My Anxiety is Killing You

<You can listen to the sermon by clicking here.  Also, I should point out that I take no responsibility for pronouncing Taoist philosopher Wei Wu Wei’s name correctly.  My apologies for undoubtedly butchering it…>

Mark 13:1-8

November 15th, 2015

Are you ready?

17360676006_21607fd24e_bAs Jesus came out of the temple (after watching passersby contribute to the treasury), one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, “Tell us, when will these buildings be thrown down, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

My Anxiety is Killing You

God of all time,

Teach us your time.

Time of quality, of repeat

Time of resurrection

Time of good endings and newness.

And forgive us, Lord, for our impatience

In your time,


Daniel Smith has written a book called Monkey Mind that is all about his fight with an anxious life.  In an interview with NPR a few years ago he talked about the difference between fear and anxiety.  He said, “fear is located in the present, whereas anxiety is a state of nervous vigilance that’s oriented toward the future, some threat to your well-being that’s located in the future.

He goes on to say, “(Anxiety) affects the entire system. It affects you physiologically, it affects you cognitively, it affects you emotionally. It’s a real holistic — not to put too nice and calm a word on it — emotion.”

I think he’s on to something here.  But not only does anxiety affect an entire human system, the human body, it also affects an entire body of humans, entire systems.

Indeed, I think our school system here in Chicago is an anxious system.  So is our housing system, as we have Christians marching to keep Lathrop Homes open in North Center.  So is our tax system and budgetary system.  And need I mention our national political system? And now in light of Paris, and Beirut, and Baghdad…well, we’ve never not had an anxious system when it comes to terrorism.  These anxious systems are made up of anxious individuals who, collectively, deal in death.

Indeed, my anxiety can kill you.  Don’t believe it?  Live with someone for a while.  See if their anxiety doesn’t infect you, and yours them.  See if it doesn’t kill that date night you had planned, or that future you were making together, or that good time you were having.

And, truly, we know the anxiety of others kills others. This weekend was just another reminder in a library of reminders.

The disciples in the Gospel story today are anxious.  They come out of the temple, Solomon’s temple which, it was said, would last forever, and they say, “What great stones and buildings!”  They marvel at what is around them.  To which Jesus, the perpetual Debbie Downer in this part of the Gospel of Mark says, “Don’t be too impressed.  It call comes tumbling down.”

It makes disciples anxious and so they sit at the Mount of Olives and ask quietly, “Tell us about the future; when will this happen?”  And Jesus reads their anxiety, their preoccupation with the future, and shocks them into the present with this apocalyptic language of wars, famines, rumors, earthquakes…and then this last big ominous statement, “These are just the beginnings of the birth pangs.”

It’s a wonder they kept following him around.  None of that sounds awesome, nor does it sound anxiety relieving.

Taoist philosopher Wei Wu Wei (whose real name is Terence Gray, but that’s not as cool) wrote, “All preoccupation with the past is guilt.  All preoccupation with the future is anxiety.  Both keep you from being present.”

And here we find the anxiety ridden disciples marveling at the buildings, the strength of the past, and then becoming preoccupied with the future when they realize that all things come to an end and want to know when they will come to an end, and we have Jesus sitting in the middle of them trying to shock them back into the present by saying all these incredible things that seem like they would mark the end of all things, but then throwing in that curveball: the end with God is actually just the beginning.

And it’s not that “When God closes a door God always opens a window” type of platitude.  As the internet meme says, “When a door closes, just reopen it.  That’s how doors work.”

No, it’s more like “Hey, with God there is no need to worry about the future because, even as all things end, God promises resurrection and new life.”

Beloved, let that shock us back into the present!

Because anxiety can infect the whole body, even the body of Christ here.

I know that keenly. My anxiety in the technology age has caused me to check email constantly, even late at night in the past.  It’s a habit I’ve had to do away with…it was killing me.  People’s anxiety for late-night emails to me was killing me.  Greg McKeown, the writer of an excellent book entitled _Essentialism_ wrote that he was afraid that the engraving on his tombstone, instead of saying, “Beloved father and husband” or “He loved his family” it would say, “He checked email.”  I fear that, too.

But let’s not pretend we don’t have reason to be anxious about the future.  As individuals in our private lives.  As citizens of the world.  But also as a body of Christ, as Luther Memorial.

We’ve had some wonderful successes this year at Luther Memorial: plans for a future of newness and renovation and many new folks in our doors and a bright future of awesome ministry here.  But then we’ve also had some hard setbacks too: an impending pastoral departure.  The unexpected and sad and confusing departure of Briana, our choirmaster.  Our youth director making a career move.  All of these things that we sometimes assume are like the structures of a building, mighty stone upon mighty stone of a spiritual framework, all come apart.

And then we have rumors, and we have people uncertain about the future, and what will be next…

Listen again to Jesus, “These are but the birth pangs.”

That sounds ominous, but it is actually comforting.  It’s a shock to the system of an anxious body to bring you back to the present reality: something new is being born.

This is all a way of saying to you, the body of Christ as individual bodies and as a body collective: something new is being born.  And remember the angel who we’ll read about in just a few weeks when something new is being born! “Fear not!” the angel says.  Fear not the present; be not anxious about the future.  Because my anxiety is killing you, and yours is killing me, and, by God, there is work to be done now.

Because refugees still flee around the world because their present is so bad they’ll risk their lives to have a future.  Last night hard workers put on a concert here, Luther Memorial in conjunction with Tzedek, the Jewish community meeting here, and raised $7000 to save refugees.  Refugees who are fleeing the kind of destruction we heard about in Paris on Friday.

Because children are still shot on our streets, being denied a future, and we haven’t talked much about that lately but we need to again because our babies need to be safe.

Because there is anxiety around race in this nation, an anxiety that deserves to be named and talked about to move us into the future and the church, the people of God, can help that conversation to happen.

And there is conversation that needs to happen here that hasn’t yet, but will soon.  Anxiety that needs to be named and discussed and love and grace and forgiveness and heartache and headache that need to be worked through in the reality that stones have toppled.

The church, when it is doing its godly work, can help humanity, can help anxious bodies, can help anxious systems hold tension well.  Can keep individual anxiety from infecting a whole system.

Can remind us that in God’s kingdom we have resurrection thinking instead of death-dealing anxiety.

And if you doubt this is true, remember your scripture.  This part of Mark takes place on the Mount of Olives, right?  What else happens on the Mount of Olives in scripture?

In this section of Mark, Jesus warns the disciples not to be led astray.  The disciples think Jesus is talking about the end of the world, but he is actually talking about the end of his life. They will be led astray.  In the Garden of Gethsemene, the little garden at the base of the Mount of Olives. They will flee, and Peter will try to start a war by cutting off a guard’s ear.  Do you remember?

But Jesus cuts off the rumors of that war by going with those who would arrest him.

And the nation of Rome will rise up against the Jewish people as the “King of the Judeans” is crucified by the Roman prelate Pilate on a hill outside of the city.  And in Matthew’s gospel this is purported to have caused an earthquake.  And even as the disciples ask “When will this all be accomplished?” in this part of Mark, the gospel writer John has Jesus’ final words being, “It is accomplished.”  In English we usually say, “It is finished” but the better Greek translation is “accomplished.”

And the crucifixion was the birth pangs of a God who was birthing resurrection life for a world intent on killing itself and one another, a birthing process that is both accomplished and still in process as we, here, the anxious body of Christ who are led astray by the latest false hope or distracted by fear, who are in the midst of wars and rumors both in the wider world and within our own bodies, are shocked back into a present reality that is infused with God’s grace and love as you, anxious you, are named as a loved one.

A loved one who needn’t worry about the future or feel guilty about the past because there is godly work to be done in the present, and Jesus is met here and now, and God’s resurrection promise redeems our past and ensures our future so we can meet God in Jesus here and now.  Always here, and always now.

