Fear in the Midst of the Storm

Below is my sermon from August 13th, 2017. While it is based on the Gospel text for the day (Matthew 14), it also focuses on the white supremacist march and riot in Charlottesville, which happened the day before. The theologian Karl Barth once said, “We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other…but always interpret the newspaper through the Bible.”

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

Two weeks ago, Tim and I spent the week at Bear Creek Camp, as their resident chaplains. One of the cool things about being chaplains is that we had the opportunity to spend time with all of the different age groups. Each night we would rotate around the camp, leading devotions for one group or another.

Friday, our last night there, we were with the seniors—those who had just finished tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade. That night, the counselor had already planned devotions, so we were able to just participate. She had four paper lanterns that we were going to light and release into the night.

But first, we took time as a group to name and write down some of our fears. For a lot of the campers, it was fear of the unknown: they were heading off to college for the first time, there was fear of what it would be like, would they fit in, would they be successful. My fears that night were my standard, Type-A Perfectionist ones: some variation of whether or not I’m good enough, successful enough, or accomplishing enough.

And so, we took these fears, rolled them up into tiny scrolls and tied them to the lanterns. Then watched, as they were carried off high away into the distance, until all we could see was a tiny speck of fire, and then even that went out. We named our fears and then we let go of them. It was liberating and cathartic.

We all have fears, worries, anxieties, that plague our lives. Maybe it’s a fear of an illness returning or getting worse. Fear of loneliness. Fear of a lack of acceptance—of who we are, or what we have to offer. Maybe, like those graduating seniors, a fear about whether we’ll fare well in a new chapter in our lives.

This past week, though, I wish I had a hundred lanterns. We all have seen the stories and images coming out of Charlottesville. Where the KKK and white supremacists gathered to celebrate fear and hatred for their fellow human beings. A storm was descending upon that small college town.

And watching it through my newsfeed, I was afraid. Maybe you were, too. I was afraid of the amount of hatred. I was afraid for the future of our country. And on a more personal level, I was afraid for friends of mine, pastors in Virginia who purposefully went into the storm. Who left safe houses and neighborhoods to show up in Charlottesville and confess that racism is not Christian. Racism is not from God. Who went into the storm to call white supremacy what it is: evil and sinful.

I saw images and posts telling me that the church they were worshipping in, sharing love and peace in, was surrounded by the KKK and they were unable to leave. And I was afraid.

These friends of mine, and many, many others, not just clergy but college students, people of all faiths and no faith, people who had come together to proclaim love—they went into the storm.

Our reading from Matthew this morning couldn’t be more timely. Jesus sends his disciples out on their own, and they find themselves caught in the midst of a terrible storm. But just when the waves were at their worst, just when the disciples were terrified, there is Jesus. When Peter desires to follow Jesus even further into the whirlwind, he begins to sink. But then there is Jesus, to lift him up again.

When fear in the midst of the storm causes us to sink, Jesus will grab hold of us, just as he did with Peter. Jesus doesn’t give up on us, even when we are overwhelmed by fears and anxieties and doubts. Even when we are not sure that Jesus is even there. Jesus is there, with us in the storm to restore us to the community, to the shelter of the boat.

It would be really, really nice if I could stand up here and say that Jesus brings an end to our fears. No more fear; God takes away all our worries and anxieties. God takes away the evil in the world for us. That would be awesome, and it would mean pretty good things for my own life.

But you’d know as well as I do that it just isn’t true. Life, and the life of faith especially, involves fear. It involves confronting evil and hatred with the love of God. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t have been threatening enough that people felt they had to kill Jesus. It wouldn’t still be threatening enough that people of faith are silenced and vilified when they speak out about oppression and injustice. It wouldn’t be threatening enough that white supremacists had to surround and intimidate Christians worshipping in a church.

But those are the things we are called to. Roman Ciarlello will be baptized in just a few minutes. He, and all of us, in our baptisms are called to trust God God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.

