Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Jesus, Last One Picked

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

Do you remember when you first walked into this this sanctuary after we moved all the chairs around? I bet the very first thing you thought was, “where is ‘MY seat? Where am I going to sit NOW?” Maybe your next thought was, “gosh it looks like there are a lot MORE front row seats now! Yippee!” But, I’m guessing that’s probably NOT what your next thought was.

But think about the last time you were a visitor in a new space. You walk in and stand awkwardly in the doorway, wondering where it’s “safe” to sit, who it is acceptable to sit with, and whether or not anyone wants you to sit with them. So you chose a spot and pray that someone will actually talk to you, or at least not notice you if you decide to sit in a corner all by yourself.

It’s the dreaded high school cafeteria, all over again. All these years later, we can be taken right back there – is everyone staring at me? Is what I’m wearing ok? What if no one talks to me?

When I was in high school, there was a Christian band I really liked called Superchick. The first song on their album called “Last one picked” – which is how we all felt sometimes - goes like this: “High school is like the state of the nation. Some people never change after graduation, believing any light you shine makes theirs lesser. They have to prove to everyone that theirs is better.”

And after graduation, you slowly realize that it still matters what you wear and where you live, who you’re friends with and what you watch. There will always be someone with better grades than you, with a bigger house or better spouse or nicer vacations or smarter kids or newer gadgets. We may think that we leave prom court and popularity contests behind us the minute that diploma hits our hands, but the mindset that is ”high school” is never something we actually get to leave behind us. Even after we graduate, there are still jocks, nerds, popular kids, winners, and losers, and the “last ones picked.”

…If I were to ask you to pick someone, anyone from now back through history, to invite over for dinner, how many of you would pick “Jesus”? Anybody? My next question would be… “Are you really SURE about that?” Jesus would LOVE to be invited over to your house, I’m sure…. But then he would probably say some really challenging things… AND THEN he would probably want to bring over some of his friends… sort of like in the vein of that well-known children’s book – “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.” Jesus’s story might go something like– If you give Jesus an invitation, he’s going to want to bring his friends along….

Illustrator Daniel Erlander drew a picture of this exact thing: A person is praying and says to Jesus, “Why is it that whenever I ask Jesus to come into my life, he always bring his friends?” And standing next to Jesus are people who are poor, hungry, in wheelchairs, and whose skin is darker than ours.

Are we REALLY SURE we would want to pick Jesus to come over for dinner?

I think that the leader of the Pharisees must have been asking himself this exact same question. You may be wondering why Jesus was over at the house of a Pharisee in the first place. Weren’t they enemies? Well, not exactly. True, they often went toe-to-toe. But the Pharisees were the ones who were keeping the Jewish traditions alive in a very uncertain and violent world. They were not the “bad guys.” But they sometimes got too carried away with keeping all the rules.

Somehow Jesus was invited into the life of this leader of the Pharisees. And of course, one of these “friends” of Jesus shows up at the party. In the verses we didn’t hear from today, Jesus heals a man suffering from unsightly swelling caused by excessive water retention. This healing happens on the Sabbath, AGAIN, so Jesus again is in hot water. So they watch Jesus closely, to see what other trouble he decides to stir up.

And in perfect Jesus style, Jesus flips the script and is also watching THEM. He sees these men – because after all only men were invited- and observes them jockey for position at the table, desperate to NOT be the “last one picked.”

Here Jesus is addressing how we are to act when we are both GUESTS and when we are HOSTS. But he is not simply being “Miss Manners.” He is actually proposing a way that is a complete reversal of the way we are used to things: Don’t sit in the places of honor. Instead, take the lowest place for yourself. When you give a party, invite those people who would never get an invitation, like the “last ones picked” by the world. Because that’s who God invites to the table.

We are GUESTS at God’s banquet, not the hosts. We are NOT in charge of the seating arrangement or the guest list. But we still try our darndest to keep some people out of the banquet, when they have clearly been invited and picked by Jesus.

