Martin Luther described the Holy Bible as the "cradle of Christ"...in other words: The Manger.
Not only at the Christmas stable, but all year-round,
God's people are fed at this Holy Cradle.
We are nourished at this Holy Table.
We are watered at this Holy Font.

This blog is a virtual gathering space where sermons from Bethlehem Lutheran Church (ELCA) and conversation around those weekly Scripture texts may be shared.

We use the Revised Common Lectionary so you can see what readings will be coming up, and know that we are joining with Christians around the globe "eating" the same texts each Sunday.

Monday, May 20, 2019

May 19 -- Fifth Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace, friends, from our risen savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.

Yesterday at our service for Pat and Ro Frodigh, I reflected a bit on this same Gospel text, so this morning I’m going to look at the first lesson from the book of Acts.

Peter has a clear understanding of what the right thing to do is.  He’s known his whole life.  Peter was raised by good observant Jewish parents, Peter himself has observed the Jewish laws.  He has, for the most part, eaten and lived and made distinctions appropriately throughout his life.  And then he meets a Jewish rabbi named Jesus, and continues to practice the Jewish customs and rituals. Even after the resurrection.  Peter was Jewish, even as he followed and preached and healed in the name of Jesus.  The name Christian had not really emerged; Peter was still Jewish...just as Jesus was always Jewish.  And that meant practicing certain rules and customs that set Jews apart from the rest of the culture.  What rules and customs do we/you practice that set us/you apart from the rest of the culture?  (Praying at meals, going to church on Sunday, tithing, Ash Wednesday, non-violence?)

For Peter, eating certain foods was forbidden.  It was unclean.  It was against the law.  For it represented a wiping away of distinctions, and blending, an unclean blending and mixing with the culture of the day.  (BTW, I love how the Jews-of-Peter’s-day paid such close attention to what they put into their bodies, not just (or maybe not at all) as a matter of health, but as a matter of religious practice.)

It was all about making distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, between us and them.  And Peter was observant, he was keeping the law...always had.
Imagine, doing something, believing something, one way, the same way, your whole life.  That’s how Peter had practiced/observed...his whole life, the same way.  And he was old!

That’s a little background.  And our text in Acts today picks up when the “apostles and believers” — the other insiders — call Peter out:  “We’ve heard that you’ve been going to, talking to, mingling with, DINING with Gentiles!  What’s going on?”  So Peter shares what had happened to him.  That he had had a vision from God…

How many of you have ever had a vision from God, that totally changed the way you thought about something?

It was a couple years ago that I took my Confirmation kids at that time up to camp — a great class of 5 kids — and as you probably know, it’s a great chance to minister alongside other pastors and youth directors...all people that are passionate about the faith development of our kids.  We teach side by side in the mornings with the camp counselors, and then in the afternoon, when the kids are doing the fun camp stuff, we have some time to visit with each other about life and ministry.  I love it, especially as a chance to get to know some older, seasoned pastors from around our church.  Rare experience, to get away, to relax a little bit, and share and enjoy God’s creation, etc…

That summer 2012 I got to know a pastor who I had met once or twice before, but who I really didn’t know that well, other than that he was my best friend Brain’s pastor when he was growing up in Salinas, CA.  I had heard stories second hand through Brian, how wonderful and kind he was.  How much he loved the church, loved music, and cared for the youth of the church all those years.  His name is Wendell Brown.

I thought that he had retired at that time, but that summer, he was apparently serving at Hope Lutheran in Atascadero (central California), a good distance from Salinas.  And he and I got paired together as a teaching team with two counselors, and so we would talk a little about the lessons, and then work and play with the kids.  And one afternoon we’re playing ping-pong together and we get to talking.

As we’re talking about our congregations, and our experiences, at some point, I simply ask him why he had moved from Salinas to Atascadero.   Just a basic chit-chat question, right?  Pastor Wendell Brown responds by saying, “Well, God gave me a vision.”  This old time Lutheran pastor, solid head on his shoulders, solid credentials, a life of solid ministry — I’m sure BLC and any congregation would love Pastor Brown...up until this point.  But he wasn’t ashamed, or forceful about it, but I was asking and he tells me plainly: He had had a vision, and it was from God, and it changed everything.  This dear man’s credibility is getting a little crumbly for me, at this point, but my interest is solid rock.  I gotta hear this, right?  (And BTW he gave me permission to share this story.)    

Apparently Pastor Brown was not beloved by everyone in the Northern California synod over the past 30 years.  I had no idea, but Wendell Brown was a name at Synod Assemblies that  everyone knew meant staunchly anti-gay.  When conversation got heated on the Assembly floor, Wendell Brown was the name at the fore in the Sierra Pacific Synod.  He was the one at the microphone, with tears in his eyes and a bible in his hand, saying, if we accept gay and lesbian pastors into our churches we are breaking with the Bible and breaking with God.

He had had the passion and the certitude of Peter and Paul combined.  He had the Bible study clear in his mind, the certain verses set in stone in his heart, he had the majority of the people on his side (at that time), he was a champion and a warrior, and he wasn’t about to sit back and let his church go down this “liberal” road.

(I actually know a gay pastor from that area, and I’ve since asked him about Wendell Brown, and he shutters just at the thought of the man and what he stood for at assemblies.)

