Who Needs It?

This sermon used a call-and-response method, which is totally uncomfortable for most Lutherans, so you should definitely listen to it by clicking here>

28After he had said this, [Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
29When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ” 32So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34They said, “The Lord needs it.” 35Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38saying,
“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”
39Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” 40He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”

Who Needs It?

Today we sing Hosanna

And later our shouts will be

Crucify

Hold us in our indecision, Lord

So often we don’t know what to

Think of you

Or say to you

So lead us. Hold us.

No matter what we say.

Amen.

The thing I identify most with in the Palm Sunday reading is that donkey.  It probably is not shocking, but I’m as dumb as a donkey sometimes.

Like, the other day I was at the gym, and before I try any new weightlifting machines, I always do the walk-by. The scan. Because I’m never quite sure how to work them at first glance.

And so I grab some weights and put them on, a modest amount; doable.  And I sit down and I push…and nothing. It doesn’t move. So, of course I wipe off my hands, because that’s always the problem…sweaty hands.  I remove the little weights, but leave the big ones on, and sit down again.  I push.

Nothing.

So, I figure, it must just be a really heavy bar.  I go and remove all the weights, sit back down, and push…still nothing. And a guy walks by and says, “Uh, dude, you pull on that one…you don’t push.”

I’m no better than that donkey. Thoughtless animal. With a brain like that, who needs it, right?  Can’t even figure out the weight machine…

But today the donkey gets center stage in the story, so it’s OK to be like the donkey on Palm Sunday.

Today is the day when we celebrate that Jesus participates in some petty theft.

Did you catch it?  He sends the disciples into town to fetch a donkey, and should anyone ask why they’re taking it, they’re to say what?

Right. “The Lord needs it.”  Which sounds totally ridiculous, right?

Imagine going into a 7-11, grabbing a Slurpee, and as you walk out when the clerk says, “Hey, where’re you going?!” You say, “The Lord needs it…”

Which they’d say, “Well, then tell the Lord they’ve got to pay for it!”

The Lord needs it.  Who needs it?  The Lord needs it.

You know, the scriptures are full of examples of where people look at something and say to themselves, “Who needs it?”  Take Moses for example.  God speaks to him through a burning bush, telling Moses to go confront Pharaoh and tell him to “Let my people go!”  And Moses looks at his body, talks about his stutter, and says to himself, “Me?  Who needs it?  I can’t speak. I’m no leader. That kind of life?  Who needs it?”  He fancies himself not much better than a donkey.  Who needs it?

The Lord needs it.  And would use it.

So, Beloved, when you feel like you’re called to confront the Pharaohs of this world, to free people from the bondage of whatever system they’re caught up in, and you take a look at little old you, or little young you, depending on who it is, and you wonder, “Who needs this?”

The Lord needs it.

And if you think you’re too messed up to be any good, remember Moses’ brother Aaron.  Aaron, who spoke for Moses.  And Aaron, who when Moses went missing, was pressured by the people to build an idol, and to appease them he did.  A golden calf.

And when Moses came down with the laws of God from mount Sinai, he found that they had already broken the first one, “You shall have no other gods before me!”  And Moses was like, “You done messed up, A-a-ron!” an allusion that only some of you will get.  And you would have thought that God was done with Aaron…but God still used Aaron.  Aaron probably looked at his life and thought, “Who needs it?”  He was no better than that donkey.  Who needs it?

The Lord needs it.

This is why, Beloved, no matter how you’ve messed up, or how messed up you are, don’t ever think something good can’t come of you.  We all make idols in this world, Beloved.  We all mess up…

Or if someone maybe has told you that you can’t do or be something because you’re a woman, or a girl, I want you to remember Deborah from the book of Judges, who when no one else would take charge, heard God’s call upon her life to lead the army into battle.  The world doesn’t need any damsels in distress; now is the time for warrior princesses.  Or consider Mary who, young and fragile and scandalized by pregnancy, was chosen to carry Jesus into the world.  Imagine her looking at her predicament and thinking, “Who needs this?”  Who needs this?

The Lord needs it.

Don’t ever imagine that your gender or orientation or status holds you back from being useful, by God.  Too many of our babies are growing up contemplating suicide, struck by addictions galore because they’ve heard overtly or subconsciously that they’re not good enough.  Beauty products and body building and movie stars and test, tests, and more tests.  God needs the brains you have, not the brains you think you need.  God needs the hands, the feet, the body you have, not the ones you think you don’t have.

If you look in the mirror and think, “Who needs this?!”  Remember your scripture, young theologian.  Sure, I may be no better than a donkey, some might even call me that other name we call donkeys, and they might call you that, too.  But as we hear in this story today, who needs it?!

The Lord needs it.

And let’s take a look inside for a second, friends.  At your fickle heart.  Because these people today shouting, “Hosanna!” and praising Jesus, they’re sentiments will soon turn and like every story of friendship, they’ll betray this one they’re praising, shouting, “Crucify him!” in a few days.  And while some scholars think it might be a different crowd, if we look deep inside our hearts I think we’ll all recognize that our hearts are fickle, fickle things, prone to love one thing one day, and hate it the next.  Am I right?

I mean, who needs a heart that can be so wishy-washy?  We like to pretend we’re made of granite, that we’re true to our word all the time, that we’re unmoving.  Even Pilate washed his hands of his wrong doing, like we try to do continually.  But our hearts, if we’re honest, turn, and turn, and turn.  Who needs a heart like this?  Who needs it?