 I remember participating in a cross cultural class based in Chicago where we learned about some of the diverse contexts and great ministries happening in the city. I stayed with a host family – friends of a good friend of mine, and I was happy to hear about a homeless ministry that their church was a part of. Their church would host homeless people in their building overnight in their gym one night a week, and provide them a meal. Their night was Saturday. So Saturday night, I got to help serve the meal and talk to a few of the people staying there that night.

The next morning, when I went to my friend’s church for worship, I walked through their gym to get to the sanctuary, where only the smell of bleach revealed that just a few hours before a dozen people had spent the night there. Not a single person who stayed the night stuck around for worship. I later learned at as a term of being part of this ministry, the council has stipulated that ALL SIGNS of the previous night MUST BE long gone by morning worship. Of COURSE these people were “welcome” to stay for worship…. But not surprisingly NO ONE ever came.

On the flip side, someone like the Pope has plenty of reasons to be very strict about who he gets to spend his time with. But just last April, Pope Francis invited some very special guests over for lunch. Not anyone famous like Desmond Tutu or President Obama. He invited refugee families from Syria to eat with him. Then he let their children sit with him as they showed him pictures they had drawn, both of their harrowing escape from Syria, but also of their hopes for a better life.

These homeless people are Jesus’ friends. The Syrian refugee children are Jesus’s friends too. People like them not only get to tag along when we invite Jesus into our lives, but they are also given seats of honor at God’s table.

And you know what? WE are Jesus’s friends too. We have a seat at the table, too. Because at some point in our lives we have been made to feel like the “last one picked” by the rest of the world too.

As shame researcher Brene Brown has written, we all “hustle for our worthiness” by putting on a stellar PR campaign about ourselves, including only the good or “acceptable” parts, the parts that would get us good seats in the High School cafeteria. But I think many of us long for a place where we can be loved and accepted: flaws, rough edges, and all.   

When Pastor and author Nadia Boltz Weber began a church in Colorado, she writes about how she baffled at how many “socially broken” people showed up to her church – sexual abuse survivors, paraplegics, and many others, not exactly “people like her.” Then she realized she WAS attracting HER “kind of people” – broken, self-conscious, and needy, because we are ALL broken in some way. We are all broken, beautiful, and loved by God. Nadia realized Jesus SEES all the parts of ourselves we try to hide from others, the parts we don’t put on Facebook, and those parts are welcome.

As a high schooler, I always felt welcome at my church. My church youth group only attracted youth like me, those who never had any plans on a Friday night. But the adults never wondered where the “cool kids” were. They were just happy I was there, and nurtured and cared about me.

I recently went to a women’s clergy conference in Boston. There were a hundred and ten of us. I knew five before I got there. But every time I sat at a table, I was sitting – not with strangers I just met and wondering if they liked me or not – I was sitting with people who were already friends, friends that I just haven’t met yet. Because we all knew that we were there together to support each other as fellow women following God’s call.

Imagine that the Lord’s Table is the exact opposite of a table in your high school cafeteria. The Lord’s Table is where, instead of being “the last one picked,” you have been specifically invited by Jesus. A table where, instead of wondering where it’s safe to sit, you find you have a place next to Jesus… though you may be surprised who ELSE gets to sit next to Jesus.

We don’t have to earn our place there, or try to hustle and social climb our way in. The invitation is already ours - along with all of Jesus’s ‘friends’ who get come along - the homeless along with suburbanites, minorities along with the privileged, those who are gay and transgender next to those who are straight, single moms and dad next to nuclear families, the “losers” and “last picks” of the world next to “first picks” and “winners.” All gathered together at the big beautiful party that God is hosting. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Holy Troublemakers

Sermon 8-21- 16
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Two weeks ago I got almost nothing done. It wasn’t just that the Olympics had started – there was another event that same time that kept me glued to my computer screen the entire week. Every three years, almost a thousand delegates from across the country attend the biggest Lutheran church meeting, the Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran church in America, or just Churchwide assembly for short.  

