Just Passing Through

<You can listen along here. That’s the best way…>

Luke 19:1-10

14233133_10153739593696906_3730237768157420067_n19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

Just Passing Through

Come by here, my Lord

Come by here. Today.

For us. Through us.

With us.

Amen.

Mmmmm…we’re going to start this sermon out with a real “Kumbaya” moment, OK?

Kumbaya my Lord, Kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya. Kumbaya, my Lord. Kumbaya, Oh, Lord. Kumbya.

And then the next verse, the English, “Come by here, my Lord. Come by here…”

That song has fallen victim to the campfire/nun-with-a-guitar/lets-hold-hands-and-sway stigma.  It’s beloved because it’s easy, it’s quaint, it’s simple, at least on the face of it.

The verses are actually really haunting. “Someone’s crying, Lord.”  “Someone’s praying, Lord.”  “Someone’s singing, Lord.”  The truth of the simple song is that it’s calling for a Divine response to those moments in life that are not simple at all, but complex.

Complex enough to have someone crying: over birth, death, loss, joy.  Complex enough to have someone praying: for new life, for death, for help, in thanksgiving.  Complex enough to have someone singing: for joy, in sadness…because sad songs say so much, in protest as they sing “We shall overcome…”

Kumbaya, that quaint little song, is a powerful little song for the complex situations that call us to ask God to “come by us.”

It’s actually a song of transformation, a song that begs for transformation.

It’s the kind of song in Zacchaeus’ heart, but he doesn’t know he’s singing it.

You know, I think that most of the spiritual issues with humanity happen at such a deep level, or to use last week’s example, such a phantom level, that Jesus, in his Divine wisdom, says and does things that throw us off kilter, that throw our filters all out of whack so that we can actually be impacted by what he says because our defenses are down.

Parables, these paradoxical sayings like “lose your life to gain it,” behaving in ways that were counter to the acceptable norm like touching lepers, dining with people who had bad reputations, teaching in the synagogues while touring with the laborers, all of these things threw people…and should throw us…off kilter because our normal filters that systematically process information just can’t handle that kind of strangeness overload, at least not in an organized way.

And we see it in this little story of Zacchaeus, a story that you all know by heart because you learned that little song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…”

A sad state of affairs when you’re remembered by scripture primarily for your height.

But Zacchaeus has, as a professional, a little system for figuring out his world.  Sure, it’s a corrupt system of winners and losers, but it’s a system nonetheless, a system to filter all other things through. He can skim off the top; others do. He can defraud and cheat; others do. He’s allowed to live by these rules, even though they benefit only him; others do. It’s his filter.

And then Jesus, passing by mind you, not staying mind you, sees this one who is so interested in him that he climbs a tree just to catch a glimpse of this wandering rabbi, to hear him better, and decides to stay with him.

I thought Jesus was just passing through.  Why is he now going to stick around?

Maybe he was, as the meme says, longing to hang so often with sinners so as to ruin his reputation with nice, church-going folks.  That is, by the way, how you act like Jesus: hang out with the wrong people enough to become suspect in the eyes of the people the world respects.

But I think it was something different.  I think he knew that Zacchaeus’ system, his filter, his way of doing life wasn’t working for him.  And, sure, he could tell him all sorts of moralisms and platitudes and things that could make him feel shame, make him feel guilt, aim to teach him something.

But all those words, all those moralisms and platitudes and all of that, all of that would fall right through the same old filters that Zacchaeus already has lined up.  And, for most people, those moralisms and platitudes and all that are generated from a similar set of filters, so it’s really the misguided leading the misguided.

That’s not Jesus’ way.  Instead he does this thing that totally disrupts all the filters: he changes his plans to take up space with Zacchaeus because underneath it all, he heard the song that Zacchaeus was actually singing, a song that was betrayed by him climbing that tree in the first place: Zacchaeus longed for something different.

The longing was there, but the filters were strong, and so Jesus used a tactic that disrupted all those filters: he’d stay in the home of the one who others thought was no good, disrupting Zacchaeus’ filters, and the filters of everyone around him.  And this is the same tactic that God has used again and again, by the way, walking with the ones who don’t seem to be a good fit: Abraham and Sarah can’t conceive, and God gives them the nations; Moses can’t speak well, and leads the people to the promised land; Ruth is a foreigner in a strange land, and God works through her for the good of the family; Mary and Joseph are unmarried nobodies, and God takes up residence in her womb and his home.

Why do we insist on filtering all this in the same old way the world tells us to?  God is not about reinforcing our thoughts, roles, and opinions in this life, but about disrupting them.  Because here’s the thing about God, while we may ask God to “come by here,” while we expect Jesus to just “pass through,” we dare not ask God to stay because if we do things will have to change in our lives.

