Sunday, May 21, 2017

I will not leave you orphaned


You are not alone.
This month’s Bible study in the Christ women’s group was on this theme. Then women of various ages wrote on various situations: “You are not alone when you are at a crossroads,” “You are not alone when you’re sure you are right.”  “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
A teacher named Norma shared this story about that third one. “You are not alone… when you are afraid.”
When she was just 11 years old, she was home one mid-August evening. She was reading Little Women. The phone rang. “Mother said we had to go quickly to the hospital; she found a neighbor to take them. There they sat in a hallway for a long time waiting for someone to tell them something. Finally, Mother stopped a doctor passing by and said, ‘They brought my husband in, but I don’t know what’s happened to him.’ The doctor responded, ‘Don't you know he’s deceased?’ I didn’t know what that word meant—until mother cried out, ‘You mean he’s already dead?’” Norma writes, “To this day, I fear I will suddenly hear those words again. I feared I would hear them before my fiancĂ© and I could marry… Burton and I have been married 55 years.”
The Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist, Summary of story from Gather, May 2017… page 23
You are not alone…
In response, Judy Nass shared her own story, and she’s given permission to me to share it with you this morning. When Judy was seven years old, she lost her Dad. When she was 22, she lost her Mom. When she got married, a great-uncle came to stand in for her parents. Maybe I already knew this story from years ago when I first sat in Judy and Dave’s home and asked them about their story… but this week, it sank in deeper, maybe because of these words from Jesus, “I will not leave you orphaned.”
Judy is not the only one in our congregation who has had the experience of losing both her parents at a young age… of moving through some of life’s major milestones without beloved family members there to cheer her on… whether it was because of death or broken relationships, many of us have had these experiences of loss… and it’s from that deep place (whether we faced it with courage and determination or not)… that Christ promises, “I won’t leave you there.” Like Norma’s lifelong sense that this might happen again, many of us have a nagging sense that something has happened to us that no one else can understand… that in some way, we are on our own… and directly to that unspoken assumption and question, “Where are you?” Jesus speaks the Spirit of truth, “I will love you and make myself know to you.”
On Friday and Saturday, Pastor Elizabeth, Spence Blum, Kathy Kostad, Eric Miller (one of our seminarians who was invited to lead in worship) and I were at the synod assembly. Throughout 2017, our Bishop has been inviting us to reflect on a Bible passage from Matthew 9 where Jesus has compassion for the crowds and then says this to the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”
The Bishop’s report was crafted around this theme… of all the hard things we’re facing as church together, of all the hard things we’re facing as neighbors and communities, nations, globe, as a whole creation… and then, how God (the Lord of the harvest) is providing…
She told several stories and this was the third one…
She shared how she goes out regularly for breakfast with a particular friend, and on this day, their breakfast was at the French Hen. Right at 8 am, they walked in when their server unlocked the door. They sipped their coffee, opened the menu, and she began to imagine the dish she would order… maybe coconut lime French toast, or maybe biscuits and gravy with a cheddar chive biscuit, or maybe the quiche Lorraine… Then, their waiter, Ben, came over to take their order. He leaned right down to their eye level and said, “I have to be honest with you. The chef didn’t make it in today. So… I could give you a yogurt parfait or we have some pastries. I definitely have coffee, but if you want to go somewhere else, I would understand that, too.”
I’ve got to be honest with you. This is what we’ve got. Maybe it’s not what expected or hoped for but it’s enough.
Our church building was built 100 years ago with a capacity of 400. Our worship is typically 120, although if we all showed up at once, we would be more like 300… we could look at this as a reason for disappointment, shame, or embarrassment—that we’re not filling our space except when we host large groups who meet to advocate with legislators across the street… but this story of Ben-the-waiter’s honesty in the circumstances gives us a glimpse of how we might respond…
I’ve got to be honest with you. Changing patterns of religion, faith, and life mean there are those who aren’t showing up. So, look around. This is who we’ve got to reach out in this amazing neighborhood, along the Green line (with an average of 30,000 riders each day). This is who we've got and it's enough. Our Synod has just received a grant to gather young adults (19-29) to do local immersions such as the one Craig Dokken is doing right now in Tanzania in Atlanta, Georgia, and then, right here, along the Green Line, to imagine how to engage more actively with the diverse neighbors who travel the Green Line daily. We are going to want to be a part of that… to send young adults on our behalf and then listen deeply to what they learn together.
Recently, our youth members brought a resolution to Council to make even more clear our welcome to all people by making sure our congregation is included on websites promoting welcoming churches to GLBTQ+ people throughout the area. The Council passed this resolution, and at the Synod Assembly, I went to a workshop about welcoming where the need for this public welcome became even more clear… Did you know that in 28/32 states, if you are GLBTQ+, you can be fired or evicted for that reason alone? Did you know there is a travel advisory throughout Texas—that it might be dangerous to travel there? Did you know that by far, the majority of people 40 and under look for this marker—an openly welcoming church—because it matches their values around who should be welcome in our churches? So… as a congregation that has always quietly welcomed all, as we move into a time of having a more public welcome, how much are we willing to learn in order to be filled with compassion, again and again, as we learn more and more about God’s great diversity? Or as visiting Bishop Guy Erwin put it, "What's our capacity for change on behalf of the neighbor?"
“I will not leave you orphaned,” says Jesus in times like these, when there are crowds of people on the Green Line train, maybe feeling harassed and helpless… maybe wondering if they are all alone, going through whatever they’re going through…
Bishop Guy Erwin, visiting from the Southwest California Synod said that they joke in his synod that if every Lutheran would simply become an Uber driver and share the good news of Jesus’ welcome with one passenger, they would have an unprecedented wave of evangelism (that’s the churchy word for sharing the story of God’s love and welcome)… I think that’s true here, too. So, think about your own daily life… maybe you’re not a talkative Uber driver, but you do encounter people who need to know, they’re not alone. Though they may have been orphaned through death or rejection... God has not left them. God’s with them, and you’re with them—the body of Christ, the hands and feet and voice of Christ.
Jesus says today, “It’s true, people can’t see me. But you can… the Spirit is living in you. Because you love me, you will do what I have said… (and remember last week, “You will do even greater things…”). Through sharing God’s outpouring, life-expanding love with others… it may be that we will know God in Christ far better than we have ever before, the God who will never leave us orphaned, the God who promises to be there for you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

