A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Why Am I Here? Acts 10 April 20th, 2016 April 24, 2016

“Why am I here?” Have you ever asked yourself that question? I know that I have in many different situations. Maybe you’ve asked it at the funeral of a loved one. Or asked yourself that question in meetings where it doesn’t seem to matter what you do or say. I’ve asked myself that question more times than I can count about parenting teenagers. I’ve asked myself that question when following Jesus seems to have put me in tricky or risky situation with people whom I’ve been acculturated to be wary of, or when I’m sleeping on the floor in a run-down apartment with 10 other youth as we serve in Chicago.

This question can also be asked existentially can’t it? What is my purpose? What difference do I make on a planet with 8 billion people? Who will notice if I’m not around? Why am I here? For those of you who are younger and in your teens, you might ask yourself this often. If you think when you graduate from college, or turn 21 or 30 that you will have the answer to this, allow me to burst your bubble. I’m 43 and I still wonder about my purpose, my role, what I bring to others and if I matter. This is the crux of our human experience I think. It’s part of our journey and while it can be painful and hard work, these questions are actually necessary, healthy and what keep us open to growth, learning and transformation. If we quit asking questions and wondering, we stagnate and run the risk of becoming closed to others around us and what God might be up to in our lives and in the lives of other people.

Peter was wrestling with this question of “why am I here” in our Acts 10 story. Previous in his stay in Joppa, he had brought Tabitha back to life and had proclaimed the good news of new life in Jesus to all who had witnessed the event. We read that Peter then stayed with Simon the tanner, in Acts 9: 43. The tanning of hides was not something that orthodox Jews would do, so it’s safe to assume that this Simon was probably a Gentile. For Peter to have even entered the house of a Gentile would have been considered taboo, and Peter, himself, would be considered unclean. Yet, this is where Peter found himself.

Why was Peter in an unclean house? Why was he there? He went to the roof to pray while he awaited his lunch. My guess is that he had some anxiety about what would be served in this unclean house. He might have been plotting how to refuse the unclean food despite his hunger. I can sympathize with this having food allergies. You want to be a gracious guest, yet you know odds are you will have to inspect and ask for a direct accounting of where the food came from. Those kinds of barriers are exhausting. Peter might have also assumed that this was his opportunity to explain to Simon the tanner and his household all of the dietary laws necessary to be a devout Jewish follower of Jesus. Remember, they were not Christians in the way that we consider Christianity. This was a Jewish movement at this point. They were still wrestling with purity laws, food laws, temple laws and the list goes on. Despite Jesus over and over again breaking boundaries and including the ritually unclean, the forgotten and the outcast, the apostles couldn’t quite overcome their Jewish worldview since birth of who’s in and who’s out. The culture and the viewpoints ingrained in us from the moment we draw breath are often difficult to reshape, reform and reimagine.

But here Peter was, on the roof with all of his questions, when God shows up and says the unimaginable to Peter: don’t worry about all of those laws-they aren’t what matter to me. There is no such thing as in or out Peter. All are in. In a very brave, daring and typical Peter response, Peter tells God no! No, I will not cross that boundary. Peter decides that God has gone a little crazy and so refuses to believe what God is saying to him. I mean, we’ve never told God no right? Oh Peter…

Peter has little time to stay in his confusion however, as Cornelius’ men arrive and share with Peter all that Cornelius had experienced. I’m always curious why Peter went so willingly to a Centurions house as it could have easily have been a trap. But something niggled in Peter and even while he asked himself, “Why am I going there?” he put one foot in front of the other in faith-not faith in himself and his own abilities but in what God was doing in an unexpected place, in an unexpected person. God was pulling Peter out of his worldview, his culture and into God’s view of creation and humanity. God was revealing to Peter that human culture is also part of God’s plan and there is not one cultural view point that is right or wrong, in or out. But God works in every culture, just not always in congruence with Peter’s own experiences.

Verses 34-35 are telling. Peter suddenly gets a glimpse of why he might be there in the presence of Gentiles, in the presence of a representative of the Roman Army. Perhaps he’s there because God already was there! God was already present with Cornelius, we read from the beginning of our story that he was a devout believer. God was already at work outside of the Jewish purity laws. God was already transforming hearts and minds in the name of unconditional and unending love and grace. Perhaps Peter was there for his own transformation, his own conversion to what God was doing outside of what Peter knew. Peter suddenly had an inside peek behind the curtain at God’s expansive vision for all of creation-every nation, every person, every time and every place. God was tearing down barriers and crossing boundaries.

