Laughing with Sarah

Below is my sermon from June 18th, the second Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the story of Sarah laughing when God tells her she will bear a child, found in Genesis 18. If you’re curious, the whole story of Sarah and Abraham starts in Genesis 12, with the initial promises.

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

Today, in addition to being Father’s Day, is an important day in the church. The second Sunday after Pentecost, the first after Holy Trinity Sunday means that today is the first in our long, long season of ordinary time. It’s the non-festival half of the church year, and we will be in it from now until October.

Do I sound excited enough about this yet? I must say that the long months without festivals—without big celebrations—tend to wear on me. It doesn’t help that green just isn’t my favorite color, either.

But there is one thing I am excited about: this summer, we’re trying something new for worship, and will be using a different set of first lessons. Instead of jumping around, our first reading each week will more or less follow the previous week’s. And so, from now until October, we will work our way through the books of Genesis and Exodus, hearing the continuous story of the beginnings of God’s people.

We jump into the middle of the story this week, with Abraham and Sarah, and God’s promises to them. When God first called Abraham, God promised to make from him a great nation, God promised to bless Abraham and his descendants so that through them all the peoples of the earth would be blessed.  Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the night sky, as many as the grains of sand on the earth.

But some time has passed since the promise was made, and Abraham and Sarah are now in their old age, and there are no children. It’s starting to look like there is no hope of the promise coming to fruition.

And here our reading for today picks up the story. God, disguised among three strangers, appears to Abraham and Sarah, who offer them welcome and hospitality. And God once again reminds them of the promise, saying, I shall return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.

And Sarah laughs. She laughs to herself because it’s all so implausible. Sarah knows as well as anyone that she is no longer capable of bearing children, and her husband isn’t exactly the picture of youth either. So she laughs, and asks herself the incredulous question—after I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?

Can’t you just imagine it? Sarah, eavesdropping on God’s conversation, is faced once again with the reality of her disappointment. Reminded that the whole of the promise rests on her ability, or  inability, to bear a child. And so she lets loose the laughter of desperation, of lost hopes, the laughter that is the only option left to her unless she wants to cry.

I’m familiar with that laughter, and I know a lot of you are, too. There are times when it seems the only appropriate response is to laugh in the face of God’s promises. When God has promised that all people God’s children and deserving of love and respect, and yet we continue to struggle with racism, and sexism, and homophobia in our culture and in our own hearts, that bitter laughter can all too easily come bubbling up.

When God has promised to hear our prayers, to give us whatever we ask, and yet the cancer remains, the depression and anxiety are still there—Sarah’s laughter doesn’t seem so ridiculous. When God has promised that there will be a day when no one is hungry and everyone has what they need, it seems laughable when we look at the reality of the world, where growing inequalities mean that while some have plenty, more and more people struggle to even put food on the table or keep a safe home.

And in our frustration with the way things are, our despair at our own inability to effect real change, we join Sarah in her laughter. But then God’s question comes, interrupting Sarah’s laughter: “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?”

Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? Can God fulfill God’s promises, despite the facts on the ground? Can God bring life even out of the dry husk that is Sarah, not to mention the 100-year-old Abraham? Abraham and Sarah don’t believe it to be possible.

But as Paul writes in Romans—hope does not disappoint us. We often talk about hopes as wishful thinking: “I hope it won’t rain”; “I hope I win the lottery”; “I hope the Phillies might win two games in a row.” (That last one, I don’t think even God can help with.)

But for Paul, hope isn’t wishful thinking. Rather hope is absolute certainty about the future, because our hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness to keep God’s promises. What God will do in the future is grounded on what God has already done. Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. Hope does not disappoint us, because Christ died for us while we were still sinners.

The source of our hope is God’s love poured out for us in Jesus Christ, and in promises fulfilled. God kept God’s promise to Sarah to give her a son—despite her laughter, despite her doubt. Suffering and doubt do not last always, and our weariness can never limit God’s graciousness.

Sarah and Abraham’s son was called Isaac, which means, he laughs. The laughter of despair became the laughter of hope and new life. Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s keeps God’s promises. Like Sarah, we might wonder when, and how. God’s when and how don’t always match up with ours. That’s ok, though.

But let us not despair in the meantime. Let us not lose hope that God will keep God’s promises. And may we, as the church, as the body of Christ in the world, live in that hope, live in those promises. May we trust in God’s promise that all people are made in the Father’s image and let that promise shine forth in our own lives and actions. May we trust in God’s promise that someday there will be no hunger, and let that promise drive our loving kindness.

May the promises of God, may the love of God in Christ Jesus, and may the hope of God, guide our lives and our love. For hope does not disappoint us. Amen.


That they may be one

Here is my sermon from the Seventh (and final) Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017. It focuses mostly on Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17, especially the final petition of our passage: that the disciples may be one, as Jesus and the Father are one.

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

We have come to the end of the Easter season, marked today with the seventh and final Sunday of Easter. It is 43 days exactly since we heard the first Alleluia of Easter, and so much has come and gone in that time. The lilies and flowers are cleared away—life and church returned to normal. Sunday school has even resumed and finished all in these seven weeks of Easter!

And we have journeyed together in our readings, through resurrection appearances, hearing that good news of Jesus’ new life proclaimed again and again, to these readings our last few weeks, which take us back before the resurrection, before the crucifixion, to Jesus preparing his disciples for his absence.

Here, in this Gospel reading today, Jesus prays for his disciples on the night of the last supper—and prays for us who will come after them. This is not the prayer we so often see depicted, of Jesus off alone in the garden, with his disciples unable to stay awake.

