A Lutheran Says What?

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

What Good Is Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday Feb. 26, 2020 February 28, 2020

This sermon was preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church on Feb. 26, 2020 in Holladay, UT. The texts were

Isaiah 58: 1-12
Psalm 51: 1-17
2 Corinthians 5: 20b-6:10
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-21

What good is Ash Wednesday? I find myself pondering that this year. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I DON’T think Ash Wednesday is important, I do, it’s more that I’ve noticed fewer and fewer people in our culture, even those who might even profess to belong to a Christian denomination, attend Ash Wednesday services. In some ways, I can’t blame them. Ash Wednesday most definitely isn’t fun, it’s not Christmas, or Easter or even Pentecost. It’s a day where we come face to face with a reality that most decidedly isn’t fun. The reality that we are mortal, we are not perfect, we aren’t in control, we aren’t who we say we are. This is not a day that we look forward to and a day we spend the other 364, well with Leap Year we get and extra day, trying to deny. Trying to deny that we will die, trying to deny that we mess up, trying to deny that we are anything but dust.

And if we ask “what good is Ash Wednesday” we also must ask what good are ashes? What good is it to put ashes in the shape of a cross, a symbol of suffering and torture, on our foreheads? After all, ashes are only the remnants of something that has died, been destroyed, or used up. Ashes leave a messy, dirty smudge where life once was. Ashes of a tree, a home, a life, all look the same, at the end, for ashes are ashes are ashes. The details of what that life had once consisted of are reduced to sameness. It doesn’t matter how good or bad, how pious or irreverent, how helpful or unhelpful, how educated or uneducated, how beautiful or ugly, how able or unable, how kind or unkind any of those previous lives might have been, as now they are all burned down to the basics, to the core of what anything or any of us really is: dust. Dust that blows away with the slightest breeze and is seen no more.

What good are ashes? Ashes also can be used to fertilize new life, and ashes can be used to create soap that cleanses. Ashes themselves are neither good nor bad, they simply are. Encountering ashes, encountering Ash Wednesday calls us to examine both death and life through this lens. Ashes on our foreheads reveal the reality that we can be dead before our bodies actually die: we can be dead to our need to confront our own sin, the ways that we separate ourselves from God, we can be dead to our own emotions, we can be dead to our neighbor by competing with them for resources, for health, for status, for power, and yes, as Jesus says, even God’s love. We can be dead to the truth of God’s grace, love and mercy for all people when we attempt to fit into the what the world tells us is reality and important. Death comes when we are anyone other than who God created us to be.

Ashes on our forehead also mark another truth: that out of the ashes of our lives, God will cultivate and bring forth new life. Ashes tell us that we are marked with God’s love, forgiveness and grace even when it seems that death is all around. The cross of ashes upon our heads pull us through the reality of death and opens to us life that defies death. God isn’t afraid of death, God isn’t afraid of our piles of ashes and sees our possibilities, God sees what we can be, how we can grow, what can live in us and who we truly are as the beloved. God collects our messy, dead lives into God’s hands, breathes life into us and shapes us in love, and marks us with mercy and heals us with grace.

What good is Ash Wednesday? Ash Wednesday is good for pulling us into God’s unending story of good, not only for us as individuals for all people and creation. Ash Wednesday is good for burning away that which keeps us from an honest and intimate relationship with our God who’s love for us knows no bounds, and will not be swayed by anything we do or say. Ash Wednesday is good to remind us that God is good now and forever. Amen.


Communion on Guam August 12, 2017

Filed under: sermon — bweier001 @ 5:42 am
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I’m not preaching this week, but literally, this “sermon” came to me tonight as I reflected on the events of our world. It is based on the gospel for this week, Matthew 14: 22-33.

