Torn Up on the Inside

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from June 28, 2017, following the not-guilty verdict in the trial of Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting death of Philando Castile.

The gospel according to Matthew, the ninth chapter:

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

1 Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2 These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3 Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4 Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.

Word of God. Word of Life. Thanks be to God.

When I began to leave the house as a teenager without my parents by my side, my father’s words to me were always the same. “Be good,” he’d say as I ran out the door to hop into a friend’s car. Night after night, weekend after weekend, always the same farewell. We never had a conversation about the meaning of his words; he assumed I knew what he meant, and I probably did. His parting instructions carried into adulthood. “Be good,” was his instruction when I left for college. And when I got married and my parents walked with me down the aisle, my father whispered in my ear, “be good,” as we parted ways at the front of the sanctuary. I suspect that when I go into labor in a couple of months, these might be the words of “encouragement” he chooses to voice. It was and still is his favorite sending when I’m physically turning away from him and waving goodbye, to embark on an adventure on which he cannot accompany me.

It’s hard to send our kids or our loved ones out into the world. The truth is that many of us would prefer to tail them—that is, to follow behind them—throughout their lives. Oh, of course, we’d agree to stand twenty feet from them at all times, so they could “feel” independent, but we’d be close enough to intervene when we saw danger approaching. If we were there, we may even be able to save them from everyday hurts and embarrassments and heartbreaks—those things that we wish, wish, wish they didn’t need to experience as part of the human condition. Many of us give the current generation of “helicopter parents” a hard time, but, if we’re honest, we’d all like to hover a little bit closer to those we love—whether it’s our child, our partner, our parents, or our closest friends. It sometimes takes every ounce of our courage to see them turn their backs from us, wave goodbye, and head out on adventure on which we cannot accompany them.

This weekend, with the rage and sorrow of Philando Castile’s mother still ringing in our ears, we are confronted with the reality that only some of us know intimately—that is, it takes exponentially more courage to send our loved ones of color into this world. “Be good” isn’t a sufficient sending for those heading out into communities and systems that weren’t created for them. The details associated with the sending instruction need to match the potential risk, which is why, over the past several months, I’ve heard parents in this congregation and elsewhere tell their children that, when approached by police and other authority figures, they need to “move slowly,” “keep their hands in plain sight,” “do what they are told,” and “speak clearly, but only when spoken to.” We send our loved ones out into the same world, but we deceive ourselves if we—for one moment—think that the world offers all of them an equal playing field. The society in which we live was carefully crafted to privilege some of our sons, some of our daughters. As the great scholar, activist, and co-founder of the NAACP, W. E. B. Du Bois once said, “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”

Minneapolis Pastor, Danny Givens, in his leadership role in the Black Lives Matter movement over the past couple of years, has often reminded all of us that “there is no such thing as other people’s children.” Many of us think this is true. Jesus lived as if this were true. The text today says that he had compassion on the crowds who stood before him—crowds of people who were marked by harassment and Roman oppression. Sometimes we think of the word “compassion” as a flimsy word, but word “compassion” literally means “his guts were torn up on the inside.” Jesus looked at those who stood before them as if they were his own children and he was torn up on the inside. Their lives, their fears, their pain, their wounds were intimately bound up with his. Their cries became his cry.

And I think that’s why he turns to his disciples—disciples who were prone to both bumbling and betrayal—and says, “Today, your identity changes. This morning you woke up thinking of yourselves as disciples, students, apprentices, adherents. Your attention has been focused on learning from me, the teacher. But, this afternoon, you also become apostles—those who are sent out as messengers and ambassadors to carry the message, to do the work.” I have no doubt that Jesus wondered if he was sending them away too soon. After all, really nothing about his interactions with Simon Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, Thaddaeus, Judas, and the other James and Simon up until this point indicated they were well-equipped to proclaim the good news, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, and cast out demons. They weren’t ready. But they were who he had, and, the truth was, the world couldn’t wait for them to read one more book on preaching techniques, to do one more residency in the village clinic, to spend another day in the morgue refining their resurrection skills. The world needed the good news now.

And so the twelve turn around, wave goodbye, and head out on an adventure into a world that was quite literally dying to hear and experience another story. I’m suspect the disciples-turned-apostles felt like imposters the first time they laid their hands on a leper, or commanded the dead to rise, or stepped up to the microphone and demanded that the demons that terrorized the people depart. And, no doubt, they made mistakes along the way. In the words of Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, “I’m sure they sometimes rushed into the language of healing, before understanding the fullness of the injury and the depth of the wound. I’m sure they were tempted to offer a Band-Aid, when the gaping wound required surgery and complete reconstruction. I’m sure they were afraid to sit with the ugliness, the messiness, and the pain that is life in community together. And I’m sure they offered clichés to the grieving, those whose hearts were being torn asunder, clichés they later regretted.” They never became experts; they were always apostles in the making. But they kept showing up at the world’s fault lines, because that’s what Jesus instructed them to do.

Two years ago this weekend, when we gathered to worship, it was with news from Charleston, South Carolina—news that a white, Lutheran gunman had found his way into a historic black church, and after sitting with a prayer group for an hour, he had shot and killed nine of the people who had welcomed him in. Today we gather to worship, this time with news from our own city—news of a jury’s not guilty verdict in the shooting death of Philando Castile, a school cafeteria worker, who pulled over by law enforcement because of the structure of his nose and killed 74 seconds later.

We wish these were isolated tragedies. We wish that we could honestly say that we haven’t heard these stories like these before, and that we don’t expect to see anything like them again. But you and I know that these are simply two new chapters in a stormy American tale that we’ve been writing since our founding. It’s a tale that is less about the individual actions of people like Roof and Yanez—harmful though they may be—and more about the structural racism that pervades our shared lives. This is one of our world’s fault lines. I believe Christ is standing near to it; sometimes I even close my eyes and imagine that his body is bridging the gap so he can touch people on both sides of the divide. And, while white privilege affords some of us in this congregation and in this city the option of choosing when and where we join him there, others of us are forced to show up every day the moment our feet hit the bedroom floor.

Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” Alongside with our neighbors, our communities, this morning we yearn for a new story. A story marked not by harassment but by healing. A story marked not by oppression but by freedom. A story marked not by violence but by compassion. Like our ancestors, we are imperfect storytellers—prone to both bumbling and betrayal. But, this morning, we take comfort in Jesus’ parting words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel, “When things get tough, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the living Spirit speaking through you.” And we trust that the Spirit never tires of saying, “This isn’t the end of the story. Look, I’m breathing something new, for, see, the kingdom of God has come near.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Visitor Warning: It’s Gusty Around Here

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from March 12, 2017.

The gospel according to John, the third chapter:

Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11 “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

A couple of years ago, the worship staff agreed to begin offering a welcome during worship each Sunday. We noticed that, on average, we have about a dozen visitors each week, and we wanted to acknowledge their presence in the community. So I proposed that we begin saying something like, “We offer a particularly warm welcome to those of you who may be visiting for the first time. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, this community is glad that you’re here.” I had heard similar words spoken in another faith community when I, myself, was a visitor, and in them I heard a warm invitation into community life.

We’ve been saying those words, or something like them, for about two years now. And many of you have commented that you like that they’re spoken for visitors almost every Sunday. A group of Holy Trinity members asked me not long ago if the same words were also true for members. “Were members also welcomed wherever they were on their journey of faith or was that only for visitors?” the group wondered sincerely.

