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!

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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.

Different Marches

Below is my sermon from Palm/Passion Sunday 2018. Because the Gospel reading is so long (Mark 14:1-15:47), the sermon is short! Let me know what you think.

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

I was disappointed yesterday that I didn’t get to go to one of the March for Our Lives events. If you aren’t familiar with the movement, this march was organized by survivors of school shooting in Parkland, Florida. High school students from around the country have rallied together, because they are tired of being scared to go to school. Whether you think you would agree with them or not, I highly recommend you see some of the videos of these young people’s speeches.

Whenever there is a march—a political march, a parade through town, a procession—it’s asking for our attention. It’s asking that we take notice. There were two processions, two marches, that entered Jerusalem on a spring day almost two thousand years ago. From the east, Jesus rode in on a donkey, cheered by his followers and the crowds. People crying out, “Hosanna! Save us!” From the west, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor entered Jerusalem at the head of column of imperial cavalry and soldiers.

Jesus’ procession proclaims the kingdom of God; Pilate’s the power of the empire. Here we have the central conflict of the week that leads to Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the known world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. He comes, not in power, or might, but riding on the back of a borrowed donkey. There is no fanfare, just the shouts of peasants, weeds cut from the side of the road spread in his path.

The kingdom that Jesus proclaims flies in the face of power, of all earthly principles and authorities. It says that the poor have value, that outsiders have value, that the sick and the despised are blessed by God. Here is a king who does not seek power, who refuses to engage in violence. Here is a different kind of authority and power.

No wonder the cries of “save us” all too quickly turn to cries of “crucify him.” It’s the same crowd, the same people, the same group of hopeful adorers who soon become hateful accusers. The great temptation of Palm Sunday is to think that were we there, we would have done differently. We wouldn’t have abandoned Jesus, or denied Jesus. We would have stayed until the end, as those few faithful women did. We would have known better.

But the thing is, the disciples did know better. Jesus told them, many times, where this was all headed. But they couldn’t understand, they didn’t want to understand. It was never going to end any other way. That much love, that much grace, that much God, in human form, was never going to be accepted by the powers of the empire, by the religious establishment, or by human hearts. We want a savior, not someone who suffers and dies.

If we were there, we would have done no different. For how often do we continue to crucify God today? In our words and thoughts and actions. When we despise the poor, when we celebrate violence, when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves?

And yet, even as we wait on Palm Sunday, on the very edge of Holy Week, we know that our actions, that our violence and anger and pain, are not the last word on this story. Because Jesus came to show another way—a way of love and compassion. And not just to show us this other way, but to make it possible for us to experience it, to have our broken hearts and lives bound up and made whole. Because in God’s kingdom, death never has the last word. The story does not end here. Amen.

Good is the Flesh

Below is my sermon from March 4, 2018. It is centered on the Gospel text from John 2, of Jesus cleansing the temple. Let me know what you think!

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

A friend of mine, a fellow pastor, shared a hymn on Facebook this week that our Gospel reading made them think of. I read it, and was so struck by it, that I wanted to share part of it with you. It’s written by Brian Wren, and titled, “Good is the Flesh.”

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,

good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,

sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,

growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,

longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

I had never heard the truth of the Incarnation, of God becoming human, portrayed so vividly before. I grew up in the church, and learned at some point, about the Incarnation. I learned that God became human in Jesus, and how important that was. But I suppose I never thought through what it meant that God took on our flesh.

Flesh isn’t a word we say too often. It might even make us a little bit squeamish. A lot of that hymn might make us a little bit squeamish, honestly. But what this hymn does, as what I didn’t do growing up in the church, is make the connection between the Incarnation of God and actual bodies, actual flesh. I didn’t learn in church how to honor the sacred found in our bodies, our muscles, our arms and legs, our hair.

But that’s exactly what Jesus is doing in this week’s Gospel. He’s clearing out the temple of all the money-changers, the buyers and sellers there for the sacrificial system. Jesus says to those who would destroy the temple of God that he will raise it again in three days. But the people misunderstand—of course they do—he’s not being very clear. They think he means the temple built by Herod the Great, that they are standing in.

