The Face of Christ. Jay’s Christmas Eve sermon

The birth of Jesus, according to Luke, the 2nd chapter.

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 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: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favors!”

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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.

When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

 

There are many worship experiences that stand out in my memory, including past Christmas Eves in this very room. But I’d like to share one service in particular that I’ve thought a lot about this year. Unlike tonight, there were only a few dozen worshippers in that service, and we gathered together in a tight circle, some sitting on chairs and most sitting directly on the wooden floor. Ranging in age from 12 to 60, each one of us held a lit candle in one hand to illuminate the pages of the worship book in the other hand. Though we did sing “Silent Night” to close worship, it wasn’t a Christmas Eve service. It was July at Camp Christikon in Montana, where I had traveled with nine amazing Holy Trinity students and two equally amazing adult leaders. We worshiped together many times during that trip, but on that evening we closed the day with a service of compline, using worn copies of an old green hymnal called the Lutheran Book of Worship.

At one point, the camp director and leader of the service paused a moment and commented that he believed there was nothing quite as beautiful as the human face lit by candlelight. “Look around at one another,” he said. We did. And after a bit of silence, he said, “Perhaps you will see the very face of Christ.” And we did.

Where do you see the face of Christ? It may be in any number of people—in friends and strangers, people in need and with blessings to share, loved ones and enemies. Perhaps the simplest way of saying it is that Christ may be seen in the people who come into your life in any given moment.

Christ is present among us. It’s a simple idea, but like many spiritual truths it is at once ordinary and rich with meaning, with the potential for a lifetime of contemplation. The living Christ is not confined to a book or to churches and other holy places but is found in the everyday world, right where we live each day.

I think the reason I have thought of that service at camp so often since July is because this message is so easy to forget. We rarely have the time to pause and look and be reminded of Christ’s presence among us. Especially at Christmas time, when many of us come to worship nearly exhausted by the preparations of meals and presents and programs and parties, there is little time, it seems, to contemplate spiritual matters. And not only that, but we may bring with us into our Christmas worship various burdens. Grief, sorrow, weariness, worries. We have many things occupying our attention.

Poet Claudia Rankine describes an incident on a crowded and busy subway train. A man rushes through and bumps into a boy, knocking him to the ground. In our fast-paced world of hurry, it’s not an uncommon occurrence. But when he keeps on moving as if nothing had happened, the boy’s mother grabs his arms and asks him to acknowledge it. “Look at the boy and apologize,” she says. It is another occasion when a person in a rush did not see another human being who was right in front of him. Perhaps, Rankine supposes, he has “never seen anyone who is not a reflection of himself.” The boy is an “other” to him—another race, another class, another world apart. Why take the time to acknowledge such a boy? But then, the mother says, “The beautiful thing is that a group of men began to stand behind me like a fleet of bodyguards…like newly found uncles and brothers.”

The mother and her son were not alone, though at first they might have felt it. There were others to accompany them, to stand up for them, to acknowledge the value of their lives, to see them even as family. If you had been there on that subway perhaps you would have seen the very face of Christ.

The Gospel story of Christmas reminds me of two truths this year. First, I’m reminded that life for God’s people has always been in motion. Before the birth of Jesus, Mary travels to see her cousin for support during an unexpected pregnancy. Then she and Joseph are interrupted in their preparations by a worldwide census and forced to make the trip to Bethlehem. Angels suddenly appear to shepherds who then run with haste to find the baby. Later, a star calls magi to the road as well. In all of this, there is little time for stillness and quiet contemplation.

But the second truth of Christmas is that it is in the midst of chaos and confusion and just plain busyness that God chooses to be revealed, that God comes near to us. We are not alone. We never will be because nothing can separate us from God’s love. Our lives are valued that much. When the Gospel tells us that Mary pondered all these things in her heart, I don’t think it was after life calmed down—I don’t think it ever really did for her. Instead, it was in the midst of such things that she recognized God’s presence for her and for the whole world.

God is present in our world today as well, and this why we sing joyful hymns of praise tonight. When we look around during our singing of “Silent Night” tonight, with candlelit faces, it is a little easier to remember that Christ is present among us, that God is present in us and in our neighbor. It is true. But the story of the first Christmas pushes us to recognize the presence of Christ not only in the still and peaceful moments but also in the moments of unrest…in the times of turbulence and change and uncertainty. We can look for the face of Christ in the real pain, sorrow, and rejection of our human experience. We can find Christ in one another, in lives and perspectives that are very different from our own. We can find Christ in our own lives, no matter how far we feel from perfect or from God. Because God was born in this world, we can find Christ in all of creation, especially its longing to be healed.

Christ is born in Bethlehem and among us today. Maybe we don’t always recognize Christ’s presence, but the good news for us is that Christ comes nonetheless, ready or not, with persistent love.

Madeleine L’Engle writes of this love in her poem, “First Coming:”

God did not wait till the world was ready, till nations were at peace.

God came when the Heavens were unsteady, and prisoners cried out for release.

God did not wait for the perfect time. God came when the need was deep and great.

God dined with sinners in all their grime, turned water into wine. God did not wait

Till hearts were pure. In joy God came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame God came, and God’s Light would not go out…

We cannot wait till the world is sane to raise our songs with joyful voice,

For to share our grief, to touch our pain, God came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

 

 

 

 

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God of Interruptions. Jay’s sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent

Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

 There must have been a lot of sleepless nights—for Mary and Joseph, I mean. Most of our focus this time of year is on the night of the birth, and we know how difficult that was, traveling to Bethlehem, getting turned away from every inn. But what about all the nights leading up to that one? The fourth Sunday of Advent this year reminds us that it was a pregnancy fraught with worry from the very beginning.

The other Christmas Gospel writer, Luke, tells it mostly from Mary’s point-of-view. After the angel’s announcement of the child to be born, Mary goes to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. She needs advice and some courage. Perhaps she just needed to get away from the shaming glare of her neighbors, too, as rumors about her and her pregnancy circulated.

Matthew tells it differently. Matthew gives us Joseph’s perspective, primarily. It begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”

“Found to be with child” we can understand, though it might make us wonder about how the news came to light. The second part about the Holy Spirit may provoke even more questions. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been any evidence available to Joseph or anyone else that it happened through divine intervention. Joseph had to assume it was the result of natural human biology. It was a scandal, a shock to Joseph, leaving him with what must have been the most difficult decision he would ever have to make. How many days, I wonder, did it take him to make up his mind? How many sleepless nights?

I imagine that most of us here know the feeling of staring at the ceiling and working a problem over again and again. I heard a therapist say that no problem gets resolved in the middle of the night. The middle of the night exacerbates our problems, and we don’t bring our best reasoning at that hour, so you’re better off getting up and doing something else. Leave the worries for the morning.

Maybe Joseph tried his best to do that, but he couldn’t avoid it for long. Being betrothed, or engaged, in that time of place was a contractual agreement that was just as binding as marriage. It just meant that they didn’t live together yet, but they were nonetheless a family unit. Joseph had to do something. The official rule in such a situation was that there should be punishment, even stoning, both for the mother and the father, if he was known. Joseph had to assume there was a father, so he must have felt the pain of betrayal that anyone in his situation would feel and paced his room in anger late into the night. Maybe he lay awake wondering who the other guy was. Maybe he wondered if Mary really loved him or if he would be a good father to this child and that the three of them would be happy.

Whatever the reasons, we’re told Joseph chose not to publicly accuse Mary. Instead, he made up his mind to quietly divorce her. “Dismiss her” is what it says in our Bibles, but again, their betrothal was a legal contract that required a legal certificate of dissolution. If Joseph gave her one, then she would be able to marry another. His responsibility and connection to her would be over, and she would be free to start a new life.