The Lord needs it.

And, as we’ll see in just a few days, God is willing to do anything, even die, for it.

Palm Sunday is a parade of fools, friends.  Fools who are no better than that donkey that Jesus rode in on.  And you and me, we just participated in that parade, which makes us no better than them, or that donkey.  But if God can use Moses, and Aaron, and Deborah, and Mary, and yes, even that little old donkey, then perhaps, Beloved, it might just be true that God might use you and me.

And love us even to death.

So if you’re looking at your life right now, and wondering “who needs this?”  Today you have your answer.  Who needs it?

The Lord needs it.  And will die before you think otherwise.

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My Annual Pitch to Recover the Easter Vigil (Because it’s Awesome)

candles-750x400I’ve written portions of this blog before in bits and pieces other places, but here it is again.  Because we need reminding, again.  Resurrection is sneaky, so we need reminding, Beloved.

“This is the night!”

That refrain, sung over and over again in the Exsultet of the Easter Vigil, has become somewhat of an echo joke around the ministry staff at all the churches I’ve served.

Even when used in reference to other nights and other events, uttering something even remotely reminiscent of that phrase will usually elicit an echo from somewhere amongst the ministry staff.

Or maybe the echo comes from some place else, someplace more distant than the smirks shared amongst the staff reveal.

Actually, that’s a good representation of just what the Easter Vigil is:  the Easter Vigil is an echo from the distant past, calling us back into a deep spirituality found in the night of the empty tomb.

But…even that’s not it.

No, it’s more like an echo from the far future, calling us toward a spirituality that is deeper than the pop prosperity the last 100 years of Christianity has tried to shove down our throats.

It’s both ancient and future.

I mean, if you want to call something “emergent,” the Vigil is about as emergent as you can get.  It emerges from the memory banks of the Didache, that ancient handbook of the first church.  It emerges from the future, your future, the future of the empty tomb where we meet the Christ in the dead of night.  All of us.  All of us will be there: dead, the night of life.

It emerges from that place inside of us all that needs to be told something again and again for it to sink in.

We were practicing the Ezekiel reading for the Vigil a few years ago.

Yes, practicing.

We were practicing because the Vigil takes stories of salvation from the very beginning of Scripture, and weaves them together like a dense fabric that stretches out over the night and the darkened church to provide safety and reassurance. And they must be practiced, performed almost, to get at their radical root.

And so we were practicing, and the reader asked me, “Why don’t all the other churches do a Vigil?”

“Because I think most other places think the Vigil is boring or banal…or they’ve lost it to history,” I said.

“Huh,” he said. “I think that if they understood what it was about they’d want to do it.”

He said that because we’d just discussed what the Vigil is about and it made him want to do it.

You see, it is about telling salvation stories, one after another, until you get the picture that the salvation stories from Isaac to Jonah to the Three Men in the Fiery Furnace are our stories.

Your stories.  The story.

And we don’t get it.  We don’t get it because we think our salvation story is the one where we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.  Or we think it’s the one where we are a champion riding in on a white horse (instead of the one where Jesus rides in on the donkey).

Or we think our salvation story is in our bank accounts or our pensions.  Or we think it’s in our moral superiority or our keen intellect.

And so we recount the stories of penniless wanderers, wayward prophets, and brave-but-dumb servants to remind ourselves that salvation stories with any truth and merit to them don’t begin with us.

Rather we get sucked up into them.

Like being caught in a whirlwind.  Like blindly following a pillar of fire or smoke because there’s nowhere else to go. Like being swept in a huge flood where we’re close to drowning but are saved, choking and sputtering all the way.

Like incense wafting through a darkened church as we remind one another that this is the night!

This is the night when we arrive at the end of the journey of these past 40 days, and we’re beat over the head with salvation stories again and again until we are fully ready to cry Alleluia!

Because then and only then do we finally realize that while we’re the recipient of this resurrection grace, we’re not the instigators.  Alleluias do not come cheaply at the Vigil.  But they come gratefully.  Fully.

Because we see that a love deeper than the one that beats within our hearts is the instigator of this resurrection.  And we’re caught up in that love, another holy flood, and we finally see that we can at best be imitators and mediums of that love.

At our worst, we steal it as our own.

That’s another familiar salvation story, as we love to take credit for what is not ours to claim…

The Easter Vigil is complex.  It’s complex because talking about God is complex.  It mixes metaphors: light and dark, fire and water, empty tomb and full tabernacle.

It’s complex because when we’re plumbing the depths of a mystery so deep, conventional elements just won’t do.

And yet, conventional elements are all we have: candles, wine, bread, water.

And so we make them big.  We sing about them (even the bees get a shout-out for their wax!). We sit in silent awe of them. And we smell and taste them for extended periods of time as we remind ourselves that even these conventional elements are redeemed, refreshed, renewed into something more in this resurrection work that God is doing.

Saint Paul calls it “making all things new” in II Corinthians.  That’s a pretty good expression for it.

And it is bodily.  We walk from the new fire with the new candle into the darkened church, still stark from Good Friday.  And there, at the empty altar we begin to remind that space, the space that just a day before had practiced the crucifixion, of how God saves and how God makes all things new.

And we tell the Creation story.  And the Exodus story.  And Ezekiel.  And Jonah.  And the Gospel of John.  Until slowly that space begins to crawl with life and light again.  And then slowly the minister begins to chant, “Early that next morning, while it was still dark…”

Dark.  Yes, dark; like that very Saturday night.