But that’s what God just keeps doing: sticking around and changing hearts even when we don’t imagine it could be possible.

You know, we’re going to do some service work today, and I don’t for one minute want us to think that we are somehow bringing Jesus to these various places we’re going.  At best we are Zacchaeus, Beloved.  And this work is our sycamore tree.  And we do it to catch a glimpse of the Jesus we hear so much about.

And we shouldn’t be surprised to find Jesus in the soup line, hiding under the couch at the thrift store, in the heart of the child at Families Together, sliding down the pole at the firehouse, on the streets of Raleigh that we’ll pray for today, or even homeless under the blankets that we’ll be making in the Fellowship Hall.

Because there is an underlying hum in all of us: a cry, a prayer, a song.  And it is just begging for God to come near to us.  And here, in this place, we hear it is true, and find it is true, feel it is true, taste it is true at this table.  And the prayer and contemplation and sacraments and songs of this space are necessary for a full spiritual life.

But out there, in the world, that is where we find the trees to climb that give us a glimpse of the Jesus we’ve heard so much about here, we’ve sung so much about here, we’ve prayed to so much here.  And it’s this funny little paradox that God uses: here we hear and taste and feel and sing the story of grace and feel compelled to serve others, and out there we serve others and get tired and need to hear that story of grace to continue on with the work, and so we come back here and listen to it again and become refreshed, and go out there and do it again.

And pretty soon we find ourselves, like Zacchaeus, having our filters rearranged, having our complex lives transformed because, well, we thought Jesus was just passing through and expected him to just throw laws and moralisms at us, but he keeps showing up again and again and again in our lives with grace and love and peace that we realize we are the ones just passing through, and Jesus is the constant.

So come by here, my Lord.  And stay.  Come into this house that we might hear you, and we pray our filters are disrupted enough, our defenses down enough, to find you in every single house, shelter, stockyard, and heart we ever pass through.

Amen.

Trouble With Feet

<Listen along her to the sermon. Hearing it is better than reading it. Sermons are meant to be heard; essays are meant to be read. Big difference.>

Luke 14:25-33

Basic RGB

I’m the purple guy…

25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The Trouble with Feet

They have this race in Chicago called The Soldier Field 10 Miler.  Soldier Field is, of course, where the Chicago Bears pretend to play football, and if you watched the pre-season games last week you saw that the Bears quarterback threw for an astounding 11 yards last week.

As my Bears-fan wife Rhonda says, “It’s a hard year to be a Bears fan.”  She says that every year.

But I love the Soldier Field 10 Miler because you start the race just outside of the stadium, and you run five miles down Lake Shore Drive, that great avenue that hugs Lake Michigan, and then you run five miles back up and you head into the stadium through the players tunnel and run victoriously onto the field and cross the 50 yard line to end the race.

My first year running I did what I would call “couch conditioning.”  That is, I didn’t do much training, but got up that morning and literally ran the best race of my life.  I felt good, I was having fun, Rhonda and I ran together, and I crossed the 50 yard line with my hands up doing my best touchdown strut.

My second year running, though, I suffered from plantars fasciitis.  And running was a real struggle.  And though I didn’t walk, I surely limped through miles 6-10, Rhonda encouraging me the whole way. That year I crossed the 50-yard line as a mess of pain, and didn’t even really walk the next day much at all.

I’d never really known phantom pain like plantars fasciitis before.  It’s this shooting pain that I couldn’t quite figure out where it originated, and the remedies for it all said to expect 4-6 months before relief.  Putting any pressure on my heels caused some extreme pain.

I just kind of found myself limping along for a while with this trouble with my feet.

We all have phantom pain in our lives somewhere.  Sometimes it’s physical; sometimes it’s not.  Sometimes we don’t even know to name it pain, but there are these pressure places and all of a sudden, we become acutely aware of them.

I like to think that when Jesus is talking about hating some of these connection places in our lives, even hating life itself, that when he’s talking about counting the cost of listening to God’s call and following, he’s actually talking about pressure places, known and unknown.

It’s very easy for us to hear these really strong and confusing words of Jesus, these words “hate” and the phrase “give up everything” and freak out a little bit.  We don’t really like it when Jesus talks like this.  We prefer the gentle shepherd with the lamb on his shoulders and would rather do away with this radical minimalist wandering the deserts of the ancient world that we glimpse today.

And we don’t really like it because, I think, it touches this phantom pain that we all have: this phantom pain of attachments and idols and things we throw our hearts at over against throwing our hearts to God.

Because the things we bow down to in this world are often the very things that are causing us pain in this life.  We bow down to our bodies, crying over the image in the mirror and can’t hear God say that we are beautifully and wonderfully made.  And so we cut and starve ourselves, or make jokes about our love handles.