No, rather Jesus prays boldly in the presence of the disciples—he wants them, and us, to hear this prayer, to hear him interceding on their behalf. It is a powerful thing, to hear someone praying for you, and much more so when that person is Jesus.

I imagine the disciples, even though they knew they would soon be on their own, found this prayer incredibly comforting. There is so much reassurance and certainty in Jesus’ prayer. “They were yours,” he says, “and they have kept your word…All mine are yours, and yours are mind; and I have been glorified in them.”

We, too, have been commended to God by Jesus Christ, and we belong to God. And there is nothing that can ever change that. It is the very end of Jesus’ prayer that I want to focus on today, though: “Holy Father, protect them in your name so that they may be one, as we are one.”

Jesus prays for the unity, not just of the disciples, not just of the church, but of all of those who bear his name. That we may be one as Jesus and the Father are one. This is no small thing. Jesus and the Father are intertwined in eternal, divine mystery—the Word was with God and the Word was God. Jesus and the Father are the same, yet distinct, united, yet separate.

How are we doing, living up to this prayer and petition of Jesus’? There are two parts: that we, like Jesus, may be one with God, and then that we may be one with each other. The being one with God part is the easier half, in a lot of ways.

We have many different ways to seek that oneness: through corporate worship, through private prayer and devotions, through the support of others. However we do it, when we pay attention, it’s easy to find the Holy Spirit acting in our lives to draw us closer and reveal the presence of God—the presence that is already close than our own heartbeats.

It’s that unity with one another part—that we may be one—that part proves much more challenging for us. You don’t need me to tell you about the deep divisions in our communities, in our country, and in our world. I’m sure that you feel them just as deeply as I do.

There are divisions in churches, across denominations and sects, over who is in and who is out—who can be ordained, who can be married, what our focus should be. And then there are the cultural divisions—between right and left, progressive and conservative, metropolitan and rural.

In the midst of all of this real pain and division, Jesus’ prayer that we should be one seems naïve and laughable. It is so much easier, instead, to label and attack, or avoid and retreat to merely commiserating conversations with those who think like I do, those whose world views are much the same as mine. It’s so much easier to keep those divisions and walls in place, than to seek unity with those whose ideas and positions we cannot stomach.

Part of me doesn’t know what Jesus was thinking—this world is too hurting, too broken, for us to be one. Certainly not as he and the Father are one. But Jesus prayed this prayer to broken people, to a hurting group of disciples. The eleven of them that are left at this point—Judas has already gone in betrayal—are afraid, accusatory, and will almost all abandon him before the end. This prayer was meant for brokenness.

What Jesus prays that we may have in the midst of all of our brokenness and divisions is unity. Not uniformity. Not sameness of opinion or ideology. Rather a unity that binds us together across our differences. Across all of our differences. A unity that is more important denomination, or location, or political party. A unity that traverses borders and walls and divisions.

Unity does not mean that there will not still be disagreements, or differences. Unity does not excuse or dismiss serious issues and conversations that need to be had. Unity is not brushing problems under the rug. But unity is recognizing that beneath differences is another human being. Another child of God, loved by God just as much as each and every one of us is.

For Christians, we find that unity in Christ. Jesus prays for our unity and then gives us the very foundations of it by calling and claiming us. In our baptisms, we become one in Christ—as Paul writes in Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Our differences do not disappear, but they are not nearly as important as what binds us together.

Memorial Day found its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, as our broken nation figured out how to remember and recognize those who died in the fighting. It became a way of healing—of crossing the bridge from North to South, as all mourned sons and husbands and fathers, regardless of which state they came from. It was a means of unity in the midst of division.

As we hear Jesus’ prayer for his disciples and for us, let us, too, see the things that do unite, instead of just the things that tear us apart. Let us see in each other, the image of God and the love of God in Christ Jesus that is given freely to every single one of us. Holy Father, protect us in your name, so that we may be one, as you are one. Amen.

The Paraclete of God

My sermon from May 21, the sixth Sunday of Easter, focused on the Holy Spirit, which in John’s gospel is called the Paraclete. It also considers the question, “What does love look like?” How ought we love one another in the image of God?

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

“In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” I’m glad I practiced those couple of verses, because they are quite the tongue-twister. The first time reading it, it felt more like “I am the Walrus” than the Gospel of John. It is convoluted and confusing.

And I thought, maybe this is why we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit too much. Because it is convoluted and confusing. Of course we talk a lot about the Spirit every year at Pentecost, which is coming up in a few weeks. There we hear the story of how the Spirit descended upon Jesus’ followers like a flame, and they all began to preach in different languages.

Here in John’s gospel, though, the Holy Spirit works a little bit differently. It’s hard to nail down exactly how it does work, though, and so we don’t talk about it much. And because we don’t talk about the Holy Spirit much, it sometimes gets boiled down to good feelings. The Holy Spirit is that inner feeling of contentment, or peace, or even burning zeal that we get from time to time.

If we listen to what Jesus is saying, though, we realize that the Holy Spirit is so much more than simply an individual feeling. It has much more to do with community, than with individuals.

Here is John, Jesus calls the Spirit by the Greek word Paraclete. This word can be, and has been, translated in many, many ways. In our version today, we have advocate, but other translations say comforter, counselor, helper, or encourager. Some simply say, Paraclete, leaving this messy word untranslated.