But no, the writer of John explains, Jesus is not speaking about wood or bricks or stone. The home of the transcendent God is not found in a courtyard, or an altar, or a sanctuary. God resides in a different kind of temple: the temple of Jesus’ own body.

What does it mean to honor human bodies—mine, yours, everyone’s—as holy places? As homes for God? It’s not easy to do. We often get the sense in religious culture that bodies are bad, that they’re inherently sinful or shameful. Or, at the very least, that they hold us back. That’s part of why we fast during Lent. Fasting has the goal of controlling our bodies, of subduing our bodies, so that we might be more spiritually aware. Bodies aren’t spiritual.

And, in the secular culture, bodies might not be shamed—although many are—but they are all commodified. Used for the sake of a profit. I have to admit, I buy into this thinking. I often see my own body as something that I need to regulate, or master, or minimize. It’s always easier to see its flaws than its God-given dignity and worth. I don’t know when I’ve ever thought of my body as holy.

It’s hard in other ways, too. Sometimes our bodies feel more like curses than gifts. They get sick. They get worn down. Sometimes they are so wracked by illness that they no longer seem to work at all anymore.

And yet we are people of the incarnation. We are people who are called to cherish and to use our whole bodies by Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples, and by extension tells us, to look, to see, to break bread and eat together, to wash one another’s feet. To literally embody God’s love and carry it forth with us.

Can we let go of the squeamishness, of the contempt that surrounds talk of bodies, and offer to God our whole selves? We say that the church is the body of Christ in the world. In the Lutheran church, our motto is: God’s work. Our hands. This morning, we welcome new members into that body. At the first service, new members joining our congregation, our expression of God’s presence. And at the second service, Owen DeLar, baptized into the great universal and eternal body of Christ. God has no body in this world but us.

When Jesus cleansed the temple, he wasn’t condemning Judaism, or even temple worship, but he was protesting the system it had become. A way of blocking access to the divine. It literally kept bodies, especially of the poor, the marginalized, away from God. That’s not something that is unique to first-century Judaism, by the way.

And it makes Jesus angry. It makes Jesus angry, because we cannot value our bodies as holy, we cannot cherish God’s love for our bodies, without also recognizing that God loves all bodies everywhere. All bodies. The bodies of hungry children and indentured women. The bodies of slave laborers half a world away and desperate refugees at our door. The bodies of sleek athletes and cigar-smoking business people. The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “One of the truer things about bodies is that it is just about impossible to increase the reverence I show mine without also increasing the reverence I show yours.”

To value our own bodies as God’s temple, as places of God’s presence, we cannot stand by while other bodies suffer. Jesus got angry. Anger isn’t something we talk about much in churches either, except to say we shouldn’t be angry. But sometimes, anger is what’s called for. Jesus, it says, burned with zeal. With a righteous, holy anger. Sometimes meekness and politeness doesn’t get the job done.

Jesus allowed a holy anger to move him to action on behalf of the helpless and the voiceless. If human bodies are truly temples—holy places where heaven and earth meet, then we must work, as Jesus did, to preserve and protect these holy places from every form of disrespect and desecration.

“Good is the body,” says Brian Wren’s hymn, “for good and for God.” Good is the flesh that the Word has become. God has no body in this world but ours. It is both a fantastic gift and a great responsibility. And thanks be to God that we are honored with both. Amen.

The Way of the Cross

My sermon for the second Sunday in Lent focuses on our gospel reading of Mark 8. Jesus tells the disciples what is to come–his passion, death, and resurrection–and Peter doesn’t take the news very well. It’s not exactly what he signed up for. The question I landed on was, “What do we expect from God?”

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

Has anyone ever seen the show “Undercover Boss?” It was popular a few years ago, and I ended up stumbling upon a marathon of episodes one Saturday a few years back. The basic premise is that the owner, or CEO, of a company goes undercover in the everyday jobs. For example, the owner of Best Western trained in housekeeping, maintenance, and hospitality at three different motels.