Or we bow down to our work, crucifying ourselves on a calendar that is really grinding wheel of death.  Or we bow down to our check books, spending it all on things we don’t want, or hoarding it all in our bigger and bigger barns.

Or we bow down to our prejudices, and secretly…and sometimes not so secretly…take pride in our disdain for other people because of who they are, absolutely ignoring God’s call to welcome the stranger in our midst, absolutely ignoring Christ’s example of reaching out to the Samaritan woman, of Christ’s example of proclaiming a kingdom of inclusion as he eats with the people the rest of society wanted to throw away.  As he sat with people who couldn’t stand and stood with people who weren’t allowed a seat at the table.

Or we bow down to that relationship that just isn’t working but, God we want to please them.  Or we obsess about how they bother us and stew on it forever.  Or we hurt them because, they hurt us and we really only know to react with pain to pain.

Or we bow to our patriotism, or our need to be right in life, or our political parties…we throw our heart at all sorts of things.

Because here’s the thing about following Jesus: it’s going to demand that we look in the mirror and see God’s beautiful creation over and against those other voices.  It’s going to demand that take stock of our time and steward our resources.  It’s going to demand that we practice forgiveness in our relationships instead of hurt, while also demand that we not accept the abuse of others because God has not made us to be kicked around our whole lives.  It’s going to demand that we exorcise the demons of prejudice, allowing ourselves to be healed by the God who created all and is all in all and all means all.  It’s going to demand that we give up all those things that call our hearts to bow down.

When Jesus uses this word “hate,” the translation indicates it is a comparison word.  Following Jesus will mean such a radical pushing back against those things that we bow down to, that it will look like we hate them.  When Jesus says we must give up everything to be a disciple, I hear Jesus saying that we must be torn away from everything that holds our hearts, and must give up our grasp on everything that we pretend will save us in this world.

But we shouldn’t be surprised, this is what Jesus has been saying all along, encouraging us to lose our lives to gain it, telling us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first…

You know, the sainted Reverend William Sloane Coffin once wrote, “It is often said that the church is a crutch. It is. What makes you think you don’t limp?”

We all have some trouble with our feet in this race of life.

And to be honest with you, I know I’m always going to limp in some ways.  My heart gravitates toward things all the time, and the idea that I can just give up everything to solely give my heart to God works for about a day at best and usually averages about an hour.  And when I imagine that I can do it perfectly, I realize I’ve given heart to self-righteousness, which is the most phantom of all the pains because I can’t see it when I’m running with it…but everyone else can.

Jesus does this funny thing, though.  He turns to the crowd and tells them they must give it all up to follow him, and I imagine he looks at them all, a ragtag bunch of people who aren’t quite sure why they’re following him other than they’re intrigued a bit, or having nothing better to do, or have always followed preachers around the desert and this is the latest one.

Face it: it’s a crowd that looks a lot like this one.

And he looks at them and realizes that they can’t get it together.  And so he ends up being the one who gives up everything for them. He loses his life on the cross so that we might glimpse true life.  He makes himself last in the eyes of the world, to be the first one on the scene in the graveyards of our life.

God, in the end, is the one who gives up everything in order to bring all of us limping through life across the finish-line in a big swoop of grace that leads all of us with feet trouble to the foot of the cross where we see just how far God is willing to go for us.

Because, if you want to talk about attachment, God is attached to us.  Us, who throw our hearts at all these other things.  Us, who don’t know how to react to pain except with pain. Us, who pretend we’re not limping, who say we don’t need a crutch, and yet who continually fall down.

One of my theology professors put it this way, and this is a phrase that I’m going to say to you over and over because it has been my crutch phrase through this life, a phrase that I think will get me through death, but he said, “Tim, God loves you for Christ’s sake, and will not let you go.”

And that’s good news for all of us who have foot trouble, who have phantom pain we’re not sure what to do with, and maybe won’t even acknowledge that we have.  So limp up to this table of grace, people of God. Receive the body of the one who gave up everything so that we might know the Christ who gives us his heart, even if we struggle to give ours back.

Plagiarizing Love Stories

pentecost_jacquiThe Ordination of Chris Michaelis

September 2nd, 2016

John 21:15-17

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.

Plagiarizing Love Stories

Let us pray:

You call your servants to ventures

Of which we cannot see the ending.

Today we bless this one servant,

Called out of many servants.

We pray that, in our lives

And through Chris’s life

The world is blessed

Amen.

I was sitting this last week with a seasoned pastor, now retired a few years…a pastor out to pasture as I like to call it…and I told him about this upcoming ordination and preaching and asked him, “What’s your advice, now on the other side of the promised land, to a pastor just crossing the Red Sea.”

He laughed and sat back and said, “Tell him to buckle up and not worry if his hair is combed.”