The Paraclete literally means the one called to our side to stand up for us. And this Spirit, Jesus says, this Advocate called to stand with us, will be revealed to those who keep Jesus’ commandments. Well, in the Gospel of John, Jesus famously gives only one commandment: to love one another, as Jesus himself has loved us. This is Jesus’ commandment.

Love is another concept, like the Holy Spirit, that can easily get abstract. But in Jesus, we see that love is not an abstract; love is not a nice feeling; love is not merely cherishing someone in your heart. Love is a concrete way of being in the world—revealed to us in the life, relationships, and actions of this simple man from Nazareth.

In love, Jesus feeds the hungry. In love, he touches lepers and heals the sick. In love, Jesus speaks and acts towards women with care and regard. We see love concretely in Jesus’ actions, in his service and compassion. We also see love played in Jesus’ protests against those who abuse this vision.

Love can be fierce and angry—especially when it is standing up for those who need an advocate. The love that Jesus commands for us is not merely about a feeling—it is about a master washing the feet of his disciples. It is about a king dying the death of a criminal.

Loving one another, following Jesus’ commandment to love as he loves, looks like this. It looks like loving others with that same kind of action, that same kind of passion and compassion. The Spirit will be revealed to those who keep Jesus’ commandments. I would also add that the Spirit will be revealed not just to, but also through, those who keep Jesus’ commandments.

When we love one another, as Jesus loves us, love in actions and words, not just our thoughts and feelings, we see the Spirit of God in our very midst. We were created by love, created by God out of sheer love. And though we stray from that love in our lives, God never tires of sowing love and spreading love.

Throughout Scripture, God sends messengers to share love and to call us back into that living, breathing love: the judges, the prophets who shared the vision of a community where all are included and valued, where the poor had food and worth, where justice flowed like waters.

And God sent us Jesus, God’s own Son, who was love incarnate. Love in human form. Jesus came to this earth to remind us of God’s love for us, which is stronger than our mistakes. Which is stronger than our injustice. Which is stronger than our hatred. God’s love will never, ever leaver us.

As John Freestone is baptized this morning, we are reminded once again of how everlasting that love from God is. He will be marked with the cross of Christ, sealed with the Spirit, sealed in God’s love—forever.

I love that we baptize infants in our church, because there’s no way around realizing that God’s love is always there for us, whether we’ve earned it or not. John is just a baby, and while he’s really super cute, he just isn’t capable of earning anyone’s love. But he still has it.

God’s love, much the love of parents, comes without us ever needing to prove ourselves, or to earn it. And as we will hear in the baptism rite, it never goes away. Jesus promises not to leave the disciples or us as orphans, and that promise is fulfilled when we are all anointed with the Holy Spirit.

Through God’s love, we are also called to love one another. We remind parents during the baptism that they are entrusted with bringing their children up in the Christian faith and life—and at the end of that list, they are responsible for teaching their child to proclaim Christ through word and deed, to care for others and the world God made, and to work for justice and peace. In other words, to love others concretely, as Jesus loved.

Jesus promises us an Advocate, who will be by our side and stand with us. The Spirit of truth will abide with us and be with us. We can see this Spirit every time we act in love, when others act towards us in love. Sometimes that Spirit at our side is the helping hand or listening ear of a friend. Sometimes we are that Spirit when we treat all people with dignity, and work for justice and inclusion fo everyone.

The Spirit continues to appear to us in order to encourage us, and look out for us, and stay with us, and walk along side of us. God comes in the Holy Spirit to be like Christ for us…every day! God comes in the Holy Spirit to be another Advocate, our Advocate, who will not give up on us…ever. Amen.

One Last Time

Below is my sermon from May 14, 2017, the Fifth Sunday of Easter. It is mostly focused on the passage from John 14, although it does touch on the other readings. It deals with a central question for the Easter season: what does it mean to be a follower of Christ, when Christ is no longer with us?

If you’d like to listen to the Hamilton song, One Last Time, here is a link to YouTube:

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

One of my favorite songs from the musical Hamilton (although it’s very hard to pick because most of the songs could qualify as my favorite), is One Last Time. It’s the moment where George Washington tells Alexander Hamilton that he’s not running for president again, and that he wants Hamilton’s help in crafting his farewell address.

Those who are fans of history and not just the musical know that Washington’s farewell is one of the most famous speeches in American politics. In the words of the musical, he tells Hamilton that, “I wanna talk about what I have learned. The hard-won wisdom I have earned…The people will hear from me one last time, and if we get this right, we’re gonna teach ‘em how to say goodbye.”

Hamilton doesn’t understand. He doesn’t want Washington, his hero and mentor, to leave his post, and he asks, “Why do you have to say goodbye?” Washington tells him, “If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on. It outlives me when I’m gone.”

Washington understood that with this farewell he had the opportunity to leave a legacy. That it was his last shot to influence how this nation he had been so integral in crafting would carry on when he was gone.

Not that the comparison is exact, but in our Gospel, we have Jesus doing something very similar. Saying goodbye. Sharing his wisdom, making sure his disciples hear him one last time, so that they will know how to carry on.

There’s nothing in our reading that would tell you this, but these words of Jesus take place on the very last night he has with his twelve disciples, the night of the Last Supper. He has just washed all of their feet, Judas has fled in betrayal, and here, with what we read today, Jesus begins a lengthy farewell speech.

We often read this passage at funerals. In a way, it is quite right to do so—Jesus says these words anticipating his own death and eventual resurrection. And so, at funerals, we find the promise of our resurrection, of our hoped for rest with God.