Well, it’s not exactly as well known, or as exciting as the Olympics. They don’t give out medals for the most coffee consumed or the most amendments to amendments. But things happened during both events that contributed to world unity. And thanks to the miracle of technology, church nerds like me got watch live as it all unfolded.

Just for starters, that week during Churchwide, we elected an African American man, William B. Horn, to be the vice president of the ELCA. We voted to commit to protecting unaccompanied children fleeing Latin American countries. We supported the continuing dialogue between Catholics and Lutherans in focusing on what unites us, in honor of the next year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation. We pledged our support in areas of justice, such as peace in the Holy Land, the importance of African descent Lutherans and relationships with historic Black churches. We committed to a responsible energy future, welcoming refugees, and caring for our military veterans and their families. And this is not even half of what the ELCA accomplished that week.

We as ELCA Lutherans have inherited a legacy of always reforming ourselves and our church, of always being made new by God’s grace, while at the same time being firmly rooted in the message of God’s love through Jesus.

And so, just as Martin Luther used both new and old technologies of his day – the printing press, a church door, some nails and a hammer – we do this too. I mentioned a few weeks ago about the new Small Catechism smartphone app from Augsburg Fortress, the ELCA publishing house. Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, in her report to the churchwide assembly last week, mentioned this app and gave us a challenge: to review the small catechism to reconnect with our Lutheran roots. 

If you haven’t downloaded it yet, please do – but not right now of course, wait until after worship! And if you get a moment, look up the third commandment. How many of you remember what the third commandment is? “Remember the …. Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” What does THAT mean? Martin Luther explains, “We are to fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly learn from it.

Just as God rested on the 7th day of creation, we as God’s people need a day of rest and a day to intentionally stop and hear what God has to say to us. Men, women, children, slaves, labor animals… all in God’s creation were commanded to embrace our limitation and be reminded that God created us for life, not for exhaustion. The Sabbath day is a gift, freely and lovingly given for our benefit.

But, what do we humans too often do with things that are free gifts from God? We try to control them, regulate them, create a lot of rules around how to properly exercise this gift. The Sabbath day was no expectation. Enter Jesus, teacher, preacher, and general trouble maker.

You may remember Jesus’s controversial first sermon, where he proclaimed that today, through him, God would release the captives, give sight to the blind, and let the oppressed go free. That one was not exactly well received, but here Jesus is again, teaching in the synagogue. We will never know what Jesus was preaching on this day, because he stops, mid sermon, for someone in immediate need of that freedom and release.

That woman was literally invisible. Bent over double for as many years as it takes a kindergartner to graduate from high school. She was unable to stand up straight, unable to see and participate in the world around her, in a world where she was already mostly invisible for being a woman.

Perhaps you too have walked into worship feeling much like this woman – feeling physically or emotionally bound and bent over by things in your lives that are heavy and hard to bear. Perhaps you too, have felt unseen and invisible to those around you
When Jesus sees this woman, he stops everything. Her healing cannot even wait until the end of day, or even till the end of his sermon! She should not have to wait for her freedom for ONE MORE MINUTE. He has to heal her RIGHT NOW.

And in doing so, Jesus broke the rules.

The leader of the synagogue was understandably upset that the worship service was being disrupted. The Jewish people were living under the thumb of an oppressive government, who ALLOWED them to continue to practice their faith… but could change their mind on a whim. These religious leaders were doing their very best to keep it together, to preserve these expressions of their faith in a world that worked against them at every turn, to be faithful to the ways that their ancestors worshiped God in the past.

So when the bent over woman became UN-bent, this synagogue leader became BENT out of SHAPE. He forgot the whole point of the Sabbath: that people trump rules, that love trumps fear, that justice trumps tradition.

He could not see that when one of us is bent over, we ALL are.

Sometimes it takes a little interrupting, a little disruption on the part of Jesus to remind us, both then and now, that God’s kingdom is CONSTANTLY interrupting our rules, our schedules, and our lives.