Chris, you and I have been blessed with the same gift that God reserves for the noble, namely, the ability to never have to pay for another haircut in your life.  So, you got that second piece of advice going for you…

But I asked his advice also because I’ve learned over the past few years in this calling this one truth, and I think it’s one that will save you quite a bit of grief if you’ll learn it sooner than later: you have nothing new to say.

You don’t.  I don’t.

In fact, if there’s one thing a pastor should get really good at it’s a mild form of plagiarism. It’s all the rage now; just look at party conventions and you’ll see accusations of it everywhere.

But here’s the thing: pastors just find really good ways to say the same thing over and over again, said by the first one who first spoke things into being, who put on flesh to “dwell amongst us” as the Gospel writer says, who first called you into this weird and wondrous calling that you’re about to swear your entire life, pension, and foreseeable future to.

It’s that message of love and grace that took a hold of Luther so tightly he couldn’t shake it even as he threw inkwells at the devil, coming to see that ink was better spent as a weapon against evil than signing indulgence checks.

But you must fall in love with that Gospel, pastor.

The bald and beautiful William Sloane Coffin once wrote that we all think about this stuff backward.  The call of the world is “Cogito, ergo sum” or, “I think, therefore I am.”  That is nonsense, he says.  Better said, humanity is “Amo, ergo sum” or “I love, therefore I am.”

Because what you love is what you become.

You know, in this gospel lesson, when Jesus is sitting with poor Peter (and by the way, notice that he starts his interrogation after breakfast…all good work is done after food), but he asks, “Peter, do you love me more than these?”

And I wonder what he was doing with his hands.

I think maybe one of his hands was on Peter’s shoulder, but perhaps, as Reverend Sloane Coffin suggests, the other hand was sweeping toward the wares of Peter’s work: his boat, his net, the sea.

Did Peter love the embodied good news of God more than the tools of his trade?

Or maybe it was sweeping past the other disciples: Did Peter love the embodied good news of God more than even those he was with?  I mean, did he love them more than he loved the disciples?

These are real questions for this text, pastor.

Because I’ll tell you, it becomes quite easy to fall in love with the tools of the trade: new books that Amazon dangles in front of your nose; new evangelism quick fixes; new stoles that were painstakingly created by honest people (though, you must remember that a Texas Tech stole, while matching Pentecost in color, is not advisable); or maybe that awesome tool, the sermon, that gets posted and you wait and wait and monitor to see how many compliments you get on it, how many likes it generates, how many shares it gets.

Tell me, Chris, do you love the Gospel more than these?  Don’t answer; it’s a hypothetical.  No, it’s real, but answer in your head so you don’t disrupt things.  And you all answer it too, especially you with funny collars on.

And, of course, it is also quite easy to fall in love with those surrounding you: the calls to make more home visits than anyone could make in 10 lifetimes; the warnings that you’re getting too political; that you’re neglecting too many opinions; that things aren’t running how they used to and people liked how things used to be…

It’s easy to fall in love with solving other people’s problems in this work.  Tell me, Chris, do you love the Gospel more than these?

Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ is what you are called to.  That is the story that you share.  And when you add to it by trying to augment it with Facebook likes or relying on too many fancy new books or podcasts or pretty paraments, or when you add to it by also trying to solve the world’s problems one person at a time and fulfilling requests like some sort of self-worth checklist, you do God, and your people, and your spouse and family, and the world no favors.

Let me amend that: we do God, and our people, and our partners and family, and the world no favors.

And so we must fall in love with the love story, wholeheartedly, so that the siren calls of all these other things don’t distract us from passing it on and saying it again and again and again.

Because it is only through the lens of the good news that God loves you, for Christ’s sake, and will not let you go that we are emboldened to work for justice and peace, to preach good news to the poor, to set captives free.

This world doesn’t need more pastors who are trying to save it with life advice and secret solutions; it needs more pastors who are pointing to, and continually falling in love with, and participating in the evolving love story of salvation already begun by the God seen through Jesus and who keeps plunging people into the dangerous waters of baptism and who keeps shoving bread and wine in people’s faces inviting them to taste and see that the Lord is good, banking on the fact that these things are all parts of that love story that has taken a hold of us and just keeps enticing us to fall in love again and again and again.

To love it more than anything else on the one hand, but on the other hand you’ll find that through it we know a deeper and better and fuller love for everything.

And look, I know you know all this, but there will come a time…if it hasn’t come already…when you’ll begin to wonder if talking about a 170lb Jewish guy hanging on a tree with common criminals will make any difference in a world where racism is not only rampant, but celebrated in some corners.  Where poverty and oppression are seen more as nuisance than the societal neglect it is.  Where broken families stay broke, and a sleeping society won’t get woke.