But these words are not just a promise meant to give us hope of a future peace. These words are a promise of our certain future, dwelling with God where there is room for all. But that future means important things for our present life: “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” says Jesus.

He reassures them with this promise that we too share: If you know me (and they do), you will know the Father also. Just in case the disciples or we ourselves weren’t getting it, Jesus says again, “You do know the Father, and you have seen the Father.”

Do not worry. Your place with God is secure, for there is room for you and room for all. And with that promised, Jesus begins the necessary steps to make sure his mission outlives him when he is gone: he entrusts his mission and his ministry to the disciples, telling them:

“Very truly I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these because I am going to the Father.” Jesus is not just saying goodbye, he is also equipping the disciples to carry on his work.

In some ways, that’s why I think that this passage is paired with our reading from Acts: the stoning of Stephen. Carrying on Jesus’ work is not always a simple, pleasant task. It involves walking the way that Jesus walked, which lead to the cross.

Stephen, a deacon chosen to help make sure all in the new church were taken care of, was stoned because he questioned the accepted religious structure of the time. He dared to suggest that God was at work outside of the priests and the temple, and outside of the people usually deemed acceptable.

It’s a warning to us, who are on the inside of the temple, to never assume we have a monopoly on understanding how God is working. Because of that kind of thinking, Stephen is stoned, and becomes the church’s first martyr.

Martyr is actually a Greek word that simply means witness. The Martyrs were those who witnessed to God and were killed for it. But as Jesus gives his ministry over to his disciples, and over to us, they and we are all called to be martyrs—to be witnesses.

There is such a thing as an expert witness, but most witnesses, the vast majority of witnesses, are asked simply to recount what they themselves have seen and experienced. Rather than presenting complex arguments, rather than performing impressive displays, we are called to witness to Jesus by telling what we have seen and what we have experienced of Jesus in our own lives.

In First Peter, we are promised once again that we are God’s own people in order that we may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. In order that we may witness to God.

I’ve seen a lot of Law and Order, and you know who always makes the best witnesses? The people who were paying attention. If we’re going to witness to God, we need to pay attention to things that God is up, we need to pay attention to the places that God is leading us to. We need to look with care to see God’s work around us.

If we think of Christianity primarily as doctrines, or as behavior, we may not be looking for the traces of God’s providence guiding us, or for the work of the Holy Spirit in shaping our lives. Our own words and actions, done in love and justice, may also matter for the reign of God in ways we could not ever anticipate.

We’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye—so that they will outlive me when I’m gone. Part of the church’s calling during the season of Easter is to figure out what it means to be followers of Christ when Christ is no longer physically here. How do we witness to the things we have seen and heard? How do we continue the mission and ministry entrusted to the disciples, and to us?

Jesus’ goodbye says it all: Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. Your place with God is secure for the future—for the rest of time. And now, in these times, Jesus’ work is our work: to tell—to live, in word and deed—the mighty acts of God who loves and accepts us. Amen.

Mother’s Day

As I’m sure everyone is aware, this Sunday is going to be Mother’s Day. My family will be doing what we do most years—gathering at my parents’ house for dinner and trying to make sure my mom doesn’t do too much of the cooking and cleaning up. A lot of us have tried and true traditions for Mother’s Day, as do a lot of churches.

As far as secular holidays go, Mother’s Day is well established in churches. Maybe that’s because families make a point of going to church together then. It can sometimes be a very high attendance Sunday, just after Easter in terms of numbers.

At St. Paul’s, we will recognize Mother’s Day, including special petitions in our prayers for mothers, but it won’t be the main focus of the day. Mother’s Day can be a challenging time for many, and it can be isolating and deeply saddening to sit through a service all about mothers.

As much as we celebrate and give thanks for the women in our lives who have nurtured, raised, and loved us, there is also heartbreak and distress on this day. For those who have strained or harmful relationships with their mothers. For women who desperately wish to be mothers, but have faced disappointment. For mothers whose children have died. For those of us whose mothers have died. In our prayers on Sunday, we will give thanks for the ways mothers show us God’s love, and we will also acknowledge the pain and grief that can be felt on this day.

There is no “right way” to feel on Mother’s Day. I hope that in church all feel accepted, no matter their emotions or backgrounds. Scripture is such a wonderful example to us, of all the ways that God uses women, mothers, and mothering figures, to show love, fierceness, and grace in this world.

I think of Hannah, who longed for a child and was disappointed for so many years. Of Ruth, who demonstrated the bonds between women—whether they are blood relations or not. Or of Martha and Mary, who show us there is no one way to be a woman or to be a disciple. Of Dorcas, who was a leader in the early church, showing that strength and compassion are not conflicting gifts. Of Eunice and Lois, whose gifts of motherhood (and grandmotherhood) teach us how to share God’s love with our children.

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and give thanks for the women in our lives who are mothers to us. It is also a time to keep in prayer all those for whom this day is difficult. May we show each other the love and compassion of God, who is Mother to us all.

A blessing for mothers:
Gracious God,
in love you have given us the gift of mothers.
Grant to each of them your power and grace.
Strengthen them in their mothering
with tenderness and understanding,
with compassion and joy.
Endow them with wisdom and knowledge
so that they might teach their children
how to live and how to love;
how to seek and pursue that which is right and true;
how to turn away from all that is hurtful and wrong.
Deepen their own faith
so that they might instill in their children a love for you
that will sustain and keep them their whole life long.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.

