Take, Oh, Take Me As I Am

Take, oh, take me as I am;
summon out what I shall be;
set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.
(ELW #814)

That’s all, folks! I know, we’re used to hymns being just a little bit longer. This hymn was written by John Bell in the late 1990s. Bell is a Scottish Presbyterian pastor who has been influential in both youth work and liturgy and a member of the Iona Community.

Iona is an association of men and women who keep to a rule of life and faith, while continuing their secular jobs and vocations—a monastery in the world. This hymn was written for a weekly service of commitment in the Iona Abbey, “which involved people being offered the opportunity in some symbolic way to affirm their commitment to Christ or to a specific aspect of discipleship” (From the Hymnal Companion to the ELW).

It is meant to be sung repetitively and contemplatively. I first experienced this hymn at a summer program called Theological Education with Youth. It was a two-week camp, focused on creating an intentional Christian community for that time. Going into my senior year of high school, it was at this camp that I first began to seriously consider a call to ministry.

We sang this hymn at our closing worship, again and again, as each of us was anointed by our leaders and prayed for individually. With easy, repetitive hymns like this, you don’t need the words or music after the second or third time through. I closed my eyes and let the song wash over me. This song is a prayer, beautiful in its simplicity. To borrow from another tradition, it becomes almost like a mantra, something that you breathe in and out.

To this day, hearing or singing this song will transport me back to that chapel at Susquehanna University, to those gathered teenagers, to being prayed for and anointed. Do you have a hymn like that? That takes you back to another place—where you first learned it, or a special occasion when you sang it? Please feel free to share in the comments. Next week will I will be writing about some of these suggested hymns (and the ones that have already been mentioned on previous posts.)

God of all, you know us: our thoughts and prayers, our hopes and dreams, our doubts and desperation. We thank you for your love, which accepts us as who we are, despite our shortcomings. Let your love live in our hearts, and call us forth to lives led for you. Amen.


This Is My Father’s World

This is my Father’s world, and to my list’ning ears
all nature sings, and round me rings
the music of the spheres.
This is my Father’s world; I rest me in the thought
of rocks and trees, of skies and seas;
his hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father’s world; the birds their carols raise;
the morning light, the lily white
declare their maker’s praise.
This is my Father’s world; he shines in all that’s fair.
In the rustling grass I hear him pass;
he speaks to me ev’rywhere.

This is my Father’s world; oh, let me not forget
that, though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world; why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is king, let heaven ring;
God reigns, let earth be glad!

I was reminded of my love of this hymn this summer, when one of our members Lee Berry sang a beautiful solo arrangement of it. The lyrics come from part of a sixteen stanza poem written by Rev. Maltbie D. Babcock and published after his death in 1901. It is in our hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, as hymn 824.

This hymn resonates with many who often feel the presence of God strongly in nature. The idea of creation itself praising God reminds me of Psalm 96, which reads: “Let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is in it. Then shall the trees of the wood shout for joy at your coming, O Lord.”

This time through reading the hymn, what struck me most was the final stanza, though. “Though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” It seems as if lately much of creation is not singing a song of joyful praise, but one of fearful might and power. Hurricanes, fires, and earthquakes reveal our powerlessness and fragility. The wrong in the world seems strong outside of natural events, as well, with mass shootings, racist rallies, and a lack of decency in public discourse.

We cannot wash over any of these things—they are tragedies and disasters that we must handle with prayer, with reaching out, with giving of ourselves to others, and supporting real, practical solutions. What the hymn would have us remember, though, is that even in the midst of such horrible events, God is present. God is still God, even when we struggle to feel God’s presence.

“The Lord is king, let heaven ring; God reigns, let earth be glad!”

God of heaven and earth, you created the world and all that is in it. You formed us and called us as sons and daughters to be your people. Let us rejoice in all that is good in your creation, taking joy in the marvelous works of your hands. Let us seek to amend what is wrong in creation, nurturing instead that which gives life. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Praying Twice

With two weeks off from preaching, thanks to a wonderful Stephen Ministry Sunday last week and an out of town wedding this week, and no sermons to post (or write), I thought I might offer a few short reflections on some hymns instead.