I took my First Communion on Christmas Eve 1982 at the age of ten on the island of Guam. I moved there when I as almost 9 and it became a pivotal moment in my faith life. My dad was stationed on Guam as the public affairs officer at the Air Force Base from 1981-83. Guam, a US territory since WWII, is a strategic asset for the US and NATO and has two military bases. Guam is an island 36 miles long and 8 miles wide and has been sought after by super powers for nearly a century. The native language is Chamorro, and when I lived there, the Catholic church had a presence that were Lutheran missionaries. Guam was a shock to my system in many ways. School was not as I was used to: classrooms had concrete walls, tin roofs, and louvers were windows would be. Houses were concrete and sparse. Some supplies were rationed. There were not stores for shopping (outside of the BX) and the only American restaurant was the lone McDonalds. Oh, and it’s a SAC base, in the Cold War. Which means that in the chess game were the relations between the US and Russia, turns out where I lived, was a pawn on the board. It was not necessarily a common topic of conversation, yet we all knew that we were a first strike location. At nine, I had the realization that someone wouldn’t hesitate to kill me and not think twice and I wouldn’t even have a chance to save myself. This is a hefty epiphany for an elementary age child. I can remember lying in my bed worrying about dying, being killed and the childish concern of what would happen to my beloved stuffed animals (these were my companions as a military brat) if I was no longer around to care for them? (I didn’t really put together that they would be annihilated as well.)

The fear of death wasn’t about non-existence as much as it was about being alone or abandoned. Or perhaps it was the fear of the unknown or what I couldn’t control. I articulated some of this in a hesitant way to my parents, who tried to comfort me the best they could (in full disclosure, I didn’t share with them all of my thoughts as I didn’t want to worry them…), but in the end I internalized most of this fear.

We were a family who went to church every Sunday and even on Guam, there was no exception. We went to the base chapel and the chaplain happened to live on my street. He was a wonderful man, a Baptist, whom I remember he and his wife fondly. They were older and sort of the surrogate grandparents of the block. Many of us wouldn’t see our grandparents for years as one does not just “go to Guam.” So, Mrs. McGraw would bake us cookies, pies, and take care of us when our worn out mothers needed a break. The McGraws were stationed stateside back to the mainland after our first year into our two year assignment.

Enter the Lutheran pastor. I honestly don’t remember his name, but he quickly discovered that there were four Lutheran families on the base and we started a very early Sunday morning worship service with the Lutheran liturgy. I was fifth grade by then, and it was time for First Communion instruction. So I met with the pastor (it was only me) once a week for three months for communion class. My anxiety over living on Guam increased. I had spent most of the first six months of our tour very sick with what the doctors shrugged and chalked up to the “Guam crud.” In other words, my body wasn’t adjusting to different water, food and environment very well causing unpleasant and chronic side effects that I will leave to your imagination. I had fear in spades. The peak of this stress can be epitomized in the following episode that I remember from my fifth grade class. Now remember, there are no windows, no air conditioning, the doors on each side of the classroom opened up to the outside and really to the jungle, so critters wandered in and out and there was a constant breeze. One day we were taking a test and the wind kept blowing my paper off of my desk. After the third time or so, I had had it. In a fit, I tore up my test, waded it up into a little ball and threw it away. I then went back to my desk and as loudly and angrily as I could, sat down in my chair with my arms crossed. My very wise teacher, said nothing. At the end of the day, she called me over to her desk. She simply said, I want you to write an essay about stress this weekend.

I went home and asked my parents what stress was. They were immediately concerned and I had to come clean about my behavior. My dad (an English lit major) told me to write what worries me, what I think stress is and how to cope. I had no idea. I was completely overwhelmed by fear of nuclear war, being sick, getting hurt in a place where serious injuries meant going to Japan, away from your family, and death. And I had no idea that this level of worry was not normal for a ten year old.

But I was in communion class. I asked the pastor about stress in my next Sunday afternoon class with him. He was thoughtful and said that stress is normal but what matters is how we handled it. He asked me if I prayed to God. I did actually. I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t talk to God. I told God all of the things that I was ashamed to tell anyone else. The pastor asked me if I had talked to God about my stress and fear. I hadn’t. My ten year old brain parsed those things separate from my faith. Fear of death seemed not anything like faith at all. But like Peter in this week’s gospel, fear was sinking me faster than I could handle. The pastor told me that part of the story of the Last Supper is Jesus reminding the disciples that through the bread and the wine, Jesus was with them always and everywhere, and they didn’t need to be afraid. “Jesus was with us everywhere?” I thought. Even Guam?

This isn’t a nice neat story of how this revelation eased my fears and I quit worrying or being stressed. Nope. I still worried (still do!), I was still afraid (still am!), and was still stressed (yep). BUT also like Peter, I learned that keeping my eyes on Jesus in the midst of this worry, fear and stress would remind me that I am not alone in my chaos. The bread, wine, water and prayer reorient my vision to Jesus, the one who comes to us everywhere (even Guam) across chaotic and volatile waves to give us his hand, to lift us up and to speak words of “Don’t be afraid.” Jesus speaks these words to Peter and to us, not because we can simply stop being afraid, but precisely because we can’t. We can’t stop being afraid in our world where death, worry and stress are prevalent. But you see, with Jesus, our fear doesn’t paralyze us, doesn’t keep us from walking to Jesus with confidence, doesn’t become the dominant voice in our lives, doesn’t rule our decisions, and sure as hell doesn’t win.

