Jesus Rescues!

This past week at St. Paul’s was Vacation Bible School, with the theme, “Shipwrecked: Rescued by Jesus.” I’ve often heard it joked about that people get more out of the children’s sermon than the normal one. While it is a joke, I think there’s something there. Children’s sermons are kept deliberately simple, but contain the really important basics: God loves you, share God’s love with others, God loves you, God takes care of you, and did I mention God loves you? “Big People” sermons can sometimes get bogged down and miss this simple message. While I hope that all of my sermons are discernible, I purposefully kept this one simpler than most, trusting that what we teach our children is something we need to hear, too. (If you’re curious about Stephen Ministry, please let me know!)

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

This past week was Vacation Bible School here at St. Paul’s, and we spent our time hearing stories about how when we’re in some kind of trouble: whether we’re lonely, or worried, or struggling, or we’ve done wrong, Jesus can rescue us!

And actually our story for Wednesday was our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus calming the storm and stilling the seas. As each group of kids came to Story Time, I asked them: what are you afraid of? The disciples in this story are really scared, what scares you sometimes?

Our preschoolers shared that they were scared of things like spiders, being alone in the dark, getting shots at the doctor. As the groups got older, their fears changed. Being left out. Not doing well at school. Disappointing their parents. Failing.

Everyone has fears. I won’t make you raise your hand and share yours. Maybe some of the kids’ fears are things that you worry about, too. Being alone, being left out. Failing. Disappointing those who are depending on you.

You probably have other fears, things that hopefully kids don’t have to worry about. Maybe you’re dealing with a health issue, or a family member or a friend is. Maybe you’re wondering how to best support and care for aging parents. Maybe your kids are leaving home for the first time and you worry for them. Maybe you worry for the future, worry what kind of world we’re creating and leaving for those who come after us. The news is certainly full of things that make me very scared.

We all are afraid sometimes. There’s no way around it. And sometimes it can be so overwhelming that we want to cry out with the disciples: “Do you not care that we are perishing?” Do you even notice, God? Do you not care that my loved one is dying? Do you not care that I don’t know how I’m going to get through this struggle?

Of course, when Jesus is awoken by these cries, he does care. He stands up and stops the storm and calms the winds. But then he says something that’s interesting: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I think it’s pretty obvious why the disciples are afraid. They think that they’re going to drown. But they’ve seen Jesus do great things already. He’s healed people, he’s cast out demons. And when the storm threatens to overwhelm them instead of trusting in the power of Jesus, they are overcome with fear.

There’s a moment in Game of Thrones, both the book and the show, where a young boy named Bran asks his father, “Can a man be brave, even if he is afraid?” And his father responds: “That’s the only time a man can be brave.”

“Can a person have faith, even when they are afraid?” Jesus seems to make it an either or. Either you are afraid, or you have faith. I don’t think it’s that simple. I think what Jesus is getting at is that even when you are afraid, you can still respond in faith. It’s not an issue of whether or not you’re afraid, but how you respond. Are we paralyzed by our fears, like the disciples? Unable to truly do anything but panic?

Or, can a person have faith, even when they are afraid? That’s maybe not the only time, but one of the times when our faith can shine through the darkness of fear and truly be a beacon of hope and guidance.

When we talked about this story with the kids this week, we used our catchphrase of the week: Jesus rescues! When you worry, Jesus rescues! When you’re lonely, Jesus rescues! When you struggle, Jesus rescues! We tried to be clear though, what that rescue is and what it isn’t. Our faith doesn’t magically make our fears go away. As adults we know that. If only that were the case.

But our faith makes it possible for us not to be paralyzed by our fears, not to let our fears or our struggles be the things that rule us. That control us. Our faith means that we are never alone in our fears. God is with us. Yes, God cares. God cares that we are afraid. God cares that we are struggling. And we are never alone. And a God who cares cultivates people who care. Part of our most basic Christian vocation is the calling to care for each other.

After the hymn of the day, we will be recognizing our Stephen Ministry’s ten-year anniversary. Our Stephen Ministers are people from our congregation who have been trained to help provide support and Christian care-giving to those who are struggling or in need of help. Some of those who receive care are dealing with grief or coping with an illness. Others are trying to handle a change in their life situation.

Whatever the situation, our Stephen Ministers are here to provide one-on-one care for a period of time. When we struggle, we do not have to do it by ourselves. If you think you might benefit from a Stephen Ministry relationship, please reach out to me or to one of Stephen Leaders, Beth McElvenney and Hazel Pelletrau.

