Holy Goose

Below is my sermon from Pentecost Sunday, May 20. It is also the day that we celebrate Affirmation of Faith (Confirmation) at St. Paul’s. What do you think about the wild goose as a representation of the Holy Spirit? What animal might you suggest?

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

Pop quiz: what animal, specifically what bird, is most often associated with the Holy Spirit? (The dove.) You are right, of course. The dove has been associated with the Holy Spirit for a long, long time. At Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit is specifically mentioned as coming in the form of a dove. Doves appear as representations of the Spirit in all kinds of art. There are some in our stained glass, and on our font.

For Celtic Christians in the Middle Ages, though, the Holy Spirit was not symbolized by a dove at all, but instead by a wild goose. I was shocked when I learned that, because, honestly, geese have never been my favorite animal. A whole flock of them used to make their home on our field hockey field every fall—it was not exactly what you wanted to run through.

But then, my junior year in high school, a goose made its nest on an island in the parking lot. The island right next to my brother and my assigned parking space. Right next to, in fact, the passenger side door that I had to get into and out of every day.

The goose became such a nuisance that announcements were made over the intercom, imploring everyone to leave her alone. She was nesting, she would become aggressive, she would hurt you. And believe me, I wanted nothing more than to leave this mother goose alone. I had seen how nasty she could be. My brother, on the other hand, saw this goose as an opportunity to have some fun. He would pull the car into our space and park so my door lined up exactly with the goose. And then he got to watch as I opened the door just wide enough to squeeze out and tiptoe past the nesting animal, doing everything I could to appear non-threatening.

Geese seem like an odd choice for the Holy Spirit. They’re not pretty, or calm like a dove. They don’t coo gently, they honk obnoxiously. They’ve always been more annoying than anything else to me. And here the Celtic Christians are, making the Holy Spirit into a goose.

But maybe they were on to something. Maybe the wild goose, as obnoxious and inconvenient as it is, might just be a better representation of the Holy Spirit than a dove. Or at least it’s a good alternate interpretation. Because geese aren’t cute, or calm, or controllable. And neither is the Holy Spirit.

In our reading from Acts, about that first Pentecost Day, it says that the Holy Spirit appears not as a gently blowing breeze, but as the rush of a violent wind. It takes over the place the disciples are staying, filling the whole house. Fire appears above the disciples’ heads, and they are driven out into the street to start testifying about Jesus. They are given the ability to speak in other languages so that everyone there can hear and understand.

This is not a calm event. Everyone stops to stare and to listen. The Holy Spirit has come upon them and made such a spectacle of them, that some in the crowd even think they are drunk. Peter even has to deny it, telling the crowds that the men aren’t drunk, simply filled with the Holy Spirit.

At our Ascension Day service last week, our preacher Pastor Pat Davenport talked about the Holy Spirit, saying, “Let us be so filled with the Holy Spirit, that people wonder what the heck happened to us.” Let us be so completely taken over by God’s Spirit that people start questioning: “What happened to so-and-so?” “Why is Mom acting weird?” “Why are my kids doing what they’re doing?” Let the Spirit inside us be so strong, that we act like we’re out of our minds.

Geese are more than just wild, though. As much I might dislike them, they’re very loyal, committed animals. When they’re flying in formation, migrating, if one goose is injured or sick and has to land, another healthy goose will land with it. Will stay with the injured goose until together they are ready to rejoin the flock. Geese do not abandon each other.

The Spirit of God which descended at Pentecost is the same Spirit of God which moved over the waters at creation, calling forth life into being. It is the same Spirit, the same breath, that Ezekiel called into the dry bones, giving a hopeless people a future once again. It is the same Spirit that came down at Jesus’ baptism, declaring him to be beloved. It is the same Spirit that comes to each of us at our own baptisms, declaring us beloved, bringing new life and hope. God’s Spirit does not abandon us, especially not when we need that help the most. When we are injured, in mind or spirit, the Holy Spirit stays with us until together we take flight again.

It’s confirmation today, and eight of our young people will soon be affirming their faith and the promises made for them at their baptisms. And I will pray over each of them, asking God to stir up in them God’s Holy Spirit. And I can only hope that they are so filled by God’s Spirit that they have the rest of us asking: what the heck are they thinking? (In a good way, though, you guys.)

I say this to everyone, but especially today to our confirmands: be filled with the Holy Spirit. Be like geese. When you see something that isn’t right—be annoying and disruptive. You will be promising to strive for justice and peace in all the earth—make yourselves a nuisance to injustice, interrupt hatred and bigotry with God’s love. Be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God which moved over the waters at creation, which breathed new life into dry bones, which brought together those of different cultures and nationalities—that same Spirit is in you. And she will never abandon you. Be filled with the Holy Spirit: the Spirit that will sustain and keep you, embolden and uplift you, comfort you and challenge you. And never, ever leave you. Amen.

 

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Ordinary Saints

My sermon for the Seventh Sunday of Easter focused on our reading from Acts, the selection of Matthias to be an apostle. But, as I mention, I was more drawn to Joseph, who was not selected. What was his story? What did he do after this? We don’t know, just as we don’t know the stories of thousands of ordinary saints. Who were the ordinary saints for you? Perhaps you are one to someone else without even knowing it!

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

It was only a couple of minutes into recess and already the teams were starting to divide. The two boys called off names one by one, and we joined whichever side called our name to get ready for the kickball game. I got picked somewhere in the middle of the pack. I was a girl, but already by the fourth grade, I had a reputation for being scrappy.

Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. They remained waiting, hoping to be picked, until finally there were only two girls left. And one spot left. We wanted the teams to be even, so that meant someone was going to be left out. The teachers were sitting in the shade far away from the kickball field, or everyone might have had to be included. The final choice was made, and the poor girl who wasn’t picked trudged off to watch from the sidelines.

That’s the feeling I got listening to this story from Acts, of the disciples casting lots to figure out who was going to take Judas’s place among them. There are two equally-qualified candidates: Matthias and Joseph, sometimes called Barsabbas, sometimes called Justus. They both meet the main criterium: following Jesus from the beginning. The disciples pray about it. And still there is no clear choice, so they roll the dice. Matthias gets the last spot, and Joseph is left to watch from the sidelines.