But about 2 years before our meeting in 2012, Wendell Brown went away on a retreat, just he and his wife.  And he started reading, and he started reading scripture.  This man knows the Bible backwards and forwards, but he started reading Acts again, and he read this passage for today, and something started to shake him from the very core, and he had a vision, and he was sure it was from God, and I WISH I could tell you what that vision was.  I’ve been trying to contact him this week to get the details.  What I remember is, his reaction to vision, and the exploding of this text: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane...who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter cries in Acts.  Weeping and weeping was PWB’s response!  This is a good stoic German Lutheran older man.  But he’s melting down before God.  He’s looking back at all the things he’s said and done, and questioning it all.  He’s looking back at scripture and seeing it in a whole new way.  He’s feeling called to go back to his dear congregation, and tell them what’s happened to him...in joyful, post-resurrection, Easter energy — that he’s been wrong about his stance on gay and lesbian pastors and the LGBTQ community in general.  How he had a vision from God, and while he suspected he’d find some resistance back home, he had to go and tell his beloved congregation, no matter what it costs him.

Needless to say, Pastor Wendell Brown loses all kinds of support back at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Salinas.  That’s putting it lightly:  People felt betrayed.  I mean,
people had joined that church — that church had grown by leaps and bounds over the years — because of his previous stance. And now he’s saying something totally different!

You can just imagine the un-doing, the fall out.  But he had no doubt in his mind, that this was what he had to do.  He ended up being edged out of that congregation, which he had served for almost 20 years.  (Long answer to my question, huh?)

I was with Brian this week in MN (preaching conference; Brian’s a pastor in SoCal), and we talked about ol’ Pastor Brown again.  Brian added to this and told me that there was a beautiful exchange that took place at his ordination reception, where both Pastor Wendell Brown and Brian’s uncle—who was the gay pastor who had often gone head-to-head with Pastor Brown at synod assemblies—were present!  Apparently at the water, the water cooler (great baptismal image), Pastor Brown: “Do you remember me?”  Uncle Howard: “Yes.”  Pastor Brown:  “I had a vision.  And I am so sorry.  And I am with you now.”

Friends, I’ve never heard a story quite like this.  Where an older, settled, deeply rooted man has a complete change of heart, mind and (I’d say) soul...and the courage to act in life-altering ways in response to that vision.  I leave it to you to determine whether his vision came from God, or from somewhere else.  Personally, I find this to be a modern-day parallel to Peter’s vision...only on a much smaller scale.  Because, frankly, our contemporary controversies in recent decades around human sexuality, pale in comparison with the Jew-Gentile issues with which the apostles were dealing!

Still, sisters and brothers in Christ, know that the Holy Spirit is still working in our lives in this Easter season and always.  Who are we to hinder God?
Know that the Holy Spirit is still working on us, here at BLC, in our individual and communal lives.  Who are we to hinder God?

Pay attention to your dreams and visions.  Know that God is still speaking in our lives, in many and various ways.
This is our God!

A God who’s Gospel shakes down the Law.

A God, whose cup of grace never runs dry,

A God who makes us new day after day, regardless of our age, or our life-long convictions.

A God who carries us through our darkest days, who forgives us our past iniquities, and lifts us up now to be the people that we are called, blessed, baptized and sent to be in this hurting and broken world.

That God “was there to hear your borning cry,” invites us to the water, the table, and goes with us now and always.  AMEN.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

May 12 -- Fourth Sunday of Easter, Mothers' Day

It all comes down to love today.  Mothers' Day, the 10th Chapter of John, Tabitha the radical advocate for benevolence raised from the dead, in our first reading:  It all comes down to love.  “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says, “I know them and they follow me.”  What a motherly thing to say.   (Heather’s voice)

We follow after that voice and promise of God’s grace, friends in Christ.  We abide in that voice and promise of Jesus as our mothering shepherd.   It’s a close and warm image, right?

But there is a fierceness to that shepherding, mothering love too, one that gets dirt under your fingernails.  Despite the overtones of gentleness, there is a fierceness, a passion for peace imbedded in the warmth, a fiery commitment to holding us close.  More like a mother bear and her cubs: Don’t get between them.   (Kim and Mary)

I was reading again this week about the history of Mother’s Day.  And as you may or may not know – there are really two women whose names are associated with this day’s founding:

Julia Ward Howe, who started a medical clinic for both Union and Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  She had a fiery commitment to holding everyone close – friend and foe alike!  And her work for peace was a fight.  She was anything but passive; she was a peacemaker (2x).  And her words ring out in her not-so-famous Mother’s Day Proclamation, which I’m afraid is not shared enough on this day.  But here it is, the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870, by Julia Ward Howe:

Arise, then, women of this day!                 (Tabitha arising)
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:  "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: "Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.

And then the other woman who is credited with the founding of the day is Anna Jarvis.  She lived a few years later, early 1900’s. Anna Jarvis’ own mother set up a group of women called the Mother’s Day Work Club, a group of women that focused their efforts on clean sanitation systems and health care access for everyone in their communities.  Talk about motherly love that gets dirt, and who knows what else, under your fingernails.  Then Anna Jarvis herself, inspired by her mother’s life of service, petitioned Congress for years to make Mother’s Day a national day.  But almost as soon it was recognized, it became commercialized – flowers and greeting cards – and Anna Jarvis spent her final years campaigning against what the holiday had become.  She was even arrested at one point for “disturbing the peace.”