Joseph settled on his plan. He made up his mind. And then he was able to get some sleep.

And that’s when a third option came to him. Maybe it was because he was asleep that night, with a mind at rest, that God’s messenger got the idea through to him. In any case, the angel interrupted Joseph’s plan, righteous though it seemed to be. “Don’t be afraid, Joseph. You and Mary will have this child together. And you will name him Jesus, one who saves.”

A seminary teacher of mine, Paul Sponheim, used to say that we may most often meet God in the interruptions. In one of his books he says that it is in the moments that are not routine and seem to get in the way of what we think we know where God is often most present for transformation. An interruption may encourage you to think differently; it may open up new possibilities.

Here was an interruption like no other, and I don’t mean just getting woken up by an angel. A baby will always interrupt life as you know it, but a baby whose birth is surrounded by controversy and shame will drastically change one’s course of life. Through a dream, Joseph was able to recognize that God was present in the new dilemma which occupied his thoughts, and it changed everything. 

What do you do when meeting God in an interruption? Professor Sponheim has a suggestion:  “consider silence.”  Don’t start trying to make sense of it, in other words. When you’re brought up short by God in an interruption, keep silent. And if not silence, well, then try laughter. That could be an appropriate response, too, because joy can interrupt us as much as awe. The point is there needs to be a change: “silence for the infernally chatty among us. Laughter for the deadly serious,” Sponheim writes. In any case, an interruption has a way of shaking us up and getting us to listen to God in a whole new way. It is a pretty powerful thing when we can be interrupted enough to get us to listen.

I doubt that many of us have been awakened by angels, but could there be a message from God in the midst of other interruptions of life? Maybe God doesn’t cause the interruptions, but could God be present in them to get us thinking beyond our own plans, good and righteous as they might be, into a new way of thinking or living? Perhaps God is present in the interruptions most of all to help us imagine new possibilities.

On this last week before Christmas we are reminded that Jesus was born into the real world with all of its complexity. He lived his whole life with people in impossible situations who faced difficult decisions. He sought out people who knew shame and what it’s like to be ostracized from their communities. This is who Jesus was, and it was true from the beginning.

The pageants and artwork and carols of Christmas are all an important part of the season, but we can’t let them sentimentalize the story of Christ’s birth. Christmas is not just about God’s feelings toward humanity. It is, as John Nunes has put it, “a story of restorative love investing itself at the level of flesh.” This is a love that meets you where you are and jumps down into the pit with you when you’re there. This is the kind of love that is so powerful it can transform you and disrupt your life. It’s the kind of love that is real and tangible and now. God is truly with us now and always.

A Blue Advent. Jay’s sermon for the first Sunday of the season of Advent.

Advent is the four-week season of preparation for Christmas. On the first Sunday of Advent (November 27 this year), we change the colors that adorn the sanctuary to blue. We also light the first candle on the Advent wreath. Each year, the blue hangs in our worship until they are changed to white for the celebration of Christmas.

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only God alone. 37For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

Advent has a way of sneaking up on us. At this time of year we know that Christmas isn’t too far away, even in an unusually warm November, but the countdown of remaining shopping days does not get us ready in the same way for this first Sunday of Advent. Tucked away in what’s better known as Thanksgiving weekend, the beginning of Advent can easily get overlooked, and we may find ourselves unprepared for this season of preparation. I can say that there have been many years when already just a few days into Advent I’ve felt the need to play catch-up. Unpack the Advent calendar and wreath at home, read the few daily devotions I’ve already missed, and so on.

But I’ve never been too concerned about getting ready for Advent because in a sense it’s the season of the year that I’m always most prepared for. I like what Pastor Heidi Neumark says about this. She writes, “Advent is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent I am always in sync. Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality…my longing.”

While Advent may surprise us, it doesn’t take any of us much time or effort, I suspect, to get in touch with our own sense of longing. Our desire for healing, for peace, for wholeness, for what’s known in Hebrew as shalom, this longing is something we carry we us, though it takes different forms for each one and it varies from year to year.

Christian writer Diana Butler Bass shared in the Washington Post last week about her own preparations for Advent. As she was selecting candles for her Advent wreath at home, she briefly considered the once traditional penitential purple and joyful pink ones, but then she quickly settled on blue, just as we have used in worship for the past many years. “Blue candles,” she thought. “That’s what I feel like this year. Not penitent. Not joyful. Just blue.”

She believes she is not alone in feeling blue this year, and I’m sure that’s true. At this particular moment in our country, at least, many feel a unique kind of sadness or longing. Butler Bass says, “No matter how one voted in the recent election, it is obvious that happiness was a big loser in recent months — with therapists, psychologists and clergy reporting high levels of ‘Trump-related stress,’ especially among women and minorities.” This year you may have had more worries than usual about what would be said at your Thanksgiving tables. You may be distressed after hearing stories about others getting yelled at or even more serious hate crimes since the election. You may have experienced some of those things yourself. These realities can leave one feeling afraid or angry, but they also cause one to feel sad, really blue. “A blue Advent,” Butler Bass says. “That sounds about right.”

And so our blue candles and paraments in worship today seem especially appropriate. They may reflect our general mood. But they—and the season they mark—not only embrace how we feel but are also intended to help transform us. Blue may be the color of sadness, but it is also the color of hope. The blue in our worship is the color of the sky right before dawn. It’s a blue of promise that no matter how dark or cold things may be right now, we will see the arrival of a new day. There may be ample evidence to the contrary, but still we light candles not only in the darkness but as protest against the darkness. And as the light grows over these four weeks, we pray that so will our trust in God’s promise of shalom.

So on this first step into a season of longing and hope, we read a passage from the prophet Isaiah which itself serves as a kind light against the darkness. The prophet, after calling attention to the violence, corruption, unfaithfulness, and trampling on the poor within their own city of Jerusalem, offers a picture of what that city can yet become. Nations will stream to it, he says, even those who had been fierce enemies. They will come to learn to walk in the light of God. They will dismantle instruments of violence and transform them into tools for production. They will study war no more but will instead study the things of peace and will go out into all of the world to bring healing and establish justice. It’s an image that sounded as absurd then as it does today. But for centuries it has pointed people of faith to God’s dream for a transformed earth. It has been a source of faith-nurturing hope.

I don’t know how people first responded to Isaiah’s message, but despite everything else going on, the prophet persistently kept watch for God’s shalom in his own life experience. He waited for it.

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote an Advent reflection in which he said, “Not everyone can wait: neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”

There’s a big difference, it seems to me, between passive waiting and carrying restlessness around with you. We are called to an active kind of waiting, a waiting that is confident that the world as it is is not how it should be or will be, a waiting that can only come from faith in the One who promises healing in the midst of brokenness.

We are called to restlessness, which leads us to participate in God’s healing work even as we watch for its fulfillment. Restlessness is my prayer for all of us this Advent.

That’s why today is a great day to celebrate the gift of baptism. Like nothing else, this sacrament points us forward with restless anticipation of what’s to come, both in the lives of the children baptized and in God’s unfolding mission in the world. We could not participate in this sacrament—none of us—if we did not carry with us the restless hope—even joy—in what God is doing. And in telling and hearing God’s promise around this font, we provide a shining light against the darkness. Thanks be to God!

 

 

God is our hope in difficult times. Jay’s sermon for Confirmation Sunday, November 13.

Luke 21:5-19

5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” 8 And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!’ and, “The time is near!’ Do not go after them. 9 “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” 10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. 12 “But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.

