The one about Arnold Schwarzenegger and all our fragile pieces.

Pastor Ingrid C.A. Rasmussen’s sermon from September 20, 2015

Listen along here.

The gospel according to Mark, the ninth chapter:

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

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

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It was 2010, and I was completing three years of hard work at Emory University’s theology school in Atlanta, Georgia. The student body was preparing to gather on the lush campus green for graduation. We all knew there would be lots of bagpipes; there always were. We knew the heat would intensify during the outdoor ceremony; it always did. We were just waiting to hear who would be chosen to address the over 20,000 people expected to attend. Whoever it was would find him or herself in good company; former speakers had included the likes of Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union, and Desmond Tutu, the Archbishop who worked tirelessly against apartheid in South Africa.

The email announcement came. Imagine our surprise when we opened it and read: “Emory University is pleased to announce that Arnold Schwarzenegger will be delivering the commencement address.” Deliver it he did, beginning with what he knew people wanted to hear—that is, his most famous movie lines, beginning with “I’ll Be Back” and closing with “Hasta La Vista, Baby.” Thereafter, he gave a highlights tour through his self-made body-building career. And he closed strong with a discussion of his advantageous relationship with the Kennedys. And, then, just like that, the twenty minute lesson in personal greatness was over, and Arnold’s big, burly bodyguards cleared a path for him through the sun kissed crowd, and he drove off in his shiny, black SUV.

You giggle. My classmates and I did, too. The commencement address was a blatant display of wealth and beauty and esteem and accomplishment and recognition and pride and rightness. It was easy for the divinity students to write Arnold’s speech off—to joke that’s what the university’s Board of Trustees got for refusing to pay their commencement speakers. But, tucked in-between our laughter and overpriced robes and sense of superiority, we quietly knew that we were witnessing something as true as it was silly: in a world that admires the strong, the conversation of greatness is never far away.

Some gospel stories surprise us; Mark 9 is not one of them. Jesus and his eager apprentices are just getting started—just getting into their itinerant grooves, so to speak. For having virtually no experience in the Son of God enterprise, they’re doing pretty well: They’re busily feeding the thousands. They’re healing any sickness they can get their hands on. They’re bringing the dead back to life. They’re taking mountaintop transfigurations in stride. They may not know exactly what they’re doing; they do know they’re Jesus’ great insiders.

You and I are well-qualified to do some Midrash here—to fill in the gaps left by the gospel of Mark’s restrained writer. The conversation about greatness probably began quietly. For these dudes, it wasn’t about celebrity, fortune, or biceps. No, no, they were far more nuanced than that. They quietly wondered about the current direction of Jesus’ favor. They relished in their professional victories. They may have slipped in comments about their children’s accomplishments. And they dreamed of promotions [though we might note that in a company of thirteen with no middle management, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for upward mobility]. It was all relatively innocent—that is, until Jesus reminds them that their destination isn’t success; it’s death. And death doesn’t tolerate the veneers of put-togetherness and greatness that we so carefully tend.

I usually write funeral sermons in my living room. Seated in my favorite spot on the couch, I begin by spreading my notes around me like a fan. Yellow legal paper, scraps of white paper, and an occasional napkin scrawled with words legible only to me. Each of these treasures represents a fragment of the deceased life—her elementary school kickball prowess, her cookie jar collection, her prayer hanging above the kitchen table, her epic failures at forgiveness, her final words to those she loved most; one of my jobs, as the preacher, is to stitch the pieces together into someone we recognize.

I love the days when I am able to do this—not because I relish in loss or am hungry for grief—but because I am reminded that what shows up time and again in the paper trail of someone’s life isn’t magnificence or wealth or greatness. What shows up in death are the familiar fragments—smiles and tenderness, quirks and wrinkles. It’s on these sermon-writing days, cradled in the cushion’s divot created by years of faithful use, that I see clearly that our lives are made up of many fragments—projects and sentences left unfinished. I see that our lives are less like Michelangelo’s David and more like a mosaic in a Rain Garden. The beauty is found in the fragile pieces that come together imperfectly.