Their question reminded me of the conversations that happen on a weekly basis in my office often behind closed doors. A member of this community will set up a conversation with me to talk about something related to faith and life. Somewhere along the way, the person sitting across from me will admit that they have questions about Christian belief or that they simply cannot believe something that we publicly confess as a community. The virgin birth doesn’t make sense to them. The resurrection of the body is more than their brain can compute. Eternal life feels like an awfully long time. You get the picture.

When I hear their questions and see the fear and shame that often accompanies them, I regularly cite Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber’s reflections on the Apostles’ Creed. She says that many people in her Denver community don’t know if they can say the creed because in her words, “they’re like, well, I don’t know if I believe this. I cannot say the Creed because I don’t know if I believe every line in the Creed. I’m like, oh, my God. Nobody believes every line of the Creed.” [If you ask people to sit for the lines they can’t quite say with confidence and to stand for those they happily confess, the room would be in constant motion.] “But in a room full of people for each line of the Creed, somebody is standing, somebody believes it. So we’re covered, right?”[i]

Harvard theologian Harvey Cox reminds us that “for roughly the first 300 years, early Christianity was a faith movement. They didn’t have creeds until the early fourth century…There was enormous variety of different expressions of Christianity which we’re now uncovering, with the different scrolls that are found. Then, around the early fourth century, with Emperor Constantine in particular, there was a massive movement toward hierarchy, a clerical elite, and a creed. Now remember that the creed was insisted upon by the emperor. Not by the bishops, not by the pope. Constantine…wanted something that would bring the empire together. Now it didn’t work that well for him,” says Cox. “Nonetheless…the creedal understanding…goes back to that term…which then set the pattern for the next centuries.” Cox claims we’ve now, in the twenty-first century, entered a new phase in which that is no longer the case, a phase he calls “the age of the spirit.”[ii]

And maybe that’s where our modern paths intersect with the ancient path of uncle Nicodemus. We see Nicodemus come to Jesus at night—some say he came with the intentions of entrapping Jesus, of tricking him into saying something that he’d later come to regret. After all, Nicodemus was no religious slouch. One theologian says he is “a religious VIP with a list of credentials as long as your arm. He had advanced theological degrees, honorary doctorates, half-a-column in the Jerusalem edition of Who’s Who. If you were a Jew living anywhere near Jerusalem in those days, you knew who Nicodemus was—you’d recognize his face when passing him on the sidewalk.”[iii] So if this religious professional didn’t come to trick Jesus, then why did he come at all? Why risk his position in the community? Why risk losing all of the credentials he had amassed?

I think he risks it all because he thinks that Jesus has answers that he desires. Born again? Water and the spirit? Back into my mother’s womb? All of these questions are looking for the “right way” to believe. He could have just as easily asked about the virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, about life eternal. To questions seeking right answers, and Jesus says, “There’s no one right way. There’s God’s way, and God’s way is like the wind. Ever-changing. Ever-evolving. Always on the move. Always beyond our control.” Nicodemus came looking for a creedal checklist to fulfill; and Jesus says, “You can trust that the Spirit will guide you on a wild and sometimes risky ride.”

The Reverend John Buchanan, a retired Presbyterian pastor, wrote an article in which he remembered one Sunday service in which he was baptizing a two-year-old boy. After the child had been baptized with water, John Buchanan put his hand on the little boy’s head and addressed him. He said, “You are a child of God, sealed by the Spirit in your baptism, and you belong to Jesus Christ forever.” Unexpectedly, the little boy looked up and responded, “Uh-oh.”

The congregation chuckled, of course, but “it was [also] an appropriate response,” wrote Buchanan, “a stunning theological affirmation” from the mouth of this child. A teacher of mine says that “his” uh-oh” was a recognition that everything had changed. Now he would be called to live out in the world the kind of love and self-giving that [is driven by the Spirit]. He was being called in his baptism to live a different way in the world, God’s way, a way that is sometimes met with rejection and scorn. No wonder he said, “Uh oh.” Life would never be the same.”[iv]

The language geeks among us will think it’s interesting that the word “faith” in the gospel of John is never used as a noun. That means it cannot be purchased like a new sweater or grasped like your favorite coffee cup or possessed like your grandmother’s china. “Faith” in the gospel of John is always a verb. It’s always something being enacted in and around us. Walter Bruggemann says “it’s always calling into existence things that do not exist—a new you and a new me, a new society, and new world, one neighbor at a time.”

If this is true, then I wonder if, for the sake of full disclosure, we ought to amend our welcome to visitors (and members) at the start of the service and begin saying something like, “We offer a particularly warm welcome to those of you who may be visiting for the first time. Wherever you are on your journey of faith, this community is glad that you’re here. Be forewarned, however, the Spirit of God is gusty, and you’re probably going to get blown around. We all do. But, don’t be afraid. For God so loved the world that she sent her only child to walk with us each step of the way.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] This is from an interview with Krista Tippett.

[ii] Harvey Cox from Harvard. For more information, see:

[iii] This is Fredrick Buechner’s description.

[iv] Tom Long is my teacher. He used this story in a sermon on the Trinity.

Temptations and Resistance

March 5th

First Sunday in Lent

Mt. 4: 1-11


Some of you will remember the old comic strip, “Calvin and Hobbes” created by Bill Watterson. When it was in print several years ago – it was a favorite of mine. Calvin was a 6-year old boy with a vivid imagination. Hobbes was a clever tiger and an imaginary friend of the young boy. In one episode, Calvin’s dad is shown working on his car when his son, Calvin, walks by wearing a safari hat and says: “So long Pop! I’m off to check my tiger trap. I rigged a tuna fish sandwich yesterday – so I’m sure to have a tiger by now!” His Dad looked amused, “They like tuna fish, huh?” As Calvin walks off, he says, “Tigers will do anything for a tuna fish sandwich!”

The final frame shows the tiger, Hobbes, hanging from a tree caught in a net, munching a tuna fish sandwich. The tiger looks out from the frame and says: “We’re kind of stupid that way.”


It’s the first Sunday of Lent. We begin our Lenten journey confronted with the stories of temptation, entrapment, and resistance or the sake of the Gospel. We are reminded that often we have habits of choosing what is easiest, what brings short term pleasure or gain, without thinking about – or realizing – how much more is possible. You might say we take an easy tuna fish when we could do better. We are kind of stupid that way.


This past Wednesday in this place, many of us began the season of Lent with a soot-smeared forehead. With the mark of the cross, we find ourselves held between the bookends of our lives. From the liturgy of our baptism long ago – to the liturgy that will be eventually prepared for our own funerals – we remember and look forward to the promise: “You have been sealed by the HS, and marked with the cross of X forever.” We live under the simple sign that defines our existence and frames our hope.


As our Lenten journey began, infants, elders and those of us inbetween heard the sobering and penetrating words of truth: “Remember, you are dust… and to dust you shall return.” This ancient rite is not meant to depress, shame or humiliate. The ashes simply remind us of WHO we are – human being, mortals, not God. And, the ash-formed cross reminds us of WHOSE we are, people of God claimed for life in our baptism.


It is also a dramatic way of taking us back to our beginnings – back to the garden and our ancestors – Eve and Adam. In that garden, God’s word laid down a clear boundary: “Don’t eat the fruit of this one tree.” But, the two violated that boundary… there were consequences… and the rest is history. Their curiosity, their longing for life with no boundaries, got the best of them. Their story is really our story…. isn’t it?


Our connection with Adam and Eve is not genetic or ethnic… it’s more than that.

We are bound in human predicament. They fell. We fall.   Again and again.  We hurt ourselves, others and the world in which we live.        God fixed a boundary in the garden of Eden and said: Human beings on that side, I will be on this side; many trees on your side, one tree, the tree of knowledge of good and evil on my side; stay on your own side of the line if you trust what is good for you.