It’s revealed to everyone at the end that this is actually their boss, and inevitably everyone is shocked. Sometimes the past few days start making a lot more sense to the employees. The fact that the new hire in housekeeping had seemingly never used a vacuum cleaner before didn’t seem so strange.

The show was all about the shock value: people don’t realize, would never realize, it’s the owner of the company that they’re working with. You don’t expect the owner of the company to be scrubbing toilets and doing the dirty work. There are certain things that are considered beneath the dignity of the bosses. Below the paygrade. They do not fit our expectations of CEOs and CFOs and business-owning millionaires. Of leaders.

In our gospel reading, Peter’s expectation of his leader, of Jesus is challenged. In the part of the story just before what we read, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Messiah.” When Jesus tells him what that means, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again, Peter cannot handle it. He rebukes Jesus for saying these things.

These aren’t the things that the Messiah is supposed to do. The Jewish people, especially while living under Roman occupation, were eagerly awaiting the Messiah. At the time of Jesus, it was an incredibly common belief that the Messiah would come with great power and force, through off the oppressing Romans, and rule over an earthly kingdom. King David come again, except like a thousand times better.

Perhaps Peter’s reaction is a little more understandable. He has said that Jesus is the Messiah, the one on whom he is going to pin his hopes, his future. The future of his people. And Jesus has followed that up by saying he will suffer and die. This is not at all what Peter expected from his leader. It is not at all what Peter expected from his God. A God who dies, a God who suffers, will not bring an end to Israel’s problems, or to Peter’s problems.

I wonder sometimes if we expect any different from God. Peter’s rebuke of Jesus reflects a very human way of thinking. The way to victory is a way of power and might. Might makes all things right and results in winning, being victorious, and success. Look at the way we act and think: if guns are a danger that threaten our society, our children—the obvious answer is to have more guns, so we can defeat this problem. Winning is pursued at all costs; it’s survival of the fittest.

And are our expectations of God any different? What do we expect from God? An all-powerful being who will fix our problems? Blessings and prosperity? Personal fulfillment? That’s not what Jesus has to offer. It’s not what he had for the disciples, and it’s not what’s offered to us through Christianity today.

Instead, we are given brokenness. Suffering and death. Those who wish to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their lives for the sake of Christ will save them. No wonder Peter rebukes him. Jesus is being incredibly vulnerable. And that’s something we’re often uncomfortable with. We don’t like to let our guard down. We’re even be more uncomfortable with our leaders being vulnerable. And we certainly don’t like the idea that God is vulnerable.

We’d rather have strength, and health, and self-sufficiency, or at least the appearance of these things, over weakness, pain, and dependence on others. But Jesus says that to follow him is not a bypass around the hardships of life. It’s not an easy road. It’s not your ticket to heaven or your guarantee of prosperity. Instead, following Jesus is to be vulnerable. To open ourselves up to our own weaknesses, and to the suffering and weakness of others.

We do not get a God who takes our problems away from us, or offers easy solutions. We do not get a God who keeps us away from pain and hardship, or suffering. But instead we have a God who suffers and dies, and calls on us to do the same. Instead we have a God who is with us in our struggles and weaknesses, a God who appeared to us in vulnerability, so that our own weakness might become a blessing. We have a God who is present with us in the midst of hard times, in the midst of difficult things. A God who understands what it means to suffer because God suffered.

We have a God who is not above our messiness, or too good for our imperfect lives. We have a God who is right with us in the middle of the imperfections and mess. We don’t need to deny our brokenness and pain. Peter thought that suffering, loss, death, and grief were all things to be avoided, believing them to be literally god-forsaken. But in the cross, God demonstrates that there is no place God refuses to go in the quest to love and redeem us.