I have always loved hymns. One of my absolute favorite classes in school was Christian Song. We learned some basic music theory, we studied the history of hymnody from early chants to chorales to Watts and Wesley to gospel music and spirituals. We analyzed the words and music. We studied individual author’s bodies of work. But most importantly, we sang.

You can study all you want, but you truly learn about Christian song by singing it. I don’t consider myself skilled in this arena, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. Because it’s not a performance, but an act of faith—an act of praise or thankfulness or prayer. Martin Luther is often credited with saying, “He who sings, prays twice.”

Each week, we are blessed with the opportunity to sing, to join our voices together and let the words and music of others—ancient and new—be our words and be our music. The Apostle Paul tells us that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit of God intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Sometimes, I think, that Spirit comes as a hymn. At moments when I myself don’t have words to say, I can sing. I can share in others’ words and others’ faith.

So, for the next few days and next week, I’ll be writing about some hymns that have been meaningful to me, and why. If you have a favorite hymn, share it in the comments below. Maybe I’ll write about it!

The Tenants in the Vineyard

Below is my sermon from October 8, 2017, on Matthew 21:33-46. Go and read the parable if you haven’t, or what follows won’t make much sense. To be honest, this was a difficult sermon to come up with, because at first glance (or even first ten glances) there isn’t much good news here. Just a frustrating story about people behaving badly and irrationally. And this parable has been used throughout history to defend antisemitism and violence against Jews. Where do we find the good news? I finally found an ‘in’ to the story by considering the ways I personally resist being a tenant and the character of the landowner. What do you think?

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

As some of you know, about six weeks ago, Tim and I decided to adopt a puppy. We did a lot of work ahead of time—we researched what type of dog would fit our lifestyle, we read all about developmental stages, went out and got engaging toys, a new bed, bought her brand of puppy food.

And in the past six weeks, since Lilah arrived, we’ve learned exactly who she thinks is in charge. It’s not us. She thinks that our house is her house, and that she rules the place. Our furniture, clothing, food—it’s all fair game.

She forgets, or doesn’t know, or simply chooses not to accept that she owes her entire existence to us. We provide shelter, food, water, the toys she so lovingly destroys, we play with her and pet her. We clean up after her. All she has to do is simply live there. Even the time she got trapped behind the couch, began crying for help, hasn’t really taught her that we are the ones in charge. We are the ones who take care of her and she does not make the rules.

It’s easy to see this with a dog, or a cat, or a child. They often forget that they are not the ones in charge. They often forget just how easy they have it, with someone else taking care of everything they need—they just have to live there, and follow the rules.

It’s harder to comprehend for us. Us, the adults, who actually are in charge of things, and responsible for things. All of us, who often are in charge of and responsible for others—for children, for older parents, for pets. But it is for us that this parable is meant.

Now the parable is extreme, there is no denying that. We cannot help but be outraged at these tenets and their criminal, homicidal behavior. It is obvious all they owe to the vineyard owner. The digging, the planting, the pruning, the protecting. The owner has done everything possible for these tenets.

Yes, the tenets work hard, but none of that work would be there to do if the owner hadn’t made it possible. The story is extreme—the tenets decide that they will take over. That for some reason, they don’t owe anything to the vineyard owner, so they will get rid of his emissaries, kill his son, and somehow this will mean they own the vineyard.

The image is extreme, but it is also you and me. We forget that we are the tenets. We fail to remember that everything we are and everything we think we ‘own’ are just on loan to us.  These homes, acres, jobs, congregations, children, spouses, communities — even our very bodies — were created by God and given to us for this little span of time. And yet, how often do I behave as though it all ‘belongs to me?’

We might not go to the extreme that the tenets did, but we too resist and block out the voices calling us to repentance, we put God to death in our hearts, and we fail to honor the ways God calls for us to live.

In Exodus, we hear about when God gave the people the Ten Commandments. These weren’t just arbitrary rules, but the ways God wants us to order our lives. The ways that God’s people, wandering in the desert, were to live out this relationship with God.

