Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Fox and the Hen

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

My friend from college has a parrot whose favorite phrase is “Where’re Daddy?”

I often talk to my friend on Skype, and in the background I hear her two parrots chattering away. On the nights that her husband, also a Lutheran pastor, is away at a church meeting, one of her parrots – Checkers is his name - will ask “Where’s daddy?” Over. And. Over again.

“Where’s Daddy?” “Daddy’s not HERE!” My friend will inform Checkers.

“Where’s Daddy?” “Daddy’s at a MEETING!"

“Where’s Daddy?” “Diving.” 

 “Where’s Daddy?” “Still not here… seriously, stop asking!” (That one never works).

Checkers wants his daddy. My friend wants some peace and quiet. Both my friend and I want the internet connection to stay strong so that we share with each other how our days went. We often go through our days in a state of want, longing or desiring something we don’t have or isn’t there. Sometimes they are little things, like wanting your parrot to be quit for five minutes. But sometimes we long for things that are bigger than the names that we have for them – love, belonging, safety, community. Things that will make us feel whole, wanted, and at peace. 

Last week, on the first Sunday in Lent, we learned what Jesus didn’t want in the wilderness. This week, the second Sunday of Lent, we fast forward to Jesus setting his feet and his determination toward Jerusalem and the completion of his ministry - one step closer to the hour of his death.

But that hour has not arrived for Jesus yet. Before THAT hour occurs, at THIS very hour on THIS particular Sunday, listening to THESE particular words of Jesus, causes us to reflect on these three questions: What does the world desire for us? What do we desire for our own selves? And what does God desire for us?

Herod, bad ruler in a long line of bad rulers, wants to kill Jesus. Off him, shut him up, like he did to John the Baptist, who boldly criticized the selfish and brutal behavior of this autocrat, and paid for it with his life. Why did Herod want get rid of Jesus? Like John, Jesus ruffled too many feathers.

By now in Jesus’ ministry, he has gone through “one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem” (Luke 13: 22) causing all kinds of trouble. He’s been healing on the Sabbath. He’s been casing out demons. He has fed over five thousand people. He has been hanging out with sinful people, scandalous women, and teaching things like “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.”

And in the eyes of Herod, the world, the media, the powers that be, this kind of message cannot be tolerated. Instead, the world wants you to follow their plan for your life. What does the world desire for you? To believe that we aren’t enough. To be consumed with the desire for endless consumption, to be driven by success, the desire to control, or our own sense of importance in all our busy-ness. To endlessly chase after love, friends, power, influence, conforming, success, wealth. To say who’s in and who’s out.

Slyly and sneakily, we are being manipulated to want all this, in every image we see, movie we watch, store we visit, song we hear, but under the surface. Want this, we hear in our ears. Need that. Get this, and you will be whole.

We, like scared, lost chicks, play right into the schemes of the world. Because, what is it that WE want? The answer is pretty simple, really. We want to be loved, to belong, and to have control over our own destiny. We want to choose and be chosen. To be part of a flock, but with just a little say in ruling the roost. Is that really too much to ask?

But what does God want for us, who are God’s children? What does the one who created us, desire for us?

The answer can be found in the face of a man who lived in Galilee.  That man, Jesus, was sent by God to teach, feed, heal, and love people, and to not stop even when his life was threatened. As Julian of Norwich wrote in her prayer which you can find on the back of today’s psalm sheet, in Jesus we have a mother and brother and savior, who is the source of our restoring and our saving.  

Jesus, as the face of the love God has for us, longs to comfort those who cast him out. He longs to reach out to those who reject him.  He longs to embrace those who abandon him. He longs to gather the most stubborn of us underneath the outstretched protection of his wings, like a mother hen. He longs for us to return God, the source that gave us life. And he spread his arms in order to gather us, ALL of us - spreads his wings so far out to receive us - so wide, as wide the horizontal beam of a cross.

And so we are caught between the fox and the hen. The fox – the messages of the world that equate strength with power and control. And the hen – who would lay down her life to protect her children. Who would you bet on in a fight? The fox of course has so much more at his disposal. Who are we to stand against him and his sly ways?

If you believed the fox, you would have no idea that women, for example, are more than just the sum of their parts or valued for more than just how they look. You would have no idea that they, especially moms, are fierce. And when they get together in the name of God and children and justice, you had better watch out because things are going to happen.