Last week, some families got together here at church to listen to a recording of a speech by Glennon Doyle Melton. Some of you may know her; she writes the popular blog called Momastery, and she has shared through her writing her personal struggles with addiction, bulimia, anxiety, depression, relationship issues, and parenting. She describes life as “brutifual.” She made up the word to describe how the brutal and beautiful aspects of life are intricately and always woven together tightly. Denying one is to deny the other.

I recommend the speech that she gave at the Westminster Town Hall forum downtown. You can find it on the Minnesota Public Radio website. One thing she talked about that I found especially helpful was a mistaken assumption that many of us have about parenting. As parents or grandparents or other adults in the lives of young people, we might assume that our primary job is to protect our children from pain. Keep them from suffering. But that’s not only not possible but also often unhelpful. She said it was never our job as adults—or even our right—to protect our children from pain but instead to point them to it, to help them face it, to help them work through it, to let them know that they can do it and they’re not alone. Life is often difficult; if we ignore that fact then we can never learn or grow or heal.

The truth is, it’s not just in dealing with children that we’re often tempted to avoid facing the pain in our lives. Glennon Doyle Melton said that that’s because as soon as we start to feel difficult emotions like sadness or loneliness or fear, then the world starts showing us easy buttons. Do you remember that commercial from years ago with the easy button? The idea was that as soon as things get stressful you could hit the big red button and everything was all better. Well, we might be sold easy buttons in various forms. They take the form of food, booze, shopping, unkindness, sex, or scrolling through a Facebook feed—anything to numb or avoid the feeling. But those easy buttons prevent us from learning from the feelings or the realities of the present moment.

The same is often true when it comes to our friends. When someone we care about is hurting, it’s so tempting to offer some meaningless platitude or try to fix the problem for them. That’s really about making ourselves feel better, though, to disconnect ourselves from what they’re going through. It does nothing for them. Instead, what we’re called to do is to sit with each other’s pain, to “weep with those who weep” as the Apostle Paul said. Not fix it. Just sit with it, bravely and lovingly. Glennon Doyle Melton offered a great definition of friendship: “it’s just two people sitting and not being God together.” That’s something we can do, right?

Still, this is something that I, for one, am still learning to do. Now, there are always plenty of opportunities to sit with others in difficult times, when people grieve the death of loved ones or struggle with relationships or worry about work. And now this week, I have heard from several people that they feel afraid following Tuesday’s election. It’s not just because of the results, but the incidents and comments made both before and after the election have revealed in a new way—at least to some of us—the misogyny, racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia that do exist in our country. When it comes to these things, there can be a temptation to explain, defend, fix, or assure. I believe what we’re called to do above all is to sit with one another and listen. We provide space that is safe and compassionate. Then we can see what there is to learn. But the healing and new life don’t come until we have acknowledged the pain.

When the disciples traveled with Jesus to Jerusalem, as we heard today, they were understandably amazed by it. “Look at the huge stones,” they said. Jesus, though, seemed unimpressed and tended to point out other things at the temple—a vulnerable widow making her offering, for example, or the moneychangers taking advantage of pilgrims. But when it came to the temple building itself, he said, “don’t get too attached. It won’t last.” Now some scholars believe the Gospel of Luke was written after the destruction of the temple by the Romans, and that may be true. But I also think that Jesus knew where things were headed with the temple. He knew it couldn’t stand for too long. And he certainly did not identify the basis of his faith with that structure.

For the disciples, though, it was unimaginable that they could lose the center of their religious and civil life. “When will all this be?” they asked Jesus. And when Jesus answered them, he didn’t say, “I’ll protect you from it all,” or “Here’s how it will be and here’s how you can prepare in order to avoid the worst of it.” As much as we might want it from Jesus, he did not give them an easy button. He was honest with them and said there are difficult things ahead. Your life of faith will bring you into hard situations and conflict with others. There will be suffering. He didn’t minimize the challenges at all. Like a parent, he pointed them to the pain. But he also assured them that they would not be alone. Suffering is not a sign that God has abandoned you. Don’t listen to any false prophet who tells you otherwise. No, even when it feels like things are falling apart all around you, God will remain with you. God is present in this and every moment. In God you will find strength and help for the life to which you are called. And God will do new and marvelous works for you and through you that you would have thought unimaginable.

In their Jerusalem walk through the temple, Jesus helped the disciples wrestle with a question that we might ask today as well: how are we to live in a world that is both beautiful and brutal? It’s an important question. And I think the students getting confirmed this morning can help us to answer it. Today, with watery crosses on their foreheads, they affirm God’s promises made for them in baptism and recommit to living their baptismal covenant. Specifically, there are five commitments they make today.

First, they promise to live among God’s faithful people. They say they’ll stay in relationship with other people who also travel this journey of faith. They’ll sit and listen to others tell of their joys and their pain. They’ll share their own. They’ll participate in community where all are welcome, without exception.

Second, they will hear the word of God and share in the Eucharist. They will come to worship to be reminded that God’s love is unconditional and to be set free from guilt and fear and anything that would hold them back from really living.

Third, they will proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed. They’ll help others to know that they are valued, that they matter, and that God’s love is always more inclusive than we imagine. They’ll do their best to show this with what they say and what they do and by speaking up when others are mistreated, bullied, and abused.

Fourth, they will serve all people, following the example of Jesus. Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve. In faith, we bear one another’s burdens.

Finally, they will strive for justice and peace in all the earth. As I said to the students at dinner last night, I doubt there was ever a time in history when this commitment was more needed. Our Lutheran theology reminds us that God desires our involvement in government and civil societies as much as in the church. God cares about the physical needs of all people and all creation and invites us into liberating, life-giving work.

These are some big commitments that the confirmands are making today, and I know that they are ready to make them. I also think we should let them lead us all into doing the same because this is what a life of faith looks like in our brutiful world, God’s good and broken creation. We do our best to follow through on these commitments. And when we fail, we trust in God’s grace and start again. God’s call comes to us new every day. It comes to us in this very moment.

The Resurrection of Gerry Werth (1952-2016)

The gospel according to Matthew the sixth chapter:

25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink,* or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?* 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God* and his* righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

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


Welcome in the name of Christ, who knows us and loves us. Amen.

Every morning for the past several years, Gerry sent son Anton a text message. These messages offered Anton encouraging words as the day began. In each, Gerry identified one “part” of Anton that makes him who he is. Gerry reminded Anton of his merit-worthy parts, his awesome parts, and his “you can do it” parts. All of these disparate parts, Gerry said, help to make Anton, Anton.

Today, we gather as a community united by shock, sorrow, and God’s promises, and we remember the parts that helped to make Gerry, Gerry.

Gerry loved his family. On one of Gerry and Karen’s first dates, Gerry handed Karen his professional business card. [When I heard this fact, I said I was surprised that she said “yes” to a second date.] Looking at his card, she asked him what all of the letters behind his name represented. He responded saying that he didn’t want her to know him by his degrees, he wanted her to know who he was. That exchange began a twenty-year relationship marked by mutuality, wonderful trips, shared meals, and deep love.

Son Danya says the whole family liked Gerry’s shoulder rubs. As the family settled on the couch after dinner, Danya would send his dad a text message in the next room saying that he’d like a massage. Gerry would respond saying that he would finish the project that he was currently working on and be there in a few minutes. Seconds later, Karen would send a message to Gerry requesting a back rub. Danya says that as soon as the text message was received they’d hear Gerry’s footsteps coming down the hallway. Gerry adored Karen.