Had there been a sick or dying person around during Jesus’ object lesson, I like to imagine that Jesus would have used her and let the child keep playing. But he and his crew had healed everyone already, so he had no other choice than to take the child, and asked his disciples: “Can you love this little boy? Can you accept his fragility? Embrace the beautiful pieces that make him who he is? Can you hold him, though he won’t advance your place in the world? Good, because the truth is that he’ll slow you down. The life we’re leading isn’t about retirement savings and beauty and esteem and accomplishments and rightness and Facebook likes. This gospel has no time for greatness. Are you still with me?”

Of course, it didn’t need to be a child at the center of that circle. It could have been you. It could have been me.

And after the initial embarrassment at being outed by their mentor and the initial disappointment that they weren’t fast-tracking it to success, Jesus’s words must have felt like freedom—the kind of gospel freedom that Nadia Bolz-Weber says “sets ordinary, screwed up people free to be who we are: beloved children of God filled to the brim with inconsistencies.”

It’s one of the marvelous gifts of intimate relationships, of marriage—that is, to trust someone enough to share the fragile pieces of one’s life, and to be entrusted with the fragile pieces of another.

When I first met Anne and Cori, then had just moved into the neighborhood. Their apartment windows overlook the church building. When they looked out the window and saw Holy Trinity, Anne says that she remarked, “We get the hint, God.” They’ve gone from no formal relationship with a faith community to active involvement here in a matter of months. Cori’s been instrumental in the mosaic, she is part of the writer’s group, and she comes in twice a month to send handwritten notes to all of our homebound members. Anne volunteers in the office each week and sings her little alto heart out in the choir. They’re both poets.

I’ve learned a lot about the life of faith from Anne and Cori. Most notably, they are incredibly honest about their fragile pieces, saying that they met on a psychiatric ward, and have accompanied each other through sadness and exhaustion, therapy and hospitalizations these past twenty-three years. They came to Holy Trinity with a level of vulnerability that most of us take years to cultivate. It’s been a gift to be invited into it. And today, it’s a beautiful thing to be able to bear witness to the public promises they make to one another after decades of partnership.

Yes, it must have felt like freedom to the disciples arguing on the way, to hear that God wasn’t interested in their well-tended veneers of greatness. It must have felt like freedom to be forgiven for their vanity. It must have felt like freedom to acknowledge that this life is not grounded in strength and greatness, but, rather, in weakness and grace. It must have felt like freedom to be told that beauty was found in imperfection. It must have felt like freedom for the disciples to hear that God loved them and all their fragile pieces. It must have felt like freedom.

What does it feel like for you?

AMEN.

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The Call to Follow and to Leave Behind, Jay’s sermon from September 13

Mark 8:27-38

27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. 31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” 34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

When I was in about first or second grade, I remember gathering around the TV one evening to watch the annual broadcast of the movie, The Wizard of Oz. Someone in my family—I’m not sure who—suggested that we adjust the color and tint settings on the television to make the display a little greener. If you remember the movie, it begins in black and white, but then when Dorothy and Toto are whisked away by a tornado to the Land of Oz, everything changes to Technicolor, and we see the vibrant greens of Oz and especially the Emerald City. For my family, after monkeying with the TV, the greens were even more vibrant.

It wasn’t until just last a couple of weeks ago that I learned that what we had done was actually in keeping with the original story of Wizard of Oz. In that book, which is quite different than the movie, the Emerald City is in fact not any greener than any other city. Rather, in that story, when the Wizard first arrived in Oz from Omaha by way of hot air balloon, the first thing he did in Oz after ascending to power was to require all of the Emerald City’s residents to put on green tinted eye glasses. They were made to wear them all the time, so they eventually came to believe that the city was actually green. Even Dorothy and her friends were made to wear the glasses, so they assumed the pavement was made of blocks of green marble, joined together by rows of shining emeralds. They believed the streets were lined with houses of green marble, which had window panes of green glass. The Wizard changed how they saw that city. In effect, he turned the knob of their color setting.