It seems a terribly random way to do such an important thing. Casting lots. In Amish communities, it’s still a standard practice. All the men—only the men—take a hymnal at random and the one with a piece of paper in it is the preacher for the year. The process will repeat itself again when the new year begins.

We shouldn’t be so fast, though, to shake our heads at these odd, primitive processes for selecting church leaders. We, too, have what many would consider a very odd, old-fashioned method of electing our leadership. Our system is just more elaborate than pieces of paper in hymnals. We have nominating committees, and call committees, and congregational meetings instead.

Last weekend, at our synod assembly, we elected a new bishop, using a process called ecclesiastical ballot. Which means the over five-hundred voting members are given a blank sheet of paper and told to write down a name. We should consider ourselves lucky that only eighty-something people ended up being nominated. After those who wished to withdrew, the second ballot had 28 names, then it was narrowed to seven, then to three, and then we had a bishop. The Rev. Pat Davenport, the first black woman elected bishop in the ELCA.

After living through the election process, the idea of casting lots starts to seem appealing. But honestly, comparing the bishop’s election with the selection of Matthias in Acts, we find a lot of similarities. There is a discussion of what is needed: someone to fill this role. The synod underwent a self-study, much like congregations do before calling a pastor to think and to pray about what type of leader we need.

Then, you determine who is eligible for the position. In Acts it was anyone who had been with Jesus from the beginning. For the bishop’s election it is any ordained minister of the ELCA. You could have been ordained for 50 years or 50 minutes—you’re eligible. And once you lay out the need and the candidates, you pray, and you trust the Holy Spirit. In Acts, they prayed and rolled the dice. Today we pray and pass out ballots. And you have to trust that the Holy Spirit will use this flawed, human process to do something amazing.

I find myself drawn today, though to those who aren’t chosen. To those who didn’t win. Matthias takes the last spot among the apostles, and Joseph is just left to watch from the sidelines. Pat Davenport is elected bishop, and the others just go back to their calls and their churches and their lives.

In the book of Acts, neither Matthias nor Joseph is ever mentioned again. We don’t know what they get up to. Can we imagine a different ending for Joseph than the sidelines? He wasn’t called to this particular position, but can we imagine that he was called in some other way to bear witness to Jesus? He lost the toss of the dice, but nowhere does it say that he lost his faith.

We don’t hear about him ever again, so we are left to imagine. But I can only imagine that this man Joseph, who has been with Jesus from the beginning, continued to be a part of the church, continued to share what he had seen and heard. That he was there on Pentecost, when the Spirit descended like tongues of fire, that he preached and shared in the life of the community. That he became one of the hundreds, then thousands of ordinary people who carried this extraordinary gospel from generation to generation.

Most of us don’t have our first experience of God’s love through interacting with a bishop. Instead, we interact with the ordinary people in our lives. The Josephs, and those others whose names are never even mentioned. Our parents, grandparents, friends. Sunday school teachers. People who may never even be mentioned at synod assembly, but whose lives bear witness to God’s love in Christ.

These people may never get the recognition of even St. Matthias, but these are the ordinary saints who God uses to share that extra-ordinary story. The book of Acts and the history of the church unfolds because of hundreds upon hundreds of unnamed people. Who were those people for you? Who are those ordinary saints who made a difference in your life. A name I hear around St. Paul’s a lot is Mrs. Laudenslagger. She taught Sunday School for years, and impacted hundreds of lives. She is one of those people of faith whose ordinary life God used to do extraordinary things.

And so are you. No one is relegated to watching from the sidelines in the continually unfolding story of God’s love. No one is left to watch without participating. Maybe the roll of the dice will land on you, and you will be called to a public and well-known position, and you will use it for God’s glory. If so, thanks be to God.

But maybe the dice will never land on you. If that’s the case, then thanks be to God for that, too! Because in that case, we have the great calling to share God’s love in ordinary ways. To be the Josephs and the Mrs. Laudenslaggers of the world. To share God’s story with other ordinary people. And in doing so, we are a part of that extraordinary story: the story of God’s great and unfolding love for all people, and all creation. And that is never just ordinary. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

 

Love, love, love

Love is all you need. So say the Beatles, so says our Scripture (kind of). Our readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter focused on love, but is it really all you need? Read the sermon and let me know what you think!

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

“All you need is love.” Given today’s readings, we start to get the sense that the Beatles might have been right after all: all you need is love. Jesus says in the Gospel of John: As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you, abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you…I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” And the First Letter of John teaches us that “the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments.” Last week in our reading from First John, we heard that we ought to love one another, because love is from God. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.

All you need is love. But is that really true? When the Beatles first sang those words in the turbulent 60s, the reactions came in amongst two extremes: an enthusiastic embrace of love as the simple solution to the world’s problems, and a critical rejection of love as a dreamy emotion serving only to distract people as the problems got worse. One side pleads for tolerance, asking “can’t we all just get along?”, while the other demands an acknowledgment of and response to the real problems plaguing society. Love alone won’t cut it.

We saw these two sides play out in the news recently, with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, also known as the lynching memorial. The memorial traces the history of lynching, and displays the names of the over 4,000 black people who were lynched in this country. It has been lauded as a step towards acknowledging and confronting the evil of racism. But others wonder why it needs to be there at all. Quoted in USA Today, white Montgomery residents said, “We’ve moved past this. I think they just need to leave it alone. It keeps putting the emphasis on discrimination and cruelty, why can’t we focus on getting along?”

Is simply loving each other really the answer to such complex and painful problems? The answer, I think, lies in more questions: what does love really mean? What does loving our neighbors look like? What kind of love is Jesus describing? Does it mean just getting along, putting a happy face on things? Is love what Hallmark would have us believe?

When Jesus tells the disciples that his commandment is for them to love one another, he also describes exactly what that means: as I have loved you. The love of Jesus is love in action. It is a servant love: pouring out its life for the sake of another. Love for Jesus is not an emotion, or a feeling, it’s not simply getting along. Love is an action.