We don’t need to avoid the rough places in our lives. We don’t need to hide them away and pretend that everything is fine. These are places where God is. And these are places where God calls us to go for the sake of others. To enter into the brokenness and pain in our world, not with easy answers or to put a band-aid on the problem. But to enter into pain and heartache knowing that our God is not afraid of these places. That our God has been there before. That God is capable of taking suffering and death and transforming it into life and hope.

These aren’t easy things to do: being vulnerable, sharing another’s pain, walking with each other through suffering and grief. Following in the way of the cross is not easy. Peter and the rest of the disciples continued to struggle, and they even had Jesus there to help them!

It is not an easy way, but it is the way of God. The way that God walked for us, and that God walks with us. This Lent, may each of us be renewed, strengthened and uplifted along our way. May we rejoice in the God who is always with us and for us, even in the darkest of circumstances. And may we seek to share that companionship and vulnerability with others. Amen.

 

God’s Rainbow

Below is my sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, February 18. I focus entirely on the text from Genesis about God’s covenant with Noah. If you want to read the whole Noah story, it’s found in Genesis 6-9. This sermon focuses on the beginning of chapter 9.

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

The story of Noah’s Ark is probably one of the better known stories from the Bible. Even those who don’t regularly come to church tend to know this story. We often think of it as a children’s story—maybe that’s because of all the animals. It makes for cute toys and books for little kids.

When you think about it, though, Noah’s Ark is anything but a children’s story. It begins as a story of God’s wrath and anger. There is sin and wickedness, there is widespread death and destruction. It’s not really what we tend to look for in bedtime stories.

The story of Noah’s Ark happens really early in the Bible. God has created the world to be good, for humans to live in peace with one another, but things have gone wrong. Because of humankind’s tendency to put ourselves first, the idyllic world that God made is no longer. The beginning of the Noah story tells us that when God saw the wickedness of humankind, God was sorry that God had even made humankind, and it grieved God’s heart.

So the Lord God makes a decision to destroy from the face of the earth all living things, humans and animals and birds, but God finds in Noah a righteous man. And God decides to save Noah and his family, and two of every kind of animal through the ark, where they will live for forty days, while a flood covers the face of the earth.

What we read today happens after the flood, after all of this death, after forty days on the ark. Noah and his family and all the animals have disembarked, and God makes these promises to Noah. “Never again,” God promises, “shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

In a sense, God is limiting God’s self. God is putting restrictions on God’s power and on God’s justice. The God revealed in this story is adaptable. God is touched to the heart by creation, but is willing to accept hurt to keep hope alive. If God wants to stay in relationship with humankind—with the creatures made in the image of God—then it turns out God must change.

God repents, turns from vindication to forgiveness, patience, and steadfast love for creation and for humanity, despite knowing that the hearts of humans may never change. These creatures made in God’s image may always resist God. And yet God lays down God’s weapons against humankind.

God makes a covenant, not just with Noah and his descendants, but with every living creature, with all flesh, to never destroy the world again. Each Sunday in Lent, our reading from the Hebrew Bible will be about a covenant, about the terms of the relationship between God and God’s people. It is a time to delve into God’s promises to us and who we are called to be as God’s people.

In the covenant with Noah, it is completely one-sided. It is all on God. Noah never even speaks, but God promises. God limits God’s self. God binds God’s sense of justice to God’s mercy and love. God binds God’s self to the world in a new and different way. God is subject to the hope and disappointment, joy and grief that come with all relationships.

And the sign of these promises is the rainbow. Set in the sky to remind God of God’s promises. I always find that interesting. When we tell the Noah story, we often say the rainbow is there to remind us of God’s promises. But God puts down the bow in the sky so that God will remember, and never again be moved by anger to destroy the earth.

I once read a poem, written by a mother of a four-year-old. She and her son had been out walking one day, and they saw a rainbow in the sky. “Can we bring that home, and put it in our house,” he asked? And she wrote this poem, called, “A Rainbow in My House.” She took her son’s question literally, imagining what it would be like to have a rainbow in their house, on their walls, emanating from the windows and doors, coming up out of the chimney. The whole house was transformed, and it could not contain the glory of the rainbow and its colors.