I mention all that today as I think about my own mother, who in her own way did a bit of disturbing the peace…in the name of peace.  When I was in elementary school in Texas, I was invited to go visit one of my school friends’ family ranch, with a group of other boys.  My mom apparently didn’t ask enough questions about what we were going to do, because I came home with stories about shooting a rifle for the first time.

My mother, who let’s just say is not a member of the NRA, was furious.  She called up my friend’s mother to “discuss” the situation.  And as she tells the story, they had a difference of opinion: The other mother, reportedly, said that she believed young boys ought to know how to handle a weapon so that they can one day defend themselves and their families and their country someday.  (See, a mother’s love is fierce and complicated.)  My mother fiercely responded to her, “Well, Lorraine, Daniel will not be attending any more trips to the ranch.  We are raising peacemakers in our home.”  And then she hung up the phone.  A little dirt under the fingernails?  Motherly love is not clean and simple.

I think about my mother, and all good mothers, as I read about Anna Jarvis and Julia Ward Howe.  And I believe that this motherly fierceness reflects that of God.  God’s love disturbs the peace for the sake of a much deeper peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

God’s love for you crosses boundaries, and dividing lines, makes uncomfortable phone calls, advocates and petitions, protests, proclaims, as Howe’s Mother’s Day Proclamation, “Let the great human family live in peace.  Let each bear the sacred imprint, not of Cesar, but of God.”  A mother knows of the divine imprint that God has made on God’s children.

Sisters and brothers in Christ, this Mother’s Day, no matter how you experience Mother’s Day (because for some it can be a very painful time for various reasons), sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s love for you is fierce, like a mother bear, with dirt in her claws.  Like a shepherd with wolves’s teethmarks on her staff.  And should anything come between God and you, should peril or sword, or temptations or disease, anxiety, depression or disbelief…should anything come between God and you, then God, like a mother bear, becomes fierce, fierce about keeping you close, fierce about keeping you warm, fierce about making sure that you can abide in that motherly embrace.

God topples the cruel oppressors rod and draws you in like a mother bear draws in her cubs, like Julia Ward Howe, or Anna Jarvis, or my mother.  Let the cry go up from our mothers and all: “We are raising peacemakers in our home!”  God draws us close, forgives us beyond our own ability to forgive, protects us, and teaches us with the fierceness of a mother.  Christ is raising up peacemakers (like Tabitha was raised up)…calling us this day to follow in this way of love, and to hold one another in fierceness and in peace.  To hold one another as friends.

Thanks be to our mothering God, for we abide in Her everlasting arms, this day, and we always will.  It all comes down to love, today.  With God, everyday.  AMEN.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

May 5 -- Third Sunday of Easter

Grace to you and peace from Christ who is risen indeed and who greets us with the breath of peace…AMEN.

These texts are amazing!   I’ve been thinking this week: this is kind of text I’d want to have at my funeral!  (Have you ever thought about that?  What are the biblical texts that you want the world to hear and know…) 

This has got to be one of those...and coupled with Saul’s conversion!!?  

Let’s look at this text of Jesus on the beach.  First, I’ve got to show you this: [story, then apron — “Biblically mandated BBQing”]

[Also the story of fish (fresh caught rainbow trout) for breakfast up in the Rocky Mountains!]

This text taps into the best stuff of life: the morning, food, fellowship, the water’s edge, a bbq, and of course Christ sitting right there with us.

OK, let’s get into it:  I would call this post-resurrection scene, maybe the title of this sermon “The Undoing”.  

There are multiple layers of “un-doing” happening here.  That is, something that happened before Christ’s death and resurrection is being “undone” now:

For example, there’s the “undoing” of the night meal (the last supper of betrayal).  All the brokenness of the night, the scattering of the disciples that we marked and embodied here at BLC on Maundy Thursday (running out), it’s undone in this scene...with breakfast.

“Come have breakfast,” Jesus says.  What does the psalmist say?  “Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning.” 

Have you ever had a terrible night, but in the morning, as you watch the sun come up, it’s like you can breathe again?

Sometimes a “terrible night” can be literal; usually it’s a metaphor.  Perhaps it’s a whole season or years at a time, maybe its a tragic event, or comment or person that simply haunts you to no end it seems, a voice in your ear that presses down on your whole being.  Failure at night: Peter: “We’ve caught nothing.”  Grief can be a long, terrible night.  Addiction can be a terrible night.  Recovery can be a long, terrible night.  Pent-up-anger and bitterness at the way things have turned out...can “crash at your place” and keep you tossing and turning for way too long.  Weeping, pain, sorrow, anger, fear spends the night. 

But then, the “sun comes up”.  The night is undone.  And that joyful invitation from Jesus:  “Come have breakfast.”  How is Christ inviting you to breakfast this new day?  

First it’s the invitation, the gathering.  The reversal or un-doing of the scattering.  Come back together, i.e. re-member (remember?)…

And then it’s food!  The undoing of hunger.  The undoing or the breaking of the fast.


But there’s more undoing in this text, when we look at Peter.  There’s the undoing of the paralysis of sin…

Despite Peter’s shame about what he’s done.  He still goes to Jesus.  This is so good! 

Peter of course denied Jesus 3 times, remember?  Imagine the shame, the guilt, the burden he’s carrying.  That’s symbolized in this story by him putting his clothes on and jumping into the water.  Did you catch that?  Kind of weird. It says he was naked — naked fishing — but when Jesus invites him to breakfast, he puts his clothes on and Forrest Gumps it into the sea to swim back to Jesus.  