Shoulder rub preferences aside, we all know that Gerry adored Danya and Anton, too. None of us got through a conversation with Gerry without him mentioned his sons. They were a significant part of who he was, and he worked hard to honor the gift that he had been given when they came into his life. He told them he loved them, often saying it in Russian to celebrate their heritage. He rarely missed an opportunity to give them morning hugs—he and Dayna held each other a long time the morning of the day Gerry died. Even in the tough times, when one or both of the boys were upset and would leave the house to walk off some steam, Gerry would say, “When you are ready to come home, I will come for you. Wherever you are, I will pick you up.”

Danya says that when he was younger he wondered why his dad didn’t throw the football with him like other parents he knew. But, as he grew older, wise Danya said that as he learned more about Gerry’s parts, he learned to accept his dad for who he was.

Gerry was intelligent and observant. Karen says he was off the charts introverted, which didn’t bode well for him when she took Gerry, an only child, home to meet her parents and her six siblings. When the family overwhelmed Gerry (which was often), he would simply close his eyes and sit quietly. I’m sure many of you saw him take this posture. Karen’s sisters say they learned, over time, that Gerry hadn’t simply checked out; he was, in fact, listening carefully to the conversation buzzing around him.

Gerry was careful and prepared. He was never a serious Boy Scout, but he did carry many thing on his belt, just in case he needed them. If they weren’t on his hip, they were in his bag. Hand sanitizer, pens, Kleenex, Band-Aids, you name it—if you needed something, chances are Gerry had it. Sometimes his preparedness slowed him down; he wanted to think about a project from all angles before he did anything. He once needed to move a decorative, backyard wishing well, and Karen saw Gerry and a friend stare at the wishing well and discuss it for an hour before they did anything. Danya smiled and added, “It was only about three feet tall.”

Joking aside, that wishing well and many other projects prepared Gerry to help Danya to build an outdoor pizza oven in the church’s rain garden, a project that will inspire community in this neighborhood for years to come. The oven, built over many months and completed just this past week, is Danya’s Eagle Scout project. Last Sunday after worship, church members reported to me that Gerry stood next to Danya’s beautiful project and told all the passersby who would listen how proud he was of his son.

Gerry was deeply spiritual. He was a consistent worshiper in this community. He sat back in that corner, eyes closed during the sermons. Pastor Jay and I, like Karen’s sisters, like to think he was listening intently. About a year ago, Gerry led a memorable devotion at one of our church council meetings. Citing one of the most well-known scenes from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Gerry said that there are times in our lives when we welcome God’s presence. And there are times in our life when we would prefer to keep God at arm’s length. Most of us, he said, see these as irreconcilable opposites, as two parts that could not be brought together. But Gerry said that growth in his spiritual life had come as he learned to hold together the contrasts.

This understanding of theology—that two things can be true at the same time—shaped the way he interacted with the world. Perhaps this was seen most clearly in his work as a family physician who specialized in addiction medicine. In a world that wrongly demonizes addicts, Gerry could see the patient’s addiction and the beloved child of God living with it. He could hold them both at the same time. And he could help others to hold both of them at the same time, too. In one of my last extended conversations with Gerry, he told me that he believed addiction was the “new leprosy” and that the church and God’s people had a role to play in reaching out the touch those the world had deemed untouchable. Nothing was beyond repair and no one was beyond redemption, in Gerry’s mind.

In this way, Gerry pointed us to a truth about the God in whom he placed his trust. Gerry’s life pointed to a God who can hold all of our parts together—those parts we proudly display and those we’d rather no one see; those parts over which we have control and those that always seem to have control over us; those parts that the world praises and those the world considers untouchable. God holds all of them in love, even with others say it cannot be done.

The passage from Ecclesiastes is full of contrasts. A time to be born and a time to die, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to seek and a time to lose, a time to keep silence and a time to speak.

Thinking about Gerry’s theology, it occurs to me that he’d say that there are times when we need not choose one of these contrasts or the other, but instead when we need to learn to hold them at the same time. Today is one of those times. Today is a time when we weep and laugh. Today is a time when we seek and lose. Today is a time when we keep silent and speak. Today is a time when we mourn Gerry’s death and dance because of the beautiful life he lived.

Today we carry Gerry on the final leg of his baptismal journey. Even in death, “we acknowledge that this is not the end of the journey nor the final word but that God is already speaking a new word, already performing beyond our sight and our full knowing another mighty work of hope.” Today is a day when we give all of Gerry’s parts back to the God who so lovingly created him 64 years ago, knowing that grace, light perpetual, and unconditional love have already found him.

AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

Lift up Your Hearts. Jay’s sermon about the righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector

Luke 18:9-14

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector.”  For most of us, that opening line to today’s parable holds little meaning, and certainly not its intended meaning. If we’ve read much of the Gospels, we can probably see where this story is going. We have been taught to be suspicious of Pharisees. We think of them as hypocrites, not the good and righteous religious people that they really were. But in fact, Pharisees generally were well regarded, as they did their best to preserve and live God’s commandments. More than that, they functioned as a kind of political party in their society, and chances are it was the party most of the people Jesus was speaking to would have supported.

Then there was the tax collector, a common guy in need of help, right? Well, in fact he was a political player of a different kind. Not to be confused with a modern-day IRS agent, this tax collector was not facilitating a useful economic system for the sake of the common good. He was an instrument of an oppressive Roman Empire, helping to take money out of the community to pave the streets in far-away Rome. And though Jesus doesn’t say it specifically, this tax collector probably took an unfair amount for himself, too. For his economic exploitation he was hated, and for his entanglement in Roman government he was religiously unclean. As one scholar puts it, “Tax-collectors are not merely ‘misunderstood’: they are on the wrong side religiously, politically, and economically. This man in Jesus’ story is not the so-called “publican with a heart of gold.”

Sure, what we hear so often about tax collectors in the Bible is that Jesus ate with them, so we might have a sense that they were good, ordinary people. But we’d miss the point of the parable if we don’t recognize that Jesus is talking about someone who lives according to different values than we do, who sees political life differently than we do, who relates to money and economics differently than we do.

So how might we retell the story in contemporary terms?

Two men went to worship at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church one Sunday. One was standing by himself. He might have been an usher out in the narthex handing out bulletins. Or maybe he was up in balcony, or in the choir loft. I don’t know, maybe he was even standing in the pulpit. In any case, he was a good and faithful member of the church who worshipped regularly and gave generously. During worship he had been singing to himself an old children’s song he had learned in Sunday School years ago: “Into my heart, into my heart, into my heart Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus.” And he knew Jesus was with him. Jesus belonged to him. In worship that day, like always, he was perfectly comfortable.

But over all those years of worshipping, he never really paused to listen to Jesus long enough to understand that when you really open your heart to Jesus he tends to bring his friends. And you might be surprised by who he brings. If you had said this to him, he would have pointed out all of the wonderful acts of service he had performed in the church and community, and it was true. He even went on a short-term mission trip to Central America one time. But of course, providing service for people is not the same as opening one’s heart to them. He might have said that he had read books by liberation theologians and black theologians and feminist and womanist theologians. But of course he read them while maintaining those labels, keeping them at arm’s length and not really incorporating their ideas and experiences into his understanding of God and the world. His heart was big but for the most part, closed.

It was certainly closed to that visitor who entered worship that day. No one in the church knew much about that man, other than that he arrived late and didn’t seem to think it was a problem as he walked all the way up the aisle to sit all alone in the front pew. Along the way, people noticed his jacket was covered with surprising political campaign stickers and slogans. You can imagine what they said. The people in the pews were embarrassed by the way the man worshipped, moving his body, bowing his head, barely looking up at the preacher and presider up front. They guessed he had never been in a church before.