While there are no wizards or green glasses in our Gospel reading today, I think there was a similar principle at play in that time and place. In Mark 8, Jesus and his disciples are in the region of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea, you might guess, comes from the word Caesar, the name of the Roman emperor. Philip was the son of the evil tyrant, Herod, whom the Romans had placed in charge of the area. It is significant, I think, that they were in a place especially devoted to the Roman Empire, where imperial artwork and statues were everywhere around them, and the phrase “Son of God” might very commonly have been heard in describing Caesar, without anyone thinking twice about it. We could say that the Empire had a certain way of adjusting the tint for the people under its control. Their monuments and processions and demonstrations sought to convince the people that there was only one power that mattered and that the pathway to peace and prosperity could only come through military dominance and brutal violence. There was no arguing with Rome. In many ways, the Empire defined life for people—what power was, what good was, what the purpose of living was all about.

So it’s fitting that Jesus chose this region of Caesarea Philippi in which to invite his followers to remove the tinted spectacles of Empire. The disciples were starting to hear interpretations of Jesus from other people, suggesting things about who he was, relative to the powers that be. Peter rightly called him Messiah, but though he got the title right he was wrong in assuming it to mean something similar to the Roman way of dominance, that Jesus would successfully conquer the ruling forces. Instead, Jesus explained, they were on a path of service, vulnerability, and self-giving love. So Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan,” which, though quite harsh sounding, is another way of saying, “You’ve got blinders on, and you’re trying to cloud my own vision, too.” Perhaps Peter was filled with too much ambition. Perhaps he was blinded by the success Jesus had experienced so far. But in order to follow Jesus on his particular mission for the world, he and the rest of the disciples would need to let go of worldly concerns for self-promotion and competition. Jesus was inviting them into a very different journey of love and service. It was a difficult one, but it was a path toward a truer, more authentic understanding of themselves, the world, and God.

The American Trappist Monk Thomas Merton wrote about his own spiritual life as a tension between competing “false selves.” We all have those selves, ideas about who we want to be or ought to be, the conditions we assume would make us happy and more complete. Maybe you’ve been tempted to think that your bank account reflected your identity, or your grades in school, or your family, or the things you have accomplished, or the ways in which you have failed. Maybe you’ve come to wrongly believe at times either that you are more important than others or that you are unworthy of others’ love. All of these things result from false selves and are distractions from the authentic self that God wants us to be, that we are created to be. Our true selves, Merton said, is the way we look through God’s eyes, free of worldly assumptions and personal illusions. Our true selves are found in God. Merton wrote:

Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find truth and reality whenever we happen to want them.

Jesus invites his disciples on a path to finding their true selves.

It is often the case the communities need to rediscover their true selves as well. I think our own city is doing that in certain ways. While we have generally assumed ourselves to be progressive and “Minnesota nice,” some Minneapolitans have called this city’s attention to the institutional racism that exists and has existed for a long time. I believe our tinted glasses are slowly coming off in this and other cities. It can be a difficult process, but I hope that we are discovering more the kind of community we are meant to be

This congregation is on a journey of self-discovery, too, as every congregation is. For us, we are learning more what it means to build community where all are truly welcome into this congregation’s life and ministry, where we can be vulnerable with one another by admitting that sometimes life is really hard, where we can share our lives in relationship, and share our authentic experiences of faith with each other. We are growing in ministry for children and youth and learning to be ministered to by them as well. We continue to seek justice in our neighborhood and world, but we are opening ourselves even more to listening deeply to our neighbors so that we can build community together. Again, turning our focus from ourselves to others is a path toward authentic and abundant life.