Why am I here? Or why are we here? Are we here to show others the error of their ways and teach them the proper way to follow Christ? Are we here to lead others to Jesus in such a way that we understand and make sense to us? Can we see God already at work in places that make us uncomfortable or we don’t agree with? Like Peter, we are called to proclaim that God shows no partiality and it’s up to God to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not, not us. Perhaps this is the hardest part of following Jesus. It means asking the hard question of “why am I here?” and being willing like Peter to be open to the possibility that we are in a risky, transformative place in order for God to show us something new and to work something new in us.

Maybe we’re called to new patterns of worship, maybe we’re called to new patterns of language, maybe we’re called to new ways of thinking about being Church, maybe we’re called to be Church with those whom make us uncomfortable. Maybe we’re called to cross boundaries and be curious about what God is doing and why we are here. God reveals that God is present in our lives and in the lives of other people around us. God promises to stay with us as we wrestle with why we are here and why we matter. God promises that we DO matter and that we are here not only to offer God’s unconditional love but to receive God’s unconditional love, to be guests of this love-even when we are puzzled. God promises to keep transforming us, calling us and gathering us so that we aren’t a homogeneous, generic, boring group of people, but people created in the image of God to revel in our diversity, celebrate our varied gifts and to live joyfully in our rich cultural differences. We are here, all together because God’s love, mercy, grace and hope through Jesus Christ matters and needs to be heard and experienced by all people, even us. Thanks be to God.

 

It Matters That We Matter Sermon on Acts 3 April 16, 2016

On Monday evening, I had the opportunity to worship with the young adults with Urban Servant Corps. I had been invited to come and lead worship around the topic and information on the ELCA’s social statement: Women and Justice: One In Christ and the newly minted social message on gender based violence. I’ve been what’s called a “process builder” for the Rocky Mountain Synod on the Social statement since 2013 offering listening events and feedback to the church wide task force as well as offering presentations on the findings. I was asked to wrap worship, including Holy Communion, around this very difficult conversation on sexual, emotional, psychological and spiritual abuse based on perceived expressions of gender and sexual orientation. Tricky to say the least and I wasn’t sure how this would be received. After all, I’m well aware of my own generational biases and these young adults are much closer to the age of my children than myself. No matter how hip, cool and relevant I think I am, my children assure me that I am indeed not.

But while we had these different generational lenses on how we enter into the conversation, we were all wrestling with the tension inherent to Christianity: the good news that Jesus is risen, the tomb is empty and death and suffering are conquered. We will have eternal life someday with God. And yet, there is the reality of the here and now that suffering is real, any kind of pain of mind, body or spirit is real and our physical bodies matter. It matters that we are bodies created in the image of God. Not esoterically, or spiritually, but physical manifestations of the divine. Male, female, tall, short, black, white, gay, straight, two legs or one, all ten fingers or fewer, a fully functioning heart, or a broken one, a brain that becomes overwhelmed by stimuli easily, or can tolerate noise, social or introverted, unable to walk or an elite runner. Galatians 3: 28, the foundational Bible verse for the social statement work: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer free or slave, no longer male or female, all are one in Christ Jesus”, sounds lovely, utopian and a wonderful goal to assent to someday, when we all see Jesus face to face. But I think Paul didn’t mean that in a someday by and by sense or only when it was easy, comfortable, accessible and safe. Paul knew that bodies mattered to Jesus in the here and now, no matter what the cost. And when MLK quoted this verse in his last speech before his assassination, 48 years ago Monday, I think that King also exactly understood the cost of this truth.

For the now apostles, it had been less than two months since the death and resurrection of Jesus. They had received the Holy Spirit, they had converts being added to their numbers day by day and they were still very much on the radar of the Roman and Jewish authorities. Hiding, or at least laying low and not making any noise, would have been the prudent, smart, and safe thing to do. But that’s not what they did. We read that Peter and John were going to the temple; remember that the apostles and early converts did not identify as Christians but Jewish Jesus followers. At the gate of the temple, they came upon this man who had been born differently abled, not able to walk and in first century Palestine, he did not have worth, and most certainly was not considered created in the image of the divine. Each day, he was placed on the outside of the temple by his family, to beg for alms from the good, proper and pious church goers who were required by Jewish law to give mitzah, commitment to do good which included giving away money. So, much like we give a $5 or a $10 or even a blessing bag to those who stand on the street corners with signs, people just threw money at him without really looking at him, probably judging him for his own misfortune (after all he must have done “something” to deserve this) and pushing down the fear that they themselves are only one mishap away from such a fate. They were terrified to identify with him.