And you’ll notice they deal both with the vertical—with our relationship with God—and with the horizontal—our relationships with each other. Honor God, and honor your neighbors. The first three commandments all deal with our relationship with God: You shall have no other gods; do not take the name of the Lord in vain; honor the sabbath and keep it holy.

The last seven are all about human relationships: honor your mother and father; do not kill; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not covet anything of your neighbors’. The two go hand in hand. Honoring, respecting, and loving God is lived out in the here and now by honoring, respecting, and loving our neighbors. You can’t have one without the other.

And in our parable, we have neither. There is no honor for God or respect for neighbor. Jesus asks, “What will the landowner do?” It is the crowds, the listeners who respond: “.” As satisfying a response as that is to these wicked tenets, I don’t think the crowds have really gotten the measure of this landowner.

Because as extreme as the tenets are in this parable, the landowner is even more absurd. What landowner would act this way? With tenets rebelling against him, who would send more and more servants, only to have them killed. Who would then send his son, alone and unprotected, to deal with these wicked tenets? The landowner is not making rational decisions.

Jesus’ question is “what will the landowner do?” I think our question must be, what did the landowner do? The landowner sent his son—his only son—to treat with all of us. And when the wicked tenets said, we are not interested in what you have to say, we do not want to live by your rules, we would rather be in charge. When we killed the landowners Son, God raised him from the dead and sent him back to us yet one more time, still bearing the message of God’s crazy, desperate love.

The parable is extreme, because God is extreme. Because God will go to any lengths for us, the tenets working the vineyard of this world. When we seek to forget God, when we try to leave behind the ways God wants us to live, the justice God expects, God keeps calling us back. Any other landowner might have given up, but not God. Because God is extreme, and God’s love is absurd. And thank God for that. Amen.

Best Intentions

Below is my sermon from October 1, 2017, on Matthew 21. I find this parable–which is only found in Matthew–so interesting because it leaves so much unsaid. We don’t know any of the characters’ motivations, thoughts, or even the reactions after the fact. What do you think led them to make the choices they did?

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

When Jesus entered the temple, our reading begins today. The isn’t the first time he has entered the temple lately. Just a few verses before our reading today, Jesus enters the temple a first time—listen to what happened then:

“Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.”

And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there.”

Our reading today is the first time Jesus is back in the temple since creating chaos and disruption. Just imagine with me, if someone walked into our church in the middle of worship—not to join us—but to tell us we have made a mockery of Christianity, and to tear down and criticize the things we lovingly care for.

We, too, might ask: By what authority are you doing these things? Who are you to tell us, good people of faith, that we are wrong? Jesus turns the question back to them, though—asking where they think John the Baptist’s authority came from. Their careful deliberation of this question reveals that they are not truly interested in his answer, or even their true feelings. They want to say the right things to keep their positions secure.

Jesus knows that. He tells this parable of the two sons to catch them in their maneuverings. They can say whatever they want, but their actions reveal the truth in their hearts. They did not believe John, and they do not believe Jesus. Actions speak louder than words.

It’s easy to hear this parable and feel superior to the chief priests and scribes, who tried to trick Jesus and got tricked themselves instead. But these scribes and elders aren’t bad people. In fact, the scribes and elders are us. They are religious people.

They are the first-century equivalent of church council, Sunday school teachers, and altar guild. And here comes someone they don’t know telling them everything they do is wrong. They want to do what is right.

But just because we want to do what is right doesn’t mean that’s what always happens. How often are we that second son, who tells his father he will go and work but does not go? Often, our actions do not match our intentions, however good they might be. Things happen.

We don’t know why the second son doesn’t go and work. Maybe something important happened. Maybe something happened to prevent him. Maybe he decided he just didn’t care.

Sometimes, even despite our efforts, we fail to live up to our expectations of ourselves. Sometimes our expectations might be too high. Sometimes we might decide they’re just not worth it. Maybe it’s the little things—saying we’ll meet a friend for coffee and backing out at the last minute, saying that work project is top priority and putting it off, saying we’ll do that chore today and then not following through.

