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.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

June 28 -- ELCAirB&B Hospitality (After Pentecost 4A)

Whoever welcomes you, welcomes Jesus.

I’ve had this dream since the pre- and for a post-COVID world...of setting up a system of Lutherans around the country, who would be on a list of open homes for fellow traveling ELCA Lutherans.  The connection would be through the churches.  Part of a congregations’ annual report to the national church offices would be reporting the number of open B&B households in that congregation.  We could call it Lutheran-Couch-Surfers-of-America, or something.  The Friendly Lutheran Hostel Network or ELCAirB&B?

Wouldn’t that be wonderful if anywhere you traveled, you had a great place to stay?  Not great because of the free wi-fi or continental breakfast, but great because you would always be housed by friends, even if they were strangers at first.

I actually believe this already exists (just unofficially), because I’ve tried it a number of times, and it’s amazing!  I’ve called up a number of churches over the years in the towns and cities I’m traveling through, and I just ask.  I usually start small and ask if I can stay in the church building.  I’ll explain my connection to the larger church, talk about my travel plans, and that I’m just looking for a place to stay, wondering if I could just put a sleeping bag in their youth room, or even crash on a pew.  I’ve done this solo, and we done this as a little family-of-4.

And in the course of that request and new connection, I’d get to meet the pastor, about 2 or 3 other members, see another Lutheran church, their bulletin boards and offices and landscapes and sanctuary — I’ve done this in Louisville, Kentucky, Atlanta, GA, Amarillo, TX.  One time we called a church in El Paso, TX, and that time, the pastor just invited us over to her house for the night.  Single woman in her 50’s, just opened the door for us and even gave us dinner (and breakfast)…and even put out some toys on the living room floor that she brought home from the church nursery.  Yet another time, the pastor simply put us in touch with an amazing family, (who is still on our Christmas card list) in Durango, Colorado.  Micah and Katie were little at the time, and this family had 2 sweet high school-aged daughters who were so excited to host little kids, they made up little Mickey and Minnie mouse beds in the basement and even had a box of legos and crayons on each of their pillows!  The Holiday Inn had nothing on our Lutheran Hospitality Network!  And of course our hosts always just laugh in our faces if (or when) we ask if we could give them a little money for their trouble...they laugh because it sounds as silly as relatives asking if they can pay you to stay at your house overnight.

Jesus says today in the Gospel: “Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.”  So put yourself in a position to be welcomed, right!  That way people can meet Jesus.
Do you think our hosts met Jesus through our showing up, road weary, cranky kids, flustered passers through?

We have a text before us that is about hospitality.

It turns out that my idea of a safe-homes-network is not new at all:  It’s a very tame version actually of the type of hospitality that is always offered throughout the Middle East, both in ancient Jesus days and even today!  It’s deeply imbedded in Middle Eastern culture to open your door and offer food, drink, and lodging to total strangers.  I’m talking about offering hospitality just among Lutherans, like a little club.  But has anyone ever been exposed to Middle Eastern hospitality?  It extends way beyond religious, ethnic, national and cultural boundaries!

I had a colleague once, who’s passionate about Palestine and taking people to the Holy Land.  He’s traveled by himself all over the Middle East, and on one of his first trips there, I remember he told us this story about how his lodging plans fell through at the very last minute...I mean the day before his flight over.

So a friend of a friend gave him an email, and he contacted a total stranger a day before he was set to arrive from the United States, and asked if could stay just for a night or two while he figured out what he was going to do.  Can you imagine?

And this family, lets him — a total stranger — ~25 years old, big, white guy with a bushy blond beard and a thick upper-Midwestern build to go with his accent, into their home and demanded that he be their guest for his entire stay in the Holy Land, about 2 months!  The town where they lived was a little town called Bethlehem.  No joke.  And he later but very quickly learned that this wasn’t just some crazy, nice family:  this kind of welcome toward strangers is cultural.  He felt all special and lucky at first—“I really struck gold here”—until he realized that anyone would be treated this way.  He was sure that if we were traveling unarmed and vulnerable, we would all be afforded the same kind of treatment, regardless of our religion or anything else, if we just asked.

There’s a certain vulnerability in just asking though.

There’s a blog online that I like to look at around Epiphany in January, when we reflect on the Journey of the magi — the three wise men, as they’re popularly conceived.   And this blog is about these three modern-day-Americans who literally traveled the ancient Fertile Crescent by camelback about 10 years ago — from Bagdad to Bethlehem.  They started in September and got there at Christmas time.  Their pictures are astounding, but it’s the really same story about hospitality as my friend who studied in Bethlehem.

Here’s a quote from one of the travelers:  “It is almost absurd, sitting in these peoples' homes and sharing lunch with them, being offered a bed for the night, and their brotherhood. This is Iraq, and if they are the enemy, who needs friends?”

“Whoever welcomes you, welcomes me.  Whoever offers just a cup of cold water…”

Sisters and brothers, friends in Christ, we have such wonderful opportunities before us all the time — even now — to both give and receive hospitality, even as simple as giving/receiving a cup of cold water.  That might look a little different in a COVID-world, so we now have to think about what the COVID-world’s equivalent is, but the opportunity to “offer a cup of cold water, a bed for the night, some shade” is there as much as it ever was.  Jesus invites us again today to be on both sides, to expose ourselves to both sides, of hospitality.  Discipleship is not one-sided — have you noticed that?  We’re always saying Jesus sends the disciples out to be welcomers...here again he sends them/us to be  welcomed.  When was the last time you were welcomed by a stranger?