Finding our true selves in this way—as individuals or as communities—can be difficult. It requires change and often traveling against the flow of the culture. While it may not involve literally picking up of a cross, it is a call to suffering. There is a cost. Now, in this country we do not suffer religious persecution as some Christians in other places of the world do, though it seems we’ve been hearing this claim a lot lately. We are in fact afforded privileges daily because of our identification with the Christian religion. But still there are times that following Jesus might cause us to feel that we are stepping out alone into unfamiliar territory, where we are asked to trust even when it feels that everything we have known is getting left behind. We are called to remove the tinted spectacles while everyone around us might seem to be going about life as if their vision is the correct way of seeing. We are not called to suffer for suffering’s sake. It’s just that the transition into living our real, authentic lives can be uncomfortable. That’s understating it. It can feel like death, leaving an old self behind. But on this journey, Christ is present with resurrection love.

And it is a journey. The early Christians were called People of the Way. It wasn’t that they had everything figured out, but they were doing their best to follow and to learn more as they went. That’s why we need a community of followers to help us. At the beginning of our worship, when we say, “Wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here,” we mean it. Because we are all on our journey of following Christ better and of letting go of false assumptions about ourselves, the world, and God. Clarity about this doesn’t snap into focus all at once. The culturally shaped lenses don’t fall immediately from our eyes. It takes practice. False selves take time to get developed, after all, so letting go of them does, too. But we return again and again here in our worship to the place where our journeys begin: the strong promise of God spoken to each one of us clearly and without qualification: “You are my beloved child. What matters to me is not your successes and failures. What matters to me is that I love you and you are mine.”

What could we possibly allow to get in the way of following such love?

Christ’s Living Meal

Jay’s sermon from Sunday, August 16

John 6:51-58

Jesus said, I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 The Judeans then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; 55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

Congregations have different practices when it comes to the age at which one is invited to receive the bread and wine and communion. Here at Holy Trinity, we approach the question individually with families. We welcome all children who want to receive when their parents believe they are ready for it. Some families wait until confirmation, as was the practice in my church growing up. Some begin much sooner—even as soon as children can first stretch out their hands to take the gift of bread, which is for them, as for us, the real presence of Christ.

Children bring joy to our gathering around the table here at church, just as they do for any family meal. While kneeling at the rail, kids may look up at me earnestly with a piously outstretched hand…or they might act a little silly and suddenly get the giggles, something that can happen to any of us at church. Very often, our Holy Trinity children demonstrate that they are proud to be included in what they can so easily perceive to be a very important act of the church. From time to time, I’ve witnessed a child of 4 or 5 break off a piece of their bread and share it with a younger sibling. How can something so important not be shared?

If a child starts receiving communion in the early school years, I like to meet with them first to talk about the sacrament and prepare for the big day of receiving it the first time. I usually begin by asking them to describe for me a special meal that they have recently shared with people whom they love. I ask them to draw a picture of that meal, and then I watch them as they carefully reconstruct on paper dining room and kitchen tables, with stick figures of moms, dads, grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles, and even siblings. Memories easily come into their heads, and they describe for me birthdays, holidays, or even just last night’s supper. Sharing special meals with people we love is a great starting point in talking about communion because each one of us knows well what that means. Each one of us needs to share such meals often.

When I went to the clinic with my own two daughters last week for their regular well-child visit, one of the questions their physician asked was “Do you share family meals together at home at least three nights per week?” She asked that because we have discovered as a society how important eating meals together is for a child’s health and well-being. She asked about the food, too—“how many servings of fruits and vegetables each day?” But just as important as the food’s nutritional value for a child’s overall health is the experience at the table, shared with people they love.

We know that there are unhealthy tables, too. There are tables set with violence or neglect, which are seriously harmful for the children who seek to be nourished there. There are young people who eat from school cafeteria trays all alone in hallways or restrooms, out of fear of the bullies who are gathered around other tables or the worry that there simply won’t be a place for them at any table. Here again, the food children eat matters very little in comparison to everything else that they take into themselves at mealtime—body, mind, and soul.