The Gospel of John layers everything with meaning and intention: and the intention here is that we associate Peter’s shame to the shame and embarrassment of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Remember when they eat the fruit, and suddenly they knew they were naked? And hid themselves?  That’s Peter, putting his clothes on when Jesus finds him.  He’s ashamed of what he’s done!

But!  He goes to Jesus anyway!   And not just gently wanders his way: no, he goes diving into the sea!  So rich!  He swims back to Jesus.

What’s that look like for you?  How might you “swim back to Jesus” these days, friends?  Put the clothes on, cover up if you must, but dive in: crash into the waves, or let the current take you back to the shoreline, back to the meal, the fire, the Christ.

So more undoing.  Even though Peter has shame, it’s not going to stop him.  It’s not going to paralyze him.  

This is an amazing thing too: post-resurrection something happens, and the disciples no long stay locked up or frozen.

Think about that for a second: I mean, these disciples who started out on Easter evening locked behind the closed doors for fear become the radical proclaimers of the Gospel throughout the ancient Mediterranean, risking everything, life and limb to share the good news of Jesus!  What happened?  

What kind of conversion took place?  What switched?  We’re starting to see that with Peter here.  (Paul in the First Lesson.)  The sin is not going to stop them.

I love those stories of coaches and teachers who were labelled “problem kids” when they were younger.  Maybe that’s some of you.  In some ways, it’s all of us: the same ones who drove their coaches and teachers crazy, grow up to become the very best teachers and coaches.  Something happened.  The past, the parameters, the definitions and labels are not going to stop them.  

Christ is calling us out of the boat.  And Peter goes!  Something switched in him.

Finally, this undoing happens at the end of our text.  Peter is wearing the sopping wet clothes of his guilt and shame when he comes ashore, but then we have this dialogue.  “Peter do you love me?” Yes.  “Feed my lambs.” “Peter do you love me?” Yes. “Tend my sheep.” “Peter do you love me?” Yes. “Feed my sheep.”  3x.  Do you know the undoing that’s happening there?
Jesus is forgiving Peter’s denial!  Jesus is undoing his guilt.

The resurrected Christ has undone sin and death itself!  So we can lighten up.  Take those cold, soppy, sea-stinky rags off, and have some food, warm yourself, know that you are loved.  And now, go and share that love with others.  

For this forgiveness is for you too.  Thanks be to God, AMEN.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

April 21 -- Resurrection of our Lord, Easter Sunday

Growing up in Houston TX, we always used to have a 2-week Spring Break: during Holy Week and this next week after, i.e. the first week of this 50-day Easter Season.  

Back then, for me, this schedule always made the first week of Spring Break really about church, at least later in the week and at night.  We’d go to all the services.  I would often go home scared after Maundy Thursday, even crying myself to sleep because they did such a good job at recreating the story for us, slamming the book, running out into the darkness, I remember pondering, even as a little boy, the ways that we all betray Jesus.  Made me cry.  And Good Friday was always somber, even at home, we were pretty quiet all day.  Mom would always relay the events to us like they were unfolding in real time.  About 9 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was taken before Pilate.”  At about 10 o’clock, “This is when Jesus was given the crown of thorns, and brought in front of the crowd.”  At about 11, “Ah, this is when they shouted ‘crucify him, crucify him!’...And now he’s started walking up the path.”  She rehearsed the events like a biblical scholar, even though later in life, I never found those times matching up...didn’t matter.  She was remembering the story.  She was putting that Passion story together for us.  

Saturday was a quiet day too.  Although, Saturday was when we started packing our suitcases...  

I always had trouble sleeping on Holy Saturday night.  I’d go to bed actually thinking about Jesus being raised from the dead— kind of confusing, creepy, as well as anticipatory and exciting.  We’d always be really exited about all the festivities of Easter morning.  Even more, to be honest, we’d go to bed excited and thinking about Easter Sunday afternoon, when we would be packing our little station wagon and driving out across East Texas, into Louisiana.  We aimed to get all the way to Biloxi, Mississippi on Easter Sunday night.  You see, we were going to Disney World for the rest of spring break — not every year, but those few years we headed for Disney were the best as a kid!  

What I’m thinking about this Easter morning is remembering.  When I would finally fall asleep on Holy Saturday, somehow in the haze and dreams of sleep I would forget what the next day had in store, even when I first work up on Easter Sunday!  All this good stuff -- honestly, between Easter at church and family and vacation, it couldn’t get any better -- and still I’d forget, for a moment, even when I’d wake up!  

Do you know that moment?  When you’re awake, but you haven’t yet come to?  When you haven’t yet remembered what’s in store for you today?  That moment can last a few seconds, like it did for me as a kid...and that moment can last for years:  [pause] 

How we can forget.  We can forget the stories that have brought us to this point.  We can forget the blessings that are right in front of us.  We can forget the relationships that mean the most to us, like we’re in some kind of haze.  We can forget the words that matter, and give life, because of all the words that try to drain us of life and joy.  We can forget the forgiveness, the grace, the peace, and the invitation that God plainly and lovingly has for us this Easter morning and always.  