And with head bowed down and mind racing, the visitor prayed. That day he felt that his life was a mess, and he didn’t know how to get out of it. He was stuck. His circumstances were not what he had ever imagined for himself. No matter how much he tried, he just couldn’t get things together. In his prayer, he asked for help, for something to change, for mercy.

There was nothing unique or special about the service that day. They sang old hymns. The sermon was an old one from the file. When it was all over, the first man returned to his home while the second sat in his pew weeping. Somehow, he received the message that he was loved and was not alone.

So what’s the point of the parable? Be humble, right? Well, that’s a good lesson and how it all gets wrapped up in Luke’s Gospel, but I’m not convinced that’s the real point. You see, there are two kinds of parables that Jesus tells. Some parables are examples for us, and they show us how we ought to behave. But most parables aren’t quite like that. Most parables aren’t meant to teach us what to do; rather, they teach us something about God. Most parables, like the one Jesus tells us today, offer a picture of who God is.

I used to think that this parable was meant to teach us to try harder at being humble. But a sermon by preacher William Willimon helped me to see that that would be just another attempt at trying to clean ourselves up. We’d be no better than the Pharisee who thinks that getting right with God is all a matter of how we pray, how we behave, how we measure up to others.

Theologian Richard Rohr has said, “It’s not addition that makes one holy but subtraction: stripping the illusions, letting go of pretense, exposing the false self, breaking open the heart and the understanding, not taking one’s private self too seriously.”

Two men went up to the temple to pray, and they were both beloved children of God. But the one who was justified that day, healed by God’s grace, who caught a glimpse of who God really is, was the one who let down his guard and opened his heart. God was present for him because that’s who God is. The tax collector wasn’t trying to be humble; he was humble. He was feeling low down to the ground, and he was just willing to be honest about it. He wasn’t acting like he didn’t know what to pray; he didn’t know how to pray in that moment. He wasn’t pretending that he needed help; he needed help.

This parable doesn’t tell us how to behave as much as it tells us how God behaves. God shows mercy to people in need, not because they deserve it, but because God loves us.

I suspect that all of us—even us regular church-goers—sometimes feel out of place at church, or in day-to-day life, for that matter. We all encounter things from time to time that keep us distant from God. Sometimes it looks like everyone else is so righteous, so put-together, and we just don’t know what we’re doing. In those times, you’re down low. You’re humble. The good news is that it’s in those times that God comes to meet you and to bless you.

Parker Palmer has written that there is no way to be human without having one’s heart broken. Sooner or later, whether because of grief or disappointment or crisis, we all come to know the experience of heartbreak. Religious faith cannot save us completely from those experiences. But spending time in prayer and worship with a faith community can help us in our response to them, our response to heartbreak.

The reason for that, as Palmer says, is that the heart can break in at least two ways. For one, it can break into thousands of sharp pieces—pieces that can be carried along for years to continue to wound a person or to repeatedly wound others in an unsuccessful attempt at resolving it. The broken apart heart tries to deny the severity of the pain, or, on the other side of the spectrum, it refuses to see anything beyond it.

But the other way of heartbreak goes right through the middle of that tension—that tension between denial and despair. The other way, as Palmer puts it, is that “a small, clenched fist of a heart can be broken open into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy.” This heart is honest about the pain, fully aware of it, but it also allows itself to be more present to others and compassionate, precisely because of that experience of pain. Rather than being broken apart, it is broken open.

As we worship this morning, we might be feeling on top of the world or low to the ground. But at some point each of us knows heartbreak. A disappointment at work or school, the death of a loved one, the injustices of our day. The question is will our hearts be more open? Will they be open to the justifying and transforming grace of God? Will they be open to our neighbors, even those who stand on the other side of the lines we draw?

In our communion liturgy today, we’ll hear Pastor Ingrid say the familiar words, “Lift up your hearts.” This is not a simple command; it’s an invitation to a way of life. With hearts broken open, we can boldly receive the grace and mercy of God, and we can receive the gifts of communion with one another. It’s the invitation that wherever you find yourself in your journey of faith today, lift up your heads and lift up your hearts. God’s grace is for you.

Swinging Widows and Swinging Doors – Pastor Ingrid’s Sermon from 10.16.16

The gospel according to Luke, the eighteenth chapter:

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

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

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? We find a woman who had lost everything. We don’t know all of the details, but we can surmise that this woman had been left man-less: her husband, her sons, her brothers—all of them were either dead or gone. And in a first century patrilineal system, in which men were the keepers of all of the keys, this woman had lost her financial stability, her standing in the community, her rights to inheritance. In short: she had lost any hope of a future.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? Society’s future-less woman, who, against all odds, hasn’t lost heart. And here she is, demanding justice from a judge tasked with upholding laws constructed for the benefit of someone—someone that didn’t look like her. She keeps coming again and again, we’re told. Bishop Ann Svennungsen reminded me last weekend that the judge’s remark about the woman bothering him and wearing him out is better translated “this widow keeps giving me a shiner.” In the original Greek, this isn’t mere annoyance; this is a boxing image. This is widow woman who is swinging and hitting. And this is a judge—with no fear of God and no respect for people—with a black eye.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? A widow with sore knuckles and a judge who turns to justice—not for particularly admirable reasons—but for fear that the persistent lady, with a stunningly-good left hook, won’t ever give up.

We open the door to Luke’s gospel and what do we find? A justice that Jesus says comes quickly. Here, again, our synod bishop says that an alternate translation might be helpful. Rather than justice that comes quickly, God’s justice often comes suddenly. Suddenly, like one minute the unjust judge cares for nothing apart from his own professional ladder-climbing, and the next minute he renders a decision that will, no doubt, upset his colleagues and the whole unjust applecart. Suddenly, like one minute the widow has nothing and the next minute she’s given what she needs to live. We know enough about justice to acknowledge it does not often happen quickly, but we have seen it appear suddenly.

Here at Holy Trinity, we had our own experience of “God’s sudden justice” this week, when the accessible door button was installed outside the new east entrance. It’s only taken us 112 years to have doors that didn’t require regular workouts to enter—no one would accuse us of moving toward justice too quickly. But then “suddenly” the button is here, installed, and for the first time in our congregation’s history all bodies can enter this building.

Pastor Jay was out eagerly snapping pictures of the new button after its installation—you know, getting the perfect shot for Facebook—when our project electrician said to him, “All this work that we’ve done, pointing around to the whole of the project, and that little button is what you care most about?” [Well, yes, I guess it is.]

We care about the little button because it allows us to open the doors to this community. We open the doors to this community and what do we find? We find a community that for over a century has been learning to get real with each other—learning to share our joys and sorrows and the bulk of our lives that exists somewhere in between.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to confess and to forgive. We’re learning to confess our interpersonal failings—you know, the ways we have hurt one another. We’re also learning to confess the unjust systems, particularly as they relate to matters of race, that some of our sinner-saint ancestors created or sustained. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes that “the power of structural sin is so fierce, so mesmerizing, so seemingly impenetrable precisely because—failing to recognize it—we fail to confess it and to repent of it.” Together, we’re learning to recognize, confess, and repent. And God’s sure and certain forgiveness—that absolves us of everything other than responsibility— is allowing us to imagine another way.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to let the children come. What’s that you say? They don’t know our unspoken rules about silence? They don’t know that everyone is supposed to be completely stationary during worship? Kids. We’re learning to love you. And we’re learning to give up just enough control to allow you to lead us into a gospel freedom that, somewhere along the way, we’ve forgotten.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? We find a community learning to honor women. We stand firm when we say that there will be no denigration, no body-shaming, no sexism here. And we await the day when our stances against such things will be true in practice. We say there will be no “locker room” talk within these walls—unless it consists of tennis shoes and yoga schedules. We know that language matters, and thus we choose to use it wisely in our daily interactions and in our worship. Together, we are slowly learning to imagine a God who looks more like the widow than the judge. It’s a stretch for about 99 percent of us, but we won’t be deterred from living into new images of who God is for all people.