On Sheep and Shepherds

Below is my sermon from Sunday, May 7th, the 4th Sunday of Easter. This week every year is dedicated to readings all about the Good Shepherd. Full disclosure, this has never been my favorite Sunday of the year. Maybe it should be, because I was baptized at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church. But the imagery has never truly caught my attention or imagination the way other of Jesus’ parables do. In writing this sermon, I took a chance to push myself into the passage and see what things I could relate to.

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

It is, once again, Good Shepherd Sunday. Always, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, we hear lots and lots of shepherd imagery. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and we are his sheep. And to be honest, I’ve always kind of bristled at that, because, as we also hear again and again every Good Shepherd Sunday: sheep are stupid. And I’ve never much liked being compared to a sheep.

But it’s true—they’re really not the smartest animals in the bunch. They wouldn’t be able to find food or water without help, and the whole flock of them might wander into danger if someone isn’t watching out for them.

One thing really stood out to me in this passage, though. Jesus says, “the sheep know the voice of the shepherd.” They may be dumb animals, but they have this much going for them: they know who is good for them and who isn’t.

I never been around sheep much, except at a petting zoo, but I do know dogs. And my parents’ current dog, in all fairness, is not much smarter than a sheep. This would not be the dog you want to put in charge of the sheep. Even though she’s a little dimwitted sometimes, she knows who feeds her. It’s my mom. I could be petting her, playing with her, in the middle of giving her a treat—if my mom gets up and leaves the room, all of the dog’s attention has left the room, too. Because she knows who actually takes care of her.

The sheep follow their shepherd, but will not follow a voice they do not know. When I looked at it that way, I thought this comparison to sheep might actually be more insulting to the sheep than it is to me. There are a lot of voices competing for our attention nowadays, many of them promising the abundant life that Jesus speaks of.

You can have the way, the truth, and the good life, all for the price of a book or a DVD. Every new diet or health fad promises that it will make you into a brand new person—and obviously a much a happier, more fulfilled person. You just have to do what they tell you.

It’s inescapable; everywhere you turn there are voices—politicians, celebrities, bloggers—telling you that they can and will solve your problems for you, that they have the answer to find abundant life. Which begs the question—what does abundant life really look like?

The answer: it depends on who you ask.

Society and mainstream culture tell us that having abundant life is found in stuff: having more stuff, having the right stuff, doing the right stuff. Our happiness is dependent upon our possessions and our status. That’s the message of so many self-help books, infomercials, TV shows and movies.

But we have in our readings from today, a couple very different views of what abundant life looks like. The first is from the twenty-third psalm. What does this most famous psalm present as the abundant life? Life with God, recognizing who is truly your shepherd. It provides a secure, supported, and loving relationship that lasts through trials and valleys, and in good times as well.

This abundant life does not have everything, but it does have everything we need. It’s not a perfect life—there are trials and valleys—but we are never alone when we encounter them. The shepherd is there the whole way. The abundance is found in the love and support of God.

The other vision of abundant life in our readings is from the book of Acts. Here we have the early Christian community, gathered together in Jerusalem, fifty days after Jesus has risen from the dead. Here abundant life is found in community, in fellowship and in worship, and in relationships.

“They devoted themselves,” it says, “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and good and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”

This view of abundant life is not rooted in having things in abundance, but in having relationships in abundance. We cannot have abundant life in isolation—we also cannot have abundant life if our neighbors do not also get to participate. If I’m doing fine and my neighbor is hungry, or sick and uncared for, that is not abundant life. Everyone has as much as they need. And that is enough.

The hardest step for us, and where we might become quite jealous of the sheep, is in differentiating between the world’s view of abundance and God’s view. Between the allures of having or being or doing it all and the true abundance of relationships, and the love of God, and meaning in our lives.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly, says Jesus. So often we talk about how Jesus saves us from things: from sin and death, from our own worst natures. And while that is true—we are also saved for. We are freed from those things in order that we might have life, and have life abundantly.

Jesus came that we might have life, dying on the cross to demonstrate God’s profound love for us, to assure us forgiveness of sin, and to free us to live in the here and now—abundantly. To live lives marked by love and relationships, by having enough (not more than enough), and by serving our neighbors to make sure that they also have enough.

It is a gift from God, from our Good Shepherd, that we know the difference between true abundance and the mere accumulation of stuff—money, things, prestige, power. That is not where we will ever find abundant life. Abundance comes to us through the love of God who wants us to have it. Abundant life is not something we can acquire, but rather something we receive from the loving God who gives it to us. Life together. With one another, and with God. Amen.

The Road to Emmaus

Below is my sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, April 30. It is focused on the Gospel passage for the day, the Road to Emmaus. This is definitely one of my favorite passages in the Bible, and it is tempting for me to go on for hours about it. To save everyone from that, I focused on one particular line: “But we had hoped.”

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

For my internship when I was in seminary, I was matched with a Lutheran church in downtown Easton, PA. It was a great historic church, founded in 1740. I really enjoyed my year there, especially getting to know a lot of the young people well—I taught the first through third grade Sunday School class for most of the year.

And one of the most fun things was always the kids’ confusion about biblical place names. Growing up in the Lehigh Valley, with towns named mostly by Moravians, reading Bible stories could have some comic results. For instance, when we were rehearsing our Christmas pageant, the young man playing Joseph just couldn’t understand why it was such a big deal to have to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem. He’d been to both of those places loads of times.

And when we read our gospel story from this morning together, usually called the Road to Emmaus, a little girl in my class proclaimed, “I’ve been on that road, it’s the road my mom takes to get to work!” Of course, the road to Emmaus I was talking about was nowhere near Easton, Pennsylvania.