If you recall, Jesus interrupts and disrupts from birth…. Actually from BEFORE birth, when an angel interrupted Mary to tell her she would bear a son. And again, AT his birth, when the heavenly host interrupted some shepherds on the night shift. And all during his life, Jesus interrupts and disrupts, again and again, shaking up our rules and assumptions about God. Until the rule-makers decided they had had enough with this rule breaker troublemaker, that he needed to be silenced, his body broken, to be taught a lesson – don’t rock the boat, don’t break the rules, don’t mess with the ones who hold all the cards. Or else you too will be nailed to a cross for it.

But Jesus wasn’t through breaking the rules and making trouble. He was not done interrupting and disrupting. Jesus interrupted death. He disrupted the funeral preparations of the women at the tomb. He appeared incognito and joined the two travelers walking to Emmaus, and interrupted their dinner as he revealed himself in the breaking of the bread.

And his followers have continued to interrupt and disrupt on Jesus’ behalf, because we are called follow Jesus’ example, to raise up the bent over, see the unseen. To break the rules that need to be broken, and then to rejoice, like the bent over woman, when together we have been set free.

The moment this woman was healed, she started praising God, and presumably she never stopped. Her worlds could be Psalm 103: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.…” She keeps praising, and so we can add her to the list of the cloud of witnesses from last week. She took her cue from Jesus, and continued the interruption to worship that day, despite the flack she received from the leader of the synagogue.

Another woman who refused to be bowed down is Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who was a keynote speaker at the ECLA churchwide gathering two weeks ago. I’ve mention her story before, which is amazing.  Her home country Liberia had suffered from war and violence for years. So she gathered Christian and Muslim women to protest for peace. When peace talks had stalled as the men enjoyed their stay in a fancy hotel, Gbowee and the women held them hostage until peace talks resumed. Within weeks, the war was over.

During her talk last week, Gbowee said, “I don’t feel bad being called a trouble maker..“ because “Injustice one place is injustice everywhere,” She reminds us that interrupting the status quo causes us to be labeled trouble makers. But after all, Gbowee’s causing trouble earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. And she was only following in the footsteps of her lord Jesus.

When you see the rules winning over the needs of people, cause some trouble. When you see injustice, fear, or hate getting the upper hand, rock the boat. As Gbowee says, we are supposed to “speak truth to power…” in Jesus’ name.

If you are called a “trouble maker,” do what Leymah Gbowee suggests… say “thank you!” Wear name of “trouble maker” gladly - because it means that we are becoming more like Jesus - and give thanks for it. Thanks be to God… for trouble makers. Amen.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Psalm for the week of August 14th

August 14: Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth
    before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
Stir up your might,
    and come to save us!

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
    you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
    it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
    the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
    and its shoots to the River.
12 Why then have you broken down its walls,
    so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
13 The boar from the forest ravages it,
    and all that move in the field feed on it.
14 Turn again, O God of hosts;
    look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
15     the stock that your right hand planted.
16 They have burned it with fire, they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your countenance.
17 But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
    the one whom you made strong for yourself.
18 Then we will never turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call on your name.
19 Restore us, O Lord God of hosts;
    let your face shine, that we may be saved.

What does this psalm say about God?
Does this psalm get me thinking about Jesus?
What emotions do I notice in this psalm? When have I felt the same way?
Does this psalm comfort me or challenge me?
Is there one verse that particularly speaks to me? Why? Consider memorizing this verse to carry with you for the upcoming week.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Psalm for the week of August 7th

August 7: Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23

1 The mighty one, God the Lord,
   speaks and summons the earth
   from the rising of the sun to its setting.
2 Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty,
   God shines forth.
3 Our God comes and does not keep silence,
   before him is a devouring fire,
   and a mighty tempest all around him.
4 He calls to the heavens above
   and to the earth, that he may judge his people:
5 ‘Gather to me my faithful ones,
   who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’
6 The heavens declare his righteousness,
   for God himself is judge.
7 ‘Hear, O my people, and I will speak,
   O Israel, I will testify against you.
   I am God, your God.
8 Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you;
   your burnt-offerings are continually before me.
22 ‘Mark this, then, you who forget God,
   or I will tear you apart, and there will be no one to deliver.
23 Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honour me;
   to those who go the right way
   I will show the salvation of God.’