But…

But…

Recall what you’re in love with.  Recall the love story of the one who reached across the racial divide to the Samaritan woman with the water of peace and hope and equality; living water.  Recall the love story where the poor were blessed even in their poverty, where the oppressed one is called out of the systems of abuse in Egypt and into the promised land.  Recall the love story where, even as his body was broken on the cross, Jesus called down to his mother and the disciple he loved and created a family from a broken situation.

Recall the love story where the people thought God was sleeping on the job, but got woke to baby cries in Bethlehem that echoed across the cosmos, a vessel for God that no one predicted but who changed the world.

Fall in love again and again with the love story of God, and plagiarize the hell out of it.  Literally.

And when you fail.  When you fall back into the trappings of the tools of the trade, the people pleasing tendencies of the profession, the depths of despair that come across you when your office feels more like a dungeon than a sanctuary.

Well. I have a story to tell you.  It’s one I fell in love with a while ago, and one that I’ve had others tell me again and again so I can fall in love with it again and again.  It’s a familiar tale, but feels new every time somehow.  People have different ways of telling it, but it’s the same thing over and over again.

Pastor, it’s about a God who loves you, for Christ’s sake, and won’t let you go.  About a Jesus who loves you more than all the other distractions in the world.

And you can have the story, by the way.  Word for word or make it your own.  It’s what you’re called to use here today.  And you’ve had it all along, and you know it by heart.

But do you love it more than these?

I know you do.  But, love is a fickle thing and there are many distractions to help you fall out of love with it.  And so the great thing about these vows you’re about to take, these ordination vows, is that they will keep you in the faith until you fall in love with it again.  And again.  And again.

May it be so. Or, to plagiarize other words, Amen.

Jesus as Peace Delegation…Especially Between Your Uncle and Your Sister-in-Law When it Comes to Kaepernick

peace-doveThere are some weeks where it seems all the literalists and fundamentalists disappear from the church pews.  One such week is when we read Jesus’ instruction to pluck out your eye or chop off your hand if it causes you to sin. Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.

Right?

One other such instance involves this week’s reading where Jesus says that to follow him requires people to “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life.”  Jesus doesn’t really mean that, of course.

Right?

But even that teaching can be swallowed by some.  It’s how this passage ends that usually seals the deal when it comes to not taking Jesus literally.  To cap off this section on what discipleship means Jesus says, “those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

Ok, Jesus. So, that excludes everyone.  No one is left now.

Because Jesus is not just talking about the tangibles, but also the intangibles that we possess: our relationships, our pride, our self-worth, our need to be right. Everything.

Surely Jesus doesn’t mean that, of course.

Right?

A.J. Jacobs, a would-be social researcher who uses his body as his test subject, wrote about his journey to “live Biblically” for a year in his aptly titled book “The Year of Living Biblically.”  (A great read, btw!) He starts with the Hebrew scriptures, piling on code after AJ Jacobscode and law after law, moving to the Gospels and letters, until he was trying to follow every ordinance and command in the scriptures.

His conclusion: everyone who claims the Christian faith is a “cafeteria Christian.” That is, every person of faith and faith community decides which sections of the scripture are central to the faith (and subsequently, for the faithful) and which ones are not, because one cannot follow all the commands and ordinances (especially the contradictory ones).

And, the Lutheran would add, the faithful shouldn’t even try.  Because in the Lutheran cafeteria, that’s not the point of it all.

Let’s look at this gospel reading for this Sunday again.  Embedded in this confusing reading (I mean, we don’t really like it when Jesus talks like this, do we?) is, what I think, a key verse for unbinding the reading from traditional interpretations that smack of moralistic code-following commands.

Look at that second little story, the one about the king counting his armed forces before heading to war. Jesus says: “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”

I love this little Jesus insert.  It seems really cut and dry, of course, like a moral tale about “counting the cost” as it were when it comes to following Jesus.  Kind of like Jesus saying, “Are you prepared to lose it all?  If not, ask for a peace deal.”

And let’s face it: we’re not prepared to lose it all.  Peter thought he was. “Even if all the others desert you, I will not!” he confidently says in the Gospel of Matthew when it comes to facing the cross with Christ. The other disciples mumble similar affirmations as they all back away slowly into the foliage of the garden that fateful night.

635932885436549431-USP-NFL-Preseason-San-Francisco-49ers-at-HoustonWe talk a big game, but we’re not prepared to lose it all. If we were really prepared to lose it all, then the Christian circles would be all atwitter (or, rather, on Twitter?) around this deal with 49ers would-be quarterback Colin Kaepernick, telling stories about how they, too, all swore off their allegiance to any flag directly after their baptism.

Can you be a Christian and salute the American flag?  Depends, I guess. Do you take Jesus literally when he says you must give up everything?

Everything?