And before you know it you are the guest at an altar that is no longer empty, but full of bread, wine, bodies, and flowers.  A garden!  Yes, a garden.  The garden of creation.  The garden of Gethsemane. The garden where the empty tomb is tended by the gardener barely recognizable except for the fact that he knows our names and calls to us from this ancient ritual.

And we wade down to the river and baptize those who have now heard and seen and trusted.

And we pop champagne to remind our taste buds that life is refreshing on this side of darkness.

And…and I could go on.

But here I am, up late, figuring out last minute details for this most ancient/future of services, this service where we’ll sing an old Satchmo standard, “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, an old Civil Rights protest song, and a song by Delta Rae; this service where we’ll receive new members, young and old, and remember our baptism.

For all these reasons and more, we’ve recovered the Vigil at Good Shepherd as an integral part of our spirituality.  It calls out to us, it calls us toward itself: “Come.”

You are welcome to join us for this service.  Or better yet, do your own at your home parish.  Recover it and see if you aren’t resurrected differently this year.

But, here I am, and I need to get to sleep…

Because soon it will be the night, and the Alleluia is itching to slip from my lips again.

Holy Week and Taking Out the Trash

DSC_0145A parishioner sent me this lovely poem by Mary Oliver a few weeks ago.  I’d read it before, but for some reason it spoke something new to me at this time of my life:

 

Storage

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room 

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them!  Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing–the reason they can fly.

_______________________

Holy Week is that week where the church asks you to show up Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and yes, Sunday.  And we do this not out of piety or necessity, but because of opportunity.

Yes, opportunity.

Holy Week is the opportunity that the church gets to unload all of the things that you’ve locked away in the storage shed of your soul.  And it gets full every year…you don’t realize it, but it gets full.

And in hearing about Jesus’ last supper, the crucifixion, the hope, the love, the abandonment, the genuine heartache and heartfelt passion–Christ’s “passion” is not just his suffering, but is even more so his deep, abiding love for humanity–in hearing all of this we actually get that lock broken open for us and God, like Mary Oliver’s “trash man,” comes and burns it all in the new dawn of resurrection hope that we honor with a new fire at the Easter Vigil, and celebrate with trumpets on Easter morning.

And here’s the thing: every year I don’t just clean out the stuff in my spiritual storage shed from the previous year.  Some years?  Some years something from way back when, hiding in the corner of my spiritual storage shed, a thought, a memory, a dogma or doctrine long dead in my heart but still present in my head, gets cleaned out, too.

Because the storage shed of our soul has many nooks and crannies.  And though we move theologically (after all, if we believe at 50 what we believed as 5, we haven’t truly lived), and though we move spiritually (prayers and practices evolve), we often hang on to things because we’re not sure what to do with them.

And at Easter the tomb is emptied.  Which means that all dead things are given the opportunity to get cleaned out for new life.

But I don’t think it happens fully every year if we don’t honor all of Holy Week.  The whole story is needed to truly break that lock.  Easter without Good Friday is just optimism.  Good Friday without Easter is just nihilism.  And either without Maundy Thursday miss the bittersweet, unrequited love present in the story of God in Christ.

And the Easter Vigil?  My friends…the Easter Vigil is where the church gathers around a campfire to tell resurrection stories deep into the night until they become true again.  It’s like when the family gathers in the waiting room of the hospital, consoling one another and playing back good memories, until they hear news from the operating table.

From Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday the whole movement of the resurrection orchestra each plays its own part, and each does its own thing, in clearing out your spiritual shed.

Shame? You don’t need it.  You’re a new creation at Easter.

Vapid optimism? You don’t need it. You have real passion, and real resurrection in the cross.

Abandonment? God’s been there, experienced that, so you’re never alone.

Anxiety? In the silence of Holy Saturday we learn to fill our time with stories of assurance.

Literalism, fundamentalism, hurt from the past? God’s story of redemption is so much bigger than any one story…it’s why the Bible contains four accounts of it.  And that past that hurts you still?  Maybe it, too, can be left behind like those grave clothes in the empty tomb.

Holy Week makes more room in your heart for love.  For the tree of the cross.  For the beautiful new fire of the Easter Vigil.

And you, like the birds who own nothing, can fly into resurrection life with the Christ who won’t even let death stop us, by God.

The Third Year is the Hardest

maxresdefault.jpg.e17f29dd98c9ddfa539c3cb4dea1a04bJesus’ ministry lasted three years.  And then they killed him.

I’m not one to think that everything has a meaning, but after doing this work for almost ten years I’m starting to see some patterns, and I have found that the third year in a ministry position is the hardest.

It is when you think it might kill you.

You can have the best position, the best church, the healthiest everything, and year three is still the hardest.

It is the one where you start scanning the want ads.  And you don’t scan them out of boredom, but out of frustration, hurt, and exhaustion.

The third year is when people start choosing to leave because of you.  In those first two years, they leave because “things are different.”  It doesn’t feel the same anymore, and sometimes people just need a re-do.  That makes sense.

But in the third year people start to leave not because they want a “re-do,” but rather because they want to “undo.”  They want to undo the ties to the place because they don’t like where it’s going.  It’s not that it’s changing…they’ve accepted that.  By the third year they’ve determined that they don’t like how it’s changing.