I searched and searched for that poem, and I could not find it, so unfortunately you’ll have to make do with my memory. But, imagine with me what it would be like if we had a rainbow in our homes, in our church. If we were constantly filled with the light and color and vibrancy of God’s love and promises. Who would we be? What kind of community would we be if we were shaped by the rainbow?

One where all are welcome, certainly. In this covenant with Noah, God makes no distinction between Noah’s family and the rest of humanity. This is my covenant with all flesh, says God. But all would not just be welcome, but valued, appreciated for the gifts, the perspectives, and the backgrounds that they bring.

To be shaped by God’s rainbow promise would mean that we would not be a people of vengeance and retribution, of violence and power, but instead a people of mercy and love and forgiveness. We live in a world, we participate in systems that are the complete opposite of those values. We see it played out when we value guns over children’s lives, when we value our own comfort over someone else’s basic needs, when we value the well-being of ourselves and our family over the well-being of all people and all creation.

I have to think, that if God grieved for humanity in the time of Noah, God grieves today. Because the heart of God is troubled when we are troubled. And God hopes so much more for the earth than it seems we are able to live up to.

But ultimately, the rainbow is God’s promise. The rainbow is there for God to remember, even more so than us. For God to remember us with love and forgiveness in the midst of life’s chaos with all its pain and suffering. And God does. God has not forsaken the promise made to Noah and to all humankind. Despite our limitations, God continues to be faithful, loving, and merciful to a world so desperately in need of those things.

This Lent, let’s live as if we have a rainbow in our house, and we cannot contain its colors and its brightness. Let’s live trusting God’s love for us, and for all people. May the light of God’s love and God’s promise shine forth in our lives, bringing with it mercy, forgiveness, and hope for the world. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Below is my sermon from Ash Wednesday, February 14. If you came to the noon service, you might not recognize much of it. After the school shooting in Florida, I rewrote most of it.

I remain at a loss for words regarding these continuing tragedies, and our seeming acceptance of them as routine. But I come back to yesterday’s call to repentance. Repentance is not merely sorrow or remorse for the past. Repentance is a changed way of acting in the future. We are long past the point for needing sorrow and remorse over school shootings. Whether we are able as a society to repent–to let our sorrow change our actions–remains to be seen. Prayer is powerful, especially when our prayer leads to changed hearts.

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

Ash Wednesday is both a beautiful and a terrible day. It’s a day when I say the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” again and again and again. They are an echo of the words that we speak over caskets and urns being laid to rest: We commit their body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.

I saw a joke on Facebook this morning from a fellow pastor. What are your Valentine’s plans? It asked. Oh, I have to work and remind people of their inevitable death. It’s a little funny, because it’s Valentine’s Day, only it’s one of those jokes that hits a little too close to home to stay funny long.

Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. I have said these words to older people, to cancer and hospice patients, knowing the next time I said them would likely be at the burial. I have said these words to young and healthy people, to babies and toddlers, to commuters whose stories I don’t know.

Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. I didn’t come up with that, it’s from Hamilton, but it’s true. We will all die. As I sat, horrified this afternoon and watched images and video of yet another school shooting, one picture caught my eye. A mother, weeping outside the school, waiting to know whether her child had lived or died, with an ashen cross on her forehead.

Today it feels like we do not need to be reminded we are mortal. I do not need to be reminded today that the world is sinful and broken, that the world we live in, the world we have created, falls terribly short of God’s intention and hope for us. As our psalm declares, our sin is ever before us. We cannot avoid it.

Like the people Isaiah addresses in our first reading, we might wonder, where is God in all of this? These people were living in a time of confusion and uncertainty, and they were trying to figure out what God’s response was. What God required of them. They felt that God was absent.

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?” They asked of the Lord. “Why do we humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” In other words: give us some kind of sign, God, because we don’t know what you want.

And God responds with condemnation of the people: You serve your own interest on your fast day, God says, and oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist. You call this a fast? says God.

