A Lutheran Says What?

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

Communion on Guam August 12, 2017

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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.

 

Garages and Loving Our Neighbor Philippians 2: 1-8 December 14, 2015

Have you noticed the change in house designs over the past 30 years or so? It’s a subtle and yet interesting phenomenon that has many nuanced pieces to it but it’s one that makes me wonder. I have even bought, in my life, two of these kinds of homes. What change is that you wonder? The placement of the garage and the front door. Garages are now prominent on the front of the house in most newer neighborhoods (although interestingly there are a few places where garages are moved again to the rear of the home) with front doors with little porches off to one side and larger patios out back in a private yard (where garages used to be). As I said, there are probably several reasons for this change, such as we now have two cars in a household so we need a bigger garage, you can place living space on top of the garage for a smaller footprint on a lot are just two that come to mind. But whether this is an outcome or a culture change, we now can drive home from work, drive into our garage, put our garage doors down and enter our homes all without ever making eye contact with a neighbor. When you BBQ or have friends over-there is no space out front, so you are in your fenced backyard. You know the old saying “Good fences make good neighbors.”

If we think about it, we have a ton of control over who we let into our daily lives now. We don’t even have to know our neighbors. We get to pick and choose who we make contact with, who we meet, who we enter into relationship with and who we even casually bump into. We can choose to only have conversations with like minded people. If we are honest, this is about fear. Fear of who our neighbors might be. Fear of being used by them (you know that one neighbor who ALWAYS needs something?), fear of not getting along, fear that our neighbor might be not share our values, fear that they might be different than us, fear that they might be a serial killer, fear that they might be a terrorist, or even the fear that WE might need them, be a burden or end up in a deep and lasting relationship. How many times on the news do we hear a neighbor saying, “I had no idea what was going on next door.”

This separation also allows us to judge our neighbor without really knowing them. We see the sign in the yard of who is remodeling their kitchen, the sign where a high school student made the varsity squad, the bumper sticker of their honor roll kid, and we can judge that they have it all together and wouldn’t want to be friends with us anyway because we have none of those things going on. Not knowing our neighbor can affirm our assumption that we are not enough by the world’s standards. We can feel what we call humiliated; lesser than and not worthy. Or we can see the junk pile in the front yard, all of the beer cans or wine bottles in the recycling bin, hear the children fighting, the adults fighting, see the un-mown lawn, the newspapers piled up on the micro-porch and think or even say, “well at least I’m not that” and humiliate our neighbor. Not knowing our neighbors can also allow us to feel fairly good about ourselves and doesn’t require any self reflection either. If we never are confronted with our neighbors’ messiness, then we don’t have to deal with our own.

So, culturally we have found ways to separate ourselves, give people just a passing glance of who we may or may not be, garages where we can hide just being one of many. Yet, we yearn for something more. Our hearts and souls stir for connectivity, for intimacy, for deep and authentic community. We know that we feel most empty when we are isolated. Ask any of our older members who yearn to come to worship but health or mobility challenges keep them at home alone. We live in the tension of the fear of who should we let in and our need for community. We live in the tension of looking out for our own best interests under the guise of staying protected, and the emptiness of division that we attempt to fill with new cars for those garages, larger homes, more material possessions, busy jobs, or hobbies. None of those things are inherently a problem, unless they are where we think we are finding our primary worth and identity.

While we’re today simply able to structure our buildings to support this tension, this is not a new challenge. Apparently, the ancient people of Philippi were trying to figure out this community thing in light of what they knew about God through Jesus. The Philippians were living in the tension of diversity, of who to let in to their lives, who to be in community with, what rooted them and bound them together and how the gospel moved them from the cultural norms of making sure you have enough for yourself, and protecting what you have… to seeing each other as God sees them.

Paul pleads with them to get off of the “either/or” treadmill of either someone is for us or against us. Paul reminds them that the gospel of Jesus Christ pulls us into a completely different way of being in the world. It’s not the either only be in relationship with those exactly like you and then afraid of everyone else or being isolated and alone so that no one can hurt you. The gospel lights the way for another possibility. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection models for us the truth of who we are and “who’s” we are. Love, unity and sameness are not about assimilation, safety, and easy relationships but the deep, messy, risky relationships where we reveal ourselves to our neighbor and discover that they struggle with all of the same challenges that we do. Hearing someone else’s struggles, loves, sorrows and joys often elicits a heartfelt, “ME TOO!” While we have different lives, we all share falling short, not feeling like enough, having days where we seem all together followed by days of feeling very human. This common humanity binds us together in ways that we can’t ignore; we are created for community with one another and with God.