In you, I seek refuge




Psalm 31 and John 14 

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Speak to us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen

I’m glad to be back. For those who don’t know, I was recently away for a two-week pilgrimage to Israel and Israeli-occupied parts of Palestine. It was a wonderful trip. Funded by an organization called Macedonian Ministries, and given continuing education time through our ministry Covenant, and supported by my family who all took on extra home responsibilities, I was able to be away… That included not only visiting countless biblical sites, walking where Jesus walked (which I will try to tell you about over the coming weeks and months, so you can benefit too)… but also the gifts of rest, beautiful meals, warm summer-like weather, and long, uninterrupted conversations with pastor colleagues from Minneapolis and Scotland who became new friends. It was truly a gift to be a tourist in such a beautiful part of the world, and at the same time… we were not completely immune to the kinds of socio-political forces that formed the State of Israel and that continue today.

After a beautiful, restful week in Galilee (where there are few visual reminders of the occupation), we traveled to Jerusalem. We walked the route that Jesus walked from the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane and through the stations of the cross. We saw pilgrims from all over the world doing this same walk. It was crowded and sometimes, people pushed. We saw soldiers, young adults with automatic weapons. We were there for Israel’s remembrance day and independence day. Think fireworks, think rock music… one group’s celebration and another’s catastrophe.

We went to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, the birth place of Jesus, is a part of the West Bank. Here’s a very quick summary. In 1947/1948, Israel was formed, backed by European nations and the U.S. (people newly horrified by and regretting their complacency toward the atrocities of the Holocaust where two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe was killed—6 million Jews). Israel was placed within a territory where people already lived. At the time, it was called Palestine… but the native inhabitants of this land had been occupied by various outside forces since at least 400 BC. So, the state of Israel became one more occupier… and the agreements of giving half of the land to Palestinians have never been honored. Today, a separation/security barrier (which is sometimes an electric fence with barbed wire and sometimes a 40-foot-high cement wall) surrounds and cuts people off from one another, from their fields and sources of water, as well as from means of communication (such as access to wifi). In Bethlehem, I got to meet up with Samantha Ea, who has been serving for 8 months as an ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission (tutoring English and learning Arabic, and learning far more in-depth about the joys and challenges of life in the community where the angels came and told people to spread the news that God had come among people—Immanuel—God-with-us, a God who saves.

While in Bethlehem, we had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Mitri Raheb, a prominent Palestinian Christian pastor who has done so much to empower interfaith work for peace and justice, to create opportunities for sustainable livelihood under an oppressive reality, and to increase understanding throughout the world of what Palestinians face daily. I had met him nineteen years ago and now, he is less hopeful that things can change. He asked this question in response to the injustices that Palestinians endure, “Where is the world?”