But who wants to stay on our side – when there are tempting possibilities, “delights to the eyes” (as Eve noticed), just on the other side? In other words, Why not have it all??


I recall the drama that played out in a grocery story awhile back. There was a young Dad shopping with his 3 year-old daughter. It was late on a Saturday morning. They got to the bakery section where some beautifully frosted cookies were displayed behind the glass. That’s where the child lets out a blood-curdling cry. She was hungry and threw a fit. There was a brief, but futile struggle between Dad and daughter. Then Dad attempted to push on ahead, leaving her alone in her tantrum, expecting her to follow. But, that’s when the temptress stepped in. Catching Dad’s eye with a wink, the woman who worked behind the counter held out one of the cookies to the little girl. Her wailing quickly stopped as she reached for the cookie. Through her big soaked eyes, she looked at the woman and reached out for the cookie. Dad came back and picked up his little cherub – and said to the temptress; “One thing I will have to say, she really knows what she wants!” That’s when the serpent – I mean the woman – said, “Oh, yes, we all do.” Yes, it’s true. We know what we want. Sadly, though, we too often choose that which is fleeting, frosted, and ultimately unsatisfying.


Now, of course, the issue is of much greater importance than cookies and most of us are well beyond the age of 3. Day by day, our well-intentioned resolutions for a better, more disciplined life dissolve from the acids of compromise, rationalization and taking the easy way. We know what we want. We want it now. Young or old, we have a hard time staying on our side of the line and our violations cause injury to ourselves, others.


Look at the bigger picture. Leaders and citizens of our own nation – a nation most privileged – are faced with important choices. Always, there are huge consequences. In an environment of escalating accusation, innuendoes, denials and character assassinations, leaders compete for the upper hand in different regions of our nation and planet. We face proposals to spend more money and energy on the military than on the care of the most vulnerable. What is the life God intends for us? How will we make good choices? How will resist the seductions and empty promises?


Today’s Gospel story offers an important message about choices. It starts out with Jesus and the devil engaged in a verbal duel and the devil is quoting scripture like a born-again preacher. Jesus agonizes over issues of identity, purpose and mission. He had just come from his baptism in the river Jordon. With the flutter – as of a dove – he heard his identity claimed from heaven: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” How would Jesus come to understand that identity, and the mission that derived from it? Would he remain faithful to God – or be seduced by the devil’s enticing offerings of power and privilege? Would Jesus serve God, or would the Beloved Son serve himself?


Episcopal pastor and theologian Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

As far as I can tell, what Adam and Jesus are both tempted by

is the chance to play God.

+ In Adam’s case, it was the chance to break out of his dependence on God

and know both good and evil for himself.

+ In Jesus’ case, it was the chance to feed every hunger, to be superman,

to control all the kingdoms of the earth.

God never offers those things,

Satan is the one who offers them, with thousands of strings attached.

  • But, whereas Adam stepped over the line and found humanity a curse,
    • Jesus stayed behind the line and gave humanity a blessing.
  • One man trespassed;
    • one man stayed put.
  • One tried to be God;
    • one was content to remain a human being.

And the irony is that the one who tried to be God

did not do too well as a human being,

while the one who was content to be human

became known as the Son of God.”


If Adam’s story is our story, then Jesus’ story is ours as well. We have a Savior who lived beyond privilege, comfort, praise and affluence. It is our Savior who understands our struggle with temptation, even more, he wants to be our traveling companion in our resistance.


When we resist, by the grace and power of Christ, we can claim our identity as brothers and sisters linked in discipleship; and, we can put our best energies into love and compassion for the sake of the Gospel. When we fall & fail – as we will – he will be with us in forgiveness. As to the woman he would meet later in his ministry, Jesus says to us, “… and, neither do I condemn you.   Go and sin no more.”


At the beginning of our worship – we joined in corporate confession that included these words:

Too often we give into temptation that disrupts the universe.

            We cannot undo all our mistakes,

                        but we can turn once more to the living presence of Jesus

                        and find new ways to live and love each other and the earth.


In the end we are not what and who we ought to be. As the trapped Tiger, Hobbes, said, “We are kind of stupid that way.” Better said, “We are human that way.”



Even in the traps of our sin… and the fixed boundary of our mortality – the Savior comes to free us… “as we are marked with the cross of X forever.”




Love of God and Love of Neighbor. Jay’s Final Sermon at Holy Trinity.

Today we continue reading from the Sermon on the Mount, as Jesus teaches his followers shortly after beginning his public ministry. The Gospel according to Matthew, the 5th chapter.

Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the reign of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the reign of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the reign of heaven.

I’ve been asked a few times what I will miss most about being pastor here at Holy Trinity. The list to choose from is long. I’ll miss worship on Sunday mornings, the feeling of community as we gather around Word and Sacrament, and especially the strong hymn singing I hear behind me from my spot in the front row. I’ll miss connecting with each of you after worship and the wide variety of conversation topics we’ve covered in the narthex and Community Room, from commiserating about a Twins baseball game to hearing about a serious health concern. Thank you for sharing your lives with me. I’ll miss the people I have had the privilege of working with on a daily basis—Pastor Ingrid, David, Ann, Meghan, Vicki, Nolan—and the laughter, the prayerful reflection, and the creative planning we have shared while sitting around that old, green, office workroom table. In fact, I’ll miss that table itself and how it seems to magically produce cookies, doughnuts, and other treats on an almost daily basis—though my cholesterol may be better off now. I’ll miss spending time with the youth, including thoughtful confirmation discussion and winter retreats and summer trips and listening to the kids talk in the back of the van when they didn’t think I could hear them. I could hear you guys. I’ll miss the stories I hear in the neighborhood when people find out I’m a pastor here and they tell me how they have been touched by Holy Trinity’s ministry. There are many things I’ll miss.

But as I’ve thought long and hard about the question, I think what I’ll miss most about being a pastor here is how this community of faith has consistently—week after week and even day by day—helped to orient me toward the needs of others. That has really been a great gift. As people of faith, we are set free by the good news of God’s grace to serve others and all of creation, but we need each other to do it. We need reminders from one another about what we’re to be about. We need the support and encouragement from one another to persist in faithful service. You are a community that persists in the search for justice, inclusion, and peace for all of God’s children, without exception. And I am grateful.

You’ve challenged me to grow in my own awareness and understanding of matters of social and environmental justice. You’ve influenced my preaching and teaching through the conversations we’ve had at Bible studies or dialogue events. And your faithfulness in this way has been with love—for God, for one another, for our neighbors beyond these four walls, and for me. Even as I prepare to leave this congregation, I have been touched by your support and love for me and my family. Thank you. Kristen and I will always treasure what we have shared together with you these past nine years.

I find it especially appropriate that we have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount these past few weeks in worship because it is such an important description of the kind of community that Jesus forms among his followers. It even serves as a kind of mission statement for congregations like ours. (The lectionary often has a way of providing what I need to hear.) In this crucial chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has called his followers together. Before anything else he blessed them, each one of them, no matter the circumstances of their lives. Some were mourning, some were meek, some were hungry and longed for justice. They may have felt insignificant, but Jesus said that in God’s eyes they were indeed blessed. They were valued and deeply loved. This is a message that I hope you, too, have heard weekly as you’ve come to worship in this place. You are loved. You are a treasured child of God, each one of you. You are set free from any messages the world gives you that you do not measure up because in Christ God says that you are enough.