In all of these ways, meals are crucial for the spiritual health of adults, too. This is part of the reason why meals and feasts play such a central role in the imagery of our scriptures—both the Old Testament and New Testament. Certainly, these texts arise out of communities for whom actual, physical food was not easy to come by, and where bread made up at least 50% of a person’s regular diet. Tables filled with a variety of dishes were surely a common fantasy. But meals then, as now, were still about much more than the food. The culture in which Jesus lived was a lot like a middle school cafeteria, where who is sitting around the table with you has profound significance. One biblical scholar (John Dominic Crossan) has said that a meal table in Jesus’ culture was “a miniature map of society’s vertical discriminations and lateral separations.” In other words, all you had to do was take a look at where people sat at a table to see where they stood in society.

For something so common to human life as eating, it sure is complex. And into all of this complexity and anxiety, Jesus speaks a promise: “At the table of life, I will be your host and your bread.”

It is laid out before us: a meal where we can be nourished with what we most need, where we can be assured that we are beloved children of God worthy of all of God’s great gifts, where we can receive forgiveness offered freely no matter what burdens we’ve been carrying around with us, where we can be set free to be our true and authentic selves in communion with other people and all that God has made. It is a meal of mystery and promise and self-giving love that has been offered to us without cost, and a place where everyone is welcome. Today we have come to gather around Christ’s table and to be fed.

The really amazing thing is that these gifts of Christ are offered to us each and every day to feed and nourish us, not just on Sunday mornings. Christ continually invites us to a table of abundant grace, where we receive love and freedom. The challenge for us is that we may quite often listen and respond to other invitations: “Come to the table of resentment and anger, bitterness and envy. Come share in a meal of stressed-out competition and rivalry, where you can earn your place at the top if you learn to do enough, if you learn to be enough. Come and be fed by anxiety and the scarcity-driven frenzy of life. There is a cost, yes, but that makes the meal even more delicious.”

We try to respond to both invitations. We want the free, healthy, whole-grain bread of life, while also buying a little of the junk food of foolishness, too. We want to live freely and faithfully, while also keeping up with the ways of the world, to live well, to accommodate, collude, compete. And trying to juggle our responses to these two very different calls can be exhausting. In fact, it cannot work. Responding to Christ’s invitation to feast demands saying no to some other, very attractive invitations. It means recognizing the other calls of the world as invitations to meaningless, junk-food frenzy and participating instead in what really satisfies.*

Two weeks ago, Holy Trinity participated in the open streets day on Lake Street. The city had blocked off the road to car traffic, and a stream of people walked and biked past our church all afternoon. We had decided to set up a table there on Lake Street and hand out free sweet corn to passersby. It was originally just a way of supporting local farmers, but then we also decided the corn was also in celebration of our church’s ministry of lending an ear to the neighborhood for over 100 years. In any case, we handed out 1200 ears of corn that day, and our neighbors were delighted by it. One by one, we caught people by surprise with our offer, and many couldn’t believe it was free. Someone took a picture and tweeted it out on social media, saying, “The Lutherans are giving out corn!” You wouldn’t believe the pile of corn we had out there, and yet it was gone in just a few hours.

I’ll admit that I almost didn’t take part in open streets and the great corn giveaway two weeks ago. I had just returned from family camp. I was tired, and there were tasks to get done at home, as there always are. But I am sure glad I did go. In the span of just a couple of hours, I talked with friends from Holy Trinity and friends from the neighborhood, residents of the apartments and relatives of residents, our state representative, business owners, neighborhood activists, and many strangers. The life experiences and life concerns varied greatly among them. Someone engaged me in a theological discussion; someone wanted to talk about our church’s work with payday lending; someone told me about a troubled relationship with his son; someone just wanted to sit in the shade with me for a while. And what I found as I handed out corn and talked with people on the street is that I was being fed as much as anyone that day. I was getting a taste of God’s good, wide-open kingdom. It turns out, I was a guest at a very unique banquet.

A meal like that changes your perspective. It makes a difference for how you go about the rest of the day, even the rest of the week.

Christ invites you today to be fed and changed by a living meal.

*With thanks, as usual, to Dr. Walter Brueggemann, including his 1997 sermon, “Sabbaticals for Rats?”