We also went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. This was my fifth visit to a Holocaust museum, and my second visit to this one. Every Israeli young adult is required to do military service, and as a part of their training, they visit this site. In the entry are the words from Ezekiel, “I will put my breath in you and you shall live and I will put you on your own soil.” So, the belief that the state of Israel is God’s fulfillment of God’s promises to the Jewish people is very clearly stated at this place. If you have ever been to a Holocaust museum before, you know that it is horrifying. The plan to eliminate the Jewish people (and all “undesirables”) was so well thought out, so planned, so hateful… In some sectors, the hatred was overt and open, in other places, the plot was to purposefully deceive others on every level. They killed millions of people in hundreds of ways, and kept and catalogued their belongings… which is why we have so much evidence to fill so many museums today…

This time through, I spent nearly all my time watching videos of people telling their stories and here’s one that I remember well. It was a man talking about his mother. He said something like this, “I don’t mean to say anything against my mother, but we were only marginally Jewish. We only worshiped on holidays. She considered herself fully German, so when the change came, the challenge came from within. She couldn’t accept that others would turn away from her. When things got very threatening, she called all her friends. She had far more German friends than Jewish friends. She called and called and called, and not one friend called her back.”
Not one friend called her back.

All the Holocaust museums and memorials were created in an effort that this kind of atrocity might never happen again. The problem is… it does still happen. Humans still separate and wall off and treat others without dignity. We still act hatefully. We can’t seem to make the connection between the evil that we suffered and the evil (or indifference) that we carry out on others.
And it’s easy to point fingers toward Israel/Palestine where this inability to find resolution is so stark—but I thought many times while there, how can this tiny land (about the size of New Jersey, our fifth smallest state) bear all these expectations? All these actors? All these powers vying for power here?

Last Thursday evening, right here at Christ, we hosted speaker Marty Brounstein who shared the story of his wife’s survival of the Holocaust. Her parents were hidden by a family in a rural part of the Netherlands, and her mother gave birth to her in their home. They claimed her (and about two dozen other Jews) as their own family during a time when to do so meant putting their own lives at risk. And Marty asked us, gathered on Thursday night, “Would you be willing to help others whose lives are in great danger, knowing if you get involved, you probably put your life (and the lives of your children) in great danger?” That’s a hard question, but the way Marty described Frans and Mien Wijnakker’s response – two faithful Christians in a rural community – was like this… Could you help?
With a shrug… “Sure!”

That feels like an embodiment of the kind of trust that Jesus invites us to practice in this gospel word from John… words that are often read at funerals… but really, words that we need as we attempt to live in God’s way, in the face of politics as usual, where people do not matter… words that we need as we try to overcome hatred and indifference (not only of those “out there,” but our own failing, those who are closest, those we are most afraid might betray us or that we might betray…)
Jesus says this in troubling times, “Do not let your hearts be troubled…” Yes, of course, there are reasons why your heart is stirred up… but can’t you imagine that in this house, God’s house, Christ is absolutely creating a place for you?

And if you need a hiding place, a refuge, you will find that in God… and in this place where we are trying to practice love like God’s… We are gathered (although we’re broken and imperfect and just as likely to experience deep fear as the next person), but we’re gathered to practice loving each other and showing up for each other through whatever may come.
This is what it means to be given faith.
It’s to trust that when God puts someone in our path who needs us, we might have the grace to respond as Frans and Mien did… With a shrug… “Sure!”
Jesus invites us to join in practicing that kind of fearlessness, that kind of love in action – here’s what Jesus says:“I tell you for certain that if you trust me, you will do the same things that I’m doing. You will do even greater things…”  

Gracious God, you are a place of refuge for all who seek you. You long to gather us like a hen gathers her chicks, and when we are grown you send us out to be fearless witnesses to Jesus’  life, death, and resurrection. Feed us now, as a mother comforts her child, but also boldly fill us with confident trust that we’ll need to do whatever you call us to do. Amen

Sunday, April 16, 2017

There You Will See Christ



Resurrection of our Lord: Easter Day
Matthew 28:1-11
 

There was an earthquake, there was an angel descending from the sky like lightening, he was dazzling. It was terrifying. So terrifying that the guards become totally immobilized by fear.

But not these women… their wonder keeps them standing up.
Just imagine your early morning self, your grief-filled body, trying to take all this in… I would need these words, “Don’t you be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see for yourself. (It’s then that we figure out… the stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.[1])…

The angel continues, “Then go quickly and tell the other disciples, he has been raised from the dead. He’s going ahead of you, back to Galilee, back to home base… there you will see him.”
And then we have a little Bob Marley moment… “This is my message to you…”

So, they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the other disciples…
I’m just imagining what they might have been thinking, what they might have said while they ran…  “Death was so overwhelming, we couldn’t hear what Jesus said!” “But now I remember… he did say this, didn’t he?” “The others will never believe us... will they?”

Along the way, as they ran, there was the risen Christ. “Greetings!”
You know the only other place that word is used in Matthew? It was how Judas greeted Jesus in the garden as he identified him as the One to the guards. So here, that word is transformed from utter grief to joy, although there must have been a swirl of emotions too complicated to figure out as they recognized him along the way.
Jesus tells them again, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me (like you see me right now).”