But sometimes it’s bigger things: saying we’re not racist, or sexist, or homophobic, but not calling out the inappropriate joke by a friend. Praying for the poor, or for victims of injustice, but not living in ways that will help them. In both the big and little ways—our actions speak louder than our words, and sometimes we fail to live up to our expectations of who we are.

There is another, though, who doesn’t do what is expected. And that is God in Jesus Christ. Our reading from Philippians, known as the Christ hymn, celebrates the ways that Jesus surprises and confounds our expectations: though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.

No one expects the God of heaven and earth to come among us in the form of a peasant from a country town. The chief priests and elders certainly didn’t. But God’s reversal of expectations leads to a savior who takes upon himself all of our failings and shortcomings, and gives us back only grace and mercy.

And so Paul exhorts the Philippians, and us, to live out their salvation, to live out that grace and mercy, by having in us the same mind that is in Christ Jesus. Were you the second son, failing to live up to your own good intentions today, or yesterday, or last week? I was, at some points. It’s ok.

Today, each day, presents a new day, a new opportunity, in which God asks us to go into the vineyard and work. To go into the everyday places of our lives and shine God’s light through our words and actions. Are we going to get it completely right? Probably not. But each moment is alive with the promise of God’s grace, with the possibility of what we might do in response to that love. Each moment is an opportunity to go into the vineyard. Amen.

Plenty, but not too much

Below is my sermon from September 24, 2017, focusing on Matthew 20:1-16. Take a minute to read the parable if you haven’t heard it recently, because it’s definitely a more thought-provoking one. I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments–what does this parable reveal to us about what God is like? About what human beings are like?

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

“It’s not fair!” Parents of toddlers and small children, how many of you hear these words at least once a day? It’s not fair! In seminary, my classmates and I had to act out this parable during the chapel service, and I was assigned the part of the all-day laborers. The professor wondered if I had it in me to be whiny enough. I assured him, ever since I was born as the younger sibling, I was ready to play this role and declare the unfairness of it all.

If there’s one thing we’re born with it’s an innate sense of what is fair and what isn’t. Just try giving a slightly larger piece of cake to one sibling and see what the other one thinks is fair. It’s not a bad thing, this sense of fairness. Developed to maturity, that sense of fairness is the foundation for justice and equality.

It’s not fair that some people have access to quality education and others don’t. It’s not fair that some people’s water is clean and others’ is filled with lead and chemicals. It’s not fair that some people can afford to see a doctor when they’re sick and others can’t. It’s not fair that some people don’t have enough food to eat while others fill landfills with their excess. That’s the good outcome of a sense of fairness.

But, more often than not, our sense of fairness tends to be ego-centric. It’s certainly true of toddlers, but I think it’s still often true for us adults as well. We assess fairness in terms of what seems fair for us. In terms of our own needs, hopes, and expectations, often with little—or at least secondary—regard for the wants and needs of others.

And so we come back to our parable. What seems great to some seems unfair to others. If you’re like me, this parable offends your sense of fairness. It might be equal, but it isn’t fair. Some have worked all day, through the hot sun of the afternoon, and they receive the same as those who only came an hour before work ended. It’s not fair. They expect to have so much more than these late-comers.

We shape our identities and sense of worth by constantly comparing and contrasting ourselves with others. Rather than being content with what we have or who we are or what we’ve accomplished, we so regularly look to those around us to decide whether it is enough based on what others have or are or have accomplished.

But the problem with this parable isn’t that some people get better things or more than others—it’s that they all get the same. And they don’t all deserve the same. It’s not really about the money, it’s about what the money represents—superiority.

Which is why I love that alongside this parable, we have the story of manna in the wilderness. The Israelites have escaped from Egypt, but are beginning to despair. They have no food in the wilderness and some begin to think they should go back to Egypt. So God provides manna. Appearing on the ground, this miraculous substance gives the people of God all they need.

But manna is a gift that cannot be hoarded. In fact, a little later in the story, when some try to take more than they need, it becomes rotted and maggot infested overnight. Manna is there for one day, and there will be more the next day. Everyone gets plenty, but no one has too much. The leaders of the people and the lowly servants, the people who work all day and the people with little to do, the able and the disabled—all get the same: plenty, but not too much. And it is all a gift.