You probably never heard of Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian woman who almost single handedly brought an end to fourteen years of civil war in Liberia. She spoke at the 2012 ELCA youth gathering in New Orleans, and her life story is incredible – she gathered together both Christian and Muslim women to daily protest for peace for years along the commute of Liberia’s then corrupt president. Then, when peace talks had stalled at the posh hotel where the opposition leaders were enjoying themselves instead of seriously talking peace, Gbowee and a couple hundred women marched into the hotel and trapped the men inside the conference room – literally laying down their own bodies to barricade them in. They stayed there for days, and because of their actions, the war ended weeks later. This all came about because one woman – Leymah Gbowee, loved her three children too much to give them a future filled with violence and death. So she put her body on the line in order to fight for their future. And she and her women got it done.

In a world that asks “Where’s daddy?”-  Where is our power, where are our generals and warriors and fighters? We are under the mothering and comforting protection of Jesus, who, through the giving up and laying down of HIS body, we are saved, healed, and given a future with hope.

 We have been baptized and claimed as God’s children, marked with a sign of death and weakness turned into a sign of the power of new life over death. God chooses weakness and vulnerability and love over strength, again and again, because love outlasts, outshines, and outdistances the competition. Every. Single. Time. God always wins.  God always gets what God wants.

And so the fox made a serious error when he chose to mess with us, God’s children. The fox did not know the lengths to which our mother hen would go to get us back – all the way to death, even death on a cross.

What are foxes, then, to us under the mothering protection of Jesus? What is fear, what is uncertainty, what is powerlessness in the face of the light and salvation that Jesus offers us? Nothing, nothing, and nothing. So we tell that fox, get lost, get out of here, YOU are NOTHING. WE are baptized, WE are claimed, and WE are gathered under Jesus’ wings. And THAT’S  exactly where we’re gonna stay.

And, as Julian’s prayer ends, all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Amen.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Inside Out

Ash Wednesday 2016

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Lent really snuck up on us this year, didn’t it? It seems like just yesterday we were taking down Christmas decorations. And then the next thing we know, we turn around and whoa, it’s suddenly Ash Wednesday.

As Christian mystic Henri Nouwen once wrote, “I am certainly not ready for Lent yet….Lent seems like an unwelcome guest. I could have used a few more weeks to get ready for this season of repentance, prayer, and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

I agree with Henri Nouwen here.  I could have used a few more weeks, too - I’m not “ready” for Ash Wednesday. I’m not ready to take a hard look at where I fall short. I’m not ready to wear ashes on my head and to remember that I will die someday and be dust. I’m not ready to take a close look at my unclean heart. I’m not ready to let go of the things in my life that I should let die. I’m not ready to go into the wilderness, even if it is with Jesus at my side.

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

As Lent sneaks up on us, like a thief in the night, the rest of the world is ramping up to celebrate a holiday full of red hearts, flowers and chocolate gifts, and the celebration of romantic love.

Don’t get me wrong. Love is great. It’s is amazing and powerful and SHOULD be celebrated a little bit more in this world that seems to be LACKING so much love right now. God is love. God created us to love one another. And as Mr. Rogers, Presbyterian Minister and children’s television host, was known to sing on his show – “there are many ways to say ‘I love you’.” And it’s true. There are as many ways to show love to one another as there are people on this earth. 

However, what Mr. Rogers did not add, is that too often there just as many ways to HURT one another. And by now, we have had thousands of generations of practice at it, and have thought of every way under the sun to cause one another pain.
Even this holiday of love coming up is not immune. According to legend, Valentine’s Day is the saint day – or death day – of Saint Valentine, who was thought to have performed weddings for soldiers who were forbidden to marry, and also ministering to persecuted Christians. The story goes that he wrote a letter before he was executed and signed it with “Your Valentine.” This was no cute note with candy decorated with hearts. This was a heart-wrenching letter written by a man marked for death.  

And so weirdly, his holiday has become famous for being full of everything shiny, red, and heart shaped. Of course, we all know that love and other feelings don’t originate in our actual, real life hearts. But our hearts can feel like they are swelling with affection or love. Our hearts can ache with compassion and empathy, or with longing or loneliness. Our hearts can sting from being hurt. Our hearts can get bruised. Our hearts can even get broken.

What is the state of your heart right now, on this Ash Wednesday? If you were to take a moment and take stock of what kind of condition your heart is in at the moment, what would you find? 

I’m guessing, if you are human and have lived on this planet for more than a few minutes, your heart is not pristine red, shiny, or intact like the decorations. No, I would imagine that our hearts are actually fairly dusty and dirty from disappointments and mistakes. Marked and scarred by wounds from the past. Broken and crushed by the suddenness of life happening to us.