We open the doors to this community and what do we find? A community learning to agitate for the sake of the poor and marginalized. A community learning to agitate for the sake of the Earth and all its creatures. Don’t misunderstand me, here we’re not inciting violence, we’re inciting justice. The biblical understanding of shalom does not presume an absence of conflict. Shalom is more like Jacob’s wrestling match we heard about in the first reading. Together, we’re learning evangelical defiance for the sake of God’s visions for the whole world. Together, we’re learning to live faithfully with sore knuckles.

Our opening doors celebration could be all about what happens here, in these four walls. But, today, we open the doors, we welcome the freshness that fills this space, and we find the real gift exists beyond them. In the neighborhood that has been cultivating shalom for far longer than Holy Trinity’s been around. Up and down Lake Street, throughout the streets of Longfellow, all the way over to Corcoran, and up into Seward, there are people, organizations, and companies serving up love, mercy, and grace. We’re learning to follow the lead of our neighbors.

Today, we open the doors and find the real gift exists beyond them. In the beauty of the Mississippi, the rustle of Howe’s big old oaks, the wonder of Minnehaha Falls, the beauty of Brackett. The Irish Catholic poet John O’Donohue, writes that beauty that “is about an emerging fullness, a greater sense of grace and elegance, a deeper sense of depth [for our] unfolding life.” As a community, we’re learning to love a beauty that we didn’t create.

Today, we open the doors and find the real gift exists beyond them. In the witnesses, who, like the persistent widow, show us what love looks like in public. Oftentimes, their stories get drowned out in the public square by the dominant voices, but they keep demanding justice: The Lakota and Dakota tribes united at Standing Rock to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline. The Target, Macy’s, and Best Buy janitors united in a 44-month organizing campaign under the leadership of CTUL. Refugees creating new homes out of nothing but tenacity and hope. All of these are people who have every reason to lose heart, showing us what it’s like to not give up in the face of great adversity. With open doors, we can learn from them what it really looks like to call the powerful to account. With open doors, we can hear when we are, in fact, the powerful being called to account.

After almost two years of daily work on the Opening Doors Campaign and a few grey hairs on my head that weren’t there when we started this project, I can attest—justice rarely feels like it comes quickly. But it does come. It comes because God’s vision is a powerful current that keeps moving us toward a new day for all people, for all of creation. God’s vision keeps moving us—bruised knuckles and all—toward vulnerability and community, confession and forgiveness, children and women, justice and beauty. God’s vision keeps moving us out toward our neighbors. Even after 112 years, God’s vision keeps moving us.

So open wide the doors, Holy Trinity. And let God’s commonwealth come.

AMEN.

In the Region Between. Jay’s sermon on a grateful former leper and dying to whiteness.

Luke 17:11-19

11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13 they called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” 14 When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. 15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16 He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17 Then Jesus asked, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 19 Then he said to him, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

It’s probably because I just did went on a trip of my own that I have found myself drawn to the traveling that Jesus does in this passage today. We’re told that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and he passed through the region between Galilee and Samaria. I’m not sure exactly what that means: “the region between.” I’ve looked at a map of first century Israel, and the two regions butt up against each other with nothing but a thin black line between them. Are we to suppose that there was a kind of no-man’s land between the two territories that was neither Galilee nor Samaria but something different? What is the “region between?” Was it a place only for lepers and others cast out of their own communities, a place without national identity for people without national citizenship? What was that place like? How big was it, exactly?

On my vacation to Norway last week, I visited the Russian border where there stood two posts, one with the Russian flag’s colors painted on it and one with the Norwegian colors. There was less than 12 inches separating them, so there was not much of a “region between” the two nations. One nation was divided from the other very clearly with a distinct foot-wide border line. It was set up intentionally like that—you could be in one country or another; there’s no in-between. That’s usually how we divide people from one another, isn’t it? There are clear lines of separation.

Then again, I got to thinking that when we first boarded our ferry boat on this particular journey, we quickly noticed how many countries were represented there. Each announcement over the loudspeaker was given in three or four languages. When we sat down for meals we were likely to be joined by someone whose first language was Norwegian or German or French or Japanese. That could make conversation awkward. There was a moment when I was trying to converse in German that I thought my table mates were talking about their doctor when they were really talking about their daughter. Then there was the time my friend used his very best Norwegian to order his meal and the waiter responded in perfect English, “I’m sorry. I’m from Spain, and I don’t speak Norwegian.” It was a little awkward at times, but it was also a wonderful opportunity. Though we were traveling through Norway, there was a sense of being “in-between” nations.

So maybe it’s with this kind of metaphorical understanding that we should understand where Jesus was when he encountered the ten lepers. They were in-between. While Galileans and Samaritans generally would have had nothing to with one another, in a time when old differences and animosities had been cemented into enmity, this was a unique circumstance to find some of them together. They were Galileans and Samaritans officially, but those labels no longer meant what they once did not that they found themselves in a leper’s colony. These individuals were ostracized from their communities because with oozing sores, their skin no longer functioned as the distinct boundary that was expected of it, keeping the outside out and the inside in. They were therefore people to be feared and cast out. Regardless of the physical space in which they stood, they were people without a clear identity, living permanently in an in-between space.

A place like that might be a place that many of us would tend to avoid. It lacks clarity and familiar categories. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, I’d even say that the whole reason we typically construct such distinct boundaries in our world is because we have this assumption that in-between places are not only awkward but dangerous.

It sure can be true. There’s another place in Norway we visited last week called Salstraumen that has one of the strongest tidal currents in the world with water speeds reaching 25 miles per hour. It’s the boundary area in between the North Sea and small fjord, and when the tide changes every six hours, it causes powerful whirlpools, or maelstroms, as they’re called. The turbulent water of that in-between place presents a serious danger to sailors who would try to cross it. Turbulence happens at such boundaries.

The Gospels tell us that Jesus regularly chose to walk directly into turbulent, dangerous in-between places. In today’s reading it was not only the possibility of contracting chronic and painful illness but also the lack of clear national identity in that place that could be perceived as a threat. What would people say when they found out that he treated Samaritans just like Galileans? Luke tips us off to the danger by saying that he’s on his way to Jerusalem, and any of us who have heard about Jesus knows what awaits him there. But those of us who know the Christian story also know that the reign of God is revealed especially in the in-between places of change and danger and uncertainty. Sharing a table with unlikely guests, giving up one’s wealth for the sake of the poor, forgiving debts and asking for forgiveness, taking time to understand the experience of an outcast leper—these are the places where God is present with healing and new life.

This weekend Holy Trinity hosted a powerful conference on privilege and race in the church, with representatives of dozens of churches attending. Many of you volunteered a great deal of time to make it happen, and you did such an incredible job. Thank you. The work was well worth it because it is such a crucial conversation to be having. There were many important learnings for me, but among the most important was the reminder that the journey toward racial justice requires that we embrace such things as vulnerability, awkwardness, tension, and discomfort. This is a difficult thing for a lot of us. Who wants to be uncomfortable? None of us does. But that’s especially true if we have benefited from systems of privilege our whole lives and have become accustomed to being comfortable. We’ve grown to expect it. That’s really a big part of what whiteness is all about. Whiteness is a social construct that defines everything within the boundaries of what’s thought of as “normal” in our society. It’s the people in mind when systems of law, politics, education, and economics were established. It’s the reality of who we can expect to see in the movies or TV shows we watch, in the books we read, or even when we come to church. It’s about the language we expect others will understand. It’s the assumption, with a long and complex history in our country, that so-called white people should enjoy benefits and privileges that people with brown and black skin do not. It’s often unconscious and insidious. As our keynote speakers said this weekend, it’s in the air we breathe. Many of us who think of ourselves as white have become very comfortable with whiteness and the privileges we receive.