That’s real.  And you take it personally, no matter how much therapy and self-talk you’ve done, it always feels personal. It just does.

Sometimes they just ghost…stop showing up.  Sometimes they precede it by a terse email, or they (as they did with a colleague of mine) storm in your office, call you a lousy pastor, a heretic, and the worst thing to happen to the church, and then slam the door.

And then you go and visit someone in the hospital.

The third year people start feeling comfortable enough with you to “offer feedback.”  A lot of feedback.  And in those first years the feedback was always couched in, “You’re new, so maybe you didn’t know, but we don’t…”

Now the feedback has the feeling of “you should know better…”

Push through that feedback, pastor.  Keep walking.

There’s a reason my denomination asks that people stay in a particular place at least three years when they first start.  The third year will make or break a pastor.  It’s where their metal is tested.  It’s where they learn that the ministry is not all about “thank you letters,” and needs to have a good dose of “no thank-you” messages, usually anonymous, sprinkled in there so that you know both the green pastures and the valley of the shadow of death, and you see that you can continue to live.

I have a colleague and friend who was a pastor for about that long, and then he “gave it up for Lent” finally.  His words.  It wasn’t easy.  Leaving is never easy.  And I don’t know if he wanted to leave, or if he just wanted it to stop, but the service professions (teaching, ministering, social work), they seem to all have a similar pattern.

Year three is hell.

But my advice for new ministers: get to year four.

That Makes No Sense

hope-illuminated-light

<If you’d like to listen to the sermon, you can click here. Sermons are better heard than read, kind of like coffee is better fresh-ground>

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”

That Makes No Sense

When disaster strikes,

Gracious one,

Remind us that you do not

Give up hope

And so we shouldn’t,

either

Amen.

One of my favorite sayings is, “Everything happens for a reason, and often time that reason is just because we make lousy decisions.”

That feels true.

I have to be honest with you, as your pastor, and as a public theologian, I am not sure that everything happens for a reason. Humans are meaning-making animals, and I’m all for making meaning, but sometimes dangerous things can happen when we try to place blame, make a reason for everything that happens in this world.

Right now my friend and colleague, a Lutheran missionary in Papua New Guinea, a country, by the way, that statistics show is 90% Lutheran in religious affiliation, right now my friend who is supposed to be spending his time on medical missions there has recently found himself going, sometimes in the dead of night, into homes to rescue women who are being hunted down and killed for being witches.

Sanguma, they call them.  Witches, who curse people and cause crops to die and financial calamity to come upon a village.  The villages hire witchdoctors to come and diagnose the situation, and usually a young woman, or sometimes a woman and her mother, are singled out.

And killed. Sometimes in public.  It is barbaric and terrible and happens.

And, while technically illegal, is not enforced because secretly the people believe it.  Because, you know, there’s a reason for everything…

And if you’re thinking, “Well, that’s so far away.  That’s crazy.”  Remember that Franklin Graham, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, said the hurricane was God’s wrath for New Orleans’ “sexual immorality.”

And people believe that, by the way.  Maybe it’s crossed your mind, though you may not want to admit it.  We like to make meaning, and often our favorite scape goats are the reason.

Everything happens for a reason, right?

I remember in my former parish a woman ringing the doorbell frantically one weekday afternoon.  In her hand was a check for back offerings.  She hadn’t been to church in months as she and her family were trying to move and the house of her dreams, the house they put a bid on, had just fallen through, and the deal was cancelled, and she was sure it was because she had forgotten to give her offerings and God was mad at her.

You may think that’s silly, but when we’re desperate and sad, we will glom on to any meaning that might even remotely make sense because we want to know, by God.

We want to know why bad things happen to good people.

Likewise, I want to lift up the fact that, when we see successful people we so often imagine that it is because they worked hard and earned their way to the top.  Everything happens for a reason.  Until it comes out that people have been paying off college recruiters to get their kids into schools, to take tests for them.  And let’s not pretend that, if you start near the top, taking that one step up on the next rung isn’t that hard…

Everything happens for a reason, we say, and sometimes that reason is because we’re privileged.

But here, let me be very clear with you: you did nothing to deserve cancer.  You did nothing to deserve spousal abuse.  You did nothing to deserve addiction.  A fundamental flaw in your being did not cause your house to catch fire. Your past sins are not the cause of your present calamity.

Sometimes things that happen in this world don’t make any sense.  And our addiction to certainty can cause us to do strange and terrible things.

Jesus, in today’s Gospel text, dissuades us from buying into the trope that “everything happens for a reason.”  The crowd asks him about this gruesome situation where the Roman authorities, where Pilate, had killed people and used their blood in a sacrifice.  Jesus responds by saying, “You think they did anything to deserve it? No way…”  And to hammer the point home, he brings up a tragic accident, a tower falling on a bunch of people, something stripped from the headlines of the local newspaper.  “You think they were a bunch of terrible sinners and deserved to have that tower fall on them?  No. Wrong place; wrong time.”

Now, none of that seems very comforting, does it?  I mean, part of the reason we always want a reason to go along with tragedy is because humans are evolutionarily taught to avoid pain, to figure out a way around making the mistakes that our peers make.  We long for assurances in this life.

But if we’re thinking that bad people get bad results, and good people get good results, I’ll remind you of what Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew, that the rain falls on the just and the unjust, alike. (5:45)

But here’s where we get good news.  Because right after Jesus says, “Look, sometimes bad things happen,” he gives this parable about a vineyard owner wanting to cut down the trees that don’t produce any fruit.  And the gardener begs the owner not to do it.  “Let me tend the tree a bit, put my all into it, dig around it.  Give it one more season,” the gardener says.