That sort of nationalism is, after all, part of what is implied when Jesus tells his followers to “give up everything,” especially in the ancient world where family, tribe, and allegiance meant survival.  Everything, Jesus says, even your other allegiances: family, country, all of it.  So the Facebook post war going on between that uncle of yours and that sister-in-law over Kaepernick’s sitting out the national anthem takes on a new light when seen through this scripture reading if we’re taking in the context, right?

Are either of them willing to give up their ground?  Should they?

So here’s the thing: we’re just not willing to give *everything* up.  I’m not even sure we should be.  I’m not even sure that’s what Jesus is actually intending here, (though it could be a valid interpretation!).

But here’s what I do think.

I think that, seeing that humanity is not willing to give everything up, and indeed will fight tooth and nail to keep their possessions and right opinions and all the things that we cling our hearts to in this world: relationships and flags and laws and ordinances and the need to be right and know that others are wrong, God sent out a peace delegation.

A peace delegation named Jesus.  God looked at the field and saw that humanity would cut off their nose to spite their face and embodied a face to show it didn’t have to be that way.

And that Jesus, caught in the crossfire between factions of humanity needing to be right, gave up everything, including his life and his need to be right in the end, to show just how far God is willing to go for peace.

And maybe that’s what this little section of Luke is about.  It is about knowing that the cost of discipleship will eventually take everything, and only God is willing and able to do that in the end.

And thank God for that. Because if it were up to us, we’d all lose out.

The cost of following Jesus is a cost that Jesus will bear, and we will benefit from, and though that peace is costly, God’s willing to spend it.

I still think we have to be wary of what we cling to in this world. Everything can become an idol, even our opinions, our flags, and our sense of pride, and our moral high ground on social media.

But I don’t worry that those idols will hold too much power in the end.  I mean, I don’t actively try to worship them (and indeed, I keep my guard up!), but I also don’t think that even these things will keep God in Christ from continually seeking me out with that nail-pierced hand of peace.

Me with my right interpretations and opinions and moral high-ground.  And you with yours.

Rolling an Orange to God

<No recording this week.  You’ll have to hear it with your eyes…>

Luke 1:46-55

Oranges46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Rolling an Orange to God

Lord, scatter our proud hearts

That we might hear your humble word today

Lift us up or throw us down

But in all things love us beyond any love we’ve known.

We need it.

Amen.

My grandfather (Grandpa Red, married to Grandma Ladye, for those of you keeping track of my family tree) once told me about Christmastime when he was young.  He was called Grandpa Red for his thick red hair, by the way, a trait that my head, apparently, was too good for.

Grandpa Red grew up in Ponce de Leon, Florida, a hardscrabble place from nowheresville in the Western part of that skinny state.  He and his siblings lived a farm life.  He often rose before the sun to go hunting for breakfast, like squirrel or opossum. Mmmm…flavor country.

But he told me about Christmas this one time, and it all sounded idyllic.  They’d go cut down a tree, not always an evergreen mind you, but some tree.  And they’d make homemade decorations to put on it.  And they’d hang their own socks up, not these prefab stockings we have nowadays with cartoon characters or fancy embroidered initials. And they’d sing carols and have special cookies.

It all sounded Currier & Ives-ish.  That is, until he got to talking about the presents.  Or, should I say, present.

“What’d you get for Christmas, Grandpa?!”  “Well, sometimes we’d get a tin toy or a new belt or new socks. And usually we’d all get an orange.”

Nothing sounded less awesome to me than a new belt, socks, or some metal toy.  And an orange?

My grandfather went on about the orange, “We usually had to go find those on our own or buy them from the store.  We didn’t get that kind of big fruit every day, Tim, that was a big thing.”

Speaking of oranges, I was listening to NPR the other day and the guest reporter was talking about how difficult it is, especially this election year, to speak with any of the presidential or vice presidential candidates one-on-one.  And they spoke of this old method that reports sometimes used on the campaign trail involving an orange.

On the plane, with the candidate in the front half and this gaggle of reporters in the rear, with a curtain separating the two, a reporter might write a question on an orange, and roll it to the front of the plane, hoping that the candidate would find it, pick it up, and roll it back.

And this actually recently happened with VP candidate Pence, where a reporter did just this and received a written answer back.  I kind of love that story. What a weird way to get access when you feel like you can’t, like all other avenues are spent.

I kind of wish we could roll an orange to God sometimes.  Write a little question, and roll it on out into nowhere, praying for an answer back.

I mean, in simplest terms, that’s kind of what some prayers are, right?  Questions lobbed out into the darkness.

And Christmas, of course, is one of the times of year when we celebrate the orange returning with an answer.  The prophets groaned about waiting for salvation, the people were in spiritual distress. How long, O Lord? They cried.

In fact, I cried the same thing this last week when I saw the dust covered body of a 5 year old boy hit in an airstrike in Aleppo who looked like my boy. How long, O Lord?!