The Christ who held the tension of the world on the cross between two outstretched hands that reached out toward the past and out toward the future, who held the present tension in his heart, who broke that anxiety with a resurrection that promises new life for all of us, does not bid us to be led astray by worry about the future, by rumors or wars or any of that.  Don’t let my anxiety kill you, or yours me.  Let us trust that God desires more for us and from us.

Christ was birthed from the cross, the ultimate tool of intimidation and anxiety, birthed from the tomb, that ultimate prison, into new resurrection life to assure all of us that we can live now unafraid of the future.

Something new is being birthed.  We are the midwives.  Let us not be anxious about what is being birthed, but simply attend to the birthing.

You Have Muscles You Don’t Know About

<Feel free to listen along by clicking here. Sermons are meant to be heard. And although it doesn’t come across fully in the audio, my voice was pretty raspy and even gave out at the second service.  On the plus side: I did sound like Demi Moore…so I had that going for me…>

Mark 12:38-44

November 8th, 2015

Are you ready?

Black and white flowerAs he taught, Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.  They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Then Jesus sat down opposite the treasure, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury.  Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, worth a penny.  Jesus called his disciples to come see and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

You Have Muscles You Don’t Know About

Lord God,

On this day make us the ones

To defend the margins, instead of push people there

To give out of our poverty,

…and in the process learn true abundance…

Rather than hoard our abundance and call it poverty.

On this day make us the ones to gather around

And ask questions

And look at what is happening in our world,

And live out our poverty in your abundant grace.


I read a story on Plaid Zebra (a great site, by the way) about a family, the Works family, who sold everything they owned to buy an Airstream bus and tour 400 National Parks.

The opening paragraph of the piece was so well-crafted to express the growing phenomenon of “not enough” in this world, that…well…here it is: Thousands of dollars in renovations and several trips to Ikea later, the Works family found that although their life now looked like the picture-perfect images of home-décor magazines, between the marble-countertops and stainless steel appliances there seemed to be a canyon growing inside of their chests.

A canyon was growing in their chests, so they decided to ditch it all and go visit the Grand Canyon.

They flexed a muscle they didn’t know they had. You have it, too.

See, they had been flexing some muscles, the muscle of money.  Create that picture-perfect place to reside in only to find that you don’t feel at home.  Create that picture-perfect job, only to find that the work doesn’t work.

But what about the muscle of imagination?  What about the muscle of generosity?

So often those are muscles we don’t know we have, or think we have, not at first glance at least.  Or when we do talk about, “using our imagination” when it comes to finances, it is usually in an effort to save more for ourselves.  And, look, there’s nothing wrong with saving for yourself and even having nice, good, reliable things in this world.  Prudence and responsibility are virtues.  But along with prudence and responsibility comes another virtue, humility, which keeps those other two in check.

Because humility doesn’t just say “save wantonly,” but wants to know what you’re saving for and how you will know enough is enough. Great questions.

You have muscles you don’t know you have.  I know I do.  They appear every time I go skiing.  You know that morning after you’ve been out skiing and you wake up and get out of bed and you’re like, “Whoa!  What is that?!” because you have an ache here, in your ribcage, and here in your quads, in places you thought were just empty canyons in your body, but are actually full of muscles that you just don’t use regularly until you do something only people of questionable intelligence do, like slap sleds onto your feet, look up at a mountain and say, “Hey, I wonder how fast I can get from the top to the bottom”?

I mean, no wonder you use muscles you don’t normally use in that endeavor.  Your body goes into emergency mode, calling in all the reserve muscles to try to keep you safe!

The funny thing is, I think a lot of us are operating in emergency mode a lot of the time, especially when it comes to our finances.  Why?  Because we don’t want to end up in poverty, right?

Lack of money won’t make you end up in poverty.  Love of money will.  That necessary house, car, cable, keep-up-with-the-Joneses will.

And I say this as someone in the process of buying a house!  Preach to yourself, preacher!

Curious thing about this text from Mark today.  So many people laud the widow for giving her all.  “Lift up the individual!” we say.  But what about the system that reduced her to utter poverty?  I mean, in ancient Israel care for widows and orphans was first on the list of community responsibility.  Where was the community safety net for this woman?

They were busy giving of their abundance and wearing long robes and looking to be seen…

Not only was she flexing a muscle she didn’t know she had, she was flexing it as a counter-action against a system of apathy that was continually flexing its muscle over her neck! Her gift to the treasury was an act of defiance against a system that worked against her.

Amanda Palmer, the founder of the indie rock group Dresden Dolls, recently wrote a book entitle _The Art of Asking_.  I’m only half-way through the book and I wish I could start over again already because I’m finding it to be that fascinating.

But in this book Palmer…by the way, folks, if you don’t recognize that name or the Dresden Dolls, if you’re not following indie rock, well…I question what we’re doing with our lives if we’re not following indie rock.

Anyway, in this book Palmer talks about asking others for help.  About being bold in asking for help.  Fearless, in fact. As an indie rocker, she needs community help to go on tour.  No big label paying for all that; community grown art.

And she lifts up this story about Native American culture, the story that is the origin of the derogatory phrase, “Indian giver.”  It’s the story of how, as a warrior chief would sit down with another respected chief they would smoke a pipe of peace together.  And then, as an offer of goodwill and respect, the chief would give the peace pipe to the visiting guest.

Well, in comes colonialism, and so we have the respected chief sitting with the chief explorer/sailor/guy from Europe who landed on this part of the earth and claimed it as their own, and the chief gives him the pipe after a smoke.  And then when that colonialist would sit with another Native American chief to make another bad deal, he’d break out the gifted pipe to smoke a seal upon the deal, and afterward the Native American chief would eye that pipe used for the smoke, expecting the gift to be passed on. Because that’s what you did.  But the Colonialist wouldn’t dream of that; it was now his pipe.  He won’t pass it on, and is really offended at the thought.

Two modes of operation are on display here: one of ownership and one of gift.  And, as Palmer writes so wisely, “The gift must always move.” Do our gifts, move?

What happens when we see all as gift?  Then we get to practice that muscle that lies dormant all too often, the gift of generosity.  Because, certainly, with gifts we can keep them.  They were given to us, after all.

But for the Christian the question is “Are they actually ours, or are we just pretending they are ours?”

Because, and here’s a little secret I’m going to share with you after my vast 33 years of experience with this thing called life (ignoring that first year): we all end up in poverty in the end.

As the story goes, a doctor is called by his patient a week after a check-up, and the doctor said to the patient, “Well, I have bad news and worse news.”

The patient says, “Start with the bad news.”

“Well,” the doctor said, “You have 24 hours to live.”

“What can be worse than that?!” the patient exclaimed.

“Well,” the doctor said, “I tried to call you yesterday…”

We all end up in poverty, folks.  Let’s not pretend otherwise.

William Sloan Coffin once said it like this, “If our heads are screwed on right, if we are straightened away on the question of ownership, we never ask ‘How much of my money should I give to God?’ but rather, ‘How much of God’s money should I keep for myself?’” (329)

In that same sermon he went on to say, “When will we learn that our pocketbooks have more to do with heaven and hell than our hymnbooks?”

Because when we are honest with ourselves, we participate in a system that works today much as it did back in the ancient world, a system that leaves that widow to only have the option of giving out of her poverty.

But we, together, don’t have to live that way, not as a community.  Indeed, what is this capital appeal about but to make sure that everyone, those in the comfortable center and those at the margins, have a safe, accessible place to feed their spirits, meet in fellowship, and enjoy the goodness of the gifts that God has given?

People of God, what will you give out of?  Your abundance or your poverty? In all honesty, probably both at one time or another.  That’s kind of the way it is with us, whether we like it or not.

But, if we’re talking about muscles, perhaps I can make this bold claim as an end to the sermon: I bet I could take any of you down for the count.  Any of you.