The gardener has hope.

Hope that, though things seem fruitless, there’s still goodness in that tree and it can produce.

Hope that, though things seem to be totally against that tree, it is still worthwhile.

Hope that, despite what everything looks like, there is a future for that tree.

And the parable doesn’t end with any resolution.  We don’t know if the tree produces.  We don’t know if it got cut down.  We don’t know the ending of the story; it’s not tied up in a little bow.

What we are left with, instead, is a whole bunch of hope.  Hope for the tree.  Faith in the gardener. Hope.

And that, Beloved, is the lens through which we look at tragedy in this world.  It is a cross-shaped lens of hope. It’s cross-shaped because we believe that God can make new life out of anything.  It is not one that tries to make meaning out of everything.  Sometimes that will, literally, take you on a witch hunt…

Instead, what we say is that, despite tragedy, despite random acts of violence, despite the mad ravings of white nationalists who shoot up places, despite suicide bombings, despite car crashes, cancer, hurricanes, and the floodwaters overtaking Nebraska as we speak…

Despite all that, life is still worth it, by God.  And new life is possible.  Humanity, and this planet, and all creation are still worth it.  The gardener is not done with this garden of life, Beloved.

And hope is not blind optimism.  Blind optimism says, “everything will turn out alright in the end.”  No; that’s not hope.

Hope is the conviction that, no matter how it turns out, God will somehow let life go on, that a blessing will somehow be eeked out of the muck, that, as Paul says, whether we live or die we will be with God and will be OK; hope is the conviction that it is worth taking another step into another day because God is not done yet.  With you, with me, with Raleigh, with New Zealand, with Nebraska, with this world.

That is hope.  We need to be people addicted to hope.  Hope does strange and wonderful things.

And you might say to me, “Pastor, hope…in this world…that makes no sense!”

To which I’d say, “Hope doesn’t have to make sense.  Its job isn’t to explain things.  The job of hope is to get you to tomorrow where things will be, look, and feel different, by God.”

And, no, it doesn’t make much sense.  But hope sure does give us life.  And maybe, that’s the reason for it.

 

 

Digging for Hope

HERO 6The Gospel reading for this week is one that wrestles with tragedy in an honest way that few passages do.  The problem of evil, called “theodicy” in theological circles, wonders out loud how we can trust in a graceful, benevolent God…or even a God at all…when evil is real, and demonstrable, and unmistakably present.

Oh, if you want to read the text, go here: Luke 13:1-9.

Lots of ink has been spilled on this topic.  From Rabbi Harold Kuschner’s “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People,” to C.S. Lewis’s “The Problem of Pain,” to the Biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes, authors, poets, philosophers, and theologians have all wrestled with evil, trying to eek out a blessing amidst the curses like Jacob wrestling with the angel at Jabbok.

Humans are mammals who want to make meaning.  But in the Gospel lesson today, Jesus actually turns the meaning-making conversation around a bit.

Some people come to Jesus bringing this gruesome story of the political powers killing some people, and then mingling their blood with the pagan sacrifices they were offering, apparently compounding insult upon injury.  They not only took their life, they further shamed them by using their blood in sacrificial ways that would have been blasphemous. To me that sounds like a socio-political commentary on how the powerful in the world not only prey on the bodies, but also on the very spirits, of those they seek to dominate.

But when this kind of violence occurs in the world, we always want to know why, and we’d like to believe that the dead somehow deserved it, or at least did something wrong.  We’d like to believe that because it gives us some mental insulation against the stark truth: sometimes tragedy just strikes, and it strikes no matter how good, or bad, you are.

Jesus affirms that truth, much to the chagrin of the hearers.  “You think those people were worse sinners?” he asks.  And to hammer the point home, he brings up a random act of violence, where a tower fell on some unsuspecting people.  “You think they did something to deserve that?” he asks.  You can see him shaking his head.

In an imperfect world, imperfect things happen: towers fall, cars crash, deranged people shoot up places because they have hate in their hearts, cells grow cancer.  We can try to make meaning out of it all we want, but sometimes the truth is just that bad things happen. Period.

And that’s unsettling and unsatisfying, but it just is.

If the Gospel lesson just left us with that, we’d have reason to despair.  Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, we could claim that “vanity, vanity, all is vanity,” as if to say that nothing matters.

But Jesus doesn’t leave us there.  He invites us to dig around for the hope, even in the shadow of random tragedy. He couples this saying with a parable where a vineyard owner is about to chop down a tree that seems useless.  The gardener, though, who loves the tree, who planted the tree, who tends the tree, begs for another season.  “Let me dig around a bit,” the gardener says, “and let me put my all into it.  If it doesn’t bear fruit in another season, then you can cut it down, but let me at least try…” the gardener says.

And I have to wonder, Beloved, if the gardener wouldn’t, in another fruitless year, beg for the same thing.  “Just give it a little more time,” I bet the gardener would say.  And the next year.  And the next year.

The parable leaves it open ended, and in doing so leaves you and me with hope.

Because sometimes life, in the random, tragic twists and turns it takes, seems fruitless and futile, but the God seen in Jesus pleads for it to continue, because the gardener knows that the life growing there has so much potential.  Give it another season.