With divine love and grace, Jesus blessed his followers. Then, like Moses, he went up the mountain. He invited them to come up the mountain with him away from the rest of the crowd to teach them about what that blessing will mean for them. He reminded them that God had a purpose for them, a dream for what they would be and do in the world, not only for their sakes for their neighbors, too. He reminded them to keep the commandments of God, even exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.

Now, despite the criticisms we hear in the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees were good and well-intentioned people. We shouldn’t make caricatures out of them. They did their best to follow God’s commands, and it wasn’t just so that they could puff themselves up and assert their superiority over others. That’s not their motivation. We need to understand the context in which they lived. Their primary question was how they could remain as God’s faithful people even when living in exile or occupied by a foreign power. How do you keep your spiritual identity in the context of a powerful empire? This was a valid, very real concern. So they studied and discussed and debated with one another faithfully in order to preserve their identity as God’s people.

This was the right question for them to be asking, it seems to me. Let’s give them some credit. In fact, I think it is wise for us to ask the question of ourselves, too.

No, as God’s church today in this society, we do not live in exile or under foreign occupation, but we do live with the influence of a whole host of powers. How do we live as God’s faithful people in the face of consumerism, nationalism, and militarism? How do we follow Christ when institutional racism is in the air we breathe, when a fear of other cultures and religions is broadcasted every day, when misogyny seeks to silence women’s voices? In such a context, we need to turn to God’s word for us and study, discuss, and debate with one another faithfully. Not every word of scripture is relevant for our day and age, but God has intentions for this world God loves so much. God’s commands are a gift for us, helping us to follow the path that leads toward life for all people, without exception. At root of these commandments is love of God and love of neighbor. That’s our guiding principle in our discernment of God’s call to us today.

Jesus calls us to reclaim the intention of God’s commands for us, as the prophets taught it: to love God and to love our neighbors. Where the scribes and Pharisees may have gone wrong is that they stopped with just trying to preserve personal holiness, but Jesus asks us to go beyond that. There may be a natural tendency in all of us to try to remain faithful and righteous without disrupting those powers that exist around us and seek to influence daily life. We might try to keep to ourselves and just work on our personal piety. However, the reign of God cannot avoid being subversive. The light of Christ cannot be hid under a bushel basket but is intended to be visible to all. It’s going to catch the attention of others, and Jesus is honest with his followers about that from the very beginning.

I have seen you exceed the scribes and Pharisees in this way by publically proclaiming and living the gospel in a way that makes a difference in the lives of others. You do not hide your light under a bushel. You make it visible for all to see.

There’s an Old Testament scholar I like a lot by the name of Walter Brueggemann. You may have heard me quote him once or twice. In a sermon at Central Lutheran years ago, he described the gospel message in a way that has stuck with me ever since. The gospel, he said, the treasure of the Church, which is meant to be visible to all and shared with the world is

forgiveness in order to start again in a society that never forgives and keeps score forever;

generosity that overwhelms our lack in a society based in scarcity and getting more for ourselves;

hospitality that welcomes us in a society that is inhospitable to all but our own kind;

justice that protects the vulnerable in a social system that is deathly in its injustice.

It is the old, old story, he said, of God’s self-giving graciousness to us and to all creatures. That is the treasure!

And then he went on. Brueggemann said, “this is the truth about the gospel: there is not any single person—not old or young, not rich or poor, not gay or straight, not conservative or liberal–not anyone who does not eagerly hope for the news of God’s reconciling, liberating love. Not one!”

This is why I am grateful you, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. And though I’m leaving, I won’t really miss it because you will continue to share this treasure with the world. You are a congregation of disciples—along with many throughout Christ’s church on earth—committed to proclaiming God’s liberating love, without excluding anyone. Thanks be to God for you and for God’s ongoing, life-giving mission for the world. Amen.

You Are salt. You Are Light. (Jay’s sermon for the fifth Sunday after Epiphany)


Matthew 5:13-20


13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.




I learned something about baptism this week. A friend of mine, another Lutheran pastor, told me that when infants are baptized at his church, someone presents the child with a lit candle and quotes Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world,” or “Let your light so shine before others,” just as we do. But then there’s another part of the baptismal rite in his church. Near the font they keep a small shell filled with salt. And after the baptism, my friend dips his finger in the salt and touches it to the baby’s tongue. Accompanying that act is the reminder to the newly baptized, “you are the salt of the earth.”


My friend’s congregation did not invent that little ritual; it has existed in certain Christian baptismal liturgies for centuries. It also has some precedent, I understand, in Jewish blessing ceremonies for infants, which Jesus may have been familiar with. It makes sense that salt would be part of religious ceremonies. Salt is precious. It is valuable for its taste and its preserving properties. It is essential for our bodies and adds to the enjoyment of our food. Like light, the other image that Jesus uses today to describe his followers, salt serves an important function on this planet for the flourishing of life. These two metaphors together—salt and light—remind us that the mission of the church, the mission into which we baptize, serves the whole world.


You are salt. You are light. This is a promise from Christ. We do not say to children at the font, and Jesus doesn’t say to us today, “You should be salt and light.” For all you English majors out there, the tense is indicative, not imperative. It describes what already exists, not just what we ought to become. By the promise spoken to you at baptism, you are salt and light. By your presence here today, you are salt and light. You are already like the disciples who left the crowd and followed Jesus up the mountain. You have heard his teaching and his description of God’s reign in the world. You are part of his community of followers.


Just remember, however, that the point of salt and light isn’t just in its being but in its use, the purpose for which it exists. Sure, salt will still be salt if it just stays in the kitchen cupboard. Light is light even if covered by a bushel basket. But neither is meant to be kept there. And like salt and light, you too are meant to be visible.


For some of us, this idea goes against our sensibilities. Some of us have lived since childhood with the strong influence of either culture or personality to be humble, unassuming, and not to toot our own horns. Part of this mentality is theological, too. We keep our good works to ourselves and would never boast in them.


But while God does not need our good works, our neighbors most certainly do. And this is why faith must be a living and active thing, serving others and proclaiming the justice of God. As followers of Christ, we are meant to be visible. So maybe we should tell one another more often how we see each other being salt for others and letting our lights shine. Maybe we can do more to encourage one another.


As pastor here, I have gotten a unique perspective for seeing how you are salt and light. I have seen you participate in Bible studies and book studies. I have seen you serve funeral luncheons and dinners for choir kids. I have seen you bring communion to homebound members and visit friends in hospitals. I have seen you deliberate about becoming a sanctuary supporting congregation and take a public stand for welcoming immigrants to our communities. Those are just a few examples of what I see in you. I also, from time to time, hear about the ways you are salt and light that I don’t get to see—in your workplaces or schools, at home and in the neighborhood. You are living your faith; keep encouraging one another to do so.


Our humility might get in the way from time to time in our letting our lights shine. More than that, an obstacle for us might also be fear. That’s because we know that lights that shine in the midst of darkness tend to get attacked. It can be dangerous; we need to be honest about that. Have you ever tried to be positive and compassionate in some situation and found that it made others angry or defensive? We shouldn’t be surprised, not if the one leading the way for us is Jesus.


That’s even more reason to let our lights shine together in community, not just on our own. We need one another for the mission to which we are called.


            Some of you, especially those of you who traveled to Germany this fall, may know the story of the St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig, a community that refused to keep its light under a bushel. Thirty-five years ago, a small group in the East German church decided to gather for weekly prayer services every Monday evening. They were upset about the Berlin Wall and the repressive East German regime, so they came together to pray for peace. Often there were fewer than a dozen people in the pews, which is why the government allowed it to continue. It seemed to them harmless. But the worshippers kept meeting, week after week.