What does this psalm say about God?
Does this psalm get me thinking about Jesus?
What emotions do I notice in this psalm? When have I felt the same way?
Does this psalm comfort me or challenge me?
Is there one verse that particularly speaks to me? Why? Consider memorizing this verse to carry with you for the upcoming week.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Above All Things.

Sermon 7-31-16
Grace to you and peace from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, amen.
Here we go again, Jesus. Taking about hard, challenging stuff. Again. I’m sure you’d all much rather I give my sermon on funny things I found on Facebook this week instead. Like the 11 year old boy who wrote out his own version of the Ten Commandments. According to him, they are:

1.     Don’t use up all your money.
2.     Be kind.
3.     Listen to your parents.
4.     Give to charity.
5.     Respect God.
6.     Don’t abuse video games.
7.     Don’t kill anybody.
8.     Play outside more
9.     Do the Nae Nae – if you don’t know what that is, ask your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or neighbor’s kids,
10.                        (Remember this is coming from an 11 year old boy) Punch Hitler in the face. (Normally I don’t condone violence, but… maybe we can give that one a pass...)

Would this particular young man pass our confirmation class with these answers? Maybe. But really, this kid is not all that far off. Though not in the right order, he’s got some the basics. Play outside – take a Sabbath from things like video games. Be kind. Listen to your parents. Don’t kill anybody. Respect God.  

Though, if you would like to have instant access to the ACTUAL Ten Commandments, and also Martin Luther’s explanation for all of them, I have good news for you. Augsburg fortress, the ELCA publishing company, recently came out with a free app of a downloadable Small Catechism. And you thought your smart phones were only for Facebook, GPS, Pokemon GO, and watching Bill Clinton adorably having fun with balloons.

When you do download this wonderful tool, you too can look up the “real” First Commandment – which of course is “You shall have no other gods” – and also Luther’s explanation of that commandment – which is, “we are to fear, love, and trust God about all things.”

Above. All. Things.

I think that this 11 year old boy was also onto something, when he put as HIS first commandment, “don’t use up all your money.”

I’ve seen a couple episodes of a really interesting show called Tiny House Nation. There is a small movement that ‘s been gaining momentum, the push toward drastic downsizing, of scaling back, and decluttering our lives… though, of course, we made it into a reality TV show! But… this idea is so fascinating because it is so foreign to us. One episode showed a farm couple from Wisconsin who wanted a pared down life that went with their vocation as farmers. Can you image living in a 170 square foot house with your spouse, a dog, a cat, AND your stuff? Well, they did, and they are making it work, and so far they love it!

Now, contrast the couple on Tiny House Nation with the farmer from Jesus’s story. While the couple are choosing to scale back, pare down, and simplify, this farmer is SUPER-SIZING. And why not? The land he owns is producing the bumper crop to end all bumper crop, and his current barns are filled to the brim. What do to, what to do?

SO he consulted himself – this guy seems to talk to himself a lot! – and came up with a great idea! Built bigger barns! Store the bumper crop away, save it for another day. What a great plan….Except that this farmer forgot about something. He seemed to forget the rest of that saying we all know… you know, the one that goes, “Eat, drink, and be merry for….. (Tomorrow we die.)”

And that’s exactly what happens. God comes to visit him in the night, not to TAKE the life of this man… but to reveal to him the truth of his situation… it is actually his many goods that have demanded HIS LIFE.

This is a parable of warning. Don’t be like the farmer. But… I think many of us would like to be in the farmer’s shoes… except for the dying part, of course. Many of us, myself included, would love to suddenly see a windfall come our way. Though our sudden payouts might look like getting some extra hours in at work, a tax refund, a raise, or a Christmas bonus.

And so our bigger barns look a little less like those big red buildings on my parents’ farm, and more like this… like an extra dresser I might get to put all the  cheap clothes I could buy . Our bigger barns look like the newest iPhone or smart phone gadget. They could even be in the form of the latest Fitbit or video game system. Or they could be a larger house in order to fit all of our stuff and our kids’ stuff, or a bigger garage, because we can’t even fit our car in there anymore.