But Peter and John saw this man. Really saw him, body, mind and spirit. Now, the safe thing would have been to just go to temple, pray and go home, but really seeing this man, knowing that his body mattered to God, knowing that his inclusion in community mattered to God, seeing themselves as connected, Peter and John couldn’t just go on with their own lives, worrying about only themselves. Peter looked at the man and told him to look at them. Connected equally before God. Connected equally in God’s image. Connected equally in God’s love. The man assumed he was about to receive alms but Peter had something better-something that no matter what the risk or cost to himself, he couldn’t keep to himself. He offered him healing in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He didn’t first demand a faith statement, an assent to some sort of proper belief of God, no, Peter freely offered what he had first been given, Jesus’ message of love and that he mattered. And Peter also didn’t offer the man a platitude of someday, in heaven being healed. He was being healed today, right now, in public. The man got up and walked but more than that, entered the temple, with all of those who had excluded him his whole life. He leapt and praised God not just because he could walk, but because his body had mattered to someone, he was no longer isolated, he now could offer himself as part of the community and the community benefitted from his presence and praise.

We didn’t read on in Acts to hear what happened next, but it is important. You see, after acknowledging that bodies in the here and now mattered to God, Peter pointed to this act not as something he, himself had done but as a sign of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, what God is up to and this was available to all people no matter the condition of their mind, body or spirit. Peter and John boldly proclaimed that the old system of the world, was not God’s system. The world’s system of worth, was not God’s system. The priests and other Jewish leadership didn’t like this at all. It was disruptive, it was uncomfortable, and it threatened their power and control. The healing and proclamation of this man as a beloved child of God ushered in the first of many post-resurrection clashes between the apostles and the authorities. In true non-violent resistance form, Peter and John were arrested for radical inclusion, pushing on the status quo and disrupting the systems of privilege and entitlement.

The man, who went from immobility to freedom, is not only a sign of God’s kingdom to come but also highlights the inconsistencies in our lives and the things that we don’t understand as we await the fullness of time in the return of Christ. Why are some healed physically in the here and now and not everyone? Why do some people experience a miracle and not others? Why does God allow injustice? I’m here to say with confidence, I don’t know. I struggle with this as well any time I read the healing stories in the Bible. But here’s what I wonder and I invite you to wonder with me.

What if we are called to really see people as God sees them, not as broken, different or disabled, but as whole and beloved children of God and a part of us? What if really seeing people and including them despite the risk of our own comfort, safety or privilege DOES bring healing in ways that only God can heal through us? What if we allowed ourselves to truly be seen by our neighbor, brokenness and all and be healed by one another? What if when Jesus says with the bread and the wine, do this to re-member me, is not about a memory or nostalgia but being re-assembled, re-membered into the one body of Christ in order for the whole of creation to be re-assembled, re-membered as one, one in hope for reconciliation in the here and now, one in solidarity with those in our society who are told that their bodies don’t matter, one in the unconditional love of Christ in the here and now and forever? What if we are the ones, like Peter and John, who are called to risk pointing to the in-breaking of God’s system in the world?

The good news is that despite our human differences, our human biases and our human fear, Christ proclaims that we all are one in Christ, we all belong to Christ and we are in the here and now, truly seen, forgiven and loved through Christ. Thanks be to God.

 

Intersectionality and the Reality of Hope

Swirling around us on Facebook, television, and all other media seems to be the conversation on intersectionality. Yes, this word will be underlined in red by Microsoft Word, but trust me, it’s a real thing. It’s a word that delves us deep into complexity, brokenness and uncertainty and yet, I believe is also the source of our healing amidst great divisiveness. Intersectionality names all of the places where pain can be inflicted, where we must confront our own biases, privileges and where truth can be named. I’ve been personally drawn into this sacred space in the past couple of years as I wrestle with white privilege, gender bias, and all of the “isms” in which I live and I am deeply complicit. To name my own privilege: I am white, upper middle class, well-educated, heterosexual, married woman, who happens to also be ordained clergy in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This gives me great privilege and a voice in our culture in ways that I know some of my brothers and sisters of color do not share. I am compelled as a follower of Jesus to name my brokenness, my division from others and yet risk my voice and privilege for the sake of those without.

While my “whiteness” affords me great privilege, my gender (especially in my vocation) often, in subtle and not so subtle ways, can be where I experience the brokenness of humanity. I have my fair share of stories of seemingly benign comments and “joking” remarks by male colleagues, people in the pews and in the community at large, that I won’t bore you with, but trust me when I say that misogyny is alive and well in as well as outside of the Church. It may not be overt as in catcalls or outright, blatant denial of my “right” to be seen as equal, or as “good as the men” but it’s much more subtle, nuanced and  so much more difficult to call out without be “a bitch” or “one of those feminists.” (By the by, a feminist is someone who believes that men and women are truly equal and deserve actual parity in every sphere of everyday life. Feminism is good for men as well!)