I counted this morning: if you come into Bethlehem Lutheran here in Fairfax, right now, and are looking around you will see the word “WELCOME” at least six times (in six different places) before you even step into this sanctuary.  That’s wonderful!  And hopefully on a Sunday morning, a visitor will hear that word many more times from us.  (printed 6+ times in worship folder too)

But we also need to allow ourselves to be welcomed.

Ministry is really all about welcome, isn’t it?  Both sides of welcome, though.  Being a follower of Jesus is really about hospitality—both sides of hospitality.  We are called both to welcome and to be welcomed.  (It’s always a blessed exercise in humility to pick up the phone and ask for a bed for the night, for a cup of cold water; it’s tough to expose ourselves to hospitality.)

But when hospitality happens, Christ is there.  That’s what’s at the heart:  Christ is moving in and with and around and between both welcomer and welcomed; Christ was working in and with and around and between both that wonderful church family in Durango and me and my family, as we crashed for the night; Christ is alive in and with and around and between both the Palestinians of Bethlehem and my friend; Christ was breathing, in and with and around and between both the modern-day-3-American-wise men and every one of their hosts across the Middle East desert.

And Christ is there every time you show up — on either side — of even the smallest act of hospitality: a cup of cold water, a welcoming post, kind note in the comments column, an offer (or an acceptance) of a gift or a bite to eat or a spare bed, or a coat, or a respectful nod.

And I am thinking at the moment, Bethlehem family, that we need to work on being welcomed way more than we do on welcoming others.  I think it’s tougher for lots of us to be received, than to be in the “driver’s seat” receiving others — you know what I mean?  It’s way harder, on one hand, to ask “Would you host/welcome me?” than it is to say, “Of course I will.”  But on the other hand, this is good news, because accepting the kindness of strangers, simply opening your hands and receiving hospitality, is actually way less work on our part.  All you have to do is show up, ask.  We need to work on doing less work.  Can I maybe get an Amen?

“What can we do?” is the question we keep wrestling with in our White Fragility conversations.  I know I wrote it myself, “White people, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”  What can we do?  Maybe some of what we can do is “expose ourselves to being welcomed”?  There’s a real vulnerability in that.  Receive hospitality, when it comes our way, even ask for it: “Would you welcome me?”  What would that look like?  “Would you host me?”

It’s a deeply biblical and theological question too, friends:  
“Would you welcome me?  Would you host me?” — to open ourselves to welcome, to accept the love and grace of another.  This is deeply Christian.

Work on doing less work, hard workers.  And instead — just receive the very grace and hospitality, the very welcome of God.

Faith itself is a work-less gift, it cannot be earned or acquired, it can only be received, symbolized in the splashing of the baptismal water.  All you can do is accept the welcome that God has for you.  Nothing you can do to earn it.

Friends, when there is welcome, when there is grace, there is God.  AMEN.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

May 24 -- Angels Sidling Up & Ascension from Below (Easter 7A)

He is risen!  … Alleluias abound.  We are Easter people with signs of the resurrection all around us and around this world.  Christ is deeply present in our pain and in our joy.  In our hope and in our sorrow.  Christ breathes through us, Christ breathes us, he’s so close…

So what’s Jesus doing ascending into heaven, as we read today?  Why’s he leaving us?  Why’s that closeness shrinking and shrinking as he lifts up into the clouds?  I thought he’s always promised to stay with us.
Oh well, let’s just wait.
I’m sure he’ll be back.  [looking up]
Will you wait with me?
It’s very Christian to wait, together…
And we’re getting pretty used to waiting these days…

This may have been how those disciples long ago felt to:  Can you imagine the joy that they had just experienced on reuniting with their friend?  Forget for a moment all the theological implications of Jesus’ resurrection—these men and women had their friend, their son, their brother, their favorite teacher back!

But just as soon as he’s back in the flesh—walking with them down their roads, fishing in their waters, sitting around their tables—he’s gone again…this time up into heaven.
So they’ll wait.

The text says, “While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.”

Jesus hadn’t even been gone for but a few moments—and they could probably still see him way up there, like when a little one accidentally lets go of a helium balloon and we all watch it drifting up and up, sometimes there’s some crying when that happens—and angelic strangers are sidling up next to them!

Jesus was never even gone completely and angels are already sidling up!

How we too may be caught staring at the heavens.  How nice it is to “gaze up,” to enjoy the serenity, the dreaminess—even the fun of tracking a drifting hot air balloon Jesus, somewhere up there.

OK maybe not literally, do we gaze up at the sky.  We’re busy, productive types here.  But what is your drifting Jesus balloon that you’re gaze up at wistfully?

Paying off the house?  Retiring in fine style?  Keeping the kids perfectly safe and sound?  Finishing the backyard?  Just getting to heaven?  Getting out of this shut-down, getting back to church, getting back to “normal,” getting back something or someone we’ve lost...

All nice things, to be sure; pretty normal really, all those desires.

But Jesus doesn’t operate in the realm of “pretty normal really”!  Jesus doesn’t just leave us gazing up.  And he doesn’t drop us a ladder from on high either, affirming our longings and blissful dreams, so that we can leave all this behind.
Instead Jesus sends angels, sidling up, to snap us out of our gazes [“suddenly”], and to position us for ministry in this world, in this world.  These angels locate us.
When we stare at the sky, we see no one else.  I wouldn’t even know if you were here or if you left, if just kept staring at the sky.  I probably wouldn’t care.