God has not abandoned the people, but God desires fasts, God desires repentance that leads to justice and to peace. Is not this the fast that I choose, says the Lord: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?

The people who claimed to keep God’s fast did not practice justice and peace. These are the hypocrites that Jesus condemns. Those who make a show of their piety, of their religion, but do not keep the faith in their hearts and in their actions.

Ash Wednesday’s call to repentance means that we must admit that we are also those hypocrites. That what we say does not always match what we do. That though we pray for justice and peace, we do not always take actions to promote justice and peace. That though we mourn victims of school shootings, we do not always use our voice and our power to speak up and protect them before it happens.

Our sin is ever before us. We are broken. We are not living in the fullness of life that God intends for us, whether as individuals or as a community. There can be no denying that. There can be no escape from those hard truths.

This day is a reminder of our mortality and of our brokenness. This day is a call to repentance and to changed hearts and lives. A call to the fast for justice and peace. But it is also more. For those marked with the cross there is always more.

For, as the Apostle Paul writes in Second Corinthians, because of the cross of Christ, even though we are dying—see, we are alive. We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. For those marked with the cross there is always more. Death is inevitable, yes, but death gives way to nothing short of baptism’s promised life. The ashen cross on your foreheads will be traced over the cross marked on you at baptism. Ashes are not forever. Ashes are a reminder of life’s endings, but also a reminder of new beginnings in Christ.

Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints, it takes and it takes and it takes. And we keep living anyway, we rise and we fall and we break and we make our mistakes. We are all of us sinners, marked by our brokenness and mortality. But we are also all of us saints in Christ, marked by the life-giving cross which leads to new life and resurrection.

So come. Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation! Let us return to the mercy and love of God, confessing our sin, admitting the places where we yearn for renewal and healing, and calling upon God to create new and righteous hearts in us. Amen.

On the Mountaintop

Below is my sermon from Transfiguration Sunday, February 11, 2018. It’s based on our reading from Mark 9. It was also our Annual Meeting Sunday at St. Paul’s, which brought me to the main focus of this sermon: where is Jesus leading us? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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

My family had been stuck in the car for about five hours when we finally pulled into the National Park. We were bickering, as families do, especially when they’ve been forced into a small space together for the past week or so. The back and forth between my brother and me continued as we stretched our legs, and the increasingly ill-tempered snapping from my parents did nothing to stop it.

But, when we came up over the small hill to the outlook point, we all stopped. We didn’t speak at all. In front of us lay the Grand Canyon and awe and majesty of its beauty, its enormity—and our smallness in comparison—took away all of our words.

When I’d told my friend that my family was going on a road trip to see the Grand Canyon, she was really excited. “I can’t tell you how awesome it is,” she said, “I can’t explain it to you, you just have to experience it.” And she was right. No pictures or videos I had seen did the Grand Canyon justice. They cannot capture its magnificence, and words too seem inadequate.

I sometimes feel as if the Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those experiences—where it can’t be explained to us, we simply need to experience it. Only we can’t experience it, because we weren’t there. Almost no one was there, in fact, just Peter and James and John. And we only have these second-hand accounts, written in the gospels years later.

When we try to explain the Transfiguration, we never are able to really get across what it must have been like to be there. And we get bogged down in some of the things that we can’t explain: what does it mean that Jesus’ appearance changed? Did it change back? How did Moses and Elijah show up? Were they visions? Actually physically there? Did just Peter hear this voice of God, or did everyone? In trying to explain this mystical experience, we lose something in translation.

It just has to be experienced. And, while we might never experience the totality of the Transfiguration’s transcendence and wonder, I think we have experienced pieces of this story in our lives. Maybe you have had a moment where you feel or see or hear the overwhelming presence of God in your life. It might not have been quite as dramatic a story as what we read in Mark, but that doesn’t mean it was less significant in your life.

Whether you’ve had such a moment or not, we can all relate to Peter’s reactions through the story. It’s almost as if we see this moment through his eyes. And Peter can’t believe what he is seeing. His first instinct, though, is to stay—to build dwelling places for these holy figures, and to make this experience last.