Such a calling, by its very nature, means that there will be moments of fear. There will be times of uncertainty and confusion, when the right choice is the hard choice, when living a Christ-like existence—loving our neighbors, welcoming strangers, serving the poor—means walking into the storm and braving the winds.

But Roman doesn’t just receive that calling this morning. He also receives a whole boatful of people to share it with him. One of my favorite parts of the baptismal service is when it is the congregation’s chance to join in and say: We welcome you into the body of Christ and into the mission we share; join us in giving thanks and praise to God.

The call to step out into choppy waters, into unknown areas for the sake of God comes alongside the promise that we are never alone. Through baptism, Roman enters this community that we are all a part of. The community of disciples that is there to console one another, uplift one another, and support one another through difficult times.

More than that, though, God is there, too. God is there in the midst of our fears, showing up when the storm is at its worst. God is there in the midst of our anxieties and uncertainties, walking with us through the stormy waters of life. God is there to lift us up when we fall down, to walk with us until we are once again safe and calm.

May God’s arm hold us fast, and God’s presence be our guide, now and always. And may the love of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds on Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

More than enough

Below is my sermon from August 6, on Jesus’ feeding the 5,000. With such a familiar story, I thought it would be interesting to pull out the details we could easily overlook. What stands out to you in this story? Have you ever been in the position of the disciples, facing an overwhelming problem and unsure of what to do?

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

Jesus feeding the five thousand is one of the best known stories from the gospels. It’s a lot of people’s favorite story about Jesus and it is one of the only stories to appear in each and every gospel. Because it’s so well known, though, it’s easy to listen to it but not really hear it.

So I’d like to take some time to re-read the story and to take note of some of the things we might frequently gloss over. “Now, when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” We’ve jumped into the middle of a narrative, and so are left wondering—what did Jesus just hear?

Well, he has just been told that John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod. Jesus’ cousin, friend, forerunner, is now dead at the hands of the state. And so it makes sense that he withdraws: he is grieving, he is tired, he wants just a little bit of space to be by himself and process his emotions.

“But when the crowds heart it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Jesus may want space and some alone time, but he doesn’t get it. The crowds, hearing about the death of John, are drawn even more to Jesus. And there’s two little details here that we might not notice: Jesus sees them, and has compassion for them.

To truly see someone is more than just to look at someone, or take in their outer appearance. Rather, Jesus acknowledges them, takes notice of them. And then he is moved to compassion. What is compassion? Compassion is not just feeling sorry for someone else, it is truly feeling with them. It is understanding another’s troubles or situation from the inside out—and then acting on it. One definition I read said that compassion is empathy in action. And Jesus acts on that feeling, healing the sick in the crowd.

But by now, the sun is setting, and “when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’” The disciples can come off looking a little bit callous here. Maybe they were a little.

But I also hear something else in their statement: they were overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the expanse of the need. When faced with need beyond what we think is in our power to deal with, how often are we paralyzed? Large-scale need can cause us to feel powerless in our ability to help. Maybe they were being a little callous, too. Maybe they thought if they sent the people away, at least it wouldn’t be the disciples’ problem anymore.

Not so, according to Jesus. “They need not go away,” he says, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And the truth comes out. The disciples have not acted because they think they don’t have enough. That what they have to offer will not be enough to make a difference to so great a need.

But Jesus doesn’t hesitate, and simply tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. He looks to heaven, blesses the food, and gives it back to the disciples. And the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. All ate and were filled. In the hands of Jesus, the disciples’ meager offering becomes an abundance of riches.

What can we take from this story? I think the first point is that God is love. That sounds cliché, but God isn’t love in a cliché way. God isn’t love in the abstract; God isn’t love in a good-feeling kind of way. Jesus sees the crowds and has compassion for them. Compassion is love that cares deeply about the most basic needs of all. Jesus, and by extension God, isn’t merely interested in how we feel or what we think or our spiritual life. Our whole being matters to God. Our ability to be healed from sickness matters to God. Our physical hunger and needs matter to God. God is love in the active, all-encompassing way that sees and wants to tend to our needs.