In the fallow times of our lives, when we think nothing good can come or happen, Jesus invites us to dig around the roots of our being in hope, saying, “Another season. Give it another season.”

Give it another season.

And in doing so, we’re not participating in vapid optimism, but rather Divine hope.  Because while we might not always be able to make meaning out of everything, and while tragedy does randomly strike and doesn’t care for your status or station in life (though it does seem like the powerful rarely strike the powerful), the author of life doesn’t desire hurt or harm for any of the creation, and we are invited to dig around in the hope that God’s promises of life abundant remain steadfast even in fruitless or futile periods.

“But wait a minute,” you say.  “What about these lines where Jesus tells the crowd to repent or else they’ll perish, just like those caught up in the random acts of violence?”

Yes.  What about those lines?

Well, I wonder, Beloved, is life really living if we’re not intentional and reflective? I wonder if we’re really, truly living, if we’re not examining our lives.

Religion, at its best, connects us back with God and the questions of a life observed.  It’s the root of the word “religion” (re=back/ligio=connect), and when it’s at its best, it does that.  Thinking intentionally about life includes a good bit of repentance, or “turning around.”  I can think back on many times in my life where I have lived as if I were already dead, what with my actions betraying my values, judgment, and God-given identity. I should have turned around…it’s never too late, you know.

Perhaps Jesus is saying that, while we can’t always make sense of death and tragedy, we are invited to make sense of life, by God.

So, what does your life say?  How is it turning around? How are you, and how is your life, digging into hope?  What fruit do you find?

The gardener invites you to keep digging…

That One Image

<If you’d like to listen along, you can do so by clicking here.  Sermons are meant to be heard, kind of like bread is meant to be shared.>

skirt31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to [Jesus,] “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ ”

That One Image

Gather us under your wings

God.

Never let us go.

Amen.

Few of you understand.

Few of you understand the puzzled look, the judging eyes, the questions that arise in someone’s head, and you can see them asking the questions in their head but not with their mouths, when you walk up to the Rite Aid counter with hair gel in your hand and you, in fact, have no hair.

Few of you understand.  The boys are into hair gel now. So I buy it, knowing full well the puzzled looks I’ll get.

Ah, the things we do for love.

I started thinking about the things we do for love in connection with this Gospel text before us because there is this one central image here that I cannot get out of my mind, and it’s the only image that is beating on my heart and head as I hear this read this morning, so I’m just going to lift that image up over and over for you again and again in the different ways it’s played out this week in my mind, and then I’ll sit down and you can decide what you want to do with it.

Because while most of you probably don’t understand what it’s like to buy hair gel as a bald person (follically challenged for the sensitive), I know, I KNOW, you all understand what Jesus means when he says,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 

I know you understand it because many of you, like my parents, have waited up for that child coming home too late at night, sitting by the lonely lamp, waiting to hear that engine pull into the driveway, a mixture of angry and scared.

I know you understand it because you have probably sat with your partner, or your friend, while they sobbed as they made the same mistake again, and again, and again, and you finally realize that you can’t fix them, though you want to.  You want to fix them, but you can’t.

How many friends, parents, and lovers have cried out how they’d like to take that fox of addiction away from their loved one, protecting them like a mother hen protects her chicks?

Right now, I have a friend suffering through suicidal thoughts, and I cannot tell you the lengths that I would go to suck that voice inside his head right out, even if it meant I took it for a bit, so that he could feel some relief.

This image, of the chicken gathering her brood under her wings to protect them from the foxes of this world, it’s one I can’t get out of my head, because it’s one I see so often.

I saw it up in Newtown back in 2012 as that teacher covered her children with her own body as that gunman took his pound of flesh.

I saw it at the Pulse shooting as people were huddled in the bathroom, covering their friends and loved ones.

There are stories coming from New Zealand now of people huddling over total strangers, putting their body between bodies.

I saw it in the Ukraine where Orthodox priests stood between armies, preventing them from fighting, holding the cross high over everyone.

I saw it walking around the track in High School one day.  One of the guys I was walking with started getting taunted by some of the popular athletic kids (spoiler alert: we were not part of the athletic crowd), and they were calling him every name in the book that you might expect and I was too embarrassed to do or say anything, and I just looked down, and the quiet guy, who was athletic but not part of the taunt, literally got in between those guys and my friend and told them to knock it off.  And then he came over, put his arm around my friend, and they walked off.

He did what I should have done.  He put himself in between the foxes trying to label my friend, trying to bully him, trying to degrade him.  And I know we adults hear that and think, “That’s a nice school story,” but let me ask you, friend, if recently you’ve heard a colleague be the butt of a joke, or taunted, or made fun of, and what did you say?  Or tell me the last racist or homophobic joke you heard, and laughed at nervously…did you put your reputation on the line to save the dignity of the person?

I heard it in the testimony of a family that just survived the tear of tornadoes, as the mother, in the bathroom of the house, threw her body over her babies as the roof was ripped off and the walls came tumbling down.

I saw it in the father who, confronting his son out on the front stoop, knocked the bottle out of his son’s hand to keep it from reaching his lips because it was killing him.  He literally put himself between his boy and the bottle.

I saw it in the image of Keisha Thomas, the black woman covering the body of a white supremacist as he was attacked at a march, doing for him something that he wouldn’t have done for her.  By the way, Keisha became friends with that man’s children in the end, and I’m glad to say that the bigotry of the father was not passed down to the children, perhaps because of this very act.