But the Christmas orange that year was this unexpected announcement from an angel to a teen in a nowhere town about an unplanned birth in a place and time where unplanned births meant bad news for the family.

The Christmas orange that year was special, but not in the way we probably wanted it.  Because the first news of Jesus’ arrival was entrusted to an angel and a woman.  The first one no one believes in, and the second one, in ancient days, no one believed.  Women couldn’t even testify in most courts.

And the ironic thing, of course, is that the people entrusted with the news of Jesus’ impending birth, are the very same people entrusted with the news of his resurrection: women and angels.

God has this predictable pattern of relying on the people you don’t imagine can be trusted with news so good that you can’t imagine can be true.

And it may not seem like much of a gift, or even that significant, to have the news of God’s work through the birth of Jesus show up from an angel and a woman.  That is, unless you are a woman.  Unless you are someone who feels invisible, like angels, a lot of the time.  It doesn’t mean much to have God show up on the outskirts of humanity unless you find yourself there.

And I guess that’s the real good news about God’s arrival in Jesus, what we call Christmas, but which is really every single moment of every day: it happens when you least expect in to those who least suspect it.

And so Mary is not blessed because her status has been raised, but because God looked upon her status and even there found her worthy.  Mary is not blessed because all of her troubles went away, but because, despite the troubles…and her troubles were about to get huge with the troublemaker Jesus…but despite the hardship and troubles was about to get in, she trusted God’s presence in and even through it.  Mary’s life has been disrupted, uprooted, and yet she trusts that her roots are found in the God who sees her, not in what seems to be her circumstance.

And, here’s something I’ve begun to love about this song of Mary’s that is our scripture for today, the first phrase there is “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Megalune is the Greek there, meaning “to extol” as if Mary’s very being radiates God, much as her belly will swell with God.

And it reminds me of that favorite line of mine from the mysterious Meister Eckhart, that wonderful mystic, who once wrote, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture?”

We are, as Eckhart would go on to say, all meant to be mothers of Jesus, even here and now in this world; this broken but beautiful world where we continue to cry a mix of Hallelujah and “How long, O Lord?” as we read the news, and as we celebrate births and we mourn the death of friends, as we are overjoyed because of new friendships found and feel lost because no one visits anymore, as we’re relieved to have our babies back safe from trips and distraught because we’re at sometimes odds with our children, as we’re falling back in love and as we’re contemplating divorce, as we’re struggling not to pick up that drug anymore and grateful we made it another day without thinking about suicide, as we’re wrestling with, or failing to wrestle with, our own racism or prejudices.

That’s our world, and that’s the world God in Jesus continues to break into by hook or crook, with angels and the unexpected bearing witness to it in loud and quiet ways.

Even now Jesus comes, and maybe we need to bend our ear to those invisible or suspect to hear it best.

Because, and here’s the kicker, I know we think we’re lobbing all sorts of oranges at God, trying to get answers.  But God’s the one, I think, rolling oranges to us.  Oranges that say things like, “I am with you, even unto the end of the age.”  Oranges that say things like, “I love you and you are mine.”  Oranges that say things like, “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with me.”  Oranges that say things like, “You are blessed.”  Especially, like Mary, when we don’t feel like it.

I mean, God entrusted the most important stories of Christian history, Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ resurrection, to people who others thought weren’t real or reliable.

And that may not seem like much, but for those of us who sometimes feel lost, forgotten, uprooted, invisible, or less than, when we feel like all we’re doing is crying How long, O Lord, trusting that’s where God shows up the clearest…well, as my grandfather would say, “that’s a pretty big thing.”

So Brothers and Sisters, What Do You Think?

August 14th, 2016

Luke 12:49-56

49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

So, Brothers and Sisters, What Do You Think?

Kindle in us the spark of your love, Lord

Help us to know that the time is right

To show your love, and a peace we don’t understand

In this world. Amen.

statue-of-greek-titan-prometheus-rockefeller-center

Did you know this was Prometheus? Well, now you know!

The Greeks had an explanation for everything, but their explanation for fire is one of my favorites.  Fire, held in the hand of Zeus, was meant for the gods.  But Prometheus, that wiley friend of the humans, stole fire from the great bowl of Olympus, and ran it to the humans like an Olympic torch.  Zeus, in a rage, shackled Prometheus to a rock, where he was tormented by eagles pecking at him the rest of his days.

But humans still kept the fire.

The sacredness of fire is something that our cave-dwelling ancestors knew well, and I think that we still remember. Anyone who has been through a fire, who has seen the devastation of lightning, who has known that frustration and embarrassment that happens when the campfire won’t light and young ones are waiting to roast their marshmallows knows that fire is not to be trusted.