Love is washing the feet of others—even those who will betray and deny you. Love is sharing a meal. Love is standing with those who are oppressed and denied their rights. Love is speaking out against unjust systems. Love is caring for those often forgotten by the rest of society: the homebound and sick, the day laborers and migrant farmers, those far from their families.

When Jesus says, “You are my friends if you do what I command you,” he means you are my friends if you act in love towards one another. Not just feel love, but act in love. That is Jesus’ command. All the other commandments in Scripture stem from this one: to love one another.

Sometimes, when we hear the word, “command” it can be off-putting. Especially the way Jesus puts it: “if you do what I command, then you are my friends.” We balk at being told what to do. But as First John says: God’s commandments are not burdensome.

God’s commands, including this command to love one another, should not be viewed as a burden, but rather as a gift. The commandments are gifts from God to help assist in personal and communal living. At the second service (in just a few minutes) when Mara Roe is baptized, we will hear some of God’s commandments. Today, they are being spoken to those who will be Mara’s sponsors, and not Mara herself, but as sponsors you promise to teach Mara God’s commands and help her to grow into them: to trust God, 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 live in love towards God, other people, and the whole world.

These commandments are a gift, because they show us God’s love. They hold our community together in God’s love, and they provide the way that we might live as Christ did: in love.

In a sense, the Beatles did have it right. All you need is love. But not cheap love, not flighty love. Not love without giving of ourselves. Not love without action. But instead, the servant love of God made known to us in Christ Jesus. We love because God first loved us. Because God continues to come to us love, claiming us, serving us, and naming us as beloved children. Our love flows from God’s love, and so it takes on the character of God’s love: service, action, accompaniment.

On Tuesday, we celebrate Julian of Norwich, a theologian and mystic. Julian lived in the thirteenth century, as an anchorite, a nun living in an isolated cell attached to a church. When she was around thirty, she received a vision, which she details in her book, Revelations of Divine Love. I’d like to close with a quote from Julian, and a quote from Jesus:

“For we are so preciously loved by God that we cannot even comprehend it. No created being can ever know how much and how sweetly and tenderly God loves them.” And from Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love…This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

People of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, God’s commandments are not burdensome, but are in fact a gift and ground to our lives. Let us allow God’s greatest gift to us—God’s love—to guide our actions and our hearts. Amen.

An Unexpected Conversation

More often than not, I preach on the gospel text for the day. But this week the story from Acts had such a strong pull on me that I barely mentioned Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is timeless because we still struggle with many of the things that might have kept these men apart: race, gender, economic class, nationality. But that is exactly where the Holy Spirit is calling us to go: into the difficult places and difficult conversations. Like Philip and the Ethiopian, we might be surprised at what we find there.

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

This was a conversation that never should have happened. Philip and this Ethiopian eunuch, that is. Everything ought to have kept these two men apart from each other. Philip isn’t even supposed to be here. He’s a deacon, one of the men chosen to help order and serve the church in Jerusalem. The disciples were too busy with prayer and teaching, that they couldn’t make sure everyone was fed and cared for. So the seven deacons were chosen. Except then the persecution started. Stephen, also a deacon, is stoned to death, and the rest of these table-servers are scattered, fleeing for their lives. And Philip finds himself being led by the Spirit down a wilderness road.

He never would have expected a conversation with an Ethiopian eunuch of all people, honestly, because he was an Ethiopian eunuch! He was a sexual minority, not viewed as a whole man, not allowed to worship God in the temple. He was probably a God-fearer, a person who was drawn to the God of Israel, but had not made a full conversion. In his case, he couldn’t, on account of being a eunuch.

He was a foreigner, from Ethiopia—that unknown land south of Egypt. But beyond those things, this man was a wealthy and powerful person. He is the chief treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. He has a chariot and servants. He has a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which would have been quite costly. He is an educated, influential person.

This conversation never should have happened. There are so many walls that could been put up. Philip didn’t ask for this: to go and preach to a eunuch, and not just a eunuch but a foreign eunuch. And for the Ethiopian’s part—who is this Philip, a poor bedraggled man on the side of the road to ask him if he understands what he’s reading?

But instead of putting up those walls—walls of nationality, of religion, gender-identity—instead of stopping this conversation before it starts, something miraculous happens. Philip trusts in the Spirit. Philip follows God’s call and approaches this chariot he might have otherwise let pass by. And the eunuch, instead of ignoring this man, telling his chariot to speed up, is humble enough to accept help, and open enough to listen to what Philip has to say.

And after he hears Philip’s story, after he hears about Jesus life, death, and resurrection, he wants to be a part of it. He sees the stream by the side of the road and asks, “here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?” It’s almost as if he’s expecting to hear Philip say no.

When we think about it, there are actually quite a few things that might prevent this Ethiopian eunuch from being baptized. He was living in Ethiopia, for one, cut off from the land of Israel and from the budding church. He was a eunuch, in violation of religious law. He was a member of the cabinet of the queen of Ethiopia, loyal to the wrong sovereign. He belonged to the wrong nation, held the wrong job, and possessed the wrong sexuality.

He has probably heard no many times before. But instead of being told “no,” instead of being told this is good news for some people, but not you, instead of being turned away, he hears only God’s joyful “yes.” Yes to who he is, yes to his worth as a person, yes to his inclusion, yes to his being grafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ. And he goes away rejoicing.

What is to prevent him from being baptized? What is to prevent anyone from being baptized? Can wealth, race, sexual status, piety, understanding? The good news is for all and all are invited to share in this fullness of life with God and each other.

It was a conversation that never should have happened, and it led to great rejoicing! The Ethiopian Church, one of the oldest in the world traces its origins to this moment. There have been Christians in Ethiopia for almost as long as there have been Christians. In fact, when European missionaries headed into Africa, thinking they would be bringing with them the news of Jesus, they found in Ethiopia a vibrant, strong, and ancient church. How much could have gone differently if either one of these men refused this conversation?