Secondly, we learn a lot about being disciples. Being a disciple sometimes means being overwhelmed by great need. I am overwhelmed sometimes. When I see a world that has so much need: so much poverty and hunger, so much hatred for fellow humans. And the news seems to pile up faster than we can respond to it; it is easy to get overwhelmed.

But as Jesus’ disciples, we are given a responsibility to care for God’s people. Jesus doesn’t feed the 5,000 in this story. Jesus gives what is needed to his disciples and tells them to do it. To follow Jesus is to express our faith in concrete acts of love, justice, and compassion. We don’t get the luxury of turning our heads when faced with need and injustice—whether because we feel overwhelmed or because we’d just rather not see—Jesus demands that we see, and that we act.

But we do not act alone. The third, and probably most important, learning that I see in this story is the true miracle of the loaves and the fishes. God provides an abundance. God takes what we have to offer—it might seem meagre or insufficient—but in the hands of God it is more than enough. It reminds me of the quote from Mother Teresa: “In this life, we cannot always do great things; but we can do small things with great love.”

It is such love that is at the heart of this story. Jesus’ compassion for the crowds sets the whole thing in motion. May we know that love and compassion in our hearts—know that God sees and knows and has compassion for us. And may we show the riches of God’s abundance in great love towards others. Amen.

On Wheat and Weeds and Judgment

Below is my sermon from July 23, 2017, focusing on Jesus’ Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds. Parables can be tricky, in part because we’ve been conditioned to read them allegorically. But they weren’t always intended that way–they are stories meant to make us question, think, and consider. There aren’t always easy answers. But the questioning can bring out a lot of good thoughts, anyway.

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

In seminary, one of the highlights of the year was always the flag football tournament, known as Luther Bowl. Eight seminaries would send teams, some from as far away as Chicago and South Carolina, to Gettysburg to play for the honor of winning the trophy—a replica of the Book of Concord. If you didn’t already know this: people at seminaries are major dorks.

But the highlight of Luther Bowl was always the traditional match that started it all over forty years ago: Philly versus Gettysburg. We had our own trophy just for that game, a rivalry that is right up there with Oklahoma versus Texas or Ohio State versus Michigan.

As a highly competitive person, I loved it. I probably got way too into the football, but it was a lot of fun. By my third year playing, we had already lost the Gettysburg game for two straight Luther Bowls, and we had to win this one to avoid just like total embarrassment. The only problem was, the Philly-Gettysburg game was last on the schedule and we were losing players throughout the day.

A couple were hurt, but a bunch just had to leave for other commitments: weddings, church services, you name it, but when the time came for the big game, our team had only 12 players left for an eight aside game.

What happened, though, was that we played better—better than we had in our first two games, better than we had when we’d been able to get rest and have subs. Because those of us who were left were the ones who actually cared—the ones who’d been at practices, who pushed ourselves, who wanted, not just to win, but to embarrass Gettysburg. And we did: 38-13.

Once we had weeded out, you could say, the hangers on, we were left with a small team, but a cohesive, dedicated team. It’s why teams have cuts, because they don’t want to be pulled down by those who can’t pull their own weight. It’s why I’ve wanted, in many a group project in school, to cast off those who were slowing the whole group down.

It’s a concept that works really well for teams, and even for group projects, if the professor will let you do it. Get rid of the dead weight, and those who are left are able to perform better. And for good or ill, it’s also a desire we sometimes have with church.

It’s one of the things the church has always struggled with—the fact that, as an institution, we are imperfect. Some seem to truly feel the zeal and faith in their hearts and others seem to just be hanging around. It’s what leads to desires to purge the membership rolls, get rid of those who don’t really fit the bill. It’s not new.

There’ve been different responses throughout history. The Apostle Paul was more of a purge the rolls kind of guy—advocating in First Corinthians to avoid all those who do not live morally upright lives and to not allow them into the assembly.

A few centuries later, during a time of great persecution, some in the church renounced their faith and made vows to the emperor. After the peril was over, they wanted back in the church and those who had suffered didn’t think they should be allowed in. In that case, St. Augustine argued, in part based on today’s parable, that the church is not a selective club for the most holy, but a place where all are together.