Jesus, God incarnate, was God’s “Me too” to humanity. God saw the separation between each other and from God and chose, desired to come and live in the tension with us and to draw us into life with God and each other. God calls out our false sense of control of who is our neighbor and reveals that when God chose to come to us, to be our actual human neighbor, God chose all of us together. Jesus’ life among us proclaims another way besides isolation, judgment, self-protection, ambition and fear. Jesus’ very human life points to unity in diversity. Same love, same mind, and full accord isn’t being a clone of each other, but it’s knowing our neighbor, seeing our neighbor, loving our neighbor, allowing our neighbor to really see us,  seeing Christ in them and saying, “me too.” God sees our common struggle with sin-which is anything that separates us from God and declares that this separation is no more. Through the humanity of Jesus, God came to be in our mess. God wasn’t afraid of really being with us and seeing all of the pieces of ourselves that we try and hide. God wasn’t afraid of the risk of getting hurt, being used, suffering or even dying at the hands of a neighbor. Relationship with us, God’s beloved children, was worth any risk, any hurt, any inconvenience.

Jesus transforms our common human ambition, common human judgment, common human self-interest, common human struggle with self worth, and common human fear into deep community and joy through the love of God that is for all people in all times and in all places. Connecting to this love pulls us into deep relationship with each other, as we share the same love, grace, mercy and hope in Christ Jesus. This love banishes all fear of our neighbor as God’s love transforms our relationships to not being about us, but others. This love banishes our fear of who we are as God’s love transforms us because it’s also all about us. This love banishes all division as God’s love transforms our separation into true community.

Jesus comes to us today and every day in ordinary and extraordinary ways for authentic experiences of Jesus’ love and love of neighbor. In ordinary bread, wine and water, elements that all of humanity needs for physical survival, the living Christ gathers us all as one, connects us and transforms our fear of others into openness and common ground. Jesus comes to us to open our garage doors, open our hearts and open our lives to show us a new way to live in hope and not fear, a new way to live in community and not isolation, a new way to live in abundance and not scarcity, a new way to live with others, for others in the form of Jesus’ love. Thanks be to God.

 

Wrapping Us in Bands of Love Sermon on Hosea 11: 1-9, Narrative Lectionary November 19, 2015

*Preached at Bethany Lutheran Church, Cherry Hills Village, CO Wednesday, Nov. 18th worship

As you all can imagine I’ve been meeting a lot of new people lately. I love meeting new people and you all are fun to get to know! And as you can all guess, it’s all a bit overwhelming. Not just the sheer number of people, but that in the beginning of any relationship: colleague, friends, spouse, even a new child, there is a dance that happens. It’s the dance of how much to share, how much to say, what body language is appropriate, how am I being perceived and received? Or a question I tend to ask myself, “how crazy do I sound?” Don’t answer that! But even in long term and long standing relationships there is a constant back and forth of negotiating the terms, or a wrestling that happens usually out of the worry of rejection and being hurt. We all know that even in mutual, healthy, life-giving relationships, wounding occurs when we are brave enough to open up to the other person. Vulnerability is not a comfortable or common word in our 21st century, American vocabulary. Being wise, guarded, smarter, savvier, over thinking and planning out every conversation, action and reaction is, and if we’re honest, how many of us function even in intimate relationships. In our fear of being hurt by another person, we ensure that we have safeguards in place and don’t show the true depth and breadth of ourselves. Wrestling with how open to be with someone, how to truly connect alongside the reality of possibly being hurt and the promise of authentic, mutual relationship is a constant human tension.