It was the road to the ancient city of Emmaus, from the equally ancient Jerusalem. It’s about a seven mile stretch of road. It’s an interesting scene. This story takes us back once again to Easter day, the day of the resurrection. The news hasn’t spread yet and these two dejected disciples, still living in a Good Friday world, are leaving Jerusalem, and beginning that seven mile walk towards Emmaus.

We don’t know if Emmaus was their final destination. We don’t really know who these disciples are, except that one is called Cleopas. But we do know that they have had enough of Jerusalem and all its empty promises, and so they are making that seven mile walk away.

If we’re honest, though, the real path they were walking was vastly longer and more difficult than seven miles. They were walking through the valley of disillusionment, a walk taken with hopes in shambles.

It’s always been one of the gloomiest verses in scripture to me, when these unknown disciples talk to the unrecognized Jesus on the road, and confess these words: But we had hoped. We had hoped. The past tense of the word hope has to be one of the saddest words there is.

The disciples on the road had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel—that he would bring salvation and redemption and freedom to the land and its people. To them. But we had hoped.

What are our hopes? What are our past-tense hopes? We had hoped…that our loved one would recover. We had hoped…the relationship would get better. We had hopped…the cancer would be in remission, this job would last, this school year would be different than the last, this ministry would grow. We had hoped our children would not have to live in a world still marred by war, racism, and prejudice. But we had hoped.

We like to live our lives in the future tense—things will get better, the sun will always come up tomorrow, keep on keeping on. But this unguarded moment on the road reveals a deep truth about life: it’s often imperfect. Imperfect in tense, and imperfect in reality.

And into that imperfection, right into the middle of those dashed and defeated hopes, comes Jesus. To share in that disappointment and grief. He could have revealed himself right away. That’s always been a question of mine, experiencing this story: how could the disciples not recognize him? Why didn’t he tell them who he was immediately? He could have. He could have moved directly to the moment of resurrection, but he didn’t.

Resurrection and the new life it brings is wonderful, and it is certainly the future that God promises each of us. It is the future that God has in store for each of us. But we can’t avoid acknowledging that for resurrection to be necessary, there is already a deep pain and loss. And the road from pain and loss to resurrection can be a tough one to walk.

Most of us are on that road sometimes: the road between distress and belief, between dashed hopes and promises fulfilled. We’ve been there. And we know that it can feel a lot further than seven miles.

But the thing I love most about this passage, is that God is not just waiting at the end of the road. God is not only there for the moment of resurrection, the moment of revelation, God is there for the whole journey: consoling, comforting, and yes, promising a new future.

The disciples do come to that moment of resurrection; they do come to recognize who their companion has been. When they reach Emmaus, they implore him to stay with them, for the day is almost over. And they realize who their companion has been all along, in the breaking of the bread.

Their eyes are opened. It makes sense, because did you know the word companion literally means, one whom you share bread with? And this is the way, this sharing of bread and of meals, is how Jesus had made himself known throughout his ministry—breaking bread with those who had no hope: the hungry, the poor, the outcast, and the sinner.

And so when Jesus sits at table with them, and breaks the bread, their eyes are opened. They are able to see who has been with them all along. Through this act of companionship, this act of brokenness, they find their hope restored again.

And they set off running, back down that same road. Those seven miles that felt so long, so impossible, only hours before, go by in a blur. Because they know that their hope is not past-tense, but rather a very real, present, living thing.

It can be a long road that we travel sometimes, this road from despair to hope, from the past tense to the future. In one sense, my Sunday School student’s declaration that she knows the road to Emmaus was spot on! We all know the road to Emmaus, because at one point or another we have all walked it. It can feel long and despairing, but it is truly a holy road.

And it is a road we never, ever, walk alone. Whether we recognize him or not, whether he appears as himself or merely a friendly companion, Jesus is there, walking the road with us. Telling us the story and breaking our bread, that our hope may once again be a present reality. Amen.

Moving beyond locked doors

This is my sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, based on John 20:19-31. We always read the story of Thomas on the Second Sunday of Easter, and it can be hard to find new ways to experience this text. In this sermon, I decided to focus on the ways the disciples have let their fear close out the rest of the world (and the way we sometimes do the same):

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

It is the day of resurrection, in our gospel reading. When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week—that day is the day of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene has run from the tomb to the disciples to proclaim that Christ is risen! The resurrection has happened, and she has seen the lord!

And what do the disciples do with that wonderful, miraculous news? Are they celebrating? Are they breathing sighs of relief? Maybe, just maybe, we might hope that they might be out evangelizing—that is, sharing that good news with others.

But no, they’re not doing anything remotely like that: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week (the day that Mary Magdalene had proclaimed the resurrection): the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked out of fear.

They certainly had good reasons to fear. Now of course, it says that they were afraid of the Jews. Well the disciples themselves were Jews, so they weren’t really afraid of the Jews—they were afraid of the corrupt leaders who had conspired to have Jesus killed. Perhaps that was a good enough reason to stay locked away. Their leader, who they know was innocent, was brutally executed by the state—what’s to say the same wouldn’t happen to them.

But what I find most curious, is that even after Jesus comes to them—he comes through their locked door, and offers them peace and the Holy Spirit. Can you imagine? It says the disciples rejoiced, when they saw the Lord. He has kept his promises to them, not only to return, but to give the promised Spirit.