            After a few years of these regular services, their pastor put a sign outside the church that read “open to all.” That wouldn’t be surprising for us, but such a gesture was loaded with symbolism in a context where the church provided the only space where people could openly talk about certain subjects. Those prayer gatherings were open to everyone. Young people, Christians, and atheists all sought refuge there, and then the attendance quickly began to grow.


            This continued for another few years. Authorities started putting pressure on the church leaders to stop the services, but they persisted. In the spring of 1989, authorities barricaded the streets leading to the church, hoping to deter people from the service. But just the opposite happened, and the gathering grew even more. Eventually, they became more public. The prayer services led to peaceful protests in Leipzig, which became known as the Monday Demonstrations. As a result of those actions, later that year the church was ordered to be closed.


Still, Monday Demonstrations continued outside the church, and many protestors were arrested and even beaten. On October 9, 1989, an article appeared in a local newspaper announcing that on the following Monday the protest would be stopped—quote–“by any means necessary.” The church leaders were terrified. Still, as many as 8,000 people crowded into St Nicholas Church. And not only that but other Leipzig churches opened to accommodate additional protesters, about 70,000 in total across the city.


When the service was over, people went outside, each one carrying a lit candle. They were joined by other protesters, and the tension in that city grew. It was a dangerous moment. They chanted. They prayed. And when they marched past the headquarters of the East German secret police holding their candles and saying their prayers, the helmeted riot police let the protesters march by without intervening.


Later East German officials would say they were very well prepared to stop the demonstration by force. They were ready for anything…except for candles and prayer.


The news of that event spread and more demonstrations were held. Exactly one month later, the Berlin Wall came down.


            Letting one’s light shine may seem like a small thing, but when joined with others, it can change the world. It’s part of why we gather on Sunday mornings, in this congregation and others throughout the whole church. I’ve learned that there are some Christians from throughout the Metro who have committed to gathering monthly on Sunday afternoons to pray for peace and to have conversation with each other on how God is calling us to work together for peace in our world, not unlike the people of St. Nicholas Church in Leipzig. The next service will be at Ascension Catholic Church in two weeks, on February 19.


These gatherings are just another way, one among so many, where followers of Jesus are putting faith into action. Where else do you see it? How can you encourage others to be what Christ has made us? You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.








Pointing Us Toward the Truth (Pastor Ingrid’s Sermon from 01.29.17)

The gospel according to Matthew, the fifth chapter:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

When a cousin of mine learned to point at objects, it was in an odd way. [I am fully aware that’s not my best opening line to a sermon, so stick with me here.] For instance, if he wanted to point at the historically inaccurate image of Jesus up here [pointing to the church’s stained glass window], he’d put his finger straight up to the ceiling and move it away from his body, he’d turn his head slightly away from the object, and he’d crack his eyes back toward the image. In his mind, his eyes, the tip of his finger, and the object he wanted to point to were all in alignment. It made perfect sense to him. But, sadly, the rest of us had no idea what he was pointing at, we had no idea where to look.

There are a lot of fingers being pointed in the the U.S. and around the world right now. And I’m afraid that many of us feel like we don’t know where to look. I don’t know about you, but the national headlines throw me in a new direction every few seconds. Here are a few headlines just from the past few days: “Iowa Pipeline Leaks Nearly 140,000 Gallons of Diesel,” “Trump Advances Controversial Oil Pipeline with Executive Action,” and, just yesterday, “Refugees Detained at U.S. Airports.” All of these headlines pull at me as a citizen. Even more important for the purposes of this conversation, however, is the fact that these headlines pull at me as a person of faith.

If you were away from the news yesterday, it’s important that you hear the details of what’s being enacted: An executive order closed the nation’s borders to refuges on Friday night. Refugees who were airborne on flights to the U.S. when the order were signed were stopped and detained when their planes landed. The President’s order also blocks the admission of refugees from Syria indefinitely, and bars entry into the United States, at least for several months, from seven predominantly Muslim countries—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Let it not be lost on us that on the very same day that the world commemorated Holocaust Remembrance Day, and mourned the fact that millions of Jews died because they couldn’t find refuge in the U.S. or elsewhere, our elected administration said that Christian and refugees of minority religions will now be privileged over Muslims coming from Muslim majority nations. Let it not be lost on us, one writer said yesterday, that “while we sit in church and sing of our devotion to Jesus and his way of justice, as our children—who are regularly told that they matter—worship and play and laugh and eat snacks nearby, there are millions of people who are fleeing their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disasters.”[i] Over half of them are children.

There is so much unfolding in the public square that comes into direct conflict with the faith convictions that we confess week after week that I, for one, struggle to know where to begin with my response. Add our personal vulnerabilities into the mix—those pieces of our personal lives that we are juggling alongside national and international news—and we can find ourselves totally overwhelmed. There are lots of fingers being pointed, but we’re not sure where to look.

When Jesus went up the hillside in today’s story, he went with people he knew and those he was only just coming to know. I suspect that some of his family members were there. His disciples were there, too; their feet were still sopping wet from stepping out of their fishing boats to accompany him on the journey. Some of the people who he had healed in the past few weeks were there. He had given their lives back to them, which means they would follow him anywhere. And then there were the curious onlookers—those people, in every time and place, who show up just to see what all the hubbub is about.

As the unexperienced pastor—that is, Jesus—scanned the crowd he saw a group of people who were beaten down by the Empire’s systems of oppression. These weren’t cabinet members; these were fishermen who couldn’t even afford to own the nets they used. These weren’t the ones making the rules; these were the people abiding by the rules that were not often created with their wellbeing in mind. I think it’s safe to say that everyone on that hillside had been touched by the Empire’s chains, but in different ways.

Jesus looked at the group as he preached his first sermon. I don’t think he had prepared his remarks in advance. No, I think he simply moved from person to person and thought about what they needed to hear most clearly. I actually think that each beatitude could have a name attached to it because he was speaking to the specific vulnerabilities in people’s lives. To Joe, whose partner of 30 years had just died, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” To the activists who stood on the docks every Friday to demand rights for fishermen, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” To Sarah, the little girl sitting at his feet, Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Yes, I like to think that Jesus’ first sermon is written by the people to whom he preaches. That is to say, he looked at the crowd and thought to himself, what do these people need to hear? Not what do I want to tell them in order to assure they’ll believe that I’m the messiah, but what word of freedom do they need to be given right now, on this Palestinian hillside?

Jesus is pointing at what matters and, in so doing, he’s redirecting the gaze of the crowd. He’s pointing them away from gawking at the ruling elite. He’s turning his back on the Empire’s power, and, instead, focusing his attention on those who are threatened by it. He’s pointing the crowd’s gaze where it ought to be—to the sick, to the vulnerable, to the self-giving, to the hurt, to the people who are under siege. He’s reminding us of what Audre Lourde says, “We are not free while any[one] is unfree, even when [their] shackles are very different from our own.”

I’ve said it here before that I think the Beatitudes are spoken for those society doesn’t much care for—people with broken pieces. We hear Jesus articulate eight specific blessings in Matthew’s gospel, but I’m confident that this was meant to be a “starter list.” Jesus must have known the collection of beatitudes would grow as his people continued to learn and to love. Today, I think we can boldly add to the list begun so long ago:

Blessed are the refugees. Blessed are the immigrants. Blessed are those who are the Muslim and threatened with a registry, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are the uninsured. Blessed are those who fear they will lose their insurance. Blessed are those with preexisting conditions, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the activists who pepper social media with their passion and show up with their bodies. Blessed are those who cry, “Black Lives Matter.” Blessed are the indigenous peoples clinging to their sacred lands. Blessed are the species living under the weight of climate change, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who live below the poverty line. Blessed are those who work too many jobs. Blessed are those who cannot find work. Blessed are the laborers who feel left behind by the technological revolution, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the differently-abled. Blessed are those who are trans. Blessed are those who are LGBTQ. Blessed are women, for [by golly, one of these days] you will receive mercy.[ii]

It’s a flipping of the dominant narrative that sounds foolish to most. But it’s Jesus’ way—and by extension, ours. “If you’re not sure where to look today,” Jesus points clearly and says, “look at each other. It’s there that my blessing will be found.”