If the opposite of forgetting is re-membering, then maybe we should call forgetting “dis-membering”.  Everything falls apart.  Isn’t that what seemed to happen in our Passion narrative of Holy Week?  Everything falls apart, everything is dis-membered.  [pause]  But then there’s moment, that light that sparks when we come to:  “Oh, yeah!!”
The disciples in our Easter story today were awake — they were out and about even, the women disciples namely were even up bright and early...but they hadn’t come to yet.  The women at the tomb had forgotten/dis-membered, the other 11 disciples had forgotten/dismembered, Peter himself was awake but dis-membered.  Easter...is the day and the season (50 days) of re-membering.  [Consider doing an activity of remembering during these 50 days of Easter — scrapbooking, or record some family stories, or review your bible stories (those are family stories too)… 

Remembering is Easter business, even more than eggs and baskets and bunnies, and dresses and ties! 

And it’s the angels call who us back to memory, and once again give us a new song.  Angels in Luke’s Gospel are always giving us a new song — Remember them at Christmas (“Glory to God in the highest…”)?

And today: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.  Re-member how he told you?…”

Remember?  “Oh, yeah!!”  I love when our kids remember something right in front of us, because their eyes light up, and a smile grows across their face when they come to.   [And getting so jazzed, it’s always physical: shivering, jumping.]  “Oh, yeah!!” I’m sure that’s what happened to me too, when I woke up on those vacation, Easter mornings as a child.  “Oh, yeah!!”

This is what happens to us, when we respond, “Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia.”  Our eyes light up, the smile creeps across our face.  “Oh, yeah!!”

Can’t you just see that happening to Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James and the other women who were with them?  “Oh, yeah!!!”  Excited!!  They ran out to tell the others.  Now, it didn’t take right away for the men [no comment].  They said it was an “idle tale”, a dream.  But eventually, I’m sure, it happened to them too.  “Oh, yeah!!” 

And can’t you just see it happen to Peter.  The smile didn’t go creeping on his face just yet:  with him, he ran back to the tomb and found the linen grave clothes thrown all over the floor.  And then he “came to”:  ”Oh, yeah!!!!”

Friends in Christ, Easter is about remembering.  Christ’s resurrection is about our being put back together by God.  The lightbulb goes on, and we are re-membered, as we remember.  (We are remembered by God, even as we forget.)  This is our God!  Conquering death so that we might be put back together.  Forgiving our sin, so that we may now turn and love one another, forgive each other in response.  This is our God!  Putting us back together.  Easter is about remembering.  So that we may go and tell our sisters and brothers who have forgotten, who have been forgotten; so that we may go to those places where dis-remembering has taken place.  [pause]  Where things have fallen apart, where lives are lost, and stories are lost, and joy is lost.  Christ rises from the grave so that stories can be told anew, lives can be restored, hearts can be put back together, and joy finds us forever more!

This grace and mercy, this new life is ours because of Christ Jesus.  The risen Christ is the spark that lights the fire of faith, the Easter fire that burns in our hearts and kindles our imaginations and our courage to go and be the disciples of Jesus for this new day.  The flame of love and welcome rises from this altar, waters of grace flow from this font, this book, this community.  We are the body of Christ.  

Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!  “Oh, yeah!!”
Now don’t forget it.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

April 14 -- Palm Sunday

Friends in Christ, nothing says “king” like the sight of old, tattered garments laying around in the street. I’m kidding.(These were not our most valuable things strewn before Jesus — I mean would you really throw your best jackets and coats on the ground, even here?  Neither would those in power in Jesus time. These were the blankets and shawls of the poorest and the most desperate.)  Nothing says “Hosanna” like Jesus getting dusty and dirty and riding in on a baby horse.  This is the scandal of the Gospel, friends! ...only to be outdone later this week when this same God of ours is hoisted up on a cross. 

Welcome to Holy Week.  Are you sure you want to do this?  Because this road becomes a bumpy road, if you take it.  Now, many, I imagine, choose to skip over Holy Week devotions and services on Thursday and Friday, and simply meet us on Easter morning, and that’s OK — everyone is welcome.  

But for those who take this journey to the cross, the road is rocky.  But in this road is redemption, new life, forgiveness, transformation, love, hope, and most of all peace — in a violent and chaotic and backstabbing world.  Jesus on this colt trots down the road of peace, and fulfills what the angels sang about to the shepherds long ago — peace on earth, good will to all.  “Blessed is the one who comes in the name YHWH.”

This entry into Jerusalem, this parade of and for Jesus which we remember — and even enact with our own, little procession — was a very dangerous and political demonstration.  (Anyone who doesn’t think Jesus was political better take a second look at these stories!)  Jesus knew exactly what he was doing — and when it comes to political protests and demonstrations, timing is everything.  

You see, every year, a couple times a year, Pontius Pilate — the mighty Roman governor of Judea — would come up from his home in Caesarea (about 50 mi. NW), the coastal Roman capital of the area, and into the city of Jerusalem...to govern, to remind people who’s in charge here.  Jews lived in occupied territory and they hated that — as I’m sure we would too.  Just the sight of the mighty Roman procession of Pilate and his entourage up on their mighty, war horses, would make their blood boil.  It would remind them more than ever of the oppression under which they lived.  But if any of them took a chance and tried to mock them — well, try throwing something at the imperial military procession — see what happens…

And this was the week that the Jews were to be celebrating Passover, and people were coming in from all over Judea to do so.  And so just like when Capitals and the Nationals both have games in DC at the same time: extra security is shipped in, to make sure nothing gets out of hand.   This happened whenever the Jews had a big festival, but especially the festival of Passover, because here — as you know — the Passover a celebration, a remembrance of their liberation from Egypt, it was all about freedom from oppression.  So certain groups of Jews — Zealots especially — were known to incite the Jewish crowds.  It was a really tense atmosphere during Passover.  Anything could happen and the Roman powers — under the command of Pontius Pilate — were going to make sure that it didn’t — or else...there would be blood.  This was “Pax Romana” (Peace of Rome), the great decree of Caesar, live and in the flesh! 