Stop being afraid, Jesus invites us—people who Jesus claims not only as disciples but as brothers and sisters, not just followers but family. No longer dependent on him, but those who will powerfully begin to share the message of God with others through their own stories and through their own lives.

Jesus is alive and present with us. Whatever the circumstances of our life, of community and global events, why should we fall prey to fear? God has defeated death, death has no power over us. In the presence of Jesus, along the way of life, why should we leave room for anything except worship and overwhelming joy?

Except we know, we do have lots of fear.  Just like Jesus’ disciples who were so afraid when Jesus talked about his death that they couldn’t even hear the words about resurrection, let alone remember them…

I imagine Jesus was afraid, too, as he prayed in a garden before his death that maybe it didn’t have to be this way, as he experienced people turning against him, as he felt physical violence, as he hung on a cross. Jesus was afraid, I imagine, because he was a real person.

But somehow, he trusted more than he was afraid. We are afraid…
For us, too, death and fear are so overwhelming, we can’t always sense God’s presence. Within us, there are parts of us that are dead... but God’s invitation is to trust in God more than we trust in death. Trust in God more than we trust in death.

I think that’s really possible but what it might take is imagining together… how we may see Christ in all kinds of ways that look like those first resurrection appearances…

We might see the risen Christ along the road, saying, “Greetings!”
We might see our beloved teacher and mistake him as the gardener, with dirt under his fingernails, pulling weeds in the green spaces where we go to weep…
Maybe we’ll see Christ in the places we’re hiding, with the doors locked… and Christ will walk right in and point out that he has scars, too… we’re not alone in that… but scars can heal and help us tell the stories of what we’ve survived, of where we’ve been resurrected.
Or maybe we’ll meet Jesus at the beach, over an open fire and a newly caught batch of fresh fish…
Or maybe, when we sit down for Easter meal across the table from another, maybe there in that person’s face, we’ll recognize Christ.

What does it take to be awake to these possibilities? “Like a shoot growing in the morning sun, you awake not by your plans or power, but by God’s Spirit.”[2]
So really, that’s my prayer on this Easter morning—that as the risen Christ shows up outside of these walls, at your tables, in your daily life, through your tears, in the week to come, that you, (that we) might be able to recognize Christ present. That we might be able to stand in wonder like those women at the tomb, and then go forward with awe and great joy ready to meet Christ, ready to be Christ in a world that deeply needs a taste of resurrection joy.

Risen– a blessing for Easter Day by Jan Richardson[3]


Alleluia, Christ has risen. Christ has risen indeed, Alleluia!




[1] Judith Jones, Commentary on Matthew 28, April 16, 2017, workingpreacher.org
[2] Jennifer Baker-Trinity, Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent, page 85.
[3] Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons by Jan Richardson, pages 151-153.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

For You


In the Hebrew calendar, the new day begins as the sun sets, as we prepare for rest. In this way, God’s people remember that the first thing we do each day is sleep—put ourselves in God’s hands to be powerless, dependent, vulnerable, and hopefully renewed, refreshed, and readied for the work of the day to come.

On Saturday, God rested. That’s part of the story of creation. After all the events of Maundy Thursday (footwashing, the Last Supper, the garden of Gethsemane, the arrest) and Friday (trial and crucifixion, death and burial), beginning at sundown and throughout Saturday, it was quiet. But I imagine that like us, they remembered.

Maybe they remembered how Jesus taught them again the stories they knew so well—stories of Creation and God’s saving power, the story of the Exodus, the stories of prophets who saw God breathe life into the dead and who escaped even a fiery furnace unharmed. They remembered because in the face of terrible things, it’s easy to forget. Then and now, it’s easy to forget. When we are deep in grief, it’s easy to forget.

Along the road to Emmaus, Cleopas and his companion were deep in grief when a stranger joined them and asked them why they were sad. “Are you the only stranger around here that doesn’t know what happened yesterday?” And then Jesus (the stranger walking with them) began to tell the story all over again. They were so interested, they invited Jesus into their home, and then, when he broke the bread, they recognized him. In the broken bread, there was the risen Christ. We’re reminded of the same thing in the bread we share—that here in the broken gifts we share, the risen Christ is present.

I read this week, “It is terrible how much has been forgotten, which is why, I suppose, remembering is a holy thing.”[1] When we come to the table, we remember more than a night when Jesus shared a supper and then went to his death. We remember God’s history of remembering us. In Jesus, we are re-membered: our broken stories, our broken selves are reassembled into the One who holds us and sees us as so much more whole and holy than we do.

That’s why on this night, we gather around Eric who has been baptized. In grace-filled water and God’s word, you have received a “bath of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.” Baptism reminds us that daily, we die and are raised, we repent and are forgiven, we fail and we begin again.