They proclaim to Thomas, who was missing, that they have seen the Lord! And Thomas, of course, wants to also see the Lord for himself. But what I find curious, is that even after this proclamation of We have seen the Lord, the next week, they are once again in that house, and the doors are once again shut.

Even after the encounter with Jesus, even after their joyous proclamation, the doors are still shut. The actions of the disciples do not match the good news that they have to share. Fear is a powerful thing.

When I was thinking about Fear, what kept coming to my mind was the Pixar movie Inside Out. It’s a movie where the emotions that a young girl experiences are personified, and we see the way they interact with each other. Fear’s job is to protect young Riley and keep her safe. Fear is constantly on the lookout for potential disasters.

This is an important job—fear is often a logical emotion, that keeps us from doing potentially harmful things, things that we really shouldn’t be doing. But, through the movie, we learn that there are very few activities and events that Fear doesn’t find to be dangerous, and usually potentially fatal. If Riley listened to fear all the time, she wouldn’t ever leave her house.

If we let fear rule all of our actions, we wouldn’t ever leave the house. Sound familiar? The disciples aren’t just experiencing fear, but they are letting that fear control their every action. They have literally enfortressed themselves—barred themselves away from interacting with others. They gather together so that they might be safe.

Which brings me to the question—why should they gather together, and why do we still gather. Like the disciples, sometimes it might be that we feel safe here. That’s good—I hope you feel safe here. But sometimes we take that safety to the extreme. When we sing Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” often what we might truly mean is, “a mighty fortress is our church.”

We may gather because it is safe and comfortable and familiar, but when we barricade ourselves in, we have missed the mark. So why do we come together, each and every Sunday, imitating those first disciples, gathering on the first day of the week?

Is it to make God happy with our presence, with our worship and praise? Not really, although I’m sure our gathering does please God. Is it to learn good morals and how to be an upstanding, Christian? No, although maybe you will. Is it to learn and educate ourselves about our faith? No, not even this, although hopefully it does happen from time to time.

These are all things that might happen when we gather, but they are not the reason we come together. We gather so that we might encounter, so that we might be encountered by, the Risen Christ. We, like Thomas, have heard the news, but we too want to hear it ourselves, we want to see, we want to touch and feel the fact that Christ is Risen and to know what that means for us.

This week we celebrate first communion with our second graders, Jack, Cole, and Graci. It is the tradition at St. Paul’s for first communion to be the second Sunday of Easter—the day we hear Jesus say to us: here I am, touch, see and believe. Just as he did for Thomas, in this meal, Jesus offers his very self to us, his body and blood, that we too might believe and be renewed. We receive as a gift his love, mercy, and gift of himself.

How might our encountering Jesus, how might our being fed and being forgiven and receiving God’s grace—how might it move us beyond fear? We have seen the Lord! Instead of closing and barring our doors, let us live as a church, let us live our whole lives, with open doors.

Open doors not just so others might come in—but open doors so that we can also go out. In our personal lives in our families, that we might be open, but also as a church. Church is not just something that we come to, but something that we take with us. We take that mercy, and grace, and forgiveness that we have received here with us—to let it shape our lives and share it with others. Most importantly, we take the love of God with us. It’s not something that can be contained by doors.

We have seen the Lord! May our lives live out that wonderful news. Amen.

Easter Sermon

Below is my sermon from Easter Day. The Easter story is a familiar one that we hear each year, so for my sermon I decided to focus on a couple of the small details we don’t always pay attention to: the earthquake and the fear. The text I used was Matthew’s account of the Resurrection, found in Matthew 28:1-10.

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

About six years ago, an earthquake hit the Northeast. Who remembers? It wasn’t big, or powerful, by earthquake standards, but they just never happen here, so it was still unnerving. It was August, and I and some friends were just moving into our new house at the seminary.

To be honest, I didn’t really know it was even an earthquake while it was happening. It just felt like couch I was on had suddenly become a massage couch, as it pulsed underneath me. I’m sure anyone from the West Coast or more earthquake prone areas would have laughed at how excited my friends and I got over such a tiny little tremor.

Because when real earthquakes come, they don’t feel like massages. They feel like the ground beneath you has given way, and nothing will set it right again.

Maybe the women in the gospel already felt that way, as they approached the tomb where Jesus lay that first Easter morning. As if nothing could be set right again. Their Lord and friend has been killed, his male disciples are in hiding, and they go to the tomb, much as they went to the cross, to keep vigil—to watch and to wait.

It doesn’t say it in this morning’s gospel, but we know from the other gospels, that they took burial spices with them, to anoint the body of Jesus. They are going to do a crucial task—to truly lay their teacher and friend to rest, and with him to bury their hopes and dreams for the future that now would never be. The past few days must have been heart-wrenching for them. To go from the fanfare and chaos of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem a week earlier to the utter heartbreak of the cross. And they were there, watching and keeping watch over it all.

But then suddenly, with the stone still covering the tomb, with the Roman soldiers still guarding the body, there is an earthquake! When it is time for the stone to be rolled away, at the moment of resurrection—the very ground beneath them shifts!

And then there sits the angel, with the good news: Jesus, who was crucified, is no longer in the tomb, but has been raised! The earth has shifted once again. They leave quickly to do as the angel commands and tell the disciples about what they have seen.

And then suddenly there is Jesus, who greats them. Who tells them not to be afraid. The earthquake itself may be over, but I can only imagine that at this moment the women felt just as unsteady as when the ground was moving.