I mean, this is the image that keeps popping up for me, because if there’s one thing that Jesus is in today’s text, it’s real.  I don’t always relate to the miracle stories, because I have very few miracles going on in my life.  And I don’t always relate to the healing stories, because I’ve seen too many people die.  But this?  This I get. He’s speaking a pain that we all know too well: seeing a helpless situation and wanting to put our bodies between harm and the people we love.

The things we do for love, Beloved.  This image. I can’t get over this image.

Why, when we think about God, do we not see this image first and foremost in our minds?  Instead of the angry old man wagging his finger, or instead of the flowing robes that better belong in a Greek myth, why don’t we think of God the mother hen, brooding over her chicks like Genesis says she brooded over the waters at the beginning of creation?

And here’s the thing…Jesus would, like a mother hen, eventually gather Jerusalem under his wings.

Because, see, eventually Jesus will be killed outside the city of Jerusalem, on a hill.  And it’s a hill that overlooked the city.  And he’ll be killed with one hand stretched out here, and one hand stretched out like this, and in that moment we will find out that he, with Jerusalem under his wingspan, will protect them from the fox of death.  Them, and all of us, showing exactly how far God will go to protect the ones God loves.

To protect all of humanity.  All of us who act, who long to act, who don’t act.  God, in Jesus, will spread the wings of life over a humanity that is a mix of foxes and chickies, we’re all both of those, together, with power and privilege and fears and vulnerabilities, and God in Jesus will spread the wings of life over all of us in the cross.

Jesus, on the cross, becomes the mother hen with Jerusalem under her wings that Friday, and in doing so covers the Ukraine, and New Zealand, and my friend with the suicidal thoughts, and the Pulse nightclub, and Newtown babies, and you and me.

Because nothing will stop God from giving life in the end, Beloved.

Jesus will show with his life, death, and resurrection the things God will do for love.

And it’s that one image that I can’t let go of today.

 

Foxes in Our Hen Houses

Fox-Hen-530x317This Sunday Jesus calls Herod a “fox.”

It’s one of my favorite little quips.  “You tell that fox…” he says, and I can hear the indignation in his voice.

If you want to read it (and you should) you can find it here: Luke 13:31-35.

Are we really to believe that the religious leaders are worried about Jesus?  They tell him to leave, and the reason they give is that Herod is trying to kill him.  It’s plausible, of course. Just a few chapters prior to this lesson Herod kills John the Baptizer.  Does Jesus want his head to end up on a plate, too?

My hunch, though, is that the religious leaders want Jesus to leave because he’s causing them trouble, and this is their scare-tactic to get him out of the room.

It reminds me of a colleague of mine who was allowing some neighborhood kids to use the gym of the church in the evening, which didn’t sit well with some church members. Even though the pastor stuck around to watch the games, the people of the church didn’t like it. Thy needed to come on Sunday morning if they wanted to use it in the evening…

One church member approached him about the subject, asking that he stop that practice because the kids were using up bathroom supplies (probably because they were using the bathroom), and one night had tracked mud into the building.

“But Jesus,” my colleague said, starting his defense.

“Stop right there,” the parishioner said. “Don’t bring Jesus into it.”

The presence of the Divine tends to disrupt things, sometimes in ways that make us feel uncomfortable.  The religious authorities were feeling uncomfortable…

But, back to this name-calling bit.  Jesus uses “fox” on purpose, I think.  He will later refer to himself as a mother hen, protecting her chicks.  It’s an image I love; one of the feminine images of God in the scriptures.

God is the mother hen gathering her brood under her wings.

And so when Jesus calls Herod a fox he’s implying that there’s a fox in the hen house.

Because Herod, while culturally Jewish, was in the pocket of Rome.  His policies propped up a wealthy ruling class, and left the poor going without.  He pretended to be “one of the people,” but in his lavish parties and his policies made it clear he was out for power and keeping this occupying government happy.

He was a fox with feathers.  He was a fox in the hen house.  He pretended to be one thing, but was something else entirely.

There are obviously so many ways to go with this text. Duplicity is not unique to scripture.  The examples throughout history, and even today, are numerous.

But today, as I sit to write this, I’m currently in a situation where I’m texting, pretty much every day, with a friend who is battling suicidal thoughts.  Every morning I send him a note, something small and short, that says, “Hey, love you. One day at a time.”

And he’s getting help, and he’s taking medicine, but still inside his myriad of daily thoughts there is this fox of a thought that is pretending to be truth, but it is not.  It’s pretending to be helpful, but is not. It’s pretending to be “for him,” to provide him an easy way out of a tough time, but it is a liar.

It is a fox in the hen house.

Sometimes we can imagine that it’s easy to point out the foxes in this world, but it’s not.  We’re all duped sometimes.  And so Jesus’ pleading, his longing, at the end of this lesson is so instrumental for us to hear, to take to heart, to know: God in Jesus longs to protect humanity like a hen gathering her chicks in safety.  All of us.  God in Jesus is all about life-giving love and safety for everyone.

Even, I would say, God wants to pull Herod under that wing. To get him to take off that fox outfit, and be the child he’s meant to be…which might make you (and certainly would make Herod) a bit uncomfortable, but that’s what Jesus does.

Lent is a time when we take a look at our houses, inside and out, and begin to point out the foxes that are there.  Maybe we don’t do it with the indignation that Jesus does, but we do it nonetheless.  We point out the things in our lives and actions, in our world, and yes, even in our heads, that aren’t life-giving.