“Why are you afraid,” Jesus asks? Well, much like the disciples, the reasons for our fears seem obvious. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. But, to borrow from VBS, when we are afraid, Jesus rescues! Not by making our fears disappear, but making it so that we might live by faith in spite of our fears. Making it so that we might live knowing we are loved. Knowing we are not alone. Knowing that our fears don’t get the last word. God’s love does. Amen.

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Like a mustard seed

Below is my sermon from June 17, 2018. It focuses on two of Jesus’ parables: the seed growing on its own, and the mustard seed. But I also include an brief introduction to parables and the kingdom of God in general. A lot of Jesus’ parables can make us uncomfortable. That’s good! He was trying to challenge a lot of the assumptions of his listeners in way designed to make them think. When you feel uncomfortable with the emphasis of the parable, don’t run away from it, see where it might be leading you.

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

“The kingdom of God is like…” Jesus starts so many of his teachings with this phrase. It’s the beginning of many of his most well-known parables. The kingdom of God is like treasure hidden in a field. The kingdom of God is like a pearl of great worth. The kingdom of God is like yeast in flour. The kingdom of God, we hear today, is like a seed that grows on its own. The kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds, with exponential growth in its future.

At the end of these parables, we hear that Jesus did not speak to the listening crowds except in parables, although he did explain everything privately to his disciples. So, what is a parable? How are supposed to understand them? And wouldn’t things have been a lot easier if Jesus had just explained publicly the point he was trying to get across?

Yes, I’m sure it would have been easier. But I’m not sure it would be better for us. Jesus’ parables are stories, or short comparisons that put together seemingly unrelated things. The kingdom of God and a seed. The kingdom of God and a gardener. The kingdom of God and a woman baking bread. Ordinary things.

Parables don’t have easy answers. We rarely get an explanation of what the parable means, and so we are left to struggle with them. Parables often question our assumptions and shed new light on things we accept without question. They ask us to see with new eyes.

Yes, Jesus could have simply told us the answers. And we could have memorized them and known them. But as any student who’s just finished their finals could tell us, learning by rote memorization will only get you so far. It might get you a good grade on the test, but you’re more likely to forget it than something you had to struggle with, experiment with, and come to conclusions about yourself.

And so Jesus tells us parables. Because the Kingdom of God is not like having an easy answer, but the Kingdom of God is like wrestling with our assumptions. The Kingdom of God is like testing our preconceptions. The Kingdom of God is like viewing things a new way.

I should say something, just briefly, about the “Kingdom” of God. That’s the traditional translation for what Jesus says, but it might not be the most helpful. We often think of kingdoms as places, nations, countries. Jesus isn’t talking about a physical place, but a different way of being. A way where God’s will for humanity is being realized. Perhaps a better word might be the reign of God. Whenever we are living in the new reality inaugurated by Jesus, we are living in the Reign of God.

So, what do these parables have to say about what the Kingdom of God—the Reign of God—is like? It is like a plant growing on its own, automatically. It both surprises and mystifies us. The farmer is able to help the seeds along but, at the end of the day, cannot force them to grow. They must do that on their own.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds which, when it is grown, becomes a mighty shrub. So big even that birds will nest in its branches. A mighty shrub. Never say that Jesus isn’t funny. He could have compared the kingdom of God to the cedars of Lebanon, towering over the landscape, majestic and imposing. But instead he picks the biggest of all…shrubs.

So, the Kingdom of God isn’t necessarily something majestic or grandiose to look at. At least from our eyes. But it is mighty. Mustard is a weed, you know. It will grow and spread and completely take over a landscape, infiltrating every area. It’s difficult to control, and very difficult to eradicate. It wasn’t something you would plant, or try to cultivate, for that very reason—you can’t control it.

And Jesus says: this is the kingdom of God. Often unwanted, seen as a nuisance. But once it’s taken root, good luck getting rid of it. Good luck keeping it contained to one neat little area. We cannot relegate the kingdom of God to a “proper” place. We cannot carve out a separate, sacred space for the Kingdom and think that it will not sneak into all the other places as well and take them over, too.

And that includes within ourselves. We cannot partition ourselves and have our faith only impact some areas of our lives. Only be relevant to some of our decisions and not others. There is no such thing as an apolitical kingdom of God. There is no such thing as an economically neutral kingdom of God. There is no such thing as a kingdom of God that is not interested in our lived, embodied existence, in our relationships, in how we treat each other. We cannot separate our faith in Jesus into one neat area of our lives.