But when I’m snapped out of my gazing up, I see you, I see us, I see this world out the windows and doors.
And this is just Luke’s version.   (The author of Acts is the author of Luke.)  In Matthew’s version there is no ascension story, Jesus in fact never does leave.  Jesus says, “Lo, I am with you always.”

Meme on FB this week:  “Today we celebrate Ascension.  To those who wonder what it’s about: It’s the day when Jesus started to work from home.”
Whether its angels or Jesus himself, we have our focal point re-adjusted again today.  From gazing at the sky to seeing our siblings, seeing the world, and seeing all those angels right before us, right with us.  Angels sidling up.

And then starts an interesting progression: One of the great things I love about this text in Acts is this progression that Jesus offers:  “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria [cross that border], and to the ends of the earth.”

Heather and I had a friend who once said — she was a bit of a guru when it came to house projects, and I was complaining to her about being overwhelmed with stuff (thinking of her advice these days) — she said, just take one thing, one room, one part of the yard at a time.  “Don’t try to stay on top of it all, or you’ll drive yourself crazy.”  Her advice reminds me of “Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth.”  The progression is daunting, but when we take each step intentionally, lovingly, faithfully, when we are located by the angels myself, then we do everything we can in this time and place.  Not gazing out or up, taking a breath, one day at a time.  The angels are already sidling up next to you.

We are called to be witnesses, friends in Christ, witnesses...
1) to Jerusalem – those who are hurting right here at Bethlehem, in Fairfax, in Northern Virginia...but Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook at that...
2) we are called to be witnesses to Judea and Samaria too – that is, both in our country and across our borders – those who are hurting in the District, in Maryland and West Virginia, in Florida and Michigan and Puerto Rico, and then cross our national borders: in Mexico and Canada and Cuba.
3) And then, we are called to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.

WE are called to be witnesses, given the Spirit of Truth, the Word of God, word of life!
And we’re not alone in this work.  You’re not alone.

My theology professor (of sainted memory, on this Memorial Day Weekend).  Vitor was soldier of the Gospel.  He would get so passionate about this text, and point out the literal words of vs. 11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go…”  In other words, his theological read of this, is that Jesus will come from beneath:  if he’s coming in the same way we saw him go, then if you want to see Jesus from now on, you will see him in solidarity with the below, with the downtrodden people, the marginalized people, the hopeless and cynical and lost and addicted and oppressed people, the victims of violence and grieving who are remembering this Memorial weekend…

You will see him come the same way the same vector you witnessed him go.  And not just rising from people: You will see Jesus ascend back to us from the bosom of the devastated earth.  Jesus ascends from the polluted streams, and chopped down rainforests, and the elephant graveyards, all the species who have been lost on account of greed and selfishness.  Jesus ascends to us.

And goes with us as we witness, for Christ gives us that same ascension Spirit which both enlivens us, gives us the courage and strength we need to go forth, and it binds us together.  We are never offering our hands to Christ’s work alone.  Even if the whole Christian church around the world dwindles, dwindles, dwindles there will always be two or three gathering, reading Scripture, sharing the meal, and being sent out in Christ’s name!  You are not alone.  We are bound together, bound together, nourished and then sent out.

I love that at the end of this text, after this amazing experience of ascension and angels, from gazing to seeing, from dreaming to scheming—after it all, the disciples returned to Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s walk from where they experienced all this.  They don’t go out from the hillside of the Ascension:  first they gather. And they start this whole mission into the world in prayer.  “They devoted themselves in prayer.”

How often we charge into our tasks before devoting ourselves in prayer.  (prayer before voting at assembly, prayer before council meetings...vs. not)

“They devoted themselves in prayer.”

Friends in Christ, that’s a picture of a Sunday morning!  A Sabbath day’s walk.  Devoting ourselves in prayer.

Luther: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”

Pausing for a moment to give thanks that God is both up there and right here, at the very same time.  Lifting our hands in a gesture of thanksgiving, that this world is not ours to rescue, but only ours to serve.  Un-gripping our hands in a gesture of openness of heart and mind, for God to take us once again this day, and make us one, mold us into a people with eyes set not on the cluster of clouds and a one-track dream, but on the cluster of sisters and brothers across the street, and across the “interwebs,” and across the borders — and a one-track Gospel message of GRACIOUS LOVE.

We are gathered, we are baptized, we are fed at this manger, and now we are sent.  Thanks be to God.  AMEN.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

May 17 -- Paul & Our Many Altars (Easter 6A)

Friends in Christ, if Paul was to wander through your life — your daily routines, where you spent your time and your money, where you made sacrifices: the things that bring you great joy, the things that get you really upset, and the ways you speak — if Paul was to wander down “your street”, stand at the center of your personal “town square” (the Areopagus) — WHAT WOULD HE NOTICE?

The question is not: “Are you/is anyone religious?”  The question is: “In what ways are you extremely religious?”  Everyone worships something.  The word worship, broken down, “worth-ship”.  What’s worthy of your sacrifices?  That’s what we worship.  Lots of people go to church but don’t worship God.  Because God’s not worthy of their sacrifices, the church is not worthy of their sacrifices: traveling the world is what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices.  Clothing or hobbies or housing improvements or sports or fancy alcohol or knives or guns or shoes or concerts or cars or crafts are what’s truly worthy of their sacrifices.  We all have our thing, I think.  What’s your thing?