Wherever we find ourselves in this story, whatever part of the parable we identify with, at the end of the day, the landowner’s question can be asked of us: Are you envious because I am generous? Are we going to be grateful for our blessings, or envious of others? The thing about gratitude and envy is, you truly can’t live by both at once.

Do we count our blessings or our misfortunes? Do we pay attention to areas of plenty or do we only pay attention to what we lack? Do we live by gratitude or by envy? Is our sense of fairness turned outward towards our brothers and sisters and a true sense of justice, or does it only focus on ourselves?

Each week we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” Give us. Not me. Not my family. But us. This prayer is a prayer not only for ourselves, but that all people might have what they need. In Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism, he asks the question: what does daily bread mean? His answer: Everything included in the necessities and nourishment for our bodies, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, farm, fields, livestock, money, property, an upright spouse, upright children, upright and faithful rulers, peace, health, decency, honor, good friends, and the like.

He includes plenty, but not too much. We ask for it for ourselves, and also for others. That all might have plenty, which is enough. Luther also says that, “we ask in this prayer that God cause us to recognize what our daily bread is and to receive it with thanksgiving.” To recognize that our blessings are not our own. They are not earned or deserved, and it is not up to us to decide whether it is enough compared to others.

And so, might we pray that this week we recognize what is our daily bread and to receive it with thanksgiving. May we pray that we can find moments for gratitude this week, to take time for gratitude this week. Gratitude, not just for our own blessings, but for the blessings that others receive as well. May we give thanks with them, and for them, and continue to work towards a day when all truly have plenty. Amen.

Breaking the Wheel

Below is my sermon from September 3, 2017, focused on the Gospel reading from Matthew. If you’re going to take a peak at the Gospel, I recommend reading it along with last week’s: here. My Bible professors were always fond of telling us, “Context, context, context.” This is especially true in today’s reading, which comes right after last week’s. Enjoy!

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

This is one of those times when, in order to understand what’s happening, we need a “previously on” segment for the Gospel. This week’s reading follows directly on the heels of last week, but, well, that was a whole week ago! We don’t necessarily remember everything.

Last week, Jesus asked his disciples who people said that we was. There were varying answers: a prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Then Jesus asked them who they said he was. And Peter, ever eager, stepped up and said—you Lord are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Because of that act of confession, Jesus declared that he would be known as Peter, and it was on that rock that he would build the church.

Well, from its very beginnings, it appears the church has always been fallible. When, in this week’s reading, Jesus teaches the disciples what it means that he is the Messiah—that he has come to suffer and to die and to be raised again—Peter rebukes him. Jesus reveals the truth of his mission, and Peter cannot handle it. He goes from firm rock and foundation to stumbling block in the course of a few verses.

The most obvious question is why? Why does Peter rebuke Jesus in the first place? Well, when we hear that the Messiah is going to suffer and be killed, it makes perfect sense. We know the end of the story, after all. We have to remember that Peter doesn’t. And although he proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah, he had very particular expectations of what a Messiah would be like.

In Peter’s imagination, and much of first century Palestine’s for that matter, a Messiah would be liberating warrior, who would throw off the bonds of the Roman Empire and then lead the kingdom of Israel as an earthly ruler. The Messiah comes with a show of force to free God’s people.

And so Peter naturally reacts poorly to hearing that his Messiah would in fact die at the hands of his oppressors. Peter’s vision isn’t unreasonable—a warrior king coming to save the people—it’s not unreasonable, but it doesn’t change anything.

Who is in charge might change, but it simply replaces one forceful power with another. And pretty soon a more powerful force will show up to start the cycle all over again. No matter who is in charge, the wheel of force and violence keeps turning.

It reminds me a little of a speech given last season on Game of Thrones. Bear with me if you’re not a fan. The show is set in the fictional world of the Seven Kingdoms. For a long time they were independent lands, each ruled by their own king or queen. Since they were united into one country, with one ruler, the various noble families have sought to gain ultimate power for themselves.