When we are faced with moral dilemmas, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with political decisions, our faith must be part of the conversation. When we are faced with economic choices, our faith must be part of the conversation. I’m not suggesting that there is only one right answer to any of these difficult questions. But when our faith is not part of how we seek our answer, that is a problem.

Right now, on our southern border, children are being torn away from their parents. Children are being kept in holding facilities by the thousands. There is not an easy solution to the immigration and refugee crisis facing, not just our country, but the world. I’m not saying that there is. But, as people of faith, we must say that whatever the solution will be, it does not start with this. It does not start with dehumanizing children. It does not start with destroying families.

We cannot separate our faith from the real-world situations we find ourselves in. Faith doesn’t work like that. The Kingdom of God doesn’t work like that. It refuses to be kept in a neat and tidy box. It is like the mustard seed, growing and spreading with abandon, taking over wherever it will.

These parables of seeds and growth have both promise and provocation within them. The Kingdom of God comes without our help. Without our even understanding it. What great promise that is! It is not all up to us. Even when we feel as though nothing is happening, the seed is not growing, God is at work. It might be imperceptible, it might be painfully slow, but God is at work bringing about growth.

It is like Martin Luther’s explanation of the Lord’s Prayer: “What do we mean when we say, “Your kingdom come?” “In fact,” Luther writes, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” We ask that the kingdom may also come to us.

We ask that we might have our assumptions challenged. That we might question things we take for granted. That we might see with new eyes, the reign of God. Paul describes what it is like to live in that reign in 2 Corinthians: From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view.

When we pray, “your kingdom come,” we ask that we might see the world through God’s point of view. That we might let God’s kingdom take root in us, knowing ultimately it might get out of our control. Let’s hope it does.

Who do you listen to?

Below is my sermon from June 10, the third Sunday after Pentecost. It focuses on the readings from Genesis and Mark, which both deal with the question of discernment. How do we determine what is good and what is evil? Or, in my title, who (or what) are you listening to? As I mention in the beginning of my sermon, both of these readings start somewhat abruptly. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read from the beginnings of the chapters to get some context.

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

I was tempted to begin this sermon by starting in the middle, as our readings from Genesis and Mark do today. Sometimes picking up right in the middle of a story can be interesting, but other times, like today I think, it’s often confusing.

This Genesis reading is a really well-known story, and maybe that’s why the powers that be thought we could start in the middle. But the thing about well-known stories is, we often remember our own version of the story, rather than what it actually says, so I’d like to spend a little bit of time focusing on this story of Adam and Eve.

Except they aren’t called Adam and Eve, not yet. They’re just the man and the woman. Prior to our reading, they had been instructed by God to live in the garden, and do pretty much whatever they wanted, as long as they didn’t eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

But along comes this serpent, who the Bible tells us is very crafty. And he strikes up a conversation with the woman and convinces her to eat by telling her that eating the fruit will make her like God. And she gives some of the fruit to her husband, who was with her, and he eats, too. That’s a detail we miss a lot. The man is with the woman the whole time. He’s not some unsuspecting bystander, he knows exactly where this fruit is coming from.

And their eyes are opened and they are ashamed of themselves. Ashamed of their nakedness. Ashamed of their humanness. This is where our lesson this morning picked up. Ashamed, they hide from God, who, because of their disobedience condemns the snake to crawl for their rest of its days, and also casts the man and the woman out of the garden.

This story raises so many more questions than answers. Didn’t God know all along that the man and woman would eat this fruit? Why did God put the tree there in the first place? Who created the serpent—God? How are Adam and Eve supposed to know what they’re doing is wrong if they don’t yet have the knowledge of good and evil? Bible stories like this are meant to make us wrestle with big questions—questions to which there are no easy answers.

There’s too many questions for one sermon, and I’d like to focus on just one: how do we discern what is good and what is evil? Or, put another way, to whose voice do we listen? The man and the woman were told one thing by God (do not eat from that tree) and another by the serpent (you can eat that, it’s good). Why did they choose to listen to the serpent over God?

They knew what God said, they knew that God had only been good to them, and yet they did not listen. It reminds me a little of a time when, flying home with my family, I bought one of those huge Toblerone bars in the duty-free shop. Like, five pounds of chocolate. My mom told me, “Don’t eat all of that chocolate during the flight.” I was a teenager. She shouldn’t have even had to tell me that. I knew she was right. But you can all guess where this story is going. Despite knowing that I shouldn’t, I ate all the chocolate. And I still can’t eat more than a tiny piece of Toblerone at a time.