Our fear keeps us from truly connecting with people and whether we know it or not, actually harms ourselves and others. The events of the past week highlight this fact. We live in the reality that there are people who seek to harm others through what they claim is in “the name of God”. There are these people in every religion, and I want to emphasize this, this is not a Muslim issue, or Christian issue or a Jewish issue, or a Hindu issue or a Buddhist issue, this is a human issue. And while 99.9% of people do not go to the extreme of physically harming or killing people who are different in some way from themselves we all have to admit that in our everyday actions and thinking, we use our belief system to keep those people we don’t know and consider “other” disconnected from us out of fear. We’re afraid of too close a connection. A Syrian may have perpetrated the attack in Paris? Then we should not help any Syrians despite the fact that thousands (mostly children) will die without a safe place to live. A person on a street corner who scammed us out of 20 bucks? Then don’t help another person living on the streets. Someone told you a lie? Then don’t believe anyone but yourself. When we encounter people and situations that make us uncomfortable and may even threaten our well-being, we wrestle with our inability to reconcile the reality of harm versus the potential of life-giving relationships that nurture love, peace and joy. So we put up walls that may seem like safety, prudence and wisdom, yet they only diminish our connectivity as humans, the connectivity in which God intentionally created us. We become addicted to our need for security and safety.

In the time of the prophet Hosea, Israel was wrestling with the reality of being overrun, displaced, disenfranchised and harmed in many ways. Just like us, they were looking for security, safety and assurance. They decided to worship the local gods of their captors, going along with the cultural status quo for the sake of ease and comfort. Israel was looking to keep God at arm’s length thinking it wiser to go it alone, not to be connected to God and do what is easiest. They were addicted to their own way of thinking about how the world worked. Hosea proclaimed that God saw what they were doing-putting up walls and barriers between themselves and God, offering sacrifices and worship to other gods. God was hurt, angry and lamented their actions. The sacrifices to these other gods were hurtful not because God was harmed in any way, but because these were probably human sacrifices-they were not loving their neighbor as themselves when they allowed another child of God to be hurt in the name of religion. Worshiping other gods grieved God because it meant they were not teaching each other, their children or anyone about the promises of God. These other gods were not gods of life, connectivity and relationship, they were gods who simply demanded a certain action based on fear of repercussion of disobedience. These gods wanted only to be satisfied for their own sake. God lamented and was wrestling with the fact that the Israelites were stuck in thinking that this was life-giving. Religious action was not what God was concerned about but relationship with the Israelites whom God deeply loved was God’s concern.

God’s lament and anger is an uncomfortable reality that both we and the Israelites wrestle with. We don’t like to think about God’s wrath, or anger or grief.  If God can be angry, like we can be angry, what will God do? We know as humans, where our anger comes from, fear and spite and we are also all too keenly aware of what we do with our anger-we lash out at others. Hosea uses words of parent/child to reveal for Israel and us that God’s anger springs from the deep, unconditional love of all of God’s people, never from fear or spite.  God desires the fullness of life for God’s children and when we diminish the life of our neighbor, we break open God’s heart.  God’s very being is one of deep, mutual, honest and vulnerable relationship and God desires to be with us in our mess and yes it requires a great deal of wrestling. But God is willing to wrestle with us and all of our baggage. God stays in the relationship with us even when we try and back away. God fully enters into the reality of our humanness, the reality of tragedy, fear, sorrow, grief, love and joy. God stays in the mess to wrestle wholeness from division, hope from fear and love from anger not for God’s sake but for ours.

God enters into the dance of relationship not holding anything back despite the risk of grief, hurt or sorrow. God’s love is bigger than those possibilities. For God, wrestling with us in our humanness out of love is always worth the risk. Love is always worth the pain and grief.  God wraps us in bands of love despite anything we do or don’t do. God wraps us in bands of love knowing of our limited capabilities for response. God wraps us in bands of love knowing that we will wrestle with believing this unconditional relationship where grace, forgiveness, and hope always prevail over despair, sin and death. God wraps all of creation in bands of  love knowing that God’s connective love has the power to overcome our fear, overcome our anger, overcome our barriers, and overcome our religions,  to bring us all into eternal loving, vulnerable relationship with God and with one another for the sake of healing the whole world. Amen.

 

Fear and asking the wrong questions Reflection on Mark 9: 30-37 Pentecost 17B September 16, 2015

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*I am not preaching this week but I was asked to give a reflection at a prayer worship service. Just a few thoughts on Mark 9.