Where do we put up walls? Where do we avoid encountering those who are different from ourselves? We might not even have mean motives—we might just be uncomfortable and not know what to do or say. And so we avoid. Those who look differently from ourselves. Those who speak with accents we don’t recognize. Those whose sexuality is different from our own, or presented differently than we expect. Those who are not from our own economic class.

But when we open ourselves up, instead of avoiding, instead of putting up walls, we experience the fullness of God. We experience God’s “yes” which says to each and every one of us: you are a person of worth. You are welcome here, you are included here. There is nothing to prevent you from belonging here. What was true for the Ethiopian eunuch is true for us: there is nothing to prevent us from experiencing God’s love.

And what is true for us is true for our brothers and sisters who differ from us. Those who are still excluded from many parts of the church for their differences. Differences in sexuality or race or class or nationality.

This week, I’d like to challenge us: to let God’s Spirit lead us into conversations that shouldn’t happen. Meetings, interactions that we’d otherwise avoid. Because when we do so, when we stop and take notice of the people God puts in our path, amazing things can happen. What is to prevent us from being agents of God’s grace and love that we have experienced? What is to prevent us from sharing the good news that God’s yes is for everyone?

It was a conversation that never should have happened. But thank God that it did. Because Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch not only show us God’s expansive and inclusive love, but bid us to go and do likewise. Have those conversations. And most importantly, share the love of God that we have experienced in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Love in Truth and Action

Here is my sermon from April 22, 2018, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. This Sunday every year is called “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We read some part of John 10, where Jesus uses analogies of shepherds and sheep to talk about his mission. Feeling like I’ve already used up all my sheep stories in just the few years I’ve been preaching, I decided to preach on 1 John 3:16-24 instead. This text felt very preachable, because the issue of how to put our faith in action ought to be present in most of our decisions. What would Jesus do? This became a catch-phrase, but it remains a very real question we should still be asking ourselves.

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

In a small town in America, not too long ago, a person decided to open up a new business right across the street from a church. The only trouble was, his business was a bar—the first in the town. The church and its congregation started a campaign to block the bar from opening right across the street. They prayed daily in the hopes of stopping it.

Work on the bar continued. However, when it was almost complete and about to open a few days later, a bolt of lightning struck the bar and it was burnt to the ground. Although they didn’t say it, the church folks were rather pleased with themselves. At least they were until the bar owner sued the church for damages, claiming that the church and its prayers were responsible.

In its reply to the court, the church denied any responsibility or any connection that their prayers were the cause of the bar’s demise. As the case made its way into court, the judge looked at all the paperwork and commented: I don’t know how to decide this case, but it appears from the filings we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer and an entire congregation that does not.

It’s just a joke, but what’s going on in this story is a funny look at the very real problem of hypocrisy. There are so many warnings out there for us to avoid hypocrisy: “practice what you preach;” “actions speak louder than words;” “don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.” In other words, make sure that your actions line up with what you say. With what you believe.

There’s a lot of talk in the past several years about young people and church. Millenials, Gen-Zers, too, now. Why we aren’t coming to church in the same kind of numbers that previous generations did. It’s a complex situation, and I if I had all the answers to this, I could retire early. But in talking with friends my age, some who are part of a church, and some who aren’t, the thing that keeps coming up is hypocrisy. There is a sense, whether it’s correct or not, that churches and the people in them are hypocritical.

As someone obviously deeply invested in church, I don’t think this is a completely fair assessment, but I do see where it’s coming from. Especially if someone’s looking in from the outside of the community. They see churches that are more focused on preservation than mission, leaders who preach abstinence and self-control and get caught in affairs and scandals. Televangelists with multimillion dollar homes. Groups of people who seem to spend more time on pointing the finger and judging than on love.

Human nature means it’s easy to fall into these patterns. It was something that the author of First John, writing thousands of years ago was concerned with. He said, “Let us love, not in word or in speech, but in truth and action.” He was telling this church to walk the walk. “How does God’s love abide,” he asks, “in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” Actions speak louder than words.

Having faith in God and being active in love towards others go hand in hand. When God creates saving faith in our hearts, God creates active love. Faith in Jesus Christ is a faith that transforms our hearts. Faith and love together are the gifts of God’s grace—we cannot receive one without the other.

Actions are how we know love. How do know God’s love? It is through God’s actions. God reaches out in love, not only to God’s people Israel, but to the whole world. God saves Noah and his family, God leads the people out of Egypt, God speaks through the prophets when the people have gone astray. And God comes to us, most concretely in love, in the person of Jesus Christ, who lives in love even to the point of laying down his life for his sheep.

We know the love of God through the actions of God. Actions in our lives, which, maybe not as large or obvious as the biblical epics, still teach and show us God’s love. The love of others—parents, spouses, family, children, friends—reflects God’s love. The help of someone else in a time of need. God’s Spirit given to guide and sustain us.

The question First John seeks to answer is this: how will others know the love of God in us? It is through our actions. Not in words or in speech, but in the revealing truth of our actions. Jesus said that the shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. First John says that we are to lay down our lives for one another. With the example of Jesus before us, the idea of laying down our lives seems daunting and not really something most of us are interested in.

There are, of course, those shining examples of this love in its most extreme form: Oscar Romero, the bishop of El Salvador, who was shot while consecrating the mass because he stood up for the poor people in his country. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot while trying to organize for the rights of garbage workers in Memphis. The French police officer, Arnaud Beltrame, who just last month offered to switch places with a hostage in a terrorist attack and was killed.

This is laying down your life for others. But we also lay down our lives for others in smaller, less noticeable ways. We lay down our lives when we put others first, especially in our culture which says we should always put ourselves first. We lay down our lives when we live for the good of others. We lay down our lives when we allow God to reorient us toward the needs of others.

What does love look like? How do we speak love in our actions? Love looks like making time for a friend. Love looks like welcoming a stranger. Love looks like feeding someone who’s hungry. Love looks like being a thoughtful steward of the environment. Love looks like putting others’ needs before our wants.