[i] Pavlovitz, John. Paraphrased.

[ii] Some of these beatitudes come from Pastor Emily Scott at St. Lydia’s Dinner Church in New York, who encouraged others to use her adaptation of Matthew 5. Some of them come from Pastor Ashley Harness, with whom I stood and blessed the crowd of 100,000 at the Women’s March MN. Some of the words contained in these blessings are from Matthew’s Jesus. And some of them are mine.

God Is Here. Jay’s sermon on the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

Matthew 4:12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13 He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14 so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15 “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16 the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near.” 18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 23 Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.


            During a hospital visit with a church member not long ago, the conversation turned to Holy Trinity and how grateful we both were for this congregation. This fellow parishioner said of this church, “God is there. I go to church and I just know that God is there.” I couldn’t agree more. Yes, God was in that hospital room. God accompanies us at home and work and school and wherever we go. But it is here at church in a very particular way that God wants to be found. God is here in our contemplation and discussion of the scriptures and our discernment about the Spirit’s call in our lives. God is here at the font and the table to bless, forgive, and renew. God is here in our words of peace and encouragement for one another. God is here in our joining our voices together in prayer and song.

            I am so grateful for the ways that I have experienced God’s loving and faithful presence here with you over the past nine years. As most of you know by now, I will be ending my time as pastor here in a few weeks. While I had imagined I would be here with you longer, my call as parent and spouse is leading me in a new direction. I a m proud of Kristen as she now follows her medical vocation in taking on more responsibilities and leadership. I am excited for her, and I am excited to spend more time with my daughters. Yet, as another church member reminded me this week, two opposing things can be true at the same time. So while I am excited about what’s next for me, I am also quite sad about leaving this amazing congregation. You all are truly remarkable. Your care and concern, your faithfulness, your passion to serve God and neighbor, your willingness to follow Christ even into uncomfortable places is so admirable and inspiring. You sure have inspired me as your pastor. So while I have a mix of feelings about my leaving, there has never been any question for me that God will continue to be at work among you. God is here. This ministry is vibrant and strong, and it will remain so in the years to come. I, for one, will keep praying for you in your ongoing mission because your life as a community and your witness to the Gospel are needed now as much as ever. So let me say thank you. Thank you for loving me, one another, and this world which God loves so much.

            There is still time in the coming weeks to say goodbye; my last Sunday will be February 12. So there will be more to say later. But for now, the Gospel invites us today not to think about endings but about beginnings. Matthew 4 describes not just any beginning but the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus. This is a crucial turning point in the Gospel.

            I get the sense from the reading today that Jesus wasn’t exactly ready for this new beginning, or at least the timing came as a surprise. John had been arrested. John, the one who had baptized Jesus, was no longer able to carry out his prophetic work at the Jordan River, as he was now the victim of an oppressive government. So it was time for Jesus to take over. “From that time on,” Matthew says, “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the reign of heaven has come near.’” Of course, he didn’t just continue John’s work. John prepared the way and pointed to Jesus, but what Jesus did was also something very new. It was time for his unique proclamation. It was time for his unique witness. Matthew draws from Isaiah to describe the significance: “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” Matthew is wise enough to know that there have been dark times in the past, when it was hard to see the way forward, when it was hard to believe that God was present. There have been deathly times, when there was good reason for fear and sorrow. But in those times there was still a light that could not be put out. Matthew knows that well from his spiritual and theological nurturing. And he saw that light present in a new and unique way with Jesus.

            The light of hope continued to shine. Jesus proclaimed, “Repent!” Literally, turn around. Change your perspective. If you’ve been living in despair, turn to hope. If you’ve been focused only on your own needs, turn to your neighbor. If you’ve been supporting systems of oppression, turn to justice and the flourishing of life for all. Repent. Because while there are a lot of powerful kingdoms and empires at work in the world, it’s the reign of heaven that has come near and invites your allegiance. Serve God’s reign in the world.

            In his message there was hope and there was light. And that message began to spread. But this is not enough to describe the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It’s not just the message that’s important for Matthew to recount. It’s also the community. Right away, as Jesus begins his public ministry, it’s clear that the reign of God will be proclaimed and enacted in a community of people, with other followers of the way. Like any good community organizer, Jesus began to gather people one by one. He went down to the lakeshore and called out to Simon and his brother Andrew to follow. Then he went and found James and John, the sons of Zebedee who were mending their fishing nets at the time. Matthew stops there, which is regrettable, because then Jesus went out and called some sisters, too. We know that from later in the Gospel, even if we don’t know all their names. He went and called women and men, some with a bit of wealth, many who were poor, people with all kinds of talents and experiences, and he invited them all to follow.

            Now I’ve always been a little skeptical of Matthew’s telling of this story. How is it that those disciples would just drop what they’re doing, leave everything behind, and follow a wandering rabbi toward an unknown destination? To me it’s been a story of blind faith that I just can’t relate to. But what if we listen to the story a little differently? What if it’s not so much about leaving behind comfort and security as it is about their responding to an invitation they’ve been waiting their whole lives to hear? For the first time, they were told their lives had meaning and significance. They had something to offer that had eternal relevance. How could they not leave their Roman-owned nets behind and follow Jesus?

            And so they did, and the community grew. Hope flourished. And when Jesus gathered them together for his Sermon on the Mount, he said, “Yes, there’s a lot of darkness in the world right now, but look around, you are the light of the world.”

            I believe that this is the message he offers to us, his followers today. There is no question about the reality of darkness and shadows of death. Some of you are carrying heavy burdens of illness or grief. The presidential election and inauguration have not just been divisive but have helped many of us to recognize that the racism and misogyny and fear of others present in our nation is greater than we realized. In this shadowy time, look around, you are the light of the world.

            One thing that we hold in common no matter where we stand on any political or theological spectrum is that we all face a danger—perhaps especially in the coming months—of falling into cynicism, despair, and hate. These things cannot coexist with following Jesus in the call to discipleship. Sure, there are times of doubt along the way, but as disciples we need to ask, “where will I find hope and light for the journey?”

            I’d like to suggest that your hope will be nurtured in gathering together with others. Yesterday morning, I was so inspired to see groups of people waiting at the bus stops to join in a peaceful march in St. Paul. Though I couldn’t be there, the photos of the gathering lifted my spirits. It’s not unlike the way I feel gathering in this place with you week after week.

           As I said at the beginning, God is here as we come together for worship. Now the fact that God is with you does not mean that you will always know what to do. It certainly does not mean that you won’t make mistakes. But still God is with you—in your gifts and passions, your foibles and faults—to give you hope and to remind you that the reign of heaven has come near to you. God’s vision for the world can be trusted. God’s promises for you as a child of God can be trusted. That’s our starting point for following Jesus on the way. Thanks be to God.