And I bet you could do it to me, too.

And we’d do it by flexing a muscle that we don’t use often, but can and should more.

I could do it by looking into your eyes. Just staring there.

Palmer tells this story (it’s really a great book!) about how she worked as a street performer, one of those people who would just stand still until you dropped some money in the hat at their feet, and then they’d come to life.  She was a bride with a white face clutching flowers in Cambridge, Mass.  And at the drop of a dollar, she’d come alive and give you one of the flowers.

But she talked about making sure to look at the person who contributed straight in the eyes each time, and feeling this strong connection, this bond of love with them.  And about how intimate that moment was.  About how, in her mind, she said to them, “Yes. I see you.  I see you.”

And in this passage where Jesus sits in the temple and notes that all these people, these Scribes and Pharisees who wear long robes to be seen and present big egos to be seen, how he ignores these ones except to point at them and say, “Don’t be like that.”  Which reminds me of St. Augustine who once said, “Any man who needs an audience larger than just God is too ambitious…”  Back to Jesus: how he sits there and waits.  And waits.  And waits for the one no one else sees, sees her, sees what she has and what she has given, and calls the disciples around him so that they, too, can see.  These disciples who wonder continually about how to be the greatest, he calls them to see.

To see.

People of God, Luther Memorial is a place, and can become ever more a place, where we see one another.  Where we’re vulnerable enough with each other to do that, using that under-used muscle.  Where you receive at this table a gift of abundant poverty in a piece of bread and sip of wine which is absolutely nothing and absolutely everything all wrapped into one.  And I look you in the eye and say that it is for you, like some street performer clutching a flower of grace who is happy that you’ve come with your hands now open because you’ve dropped everything in the hat to be here.

And in that moment we share a Christ who sees us.  Who sees us; we who give out of our poverty and our abundance and who encourages us to do the former more than the latter, but gives us the flower of grace as a gift regardless.

And in that moment we flex a muscle, a spiritual muscle, a generous, vulnerable muscle as a community that we often don’t know we have.

Look, this week you’re going to fill out those pledge cards if you haven’t already, and that capital campaign card, and when you do, I hope you’ll wake up the next morning with an ache in that place where you didn’t know you had a muscle of generosity.  Because there is a canyon that is growing in our society, in our systems, and our world, so let’s pitch our resources together to buy a spiritual Airstream, and then let’s tour together the spiritual canyons of this neighborhood, this city, and this world, looking one another and others in the eye, truly seeing in the name of Christ.

And in doing so, I have to think we’d be living out of our poverty together, which Christ promises will give us abundant life.


Smelly Miracles

John 11:32-44

November 1st, 2015

Are you ready?

he-stinkethAfter Lazarus had died, Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Judeans who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in his spirit and deeply moved.  He said, “Where have you laid him?”  They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”  Jesus wept.  The Judeans saw this and noted how he loved Lazarus.  But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb.  It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.  Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”  Martha, the other sister of the dead man said, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you trusted, you would see the glory of God?”  So they took away the stone.  And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I say this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may trust that you sent me.”  When he had said this he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus: come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Smelly Miracles

We’re going to begin today’s sermon with a Ghanaian prayer, one that acknowledges the presence of death and the presence of God’s mercy.  Pray with me:

Come, Lord,

And cover us with the night

Spread your grace over us

As you assured us you would do.

Your promises are more than

All the stars in the sky;

Your mercy is deeper than the night.

Lord, it will be cold.

The night comes with its breath of death.

Night comes; the end comes; you come.

Lord we wait for you

Day and night.


Hey guys, sometimes miracles stink.  Sometimes they’re smelly.  Sometimes life stinks. It’s smelly.

I mean, I don’t know what else we could pull from this miracle story from the Gospel of John.  It stinks; the whole thing.

Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days, well past the day when you could touch a dead body.  Well past the time when you were certain, for sure, that someone was dead.  Martha (she’s the practical one, right?) is voicing a real concern when she says, “Do not roll away the stone; he smells by now…”

Or, for those of you in love with the old language, a notable scholar pointed out in a podcast this week that in the King James version is says, “He stinketh.”

Which makes sense because, by and large, death stinkeths.

I have been in the room when death was a welcome and prayed for guest.  St. Clare, St. Francis of Assisi’s spiritual companion, called death “Sister Death.”  That familial and familiar quality of it is something I’ve seen as long-suffering is eased with death.  In those cases death can even be beautiful, as beautiful as the changing trees that we see outside in these autumn days.  Death is really putting on a show this autumn!

But more often I have been in the room when death has been an uninvited guest.  In that case it stinkeths.  Stinks to “high heaven,” as we say.

Those of you with Biblical imagination will note how this scene is a lovely, if incomplete, foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection, what with the rolling away of the stone, Mary running around upset, and even the idea of grave clothes needing tending to for the unbinding.

When the stinking man does emerge from the tomb, Jesus invites the gathered to come and unbind him, setting him free from death.  This time.

It is not a permanent resurrection.  It’s a mini-resurrection.  An incomplete resurrection. Lazarus isn’t saved from death.  In fact, he’ll die twice now.  Which, I imagine for him, kind of stinkeths.

In reading this I took note of Mary’s words.  “If you had been here, Lord, he wouldn’t have died.”  Jesus, it seems, is only seen as a preventative measure.  He can save a life, but he cannot reverse death in the eyes of Mary.   He cannot resurrect, he can only stop the need for resurrection.

I kind of liken it to Mary being stuck on the “what could have been” of the situation.  It’s easy to do, of course.  The mourning is real because the death is real.  It’s easy to get stuck on the “could have beens” of life because we feel the sting of death and hurt and pain.  And it stinks.  Even Jesus knows it stinks.  His insides are in turmoil, the literal Greek says here.  He cries real tears.  The Reverend William Sloane Coffin once wrote that “When our loved ones die it is not so much they whom we have lost. What are really lost are our expectations.”  That’s so true here.  Mary lost her expectations of Jesus.  Mary and Martha lost their expectation of life forward with their brother. And even Jesus lost here…he lost the expectation of seeing his friend alive and well and dining with him.

Surely the one who can do miracles has no need for tears.  And yet we have them.  Because it’s real.  Death is real, and Jesus felt the sting of death here.

And sometimes, often times, death stinks.  Often times we feel like death is capstone on an incomplete life. And even when we’re talking about other incomplete deaths like the death of relationships, or the death of our opinions of someone we thought we knew when they turn out to be wrong, or betrayal by a friend we thought we could trust, or even the death of a job or a family pet or anything that exists no longer.

Death, of all these kinds, in all these ways, stinks.

We have to be honest about that.  It stinks.  Don’t give me any “God needed another angel” platitude, it just makes me want to punch you.  And don’t tell me “everything happens for a reason.” I don’t buy it.

Sometimes it stinks.  Just acknowledge with me that it stinks.  Let’s all just say together one time that it stinks, ready? “It Stinks!”

Even Jesus acknowledges that it stinks.  Even Jesus cries.  Jesus doesn’t move to, “Oh Mary, where is your faith?” right away.  Instead Jesus goes through the gut-wrenching pain of grief.

Jesus, it stinks.

And then my thoughts went to what could be.  I mean, this doesn’t look like a long scene, but then again, there was limited parchment and words were of a premium, as they usually are with important stories of life and death.  Perhaps we’re dealing with hours here.  Lots of walking.  Lots of tears. Lots of silence.

That’s how I imagine it.

And after lots of hours.  Lots of walking, pacing.  Lots of tears and silence, the wailing and the staring off into space that happens with loss, complete or incomplete, then…then the prayer.

Then the thinking of what can be.  Life for the living is not about what could have been, but is ultimately about what can be.  Eventually, in time, with love and space, we move there…or we should move there…we have to move there if we’re ever going to do something with our lives.