There are many voices competing for our attention. But we know the voice of our shepherd, who lived in love, who acted in love, who laid down his life in love, for us. Beloved, let us love, not just in word or in speech, but in truth and action. Let us take the love of God which is in our hearts, and let it shine forth in our lives, through the things we do and say every day. Let us follow our shepherd, whose love and care sustain us on our way. Amen.

Scars

Below is my sermon from April 15, 2018, the third Sunday of Easter. Every year on this third Sunday of Easter, we hear in the Gospel reading a story of Jesus having a post-resurrection meal with his disciples. I have to say, of the three-year cycle, this one, Luke 24:36b-48, is my least favorite. It’s just kind of weird. There’s talk of ghosts and eating of fish. So instead of preaching on the larger story, which would take a lot of explaining, I decided to focus in, on just Jesus’ scars. Let me know what you think!

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

Recently, I’ve been watching a few old episodes of Top Chef, and noticed something I hadn’t before about the host, Padma Lakshmi. She wears a lot of sleeveless dresses and tops, and I noticed she has a long scar running down her entire upper arm. In one episode, they even asked her about it. The show had been getting a lot of viewer emails wondering about the scar. Padma didn’t mind sharing—it was from a bad car accident when she was a teenager.

For many years, she had done everything she could to keep it covered—always wearing long sleeves, or shawls. She thought it was ugly and embarrassing. But, as she got older, she came to appreciate her scar. It was, in her words, “what sets me apart and makes me me. I think the ordeal I went through physically made me a stronger woman.” And now she does everything she can to embrace and show off her scar.

Scars are memories, reminders of things both good and bad. Accidents, surgeries, mishaps small and large. I bet every one of us here, except maybe the very young, would have a story about a scar we could tell. I have an odd scar, just under my lip. When I was five, and practicing to be a ballerina, I spun around and around in our living room. Eventually, I got so dizzy I fell over, hitting my head on the coffee table on the way down. And I bit down, hard, right on my own lip. I remember that one especially because my mom’s way of numbing the pain was with popsicles.

And, of course, there are invisible scars too: emotional and psychological wounds that leave their marks on us. They, too, may never go away or fade. Losses, griefs, that we have endured. Broken promises and shattered dreams. Often, these invisible scars are much more painful than the physical ones, even if the world can’t see them.

Jesus offers his own scar story today, in our Gospel reading. It’s kind of a strange story, with its very descriptive account of Jesus’ eating fish, and the conversation about ghosts. In some ways, it is a proof story, answering questions the early church had about the resurrection. Jesus proves to the disciples who he is with his scars, offering up his hands and feet, so that they may know it is really him. And by eating in their presence, he offers proof that this is a physical resurrection, not merely a vision or a spirit before them.

These proofs meant a lot as early Christians tried to make sense of the resurrection. More than just proofs, though, Jesus’ scars show us that Jesus truly shares our humanity in such an intimate way. Scars mark us. Sometimes they are simply reminders of a moment of hurt, or a fondly remembered misadventure. But often, especially with those invisible scars, they can seem to be permanent reminders of something much more painful.

Jesus’ scars certainly marked him. They marked him as one who was crucified, and they carried with them a memory of that physical pain. But I imagine they bore the memories of emotional suffering, too. The pain of abandonment, of desertion. And here he is, returning to some of the very people who have caused these scars. When Peter is preaching to his fellow Israelites in Acts, it is easy to see him as unnecessarily harsh and accusatory. But he cannot exclude himself from those he accuses of rejecting Jesus, of denying Jesus. He speaks from the memory of his own pain and regret.

We are marked by our scars, by our past mistakes, by our memories of pain and hurt, but we are also marked with something much more powerful. We are marked with the cross of Christ. At our baptisms, the mark of Christ was made upon each of us. I will speak the words again today, as I make the sign of the cross on Owen’s forehead: “Child of God, you have sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

God declares us to be God’s own children. As our reading from First John says: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” God adopts us to be God’s own beloved children. When God looks at us, God is viewing us exactly the same as when God looks at Jesus.

The cross with which we are marked, the sign of that relationship, will never go away. It doesn’t mean that our scars won’t still be there. It doesn’t mean that we won’t ever get new scars. Our scars may never go away, but we can learn not to mind them along the way. We can learn not to be defined by our scars, and instead let them be signs of strength and resilience.

I might be scarred, you might be scarred, but we are first and foremost God’s beloved children. We might bear scars, physical scars or private pains, but so did Jesus. Even after the resurrection, God turns to the world in the form of a wounded Christ, bearing the marks of loving us in his very self.

We don’t need to be ashamed of our scars. It is most often through these broken places that we have the ability to share the love of Jesus, whose scars show God’s love for us. There was a story I heard first on the West Wing, of a man who fell into a dark hole. A doctor walked by and he yelled for help. The doctor wrote a prescription and tossed it the hole and kept walking. A pastor walked by, and the man yelled out for help. The pastor wrote a prayer, tossed it down, and kept walking.

Then his friend walked by. When the man cried out for help, the friend jumped into the hole with him. “Why’d you do that?” he asked. “Now we’re both down here!” “Yes,” his friend replied, “but I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”

Do not be afraid. Touch, see my hands and my feet. I’ve been here before, and I know the way out. Jesus was scarred and broken, just as we are all at different times. Do not be ashamed of your scars—they show only how much you have overcome.

But remember, and rejoice, that we also bear another mark, invisible to the world, yet sealed forever in our hearts. We bear the cross of Jesus Christ, a sign of brokenness and a sign of hope. A sign that time cannot erase. See what love the Father has given us that we are to be called children of God. And that is what we are. Amen.

Doubting Ducks

Doubting Thomas, once again. Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we read about Jesus appearing to the 10 disciples, and then to Thomas. Sometimes, it’s difficult to find a new angle from which to preach. I’ve always felt like Thomas gets a bad rap. We don’t call Peter “Denying Peter,” or James and John “the Demanding Brothers,” when we easily could. This year, I decided to explore how maybe Thomas isn’t the only one whose reaction we should be questioning (including our own!).