That’s why on this night, we share Holy Communion, so that we can hear the words, “Given for you,” and know the risen Christ is present, offering new life in God to everyone gathered.

Luther often used the word treasure when describing Holy Communion. Like a hidden treasure, this gift comes to us whether we know about it or seek it. “How we feel about Jesus or how close we feel to God is meaningless next to how God acts upon us. How God [actually] enters into our messy lives and loves us through them, whether we want God’s help or not.”[2]

If we had to have a certain level of faith before receiving, we’d never come. If we had to make sure everything in us was correct before our relationships could begin, we’d be alone in life. Instead, in our doubts, we ask God to awaken faith.[3] We come to the table in faith… but we also receive faith by coming to the table, in hearing those words, “for you.”

We hope for the risen Christ to walk with us as Christ walked with weary travelers on the road to Emmaus… and to be somehow ignited to recognize Jesus here with us, here, now… as we hear God’s words and share a meal… just like they did.

And then, if Jesus disappears from our sight (because we can never pin God down, can we?), instead of going back to a state of hopelessness… maybe instead we can practice hopeful remembering.

As we leave, maybe we’ll think back on tonight… remember how our hearts were burning within us? Remember how we tasted something new in the breaking of the bread? God’s beloved was really here, is really here, among us. And that is such good news as we enter evening and go to our rest.

As we come to the table tonight, we remember the beginning and the end of the story. From creation, God is with us. God offers water poured over us in love. God offers a meal where there is always something “for you.” God offers resurrection and new life. Alleluia!

Let us pray,
In those words we hear with the bread, with the cup, in the words “for you,” let us hear your love outpoured, your love changing everything. Amen.[4]



[1] Anita Diamant, The Red Tent, quoted in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent 2017, p. 76-77.
[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix as quoted in Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent, page 82.
[3] Jennifer Baker-Trinity, Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent, page 83.
[4] Jennifer Baker-Trinity, Free Indeed: Devotions for Lent, page 79.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday Blues



Sometimes, things are very sad.
Sometimes, things are very unfair.
Sometimes, things are very wrong.
That is a main reason people started singing the blues.[1]
I wonder what makes you sad?  I wonder what you think is unfair? I wonder what you think is wrong?
But the blues were not just about sadness, they were also about the difference between knowing something and living it.
"Everybody wanna sing my blues, nobody wanna live my blues."  ~~ Langston Hughes
        Sounds of Blackness – "Living the Blues" 

There are some places in our world right now where people, even children, are suffering in terrible ways. Here is one picture of that, painted by an artist.
On Good Friday, we remember how Jesus—God with us—suffered in terrible ways.
So, we know as we remember and get to know Jesus that Jesus knows suffering and that God is with us, even when things are very sad, unfair, and wrong.

We also heard the kinds of things Jesus said while he was suffering.
Jesus prayed a Psalm where he said honestly how it felt—it felt like God wasn’t there. (So Jesus knows how it feels if we can’t tell where God is…)
Jesus said that he forgave people that hated him. (So, we are challenged to forgive because God’s love is more powerful than hate).
Jesus, in the middle of his own suffering and dying, created a new family. He wanted to make sure that his mother had a son and that his beloved disciple had a mother, so he asked them to see one another as family from now on.

These same things that Jesus did on the cross, Jesus does for us.
Jesus prays honestly with us and invites us to be our real selves when we pray.
Jesus forgives and helps us be open-hearted toward others, even enemies.
Jesus creates new family, so that we can know we are never without help.

In the face of terrible things, Jesus showed vulnerability, courage, and love.
That is why this day is not just a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day… because of what Jesus did while he was dying. Jesus showed us a new way to live in the face of death, and that is why thousands of years later, we call this day Good Friday… and we will pray for everyone and the whole creation, so that God can keep transforming everyone and everything from ways of death to ways of life.


[1] Early blues frequently took the form of a loose narrative. African-American singers voiced his or her "personal woes in a world of harsh reality: a lost love, the cruelty of police officers, oppression at the hands of white folk, [and] hard times," from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues, accessed 4/11/2017.
[2] The art above is called I am alive by Abdalla Omari, a Syrian painter and filmmaker.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Actions and words


Actions speak louder than words. It’s something we say, and it’s also something we’ve experienced… when someone’s words just sort of float over us, and we go somewhere else in our imagination.

But tonight, worship is centered around action. If you have ever had the opportunity to join with Jewish neighbors in a Passover Seder, you have tasted this. Each action has a meaning. Each food we eat has a memory. The matzah (unleavened bread), maror (bitter herbs) and charoset (an apple chutney paste reminding us of the mud used to make bricks)… each one tells a part of the shared story of moving from slavery to freedom. We learn—through the questions we ask and the songs we sing. So, in keeping with the Passover roots of this night, as Jesus shared supper with disciples, this is a night when we tell the story mostly through action.         