The journey that began on that island was one that I am still on. This week has reminded me of the necessity for the message of Jesus in our world. Guam is once again a target and I pray for the military 9 year old little girl lying in her bed under the palm trees (and all people on the island) who doesn’t know why someone wants to hurt her. I pray for the black little girl in Charlottesville who doesn’t understand why someone wants to hurt her. I pray for us all and that we quit hurting each other. I give thanks for those who proclaimed the truth of the gospel to me. The truth that Jesus will walk across the most seemingly impossible terrains to come to us with hands outstretched and words of comfort. The truth that nourished and gathered in bread and wine that fear doesn’t win and death will never have victory. Thanks be to God.


“Now What?” 1 Corinthians 15: 1-26, 51-57, May 4th, 2016 Narrative Lectionary May 7, 2016

We have a saying in our house that gets used in a multitude of different situations. We’ve been known to say it when we’re on vacation and are between exciting adventures. We’ve said it when we’re in the process of fixing something and it’s not going according to the YouTube video. We’ve said it when we don’t know what to do next with parenting, our vocations, or even health issues. Perhaps by now you have guessed our phrase: “Now What?” It does most often get said in a sense of irony or amusement but there are times when this question for us has been quite profound. It is always said in relationship to something not going quite according to our plan or when we know that we don’t have a good plan going forward. The astonishing thing that Mike and I have noticed every time we’ve asked this question is that the situations have (so far) worked out somehow. Not always how we envisioned it or wanted it to be, but always, always, even when the “now what” is answered with exactly what we don’t want, always answered with God preparing us for the next step, even though it might be a step into the unknown and unexpected. I highly doubt that our family has the corner market on this question either. I’m sure that if I polled this group of all ages, you have all asked yourself or someone else, “Now What?”

We like to know what’s coming next, what we should do, what choices should we make, what will the future hold, what certainty can we count on? Sometimes this question holds excitement and possibilities and sometimes it holds sorrow and fear. “Now what?” reveals for us the reality that we can’t see into the future with any real predictability or clarity and the best we’ve got is questions and some experience of the past. In some situations, that’s enough, but often we want more.

In this part of the letter to the people of Corinth, Paul addresses the “Now What?” that they are asking. We’ve heard the story Paul, now what? We know that Jesus is resurrected, now what? We know that we don’t understand it all, now what? It’s tricky, and Paul has already dealt with so many misconceptions and issues with this fledgling church. He’s told them that Jesus is found in the hard places of our lives, offered that the cross is God’s wisdom in a world that sees it as foolishness. Paul has told them that radical, counter cultural unity is at the heart of God’s community. Paul has told them that all are equal at the banquet that Jesus lays out, Paul has talked extensively about love, not love as the world gives but love that only Christ can give: love that is unconditional, unending and self-sacrificing. He’s laid out for them the story of what God has done, what God is doing and now he turns his attention to what God promises to continue to do in our lives and in creation forever.

You see, the Corinthians were confused. They had been told that Christ would return and they all assumed that it would be imminent…yet saints, apostles and other important leaders in this nascent movement were beginning to die. If these witnesses to Jesus’ ministry were dying before seeing Christ return, what did that mean for them, newbies to the community? What did it mean that they were struggling with getting along and understanding all that they had heard and seen? They didn’t have a long-term strategic plan for Jesus not returning immediately. This was not what they had envisioned. Now what?

It’s tricky for Paul, as he’s living in the “now what” too. Now what indeed? People are dying, we don’t know what’s next, what’s the plan? What’s God’s plan? When we don’t understand something we fill in the gaps ourselves. We make up a story that we can latch on to and we do grasp it with every fiber of our being, even if it’s not that helpful a story. The Corinthians were filling in the gaps of what happens when they die and this is still true today. Does our soul drift skyward like Casper the ghost? Do we become shapeless globs of spirit only? Do we become young and beautiful again? Do we stay in our graves yet able to know what’s going on around us? Are we more like zombies? If we’re cremated can we be resurrected? When does this resurrection thing happen? Immediately? What we refer to as the “last day”? There are as many ideas about the afterlife as there are people sitting in this room, I suspect. We wonder about this, if we’re honest, we worry about this. We’re scared of death. We’re scared to death about death.  We get so preoccupied with what happens when we die, that we, like the Corinthians, forget to live.