Because, and I think this is really true, the unbinding of Lazarus at the end of the story is also the unbinding of Mary and Martha.  Yes, sure, Lazarus is the dead one.  But in this moment, so were Mary and Martha.  Their faith in Jesus was dead.  Their faith in a God who seemed not to show up on time was a dead faith.

And so often in moments of loss and death both complete and incomplete our minds get stuck in the dead place of what could have been.  Our hearts get stuck in the dead moments of what is missing, and we become bound to it like a millstone around the neck, like a scarlet letter across the chest, like a wound that will not heal up but keeps bleeding, reminding us of what is not.

But in time Jesus does the thing that God does with time which is turn the focus to what can be, even here, even now.  And turning that focus does not in any way detract from the stink of the situation.

It’s not like Lazarus came out smelling like roses and everyone thought, “Oh, that’s not so bad…”

No. It was so bad.  Bad as death.  Bad as tears and sobbing.  That kind of bad.

But sometimes the miracles in this world aren’t clean and tidy.  Sometimes they’re smelly and happen in the midst of the graves of this world.

But even there God can cause something new to happen.  Even then we don’t have to live bound to what could have been; we can, in time, see what can be…

This is even true with situations that seem not to be matters of life and death, but rather just matters of circumstance.

What if, when we looked at this building, we thought to ourselves, “Well, it stinks that we have so many stairs, bad lighting, asbestos floors. Wish they would have done it differently, but they didn’t…” and we just shrugged our shoulders and didn’t do anything about it?  Are we bound to what could have been?  Can we live into what can be, unbound?  I mean it’s not life or death, but…

You know, I say it’s not a matter of life or death, but for me stairs aren’t a problem.  For me bad lighting isn’t a problem.  It might be for someone else a matter of life or death, especially if you’ve ever tried to walk down those stairs with bad lighting at night…man, that’s tricky, over there by my office.  Might as well install a slide for as often as I’ve slid down those steps in the dark…

On this All Saints Day, let us acknowledge together the stink of death.  Let’s acknowledge together that sometimes life is smelly, and sometimes what we go through in this life stinketh to high heaven.

But let us also remind ourselves that that which stinketh to high heaven is smelled by a God who does not want us to be bound to death, but binds us to the life of his Son who conquers death.  All deaths, complete and incomplete.

And while death of loved ones, death of relationships, death of jobs, of status, of friendships, of trust, of anything in this world most often stinks…and there’s no denying that…the God who shows up in Christ invites us to smell the resurrection flowers of spring in due time, reminding us that we need not be bound to death any longer, even as we weep and our guts turn within us.

We can weep without fear, you know.  This is what I think Jesus embodies here: genuine sadness without fear of missing out on what could have been.  When he unbinds Lazarus, when he unbinds Mary and Martha, he does not fully take away their sadness…both will feel sadness again at death, we know this is true especially with Mary and Martha as they weep for Jesus at the cross.

But perhaps the thing that is missing from the equation after this smelly miracle is the fear.

Maybe that’s what hope really is, after all.  Optimism is naively thinking everything will work out.  Hope, though…the hope of faith…is that, no matter how things work out, we need not fear.  As the ancient poetry of the Psalmist says in Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear not, for you are with me.”

Fear not the smell.  Fear not the stink. I smell it.  It hurts. I mourn it.  But I do not fear it.

Or to bring in another poet, a Jewish poet of the 18th Century (and we’ll leave it with this thought) perhaps Jesus’ unbinding work in our lives is best summed up by the poet Reb Nachman in his short piece, _The entire world is a very narrow bridge_

He writes:

The entire world is a very narrow bridge./The essential thing is to have no fear at all.

Thanks, Nachman…and I guess I have to say that I haven’t quite found out how to do that without being constantly reminded of the smelly miracles that God in Jesus does in this world.


No More Silent Heroics-A Reformation Sermon

October 25th, 2015

Are you ready?

ReformThey came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heart that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.

The Gospel of the Lord

No More Silent Heroics


When it appears the center will not hold, Lord

Reform us.

Re-form us.

Re-form us today to be centered on you.

Invincible Son.


The people of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Raleigh, North Carolina send you their love, their prayers, and all the good will in the world even as they called me as their Senior Pastor last week.  After the vote, in the closing, they prayed for you.  They prayed for this process of transition.

They prayed for the re-forming of Luther Memorial Church of Chicago.

Michael Haite, who is now in 6th grade here, informed me that he was just praying for a “no vote” from them.  When he asked how the vote went, and I said, “Well” and he said, “That stinks…”

I appreciate that sentiment.

Look, here’s a truth for Reformation Sunday: sometimes we’re reformed by choice, and sometimes we end up being reformed by life without a choice in the matter.

The first feels good, even if it’s tough.  It feels like agency.  It feels holy, even.  Choosing to reform.  Take steps toward a better tomorrow, even if the steps are difficult.

The second one feels like you’re being run over by the big-rig of life, and often times feels like the driver of this big-rig even puts it in reverse a few times to make sure you’re good and flat.

Both are reformation, though.  Both are a re-forming.  And both can end up with blessing in time.

The first kind instills confidence.  The second makes you feel like your wax wings have come too close to the sun and, to quote that famous witch, “you’re melting.”  Or at least falling.

There are some important things to remember about either type of reformation, in my estimation.

With reformations we choose, even reformations like this Capital Campaign (which needs your pledge, by the way!), with reformations we choose we must remember that we are not invincible.  We all do, indeed, wear wax wings in life. You know this. You forget it, but you know it.

That doesn’t mean don’t aim high!  Martin Luther himself aimed high.  He fought the giant of his day.  We have Biblical story after Biblical story about facing giants, not the least of which is David slinging his meager stones at Goliath, reforming the giant’s outlook on life while also reforming the giant’s forehead.

Aim high, but remember that if you touch the sun you will burn your hand.  Finn is keenly aware of this these days, now that he’s helping me cook.  As he says every time I turn on the stove, “Fire hot. Don’t touch it.”  I like him parroting that much more than the curse word that came from his mouth last week in a fit of frustration…

Humility in this first kind of reformation is indeed a virtue.

And what about the reformations that happen to you, not by you?  What about those times it seems like you didn’t touch the fire, but it sure enough touched you?

For moments like that I call on the wisdom of Albert Camus.  Any of you familiar with author/philosopher Camus will wonder why I’d rely on an agnostic for a word of grace, but in an honest moment he penned this: “Even in the deep darkness of winter I knew in my heart an invincible summer.”

Which makes me think his agnosticism had a virus called God.  May we all catch that virus in our moments of agnosticism…

Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, calls out to Jesus, “Mercy!”  He calls to Jesus from a place of reformation, when the world has run over him, reduced to begging as he is.  He is told to shut up.  He is told that his cries aren’t worth the breath they’re carried on.  He’s told that people have had enough of his yelling.

And he cries out even louder, “Mercy!  Mercy!”

By the way, the fact that the Gospel writer Mark names this man by name indicates that he was a known entity to that first audience who would hear this letter in some way.  It’s kind of like saying, “Hey, remember so and so? Well if you don’t believe this stuff about Jesus, just ask so-and-so, he was affected first-hand!”

And so Bartimaeus cries, “Mercy! Mercy!” and Jesus hears him, calls to him, and this man jumps up, pushes off his cloak, and runs to Jesus.

The fact that he pushes off his cloak is not insignificant.  Theologian and Christian activist Ched Meyers, who interestingly organizes a Christian collective called Bartimaeus Collective Ministries, notes that this cloak was the working tool for the beggar.

And at Jesus’ call, even before the healing, he is able to leave that behind.  He is able, as the good (and bald, I might add) Reverend William Sloane Coffin once said in a sermon on a totally different text, but we’ll go with it anyway, “to see his present not in terms of the past, but of the future.”

Perhaps that’s what reformation of either kind really is.