We practice confession and forgiveness—the words, yes, but also a time to come forward and kneel and have someone’s hands rest gently on us and someone’s voice speak “You are forgiven.” The weight is lifted. And then, like Jesus did for disciples, we wash each other’s feet… or hands… taking time to pour water over and dry with a towel, so we can feel the blessing of someone else ministering to us. And in giving and receiving in that tender way, we are startled by the way it meets a need we didn’t even know we had.[1]

And then, we share a meal—not so different than the meal some of us shared downstairs, where everyone can come and get a little something to eat. This communion meal is ordinary in a way—we share it every Sunday. But in another way, this meal is different because Jesus says to disciples (and to us) that somehow, God is present in this bread and cup in ways that change us. Now, we can never look at bread again in the same way, ever since Jesus pointed out that God is present in the bread. Now, we can never look at the cup in the same way, since Jesus said “I will never drink it again until I drink it with you.”

Jesus is present here and not only says, “This is my body, this is my blood,” but says “You are my body.” And with that action mixed with these words, we see Jesus differently. We see ourselves differently. We see others differently.

Finally, there is the action of stripping the altar. In one way, it’s a reminder of all that is horrifying about this story. On this night, Jesus was betrayed by some of those who loved him best. They ate supper together and then they went to the garden of Gethsemane to pray… but only Jesus could stay awake to pour out his heart to God. His closest friends were so weary that they fell asleep at the moment when Jesus really needed them. They weren’t able to pay attention, but we are trained now to be alert. Sometimes we are. We watch carefully this night and think about Gethsemanes behind us and ahead.[2]

And later, disciples were so afraid that they resorted to violence and then, they scattered in terror… denying they even knew Jesus. Tonight, the story goes… Jesus was arrested, had an unfair trial, and was beaten. Tonight, he waited for the morning when his sentence—public execution—would be carried out over many hours. That is the story of Jesus being stripped of his clothes, his followers, his friends, and his dignity… but that is not all of the story.

Another part of the story, another reason why we move through this action on this night is because of the way that in this part of the action, all distractions are stripped away. Martin Luther had a word for all that might distract us from the main action of God and it is adiaphora.

We don’t look to the cross because it is gory, because it’s horrifying. We look to Jesus on the cross because it’s there that all the adiaphora (all the unimportant things) are cleared away and we know more deeply what is most essential in death and in life.

All the beautiful things in our lives and spaces can also become too important, all the treasures that we use to adorn our worship space. We remove everything, everything becomes simple, stripped down, to help us look only to Jesus’ body—to watch, to witness, to accompany him all the way to the cross, and somehow in that mystery, to learn how to become the body that Jesus says we already are.

And so for tonight, along with our actions, words of blessing from Jan Richardson.[3]


Blessing the Bread, the Cup

Let us bless the bread, that gives itself to us, with its terrible weight, its infinite grace.
Let us bless the cup, poured out for us, with a love, that makes us anew.
Let us gather, around these gifts, simply given, and deeply blessed.
And then let us go, bearing the bread, carrying the cup, laying the table, within a hungering world.


Blessing for Staying Awake

Even in slumber
even in dreaming
even in sorrow
even in pain:

awake, awake
awake my soul
to the One
who keeps vigil
at all times for you.


[1] Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace, page 132.
[2] These three sentences are amended quotes from Martin Marty’s Places Along the Way, page 49.
[3] Jan Richardson, Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons, pages 133-134.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Alive again




Lent 5 – The Valley of the Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) and Lazarus (John 11) 

Okay, kids, this first invitation is for you! Today, we’re not gathering in front right now because I’m going to invite you to come up for Forrest’s baptism in a few minutes, but for right now, I want you to very carefully (you can get help from an adult if you need it), carefully stand up in your seat, right where you are… and then... Wave your arms around, and yell at the top of your voice, “Hey, we’re alive! Hey, I’m alive! Hey, we’re alive!”

Before we settle in to explore God’s word, I thought that might be helpful—to remind us of what’s truest about our shared story right now. By the grace of God, we’re alive.

One or two of you daily remind yourself and others of this reality, I read your messages on Facebook. You’re the people who are saying things like this each day, “I thank God that I woke up this morning.” “God allowed me to see another day, and I’m grateful…”

All of this is so important to hear and remember out loud because here’s another part of our story that also may be true… and can suck us down into the abyss.

We are sick. We are tired. We are tired of being sick and tired. In fact, for too many of us, something in us is dead… our bones drying up in the wilderness. We are grieving. We are frustrated. “Jesus,” we’re ready to say with Martha and Mary, “You are too late. If you had been here, our loved one wouldn’t have died. But as it is, he’s dead… four-days dead. In the tomb with the stone rolled in front of the door, to keep out the stinky smell of death.” That’s how dead Lazarus was and that’s how dead we sometimes think we are… really dead. In Ezekiel’s time, that’s how the whole people of Israel felt.