The best way for Paul to wander down any one of our “streets” is for him to take a look at our credit card statements, right?  Our Amazon (non-essential) recent purchases.  Or however you can track how and where you spend your money.  (I was shocked at how much our family spent on food in this past year’s credit card report — not restaurants but food: organic, locally sourced, healthy food.  It’s more expensive.  We’ve admitted that’s a place we’re willing to make sacrifices.  I guess you could say it’s one of our idols.)  And I won’t even divulge all my non-essential Amazon purchases.  That’s the real “giving record,” right?

That’s where we can see where we really make sacrifices.  I know the whole, “but it’s not just about money when it comes to church” idea.

And that’s true, but so often, I think, we can hide behind that.   So much is about money...  x2 That’s why Jesus talked about money all the time!

“Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Mt. 6.21; Lk. 12.34).  What is it that you treasure?  What is it that you protect?  What is it that you make sacrifices for?  Where is your heart?

Well, all this was true in the ancient world as well, as Paul walked through the streets of Athens, “Athenians,” he says, “I see how extremely religious you are in every way.”

But there’s something else:
Paul notices that there is an altar to an unknown God.
You see, the people of Athens — like us today — worshipped all kinds of gods.  I think it was more overt then: maybe less shame or denial about it.  They made sacrifices openly to the gods of sports, food, parties, travel, transportation, music, crafts and weather.  (BTW, living in Southern California all those years, I think we really worshipped the weather there.  I mean, people really make sacrifices for that beautiful weather, higher cost of living, etc.  And our observation, leaving that region was all these comments on how much we were going to miss the weather.  How different is that from worshiping an ancient sun god?)  That’s just one of many altars...

But there was this one altar that was unmarked.  It was like the fill-in-the-gap altar — one for everything else.

...and Paul seizes on that image to introduce them to a different kind of God.

See, it actually was in fact a fill-in-the-gap altar:  Like today, the people lived in great fear.  If you didn’t sacrifice to every god out there, if you worship at every altar — the altar of security, the altar of beauty & youth, the altar of war, the altar of food and drink and sport and weather, the altar of work...If you don’t appease every god, then trouble would inevitably befall you.
So just in case you miss one, there was this little “fill-in-the-gap” altar.
 Just in case you forgot about a god or two.  You could sacrifice at the altar of the unknown god.

       Paul seizes on that to draw them into a new understanding...
See, it’s like, there was “something else.”  The people even knew it.  This way of living and worshiping and making sacrifices at all these altars, this way of being extremely religious was coming up short.

Don’t we see that too?  Do you ever feel that?  All these things we worship, and yet, somehow, it’s never enough?  (We’re having some real time to reflect on these during this shutdown.  During this “great pause” that this global pandemic has forced upon us...)

We’re always pouring more and more out at all these different altars?  And every god, will endlessly take our sacrifices: our money, our time, our devotion, our energy, our whole lives.  But it’s like they’re never appeased.  The gods are never appeased, and they’ll just keep taking…  (Just talking with dear friends about the tolls that stress is taking on our bodies, especially these days — I realize that not everyone is feeling stress right now amid this shut-down, some are even downright bored.  But, for so many, parents of school kids, or toddlers, balancing jobs and work from home, school, family, economic pressures, etc. the frantic pace at which we’re running around our own homes, from altar to altar to altar (it’s like all those altars got crammed into our house)…

Yeah, Paul could say it to us too:  “I see how extremely religious you are in every way!”

And, let me say, if life has had the brakes slammed on, and you’re more in the camp of twiddling your thumbs, staring at the wall, that’s certainly an opportunity for devotion to the many gods to tick up — surfing the shopping websites, buying crazy things in large amounts, consuming food, alcohol, social media, technology, instruments to fill the time.  So many altars!

Paul says it to us too:  “I see how extremely religious you are in every way!”
But then there’s this one other little altar.  This little tiny chapel, this insignificant table in the corner.  This silly, old cross.  Laughable really, in the shadow of all the other towering altars.  

Paul seizes on that little altar, and takes that fearful theology (“talk of God”) around that altar — how that has infected Christianity now too:  fearful theology — and fills it with incarnational theology.  God is with us.  This little, tiny, insignificant altar you see here, Paul says, “I proclaim to you that the God who made the world and everything in it, [the God] who is [composer and conductor] of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands…[this God] allotted the times of [our] existence and the boundaries of the places where [we] live, so that [we may] search for God and perhaps grope for [God]...though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.  For ‘In [God] we live and move and have our being….’”

We don’t grope for God, as if God is some object of our attaining, yet another thing to acquire [“gotta go to church to get some God in my life…”].  No, Paul proclaims here: We are IN God already.  My whole life changed with I started to accept that.  [say it again]

This little, un-named altar is an entry point into experiencing a God that is truly above all other gods!  A God who’s got the whole world — the whole universe — in a loving embrace.  A God in whom we “live and move and have our being.”  A God whose name is love, in Christ Jesus.

This is where Paul takes us...along with his ancient hearers.  Paul preaches of a God who is beyond time and space, who is above all our petty obsessions and weaknesses, who holds us even as we try to appease other gods!