The question hasn’t gone away; such is our human nature, our penchant for judgment and condemnation. For declaring the future of those we deem somehow inadequate in faith and Christian life. For assuming malignance in another as if our own actions are above reproach.

This parable ought to stop us in our tracks. Good and bad seed sown together. When the plants came up and bore grain, then the weed appeared as well. And the servants came and wanted to know how this bad seed got into the field. And they were prepared to go out and tear it up. But the householder said no. For in gathering the weeds, they would uproot the wheat—they must both grow together until the harvest.

Who do we think that we are? God? Yet many do. We do. A lot. We decide that we know who is worthy and unworthy, we draw lines of who is in and who is out. As much as we rush to judgment, as we rush in to pull up the weeds lest they infest the whole field, Jesus counsels patience. We do not know what is wheat and what is weeds. We cannot know, mostly because it is not our job to decide.

But also, the fact of the matter is, this is a parable. It’s a story that is meant to make us rethink our assumptions about God, about each other, and about ourselves. There is no one-to-one comparison. We are all both wheat and weeds at different points in our lives. We all have the capability for producing good fruit, and yet we all often let that good fruit get entangled by other cares and issues.

Perhaps Jesus’ preaching patience frustrates us. I know it frustrates me at times. We want to tear out the weeds, we want to fix things and make them as close to perfect as we can. We want to get rid of whatever holds us back, but we can’t. The most honest part of this parable is that the field is imperfect. There is good and bad intermingled together, intermingled in the church, intermingled even within ourselves. And to try to separate it would mean the loss of some of the wheat.

We live in this confusing time that Paul writes about in our Romans reading today. This time where we wait, with eager longing for what is to come. We have experienced the inbreaking of God’s kingdom or reign, the inauguration of a new era of hope and possibility in which we, Jesus’ followers, are to be a sign, witness, and foretaste of what is to come. At the same time, we live in the “not yet.” While God has broken into our lives and creation and bridged the gulf of estrangement between us, God’s reign is not fully here yet.

Having patience for that reign to be fully realized is not the same thing as having passivity until that moment comes. On the contrary. This parable teaches us that judgment is ultimately in God’s hands, not ours. It is not up to us to exclude anyone from God’s redemptive power. In the long run, it’s a freeing thing: Trusting that God will redeem the world frees us to take responsibility for the care of our corner of it. We aren’t in charge of defeating evil and death, that’s God’s job. But we can take care of our neighbors, speak out against injustice, and support those in need.

May the God of both the wheat and the weeds bless us with patience and compassion—for others and for ourselves, as we seek this work of growing and producing good fruit. Amen.

 

A Sower Went out to Sow

Below is my sermon from Sunday, July 16. It is mostly focused on the Jesus’ parable of the sower in Matthew. This past week, I had the great joy of being with some of St. Paul’s youth on a service trip entirely focused on food justice and urban gardens, so this text was perfect! I hope you enjoy reading some of the highlights from our trip, and look for more in the future as the youth will share their own stories.

A sower went out to sow. On Thursday, after having spent the past four days working at our service projects, one of our youth said to me: I hope I never have to see another garden again. I definitely agreed with her. And then on Friday, after we came home, I looked to see what the readings were for this Sunday. And I could only shake my head. A sower went out to sow.

This week, ten of our youth, Stu Krissinger, and myself were working with fifty other youth and adults from the synod at a service project site in Philadelphia. All of the kids are going to be in high school this year and our group was made up of mostly ninth and tenth graders.

Our week of service was focused entirely on food—food availability, food justice, food sustainability. Through talking with urban farmers, food bank managers, and our nearby neighbors, we learned about how access to nutritious, affordable food is limited in Philadelphia, large parts of which qualify as a food desert.

And we worked every day with those who are actively seeking to change this. We spent one whole day with East Park Revitalization Alliance at their three-hundred bed garden in Gray’s Ferry. Thanks to our kids, work that would have taken the staff a week was accomplished in about five hours.