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

Every Sunday at the duck pond, the ducks all gather together at duck church. This particular Sunday, Reverend Duck had a very good sermon to share with the congregation. He had worked very hard on this message. It had three main points. Number one, you are ducks. Number two, you have wings. And number three, you can fly. You can fly, ducks, you have the ability to take wing and soar through the heavens. Fly, ducks, fly! And after the service, all of the ducks filed past the duck pastor to tell him how inspired and uplifted they were by his words, before they all waddled home.

In our gospel reading this morning, it seems that we have a similar group of ducks in our disciples. They are gathered together in a locked room, when Jesus appears. Now, we’ve come a whole week since Easter, but this reading takes place on the very same day as the resurrection. Mary Magdalene has told the disciples that Jesus is raised, that she has seen the Lord, and here they are locked away in fear.

Now, it is evening, and Jesus himself appears among them, despite the locked door, and shares the peace of the Lord with them. With ten of them. Thomas is missing, of course. And so Jesus breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, and gives them a mission: to be sent into the world, just as Jesus was sent from God, to share the Good News, forgive sins, and bring the Kingdom of God to life among the people.

So what are they doing when Thomas returns that evening? Preaching? Forgiving sins? Sharing the news of Jesus’ resurrection. No. They’re sitting in a locked room. What are they doing a week later? Sitting in a locked room. Thomas gets a bad rap for doubting, but honestly, I’m not sure if it isn’t a reasonable response. And who does Thomas doubt? I don’t think that Thomas doubts Jesus so much as Thomas doubts the other disciples.

They’ve been given the Holy Spirit and sent by Jesus, and yet they’re still sitting in that room with the door closed. They are not living as people who have experienced the resurrection. They say to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!” but their actions don’t bear that out. Why should Thomas believe them? They’re a bunch of ducks who are glad to hear that they can fly and continue to waddle around.

But really, we have to ask ourselves, do we often act much better? We proclaim this morning, “Christ is Risen!” but do we act that way in our lives? This morning we will receive from Christ forgiveness in this meal of grace, to which we welcome seven of our young people. Along with Ben, Ryan, Caroline, Kerri, Matthew, Sarah, and Madilyn, we are offered the peace of God, God’s forgiveness, and sustenance for the journey. We will, at the end of this service, be sent to bear God’s word and God’s love to the world.

If, when we leave this place, we were to proclaim to others: “We have seen the Lord!”, would they believe it? Or would they doubt that we had experienced the risen Christ? Is the resurrection reflected in our lives, in our church, or do we continue to sit in the locked room? Do we simply walk out of church, thinking how nice it is that we can fly?

What difference does it make in your life that Christ is risen? That God is stronger even than death? That hope survives even the darkest night? That, when we are secluded in fear, God still finds a way in?

I was searching for stories this week about churches and people who lived out the resurrection, and I received both good and bad. There was the church that was having a spaghetti supper, and when hungry children arrived, turned them away because they didn’t have the four dollars. Then, I remembered my internship church, who, when children started coming on their own to Sunday School, realized they weren’t eating breakfast, and so served a hot breakfast every single Sunday of the year. For free.

There are the times when we take chances at St. Paul’s: planting a garden and trusting that it will grow, that it will make a difference. Opening our doors to community events when we haven’t done that before. Of course, there are times when we fail, too. There are times when we are driven more by fear and feelings of scarcity than by the good news of the resurrection. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t fail sometimes.

We have a wonderful example of what an Easter church looks like in our reading from Acts. It may have taken a few weeks, but the disciples did start to live into the mission that Christ gave them. It says in Acts that “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” and “with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them” for they shared all that they had.

Looking at that group of believers, there is no doubt that they have seen the Lord. Christ’s message of love, forgiveness, and new ways of being community are alive and active among them. They are a living testament to what is possible in God’s kingdom.

Now, those of you who know the book of Acts know that it doesn’t stay this perfect. People begin to fight, some of those in need are neglected, and some do not share all they have with the community. Acts is proof that what we are called to do is not easy.

I have heard it said before that Christians are an Easter people in a Good Friday world. And that’s not easy: to live in hope, when the world tells us we should fear. To live in generous abundance, when the world tells us there is scarcity of resources. To love our neighbors as ourselves, when the world says we should put ourselves first. It’s not easy. And like the disciples, like the people in Acts, sometimes we will fail.

But here’s the best part: Jesus came back the next week. Even after the disciples just stayed locked in fear. Even after Thomas doubted anything had changed. Jesus came back the next week, to remind them that life is stronger than death, and hope is stronger than fear. Jesus came back the next week to send them forth once again, with a new chance to bear God’s love to the world.

Each week, we are gathered together to meet the Risen Lord amongst us here. In the words of scripture, in our songs, in sharing the meal together and having fellowship with one another. And each week, we are sent forth to proclaim to the world that “We have seen the Lord!”

We don’t have wings, and we might not be able to fly—but we don’t have to leave this place as if nothing is changed. Christ is Risen—let’s let that simple statement infuse our lives and send us forth from this place to bear God’s creating and redeeming love to all the world. Amen.

 

 

Easter Sunday

Below is my sermon from Easter Sunday, April 1. Early Christians sometimes played small jokes on each other on Easter, as a way of remembering the joke God played on death by resurrecting Jesus. How fitting, then, that our Easter this year fell on April Fools’. Alas, I was unable to craft any really good jokes for this sermon, but let me know what you think anyway. It’s focused on Mark’s account of the resurrection.

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

The women are tired. Exhausted, really. Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome. Of course they’re tired, no one could blame them for that. It’s been quite a year. Back home in Galilee, this young man Jesus started preaching and teaching and healing. He had said that God’s kingdom was here, that things were going to be changing. There was talk amongst the people about whether this one, this Jesus, could be the Messiah. Whether he would finally overthrow the Roman government that oppressing them.

You couldn’t go into the village without hearing about the latest thing Jesus had said or done. Mary’s son James even became one of his closest followers. Mary Magdalene experienced his power first-hand, when he healed her of the demon that had been in control of her life.