Adam and Eve chose not to listen to God, but instead to listen to the serpent, to listen to their own desires instead of the will of God. Adam and Eve knew what they were doing was against God’s will. They had it pretty easy, if you ask me. They literally saw and talked to God and knew exactly what God wanted of them. And still they screwed it up.

How do we, who don’t have the luxury of hearing directly from God’s lips, decide what is good and what is evil? How do we decide what is from God and what is not? Discernment, making these decisions about good and evil, is not easy.

The scribes in our gospel reading come down from Jerusalem to meet this Jesus who is making such a fuss. And they see his power and they discern that he is from Satan. Now, this story would be easier if the scribes were purely evil. They’re not. They are the educated religious and cultural elite committed to maintaining domestic and religious life in challenging times.

They recognize Jesus’ power: the power that has cast out demons and healed the sick. And yet the scribes confuse good for evil and evil for good. They say that Jesus and his work are evil, are from Satan. Now, Satan is not some little man with a pitchfork and a spiked tail. We don’t think of the devil in that way anymore. But we would be kidding ourselves if we did not acknowledge that, while we don’t believe in a physical devil, there are still powers of evil that continue to seek our allegiance. That continue, like the serpent, to try to make us confuse good for evil and evil for good.

They have even craftier names nowadays. Nationalism, which will tell us that good and evil are relative, so long as our nation is safe; which allows us disregard fellow human beings, simply because they come from another country. Patriarchy, which has its very roots in today’s Genesis reading, tells us that human beings are not equal, and that it’s okay for us to treat some as less than. Racism, which does much the same thing along the falsely constructed lines of race. Consumerism, which tells us that what we have and what we own determines our worth and our power over others. And that insidious idea that comes from so many corners that tells us that we are never good enough: never rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, important enough. We must always be seeking to improve.

These voices are crafty like the serpent, because they usually don’t seem all that evil on the surface. In fact, they often seem good. So how do we know what is good and what is evil? The easiest way to tell might be to look at the outcomes. Listening to these voices of evil sows divisions and alienations—which is exactly what they want. When the man and the woman stand accused by God, things go south quickly.

The man blames the woman, and blames God for giving him the woman in the first place. The woman blames the serpent. And so it goes. The voices of evil which seek our allegiance want to turn us against each other, rather than toward each other. They want us to be divided from each other. A house divided cannot stand. And evil wants us to fail.

But the voice of Jesus, the voice of God, says something different to us: do not be confused. Call evil, evil; and good, good. Do not divide your allegiance, do not divide your very self, but belong to God. The people around him, including his family, thought that Jesus was out of his mind. Maybe he was. But maybe that’s what we need to be, too.

To trust so much in God’s promises that people call us crazy. To believe that all people are made in God’s image, that no one is any less worthy of love and respect because of their gender or the color of their skin or their nation of origin. To believe God when God says that we are enough. That we don’t have to be anything other than what we are to be loved.

There are so many voices seeking our attention, trying to claim us. And it is not always easy to know the good from the evil. Life would be much simpler if it were. The serpent is crafty, but God will not let the serpent get the last word. Let us cling to the voice of God, which says that we are brothers and sisters. Which says that we are enough. Which says that there is always room for more at the table of grace. And which, at the end of the day, when all the other voices fade away, says that we are loved. Amen.

Sabbath

What is the Sabbath? Who is it for? These are the questions that take center stage in our reading from Mark. How are you doing with Sabbath in your life? Who do you see around you that needs to be released in order to experience Sabbath?

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

What comes to your mind when I say the word, “Sabbath?” Perhaps it’s the idea of a rest or a break, a respite, or a vacation. Maybe you think of church. The third commandment telling us to “remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy.” Maybe you were forced to memorize Martin Luther’s Small Catechism for confirmation, and so when I say, “Sabbath,” you immediately think: We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn from it.

Or maybe you think of the blue laws that used to be in effect in many states, restricting what types of activities were acceptable practices on Sundays. It wasn’t that long ago that liquor stores were closed on Sundays, and not too long before that that almost every store was closed for a Sabbath rest. But what is Sabbath really? Who is it for, what good does it serve?

These are the questions at play in Jesus’ arguments with some Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. Now, it’s easy to take these arguments and look down on the Pharisees. They seem single-mindedly focused on following the law to the detriment of caring for others. But our gospels do us a disservice in their portrayal of the Pharisees. They are often depicted as very one-dimensional characters, when in fact they were a complex group. In many ways they were a reforming group, trying to help the people of Israel worship God everywhere, not just the Temple. And so they were concerned with the law—how to apply the law in different circumstances. They are doing their best to help people follow the law by interpreting the law.