This little Altar, this Book, this Water doesn’t contain God (God doesn’t live, cooped up in here)!  But they do, we confess, carry God.  This little altar, this old book, these drops of water, point us to a God who is loosed in, with, above, below, all around and throughout, under this entire universe!

We cannot encapsulate or domesticate this God of whom Paul speaks!  All we can do is give ourselves up to this holy movement — sacrifice ourselves to what we are already in God’s hands.

...Think of when children are angry and restless in their mother’s arms: there’s no use in trying to overpower her, “Just rest. Just breath. It’s OK.”  Can’t we be like restless children running from altar to altar to altar?  (Paul was once a restless Saul!)

Friends in Christ, we are truly IN Christ.  Not every day do we get to reflect on the all-inclusive, all-loving, all-surrounding embrace of a God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”  Being in Christ is where we find ourselves.  So now all we we can do is enjoy it, take a breath...and go make disciples.  Go invite others into this understanding, into this joyful awareness.  Tell them that we don’t have to make all these other sacrifices at all these other altars!  Go, make disciples by pointing them to the water and the word of life, and this community of love, this communion.  For simply in this following, there is peace.

Peace that is fuller and deeper than any other peace that any idols can offer.  Love divine, all loves excelling!   Jesus calls us away from those other loves, to come and follow, make your sacrifices here, and make disciples.  You are Christ’s witnesses to these things: you have a job to do!  It’s a blessed burden, a labor of love.

Thanks be to God, who holds us and this whole cosmos now...and forever more.  Go spread that Good News.  Breathe.  It’s gonna be ok.  Because at this altar, we celebrate...that... God’s got us.  AMEN.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

May 10 -- Mother's Day Story Theology (Easter 5A)

While I was in seminary and working one summer as a chaplain with a small group of seminarians (Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarians) at Loyola Medical Center and hospital in Chicago—there was a writing-and-reflection exercise that we had to do as part of our curriculum called “Story Theology”.

We had to write down a one-page, front side only, story about something in our lives, preferably not referring to our professional or vocational lives (like interactions with patients or reflections on our training) in the hospital, or in the church.  But rather a story from our personal lives, currently or deep in our memory banks.  Didn’t have to be anything profound or intense, necessarily, just a story from our lives.  Not our thoughts/feelings about the story, our interpretations; just what happened.  (Any of us could do this.)

Then, we would bring that story to our cohort (of 7), and together we’d reflect on it “theologically”.  Hence the name for this exercise: “Story Theology.”  The word “theology” is simply a fancy word for “talk about God”.  This was “talk about God” through a story, usually a very simple story.    
So, for example, a colleague of mine wrote about being carried by her uncle when she was little and on a trip to the Philippines.  I wrote about a muddy adventure I had had with my brothers.  Not the feelings or the thoughts, just what happened.   Another described her mother’s stern look, no feelings, just descriptions.  And one colleague, I remember simply wrote about a bicycle that he had seen a few days earlier, just an old rusty bike, locked to a street sign and abandoned in a Chicago neighborhood.  

Then as a group, we’d take a whole afternoon on one such story and think about “where was God” in the story?  “What aspects of the Divine are revealed?”  What are the implications from our reflections for pastoral care, ministry, theology or rituals – there was a whole list of questions that helped us dissect our simple stories, but not to take away from the beauty of the simple story, rather to find meaning, insights—even God—in our stories, in ways we probably hadn’t ever considered on our own.  

It was a unique experience – taking a whole afternoon to reflect on a short story about looking in the mirror and seeing first gray hairs or tripping and falling at the grocery store or playing catch with your dad in the back yard.

It was important training, for me, in learning how to see God and talk about God being deeply imbedded into everyday life.  (I’d encourage you to try this.)

Maybe this doesn’t sound like anything new or profound to you, maybe it’s easy for you to find God deeply imbedded in everyday life, but put yourself in the shoes of intense and anxious pastors-in-training.  Our heads were so filled with books and papers and lectures and the experiences of others, it was really easy to stop trusting and paying attention to the wisdom of our own experience…and I for one realized that I was overlooking, missing God all over the place.

Friends in Christ, God is all over the place.  In our Gospel today, Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”  

Last week, we could kind of pin God down in the image of a Shepherd...but today, we remember that God’s also…all over the place.  We also hear today that God goes ahead of us to prepare a place, and that God is our rock and our shelter even now, and long before us.  God is all over the place in space and time. 

I think it’s easy to forget that.  Just like I was once so inundated with books and lectures in seminary that I missed God, all over the place, in the simpleness of life… 

...so can we all miss Christ—the way, the truth, the life right here, right now—in our being inundated with (maybe not books and lectures, maybe so but..) the pressures of this new COVID world, the stresses, the headlines, the bills to pay, the online appointments to make on time, the projects to finish, the kids to feed, the celebrations to drive by, the sleep to catch up on.  

It’s easy to miss it – the presence of God, the talk about God, deeply imbedded in our everyday. (“Come have breakfast.”)  But regardless of whether we notice it or not, God is all over the place…[pause] like junk mail, God just keeps arriving and arriving.  And we can be tempted to want to just put God in the recycle bin:  in the church building.