We have a saying that we “put our hearts into” things that we care deeply about. Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is specifically talking about physical treasures. Our homes and our cars and our things, the trappings of middle class suburban life in America, and the stuff that we buy to fill the empty void we sometimes feel in our hearts. But I think that anything, be it physical or not, that we put our whole hearts into becomes a treasure to us. Treasures that consume us.

Treasures like things that get damaged or become increasingly expensive to own. Jobs that don’t last. Relationships that don’t pan out, activities and plans that go nowhere, dreams of how life is “supposed to be” that become all-consuming to the exclusion of anything else
We love what we shouldn’t. We cling to what will consume us. We possess what eventually will possess us. We revere that which will in the end ruin us. We are careening down a path that will lead to our destruction, and most of us are speeding down that way on auto pilot.

Just the other day, I was driving home from church, on auto pilot, when I was startled by seeing break lights up ahead. Sure enough, the road I had driving on a thousand times was blocked off, and I suddenly had to take stock of where I was, and figure out how to get back on the right road to make it home.

Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, is kind of like that. Ready or not, it’s time to take note of the brake lights and orange cones, so that we can take stock of our dusty, sore hearts. And what we often find what we don’t want to find. We find that our sinful and broken human states, have scarred our hearts. We find that, like St. Valentine, we are marked by death. But God uses a mark of death in order to claim us for new life.

One meaning of Lent is “to lengthen,” like the daylight hours in the coming spring, that hopefully will arrive someday soon.  The purpose of Lent is to makes US “long” for this new life –We long for right spirits that love what will not leave us dusty or damaged. We long to stop causing and receiving heartbreak.  We long to be out of the darkness and we long for the return of the light. We long for hearts that are clean so that we can love as God has called us to love. We long to be able to store up treasures not of this world but treasures worthy of heaven, love and justice and mercy and forgiveness.

God does not leave us in our dusty, heartsick state. God does not abandon us to the wilderness of our own misguided treasures. God does not cast our dirty hearts aside and throw us away to be discarded. God reaches out to us, arms out-stretched, ready to give our hearts a good scrubbing. Ready or not, Lent then is the detour God leads us on through that cleaning process.

And so we wear the sign of the cross in ashes on the outside to remind ourselves of the work that God is enacting on the INSIDE Of us. The confessing our sins. The embracing of our brokenness. The naming of our grief and disappointments. And this the slow and painful process of the transforming of our dusty and broken hearts into clean ones, better able to love the other dusty and dirty hearts out there in our lives and in the rest of the world.  

That transformation probably takes more than forty days. But forty days is a good start.
It helps us to remember that at the end of these long, dark forty days, or however long our particular transformation may take, at the end of this journey there is hope -  

Forgiveness is waiting.

Hearts are washed clean.

Light is growing stronger.  

Love shines through darkness.

Easter is coming.

Ready or not, LIFE IS emerging from death. Amen.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

HWJD - How Would Jesus Drive?

Sermon 1- 31-16
(I read from both last week's and this week's Gospel reading, since we had a snow day last Sunday!)

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

“Love is a patient driver. Love merges kindly in traffic. Love does not envy the best parking spots, or boast on getting them. Love does not drive arrogantly or rudely. It does not insist on its right of way; it is not easily irritated or resentful while driving in snow; it does not rejoice when it sees other rude drivers getting what they might deserve - like getting pulled over - but rejoices that everyone arrives safely. Love bears all traffic conditions, even snow and ice, believes in the best intentions of other drivers, hopes to get to its destination if not on time then at least safely, and endures all things, even if in the passenger seat.” (yes, I totally made that up myself.)

Now, I would bet that you have never heard the “love poem” from First Corinthians in quite that way before.

The last time you hear it, it was probably in a church, (but not this one.) And it was probably read by a nervous relative as the bride and groom gazed lovingly into each other eyes, nodding along. Thinking to themselves, yes, of course I will always be patient and kind, will never be rude or irritable or resentful AT ANY POINT in the entire course of our married life. And the rest of us think, “Gosh that is a really pretty poem about love.” And then wonder what will be in the buffet at the reception.

My brother, who got married last October, naturally wanted to include these verses from First Corinthians. And as his older sister, I naturally had to include at least one embarrassing story in my sermon at his wedding.

Remember that we’re from a dairy farm in rural WI? When we were all kids, we thought it would be a great idea for my brother to try to jump on and ride the calves we had startled as they jumped out of their calf huts. He almost always fell off, but he kept trying. At his wedding, I told him to use that stubbornness to hold on to their relationship in the midst of a world that often stacked against real love.  I told him to stubbornly hang on to love as if it is a jumping calf.