Mark 9: 30-37
Fear is a powerful motivator: So I’ve recently taken up a new health regime as I’ve been noticing a few weird things that are just attributed to middle age. So, I decided that I wanted to not just lose a little weight but feel better and maybe try and slow down the aging process now that I’m in my 40’s. I know, I know, the optimism of youth! So, armed with what is probably a little bit of dangerous information, I went to a health store privately owned by a nutritionist. I bought vitamins with a 92% absorption rate, fish oil, probiotics and protein shake mix. And so, armed with all of this stuff and a new workout routine in addition to my running, I have pretty convincingly told myself that I don’t need to fear aging anymore. I can do this!
Hmmm….yet, none of the aging stuff has gone away. Nothing has really changed. I feel a little better, maybe less tired but my husband is pretty sure that’s just a placebo effect. He’s probably right. I’m getting older and changing whether I like it or not. Now, have I gone to my wonderful doctor with whom I have a great relationship with? Oh no, as he’ll probably just tell me, yep, getting older!
The disciples were dealing with a lot of fear throughout Mark. Fear at not just the miraculous and unexplainable feats of Jesus but here in the middle of Mark, fear at what Jesus says is coming next. Suffering, a cross, death and what’s this about rising again, Jesus? It was heady, scary stuff. Stuff that they definitely did not want to think about day to day. After all, there were important questions to ask such as “who is the greatest? Who’s the best disciple?” Inquiring minds want to know. Fear was keeping them from confronting the tough stuff with Jesus and kept them thinking about themselves, their own needs and their own comforts. Vulnerably asking what Jesus was talking about and how they might fit into such a plan would just be too risky and they probably didn’t really want to know.
What would you do or ask if you weren’t afraid? About your faith? About Bethany? About your life?
What does it mean to be vulnerable? What’s at risk when we open up about what we’re afraid of? Is it easier to be vulnerable or to accept vulnerability in other people around us?
Good news: Jesus proclaims there is power in vulnerability. When we are vulnerable, like a child, we are open to all of the ways that the kingdom of God comes to us just as we are, wherever we are. God doesn’t assess status based on who’s the greatest, the wealthiest, the smartest or most valuable to society, but declares that the only status that is important is that of beloved child of God. Do not be afraid! Amen.

 

“Let us go to the other side” Mark 4: 35-41 Year B, Pentecost, June 21, 2015 June 19, 2015

*I am posting my sermon early as this is also what is ricocheting around in my soul after hearing about the senseless act committed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Wednesday June 17th. May God have mercy on us all.  

“Let us go across to the other side.” These words of Jesus are ones that the disciples will never forget. With these words, their lives, perspectives, worldviews, and what they thought was foundational truth would be shattered. These disciples knew the Sea of Galilee, knew it quite well, I mean some of these disciples were fishermen. Boats, water and sailing, this they had down! Seemed simple enough in that moment; get it in the boat, like they had hundreds or maybe even thousands of times before. But this time was different, they were going all the way to the other side. The other side where the Gentiles lived, the people whom the disciples had heard their whole lives were unclean, not part of God’s chosen people, weird, different, excluded or maybe even scary. The disciples had no idea that on the other side would be a man possessed by a spirit named Legion because there many demons inside this man. The very kind of person their mothers had warned them about.

Jesus did not ask them to go to the other side, it wasn’t a question or an invitation; it was a command, a statement of what was happening. The disciples were going to the other side whether they liked it or not. This is what it means to be a follower of Jesus, going where there is uncertainty, uncomfortableness, confrontation of their biases and the possibility of being changed forever.

“Let us go to the other side.” How many of us can resonate with that statement of fact in our lives? How many of us have gone to the other side in our lives whether we liked it or not; pushed through a door that we did not want to walk through because we knew that it would be hard? Maybe it was a cancer diagnosis, a job loss, a revelation of a secret from a family member or friend, an unexpected or untimely death of a loved one, or the sacred in your life being shattered. Or maybe “going to the other side” means that as a community you have not had a permanent pastor longer than you wanted, as much money as you wanted, as many members, or had to figure out how to live together in the midst of diversity of thought and opinion?  Going to the other side in our lives is inevitable. It usually encompasses being caught in a storm and wondering if Jesus cares at all that we feel scared, alone, hurting, grieving and struggling, perishing and trying to figure out what is going on.

“Let us go to the other side.” Going to the other side is often stormy. The waves crash and threaten to drown us in fear. This going to the other side hardly seems worth it or meaningful, why is Jesus sending us where we don’t want to go? This week in our nation we learned the consequences of not going to the other side when Jesus commands it. Out of fear of who could be on the other side of the sea, a young man (whom we also pray for as a beloved child of God) walked into a Bible study, sat with other brothers and sisters of Christ and heard about God’s love for all for an hour and then decided that fear overruled that love of God for everyone and nine children of our loving God were killed for no other reason than fear from the color of their skin. This young man was raised in the ELCA church. Two of the pastors studied at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. This young man’s sin is our sin.