Stu’s group of kids then spent most of their week at the Eliza Shirley house, a Salvation Army project that provides food and shelter to mothers and children in need. My group went to two more community gardens, both in the Mount Airy section of the city. One helped residents learn about growing their own healthy food and supported the local food bank. The other was attached to a women and children’s shelter, providing that place with fresh produce.

And, as a lot of you already know, gardening is hard work. We spent our time weeding, watering, and pruning. Cutting back trees and pulling vines, spreading mulch and ripping up roots. And were we ever tired by the end of it. (Not that that helped us fall asleep at a reasonable hour.)

And so, when I came home, and I read the familiar parable of the sower again, after rolling my eyes at a garden story, my first thought this week was—this sower is really crazy. Gardening, farming, growing things out of seeds is hard enough work without this kind of reckless behavior. Sowing seed on the path? In the thorns? In rocks? Who does that? He was being wasteful and extravagant—and only making more work for himself later. I know—we spent a lot of time pulling plants up from where they didn’t belong.

Except, as we learned firsthand this week, unlikely places, and unlikely people, can be surprising places of grace and beauty. In Grays Ferry, a rough neighborhood many of us hadn’t been to before, we saw an abundant harvest, of vegetables and fruits and flowers, all lovingly cared for by a recovering drug addict. We saw a community that had come together to make a change for the better. We saw hope and redemption at a homeless shelter. We stayed at a church run school on North Broad street, doing everything it could to be a positive influence in the community.

A sower went out to sow, and scattered seed everywhere. Even in the places that didn’t seem like a good investment. Even in the places that common sense would have told you to avoid. Did it all take root? No. Will our seeds of love and service always take root? No, they won’t, not always. Will the seed of God’s love always land in receptive places in our own lives? Probably not.

If you want to look at it from a simple cost-benefit angle, it is wasteful to do what God does. To simply throw seed everywhere. But God doesn’t look at things from that angle. The seed itself is good, and God never tires of scattering it abundantly, extravagantly, and yes, even wastefully.

It might not all take root, but some of it will. And sometimes, it will take root in the places that didn’t seem like a good bet, in the places where it seemed wasteful to give it a chance to grow. And beauty will bloom out of the broken cracks that were there before.

Because when that seed takes hold, and grows roots, in my life, or your life, in the community—when it hits the right soil at the right time, we will be amazed by the results. I know that I was amazed this week—amazed at the beauty and growth and potential in the communities we were working with, but also amazed at the ways our group, our youth, was stretched and challenged and grew right before my eyes by the experiences God had placed in our path.

A sower went out to sow—and that sower sowed abundantly, extravagantly, even recklessly. The sower sowed in unlikely places, and in unlikely people. And thank God for that. Amen.

On Christian Freedom

Below is my sermon from July 2, the fourth week after Pentecost. Our reading from Romans turned out to be quite timely, as Paul discusses the nature of true freedom:

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

This year marks my third “colonial service” here at St. Paul’s, and it’s a tradition I have come to appreciate for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it is important to always remember that our Christian faith and the gospel of Jesus Christ transcends nationalistic holidays; it transcends really, any division we seek to put upon ourselves as children of God: be it country, race, or gender.

But it also, we are reminded today, transcends time. In this service, we are invited to remember the generations and multitudes that have gone before us, not just at St. Paul’s, not just in America, but throughout the centuries of the faith. Every Sunday, we worship in communion with all the saints in heaven and on earth, but through this Sunday’s worship we have a more tangible reminder of it than usual.

And we have an especially appropriate reading for today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, where he talks about what it means to be free. I’d like to read just a few verses of it, in more modern English than we had the first go around: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that you, having once been slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted, and that you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Having been set free from sin, you have become slaves of righteousness. What does it mean to be free? We don’t often think of being set free in terms of becoming a slave to something. What is freedom? We usually think of freedom in terms of freedom from things. Freedom from the tyranny of a distant crown; freedom from government meddling in how we speak, associate, or worship; or even freedom from a meaningless job.