But I also reminded them that God is even more stubborn in the love department, as described in Paul’s love poem.

After all, as Paul writes this letter, he is not thinking about married couples. No, Paul wrote a poem about love that isn’t about pretty words; love that does things. Love that gets put to work, time and time again.

Love is active - love acts patiently and kindly. Love does not behave rudely or selfishly, irritably, or resentfully.  Love seeks justice and truth. Love bears, believes in, hopes in, and endures all things. 

God IS love, and God loves you. That love never gets tired of going in search of you, and then grabbing hold of you in the most stubborn grip.  And God loves us so much that God revealed that love to us as love with a body.

Just over a month ago at Christmas – wow time flies – we celebrated the coming of this love as a light in our darkness, love as the power of God in the form of a powerless infant. But of course that infant didn’t stay an adorable baby. He grew up, and he began to preach, and got started on God’s mission:

Jesus came to reveal exactly who God IS – love in the flesh. 

Jesus came to reveal exactly who God LOVES - young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white, glad, depressed, immigrant, citizen, single, married, insiders and outsiders. Sinners and slightly less bad sinners. You and me.

Jesus came to reveal exactly what that love DOES – that “Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others… Jesus reveals that God’s love puts up with us, always looks for the best, never looks back, and keeps going to the end.” (The Message Translation)

That day, the people in Jesus’s hometown wanted to hear that they are God’s beloved favorites. But instead, in his very first sermon, Jesus had the audacity to remind them that God has the annoying habit of showing love to people who are on the outside.  Like helping the widow of the “wrongnationality and a general from a rival army, when there were plenty of people in need who were more “deserving” of God’s love.

And this is only Luke chapter 4, so Jesus is just getting started. Jesus heals, hangs out with, feeds, and blesses all those people who were considered to be disqualified from God’s love. For those on the outside, this is very good news indeed! But for those on the inside, this was a dangerous message, and must be hushed up.

This has not changed since Jesus time. In our human selfish brokenness, we live in a world where some of us are given preferential treatment because of gender, skin color, orientation, education, or economic standing. And too many people get left on the outside, while other people benefit.

So it’s perhaps no wonder that Jesus was nearly thrown off a cliff that day by the people of his own home town for this message of love he embodied.

It’s perhaps no wonder that Jesus was rejected, betrayed, abandoned, and then nailed to a cross for this message of love he embodied.

It’s perhaps no wonder that we don’t want to hear this message either, because that means that we too are called to share a message of love that could possibly cause us to be questioned, misunderstood, disliked, or even rejected or abandoned. At our baptisms, each of us were welcomed into the body of Christ, but we were also called to share his mission: to bear God’s redeeming word to all the world of God’s love and forgiveness. Which sounds super daunting. If it were all up to me, there is no way racism would be dismantled or wars be ended. But as Mother Teresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

Fortunately it isn’t all up to me, but there is still plenty of ways to live out this mission of love in my everyday life, to do small things with great love. But it isn’t easy. I’ll share with you one example of something that I struggle with to do lovingly: Driving.

I am not a patient driver. I easily get irritable with OTHER PEOPLE driving poorly. I secretly rejoice in the superiority in my own driving. I have a feeling that others might have this struggle too. Had Paul been writing now, probably should include “If I have the best driving skills in the world, and can parallel park on a dime, but have not love, I am just a honking car horn.”

And that’s just driving. Think about all the other interactions with have with people throughout our day – with our spouses. With our children. With our coworkers. With the people in the grocery store and at the bank and at church.

But how can we do these small things with great love? Well, for once the consumer culture might be able to help us.

In the church, we’re still in the season of Epiphany. But elsewhere, the decorations for Valentine’s Day have been up and everywhere since just after Christmas, ushering in the “season of love,” so to speak. Hearts and the color red are everywhere. In a sense, this makes our jobs of remembering to love a little easier, at least, for the time being.
So in the next few weeks, very time you see a heart, I want you to do 3 things:

-         Remember that you are loved by God.

-         Remember that God loves all the other people out there, too.

-         Remember that you are the agents of God’s love in the world.

That means that each of you, with the help of God and Jesus leading the way, can be the love of God in a body. And the world certainly needs us to show it a lot of love right now. Be love, show love, do love. And don’t forget to DRIVE love, too. And the God of Love accompany us on our way. Amen.