We have to recognize as a predominately white denomination that we have to do better. We have to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters of different races and genders, who are LBGTQI, who socio-economically do not have a voice, and all who are on the margins of our society and culture. We must truly welcome everyone into the body of Christ, for ALL of us have fallen short because Jesus’ grace, love and mercy are for ALL people, in all times and in all places, no matter what, no conditions or qualifications.  I don’t think that it’s just an aside that Mark adds the sentence, “Other boats were with him. (Jesus)” We are the body of Christ, we are all gathered on the sea to go to the other side with this Jesus who radically proclaims:  “Let us go to the other side where people who are different than us and people whom we don’t understand live. For I am coming to the other side for all people, for God comes to all of you no matter what.” Jesus brings all of us with him in his boat and on the same sea to be the voice for the voiceless, to bring healing to those who are possessed by fear, to say no more violence toward any of God’s children anywhere in the world, and to love no matter how afraid or uncomfortable we ourselves might be. I want to be clear, this isn’t about being a liberal or a conservative or whatever labels we like to give ourselves and define ourselves with. This is about all of us living in our primary “label” as a child of God. That is the only label that matters because Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter.

I stand before you a white person, a white preacher in a predominately white and upper class church and I admit my sin and guilt in all the ways that I have not acknowledged my privilege and leveraged it for the lifting up of my brothers and sisters. I confess that I don’t even fully understand all of the privilege I possess as a white, middle class, heterosexual, well-educated woman. I confess that I have looked at other people through eyes of fear and not through the eyes of God. I confess that I have shied away from proclaiming this before now out of fear of offending someone or losing status. The events of this week make it very clear to me that I, that we, must get in the boat and go to the other side with Jesus no matter how uncomfortable or scared we are. We lament, which is a call to action, with our brothers and sisters. We hold them in prayer, but we alsolook for ways to change the system of hate with the love of Jesus; we know it’s not just enough to go to church because we are called through our baptisms to BE the church-the people of God revealing and PARTICIPATING in the reconciling work of Jesus in the world. God, who is faithful and just, forgives us our sin and declares all is being made new! Live in that newness with one another!

“Let us go across to the other side.” Jesus didn’t say that it would be easy, without storms or without fear. But Jesus does promise to be with us, to speak the words “Peace! Be Still!” not just to the stormy sea around us, but will speak those words TO US and to all of humanity as well.  I believe that Jesus was with the people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Wednesday night. I don’t like it, but I believe that Jesus is with Dylann Roof.  We don’t always like getting in the boat with Jesus and everyone whom Jesus loves and go to the other side. But in the crossing is transformation. The transforming unconditional love, grace and mercy that Jesus has for all people brings us to the other side. When we reach that shore, we recognize that God is already there at work, loving, healing and drawing all people into God’s arms to be one people on the sea, even a stormy sea, with Jesus. We can’t grasp this amazing love but the good news is that it grasps us because Jesus cares very much that we are perishing in our own hate, fear and self-protection.

We, like the disciples, will always wrestle with the question, “Who then is this?” This Jesus defies our labels, our personal agendas and opinions, moves us from fear into love, stills our storms, is in our boat, is in the boat with those different from us, is with those who are being killed and killing, is weeping with those who grieve, is sending us to the other side with God’s love and mercy and promises to be with us always. So may these words, “Let us go to the other side with Jesus” be words that we, too like the disciples, never forget. Amen.

We pray for the families of Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Singleton, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Myra Thompson, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Susie Jackson.

We also pray for the family of Dylann Roof.

We pray for us all.

 

All Wrapped Up Together in a Not So Neat Christmas Bow, Advent 4, Dec. 21st, 2014 December 21, 2014