And, of course, the irony here is that this man whom the texts notes is blind can see better than anyone so far.  He can see better than the disciples, who look at Jesus and still can’t make heads or tails of him.  He can see better than the rich man who fell at Jesus’ feet and expected a blessing rather than an expectation.

The first have indeed become the last in this very moment; the prophecy is fulfilled.  The beggar who is blind has the richness of spiritual insight; the sighted are stunted.  The man with blindness can see better than those who take for granted their sight.

Do you see what I’m saying here?

In the presence of Jesus the world is turned on its head, and those of us who try to keep things status quo are just going to find ourselves on the wrong side of right.

And this is good news for us when we are shoved into a reformation period that we’d rather not have, because in the moments when it seems like the world is upside-down, the one who turns reality upside-down is there to make things whole again.

If you don’t believe it, ask Bartimaeus.  He’ll tell you.  Don’t ask the disciples; they’re not getting it yet.  Ask the one rolled over by life, the one who has come out on the other side, the one whose wings have melted only to find that they didn’t need to fly because God had been holding them up the whole time, anyway.

But, and I think this is important to remember, just like Bartimaeus, we need to be vocal in our cries, our pleas, our needs in the moment.  When life has run us over it’s not the time to bow your head and take it.  Cry out “Mercy!  Mercy!”  Rage and scream if you must.  Anger is not bad. Anger that leads to hate, anger that leads to physical destruction, anger that leads the hand and mind and heart to sin, that is to be avoided.  But anger and love are beautiful bedfellows.  They hold hands, and when they do we call it “passion” which literally means “suffering.”

Sometimes in life we suffer for love, and get angry, and that’s passion.  Reformation of either kind elicits passion, as it did in 1517 when a not-so-humble Martin Luther started nailing stuff to doors in a fit of passion, asking questions with no clear answer. We are Lutherans, after all.  Ask away. Get out your hammer.  When life is reforming you, God can take the questions.

Because in the winter of a world that seems to have cold answers, remember the invincible summer placed in your heart by a God whose beloved Son warmed Luther’s heart, Wesley’s heart, Calvin’s heart, Zwingli’s heart…all hearts in reformation moments.  So don’t accept cold answers as God’s final say on the world.  Cold answers like a cold tomb that God warmed with resurrection light.

Henry David Thoreau once penned that most people lead lives of quiet heroism.  I think that’s true here, too, with you reformers sitting in these pews.  Some of you are choosing reformation in your life, some feel like life is choosing reformation for you and you’d rather it not.Hero

Regardless, in a very un-Lutheran way, I want to encourage you to stop being quiet about the heroism you are and see around you.  I want you start, like Bartimaeus, crying loudly.  Saying loudly both your need for mercy, and saying loudly how you see God’s grace impacting your life.

And I need you to say it loudly because, yes, in normal times quiet heroism is absolutely the way to go.  I can even hear Tina Turner singing “We don’t need another hero…” the title track to the movie “Mad Max: Beyond the Thurnderdome”. (Totally underrated movie)

But in times of reformation, both chosen and placed upon us, we need Luthers and Wesleys and Dorothy Days and people who, while humble enough to tie their own shoes, were vocal enough to nail some grace to the doors of some hearts who needed it.

As Anne Lamott says in her work _Stitches_ , playing again with some subtle agnosticism infected by the virus of faith, “If there is a God, and most days I do think there is, He or She does not need us to bring hope and new life back into our lives, but keeps letting us help.” (61)

So let’s help, beloved.  Help each other, and help ourselves, in this time God is letting you do so.  Reformation is upon us today.  The fire blazes, your wax wings have melted, and you find yourself in the hand of God.

Tell someone about it so that they, like Bartimaeus, might truly see where they are: safe and secure in the mighty fortress of God’s love even as reformation fires forge us all into something new, continually new.


The Awkward Sermon

<Listen to the sermon by clicking here.  You can sign up to receive the soundcloud casts in your email inbox if you’d like. No pressure, though. Also, please note that the dig at the Chicago Bears comes from a place of honesty and is not intended to offend (because they’re defense is offensive by football standards enough on it’s own).

Mark 10:17-31

October 11th, 2015

Are you ready?

2891907679_25089c7fac_z17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. 23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

The Gospel of the Lord

The Awkward Sermon


How hard it is, Lord

To see ourselves in your presence.

Because we know we’re there

…we hope we’re there…

And yet it’s hard to see ourselves there

Because you know us…

And sometimes that’s scary, because we have lots of baggage.

So let us enter your kingdom

As hard as it is, Lord.


I titled this sermon “The Awkward Sermon” before we sent the letter out to you all announcing my impending departure.  And then someone on Wednesday said, “Well, it’s ‘The Awkward Sermon’ because you’re going to talk about money, right?  Ha…no.  I mean, I guess that’s awkward, but we’re honest here at Luther Memorial.  When we need to talk about money we just do.  This sermon is awkward because this text is awkward.

I mean, hear those words again, OK? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says.

And at this point all pastors thank Jesus for putting this text right at stewardship time, and we’ll gladly accept your checks in exchange for a promisory note that will get you into heaven.  It is time to make your pledge to the capital campaign, folks.  Line up and pass through the eye of the needle you camels, but first you must unload that hump of money you have on your backs…

That Jesus uses a camel as the visual image here is brilliant because I think a camel is pretty much the most awkward animal in gate and looks and in every-which way.  Scientifically they’re otherwise known as “even-toed ungulates.”  Lordy, I love that term. It’s so awkward. “Even-toed ungulates.”

And even though it generously means “balanced walker,” it sounds so unbalanced and awkward.

Kind of like the two awkward scenes in this Gospel lesson from Mark where the rich man falls down at Jesus’ feet and claims he’s kept every single blasted commandment in the book, or at least the commandments Jesus throws at him. I bet he’d probably claim to follow any commandment that Jesus would name.

It’s awkward because everyone knows he’s not honest. He may see himself that way…we always want to see ourselves as honest, but he’s not being honest.

Jesus’ answer to this guy is also really awkward, like a divine mic drop.  Because he gives the guy something to do that he can’t do.  The guy who thinks he’s achieved everything is given something he can’t achieve: give it all up.  Even if he wanted to, he can’t. He’s unable.

He’s an even-toed ungulate.  A camel.  He tries to present himself as all-together, but he’s awkward because he’s got this huge attachment to money, like a hump on his back.

And then the disciples, they follow-up with their whole little humble-brag here.  You know the humble-brag, right?  It’s where you brag about how you never brag…

“We’ve left everything to follow you, Jesus!” they say excitedly as they’re about to pin their humble achievement ribbons on their wool tunics, those poor disciples who have given up everything because they think it gets them something…

And at this point I can imagine Jesus looking at them and sighing, kind of like I do every time Findley unwittingly roots for the Bears: “Buddy, you just don’t get it.”

Because they’re just like that rich man, only their camel hump is their attachment to how much they’ve given up to follow Jesus.  Another thing on their “to do” list.

It’s awkward.  The disciples want to claim that their poverty gets them somewhere, but it exposes that they’re just as lost as anyone.

I am the rich man. I am the disciple. I’m the awkward one with them. I like to pretend I have it all together, but just ask me and I’ll show you my riches and my poverty and put it on display for you like a trophy case of achievement.  And in a whisper I might even tell you of the things that are on my back that aren’t in the trophy case, like my hurt and shame and fear that I lug around with me from place to place because I just can’t seem to let go of it.

I hold so tightly to all of that stuff, carrying it around on my back like a backpack of tricks that we carry to survive in a world that tells you that stuff matters.  Gotta make the money. Gotta be humble but only falsly. Can’t let go of your pain or else it’ll happen again.  Can’t let go of your shame, it defines you now.  Can’t let go of your hurt, it’s the only way you know how to see yourself now.