But what was it that we heard months ago when Micah was baptized? “If you feel like you’re at the worst place in your story… then you can know, that’s not the end of the story.”[1] God creates from nothing. God brings life from death. There’s no place that’s abandoned by God and there’s no person that’s abandoned by God. Death looks like the end of the story to us, but it is never the end to God.

This is one reason we practice baptism, as we get to practice today… Forrest Wild Devine—two years old—gets to come to this beautiful bowl of water with his family and some of you, children, will gather up in front so you can have a front row seat, too. And here, we’ll say “No” to all the forces in the world that make us think God is too late. We’ll say “no” to whatever makes us doubt that God is full of love. We’ll say “no” to whatever makes us think God is full of judgment rather than ready to welcome us with open arms.

Then, we’ll say “yes” to some things about God that are mysterious and amazing—God created and is creating everything that is wild (Forrest’s middle name!) and beautiful and good. God befriends and does life-saving work with ordinary people… we saw it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that’s not the only time we’ve seen the resurrection of the body. We saw it back in Ezekiel, too… “bones of people long dead, taking on a new layer of flesh and being ready to receive the breath of God again. With Ezekiel, we [watch] the rising, dancing bones and remember that our God brings life out of death, and that God’s own breath can animate whatever next-to-nothing we bring.”[2]

God keeps breathing life-giving breath into people, inspiring them to forgive and welcome and offer mercy to each other. When we see that, we get a glimpse of heaven—that life with God and beloved ones that begins in part now and will never end.

This week, in the daily devotions called God Pause that Luther Seminary will send right into your email, New Testament professor Cameron Howard has been writing reflections on each of these Bible stories we’ve heard this Sunday. Here’s what she said on Thursday about Jesus’ conversation with Martha, when Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and then asked her, “Do you believe me?”

Cameron writes, “When I read this passage, the question startles me, and I pause to consider my own answer. Do I believe that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus will never die?  [This sends me to the words from another story[3] where the person says] “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” “Like most of us, I live every day somewhere along the spectrum between belief and unbelief. Some days I am completely confident in God’s resurrection power. On other days I am less sure, and I need more help with my unbelief. On those hard days, I am grateful for the witness of the saints who have come before us, for my worshiping community that holds me up, and for the grace of new mercies each morning.”[4]

In Forrest’s baptism, after the “nos” and the “yeses,” there will be water. We’ll remember how God uses water to bring life over and over again. We’ll even pour some water on Forrest’s head and maybe he’ll splash in it… because God uses water and the world to remind us that we don’t ever have to be afraid of death. For as long as we live and even after we die, God promises to be with us and holds us close (think of being hugged by the one person who you know—deep in your bones—loves you unconditionally…)

After the water part, we’ll anoint Forrest’s head with oil and say prayers for him and bless him, we’ll hand Taylor and Joshua (Forrest’s sponsors), the baptism candle that will be given to Forrest. A sign of the light of Christ that we are invited to be for each other. And finally, we will all say and sing, welcome… welcome to the family. Just as we’ve been adopted by God, we recognize that you are too. We are going believe all these promises with you (God help our unbelief!), so that as we all grow and change, and have times of deep pain and times of deep joy… we can walk through the valleys and climb the mountains and be in most ordinary times… together.

Did you notice that about Lazarus’ story? Martha and Mary couldn’t mourn by themselves. Jesus didn’t raise their brother to new life in private. Lazarus couldn’t take the grave cloths off himself. Jesus asked others to “unbind him and let him go.” Death wasn’t defeated completely this day, but those that witnessed this incredible miracle were invited to be fearless in setting others free. That’s what we practice each time we gather for baptism—an opportunity to know how God sets us free to live, and breathe in the living breath of God, and stand and dance and bless again… as if for the very first time.




[1] Paraphrase of words preached by Larry Wohlrabe, ELCA Bishop and grandfather of Micah.


[2] Cameron Howard, God Pause, 3/27/2017,


[3] Mark 9:24 and also used by Martin Luther

[4] Cameron Howard, God Pause, 3/30/2017,

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Saying Yes


 

Lent Two - John 3:1-17

Speaking the Creed together is the traditional saying yes part of the baptism service; it is an optional part of the worship service every Sunday. Those who love to speak the Creeds might love it because it ties us to a long tradition of people trying to sift out what we believe about God, asking questions and trying to answer them. Was Jesus really God? Well, then, was Jesus really human? How could those both be true at once? We’re not quite sure but somehow… We say “yes” to both. Those who love the Creeds might love them because they are ancient, because they are unifying, because they are mysterious.