Mary had been given news that invoked both fear and joy within her. I think that the fear part is obvious: pregnant, unwed mother, by the “Holy Spirit” (yeah right!) and oh, by the by, your child will be the most holy Son of God. No biggie. I guess we don’t know for sure if the thought of motherhood was joyful to her, but we can extrapolate that she would have been joyful for the pending motherhood of her relative Elizabeth, who had been unable to at this point, have a child. The impossible, a barren woman having a child, was happening, so maybe the other stuff that Gabriel said about Mary was possible too? What if the messiah was really coming through her? What if God was really about to do something amazing through a poor teenage girl and an old woman? What if the angel’s praising of God that all will be ok was true?
Some of the historians point out that Mary may have hastily gone to see Elizabeth out of fear of being stoned or burned for pregnancy out of wedlock, but know from personal experience I know that she would have had 2-3 months before that would be obvious. Luke writes that Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months, so Mary returned to her home just when would have been unable to hide her pregnancy anymore. And some of us have the experience of going to maternity clothes about 10 seconds after two blue lines appear. It’s safe to say that she went to the person with whom she could share her joy, her fears and compare notes. Would Elizabeth affirm what Gabriel had said God was doing through Mary? The instant that Elizabeth and Mary greeted one another, it was revealed for the other that God was indeed up to something new, not just in their lives, but in the world, and that they were participants, however unlikely. Neither of the women knew exactly what lay ahead for them nor their children, (did they have an inkling of their impending heartbreak of the death of both of their sons?) but they did have the sense that God had ushered them into something bigger and beyond them. In some ways, this activity of God had nothing to do with them and yet had everything to do with them. Life was changing for these two women, they didn’t understand all of the details but they would never be the same and it seemed too good to be true. But together they could praise God and dwell in the mystery of God’s work in the world no matter what was to come.
I have to admit to you that I’m not feeling very much like praising God or super excited about dwelling in the mystery of what God is doing in the world right now. And neither is much of my family. The Advent season has been one not of anticipation and waiting for new life but for death. Maybe some of you are experiencing that sentiment in the midst of the holiday season too. I know, from past experiences of God in my life, that God is present and that God IS creating the world new each and every second, and that new life is exactly what my mother in law has claimed, but I’m having a hard time recognizing it or seeing how I could possibly with my doubts and apathy be a part of that creation with God. Like Mary, I have sought out friends and family with whom to talk, who are willing to walk with me in my questioning and are not afraid to wrestle with me in the unknown of grief and yet the hope of resurrection. And these friends, like Elizabeth, have reminded me to praise God in the midst of uncertainty and change. They have listened to my questions of: How could God be doing anything through me or any of the pain and grief of the last few weeks? Really? They have offered me their own experiences, reminded me of what I know to be true and praised God for me when I just don’t have the capacity in this moment. They pull me along in our mutual faith journey with them, despite myself.
Just as Mary needed Gabriel and Elizabeth to praise God for her and with her in the face of her questions and uncertainty, Elizabeth, too, needed Mary’s words of what Mary knew to be true of the God of Israel. It seems that for everyone, even one most favored, this walk with God is messy, not linear, not one way or another but its fear, uncertainty, doubt, joy, and faith all wrapped up together in not so neat Christmas bow. It’s why Mary immediately went to Elizabeth, why we seek out companions on our journey and why we gather as often as possible as the people of God. Community, worship, and gathering are not about coming together and sharing the good news when we have it all figured out and can only praise God, it’s coming together because we don’t have it all figured out. We gather to praise God on days when we can and to allow others around us to praise God for us on the days that we can’t. We gather to be reminded that we are part of what God is doing in the world to reveal love, mercy, grace and forgiveness and that our whole lives are to reflect God’s activity. We gather to be reminded of our baptisms and to be fed at God’s table, the bread and wine that proclaims Christ’s real presence now and always. Mary proclaims to us in her song of praise what God has come to do among us and, just as she is a part of that work in the world, so are we. It’s not about us at all and yet it’s all about us as the people of God.
Our God is about relationships. God with us, Emmanuel, God incarnate in Jesus Christ is God smack dab in the midst of our messy and uncertain lives and in the midst of our doubt. God came to not only draw us to her and to proclaim that nothing will ever separate us from God no matter what, but that the coming of God draws us to one another. In our friends, family member and neighbor we see and experience the living Christ. We experience what it is to be connected to something beyond ourselves and what we can see. We live in the mystery of what God has done, is doing and will do, with pieces of that mystery and that work being revealed by and through each other. We need each other to work through what we know of God in our lives and what we might yet need to discover.
Not one of us has this completely figured out and no one can journey in faith alone. None of us know what is to come next in our lives but we can journey together. We can proclaim to one another that Christ has come, Christ is present and Christ will come again. We dwell together in the reality and the mystery of God’s presence, love, grace, and forgiveness for us and for all. We praise God together and proclaim thanks be to God!