Carrying around all that stuff gets heavy.  Which is why we drink too much, eat too much, work too much, want too much, and basically keep Dave Matthew’s Band in business with song lyrics (those are from Too Much for those of you who don’t get the reference.  Awkward…)

We’re taught things give us meaning, so we hoard money and buy things.  And then we’re taught that our things are killing us, so we purge and minimize.  It’s a spiritual yo-yo diet.  It’s a diet for our ego who is never satisfied whether we indulge it or starve it.  We must work, do, be, cut, trim, achieve, post in on Facebook, and then we’ll be able to click the “like” button on our lives.

We cannot binge or purge your way into the kingdom of God, beloved.  Doing is just the busy work that distracts a heart that is afraid to know itself for who it actually is: deeply loved and enough on its own even though it’s deeply flawed, and too often hard, and full of stuff that isn’t God.

God doesn’t need us to unload this stuff for God’s sake; we are loved even with it.  But we need it unloaded for our sake, because it prevents us from experiencing God and God’s kingdom and a life that is truly free so often.

The kingdom of God is not in some heaven, light years away, at least not primarily.  In the Gospel of Mark it is that place here and now where God’s presence is so palpably known and shared with people because nothing else is standing in the way: not egos, not wealth, not fame, not power, not systems of oppression, not systems of sin management, and doing, and even fear and shame.

It’s like the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning noted:

Earth’s crammed with heaven

And every common bush afire with God

But only he who sees takes off his shoes—

The rest sit around and pluck blackberries

And it’s not like the kingdom of God is hard to get into, as if there’s some locked door that you have to pass through. Earth is crammed with heaven. It’s more like it’s so hard to experience the kingdom of God that is constantly present because we have so much on our backs that we’re unwilling to let go of that we can’t enjoy it, see it, feel it, hear it, what have you.  Instead we just pick blackberries through life which might seem OK until you realize that blackberries won’t fill you and just end up giving you digestive issues.  The true food and real desire is right in front of you but you’re so busy doing that you can’t see it.

Even “doing” fear and shame and hurt in this life, unwilling to let it go because, like a lover who always hurts you, it’s the most familiar thing and better to feel than not, right?

No. Better to be free.  Even fear and shame and hurt can become the hump on our backs we become attached to.

Jesus talks about setting humanity free all over the Scriptures; I have to imagine this is what it’s like: it’s like being invited to have that thing done for you that you can’t seem to do yourself.  We love to work at things, do things, but as the mystic Meister Eckhart once wrote, “Work does not make us holy; we must make work holy.”

A life changed by God is one that isn’t known by wealth or humility or strength or false piety or religiosity or any work or doing or anything except, well…Tim.  And Aaron.  And Sara.  And perhaps the phrase, “Beloved child of God.”

Because any other modifier on the name just makes it awkward in the Divine presence.  We try to say that our achievements balance us, make us who we are, etc.  We even subtly and secretly and in those places where we hide even from ourselves think that God loves us more for them.

But we’re all camels, even-toed ungulates, before a cross-shaped needle that is just begging us to lay it all down.  No, not just begging us, offering to take it off our backs.  And deep inside you you’re begging for the permission.

And so God in Christ goes to the great lengths of the cross, going through death and back again, does the miraculous to get us to pay attention, to show us that new life can be ours, even now. Permission granted.

Look, write the check to support the capital campaign.  Give in this life from your vast resources of talents, time, and treasure.  Be proud of how much you do; no shame in being proud.

But do it expecting nothing back.  Do it expecting that it will get you no farther ahead than you already are.  Do it out of the knowledge that God in Christ loves you more than you can possibly understand, and gives you wonderful mercy, and therefore expects something of you in this life as a response, not as a prerequisite. Be loved into being today, people.

And that’s another thing the cross gives us permission to believe, by the way.  We get permission to believe that God really cares about humanity, about you.  And so often we only care about titles and work done and production levels and doing our best and achieving and whatnot.  But today have permission to trust that God actually cares for you as you are, without all those things you lug on your back.

The God who delivers the mic drops in the face of all the false humility, all the false pretenses, all of the regular awkward lying that we do to ourselves and to one another (it is political season, after all, so there is tons of lying these days)…the Jesus who delivers the mic drops in the face of all that fake ridiculousness is the same one who delivers you from having to believe it yourself.  Frees you from having to do, be, stay attached to anything else.

God says, “I’ll unload that baggage for you right here.  It makes you awkward in life.  You don’t need it in God’s presence.  Eat some bread. Drink some wine. Trust you’re a child of God without trying to prove yourself into the inner circle.”

And then, it won’t matter if you’re literally first or last in the kingdom of God because here, in the kingdom of God, everyone gets the same amount anyway.

The same mercy. Grace overflowing.  Love. Delight in the presence of the holy one who doesn’t need you to be holier than thou, it just makes you awkward to pretend otherwise…God is holy enough for everyone.


God is a Difficult Houseguest

<Listen along to the sermon here.  Sermons are meant to be heard more than read. Also please note: if Jesus had a Twitter account he’d most certainly have many followers but few conversation partners…hence his need to chat on the road to Emmaus.>

II Corinthians 9:8

October 4th, 2015

Are you ready?

Do you not know that God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, people of God?

You will always have enough of everything in order that you may share abundantly with others in every good work.

The word of the Lord

God is a Difficult Houseguest

$T2eC16ZHJIcFHOShyvrQBSQFubBI!!--_32One of the arguments for God’s existence that has been batted around is what I refer to as the “Motel 6” argument.

Now, look, as with all philosophical arguments for God’s existence or non-existence, it’s not going to satisfy.  Just know that from the get go.  All philosophical arguments for God’s existence or non-existence (you can’t prove something doesn’t exist, right?) are like a Hallmark movie: you’re going to find some place where the plot doesn’t connect.

But this kind of argument is about plausibility.  So the Motel 6 argument goes like this:

Imagine you’re checking into a motel.  You put the key card in the door, you open the door, and you find that your favorite music is playing as you walk in.  The temperature is just right in the room; just the way you like it.  There are your favorite foods waiting for you on a table.  A chair that is perfect for your height and size is pulled up right next to it.  The bed is made just as you make your bed, and the TV is turned to your favorite channel.

If you walked into this hotel room, you would imagine that someone knew you were coming, right?  And not in the abstract, but in the specific: they knew you were coming.  The chances of them getting all of those details correct by chance is just astronomically inconceivable. They know you.


The argument ends with the conclusion that because there is human life on earth at all, with the improbability that the nitrogen and oxygen levels are just so, that must have been designed, and if there is a grand designer it is God.

Now, expel from your mind right away any sort of thought about agreeing or disagreeing with the argument.  As Peter Rollins, that mad Irish metaphysicist notes, figuring out if you agree or disagree with something is actually just allowing it or disallowing it into your worldview.  To listen to something, you have to open yourself up to a story, a statement, a thought as being naked and without judgment.

What I want you to think on is this: how do you know if someone is expecting you?

What are the things that need to be in place for you to feel welcome?  And not just generally welcome, that you are welcomed?

In the scriptures we find God and God in Jesus showing up in the weirdest places.  Early in the Bible God shows up as three foreign travelers to Abraham, who begs them to stay and entertains them in his tent and is blessed by it.

By the way, this scene will be reversed in the Gospel of Matthew where three foreign travelers will show up at Jesus’ home where they will be welcomed.  Scripture has unexpected symmetry in some places, and in other places where you expect symmetry you find none.

But that is indicative of God’s way.  You don’t know what to expect when you’re entertaining God…which makes God the most difficult houseguest.

I mean think on that other story in Genesis where Jacob is camping by the river Jabbok and a stranger starts wrestling with him in the night.  It is God wrestling with him and Jacob refuses to let go, even after being injured, and God blesses him.  What a great thought for those of us who have spent long hours tossing and turning at night over a decision.  It truly is wrestling with God.