And so these women supported him, did all they could to help his ministry. They cooked for and fed Jesus and his disciples. They opened their homes. They told the stories. And they followed Jesus on his travels, on the long road that brought them here to Jerusalem. They were there when the crowds waved adoring branches and welcomed him in as a hero.

And they were there, too, when everything changed. So quickly. Some of the things that Jesus was saying were angering the religious leaders. He even had the audacity to say that God wasn’t just found in the temple, or in church, but out among the people. The Romans began to think he was a threat, too. That he was creating unrest and discontent. That there might be a revolution.

The women watched, as one by one the men who had been following Jesus deserted him. Denied him. Betrayed him. The women were there when he was lifted up on the cross, watching from a distance to be sure they knew where the body was taken. It was already dark when Jesus was buried—the women weren’t even able to care properly for his body, because it was the Sabbath.

And so here they come, now, to the tomb early in the morning. Weary and hopeless. The man they believed in, hoped in, was dead. And with him died their hopes and dreams for a different way of life. For the arrival of God’s kingdom.

And as they approach the tomb, the weariness begins to give way to something else: wonder, questioning—the stone is rolled back—who would have done that? The curiosity turns into shock and amazement—alarm—when they see a young man sitting, alive, in the tomb.

“Don’t be afraid,” he says. “Jesus is risen and has gone to Galilee just as he promised. Go and tell the other disciples.” Well this is just too much for the women to take. They cannot comprehend what is being said to them, but they know that this is not right. This is not the way things are supposed to be. And so, as the gospel tells us, they fled in terror, and said nothing to anyone. The end.

What a disheartening, perplexing ending to this story. It’s how Mark’s entire gospel ends. It’s so unsettling, that through the centuries people have tried to fix it. There are a couple of different endings to Mark, codas added by people or communities who just couldn’t let the story end on this confusing, disappointing note.

So why does it? Why do these women, who have been following Jesus for a while, why do they flee at the good news of his resurrection? Shouldn’t their response be a shout of Alleluia!? But when I stop to think about, these women might have the most rational response to the news of the resurrection that there is: run the other way.

The resurrection is good news, but it’s certainly not easy news. Transformation is scary. Change is scary. And this is one heck of a change. It would mean that everything they believed, everything they trusted, has been turned on its head.

We often cling to broken ways that don’t work, to broken things that are no good for us, even though we know that they don’t work, or that they’re not good for us. Addiction—of many different kinds—broken relationships, hurtful ways of thinking about ourselves and others. What we know—even if it’s not good—is often easier than the uncertain possibility of something different, something better.

That’s one of the hard things about resurrection. It doesn’t just come after death, or in spite of death, but resurrection comes through death. Without death, without loss, without change, resurrection and new life are impossible.

One of the details I love in this story of Jesus’ resurrection is how the women think they’ll be the first ones to the tomb. It’s early in the morning, after all. They’re concerned that there won’t be anyone there to roll away the stone for them. Part of their amazement is at the fact that someone beat them to it. God was there even earlier than they were, bringing about resurrection, bringing about new life and hope and change.

God’s work doesn’t begin when we’re ready for it. God’s work doesn’t begin after we’ve got it all figured out and have adjusted to this new way of thinking. God’s work starts in the dark. In the midst of the pain, of the brokenness, of the fear. In the midst of death. God’s work starts in the dark. New life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, or a baby in a womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark. It’s one of the most beautiful things about the resurrection. It happens whether we’re ready or not.

God is at work in this world, in our community, in your life, whether you’re ready or not. Whether we’re ready or not. And honestly, thank God for that! Because if God had to wait until we got ourselves ready, and organized, and willing, we’d still be sitting in the dark of the tomb. Resurrection is God’s promise that begins right here in this life: all of us have stones that cover the tombs inside us. Anxiety, fear, anger, hurt. But God will roll those stones back, and God promises that new life will emerge.

Resurrection is scary. There’s no way around that. It means letting go of things. Letting things die. But it also means a beautiful world of new things. Of God’s kingdom which Jesus proclaimed to the women way back in Galilee. New ways of loving our neighbors and ourselves. Of new ways of creating community and casting out fear.

“Do not fear,” the young man says, “You are looking for Jesus but he is not here. He has been raised and is going ahead of you to Galilee.” Jesus goes ahead of us, to lead the way into a new, resurrected life. Jesus promises to meet us, always making all things new. Thanks be to God. Alleluia!

Good Friday

Here is my short sermon-ette from Good Friday worship. Good Friday is a day where much of the work is already done for preachers–the reading of the passion is so powerful in itself, that the real challenge is not to try to say too much. Good Friday is of course a solemn observance, and yet we do not pretend that we don’t know the ending to this story. It is a time to ponder death, grief, and suffering, but also a time to remember that in the cross, Christ is always victorious.

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

So much has happened since the year began. Way back, on the First Sunday of Advent, one defiant blue candle took a deep breath and with a small flame declared to the darkness of the world that this small flame would not be overcome. A week later, another candle followed suit. Then there were three, then four, then the Christ candle lit on Christmas Eve. Before we knew it, every candle in this sanctuary wanted to get in on the act.

A bright star joined in the crescendo of light on Epiphany. By Transfiguration Sunday, the Light of the World was resplendent and glowing. There seemed to be no stopping this ever-waxing light. Then came Ash Wednesday. Instead of light, we were left in dust. All human wicks will end in ashes. We’ve tracked that dust of our mortality in and out of church throughout Lent and now into Holy Week.

We’ve watched as all adornments, all candles have been removed, except these few. And even these have been snuffed out. On Good Friday, the light disappears. It is snuffed out, and none of our efforts are able to fan the flames back to life. We are left in darkness. Broken promises. Lost hopes. Unanswered prayers. Severed relationships. Grief. Death.

So why do we call this day “good”? This day that can feel hopeless and depressing. This day that forces us to grapple with, in shocking detail, the suffering and death of an innocent at the hands of others’ political agendas. If only such a death, crucified—executed and humiliated—to feed the flames of fear and distrust, was not still so incredibly relevant.