Paul is clear that we are baptized in the DEATH and RESURRECTION of Jesus Christ. Both! Yes, we will share in a death like his, but we also share in a resurrection like his! God will do a new thing with us too! Paul doesn’t give us a step by step instruction manual on how this resurrection thing works, because that’s not what’s important. What’s important and his response to the “now what” is God’s promise to transform our death into life, God’s promise that in our grave, we are not alone, in pain or in sorrow. Paul in 1 Corinthians as in Romans 8 tells us that God promises that there is nothing that separates us from the life and love of God through Jesus Christ.

This is not just the “now what” response about what happens when we die, though. It’s the response on our lives as well! If the promise is that God doesn’t let death be the final answer to our lives, then God can transform and bring new life from any circumstance no matter how impossible it seems, then isn’t this good news for today. This free us to be bold with how we live our lives in this good news that transformation of any situation in our lives and the world is all in God’s power. How will you live your life knowing that God frees you from not just physical and earthly death, but death from our sins, death from our egos, death from our selfishness, death from our personal agendas, death from disunity, death from loneliness, death from whatever is keeping you from being all who God created you to be for the sake of telling the world about Jesus Christ? How will we engage our neighbor differently? Now what?

“Now what,” is that we are truly freed to be one people, gathered in this promise of new life, not just someday by and by but right here, right now. Freed to live your life for the gospel. Freed to risk inviting those who make us uncomfortable to worship, freed to risk being generous with our time, our gifts and our material resources, and freed to risk reckless and boundary crossing love for those who our society deems unlovable. “Now what,” is that no matter what you are caught in the promises of God that were splashed on you at baptism, that you ingest at the table, and that you live out each and every day in simple or more complex ways. “Now what,” is that God says no matter what happens to you today or tomorrow, God’s got you. God will be there. God will transform sorrow into joy, pain into wholeness and death into life-real life now and forever. Amen.