But I want to turn back to intersectionality for the rest of this post. I see white males writing posts about the “Black Lives Matter” movement and adding their voice to the conversation. This is a very important dialog in all of our communities and is, in my opinion, one of life and death for our brothers and sisters of color, as well as the whole of society. (We are inextricably bound to one another as the body of Christ and when one part of the body is not honored and treated with respect, we are all damaged.) White males lending their privilege and voice to the “Black Lives Matter” movement is crucial and one that I applaud. But here is what I wonder: why do these same men not affirm that their male (and often heterosexual) privilege is also an issue alongside their white privilege? I’ve had many a conversation with white males who say things such as “I can only deal with one thing at a time, and I’m going to deal with my whiteness first.” That statement alone is so steeped in entitlement and privilege that it makes my head spin. White men can and do wake up every morning and decide which aspect of their privilege that they will deal with today. Is it being white? Is it being male? Is it having every privilege known in the free world? Why not all three? Oh, because that’s hard, complex, overwhelming  and may require giving away too much of themselves. So, they can compartmentalize their privilege and go about their day. (I want to add that white women are also writing and contributing to the “Black Lives Matter” conversation but they often do not separate it from gender bias. But yes, some do.)

What about the black woman who also is gay? A Latina woman? Or an Indigenous woman? Or a transgender woman? She does not get to wake up and say, “Today, I will only worry about being oppressed as a black person.” Or, “Today I will only have to worry about being female in all my interactions.” Or, “Today I will only have to deal with being gay.” NO. She is all of those things each and every day and cannot choose how society will view her or how others will treat her. I can only imagine that it’s overwhelming and exasperating. Intersectionality requires these women to be conscious each and every second of their day all of the ways that they are seen when they walk in a room, speak up at a meeting, or even drive down the street. They do not get to compartmentalize themselves. They bring the whole of who they are into every situation. (Thanks be to God!)

At the church I currently serve, we are in the nascent stages of conversation around radical inclusion. A large part of our wrestling has been around where to begin and the reality of intersectionality.  Do we first enter into this call from Jesus with only one population, dealing with only one area at a time, such as people who are differently abled or white privilege? Is it too much to try and think about the physical and cognitive differently abled, racism, gender bias, LBGTQI biases, socio-economic differences, etc. right from the start of this ministry? Should it even be a separate ministry as it’s actually who we’re called to be as people who follow Jesus Christ who shows no partiality and includes all people, in all times and in all places in God’s love? What if  Jesus’ definition of intersectionality is different from ours?  If so,  what if this is where we find our hope and our voice going forward?

God intersects with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ; coming to humanity, being human, suffering human sorrows and experiencing human death. Jesus intersected with those whom the rest of society threw away, thought of as second or even third class. Jesus didn’t only focus on one marginalized population, but gathered women, gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, the unclean into his mission of redemption, love and complete wholeness. Jesus didn’t compartmentalize God’s redemption to one step at a time but intersected with all of creation with risky leaps and unfettered bounds. The cross is the place where this intersectionality of God takes on its deepest meaning and continues to draw us into intersections with one another. It is only when we are caught in the intersection of relationship in the Trinity and God’s work of redemption in the world that we can truly know radical inclusion, healing, peace and restoration of our divisions, our brokenness and our fear of the other. This relationship with God, requires us to die to our own privilege, our own false sense of security and safety and trust in the promises of God that ALL truly means ALL in God’s wholeness (salvation). It requires us to be in deep relationship with all whom God gathers. When we rest, trust, find our life, breath and purpose in that promise, we don’t worry that lifting up our brothers and sisters (all of who they are as created in the image of God) might diminish who WE are. We expand our idea of “we” and know that we are not “us” without whom we might now label “other.”

This is difficult work, this is risky, potentially life-ending work.It’s the end of our false identities given to us by a fearful world and the beginning of living into our true selves as people of God, wholly created in the image of pure love for sacred relationship with God and one another.  It’s where we are confronted with the reality of God’s vision for wholeness and our own fears and need for control. It’s where we find that there are more options than in/out, included/excluded, me/you, and us/them. It’s where we find the third way in the cross of Christ: hope in radical oneness, gifted with beautiful, messy and  God-created diversity.