And Pilate and his military forces always came in, we know, through a gate on the western side of Jerusalem, the royal gate, the gate that leads right to their Roman luxurious capital city on the Mediterranean coast.  Easy access.

And Roman theology put military power and military leaders on such a pedestal as to elevate the experience of their triumphal entry to a religious event.  When Roman military leaders and governors like Pilate would come into town, always mounted on great, white war horses, the people would spread blankets on the ground and shout “God save the Emperor” or in Hebrew “Hosanna to the Emperor”, trumpets would play, historians even tell us that they would spray expensive perfume into the streets, so that the smell of victory, power and might was literally in the air.  And woe to any who would disrupt a demonstration and a parade — a worship service — like this!

(It’d like someone disrupting the National Anthem...try it...)

At the beginning of the Passover week, Pilate and his entourage rode into town (from the west) with all this respect and awe and fanfare.  

But there was another procession coming into town that day — another leader was entering through an opposite gate — this one on the eastern side of the city.  Jesus was coming in from Bethphage, where the Mount of Olives is located, just east of the Jerusalem walls.  Jesus’ timed this just right.  He knew Pilate was coming from the west, right about the same time.  So Jesus rides in — not on a war horse — but on a colt in Luke’s gospel.  And it all came off as a mockery of Rome.  Jesus interrupted the National Anthem.  And this Palm Sunday parade that we study and reflect upon this morning, and even enact, at the beginning of Holy Week, is a political demonstration that really mocks all the trust that the Romans have in their systems of war, of peace-by-force, of their mighty horses, and legions of troops, and of Rome’s distance from the people.  They’re not in touch!

It’s not “pax” at all — that Rome offers, if it’s peace through force.  And Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing.  

And so, the text goes on to say, that the people were stirred up.  It says the whole city was in turmoil.  Some of the Pharisees, it says, wanted to calm every body down: “Teacher order your disciples to stop,” but Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”  The very earth would scream.  There’s no going back, in other words.  There’s no keeping status quo any longer.  Something has broken out, heaven has touched earth, and that’s frightening, and that’s promising.  
Holy Week is so rich with meaning...

Our God is not a contender for Pilate and Rome and their legions.  Even though I’m setting it up (and actually this the late, great Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan’s work) like a boxing match:  [Don King] “Coming in from the west..!  East...Let’s get ready to rumble!” No, Christ’s is a road of peace and justice, particularly in Luke’s Gospel.  Remember Jesu’; inauguration speech and before that, Mary’s song that we’ve been singing all through Lent, about the poor being filled and having good news brought to them?!  Christ is our peace.

But I wonder if there’s a part of us — I know there’s a part of me — that wants to see Jesus be the great contender to the powers of this world, taking Pilate down with a divine TKO.  Why do we have this appetite for violence and revenge?  That would certainly be tapping into the spirit of the crowds of that time too.  In fact, that’s exactly what the Jews wanted Jesus to do.  “Knock him out the box, Jesus!”  

But friends in Christ, Jesus contends against something much greater than a powerful and oppressive regime.  [pause]  Jesus contends against evil and sin, against “the devil and all his empty promises”, against hatred and violence, against war and oppression, against bigotry and ignorance, against selfishness and pride.  (Jesus contends against all the challenges that were before us through Lent -- bitterness, the struggle to forgive, staying awake and alert, participating always in the care and attention to the least, the lost, and the lowly.  How’d that go for you?  
I’m guessing — by virtue of the fact that you’re a human being — that you didn’t perfect the disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting, almsgiving — maybe you even failed pretty miserably.  Yes, Lent teaches us again and again that we stand in the need of God’s grace.)  But Jesus comes to contend against these forces.  

[slowly]  Jesus — in his humble and yet powerful ride into town, mounted on a goofy, young colt — is contending against death itself.

Nothing says Emmanuel like Christ on a goofy, young colt.  
Nothing says God-is-with-us like this spectacle from the eastern gate of the city.  For God comes quietly alongside us and offers us peace amid all the chaos and fury.

The irony here is palpable — that Christ would take on powers much greater than Pilate and the authorities — seated on a baby horse, adorned later with thorns and lashings, and on Friday hanging from a cross.  But Christ comes into Jerusalem and into our hearts precisely for that purpose — to take on death itself...for our sake...to give us peace.  AMEN.  

Sunday, April 7, 2019

April 7 -- Fifth Sunday in Lent

What does love smell like?  Our text today taps our senses with this image of a fragrance consuming the room, the whole house actually.

Heather and I have some dear friends from our four years together in seminary in Chicago.  During our first year, one of our friends’ fathers died to cancer, and it pulled her away from our community for a long time, as she journeyed home to be with him for his final days, and then to mourn and plan and be with family in the two or three weeks following.  It was a long time that Sara was apart from us.  And we wanted to do something for her when she returned.  Someone thought it might be nice to simply clean and dust her apartment, so we did that, so that she would have a fresh clean place to come home to…and then another friend of ours insisted that we bake bread in her oven.  So that when she returned from burying her father, at least she would return to the smell of fresh bread.  She still talks about that wonderful fragrance to this day.  She might not remember every comforting and loving word that she received from us in those days, but she remembers the smell.  Love definitely has a certain and wonderful fragrance.