Light Enough for Each Step. Jay’s Epiphany Sermon

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” 7Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”

9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

          Next weekend I will spend a few days at camp with Holy Trinity students participating in the annual confirmation retreat. As we’ve been doing for a decade or so, we will travel to Luther Park in Danbury, Wisconsin. There will be, of course, new topics to discuss and new opportunities for getting to know each other as a group, but one tradition that is almost always a part of the retreat is walking together as a group out onto the frozen lake on Sunday night. We listen to the sounds of the ice shifting and the woods around us. And most of all, we take a break from everything else going on in our lives and simply look up at the stars. Every year, I pray for clear skies because it’s such a great experience. It’s a simple activity that requires no planning, and yet it is often described as one of the highlights of the retreat. I find that fascinating. Sometimes I wish that students would point to one of my brilliant lessons or inspiring worship services as their favorite part of the weekend, but I get it. There’s something amazing about gazing up at the stars, especially away from the lights of the city, and especially with people you care about.

            Our galaxy, scientists estimate, contains as many as 400 billion stars. And that’s just one of about 2 trillion galaxies in the universe. Some people have even speculated that beyond those galaxies there could be other universes that are completely unobservable us no matter what telescopes we might construct, that is, unless some other expanding universe were to somehow bump into our own. Then we might notice it. What a worldview-altering discovery that would be! A few astronomers are scanning the heavens looking for evidence of such a collision. It hasn’t happened, yet, as far as we know.

            The magi we read about on Epiphany are sometimes called kings, but they are better understood as intellectuals, and even the scientists of their day. They too studied the skies, looking for signs of change and disruption. They sought new discoveries about our universe. As such, they were open new possibilities and self-understandings. They were people who wanted to expand their own worldview.

            It’s often much more comfortable to keep one’s world small. If you keep your head down and focus only on your own circumstances, then life is much more manageable and safer, or so it seems. Looking up at the stars can be overwhelming. It changes how we think of ourselves to remember just how big the universe really is. That’s why looking at the night sky is such a profound experience.

            Matthew tells us that those intellectuals from the east discovered something in the sky that inspired them to set out on a journey. They were ready to turn their lives upside-down and make a trip that must have taken months or even years. They headed to Jerusalem—the most important city in the region—and arranged for a visit with King Herod—the most important person—to enlist his help. But Herod, it seems, was not nearly as willing to welcome a larger worldview. This world, where strangers from Persia come to pay homage to a Jewish king came instead as a threat to him. He very much preferred the world where he was in charge of everything, where he called the shots, where things stayed basically the same. He was afraid of losing that control over his little world. We know that about Herod not only from this passage but from other historical sources, too, in which we read that he even murdered three of his own sons, due to the threat they presented to his position of power. There was a popular saying at the time that went, “It is better to be one of Herod’s pigs than his son.” Herod was a powerful person with a great deal of fear, and that presented a dangerous situation. He was frightened, the Gospel says. And not only him but “all of Jerusalem with him.” That is, all who benefited from the system as it was were afraid of having it upset. New kings, new foreign visitors, newness of any kind would not be good for them.

            Ironically, Herod did help those magi, though he thought he was still in control of the situation. “Let me know when you find him,” Herod said. “I want to pay homage, too,” but of course, he had other intentions.

            The magi went, not to a major city like Jerusalem but to the little town of Bethlehem. They found Mary and the child Jesus. They presented their gifts and paid him homage.

            And then the magi were changed again. They must have been because we are told they returned home by another road. Through a warning in a dream and even more, I think, through their encounter with a peasant king in a tiny village, their worldview was altered again. It wasn’t through the rich and powerful in Jerusalem that God was at work but through vulnerability, through peace and generosity. The way that the adult Jesus would live his life would stand in stark contrast to the Herods of the world, and the magi, I believe, were already beginning to understand that. They didn’t need to report back to Herod because his power was fleeting. It would not stand forever. But the power of God which is eternal was revealed for them in a child, born in humble circumstances in the village Bethlehem. The power of God was present among what’s considered ordinary, unremarkable. So they returned home by another road. They followed another path.

            The life of faith calls each of us to alternate paths during the course of our lives. Sometimes our path may be surprising to others, but it’s because we walk by the light of Christ, our Morning Star. In a world of preserving power by force, it looks foolish to turn spears into pruning hooks and swords into plowshares. In a world of wealth building it is strange to be generous and to treat your neighbor’s needs as your own. In a world of protecting your way of life and what you have, it is strange to welcome a stranger. The light of Christ leads us on another road.

            There are also times when the new roads we travel are not by our choice but are roads given to us. A health crisis, a job loss, a changed relationship, and other circumstances can set us on journeys we never expected in directions we never thought we’d go. But what we know, in faith, is that Christ is present to guide and bless along these roads as well. What we have observed by our Morning Star is that God is found especially in such unexpected places.

            The theme for the retreat next weekend is “Light enough for each step.” We’ll be reminded that while we may not see the final destination, God is present to illumine the path just ahead, with just enough light. It is true for all of us.

            I wish you all Epiphany blessings on whatever road you may find yourself traveling right now. May the light of Christ accompany and guide you for each step of the journey, and may you carry with you a song of praise.



Blessed with a Name. Jay’s sermon for Name of Jesus Sunday

Luke 2:15-21

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 21 After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.


Today, aside from being New Year’s Day, of course, is the day in the church year traditionally observed as the Name of Jesus Sunday. And we heard why in the Gospel reading.  Luke says that Jesus was circumcised and named on his eighth day of life, as would have been the custom for any Jewish boy. Today is eight days after Christmas, the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus, so it makes sense to read this portion of the Gospel today.

It is a day for remembering that Jesus was very much a part of the religion and culture of his parents. He didn’t stand outside of these things. He wasn’t born to create a new religion or but in fact was born into one particular place and time for the healing of all the nations.  And on the eighth day, he was given one particular name, just like any one of us.

Now, when my children received their names, there was very little ceremony or fanfare about it, but it was a weighty moment. I remember standing in the hospital delivery room, minutes after my first daughter’s birth, and a nurse came in with a clipboard and asked, “So, does she have a name?” I think our first response was, “just give us a few minutes.” This is a big responsibility, choosing one name out of the seemingly infinite possibilities to give to a child for the rest of her life, or at least until she’s old enough to pick a better one for herself. How do you choose?

We chose family names. Beatrice and Ruth were names of two of her great-grandmothers. Malena Pearl is named for my grandmother Pearl and also two relatives named Malena, whom we found on distant branches of our family tree. Malena, which comes from Mary Magdalene, also remembers the first apostle of Jesus, the first one to share the good news of Christ’s resurrection.

I’m curious about your name stories. Why did your parents give you your name? If you are a parent, why did you give your child the name you did. Would anyone like to share a story about a name?


These stories point to the blessing involved with choosing a name. Naming another person is to bless them.

With this in mind, though, we can turn to the Gospel today and ask how do you choose a name for the Son of God? How can you give a name to the One who blesses us?

There’s a children’s book written by Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso I like very much that asks this question. I’d like to share it with you this morning. It’s called In God’s Name.

After God created the world all living things on earth were given a name. The plants and the trees, the animals and the fish, and each person, young and old, had a special name. But no one knew the name for God. So each person searched for God’s name. The farmer whose skin was dark like the rich brown earth from which all things grew called God Source of Life. The girl whose skin was as golden as the sun that turned night into day called God Creator of Light. The man who tended sheep in the valley called God Shepherd. The tired soldier who fought too many wars called God Maker of Peace. The artist who carved figures from the earth’s hard stone called God My Rock.

Sometimes the people who called God by different names were puzzled. They said, “Every living thing has a single name: the marigold, pansy and lily; the oak tree, sequoia and pine. God must have a single name that is greater and more wonderful than all other names.”