A great shift has happened in this earthquake. It’s not just the lives of the disciples that have changed. It’s not just that their friend Jesus was dead and is now alive. It’s not just that they mourned and now they rejoice. The whole earth has been shaken, the cosmos moved forever by this life-giving act of God.

Old ways of being and doing have been upended in the turmoil. Earthquakes are destructive forces, as anyone who has lived through a serious one knows. And this earthquake, this resurrection, did some destruction.

The forces of the empire, of Rome, forces of oppression and injustice and violence, literally fall down. God is stronger than them. Death itself is destroyed by God’s earthshaking power. Instead of death there is life. Jesus is risen! The grief and pain of the women are destroyed and joy and excitement take their place. Alleluia indeed!

And the women go to share this earth-shattering news with the other disciples, to witness to the fact that Jesus is risen! Did you notice what it said, though, about how they went? With great joy—that part we might expect, but also with fear.

With joy and fear. Fear and joy. How often do these two seemingly opposite things go hand in hand? We fear for the future that our children will inherit, fear about how to keep them safe, and yet we take joy in the blessing that they are to us, and we hope, to the world. We have fear about an illness of a loved one, and yet we rejoice about the gift they are to us right now. We fear the big things and the big problems in this world, and yet we can still find joy in the present moment even amidst fearful things. Fear and joy; despair and hope; doubt and faith—these are the sides of all of our lives.

Jesus’ resurrection does not bring an end to fear. It didn’t for the women at the tomb, and it doesn’t for us.  But what it does do—what that earth-moving resurrection does—it makes it possible for us to experience joy, to feel hope, to live our faith, amid otherwise crippling fear.

Of course the women were afraid. They couldn’t avoid it. We can’t avoid it either. We can’t avoid grief, and we can’t avoid heartache. They are a part of life. But we need not dread visiting the tomb. We need not dread the fear or the grief. They are, like the tomb, temporary. Jesus is risen!

Winston Churchill, for his funeral, planned a great and fitting farewell. When the service was over, a bugler played Taps from the west end of the church, the song signaling that the day is over and it is time to rest. But as the last note of Taps rang in the air, from the east end of the church came the answering call. Another bugler sounding Reveille. Arise, for the day is just beginning!

We cannot live our lives without the sounds of Taps in our ears sometimes. Violence, injustice, hatred, grief. These are inescapable realities, and we should not pretend they don’t exist. But always, always God is there with the answering call of Arise! Get up! For Taps is not the end of our story.

That earthquake, that massive shift in the way things were, means that ultimately life is stronger than death. It means that joy and hope and faith will prevail in the end. Despair is a temporary thing, but our hope—our hope is invincible because God has never forgotten how to breathe life into piles of dust.

Encountering resurrection is to endure an earthquake. Encountering the risen Christ is the feel the world shaking. The ground has moved beneath us and nothing is the same as it was. Death is overthrown, injustice does not get the final word, and joy wins the day. In the midst of fear, in the midst of anxiety, in the midst of grief—Christ is Risen! Alleluia!

May the God of the earthquake, the God of the surprise, shake the ground beneath us so that we too will experience the resurrection hope and joy. Amen. Alleluia!

Holy Saturday

Can you imagine what it was like that first Saturday, when Jesus was in the tomb? His disciples and friends didn’t have the benefit we do, of knowing the end of the story. Nowadays, we spend Holy Saturday preparing for the feast we know is to come: arranging flowers in the sanctuary, baking special treats for the family dinner, planning or participating in egg hunts. We know the joy that will come tomorrow, and so it is hard to imagine what the disciples must have felt.

It wasn’t just Jesus that died on the cross–it was their hopes and dreams as well. They didn’t just mourn their friend and teacher, they mourned for a future that now seemed impossible.

I am always drawn to the women who followed Jesus. When the male disciples scattered or hid, the women were there. They were the last at the cross, and the first at the tomb. What did their Saturday look like? Was it spent gathering the spices and oils they would take to the tomb in the morning?

While it is hard for us to forget that resurrection is just around the corner, we do know, I think, the feelings of this Holy Saturday. It is the feeling after the funeral, once everyone has gone home, and you are now left in the quiet of an empty house. That stillness, that trying to figure out what life is going to be like now–that is Holy Saturday.

Many Christians, tonight, will celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. It is a service that begins in darkness, spends time reading (quite a lot) about God’s saving actions throughout all of history, and then culminates in the news of the resurrection. This news is greeted with the Holy Noise–bells, tambourines, voices–all rise together to share the good news! And then together, the first Eucharist of Easter is celebrated.

If you’d like to take some time in quiet today, pause and read one (or more) of the readings assigned for the Easter Vigil. There’s a lot, because God’s story of salvation has been going on for a very long time. The readings marked with an asterisk are especially helpful in telling the story:

*Genesis 1:1-2:4a (Creation)
Genesis 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13 (Flood)
Genesis 22:1-18 (Testing of Abraham)
*Exodus 4:10-31; 15:20-21 (Deliverance at the Red Sea)
*Isaiah 55:1-11 (Salvation for all)
Proverbs 8:1-8, 19-21 (The wisdom of God)
Ezekiel 36:24-28 (A new heart and a new spirit)
Ezekiel 37:1-14 (Valley of the dry bones)
Zephaniah 3:14-20 (The gathering of God’s people)
Jonah 1:1-2:1 (The deliverance of Jonah)
Isaiah 61:1-4, 9-11 (Clothed in garments of salvation)
*Daniel 3:1-29 (The fiery furnace)