We measure freedom largely in terms of the degree to which we are free from constraints. Freedom is personal independence. It is the ability to think for ourselves, choose for ourselves, and do for ourselves, without being encumbered by outside influences, whether they are laws, the needs of others, or our own moral compass. That’s the kind of freedom we like to think and talk about around the fourth of July.

Except, that’s not at all the kind of freedom that Paul is talking about in this letter to the Romans. Paul is living in a different time and place that really has no concept of personal freedom. Individualism is not yet even a concept, let alone the dominant practice of the culture. And from that perspective, Paul is able to cut right through our modern myth of personal independence.

In Paul’s understanding, we are all enslaved. Not one of us is a truly independent being. Our allegiance, whether it is a conscious decision or not, belongs to something or someone. We’ve heard the expression, “He is a slave to fashion.” He lets the passing fads of the day dictate his choices—what he buys, what he wears.

What about, “She is a slave to fitness.” She arranges her life and relationships around trips to the gym and rigorous workouts. Some people have pledged their allegiance to personal wealth and are guided by the whims of Wall Street. If you want to know who your master is, pay attention to the thing that most often occupies your thoughts. Pay attention to how you spend your time and money.

We are so invested in this idea of personal independence, that it grates on us to think about being a slave to anything. But Paul’s point is that we are all serving someone, whether we’re thinking about it or not. Like the Bob Dylan song goes, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody, it may be the Devil or may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The question is not whether we will follow someone or something, the question is not whether we will give our allegiance to someone, but the question is who? Who is going to have our allegiance? Because, like the golden age of baseball, there is no such thing as free agency. In order to play the game, you need to be owned by one team or another.

The teams of serving ourselves, of following our own best interests, as Paul says, obeying our passions, do not lead anywhere but death. Not literal death, but the death of compassion, the death of empathy. The teams of our business, or our family, or our whatever, above everything else leads to death. The death of community, the death of that which is bigger than ourselves.

But thanks be to God that we have been brought from death to life, that we have been bought from the powers of sin and self-interest buy the love of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. We who have once been slaves of sin have been set free from sin. Set free from that which seeks to control us, even within ourselves.

We have been set free, not in order that we might shake off all constraints, but we have been set free from sin in order that we might become slaves of righteousness. God’s love, God’s forgiveness and acceptance, set us free from that which binds us—even our own fears and limitations and shortcomings. But we are set free in order that we might be constrained by God’s righteousness. That we might be constrained by love of God and love of neighbor.

Martin Luther, in one of his more influential writings, titled, On the Freedom of a Christian, would have been able to give this whole sermon in his first two sentences: A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.

We cannot be free, truly free, unless we submit ourselves to God, the source of true freedom. We are not truly free unless, in God’s love, we are subject to one another. May the love of God, the grace of God which frees us all from the bonds of sin and self-centeredness, bless us in our love and service towards others. Amen.

 

A Handmaid’s Tale

Yesterday, at St. Paul’s, we celebrated Andy Heller’s 20th anniversary as Director of Music! It was a fantastic day, with beautiful music and good food and fun together. As I mention in my sermon, though, unfortunately our texts weren’t quite as festive. Continuing on through Genesis, this week we read of Hagar and her son Ishmael.

Understandably, texts like these give people a lot of questions. When we read difficult texts, the challenge is to find where God is acting in them and to see how they are calling us to act.

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

Today has served as a really good example to me why I ought to read ahead to see what texts are coming up before we go about planning a party. Happy twenty years, Andy. But don’t get too comfortable because Jesus is here to bring not peace, but a sword.

I spent some time this week trying to figure out how to weave these passages into something happy, but finally decided that my gift to you today would be to have the best sermon I could, even if it isn’t the happiest it could possibly be. So here goes:

Last week, in our Genesis reading, we had Sarah’s story. God’s reminding Sarah of the promise, God fulfilling God’s promise to give to Sarah a son, despite her doubt and disbelief. And we were right there with Sarah, not believing that such a miracle could come true after so much time and yet rejoicing when the Lord brought life out of death.