What does love smell like for you?  What are some of the smells that that assure you that you are loved?  When I’ve asked this question before, the smell of good things baking and the smell of flowers both were frequent responses.  Is that true for you?--does love smell like flowers or things baking for you?   As I get to thinking about why those are such high ranking scents, I wondered if maybe it was because those are smells that are so often backed by people who love us and have worked hard for us.  The smell of bread baking in the oven is not just that.  It’s a setting aside of time, it’s a consideration for our well being far in advance, then it’s an outpouring and mixing of ingredients, it’s timing and warming and rising, until at last that wonderful smell reaches our noses.    (I got BLC a bread maker for this very reason.  It just made sense, the Bethlehem the HoB, had a bread maker…) 

A similar thing can be said of a garden that is carefully tended.  A process, a quiet time, maybe even a period of question and doubt—“Will they grow?  Will they bloom this year?”—but then at last, the wonderful smells of springtime blossoms fill the air.  And we know that there is love and that we are loved.  It’s no wonder fresh bread and fresh flowers are often smelled in the days surrounding the death of a loved one —  so that we might know, despite all the tragedy, that still there is love and that we are loved.

And so in our Gospel text this morning, we have again this meeting of death and the overwhelming fragrance of grace and love.  This scene today, we have to understand, follows right after the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Can you imagine sitting at a table with someone who was literally dead just days before?  And now there you are having this celebration?  I imagine that there was still a “stench of dead” lingering from Lazarus…but he was on the mend, filling his body with good food and his soul with good company.  Can you imagine what the mood around the table must have been?  Maybe quiet and awestruck, like when you’ve just swerved out of the way of something awful on the road—heart pounding, frantically reflective, thinking, “That could have been really bad.”  The air was probably both electric and shell-shocked with that kind of energy.

Enter Mary.  Who crosses the room, kneels down in front of Jesus, and dumps so much expensive perfumed oil on his feet that the value equated a year’s worth of wages.  Let’s just say the equivalent to $40,000 today.  $40,000 worth of perfume dumped out on Jesus’ feet!  Was Judas so out of line?  [burning money] That’s money she’s wasting!

This text drags us into the challenging territory of worship vs. social action (what’s more important?), praise of God vs. service to world, the vertical vs. the horizontal.  

And we all have our tendencies.  For many years, believe it or not, I couldn’t stand the idea of weekly worship…and that being the defining point of the Christian life.  In seminary we were taught that worship is the heart of the Christian life…and I just thought, NO.  That can’t be, that can’t be the center.   Worship?  What, a bunch of prayers and some rituals and songs?  Really?  That’s the center of the Christian life?  What about how we treat one another for the other 6 days of the week?  What about how we care for the earth that God so loved?  Worship usually drove me crazy.  People in seminary would spend so much time planning and worrying about how they would say or read something.  Practice and practice.  (Then I went to a church where worship, in my judgement, was done “sloppy” — so casually and shallow, it was closer to a rock concert and a social mixer — in my judgement, and it started help me rethink things...that’s another story...)  

For those of you who don’t share my struggle — who have always gotten the importance of doing worship really well —  there are plenty of other Gospel texts and stories in the Bible where you/we get to be challenged—stories about how we treat one another for the other 6 days of the week, how we care for the world that God so loved.  

But today, Mary has something to teach us about worship, as we draw even closer to the highest and holiest days of our church calendar—the looming Passion, death and resurrection of Christ—today we are dragged into the territory of worship.  That is, of kneeling at Jesus’ feet and pouring out that which is so precious—ourselves, our time, our money and possessions.  
Everyone has something significant to offer, and we are called , friends in Christ, to follow Mary to the feet of the One who offers himself first for us.  How might you pour yourself out for Christ these days...and in so doing let the fragrance of love fill the room, that is, this world?  

You see, that’s the thing that I never really got about doing worship well: when we pour ourselves out in worship, like Mary, all the others benefit too.  It wasn’t Jesus who needed that fragrance, but in pouring expensive scents all over his feet, the smell that filled the air, consumed the smell of death, the stench of despair!  (Remember, Lazarus still stunk!?  But not anymore.)    

As we pour ourselves out in faithful worship to the One who first loved us, who first poured himself out for us, who first loved this world with a divine love that we can’t even fully describe, a love that we can most of the time only smell…as we pour ourselves out in faithful worship to that One, like Mary, all the others (in the room) benefit.  The “house” is filled with the fragrance.  Did you know the word “ecology” comes from the Greek words “oikos” and “logos”?  The “house,” the world is filled with the fragrance of our faithfulness.  And ultimately with the fragrance of God’s love.  

Friends in Christ, we’re invited again to be faithful these late Lenten days, to pour ourselves, our time and our possessions out.  But only as a response to the One whose love wafts and hovers and covers this whole world (despite all its tragedy), the One whose love fills you and me as we worship and give thanks in this place.  That love, that divine forgiveness and grace, that fragrance lingers, abides with you now and into eternity.  AMEN.

Monday, April 1, 2019

March 31 -- Fourth Sunday in Lent

Sisters and brothers in Christ, I’m going to liken every single one of you/us here today…to the older brother. 