But that is Peter’s mistake. He wants to keep the Holy, the transcendent God, in one safe, confined place. It is good on the mountain, he says. And he is right. And so he wants to stay there. Can you relate? I know I can. When we find those moments of peace, those moments where everything seems to be right, we wish that they will never end. It doesn’t have to be some big revelatory experience, either. It could be the whole family together, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. Or a quiet day to yourself, when that doesn’t happen much anymore. A gathering of friends from far away. We want to stay in those beautiful, fleeting moments, because we know it is good to be there.

In the story from Mark, Peter’s option is actually the safer one. Staying on the mountain that is. Post-Transfiguration life is not for the faint of heart. Perhaps Peter is beginning to realize this. Just before he ascended the mountain with Jesus, Jesus told his disciples the truth about what was going to happen to him: that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected, and be killed, and after three days rise again. The Bible tells us that Jesus said all of this quite openly, the same way he says on their way down the mountain not to tell anyone about this until after he has risen from the dead. Rising from the dead sounds pretty good, but it also means that you were dead.

It’s no wonder peter wants to stay up on this mountain where the world is clear, God is present, and they are safe. It’s our human instinct when we’re facing an unsure future. Sometimes, even if our present reality is so great, we’d rather stay there than face the uncertainty of what might lie ahead.

Especially when, like Peter, we’re not sure what we can trust in anymore. When that which we’ve known, on which have relied is changing and sometimes crumbling before us. Whether it’s the very churches that we built to house God: less attended, less influential than they used to be. Whether it’s our relationships with one another: less trusting, less open than they used to be. Sometimes it feels like it’s the whole world: less safe, less predictable than we used to think it was.

Too often our only response seems to be pop-up tents: quick fixes, continuing resolutions, short-term thinking. We’d often rather stay in places feel okay, even if they aren’t great. Or try to cling to what no longer exists. None of which actually trusts in a future that God holds for us.

We are called to leave the mountain—to go into the future that God will show us. Even though it might be frightening. Even though it might be different than what we’re used to. We have our annual meeting after worship today, and at meetings like this, it’s always tempting to get bogged down in questions about numbers: financial or attendance. And, while I think both of those things are important, they are also not the true question at hand: Where is Jesus leading us? The voice from God says to listen to Jesus. What does that mean for us, as St. Paul’s? What does it mean for you, for your family, for your work?

I’m not sure. I don’t think we can ever know the specifics of what the future holds, and that we drive ourselves crazy when we try. God holds the future for us, and is calling us be a part of it. What I do know is this: we do not go into the future alone. The disciples aren’t sent by themselves to the difficult path awaiting them. Jesus goes down the mountain with them. And Jesus goes down the mountain with us. Jesus goes with us as we leave our dwelling places, as we journey into the unknown future together.

May God continue to bless us with moments of wonder and awe, with moments of peace and beauty. And may God guide and direct us as we seek to listen to Jesus, and journey with Jesus into our future. Amen.

Healing and a Purpose

Below is my sermon from Sunday, February 4, 2018, better known as the day the Eagles won the Super Bowl! We had a fun time at church with the references to eagles in our Isaiah reading and in “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.” Andy even led us in a rousing rendition of Fly, Eagles Fly on the organ! And congrats to everyone who participated in the ELCA World Hunger Big Game Challenge. Team Philly pulled out a close win, and together with New England we raised almost $36,000 dollars to help fight world hunger.

The sermon focuses on Mark 1:29-39, the healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law.

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

Did you know? The readings we use in church are on a three year cycle, and they were all laid out in 1994. So the fact that we have a reading about eagles on this Sunday must conclusively prove that God is a Philly fan. And I’m betting a lot of churches in New England left off that last verse of Isaiah this morning.