But more and more, I think, our “bigger barns” look like this. Your innocent-looking, common, everyday credit card. This is our bigger barns. And if we’re not careful, these will demand our lives.

Because nowadays we don’t even have wait for that windfall to come in before building bigger barns. Everything around us tells us to spend, spend, spend, to get more and more stuff… and get deeper and deeper into this kind of debt. Suddenly our lives become bound to our stuff, and we become prisoners of this little piece of plastic.

The reason I am showing you this card, which I’ve closed, is to tell you something you probably won’t hear anywhere else. That you are not using these, but they are using YOU. They want you to think they’re helping you. But they are not. They are actually digging you a hole. And this hole just so happens to be six feet deep. Which is exactly where that farmer ended up finding himself.

This farmer was on top of the world, with everything going for him, and so he forgot all about God. He only consults with himself, is only concerned with himself and his own future comfort. He made plans to secure his future without any reference to God or to other people. He was only rich toward himself. And so his fate became “death by stuffication.”

This farmer could be a poster boy of Luther’s definition of sin- to be curved in on oneself, until that becomes all we can see, so that we not only miss out on sharing God’s gifts with others, but completely miss the fact that all things come from God in the first place.

Our own money, our “real” money, ironically enough, constantly reminds us, “In God we trust.” Not in money. Not in stuff. Not in bigger barns. Not is securing our own future. But we trust in God. Fear, love, AND trust, to be exact, at least according to Luther’s explanation of the first commandment. And God does not demand our life in an unfillable hole of debt and death. God is the source of all life, is the giver of life, the giver of OUR lives and all that we have.

Life is not about our belongings, Jesus said to crowd. Instead, life is about WHO we belong TO. We belong to God, who claimed us in our baptisms as beloved children. Which means that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God. And our inheritance is life itself, eternal life, abundant life, here and now and in the time beyond our death, when we too will be raised, along with Christ. God gave us a peek of this inheritance when Jesus was raised from the tomb on the third day. Jesus, still being persistent in his mission to the point of being annoying, especially for those who wanted him to stay dead.

 Even when our desire to stay curved in on ourselves cause us to try to ignore Jesus, Jesus keeps showing up, keeps telling us the hard stuff, keeps giving us new life as God’s children and keeps getting us out the door to share these gifts with one another.

Sometimes our best teachers of being children of God are actual children. The 11 year old writer of that funny set of Ten Commandments reminds us to not “use up” all our money, and also to give some of it away to charity. Another little girl I know is deeply passionate about saving her pennies for the St. Jude’s children’s hospital, so when she had her first communion, instead of buying her a gift, I made a donation in her honor. Our own kids who came to vacation Bible School got to see the efforts of their generosity grow with their own eyes as they put up sections of a pretend irrigation canal they were raising money for.

These kids get it, when many of us have grown up and forgotten, being too distracted by setting our minds on things that are on earth rather than on things that are above, as Paul writes. We have a new self to put on, one that is made in the image of the one who created us. Which might mean doing some house cleaning or downsizing – ala Tiny House Nation style - on many of the things our old self loved, and still does love to cling to, like trusting in things rather than loving and trusting God.

We grownups forget, as the farmer forgot, what another Facebook post says, “If you are more fortunate than others, it is better to build a longer table than a taller fence,” (Or a bigger wall). Or, as Jesus might have added, it is better to build a longer table than bigger barns.

As always, Jesus leaves us with some hard things to think about – how we downsize our barns that block our generosity, and elongate our tables for welcome and sharing. We as a nation have a long way yet to go in the realm of table-building and inclusion instead of fence building. There are too many barns, too many fences, and not enough seats at the table for all. But we can help change that, one fence, one barn, one seat at the table at a time. Jesus hands us the hammer and the nails, and invites us along in his work.

So what’ll it be? What are we building today?


Or tables?