The rightful heir, exiled since her birth, intends to take back her family’s throne and crown herself ruler. But she has this to say about the ongoing power struggle: “Lannister, Baratheon, Stark, Tyrell [these are all the different families], they’re all just spokes on a wheel. This one’s on top, then that one’s top and on and on it spins, crushing those on the ground. I’m not going to stop the wheel, I’m going to break the wheel.”

Of course, if you’ve watched any of this season, you know that she goes about breaking the wheel with many of the same old violent tactics she criticizes. This is just one of the many, many ways Jesus is different from Game of Thrones.

He truly realizes that violence cannot be stopped with violence. He knows that Peter’s expectant triumphant Messiah would only beget more violence and hardship in the end. And so instead Jesus introduces a different logic. A logic which runs by forgiveness and mercy and love instead of retribution, violence and hate. A logic where an instrument of torture and death brings about redemption and reconciliation. A logic where there is always more than enough, instead of scarcity and lack. A logic where losing your life means finding it.

“Can you imagine a new way of doing things?” Jesus is asking. A way that is marked by the cross. We often hear these words of Jesus of taking up our crosses and immediately jump to a phrase that’s nowhere in the Bible: “That’s just my cross to bear.” But a way of life marked by the cross does not mean putting up with something that is damaging, or life-taking, or threatening.

Following Jesus in the way of the cross is described so well in our reading from Romans. In this previously on, Paul has just spent eleven chapters describing God’s grace and how it is a free gift for all people. At the opening of chapter twelve, he turns the focus with the word “therefore.” What are the implications for God’s grace in our lives? What does it mean to live shaped by Christ’s cross and the grace that it brings?

Paul writes: Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Persevere in Prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; associate with the lowly. Do not repay anyone evil for evil.

Living in the way of the cross means this kind of daily self-sacrifice. A daily losing of our lives, so that we might live for others. A cross-shaped life is more than putting up with adversity and suffering—although sometimes it is that.

But it is also joining Jesus in imagining a new and different way. A way that doesn’t simply replace what is bad with more of the same. But instead a way that seeks change—seeks for the good of all, for the justice of all, for the wholeness of all—by a new path. A path marked by humility, by accompaniment, and by dying to self and finding one’s true self in God. Amen.

One Body–Many Gifts

This is my sermon from Sunday, August 27, 2017. It’s focused mostly on our Exodus passage, but also pulls in some from Romans and Matthew, too.

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

I can never hear this passage about Peter declaring Jesus be the Messiah without thinking about an incident that happened a couple of years ago. It was during a continuing education event for pastors in their first three years of ministry.

A couple friends of mine had their two year old daughter along with them, and one day during worship this passage was being read. The preacher was very passionately telling the story and when she said, “And who do you say that I am,” little Eve very confidently, and loudly, replied: “I say Cookie Monster.”

And that poor preacher never quite got everyone’s focus back after that. Eve maybe was hungry—this was right before lunch—and so she replied with what she hoped the preacher would be. She can be excused, if only for being two.

But how often do we do the very same? When faced with the question of who Jesus is—how often do we fill in the blank with who we wish Jesus was? It’s happening in our gospel story among the crowds—some say he is a prophet, some Elijah, some John the Baptist. They don’t understand who he truly is, and so they pick who they want him to be.

Peter then answers the question for himself, and even he doesn’t truly understand. In next week’s gospel, we’ll see that although Peter declares Jesus to be Messiah, he doesn’t really know what it means to be a Messiah. But still, I think one of the important take-aways from Peter’s answer is that he even speaks up in the first place.

He doesn’t have all of the information, but when asked to take a stand for his faith, he speaks up anyway. To be the church, to be the people of God, involves speaking up and acting up, even if it’s not perfect. Even if we’re unsure or feel out of our depth.

And that’s what we have happening in this great story in our first lesson, from the first couple chapters of Exodus. It’s usually read as an origin story for Moses who will become the leader of his people. But I think the supporting characters are even more interesting.