But justice requires stepping into tension and even dying to whiteness, that is, putting to death the expectation of comfort and that the world will be set up for our benefit and not for others. It’s not comfortable. But it is the place where healing and new life are found. White privilege and racism affect all of us of every race, keeping us from God and God’s intentions for the world. We all therefore stand in need of healing.

Again, I take it that it’s not just about geography when Luke tells us that Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, walked through a region between Galilee and Samaria. He was challenging the assumptions of who deserved certain benefits and privileges as full members of a society. Through his bold journeying, Jesus encountered the individuals living with leprosy, and he healed them. And then he asked them to go show themselves to the priests because he knew there was another kind of healing needed. They would need official reentry into the community, the authorization to be treated as full members and human beings once again, not people to be feared or avoided. It reminds me of the Ebola virus outbreak a couple of years ago, and how doctors, nurses, community leaders—including President Obama—were seen publically embracing people who had been healed of the virus. Their hugs were a way of healing the stigma that so often accompanies having had such a disease. Likewise, Jesus was not only interested in healing the physical ailment but the social disease as well. He freed them to really live again, to embrace and to be embraced, to worship in community, to be at home without fear.

So off they went, reuniting with family and friends, celebrating with their community a new life, doing exactly what Jesus had set them free for. And this could be the end of the story. But then there was one who turned back. Why, exactly, we don’t know. Is it that as a Samaritan, doubly ostracized, he didn’t have a way of returning to his community? Was it that he had more to be thankful for or just no place to go? It doesn’t matter, really; the point is that showing gratitude was another opportunity for healing and new life. For whatever the reason, he understood that his healing, his life, his identity was all connected to the power of God revealed in Jesus. Whether he was a Samaritan, leper, former leper, former Samaritan, or anything else, all of who he was was embraced by God.

This is where I find inspiration to continue on the journey of dying to whiteness and working for racial justice. It’s because I have a deeper identity in God that I can rethink all other identities. Oh, it’s a journey, to be sure, one bound to be filled with failures and awkward messiness. But Jesus invites us all to turn back again and again along this journey to give thanks, to praise, and to remember who we are in God. This is what we need most of all. This is our inspiration for the journey.

It’s a paradox, really. The more we recognize our need for change in this world and repentance in ourselves, the more we need to praise and give thanks. Well, today is certainly a day for gratitude. I am grateful for a community of faith that takes seriously a call to live with justice and peace. I am grateful for the 450 people who made commitments here yesterday to work with their congregations in examining their privilege and seeking racial justice. Above all, I am grateful for the God who promises to meet us here today, and in any in-between place of danger or fear, to embrace us and welcome us home.

Get Real

Pastor Ingrid’s sermon from Sunday, September 25, 2016. Listen along here. Listen to Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr.’s Westminster Town Hall Forum lecture here.

The gospel according to Luke, the sixteenth chapter:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

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

I was seated at table number eighteen at a clergy organizing event this week. To my left was Bishop Richard Howell, Jr., the leader of Shiloh Temple on Broadway in North Minneapolis and overseer of forty other Pentecostal congregations scattered around the metro area. To my right was Pastor Billy Russell, the preaching minister at Greater Friendship Missionary Baptist Church—a predominantly African-American congregation not far from here on 38th Street. The conversation centered around poverty profiteering, race, and equity.

About ten minutes into our table conversation, Pastor Russell made his frustration known from my right, saying, “I’ve been attending conversations like these for 35 years; when are we going to get real?” Like surround sound, Bishop Howell echoed him from my left saying, “Mmm, mmm, get real. That’s good.”

Luke’s gospel story is so very real, isn’t it?

Here I’m not talking about the latter half of the parable which centers on eternal punishment and eternal reward. Someday I’ll spend more time on why I actually don’t believe in God’s eternal punishment, why I actually don’t believe in anything other than God’s eternal embrace, but today is not that day. No, today, I’d like to focus in on the reality of Luke’s story that is also our reality—that is, there is one guy living with too much and there is one guy living with far too little. One is covered with purple arrogance, the other with sores. The two men are separated by mere yards. The truth of the matter is that while they breezed by each other at the gate almost every day, the chasm that existed between them was considered impassible.

We know a lot about chasms. By chasm I mean the profound differences between people, viewpoints, feelings. [11:00 only – I’m going to take a risk here and ask y’all to name a few chasms aloud… I’ll start: Democrat and Republican…] I get the sense that we’re constantly encountering chasms right now, in our homes, our communities, and our world. And we, like the gospel writer, tend to believe that many of them are fixed. Democrat and Republican. Black and white. Citizens and police. Water and oil. Rich and poor. Men and women. Young and old. Lutheran and Pentecostal. The chasms seem so great—so impassable—so fixed—that we give up dreams of ever crossing them.

And when we give up dreams of crossing the chasms that, in fact, we have made, we end up living in a world like the one that Luke portrays. A world where the rich feast unaware and the poor are blamed for their own hunger. A world where the last never actually becomes the first. A world where love takes a backseat to both the well-founded and unfounded fear that dominates the public square. [Pastor Russell said it was time to get real. This is me “getting real.”] The temptation to give up on dreams of a new creation is so great. Lest we think it’s a temptation unique to this time and this place, Luke reminds us that the temptation to stop dreaming has always been the Achilles heel of God’s people.

But we are created to be a dreamer people. That’s the good news in Jesus’ parable. “Remember Moses?” he asks his listeners. Remember that guy that had the audacity to lead a people from slavery in Egypt into freedom in a new land? Remember Miriam’s song that imagined a new way forward? Remember how the Israelites crossed the chasm of the Red Sea? The Israelites weren’t our only ancestors with big dreams, of course. Jesus simply uses the story of the Exodus to call to mind all of the prophets and all of the people who have dared to make risky crossings, too.

Yes, we are a people with big dreams of a new creation. Our dreams are neither naïve nor are they unfounded; they arise out of the fact that we can look back and see the God in whom we place all of our trust continually transgressing social boundaries, building economic bridges, and closing chasms the world considers fixed. God does this work one meal, one conversation, one miracle at a time. //

If you haven’t heard the latest recording of the Westminster Town Hall Forum that featured Dr. Eddie Glaude, Jr., then I hope you’ll go home and spend 50 minutes of your afternoon listening to his wisdom. Glaude was born in Moss Point, Mississippi and is the chair of the Center for African-American Studies and Professor of Religion and African American Studies at Princeton University. Whether you agree with his politics or not, his prophetic voice is one that absolutely needs to be heard in this time and place. I’ll put the link to the lecture on the Holy Trinity pastors’ blog after worship today.

Glaude began his Town Hall lecture the same way he begins all of his classes at Princeton, by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that “God speaks through our imaginations.” Glaude continued, saying, “We are experiencing a crisis of imagination [in America]. By this I mean something more than a failure to be creative. Rather, I mean something about who we are has gone out of focus…Imagination registers more than creativity. Imagination is something more.”

Quoting an English poet, Glaude said, “A [person] to be greatly good must imagine intensely and comprehensively. He or she must put himself in the place of another and of many others. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination. Here imagination involves the ability to see the not yet, a willingness to look beyond the opacity of now to see what’s possible. Imagination involves a kind of empathetic projection…[We need to feel] our way beyond the narrow consideration of ours alone to take up the concerns and aspirations of others.”