Those who don’t love the Creeds might not appreciate how these statements of faith grew more rigid in times when people were forced to say them at the blade of a sword or the barrel of a gun. I’m pretty sure that not one of us gathered here today would want to force anyone into faith (but we know that’s not true, unfortunately, for all people who call themselves Christians); we want people to know that God gives free will, God invites and does not bully people into faith… but for some of us, the words of the creeds kind of stick in our throats. If we don’t really love to say the Creeds, it might be because we are cynics or because our lives are so full of words, words, words…

But the reason the church holds onto these Creeds, I suspect, even as our church and culture are become less about intellectual assent to systems of belief and more about belonging, more about wrestling with the questions than establishing absolute truths, are that they are some of our most ancient, shared ways of saying yes.

In the night, in the darkness, a liminal time just like the wilderness is a liminal space, Nicodemus comes to get to know Jesus better. He’s been curious but clearly, there’s not a place in the daytime crowds, surrounded by his disapproving colleagues to get answers to his most persistent questions. Day after day, night after night, though, he’s wondered about what this Jesus is saying and doing… because who could do these things apart from the presence of God?

And after Nicodemus greets Jesus, with those words, Jesus points out that it’s a gift to be able to see where power comes from—you can only see God’s work and God’s presence through being born from above, or born again, or born of the Spirit! What does this mean? Well, it means the wind blows where it chooses and you hear the sound but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes… that’s what it’s like to be in God’s presence and know God’s activity in the world. You can’t control it, but maybe you can be changed by it.

Nicodemus asks “How can these things be?” In response, Jesus wonders aloud why it is so hard to teach even the most believing among us, why we don’t receive what God has to offer, why we find it so hard to trust in the God who loved the world so much that God placed God’s Beloved Jesus in the middle of our life to give us a glimpse of eternal life. “Indeed,” Jesus says, “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

This is not the last we’ll hear of Nicodemus. He shows up again in John’s gospel after this life-changing conversation. He speaks up for Jesus[1] when the leaders are looking for a reason to kill him, and after Jesus is crucified, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to remove Jesus body from the cross. Nicodemus brings about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to anoint his body as they wrapped it in linen cloths.[2] It is way beyond an extravagant amount.

This is what happens, I think, when we actually encounter the Living God. No matter how challenging the words, no matter how able or unable we are to understand or respond or fulfill them, we are changed by the encounter… it might mean that when it’s most needed, we are able to speak up in the face of injustice, or to pour out our love and resources extravagantly in the face of loss, grief, tragedy.

At the Acts Bible Study both this week and last, we remembered what Luther said in his explanation to the third article of the Creed. That’s the part where we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” and here is how Luther explains that, “I believe that by my own understanding or effort I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth…”[3]

It’s not my good actions (or failures) that make me right (or wrong) with God. It’s not because of our abilities, not because of what we do well… the fate of the world is not in our hands but in God’s hands… and that is just as hard for us to grasp in the morning as it was for Nicodemus to grasp at night. Yet… through the power of the Holy Spirit, that breathes through this place as unpredictably as wind… and as reliably as the air that fills our lungs right now… through the power of the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity to say yes to God over and over and over.

Saint Patrick, who was a slave in Ireland before he went back to share the love of Christ there, taught a beautiful hymn of saying yes to the God we know in at least three ways—through the Creator and the whole creation; through Christ, the Word made flesh; and through the Spirit.

In the middle of the gorgeous verses of I Bind unto Myself Today[4] is verse four—a series of prayers that read like an ancient rune:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.[5]


This is who we are invited to have at the very center of our lives—not ourselves, not our own good deeds, not our tremendous efforts, not our rules and boundaries about who’s in or who’s out—at the center of us, Christ. And we are invited to saying yes to Christ, receiving, recognizing, practicing trust in Christ, and as do, we being made new by the Living God.

Faith isn’t about getting everything right… and we don’t…
As a community, there are plenty of us who don’t believe, plenty who have trouble with trust (that’s right, you are not the only one)… but the core, the central thing is God’s saying yes to us. Belovedness is spreading, and that seemed impossible… but here we are. In life, in death, in life beyond death, what is most ancient and yet new is emerging, and we hear God’s repeated invitations to life.



[1] “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” John 7:51


[2] John 19:39-40


[3] Small Catechism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, page 1162


[4] I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three
 I bind this day to me forever, by pow’r of faith, Christ’s incarnation, his baptism in the Jordan River, his cross of death for my salvation, his bursting from the spiced tomb, his riding up the heav’nly way, his coming at the day of doom, I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heaven, the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon and even, the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.

[5] I Bind unto Myself Today, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 450. Images in this hymn are also similar to those in Madeline L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, in which she quotes Patrick’s Rune, whose origins are much more ancient (11th century, Gaelic, “The Book of Hymns.”)