And we have the audacity to call this day good? God’s Friday, God’s, was how it started, and over the centuries morphed into Good. And yet, it is good. Because through it all—through the betrayal, the suffering, the injustice, through all of it—the strength of God and the power of God is revealed.

It’s not strength or power as we might often think of them. But strength in surrender. Power in suffering. Christ surrenders himself to the forces of human sin, which lead to his death. The forces of hate, of self-preservation, of scapegoating.

Through that surrender, Christ is forever aligned with all those who suffer rejection. All those unjustly tried, or not even tried at all. All those used by the systems of this world to maintain a façade of peace and stability.

And yet, through it all, God’s glory is revealed. Throughout his ministry, Jesus spoke of when the hour of glorification would come. It is here. The cross is not a defeat, but a triumph. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “What the cross teaches us is that God’s power is not the power to force human choices and end human pain. It is, instead, the power to pick up the shattered pieces and make something holy out of them—not from a distance, but right close up.”

Suffering and death might not seem like a triumph, especially not from far away. But Christ’s suffering and death is a powerful protest against hate, against violence, against sin. Christ lifted up on the cross reveals to us not only the depths of human depravity, the depths of human suffering, but also the depths of God’s love.

The light has gone out. But even in the darkness, what we proclaimed on Christmas morning remains true: the darkness has not overcome it. Because even in the deepest darkness of death and suffering, the power of God to pick up the pieces and make something holy remains. Amen.

Maundy Thursday

Since I was out of the office on a little vacation last week, I have yet to publish any of my Holy Week sermons. So stay tuned–there will be one sermon going up every day until we’re caught up.

Maundy Thursday is an interesting day to preach for a couple of reasons. First, it is the same readings every year. Second, the Gospel reading is from John, where Jesus doesn’t actually institute the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, but instead washes his disciples’ feet. So there’s a weird kind of feeling, where most of the service is focused on communion, and the Gospel reading isn’t. This year, I chose to focus on the Hebrew scripture, from Exodus, as a way to try to tie it all together. (Also, as an aside, if you haven’t seen Coco, you should really do that!)

Remember me, though I have to say goodbye,
Remember me, don’t let it make you cry,
For even if I’m far away, I hold you in my heart,
I sing a secret song to you, each night we are apart.

Remember me, though I have to travel far,
Every time you hear a sad guitar,
Know that I’m with you, the only way I can be
Until you’re in my arms again, remember me…

Maybe you recognize those words as the Oscar-winning song from the movie Coco. I watched this Pixar movie a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s an animated movie, made with kids in mind, but it touches on deep and important truths in a beautiful way. One of which is remembering.

As the main character Miguel explains, remembering is important, especially as his family gets ready to celebrate Día de les Muertos. The day of the dead. The day in Mexican culture and belief, when our ancestors can cross over and visit us among the living. In the film, Miguel accidentally gets sent to the spirit world, and learns that remembering is even more important than he thought. If you are not remembered, you cannot cross over, and in fact, your spirit vanishes into the eternal beyond.

Remembering, passing down stories of loved ones, continuing the family lore, keeps them alive in a very real way. But remembering does something to us as well, to the people who keep the memories alive. We read in Exodus the story of the Passover preparations, and that last verse says: “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.” The ritual actions are prescribed to help bring later generations into this very moment of deliverance.

Back when I was in seminary, I went to a Seder that a Jewish friend was hosting. Every year at Passover, the Jewish people keep this verse, and remember and retell the mighty deeds of the Lord God in leading them out of Egypt. And at this Seder, I just happened to be the youngest person there, which meant I had a very important line. I got to pose the question to my elders: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The answer is rather long, but the gist of it is this: This is the night that the Lord God brought us up out of the land of Egypt. And although it might seem like semantics, I think the phrasing is so important. The question isn’t “Why was that night different?” but “Why is this night different?”

Remembering is more than just retelling, more than just recitation of what happened. True remembrance is participation in an event. True remembrance is experiencing for ourselves the significance and meaning of an event. As my friend explained it to me, when the Seder is celebrated, you do not just recall that in the past God saved your ancestors. But instead, you claim that the Passover is true for you in the present, that you are a part of that redemption and salvation.

Passover is more than just an experience that is shared by those who were actually slaves in Egypt. It’s also an event that shapes the generations to follow. It’s a story that’s told again and again, a recipe to be passed down. An opportunity to look back and see all those whose faith and courage and commitment have brought you to this point. An opportunity to look into the future, trusting that God will continue to be with you, overturning injustice and loving freedom.

When Christ, instituting the Lord’s Supper, says, “Do this in remembrance of me,” he is not commanding that we simply tell the story again. Just saying the words are not all there is. We are to experience, through what has been handed down to us, the one who was first handed over. We are to claim that what was true on that night those millennia ago is true on this night, for us.

When we share in this supper, we are not simply recreating or reenacting that meal that Jesus had with his disciples. We are becoming participants in the very same meal, receiving the very same Lord who was handed over and whose words have been handed down.

And we do not do so alone, but we receive this meal with the generations who have gone before us. Some churches especially in Scandinavia, have, instead of this straight communion rail, they have a half-circle shaped communion rail. There is a similar stone half outside the sanctuary’s wall in the church graveyard. When we share in this meal, we do not do so only with those here in this place, but with the whole communion of saints. With our loved ones, with those who brought us first to the table, with those whose names we don’t even know. It is, in a way, a different version of Día de les Muertos. Sharing a meal with our ancestors, in remembrance of the one who binds us all together.

Remember me, the song from Coco says, for even if I’m far away I hold you in my heart. By remembering Christ in this meal, by sharing the bread and wine, the body and blood, we keep Christ alive in our hearts and in our lives. Among us as we are gathered here. Through our sharing in this meal, we receive the very love that Christ poured out for his disciples, and that he commanded they share with one another and with the world. It happened long ago, but it happens too this night. Remember me, know that I’m with you. Know that in this meal, Christ is here. For you, with you. Remember me. Amen.