not real life, so much.
But in a few weeks, those clothes won’t be so new, the crayons might be broken, the pens leaking, the notebooks lost or chewed by the dog, the futon legs snapped, the rugs get dirty, and no one but you really cares about the cool design on your duvet. (That’s the fancy Target word for comforter.) In the meantime, real life happens.

Often we begin each fall like a second New Year. There are new classes and schools to attend, new initiatives at work, new routines at home. We try to put our best foot forward, strategizing for how to be a better student, better parent or grandparent, a better teacher, a better leader and role model at work and at home. We have the best plans and make the best preparations…

… And we usually end up falling flat on our faces.

… Like Peter.

Though we are at the very beginning of the academic and program year, in this morning’s gospel we find ourselves in the very middle of things. The disciples have been following Jesus around for about half of the book of Mark by now. They’ve seen Jesus heal people, walk on water, and feed thousands. They’ve heard him preach the good news and tell stories about the Kingdom of God. They’ve seen him defy the religious authorities and risk everything to share the good news. And now we’re halfway through the Gospel of Mark, halfway through Discipleship 101 if you will, and Jesus decided to check their progress with a little surprise midterm exam. “After I’ve done all this,” Jesus asks them, “who do other people say that I am?”

To this, some of them respond with “option A,” a return of John the Baptist, who had at this point been beheaded by Herod for his subversive preaching. Other disciples go with option B - Elijah, considered by many the greatest prophet. And still others respond with option C, always a safe bet, one of the other prophets, which, you know, covers the rest of the bases.

Ok, so Jesus started out with an easy one. It was basically an opinion poll. Now it’s time for Jesus to see how much the disciples have been paying attention in the last eight chapters. Time for the second, and most important question: “But who do YOU say that I am?”

Which option will they pick? Option A, John the Baptist? B, Elijah, or C, one of the prophets?
It is Peter, oh our favorite disciple Peter, who is somehow able to see right through Jesus’s little quiz. Peter goes right for option D, hidden in plain sight for this entire gospel.

“You … you are the Messiah!” Peter answers.

Ding ding! We have a winner! Confetti! Balloons! That’s right, Jesus IS the messiah! The one to save Israel! The one who has been foretold! Way to go Peter!

And then… Oh Peter. Peter, Peter, Peter. You couldn’t stop there, could you? Perhaps inflated with actually getting something right, Peter then proceeds to tell Jesus HOW to be the Messiah.

“Now look here, Jesus. You are the Messiah, and that has nothing to do with all that other stuff you just told us. There will be none of that SUFFERING stuff, none of that REJECTION stuff, and ESPECIALLY none of that DYING stuff! Haven’t you read the scriptures, Jesus? The Messiah is supposed to ride into town on a big white horse and show these Romans who’s boss! No, no, Jesus. You’ve got this Messiah thing all wrong.”

To which Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan.”


We tend to be so hard on poor Peter, but we’ve all been there too, wanting to choose the cleaned-up version of Jesus. “Surely Jesus did not REALLY mean for us to welcome those people.” “Surely Jesus doesn’t REALLY mean for us to take up AN ACTUAL cross.” “Surely Jesus doesn’t REALLY mean for us to LOSE OUR LIVES for him, like actually die, right?” Right????

We tend to be so hard on poor Peter, probably because Peter is us. We would all prefer to live at the beginning of the story where everything is still shiny and new; or to skip all the way to the end, where everything is nicely wrapped up.

But we don’t live our daily lives there, at the beginning or at the end of the story. We live in the middle.  And the middle is messy. And what totally stinks is that there is no way to skip it or fast forward ourselves through it. (See Brene Brown's new book Rising Strong).

The middle is the dark place where you don’t know what’s going on, and nothing makes sense, and no matter how hard you try you can’t seem to make any headway. All your excellent preparations and your good intentions don’t count for anything, and honestly you have no idea if this whole mess is going to turn out OK or not, and it feels like you must be the only one stuck down here, face down in the dust.

But you’re not alone down there. The mess in the middle is exactly where Jesus chooses to be.

The good news is that to be a follower of Jesus, we don’t have to have it “all together.” We don’t have to wait until we’ve picked ourselves up after a fall. We don’t have to wait until our schedules get less crazy. We don’t have to wait until our lives look more like the perfect dorm room in the Target catalog.

 But the flip side is that following Jesus is not a path OUT of the messy middle, either, like Peter thought. Peter saw Jesus as a ticket OUT of oppression and right INTO the seat of power for some payback. But that is not the road that Jesus walks, and it is not the road that Jesus calls us to. The road that Jesus calls us to is one he himself followed to it’s very end: the road of self-denial for the sake of others, the road of losing oneself for another’s gain, the road that looks to the world like a road of shame and weakness, everything we all would much rather avoid. A road that leads to a cross.

Following Jesus may lead us directly through the valley of the shadow of death, but in truth, we could not have a better guide than the one who has walked this road BEFORE us, and who continues to walk this road WITH us. Even when, ESPECIALLY WHEN we fall flat on our faces.

Peter took a chance, opened his big mouth, and had a big fat fail. For every step forward on this road, he seems to take a step backward. And Jesus had to know that this would not be the last time that Peter, and the rest of the disciples, would fail Jesus, big time. But still, Jesus does not reject Peter. In fact, when Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan,” he’s telling Peter – not to leave - but to get behind him IN ORDER TO BETTER FOLLOW HIM. Get back in the line, Peter. You can’t follow someone if you are not letting them actually lead.

If we say we follow Jesus, if we, along with Peter, say that Jesus is the Messiah, Lord, and Savior - are we really ready to let Jesus do his job?

Because if we are, we better buckle up because this road is going to be anything but boring. You may lose the world but you will gain your life. You may win a cross but death will lose its sting. You may lose your life but you but Jesus has won the victory over the grave.

So let’s get ready… to fall flat on our faces. Who’s with me? Can I get an AMEN?