I’ve never liked calling the church “God’s house”…because that building, as holy and beautiful as it is, is just not enough to “house” God.  No, God’s house is much bigger: the world is God’s house!  The forest is God’s house, the oceans are God’s house, the city streets (including the not-so-pretty-parts) are God’s house, the volcano is God’s house, immigrant and the stranger is God’s house, the hospital bed is God’s house, the preschool and the boardroom and the basement is God’s house.  The spider monkey and the octopus is God’s house.  The lawyer and the homemaker is God’s house.  We are God’s house...You are God’s house.  

What did Jesus say, in my Mother’s house there are many, many rooms?  God isn’t just up there waiting…because that’s not enough.  

God is right here acting and moving and watching and loving this world – the way, the truth, the life here and now.  Listen to that Mother’s Day proclamation again!

We don’t go to the church building because that’s where God lives, like we’re paying God a visit.  No!  Rather the church building — more important, the gathered community — is where we go to celebrate this God who makes a home in, with and throughout this whole world.  It’s where we go to celebrate God’s incarnation, God’s indwelling, God’s deep and abiding, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, heartbeat-by-heartbeat presence.  As close to you as you are to your breath.  Pulsing through your veins and arteries…“the way, the truth, the life”.

I was at a preaching conference once, and as it often does, the issue of the church being in “decline” came up: not enough money, less and less people – it’s across the board, it’s across denominations; it’s a post-church age.  One of the preachers at the conference made reference to this in his sermon, but then he did a little “story theology” about the changes in the Christian church.  He inserted “God talk” into the story of the “church these days”, which might sound funny.  Why would there not be God talk around/about the church today?  But so often, we can forget about God’s action and presence, even when we use God’s name throughout our worship services, and maybe even in our everyday lingo, like when someone sneezes.  We can use God’s name and still forget about God’s action…

This preacher, it was the Rev. Dr. Thomas Long, did a little story theology on the story of the “church these days”…and said that whatever is happening to the church these days – and everyone’s got their theories about why – whatever is happening to the church these days, “we have to remember that God is doing it.”  That’s a powerful theological statement.  

God is up to something, God is all over the place, even in the church.  God is clearing away.  God is going to seed...just beneath the surface.  So that might look like nothing.  

God keeps arriving and arriving.  God keeps breaking out in unexpected ways, rising from the tombs, rising from the pain, rising from the isolation and the loneliness and the doubt, rising from the tears, rising from the poor, rising from the stranger, rising from the martyr Steven who cries out words of forgiveness and mercy toward the very people who are killing him with stones.  

Whatever is happening, God is doing it.  And our God is not a God of death—like we’ve perhaps heard before: a God who picks a few for eternal salvation and leaves the rest of the world, billions of people, not to mention the creatures of the planet to suffer, even burn in hell—NO!  Our God is a God of life, who doesn’t even just come down from above, but who rises up from below, from the ashes and the graves and the sorrow and the pain and the confusion and the despair.  

God keeps rising.  Rising from this world, and rising from you.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

April 26 -- Third Sunday of Easter

Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from Jesus, who comes to us, and walks with us today and always. Amen.

Well, I spent some time this week following the advice I’ve learned and shared frequently in my ministry...but haven’t always followed myself, to be honest.

I’m often saying, especially in terrible times, when you don’t have the words — when we don’t have the words — we fall back then on the holy words of the church:  The ancient prayers of the faithful, the lyrics of the hymns God’s people have been singing for decades and even centuries, the litanies and greetings and call-and-responses that have carried us through.  You know, like:  “The Lord be with you, and also with you; Christ is risen, Christ is risen indeed; God is good, all the time.  All the time, God is good.”  And of course, when we don’t have words, we fall back on the holy words of Scripture.

And this has been another tough week.  This week we learned of Doug's death, one of our own members.  Doug just joined the congregation in January.  He died from the many complications associated with Alzheimer’s.  And like so many in this terrible season of pandemic, Cecelia wasn’t able to be with him physically at the end.  Patty's mother Dorothy died too...also not related to the virus, but the whole situation is plagued by this physical distancing.  Patty’s a member of Bethlehem and has been walking a long journey with her mother (and father) in their declining health.  Please pray for Cecelia and her family, and Patty and her family, especially her father in this time of deep grief.

These are just two situations where words are hard to find.  There are thousands more, and especially in these days.  And how we can be rendered wordless.  Preachers, whose job it is to share words!
Feeling dry.  Feeling at a loss.  Feeling choked up.    

Did you know the Road to Emmaus is a windy, down hill?  Down hill walking can be a gift, on one hand, I know.  But it’s also hard on the knees for one thing, and for symbolic purposes, I think the imagery is loaded:
the disciples are spiraling downward.

They don’t have the words.  They’re getting (or already are) overwhelmed with sadness and bad news.  They had hoped, they had hoped, they had hoped…

So anyway, back to me :)  I decided to follow the advice I’ve shared before, but don’t always follow so well:  I fell back into the story, this Road to Emmaus text specifically.  I’ve preached on this text many times.  I’ve read it and riffed on it many more, you’d think there would be something for me to say, but I was coming up wordless this week.  Spiraling down, like the disciples in the wake and waves of the news and our people, our family members, our friends, and all those we don’t know who are suffering right now.  So much pain out there, so much pain in here [heart].

So one night this week — how does one fall back into the text — I lit a candle, poured myself a little scotch, and just started hand writing out this long Gospel text from Luke.