Democrat and Republican. Black and white. Citizens and police. Water and oil. Rich and poor. Men and women. Young and old. Lutheran and Pentecostal. The chasms seem so great—so impassable—so fixed. They require our most faithful imagination.

I like the image on the front of your bulletins because there is something rising, growing in the middle of the two seemingly opposing sides. It’s as if God saw a chasm and declared it a furrow—a perfect place for planting seeds that would prosper. It’s as if God looked beyond the opacity of now and saw a new creation. It’s an image that reminds us that God’s imaginative spirit goes before us, like she did with Moses and the Israelites, to show us a way even where there appears to be no way. We struggle to keep up with her; God’s people always have. But she won’t be deterred; she continues to beckon us, she continues to invite us, she continues to call us forth into life that really is life.

When are we going to get real? The Spirit’s answer to that question is always “now, right now.”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

A Crisis and a New Way. Jay’s sermon on a challenging parable.

Luke 16:1-13

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

I’ve felt this rich man’s manager approaching for some time now. In early summer, Pastor Ingrid and I discussed this and other upcoming passages. Shortly afterward, we met with worship staff, too, and we reflected on what message should be at the center of our service on September 18. I have read many interpretations by gifted scholars about the purpose of today’s parable, most of which I found compelling, inspiring, and also conflicting with one another. There are significant questions any reader must face: is the manager a model for us, or is he commended with a sense of irony? Is the rich landowner a stand-in for God, just because he’s the master, or is he more like the villain of the story? Is this a story of forgiveness and mercy or just about one man’s efforts to save his own hide? I asked those questions, and all the while I felt the manager approaching, knowing his story would be told and we would be left with the main question that we ask each Sunday, “Where is the meaning for us in this biblical text?” What is God’s word for us today?

It took me until Wednesday of this week to give up trying to figure out the absolute correct interpretation of this passage once and for all. So today, even more than usual, I am going to rely on your help and trust you all to do some interpretive work with me. And I will allow for the very real possibility that we will all leave worship today having heard something quite different than the person sitting next to us did.

That’s really not that unusual. I believe that the Holy Spirit is at work whenever we encounter God’s living Word and that our individual needs, experiences, and questions will all shape our hearing of scripture. It is good news that God meets us where we are—sometimes comforting the afflicting, sometimes afflicting the comfortable. And since I believe that—that there can be a diversity of responses to God’s Word—I’ve decided that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect that when Jesus first told his parables, they were heard in differing ways by his original audience, too.

Today’s parable of the manager could be a prime example. The story itself takes 7 ½ verses. To summarize: the manager finds himself in a crisis, accused of squandering his master’s property and about to lose his job. But while still employed, he goes to his master’s debtors and renegotiates the contracts with them, which allows the debts to be paid and, most notably, ingratiates the manager to the townspeople, the neighbors upon whose kindness he will soon be forced to rely. When the master learns of it, he commends him because he acted shrewdly. Whether he still lost his job or not, we don’t know. That’s the end of the story.

But the Gospel writer Luke has more to say. Depending on how you count, there are four to six concluding statements to the parable, which could be taken as interpretations or morals of the story, and I’m not sure they all fit with each other. They probably reflect a community, perhaps a lot like ours, that had different ways of making sense of the parable and putting together things that Jesus said. And any one of the interpretations could be enough to reflect upon in our worship today. “You cannot serve God and wealth” is provocative and true and worthy of our serious consideration. And yet such platitudes are not nearly as interesting as the story we read. So I keep coming back to the question of what could it be that the manager wants to teach us? More accurately, why does it matter to you that Jesus told this story?

I suppose it’s possible that it’s just a story, if there is such a thing, whose purpose was merely to entertain the disciples and pass the time as they traveled one of their long journeys by foot. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if someone overheard one of my impromptu bedtime stories for my daughters and tried to extract a theology from it. I’d be pretty embarrassed. Could that be the issue here?

No, not likely. And given that it was meaningful enough to include in the Gospel, I do think it’s worth our consideration. So let’s think through the story again.

“There was a rich man who had a manager.” Again, I can’t know for sure, but I expect the original audience would begin with a negative feeling toward both characters. It’s not just because they had money but because of the way the economic system worked at the time. The peasants in the crowd would have known what it was like to be in debt and the danger of being forced off of their family land because of it. They would have known that most rich landlords were loan-sharks, taking advantage of the low literacy rate among the public to use exorbitant interest rates and hidden fees in order to amass more wealth and land for themselves. They knew that land owners’ managers, or debt collectors, also found ways of adding extra fees for themselves. The Pharisees in the crowd would have known that such exploitation was in direct conflict with biblical law. And yet, this is how it was done. It was the way of the world.

Well, this isn’t hard for us to understand. We could take a walk around the corner to the nearest payday lender, as some of us have, and find out that the cost of a debt can compound very, very quickly. Would we ever expect such a lender to say, “Take what you owe, and cut it in half?” No, that isn’t the way it’s done. That wouldn’t be in keeping with the rules of their business model.

The same was true for the manager, this collector of debts. So what led him to break the rules of the game? He found himself in a crisis. The bottom fell out. The market crashed. His investments proved to be foolish. Whatever the details, he was about to lose his job. Would the peasants in the crowd listening to the story have felt sorry for him? No, I can’t imagine they did. He was getting what he deserved; let him suffer. That could have been enough of a story to entertain. Jesus could have said, “the positions of those who exploit and oppress are fleeting. The mighty will fall.”

But there’s more to the story. The man acted shrewdly. He knew he needed help, or he would be lost. He knew well enough that the master would not be merciful, so he looked downward on the socio-economic ladder. He saw that his only hope rested with the ones he had previously viewed as powerless, ignorant, and objects of his greedy exploitation. What if it could all change? What if there were some different rules by which we could organize our world? So the manager went to his neighbors and cut what they owed. Maybe it was his own fee that he removed. Maybe he was unveiling the senseless exploitation in the system. Sure, he was still motivated by self-interest, but in any case, through his creative imagination, he operated according to different rules, and he found hope for himself and his community.

Right before the telling of this story in Luke’s Gospel is the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the lost sheep, and the parable of the lost or “prodigal” son. Could it not be a fair interpretation to call this the passage today the parable of the lost manager? One who was believed to be lost to greed—his own and that of the system to which he had committed his whole life—even he could be found.

Or maybe this story is preparing us to hear the story of Zacchaeus, just a few chapters later. You remember that “wee little man,” don’t you? He was the tax collector who was known to have consistently defrauded his neighbors. But when he changed his ways, gave to the poor, and repaid fourfold all whom he had cheated, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because Zacchaeus too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

So back to the manager: What a challenging parable it would have been if it meant that God was interested in finding and loving and saving people like an unjust manager. It’s as uncomfortable as the thought of loving our enemies. I’d understand why it would stick with people.

So now it’s your turn to work out what this parable means to you. You can let me know sometime, if you’d like, or just sit with it throughout this week. Are you like the land owner, knowingly or unknowingly supporting the rules of an unjust system even when they take advantage of others’ misfortune? Are you like the debtors, the unlikely and perhaps reluctant source of hope for someone in a crisis? Or are you like the manager, one who was lost but was found, one who was given the imagination to see his neighbors differently, to understand that their hope was bound up with his hope, and to seek a new way for life together.

However we hear the story, let us be reminded that God will not simply leave us to ourselves but is still working to turn the world upside-down, to challenge the assumed rules by which we live. Each of us, refreshed by God’s grace, has a part to play in this unfolding story.