Jesus is doing the same thing—only he comes up with a different interpretation, and so we have these two arguments about keeping the Sabbath in our reading. Is it lawful to harvest grain on the Sabbath, and is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? Or, as Jesus puts it: what is the Sabbath about, life or death?

Jesus interprets the law through this lens: The Sabbath is about giving life. And so, life-giving activities are indeed allowed on the Sabbath. What if we could reclaim that idea that the Sabbath is about life-giving? All recent studies have shown that Americans are not really good at Sabbath. We’re working longer hours and seeing it as a badge of honor. A lot of people—myself included—often don’t use all of our vacation days. Every bit of down time is filled with more and more activities: sports, bands, arts. And then there are those who have no option but to work every waking hour, two or three jobs, just to make ends meet. They do not have the privilege or the luxury of Sabbath.

Sabbath is more than just a quick rest—a nap or a vacation. Sabbath rest is oriented towards life and the things that bring abundant life. The first Sabbath ever is in the Genesis account of God creating the heavens and the earth. In six days, God does God’s work: bringing forth life out of nothing-ness, creating order out of chaos, delighting in the goodness of God’s work. And then, on the seventh day, God rests.

God’s work isn’t finished. The story of God and God’s people is only just beginning, and yet God rests. God rests in order to be able to continue to give life and create life. And in our reading from Deuteronomy, we hear the reason that God commands the people to keep the Sabbath. Because they were slaves, forced to work every day, they ought to now rest one day a week. And not just them, but all of their slaves, the immigrants in their land, even their animals, need to rest. Need to be rejuvenated. Sabbath is intended for everyone. For all creation.

Jesus says that Sabbath was created for humans, not humans for the Sabbath. I think, because it’s a commandment, we sometimes confuse the purpose of the Sabbath. We start to think of it as something we do to honor God, or to make ourselves “holy.” But God created the Sabbath as a gift to us. Perhaps God knew we’d need to be forced to slow down. God definitely knew that without Sabbath, we would be off-kilter. We would forget that we belong to God and not to our labor. We would forget that we belong to each other, instead of just using each other for gain. The Sabbath is a gift meant to force us to stop and to remember to whom we belong.

When was the last time you took a Sabbath? It can feel almost impossible. The demands of work, of family, of all of our activities can make it feel selfish to take time to be idle. And the demands of our culture can make Sabbath feel like a self-centered waste of time. With all of the very real, moral crises in our nation and world—from guns and school shooting, to the refugee crisis and the separation of children and parents, to the ever-present sin of racism—taking time for Sabbath can feel like being an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

But Sabbath is not an escape. Sabbath is not forsaking the world’s problems. Sabbath is for the sake of the world’s problems. Sabbath rest is rest that anticipates action for the sake of life once again.

In our Gospel story where Jesus ignites these Sabbath controversies, it is not because he does not believe or honor the importance of the Sabbath. In fact, it is because he honors it so much that it is offensive. If the Sabbath is about the people being free, he looks around and asks: who is not free right now? On that day, it was the man with the withered hand, bound by his disability in a time when it meant not being about to work or be a whole part of the community. And when faced with bondage and captivity, Jesus gives freedom.

From what do you need Sabbath? What are you captive to? Is it the constant demands and pressures of your work? Is it the pressure of our social media world, always needing to present the perfect image? Is it perhaps something deeper—are you captive to your own insecurities and doubts? Are you captive to fear of change or inaction?

We all have things that hold us captive. That seek to keep us from being the free people of God. “Stretch out your hand,” says Jesus. Stretch out that part of yourself, whatever it is that is keeping you from being whole. From being healed. As we say in the prayer of confession, we cannot free ourselves. But God can. The good news of Jesus is that God comes to free us from the things that bind us. God freed the people from Pharaoh and God continues to set us free today.

The Sabbath is for us. The Sabbath is God’s great gift of freedom to a world desperately in need of it. And as we are freed by God, given the gift of rest by God, we need to ask as Jesus did: who is still bound? Who does not have Sabbath? Rest is essential—even God rested. We rest so that we might join God in love for the sake of the world. Let us thank God for the gift of Sabbath today. And renewed by that gift, let us join God in love and active service. Amen.

Holy Goose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Ordinary Saints

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Love, love, love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Unexpected Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love in Truth and Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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