The Israelites have been in Egypt for a few generations now, and a new king comes into power. A king who does not know Joseph. Remember Joseph? He’s the Israelite who found favor with the king and saved Egypt from years of famine. This new king doesn’t remember that.

Wishing to solidify his political base, he identifies a common enemy, a scapegoat to blame for Egypt’s problems. Like so many times throughout history, he chooses the Jews. And he orders all male Hebrew babies to be killed immediately. That’s when we’re introduced to these two awesome characters of the Hebrew midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. The king never gets named, but these women, we know their names.

They are in a seemingly powerless position, facing down the king of a powerful nation. They have not obeyed his commands to kill the boy babies and instead of backing down they play on the king’s own xenophobic fears to explain themselves—the Hebrew women simply give birth much too quickly, and there is nothing they can do. It is a courageous act of civil disobedience.

Shiphrah and Puah choose, in a moment when they could have easily said nothing or done nothing, they choose to speak. Choose not to be silent, choose not to accept this king and his un-Godly actions.

Later, after Moses is born and set into the river, it is his sister Miriam who chooses to speak up. To take a chance. And by speaking up she brings Moses home to their own mother—at least for awhile. In this story, whose main purpose is to introduce us to Moses, these women all have important parts to play.

This is, in fact, what Paul is describing in our Romans reading today: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” We may have different gifts, different purposes, but we all have a part to play. The body itself is not complete when we neglect the gifts any one person has to offer.

As we welcome one more member into this body this morning through baptism, we recognize that Paige too has gifts of her own. And we are incomplete without them. Right now, her gifts probably feature bringing joy and love to her family, and those gifts will grow as she does. We all have different gifts, but the same potential for God to use us to make real differences in the world.

Like Puah, and Shiphrah, and Miriam, we all have moments that will call upon our gifts and our courage.  The things we do, the actions we take, the words we speak—they ripple out with unforeseen consequences, for good or ill, for the health or the damage of the world. Every day, we testify to who we believe Jesus is, with our words and our actions. We may not feel ready, like Peter, we might not yet grasp the whole picture.

And yet, the question is whether, but what we will do that will ripple out into the world. What will we do this week to make a difference in the world? Some of these actions may be big, bold, and courageous. Others may be small, hardly noticeable. And yet they all have the potential to ripple out, affecting countless lives.

We speak and act in ways that are possible only because we are empowered not by flesh and blood, but by God. It is God who gives us gifts of grace, wisdom, diligence, compassion, cheerfulness, and generosity. And it is God’s gracious Spirit, given to each of us in baptism, that uses our gifts to bring about change and healing in the world.

May we never fail to recognize our opportunities to speak to who Jesus is in our words and actions—big and small. And may we always give thanks to God for the gifts and ability to do so. Amen.

Stubborn Blessing

Below is my sermon from Sunday, August 20, 2017. It focuses on the many ways we try to make God’s love an exclusive thing–and why that’s completely missing the point. In a rare event for me, I actually talk about all three readings from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew.

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

There’s been a lot of talk about how divided people are lately.There’s been a lot of talk lately about sides. Whose side are you on? The problem of competing sides has always been a part of our human existence. In some ways it is a product of our sin—our desire to even form groups with us vs. them is sinful in the first place. But recently the hateful groups that love such distinctions have been emboldened and what was once the fringes feels much more mainstream.

Sometimes, it is incredibly easy to pick a side. When one side is Nazi’s and white supremacists, and the other side opposes those things, that is an easy choice. When a group’s entire existence is based around hate, destruction, and oppression of others, it is not a difficult moral decision.

But us vs. them has been going on forever, and a lot of times our decisions are not so morally clean cut. Each of our three readings this morning offers an opportunity to consider this dynamic of who is in and who is out, of who is considered deserving and who is not.

In Genesis, we catch up on the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, the younger and favored son of their father, was sold into slavery by his older brothers. Now, many years later, he has risen to prominence as Pharaoh’s adviser and his brothers have come, in a time of famine, desperate for food and help.