(BTW, if that sounds at all like a life-giving activity, I strongly encourage you to do the same with this or any of our lessons from Scripture.  Don’t do it if it feels like mindless punishment, writing on a blackboard the same thing over and over.)

There is just something that happens, when we fall back.  When we go back to the text.  When we dive deeper than a quick read.  True confessions: there are some Sundays, in my preparations that I only read over the text once or twice.  Just to get it in my head, [rushed] “Oh yeah, Road to Emmaus.  I know this.”  Maybe you long-time Christians do the same when familiar texts come up: “Here we go again, with the Easter story, I know this already…”

We don’t always and deeply “dwell” in the Word, do we?  I admit that I don’t.  There’s bills to pay, people to call, kids to feed, Zoom meetings to make, and on…and especially in a period of descending chaos.

Well, here’s what jumped out at me in my writing out Luke 24: 13-35, in my attempt at dwelling:

There is this interesting dynamic in the movement (or lack) of the two disciples vs. Jesus.  The only movement the disciples are doing is yes, downward, to Emmaus.  But what I noticed was also a certain paralysis.  There’s that moment at the beginning when the disciples stood still, looking sad.  That struck me.  It’s like they were stuck, in their pain and their grief.  In their despair, the draining of hope.

The only direction they could go was down, seven miles down.  Paralysis means a loss — literally a loosening — of power and ability from performing regular functions.   Sound familiar?

People beating themselves up for not being able to perform regular functions these days, or confused why they can’t “take advantage of all this down time”?  Why’s our house in disarray when we’re in it so much?  Why can’t I get to those projects or make those phone calls or update those records or whatever?  Why am I wanting to curl up and pull the covers over my head?  Paralysis?  A loosening of power to do regular stuff?

How we had hoped too, we’d be back by now, recovering soon, up and at ‘em...thought Jesus would redeem Israel...

And then, even after the seven mile walk with the risen Lord, opening the scriptures to them, journeying with all along the downward path, they were still stuck that evening.  Crashing for the night.  Closing up shop.  Maybe a little light was shed that day by this stranger with them, but sundowners, they’re lost, confused, scared — paralyzed — all over again.

Jesus was ready to go on, on the other hand.  Always moving.  (Theme in Luke.)  Jesus is the opposite of paralysis.  The contrast is stark.  It’s procession vs. paralysis in this text.  Jesus is always in procession.  This text begins with Jesus moving too.  Action verbs like “coming close” and “walking along,” and  then he’s ready to keep going even at the end of the day, even through the night.

And here’s the goldmine, friends in Christ:  At the bottom of the hill, Emmaus, when the day is done, the disciples ask Jesus to stay with them in their paralysis — in their stuck-ness, in their fear, and absence of hope, in their sorrow and in their confusion and anxiety about what the future holds.  They plead with him, it’s like the only energy or strength they have left, the only pull they have.  They urged him, the text says.
“So he went in to stay with them.”

Precisely when we’ve got nothing, Christ comes through the door and stays with us.  Precisely when we’re at the bottom, out of answers, out of words, out of hope, out of joy, out of peace, out of faith, that’s exactly when Jesus stops the procession for the moment and stays with us.

And then, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes, our eyes are opened.  In the physical being together and physical eating together, and physical praying at table together and I’ll just add the physical singing together — how I miss you all and our being together in body!

In the breaking of the bread, their eyes, our eyes are opened!

Suddenly they realize, wait a minute!  Wasn’t he with us all along.  Through all our paralysis, through every step of our decline to Emmaus.  When we crashed?  When we couldn’t go on?  He was there all along, opening the scriptures, walking beside, never leaving!

And right in that moment, he vanishes, and they’re OK with that.  I’ve always loved that.  You might think they ought to crash all over again, right?!  As if they are losing Jesus all over again!  But it’s the remembering that powers them, that fuels them.  “Were not our hearts burning…”  It’s this re-visioning that doesn’t just lift their spirits:
It sends them “that same HOUR” all the way back to Jerusalem!  The text says, the moment they recognized him, that night at table, they got up and went all the back, up the hill to Jerusalem!

That’s Christ resurrection procession, as opposed to despairing paralysis.  That’s what Christ does for us too, friends!

Christ is with us, in every step we take, in every crash we make, through all our confusion, and fear, and anxiety and heartache.  Christ is with us.  Christ is with you, and so…

Our paralysis is cleared too.  Even through the night of pain and pandemic, the loss of words, even death itself, even 7 miles down, through Christ, we can now, you can now process up hills...to go and tell the others — to share our bread, to love our neighbors, and to descend with them like Christ descended with us.
This is most certainly true.  Alleluia.  AMEN.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

April 19 -- Second Sunday of Easter (Blessing of the Animals)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace, in the name of the Risen Christ.  AMEN.

“If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Verse 23.

In 2010, Sister Sandra Marie Schneiders, professor at the Jesuit School of Theology presented a fascinating insight to a group of scholars on this verse 23.

The idea was that we’ve inserted and assumed a word into our  English translation of vs. 23, and it changes everything:  Schneiders points out that in the Greek, there is no word “sins” the second half.  So an alternative, perhaps more accurate translation would be, “If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven; if you retain any — or ‘hold any fast’, or even ‘embrace any‘ — they are held fast/embraced.”  The second half of verse 23 is about retaining/holding onto people...rather than sins.  The word “sins” is not there in the Greek!