How running saved my life November 15, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — bweier001 @ 6:20 am
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I have seen a lot of blogs about running lately. Some of you who know me well, have already rolled their eyes knowing I am about to launch into a post on running. It’s ok, you can admit it.
One was about someone complaining about runners or more specifically about runners who post the “13.1” or the “26.2” stickers on their cars. It bothers him that people are proud of their accomplishments. Whatever. I have run several half marathons (9 maybe?) and 3 full marathons and a smattering of 5k and 10k’s. I don’t have any stickers on my car; not because I am not proud of my accomplishments or that I don’t see myself as a legitimate runner. Accomplishments or pride is not why I run. And don’t think its my way of saying that competition doesn’t matter-oh it does. I am highly competitive, especially with myself. But running for me has more to do defiance, fear and grief.
I ran a little as a teenager and a young adult. My first run was with my dad at the age of 10. My dad ran to stay in shape for the Air Force and when my dad asked me to come with him, I was excited as I loved to spend time with my dad. I ran track in middle school and then ran VERY sporadically in young adulthood. Mostly for just a little while after the birth of Kayla and Andrew until the need for sleep overcame my vanity for losing the baby weight. But then came my third child Benjamin.
He was a surprise in every sense of the word. My husband and I were not planning on more children and even (TMI alert!) were taking “precautions” that no more babies would be coming. But on a day in mid February we realized that birth control is not 100% effective. It’s a little embarrassing at 30. To quote my mother, “Aren’t you a little old for this?” Apparently not.
Benjamin was born on Oct. 13th, 2003 and on Oct. 15th after a couple of stressful days in NICU was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect. Officially, “incomplete Shones complex.” Shones is a combination of four defects: supravalvular mitral valve, sub-aortic stenosis (narrowing) aortic valve stenosis and coarctation of the aorta. Ben “only” had three of the four. He was missing the coarctation of the aorta BUT instead had a sub aortic membrane, so….
Ben had his first open heart surgery at the age of barely seven months. He did wonderfully and recovered almost miraculously. One week to the day of his surgery this spunky seven month old popped up on all fours and began to crawl! Yes we COMPLETELY freaked out. Turns out the doctor was cool with this. It drove Mike and I crazy to watch. Such as parenting a special needs child.
But after this surgery I had a epiphany that I had a SPECIAL NEEDS child. OMG! I can never get sick, be incapacitated, or die. I need to be able to care for Ben FOREVER. I looked in the mirror and realized I needed to drop about 25 pounds to be healthy pronto. So I began to run. I dragged a couple of neighbors with me. We would run to the end of the block and then walk a while then we would pick a point in the distance and run to that. We began to run more and more with less walking. My friends dropped off but I kept going. Spurred on by rapid weight lose (I was 31 people-still had metabolism) and feeling better I ran everyday. My best friend who lived too far to run with me was running independently too. On her 30th birthday (I was already 32, sigh) she decided she would run for 30 minutes without stopping. So not to be outdone by someone younger I did too. Soon this was the norm.
Ben’s health deteriorated and by January he needed another open heart surgery- a Ross-Kono double valve switch. Yes that is as serious as it sounds. His aortic and pulmonary valve would be switched and part of his sub aorta removed. This surgery did not go well. He had critical complications such as a damaged tricuspid valve as well as having two strokes. After two and a half weeks he was able to come home for about three days before he went into congestive heart failure at home. He was placed on a ventilator and we awaited a donor tricuspid valve. One donor valve fell through but two days later we had another donor. That morning, Ash Wednesday, Ben went into surgery. Personally, I think he and God had a conversation and because this mama “don’t raise no fools” Ben looked into the face of Jesus and picked that. He died at 9:33 a.m. on Ash Wednesday. I knew the exact moment he died before the staff even told me. I went cold from the inside out. I cried out, “He’s gone.” Leta, my best friend, looked at her watch and yes, that was his time of death.
I ran laps around the hospital every morning while Ben was in ICU. It gave me a focus. And the endomorph-in’s probably helped me too. After Ben died I was despondent. After his burial and memorial service I found that I didn’t want to get out of bed. Ben’s case manager nurse Lesley, and I had become friends. She would call everyday and ask if I was out of bed. The answer was usually “no.” She would tell me that she would call back in a couple of hours and she wanted to hear that I had gone for a run. I don’t know why but I would listen to her and I would go for a 30 minute run. Sure enough, I felt less like killing myself after a run. Huh.
At Ben’s memorial service, Lesley suggested that maybe we could train for the Portland marathon and raise money for the Legacy Emanuel Children’s hospital. (Yes, the irony of a pastor’s child being at a hospital named Emanuel is not lost on me.) I foolishly agreed. I needed a grief project. So Lesley would call daily and I would run. Then we began to run together from time to time. Then we had to extend our runs even longer. An hour, two hours, three hours. With each mile, we talked about our lives, our grief, our issues and at the end of 12, 14, 16, 18 miles-we were new people. Tired people but new people.
I was eventually put on an antidepressant by my therapist (I highly recommend therapy for depression and if you are offered medication take it! It’s awesome!) but it was my running that truly saved my sanity I believe. On my runs I would process the shit that had invaded my life, my grief, my anger at God, my anger at myself (why did I not take better care of Ben?) and anger in general.
But with each step, each mile, each long run, I was getting my life together. I was getting my emotions together and putting a life back together.
When we ran the Portland Marathon eight months after Ben died, It was more than just a running race. It was a defiance of life over death, hope over despair and love over all. My church had joined the cause and put together Team Ben and about 20 of us ran to raise money for the hospital and for Ben’s surgeon who was a Syrian and ran a hospital in Armenia for those in that region who could not afford open heart surgery. Dr. Hagop did not have a house, a car, a girlfriend or any real possessions. He lived in his hospital in Armenia, came to Portland to operate and make as much money as he could to pour back into his hospital. He was a globally renowned pediatric heart surgeon-one of the best in the world-and he could have been a very rich man. But instead he put every dime he made into a hospital for kids who needed it most. We were proud to over the course of three years raise about $12,000 for his hospital. That’s open heart surgery for about 4 children in Armenia. Over the same three years Team Ben raised $18,000 for Emanuel Children’s hospital.
Running is not necessarily about fitness, or racing but it is about life. I often will say that running saved my life-my physical life, my faith life, my whole life. Running is how I remember that life is not about me. Everyday I run and pray for friends, family, co workers, and think about my family, Mike, Kayla, Andrew and Ben. Running is a reminder that I CAN run when others can’t and how I will I live today for the sake of others and the world.