Joseph could have sent them away. He could have never even revealed who he was—they didn’t recognize him as their little brother from so many years ago. After all, they were the ones who created the division in the first place; he could hardly be held responsible for refusing to help the very people who sold him into slavery. Some would call that justice, or karma. You do reap what you sow, after all.

But instead, he shows mercy and compassion and love for his brothers in need. This act begins the reconciliation that will keep the whole family protected and fed through the famine.

In the gospel reading, we meet another outsider in the Canaanite woman. Jesus has just finished a small sermon to the disciples about how it is not any outward thing that defiles a person—these outward characteristics, how or what we eat, what kind of clothes we wear, they cannot defile. Rather, a person will be judged by what comes from their heart.

And right after saying that, Jesus is going to have his proposition tested by this Canaanite woman. She cries out to him for mercy, and he ignores her. He has every reason to ignore her. Men and women weren’t even supposed to speak in public back then. Not to mention she’s a Canaanite—the people who lived in the land before the Israelites claimed it. Not a Jew, not even a Roman, who though they were outsiders at least had power and influence.

Jesus has every reason to ignore her, but she keeps persisting in crying out to him. She violates all the boundaries set up because of ethnicity, heritage, religion, and gender. And she insists on being acknowledged by Jesus.

And when he does acknowledge her, he tells her that he is only there for his own people, not hers—and then he compares her to a dog. And yet she keeps pushing, brushing aside his insult and demanding at least a crumb—at least a shred of compassion, if not dignity.

This woman’s persistence opens Jesus’ eyes to the reality that the kingdom of God’s love and mercy is bigger and wider than even he imagined. Great was her faith, and greatly to be praised. She would not be kept away from God’s love because of outward divisions.

The situation of Jew and Gentile is flipped in our reading from Romans. The church has spread throughout the Mediterranean and now the question is not whether Gentiles can be part of the kingdom, rather the question is what role do the Jews, the people of God, play moving forward? Do they now find themselves on the outside?

As Paul writes: “I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew.”  Paul is quick to condemn those who seek to claim God for themselves, and to cast off others they deem not good enough. The Jewish people, Paul goes on to say, are the root of the tree that Christians find themselves grafted onto. They provide the foundation for Gentiles’ relationship with God and are by no means to be cast aside.

In each of our readings this morning, there are those who would put limits on God and on love. Those who would seek to draw lines and keep others out. We still do it today. Those who say that to be a member of the church you must act or dress or live a certain way. Those who say that our LGBT brothers and sisters are not deserving of God’s love, or are not made in the image of the same God. Those who draw lines of race and claim that to be white is to be superior. The subtler racism that infects our institutions and our hearts. We try to draw lines around those we find deserving.

We’ve been taught that if something is exclusive, if something is only for a select group, it is better. And so we seek to exclude, to keep for ourselves what God so freely gives. But anytime we draw a line between groups we need to be prepared to find God on the other side of that line.

God is with the cast-off Joseph, keeping him safe, working through him to keep the land safe through years of famine. God is with the Canaanite woman, demanding just a crumb of grace and receiving so much more. God is with the Jewish people, true to the covenant made so long ago.

God’s grace, God’s love, is never exclusive. There is not a finite amount to be divided, sparingly and with great precision. There is always more than enough to go around. We do not have to be afraid that we will not get any, and there is no need for us to try to ration it for others, either.

But simply knowing that God loves all people doesn’t even begin to get at the abundant life that God desires for us. Knowing that truth and living it are two different things. Living as someone loved by God, redeemed and transformed by the cross and resurrection, letting God’s love work in us and through us and with us—that is abundant life. Letting that love come through in our actions, working to make this world a more just and equitable place for all people—that is abundant life.

I’d like to close with part of a poem, called “Stubborn Blessing,” by Jan Richardson, about the Canaanite women:

Don’t tell me no.

I have seen you
feed the thousands,
seen miracles spill
from your hands
like water, like wine,
seen you with circles
and circles of crowds
pressed around you
and not one soul
turned away.

I know what you
can do with crumbs
and I am claiming mine,
every morsel and scrap
you have up your sleeve.

Let the scraps fall
like manna,
like mercy
for the life
of my child,
the life of
the world.


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.