If last week was Sarah’s story, this week is Hagar’s turn. Our reading doesn’t do a great job of explaining exactly who Hagar is. She is Sarah’s slave, her handmaiden. And during the years when Sarah was growing desperate of her ability to have a child, she “gave” Hagar to her husband Abraham, to bear a child for him. After all, she was a slave, so anything she has is Sarah’s: her son would be Sarah’s son. And so we have Ishmael, the son of Hagar the Egyptian.

But now that Sarah has a son of her own, her one-time solution has become quite a problem. Ishmael is no longer a means to continue the promise of God, but a liability and a threat to Isaac’s future. She tells Abraham to cast them out, to turn his back on them, and he does it. He’s a little reluctant, but he still does it—giving the woman and his son just a little bit of food and water and sending them into the wilderness.

As we read this story, I think the challenge for us is to ask ourselves, who do we cast aside? Or, perhaps, like Abraham, despite feeling badly about it, who do we let be cast aside? What fellow human beings are expendable to us in our pursuit of…whatever it is we’re after.

Is it the people whose hard work and labor we benefit from every day, sometimes all around the world, but never stop and question whether they have any decent standard of life? Whether their economic slavery is worth our comfort. Is it the children never given a chance to succeed with overcrowded, underfunded schools, just a county line away? Is it those ravaged by addiction and an opioid epidemic, that we would honestly rather we didn’t have to think about?

When Sarah sees Hagar and Ishmael as expendable, she’s playing a zero-sum game. If Ishmael has more of anything, it means that Isaac has less. For Isaac to win, Ishmael has to lose. It’s our problem, too. We act like life is a zero-sum game. And we all want to win.

But God has a different set of rules. God’s promise to Isaac, the covenant made with Abraham, it does not entitle Isaac to exclusive claims on God’s care or God’s presence. There is a promise to Ishmael also—God sees Ishmael, hears his cries, and cares and loves abundantly. There is no division of limited resources, of limited hopes and promises, but instead abundance. God’s way is not a zero-sum game. There is more than enough for all.

When Abraham offers a meagre skin of water that runs out quickly, God produces a well. God cares, God cares especially for those whom we cast aside. God cares especially for those others view as expendable. Giving abundantly of the love and mercy that will never run out.

This passage, as tough as it is, is an invitation for us to do the same. To stop playing the zero-sum game, and instead treat others, perhaps especially those we tend to cast aside, with God’s abundance. Not just in our hearts, but in our actions as well. What might the world look like if we actually did this?

If we truly give it a shot—loving like God loves, loving who God loves—I think we ought to be prepared for some of that conflict Jesus talked about. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth,” he says, “I have not come to bring peace but a sword.”

What he means is that Kingdom of God is not calm and tranquil. The Kingdom of God upsets and disrupts. The Kingdom of God upends systems of power and abuse that treat human beings as expendable. In their place, the kingdom of God demands true peace—not the false peace of the status quo—but the real peace of God.

Taking up our cross and following God’s way does have costs, and it might, in fact it probably will, cause conflict. Because it calls into question the ways we view and treat our fellow human beings. It calls into question the things we value. And it challenges the systems that teach us we can only win if someone else loses. And those systems and those values aren’t going to go down without a fight.

Yet right in the midst of this challenging, honestly scary, passage, we hear those words of Jesus that are spoken again and again in scripture: Do not fear. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. God knows every single hair on your head. You are of immense value to God. Just as God heard the cries of the child Ishmael, God still hears us today. God notices us, and God cares for us.

We would never be able to take up our crosses, and take up this holy calling if God had not first taken up the cross to show us the truth of love. That same love that we have received, that has changed our lives and made us whole, we take to extend to the outcast and stranger.

May God go with us. May God go behind us to encourage us, above us to watch over us, beneath us to lift us up, within us to give us the gifts of faith, hope, and love, and may God always go before us, to show us the way. Amen.

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRHOcskOudg

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.