Usually, I’d have you put yourself into these Bible stories.  Who do you identify with?  Which characters words or predicaments best fit your current situation?  But today I’m going to tell you: You’re the older brother.  Why?  Because every single one of you is here at church.  Good for you :)

Now maybe there have certainly been times in your life when you’ve identified more with the reckless younger brother.  I’m sure many of us can relate to the father as well.  (Although — we are reminded by theologians that none of us can truly be the merciful parent in this story.  Ultimately — and the point of the story is — only God can be that.  Even if you’ve rejoiced at a child’s homecoming or struggled through the pain of a loved one’s reckless behavior, as this parable goes, only God...)

No, today, you’re the older brother.  Because you’re here.  And because we can all relate to bitterness.  Hard-heartedness.  Hard, diligent work through the years.  Doing the right thing.  And wanting everything to be fair.  Because there’s a word we all need to hear from our God again this day: mercy.
Quick recap of the famous story.  Little brother, “brattily,” demands his share of the family inheritance.  Goes out -- goes far from home -- and blows it.  Until he arrives at this scene with the pigs.  Couldn’t be any lower than that, especially, remember, for a Jewish audience: Swine are unclean, defiled creatures.  He’s hit rock bottom.  

But there in the pig pen, he comes up with a plan.  “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worth to be called you son; treat me like one of you hired hands.‘  So he sets off…”  
Note: there is no sign of or word for “repentance” here!  The Greek word for repentance metanoia that we’ve seen before in Luke’s gospel -- nope.  The closest we get is that it says, “When he came to himself…” Lots of great discussion on what that means.  (from “sobered up” to “discovered who he was”)

I’m convinced, especially given the two parables that precede this one -- the lost sheep (stupid) and the lost coin (dead, inanimate) that that son is pretty much in those categories...plus he’s un-repentant and maybe even preparing to manipulate his father all over again.  “Here’s what I’ll do:  I’ll say this to my father…”  He rehearses his lines, like an addict, says what he needs to say to get his next hit.  He’s a reckless, self-centered, lost, worthless son.  That’s the image Jesus is so vividly painting in this story.  (Love that painting in my office, but John August Swanson’s depiction of the prodigal son is way too beautiful.)  This kid is lazy, dangerous trash.

And that’s intentional build-up for the rest of us who are far from lazy, dangerous trash.  We haven’t gotten to us yet.  Maybe you have been in the pig pen, but you’re here now.  You’re the oldest son today. 

So I don’t even have to tell you to “imagine” the father lavishing mercy on this deadbeat, mooching, manipulative, robbing younger brother.  Yeah -- you know, one commentator reminded me that the fatted calf, the ring, the robe all the stuff the father gave that youngest son was actually the inherited property of the older son’s, right?  The whole story starts with “Father, give me my share of the inheritance…”  So, everything else belonged to the older brother.    
I mean, there is so much here for that older brother to be  bitter about!  Think of all the bitterness that you’ve carried in your life, friends in Christ.  That’s the whole project this Lent season here in the shadow of the cross -- to acknowledge the bitterness, the hard-heartedness, we bear, and to bring it forward and leave it at the altar, at the cross.  

Ever been jealous when an act of compassion was directed at someone (or a group of people) you didn’t think deserved it...AT ALL.  “Why should they get that -- they haven’t done anything to deserve it!”:  

“Why should my deadbeat sister, my lazy brother, my mean neighbor, my late-arriving co-worker, my corner-cutting employees, those other members of this church (or this Lutheran family, or this Christian faith), that other side of our community -- why should any of those robbing, cheating, lazy, ungrateful, dishonest, manipulative, spoiled other people (Samaritans) get the fatted calf slaughtered for them, get a party thrown in their honor…when I haven’t even gotten so much as a small goat?!”

Lord, it is hard to be gracious.  Like God is gracious and merciful. 

I think this is really a story about the lost older son.  We know know where this is going with the youngest, by the time we get to the third story.  First it’s the lost, dumb sheep.  Then it’s the lost, dead, inanimate coin.  So we know what’s going to happen to the prodigal son.  He’s going to be found!  They all get parties thrown for them!  The real gift and twist of this third story, for us today, is the way the father treats the oldest.

And this what God says to us too, dutiful people-in-Church:
“You are always with me.  And all that is mine is yours.”
Let that soak in these days:  

We are always with God.  God has always got us-always had us-always will.  Since you were in your mother’s womb, God has held you in love, grace, mercy and peace!  

“And all that I have is yours.” God has entrusted everything, this whole earth, to us.  God’s just handed it over to us, to manage it as we will, to care for it.  The planet is our family farm.  God’s entrusted it to us.  (This is stewardship, btw.)

“But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life.  He was lost and has been found.”

Friends in Christ, God invites us out of our hard-heartedness, for we too can get lost in that.  Christ calls us out of our bitterness — pay attention to when you’re feeling bitter this week — and instead God calls us, like the father in the story, to celebrate and rejoice.  Come join the party!  

This grace is amazing, which means it’s for everyone:  it is for the healing of the nations, the breaking down of barriers that divide, the joining hands and joining hearts of sisters and brothers who are different and even at odds.  

This grace is amazing which means it’s for everyone: it is for you and for me — the lost and the lonely, the broken and the bitter, the angry and the afraid.  

This grace is for all.  Thanks be to God.  We have been found.  AMEN.