But you don’t expect that to be God.  God is supposed to be about blessings and nice and kind and…you don’t expect God to be a wrestling fan.  You can’t predict that.

Or let’s fast forward a bit.  In the New Testament past Good Friday and Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday morning.  In the Gospel of John we find Mary weeping beside Jesus’ empty tomb, expecting that someone has taken the body to do who knows what to it, and then like a strange lurker comes Jesus walking along amidst the graves and Mary doesn’t recognize him.  Because, why would anyone hang out in a graveyard anyway.

And then her eyes are open and she sees Jesus and the thing is you just can’t predict where you’re going to find Jesus.  He apparently has a thing for graveyards.  The God we see in Jesus is a difficult houseguest because there is no way you can anticipate that way to make God feel welcome, right?

You just can’t predict it.

Take one final example.  Imagine that scene at the end of the Gospel of Luke where the disciples are walking on the road to Emmaus, the disciples named Clopas and…well…we don’t find the name of the other one.  Maybe it’s supposed to be you.

Anyway, they’re walking and Jesus shows up on the road.  This is after the resurrection and the whole area is tweeting about it and Jesus plays dumb and anyway, they don’t figure out it’s Jesus until at the very end when they start to eat dinner with him and he does the very Jesus-y thing of breaking and blessing bread and, boom, their eyes are opened.

You don’t expect Jesus to be wandering the back streets, right?  You don’t expect Jesus to be in disguise.  How can you prepare for a God who surprises us?

I’ll tell you how: you collect high chairs.

No, seriously, you start collecting high chairs.  Dieter Schulte tells this wonderful story of how in the lean years the church started collecting high chairs.  And, sure, there weren’t enough babies to fill them…at least not yet.

But, as he said, “They wanted to be ready for the babies if they came.”

And now?

Filled high chairs.

And see, here’s the thing: it wasn’t mostly about being prepared for babies.  I mean, that was part of it.

But it’s more about being prepared for God.  Because God showed up that way at least once.  And as wind and fire and a wrestler by a river and a homeless guy who hangs out in graveyards, and as a random man walking along the side of the road making conversation.

We, people of God, must be ready.  Because God is alive in this world, Christ is alive in this world, and God is a difficult houseguest because you can’t expect how God will show up or what God will need.

You know, I’ve heard many times in my life that “God will do what God will do” or “God will make a way.”  And I agree with that in principle.

But when God does choose to work in that miraculous way, we call that…well…a miracle.  In fact, Lutherans are keen on saying that God primarily works through things: bread, water, wine, hands, humanity.


So, when it comes to being prepared, to being ready, when it comes to something like this capital campaign where, at our heart, we’re trying to reflect with our building who we are as a community, what has to hit home is that, yes, it is God’s world, and God can do as God wants to do.

But it is up to you, me, us, to do it.  It is up to us to help people know that we’re expecting them with better hallways, accessible floors, updated lighting, new flooring, better bathrooms.

It’s up to us to be aware that God traverses these halls daily, weekly, and when we’re honest we must say that we’re not prepared.

But we can be.

Mark Allan Powell, a professor and pastor at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio notes that, “The church is not a club but a living body, composed of all persons who have been made alive in God through Jesus Christ.”  Luther Memorial is not this building, it is these people, and the people who have yet to join us.  And we must be prepared for their living bodies.  Little bodies who need flooring that is not asbestos.  Old bodies who need good lighting for failing eyes.  Differently abled bodies who need access to the pastor’s office and our Sunday school floor.  Bodies who need new spaces to set up shop as we’re out of office space.  Bodies who need different meeting spaces that are now at a premium in our church.

The church is a living body and it must be accessible and open to all living bodies wherever it gathers.

And, as Paul in II Corinthians tells us, God has given us everything that we need to help people know that we are expecting them within this space that this church body gathers.


But it will be a challenge.  Over the next three years we’re asking parts of this church body to invest in a new way over and above what they have been already. The giving we’re asking for is on top of your regular giving. It’s an overflowing gift for an overflowing grace. It kind of reminds me of those Mary’s who went to the tomb that Easter morning.  They went lugging spices to prepare the body of Jesus even though they had seen Jesus die.  They were going the extra mile for a body that meant so much to them. It wasn’t reasonable; it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for them.  But they were surprised by the radical resurrection, the transformation that happened when they arrived.

But, as Mark Allen Powell again notes in that great book “Giving to God,” “It is in the move from reasonable to radical that the goodness of God takes hold of our lives and transforms us according to the gospel.”

And we can transform this building, according to the gospel configuration of being open and accessible and inviting to all.

You know, the people who walked these halls along with the God who they served back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s…they knew we were coming.  They wanted to make us feel as welcome as possible with the resources they could muster and their latest technology.

And now our sights turn to the next 60 years.  In 60 years will Luther Memorial, the living body, be sitting here in this building, looking around and saying to themselves, “Those people were expecting us, by God.  They knew we’d be here.  They knew we’d be here with our canes and chairs, with our poor eyesight and good eyesight, with our babies and families and ministry needs.  They expected us.  They expected God to still show up in us.  They expected that we’d still be experiencing the grace overflowing from this ministry.”?

In 60 years I will be surprised to be alive.  Most of us here will.  But we can invest in something to outlive us here.  We can change thousands of lives for the future of this ministry here.  We can provide the welcome for the God who will continue to show up in this body for years to come.

Look, God is a difficult houseguest…but we can do this.  We can see some needs. We have been given everything in abundance to share with others and welcome God the guest, welcome Christ the living body, welcome ourselves anew into a new space for the next 60 years.

When people come and sit in worship in 60 years here in this space, I hope they say, “These people knew we were coming.”


Jesus is the Scandal

<Please listen along to this sermon.  You can hear it by clicking here.  Also, many thanks to mimetic theory, The Reverend William Sloane Coffin, and my theology professors at Valparaiso University who refuse to let me buy into sin management systems>

Are you ready?

Mark 9:38-50

38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” 39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of Sculpture by Frances Bruno Catalanome. 40 Whoever is not against us is for us. 41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. 42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than
to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, 48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched. 49 “For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

Jesus is the Scandal

Scandalize us with your word today, God.

Give us the ability to respond to the world today, God.


After reading this text from the Gospel of Mark I heard one pastor quip, “Well, I wonder where the Biblical literalists are today?!”

Cutting off hands and feet and plucking out eyes…the term “plucking” seems to be especially gruesome, yes?…it is all a little too much Frankenstein and not enough, well…not enough Jesus.

It’s a good thing Lutherans have never been literalists.  Well, except for when it comes to the times where Jesus says, “Tell no one what you have seen here…”  It seems Lutherans have taken that a little too literally…

Perhaps Flanner O’Conner can help us understand Jesus when she says, “I use the grotesque in the way I do because people are deaf and dumb and need help to see and hear.”  I hope we will all forgive Ms. O’Conner and her misuse of words.  For one so careful with words, she seems to not realize that those who are deaf or dumb don’t have trouble seeing, but only speaking and hearing.

But actually, this quote from Jesus seems to fall along that same line of O’Conner’s jumbled words because it sounds like Jesus is making a mistake.  If our hand sins, shouldn’t we forgive the hand, the foot, the eye? 70 times 70?  For the one who is so peaceful, who is restoring limbs and sight, it doesn’t seem right to advocate the plucking of eyes and tearing off of hands.

And what’s with all this hell talk?  And what’s salt have to do with it?  And what’s with this story of the disciples being envious of this other guy who can cast out demons?  You know, elsewhere in Scripture we hear someone complain because they went to the disciples for healing and the disciples couldn’t cast out demons. The disciples are envious, perhaps. Reminds me of the times where I hear people who aren’t pastors or pastors of other denominations give me a sermon that I wish I had thought of or preached and that little vine of envy comes creeping up my soul…

It appears we are the ones who cannot hear when it comes to this text.  We can’t see how it all fits together.  And we join the disciples in this, of course.  Because they, too, can’t seem to understand what Jesus is saying.  Not about that following him means risking unpopularity, hardship and death, not about embracing the ones on the margins, not about what it means to be expansive in love and forgiveness and grace, not in any of it.