We do a very Lutheran thing: we call a thing what it is.  We call out the foxes.

So, Beloved, if you’re struggling with a fox in your head, in your life, or even if you are the fox (and we all are, sometimes) know that this is not what God in Jesus desires for you.

God desires life, and will literally do anything, even die, to show it to you.

<And if suicide is something that you, or a friend, is struggling with, you are not alone. Reach out. There is help. There is hope.  Don’t listen to that fox. The suicide prevention line can be found here: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/&gt;

 

Digging in the Dirt Awhile

DaffodilMeaning3[Jesus said to the disciples:] 1“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
5“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
16“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Digging Around in the Dirt Awhile

Ashes to ashes

Dust to dust

But you do wonderful things

With dust, dear Lord.

Our hearts are too often dried up

With the scars of our sins

Heal us today,

By breathing new life

Into our dirt,

Into our dust

That we might rise in your promises.

Amen.

This morning my son, Finn, looked at me and said, “It’s almost Easter!”  I replied, being the normal killjoy I am, “We got about 40 days to go, buddy.”  He looked at me and said, “Whoa…that’s a lot of sleeps.  That’s a lot to do before then.”

Yes. There is a lot to do before then.  Resurrection takes a while, Beloved, and so we have to start back where it all began, back with Adam, with that first one we hear about in the Garden of Eden, the man whose name means “groundling” or “dusty one.”

We have to begin in the garden of our souls. In the dust. In the dirt.

Late last fall my boys and I started digging around in the dirt.  We started planting little bulbs: tulips, daffodils, and crocuses.

And, at the boy’s direction, we put them in random places in our yard.  A few here, a few there.  Our hands and nails grimy and grungy.

And we waited.

I remember in college doing something similar.  We called it “The Crocus Crawl,” and a group of students would buy out the local Home Depot’s stock of crocus bulbs, and we’d just go to random places around campus with our little hand shovels, our little spades, and plant the bulbs, randomly.  Our hands grimy and grungy.

And then we’d wait.

You know, one of the problems with evil in this world is the randomness with which it seems to strike.  Cancer seems to know no age.  Car accidents don’t seem to care about your job when they take you.  Heart attacks don’t take into account that you’ve worked out every day of your life.

And even our own personal sins don’t seem to take stock of who we are.  We are not the kind who abuse alcohol and drugs, we tell ourselves, and yet we do.  We’re not liars, we say, and in doing so lie to ourselves. We are not the type of person who cheats on our spouses, and yet we find ourselves doing it.  We are not prejudice we tell ourselves, and yet we follow the person of color through the convenience store just sure they’re going to steal something.  We’re not prejudice against gay people we say, until our son comes out of the closet and we can’t tell our friends because, well, what would they think?

And communal sins seem to be the most heartless of all.  Poverty is a pit so deep most can’t escape.  And likewise, affluence and wealth are a pit that many don’t even seem to realize they’re in.

These sorts of tragedies, large and small, bury us.

And when we pretend that they don’t, when we don’t acknowledge that we have sinned as people, and as a society; when we can’t be honest about the fact that the random tragedies that assault our daily lives can throw us into despair, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us, as the Epistle writer says.

Ash Wednesday is a day where we dig through the things that bury us, Beloved.  The gardens of our lives, both individually and communally. It’s where we dig a bit in the dirt.  The randomness of tragedy, how we sometimes behave like people we don’t recognize, how society is hurtful in ways we don’t want to believe is true and yet don’t know how to get out of any of it.

Ash Wednesday is a day where we dig through all that stuff because it is only in digging a bit in that dirt that we can find the blessing planted in the things that overwhelm us.

And they do overwhelm us, from the oldest to the youngest.  If you wonder if the youngest know the weight of the world, look through the pictures of the refugee camps of people fleeing Syria.  They are not filled with adults, but with children.

And we cannot pretend that some of that weight is not on our shoulders, too.  If we love our neighbor as ourselves, we must take that scene as seriously as if that was our own child.

And yet it’s so far away, we’re not sure what to do, right?

We can barely take care of the things burying us here, let alone over there…

And so every year we come here, to this place, to acknowledge that these things weigh on us, that we have sinned in ways we know and ways we don’t, and that it’s burying us, and my God, we need your help. We dare to let the truth of the human condition be made visible on our foreheads: we can’t do it all, we can’t control our children, we can’t control our parents, we can’t get through the day sometimes without crying, without lying, without hurting ourselves or others, without being greedy, without being prejudice, try as we might.

We’re not God, and these things are burying us.

And God reminds us of the reward, God takes those ashes, takes that dirt that buries in the random places of our lives, and turns them into a cross: the sign of hope for the Christian, the sign of redemption for the world.

Ash Wednesday is not a time for guilt, but a time for honesty.  We’re honest about the things that bury us, and then God is honest about what God’s going to do with it: redeem it all, by God.

So let’s dig around in the dirt awhile, Beloved.  It’s the only way to plant a flower, after all.  It’s the only way to coax life to spring from the ground.

We’ll get our foreheads grimy and grungy, and we pastors will get our hands grimy and grungy, and we’ll wait under the promise of that cross on our brows, a promise that reminds us, assures us, prophecies to us that those things that bury us will not, in the end, take our lives away from the God who loves us, redeems us, and can cause beautiful things to come from dirt.

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