But anyway, I digress. I wanted to start with a story about my mom. I called this week to ask her for permission to share this story, and she agreed, although she couldn’t see why it was anything special. When I was in tenth grade, my mom was walking our dog one afternoon, and she slipped and fell on some ice. She landed pretty hard, but she was about a mile from home, without her cell phone, so she had to walk all the way back.

When she got home, she took some ibuprofen, then proceeded to drive to me to my piano lesson. While I was at piano, she cooked dinner for our family and picked my brother up from football practice. When I left my teacher’s house, I found my dad waiting for me.

It seems, that three hours after falling, walking a mile, shuttling two kids around and cooking dinner, my mom decided to go to the emergency room. She had been doing all of these things with a broken wrist. And still to this day, she doesn’t think it was that big of a deal. “It wasn’t until I had a chance to stop that I really felt the pain anyway,” she told me.

I thought of my mom, and that day she broke her wrist, when I read this week’s gospel from Mark about Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. It made me wonder why, even when we’re sick and hurt, it seems we have to keep going and keeping up with our busy tasks. It applies to all of us sometimes, but it also seems that women are particularly likely to put their own needs aside.

And at first it made me a little mad and frustrated with Simon Peter, and with the other disciples. Couldn’t they have made their own dinner, this one time? Fevers were a serious business back then, and people died from them all the time. Couldn’t they have given this poor unnamed woman a few more days of rest? We need to ask those questions, because people have used stories like this one to keep women out of leadership roles in churches for far too long.

But then I came to realize that that’s not really what this story is about. We’re not meant to look at this story and see examples of gender roles, but instead see an example of discipleship. Far from being a pathetic, un-liberated, subservient woman, Simon’s mother-in-law is an example of discipleship for us to follow.

Jesus has restored her, not just to health, but to a calling, to a purpose. Showing hospitality in Jesus’ culture, welcoming guests into your home was a way of showing honor, and respect, and love. It was an incredibly important job.

Later in the gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that he came not to be served but to serve, and they don’t understand. Simon’s mother-in-law understands. She is one of the first people who gets it. She has been freed from her illness and made healthy again, not just for her own benefit, but for the benefit of those she will serve.

Her service is not simply waiting on her son-in-law and the men with him, but welcoming others in need of healing into her home. Having been healed herself, she can now extend compassion and hospitality to others in need. The word used for the service she offers is diakonia. She is a deacon to them, someone entrusted to care and support the body of Christ. We won’t hear her name, ever, but she’s mentioned again, on Good Friday, when Mark tells us that some women, who had served and provided for Jesus in Galilee stayed until the last.

Last week, when we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demon, I focused on the ways God wants to set us free from the things that hold us back: whether they are internal or external demons: addiction and depression, prejudice, racism and sexism, nativism and xenophobia. These things keep us from being the people that God intends for us to be, from experiencing the wholeness and joy that God intends for us. That is the work of God, and Jesus continues it this week, healing and restoring all those who are brought to him.

But God doesn’t set us free simply that we might enjoy ourselves, or bask in that freedom. God sets us free so that we might live into our God-given identity and potential. So that we might claim our calling as children of God and join God in the mission to love and bless the world.

Frederick Buechner, the Presbyterian theologian and author, is quoted as saying: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where is that place for you? Where is the place where God is calling you—where your gladness, your skills and passion, your gifts can meet the needs of a hungry world?

For some it might be their jobs, but for others, our callings are found elsewhere. They might be found in family—in caring for others, whether they are young or old. That is a calling. They might be found in justice work—in advocating for fair treatment for the disenfranchised. That is a calling. They might be found in our relationships—in bringing needed compassion and empathy to others. That is a calling. They might be found in welcome and service—in providing hospitality. That is a calling.

We all have callings, only often we don’t see them for what they are. We might dismiss small actions as insignificant, or just what a good person does. But callings come in all shapes and sizes. Let’s claim ours. Let’s celebrate the ways that we are able to be part of what God is doing in the world.

Have you not seen? Have you not heard? The Lord God Almighty is at work in you, with you, and through you to care for the people and the world God loves so much. Amen.