This, she argues — along with Lutheran scholar, the Rev. Dr. Mary Hinkle Shore — that there is not only room for Thomas’ needing proof, it’s far more in line with Jesus’ actions and the over-arching theology of the entire Gospel of John.  “Retaining sins”, holding one’s sin over their head, doesn’t really fit with John’s Gospel, especially with all this peace-breathing that’s happening both before and namely after the resurrection.
This text is John’s version of the Great Commission: (In Matthew, it’s “Go ye therefore…”).  But here, in John —
“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.”  Then he breathes on them, “Receive the Holy Spirit...

If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced...whoever you love, they are loved).”  That’s Holy Spirit power!  That’s power that’s greater than Pilate and the Roman Empire.  That’s power that’s mightier than all the muscles and ammunition we can even imagine.  That’s power that’s greater than a global pandemic.  That’s power that has room to care for all creation — “whoever you hold, they are held” — that’s Holy Spirit power.  Jesus breathes this on the disciples and on us too, this April 19, 2020!

This is way more in line with John’s Gospel, than “retaining sins”.  Can’t you just hear the echoes of Jesus’ actions back through John?!!

On Good Friday, Jesus offered community to his beloved disciple and his own mother from the cross.  And so Christ’s sermon there, was to go and care for one another from this day forth, to offer beloved community to everyone, love flowing outward, from the cross.  And in the foot washing, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus offers this intimate cleansing and tangible forgiveness to us, and now we’re called, to turn and offer that same cleansing and forgiveness to each other and beyond!  First we receive it from God — that’s our being commissioned “Receive the HS” — then we in turn, and go, and share with the whole world, both physically and virtually.  And it’s all through John, the raising of Lazarus, the woman at the well, the blind man, the feeding of the 5000...all the way back to the beginning of John’s Gospel where “the light shines in the darkness,” and gives life to all people.  Whoever you hold, they are held.

Now post-resurrection — as we wade into this 50-day Easter season, basking in the peace that our Risen Savior breathes on us, even in these strange, terrible, pause-button quarantine days — here it is again:  first we receive from Christ forgiveness and embrace, then we turn and offer it to one another and to this whole world!  CHRIST IS RISEN!  He is risen indeed!!

This is the “in-deed”!  Turning and offering both forgiveness and embrace.

“Peace be with you, as the Father has sent me, so I send you.  Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; and whoever you hold, they are held (whoever you embrace, they are embraced).”

Who is it that you’re holding?  They are held in Christ.  I’m holding you all in this time, even as we are separated.  Therefore you are held in Christ, because I’m holding you.  I’m holding all those who are sick, all those mourning the death of loved ones, I’m holding God’s creation, the animals and plants.  Therefore they are all held in Christ.  Conversely I’m held in Christ:  I know that you all have been holding me and my family in this time.  Therefore I am held in Christ!  Do you see?  Whoever we hold, God holds.  Holy Spirit power.  (Remember when Jesus said to Pilate, you have no power over me.  Now Pilate has no power over us either.  We’ve received the Holy Spirit, sisters and brothers, friends in Christ!)

Whoever we hold, they are held.  Whoever we embrace, they are embraced...

And whoever we forgive, they receive the very forgiveness of God!  That’s the embrace of the Risen Christ.  Holy Spirit power.

And how all of God’s children need that embrace and forgiveness!  How all of God’s isolated children...from our neighborhoods, from our workplaces, from our schools, from the halls of power to the hall off the living room...in every nation and every language need that embrace and peace and forgiveness that the resurrected Jesus so abundantly breathes.

Christ gives you that same breath this day, that same power to forgive and heal.  In a moment we’ll offer that peace of Christ to each other.  And the symbols are the same there too.  “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Today is John’s Pentecost.
It isn’t just about shaking hands...which we can’t do now anyway.  Sharing the peace so much, friends: it’s war ending, walls coming down, conflicts forgiven, creation restored, animals blessed, plants blessed, cousins and neighbors blessed, death itself is destroyed! Jesus’ resurrection offers true peace.

If you’re doubting that’s really happening when we share the peace every Sunday, when we offer the peace of Christ with each other…then you’re not much different than the faithful Thomas, who just wanted to see more.

It’s so important to note that it was Thomas, actually, back in John 11:16, who urged the disciples to go on to Bethany, despite the danger: “Thomas said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’”

Where was Thomas on that evening?
Maybe he was already out there, doing the “Sent work,” when Jesus first appeared to the disciples on Easter evening.  I mean, why wasn’t he locked behind the doors in fear?  Maybe he just wanted to see more!  Often the most active are also the most cynical.  But there’s room for that in Jesus’ embrace.
It’s hard to believe that wars end when Pam and Marie give each other a hug here at Bethlehem on a typical Sunday morning.  It’s hard to believe that walls come down when Bob and .  It’s hard to believe walls are coming down as Richard and Alison shake each other’s hands.  There’s no evidence that creation — the air and the water and the soil — is restored, as John and Donna give each other a sweet high five, as they say to each other ‘God’s peace’.  Remember that’s what’s happening when we return to Bethlehem and greet one another in the sharing of the peace.

But “Unless I can see it and touch it, I will not believe that death has been destroyed!” say the Thomas’ among us.  And there’s room for that in Christ’s embrace too.  And now, there’s room for that in our embrace as well, through the Holy Spirit, who finds us and holds us all this day...

Oh, and “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  AMEN.