Each person thought his name for God was the greatest. Each person thought her name for God was the very best. The farmer who called God Source of Life said, “This is the true name for God.” The girl who called God Creator of Light insisted, “This is the most splendid name for God.” The shepherd, soldier and artist believed they each had the perfect name for God.

But no one listened. Least of all, God.

And so each person kept searching for God’s name.

The woman who cared for the sick called God Healer. The slave who was freed from bondage called God Redeemer. The grandfather whose hair was white with the years called God Ancient One. The grandmother who was bent with age and sorrow called God Comforter. The young woman who nursed her newborn son called God Mother. The young man who held the hand of his baby daughter called God Father. And the child who was lonely called God Friend. All the people called God by different names. They tried to tell one another that their name was the best, the only name for God, and that all other names were wrong.

But no one listened. Least of all, God.

And so each person kept searching for God’s name.

Then one day the person who called God Ancient One and the one who called God Friend, the one who called God Mother and the one who called God Father—all the people who called God by a different name came together. They knelt by a lake that was clear and quiet like a mirror, God’s mirror. Then each person who had a name for God looked at the others who had a different name. They looked into God’s mirror and saw their own faces and the faces of all the others.

And they called out their names for God—Source of Life—Creator of Light—Shepherd—Maker of Peace—My Rock—Healer—Redeemer—Ancient One—Comforter—Mother—Father—Friend—all at the same time. At that moment, the people knew that all the names for God were good, and no name was better than another.

Then all at once their voices came together and they called God One.

Everyone listened. Most of all, God.


The name that Mary and Joseph, and the angel before them, gave to the baby at Christmas was Yeshua, or Jesus, which means “one who saves.” This tells us something very important about who he is. Most of all, it tells us who he is for us.

So maybe this day, the name of Jesus Sunday, isn’t as much about naming God as it is God naming us. Maybe it’s like God’s mirror to show us who we really are. The name of Jesus is given to us. We are ones who are saved. We are ones who are recipients of God’s saving grace through Jesus.

Not only that, but we bear the name of Jesus for the world as the body of Christ. God’s saving work is done through us, as we encounter a world in need and neighbors in need of hope or comfort or forgiveness. This name Jesus tells us who we are and what we are to be about, this new year and always.

Today is New Year’s Day. And today we remember that we are children of God who are blessed with the name Jesus.

Learning to Hold the Child


The gospel according to Luke, the second chapter:

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Word of God. Word of life. Thanks be to God.

When I visit new parents in the hospital or in their homes, they almost always ask me if I’d like to hold their beloved newborn. My answer is “yes,” of course. But I admit that I have some fear and trepidation every time they lift the child and place her in my arms. My apprehension arises out of an acute awareness that the baby I’m about to hold is, at least in that moment, the most important thing in the whole world.

I wonder if Mary, Joseph, and the field hands had similar feelings. Angels has warned them that this baby was above average, that this tiny thing had the power to save the world. Knowing what they knew, then, I wonder if Mary was tempted, like many of the mothers I know, to bubble wrap baby Jesus. I wonder if Joseph, like many new parents, held the baby with those awkwardly scrunched shoulders and tight arms. I wonder if the shepherds, when Jesus was lifted from the manger and placed against their scratchy tunics, had the sense they would have done almost anything to keep him from all harm his whole life long.

My mother tells a story of her first months of motherhood. She was home alone with my eldest brother, Bjorn. She bundled him up, and walked out to the end of the driveway to the mailbox. Just as she was reaching to open the mailbox, she slipped, Bjorn lurched, and before she knew it, he had fallen out of her arms onto the gravel road. My mother wept for the rest of day, believing herself to be the worst caregiver that had ever walked the earth. If she could have put him in an impenetrable snowsuit for the rest of his life, I’m certain she would have.

The business of love is hard. It makes us want to protect, at all costs, the objects of our affections, whether they be our children, our spouses, our parents, or our friends. But as much as we’d like to bubble wrap those we love, C. S. Lewis writes that “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything; and your heart will certainly be wrung; and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one…it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…”[i]

In the story of the incarnation, God takes on the vulnerable, risky business of love. God opens her heart up to being wronged, even broken. In a rural town with rural people, God chooses to take on flesh for the sake of the whole world. This isn’t a bubble-wrapped baby or an impenetrable king. This is love incarnate. And all of us—Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, you and I—are tasked with learning how to hold such love when it’s placed in our arms.

Peter Marty, a pastor in Davenport, Iowa, writes about his wife Susan’s traumatic brain injury a few years ago. After Susan collapsed on the kitchen floor, she was rushed to the local hospital where scans revealed a massive brain hemorrhage. She was airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospital. She was in the intensive care unit there for fifty days, not a day of which she remembers.

Peter Marty says those days taught him some powerful lessons about nonpossesive living. He writes that “[one bishop] in the Russian Orthodox Church, says that if you hold on to something too tightly, you risk limiting the beauty of what your clinging to. You will also lose the use of your hands to that object…[As I watched Susan during some of her toughest days,] I thought to myself that if we are not permitted to possess some of the best things in life—grace and love, for example—why is it that we grip our favorite relationships so tightly?”

Marty says that before his wife’s aneurysm, he knew that life was a gift to be shared, not a possession to safeguard. But after they survived such an ordeal, he knew much more about nonpossesive love. They had learned to hold each other loosely.[ii]

I think the world’s current state of affairs can lead us into two unhelpful directions. On the one hand, we are tempted to give our hearts to no one, to say the problems are too great, to choose unbreakability and impenetrability for the sake of our own safety and comfort. On the other hand, we can cling ever so tightly to that which we love, and, in the process, risk limiting the beauty of whatever it is we are clinging to.

When Paul and I lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we had a walking path we took almost every night. At the end of the workday it was wonderful to have two miles where didn’t make a single decision. There were no disagreements about turning right or left; heading this way or that way. We always took the same path.

That path always took us down Center Avenue and past a house that took their statues and yard art very seriously. There were saints, and butterflies, and grazing deer galore. It was well-kept. It was perfect. My favorite statue of them all was the Madonna and Child that was positioned near the edge of the lot. It was about waist-high. Mary was dressed in a flowing blue robe. The baby Jesus was round and wonderful. And if passersby looked closely, they saw that the statue was chained to the nearby pine tree.

I used to remark to Paul as we walked by, “No one is going to steal their Mary, their Christ child!”

Duke theologian Christina Cleveland writes that “more often than man of us would like to admit, powerful Christians have held captive the truth of the incarnation.” Cleveland says, “This season, in a year which we need Christ’s liberating power more than ever, let’s release the truth of the incarnation. Let’s speak the truth. Let’s write songs of liberation. Let’s step outside our individualistic cocoons so we can stand in generous, cross-cultural solidarity with people who have stories, joys, and pains that are nothing like our own. Let’s fight against the systems of oppression and for the poor, the captive, and the sick.”

Rather than chaining Christ to our pine tree, let’s allow him to lead us into incarnate love.

This past week, I sat with two of Holy Trinity’s ninety-year-olds and read the gospel passage we just heard. When I finished reading, one of them said, “I choose to believe it’s true—that God really became one of us.” I said, “Yes, I do, too.” We gather and sing and pray today because we believe that God chose the way of vulnerability, that God chose the way that would inevitably lead to a broken heart, that God chose the way of liberating love.

All of this through a tiny baby who has just be placed in our arms.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Lewis, C. S. The Four Loves.

[ii] Marty, Peter. “Holding Each Other Loosely: After My Wife’s Brain Aneurysm.” Christian Century, August 2015.