And so perhaps Jesus uses the hyperbole, the grotesque, to get through our defenses so that we pay keen attention.

I’m quoting a lot of William Sloane Coffin these days.  You can always tell who I’m reading because they pop up in my sermons kind of like Pumpkin Spice Lattes seem to pop up in my hands in these autumn months.  It just happens.

But the good Reverend Coffin uses a phrase over and over again in his sermons and I don’t know if he coined it or is borrowing it, but I’m going to borrow it for you today and I pray you’ll continue to borrow it for yourself.  He says, “We are not punished for our sins.  They punish us.”

Few statements are as true, at least in the Divine sense.  And certainly we’ve all said something similar in one way or another.  “If only I hadn’t said that…I would rather rip out my tongue than have said it.”

Regret is the bat that continues to swing after the pitch has already gone by. Only the bat hits us, and not the ball…

And, I would say, it is largely true that the ability to do small harm enables the ability to do great harm.  Pope Francis’ visit hit that home when it was juxtaposed with the Volkswagon debacle. The first Pope who has taken on ecology as a faith-issue visits the week that we find our cute little Bugs and Rabbits and Touregs (whatever those are) are rigged to pass emissions tests on test day alone, but not on a regular day.  And nothing is as a better metaphor for the micro having macro impact than the thought that my driving to the 7-11 is causing a glacier to melt faster than nature intended.

We are not all guilty of world-wide sin, but we are all responsible.

I may not be guilty of the fact that my neighbor was shot, though our neighborhoods are miles apart.  But I am responsible. I may not be guilty for droughts in California, but I am responsible.  I may not be guilty for conflicts in Israel/Palestine, Syria, or even within my neighbor’s house.  But I am responsible.

And, contextually, we could also think of it this way: I may not be guilty of the fact that our hallways here at the church are too dark and sometimes dingy not because they are not clean, but because they are just old.  But I am responsible.  I am not guilty of the fact that bad knees can’t make it to our Sunday School classes, cutting them off from access.  But I am responsible.

And, of course, saying all that may cause a twinge of guilt in you.  It does in me.  And that’s not the intent, but that’s what happens.  It’s one of the problems with the English language…we have plenty of phrases for straightforward things like, for instance, hair loss (“follicaly challenged” is my favorite), but with terms that require quite a bit of nuance we find no nuance.  Like guilt.

The thing about all these scenarios I just named is that they involve some sort of cut.  A life cut short.  Nourishment cut short. Ozone cut short.  People with mobility issues get cut off within our own building.

For as true as it is that we are responsible for our own actions, it is also true that we are responsible for other’s well being, at least it is for those with Jesus’ fish on their bumpers.  And the two are connected.

And so when Jesus uses this grotesque language, perhaps he’s making that connection in such a way that makes us pay attention because, well, it’s hard to get attention in both ancient Palestine and in the world of an ever-updating Twitter feed.  And he especially gets attention when he couples it with the idea of putting a stumbling block in front of a child.  “Might as well tie that block to your own neck and jump in a river,” Jesus quips.  Jesus has a lovely way with quips, am I right?

But what is the block?  What is the sin that might cause you to cut off your hand or pluck out your eye?

It’s funny because the scene directly before this one has the disciples envious over someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name, though he had forgotten the proper identification that claimed he was a Jesus follower.  Apparently his Jesus fish had fallen off of his bumper.

They rebuke this person, and then Jesus rebukes them.

And then Jesus follows it up with, “Whoever is not against us if for us.”  Now, we’ve twisted that phrase all to pieces in these days.  We say it like this, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us.”  But anyone who has taken Logic 101 knows that those are two different equations.

And what is so striking about Jesus’ statement is how expansive it is.  Forget about being a card-carrier, a church member, a confessor, if you’re healing in the name of the God of peace, love, and wholeness who we see in Jesus, you’re of the same cloth of the cloak who healed the hemorrhaging woman.

So the millstone, it seems, the stumbling block, is being restrictive.  Myopic.  Closed.

You know, I gotta do something with the Greek here because it’s one of my favorite Greek words being used: skandalon.  Or, more rightly, the verb skandalizo.  It’s where we get the English “scandal.”  So if your hand scandalizes you, if you scandalize a young one with your closed-mindedness, if your eye scandalizes you…

The problem, of course, is that try as we might we will eventually lose an eye, a hand, a leg, a tongue, the other eye, the ear, all of it…because sin management systems just. don’t. work. We’ll hollow ourselves out before we know it.

No matter what the church down the street tells you, no matter what that TV preacher tells you, no matter what your mama told you, I’m here to tell you that it just ain’t going to work.

Now, as Luther says, this doesn’t mean you should sin with abandon.  We’re not nihilists here; we’re Lutheran.  There’s a difference.  Instead we just sin boldly.

Because the difference is that we know that the scandal is not in our hand, or in our eye, but it’s in a place that we, unfortunately, just cannot touch but keep trying to because, if we’re honest with ourselves, we think that we can right the ship of our lives, of our community, of our nation, of our planet, ourselves.

We can’t get to it.  But God does.  And heals it.  Just like he heals the hands and eyes and ears and hearts of those cut off from the world by a society that keeps trying to save itself even though it can’t.

And Jesus notes that it can’t.  Only God can do that.  And Jesus goes around talking like this, and the people who love sin management systems, usually people in power, start hating him for it.  Religious people. People who have something to lose if the management system is over turned.  Those involved in principalities and governance and whatnot.  The powerbrokers. Myopic people who think they, and they alone, know what is right and wrong in a world full of people cut off for being wrong in some way or another.

And they say to themselves, “He is scandalizing the people!  He is causing them to take risks they wouldn’t otherwise take.  He is talking about a God who is much more open than our management system allows for.”

And so they grab him, and they cut him off on a cross, and they throw him into the hell of Gehenna, the hell of the garbage pit where people are crucified, where the ritual sacrifices of old took place, often child sacrifices, and…oh, by the way, it was part of the sacrifice to throw salt on the fire…

See: Jesus becomes the scandal for a world that would be hollow if they tried to do it on their own.  And we see this hollowness!  Imagine the hollowness of a morality that suggests that you’d raise the price of a life-saving pill by $700.  Imagine the hollowness of the ethics of the marketplace that would make it possible for such a thing to happen!

This, people of God, is the result of small things, of people who think they can control themselves and worry about themselves but don’t have the ability or the impetus to respond to their neighbor.  And I truly believe Jesus is concerned for that reality.  Jesus pointed to a God who was more concerned for the wholeness of the world.

And the beautiful irony, of course, is that by embracing the idea that sin management systems don’t work, we actually get the ability to respond back.  Because instead of it being about monitoring us, our own actions alone, we can pay attention to our neighbor.  We gain response-ability.

And this is what God in Christ shows us the most: we have no fear of having to cut off our hands, pluck out our eyes, tie stumbling blocks around our neck.  Jesus became the stumbling block for a humanity fixated on being right, and then becomes the corner stone of a scandalous people who dare to suggest that if they say they have no sin, the truth is not in them. But that God forgives sin, invites resurrection, and this forgiveness, this invitation, actually allows us to do something in this world.  People who embrace the scandalous notion that they cannot do it all, they cannot be it all, but that somehow through God’s overflowing grace they have received the ability to act and dream and respond to a world that is more myopic than it is open.

So let Jesus scandalize you today.  You are not punished for your sins; they punish you enough.  Instead embrace the scandal of a God who loves you enough to show you a different way of being that has less to do with hurt and guilt and more to do with responding and grace and getting yourself out of the way so that God’s salt and light can be known in you.