And that’s a truth we should let sink in really quickly: fire is not to be trusted.

And so we don’t know what to make of a Jesus who talks like this, who wields fire like an ironworker, who speaks of wanting to divide rather than unite.

Just look at politics today if you want division, Jesus: send the remedy, because we already have the sickness.  And for in-laws divided, just talk to anyone planning a wedding.  We’re there.

The reason that fire can’t be trusted is because normally fire leaves nothing alone when it touches it.  And when we think of the peaceful night sitting around the fireplace with Bing Crosby crooning in the background, we’re only thinking of it from our vantage point, and not that of the sacrificial log…who has a less peaceful go of it.

And that other vantage point is the view this scripture encourages us to adopt.  Because when the call of God is upon your heart, it can be unsettling, and it can be less peace and leave you more perturbed. It can divide you against yourself, against even those closest to you, who may not understand this new calling on your life.

But what Jesus is suggesting is not that we should rebel against our parents or siblings, but rather that, in the world and realm of God, the old connections that kept society together would be shattered.  Connections like the strong over the weak, like the rich over the poor, like the healthy over the infirm, like the able-bodied over those who are still able, but not always with their bodies.

The Gospel of Christ is one that is absolutely liberating.  It is one that has the audacity to say to this little boy tonight, “You are a bearer of God’s goodness even though you can’t even walk yet” and tells those who walk to beware because they are not always bearers of goodness in the world, despite what their ego, the letters behind their name, or their status might say.

The Gospel of Christ is one that pushes the ego aside, throws the powerful from the thrones and lifts up the lonely, as Mary said earlier in this Gospel when she found out God had chosen her, and unwed teen to bear God into the world.  The Gospel of Christ doesn’t just root for the underdog, but became the underdog to show that God’s not just willing to throw support behind those left behind in this world, but becomes one left behind to overturn all expectations.

When Jesus notes that two are pitted against three, and in-laws against one another, he’s noting that when we give up power for the sake of others, as the Gospel calls us to do (primarily in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount), there will be power-inequity in a world who just is continually in love with power and keeping score and knowing who is right and who is wrong.

And Jesus just isn’t willing to play those games.  He’d rather die than play the power game.  And he does.

And so when Jesus prays for fire upon the earth, he’s praying for that Pentecost fire where everyone heard the Gospel in their own language.  He’s praying that the fire the burned up the altars of the prophets of Baal is kindled so that the altars we’ve set up to fame, success, power, politics, our pocketbooks, and our prejudices are burned up.

Because in the Kingdom of God, that’s how it is.

You know, I call you brother and sister here at church.  Quite Quaker of me, yes?  Quite Christian of me, actually.  In the ancient church they called one another brother and sister so as to strip you from your family’s prestige or shame, and if you were a slave at the time, the title brother or sister stripped you of your second-class status in the church.  Brother and sister became the equalizing title for those who see God as their parent and Christ living within them.

The ancient church understood what Jesus was saying when he said he’d divide people from the families.  We hear that and think he’s causing animosity or encouraging Christian children not to talk to their pagan parents.  It’s not that at all.  Jesus was calling the church to be a place where the primary connection for all people was their common humanity, their having been created by that imaginative, creator God who longs for right relationships over hierarchies.

I need that kind of Jesus, the one who won’t let me get away with lording over others, for discounting others, for propping myself up on my academic achievements, my good name, or any other power-play I want to wield in this world…

Oh, but look at the Son, the day is almost over.  Perhaps it’s time to just sit down, brothers and sisters, and ponder if we’re really ready for the fire of Christ who will radically change things in all our worlds, in our churches, in all things, or if we’d rather just hang on to the little flames from these candles instead.  Remember, fire can’t be trusted…it leaves nothing unchanged.  Are we ready for that?

So, brothers and sisters, what do you think?

“Why I think Children Should Be Involved in All Parts of Worship in Real Ways” or “Youth Sunday can Be Every Sunday”

12802811_10207558541875688_2133902341438277207_nI’ve seen the confused looks, and I’ve even heard the questions, some of them directly to me. “What about these children helping at communion?  I’m not sure if that’s allowed.  I’m not sure if I like that.”

I understand the sentiment, and I take the question seriously.  To be honest, having the youth help at communion wasn’t even something that I thought would cause people to pause; it’s been my practice throughout my ministry.  But I now realize it’s something new for many, and I never want you to think that I have a practice without a purpose.  So, with Education Sunday (where we’ll celebrate the gift of education and inter-generational ministry) coming up, let me tell you why I think this issue is an important part of youth ministry, specifically at GSLC, and an important part of my pastoral ministry.  

I’m always eager to answer these questions!

In seminary I took a provocatively titled class, “The Theology of the Child.”  History is easy to forget. We feel as if we are far removed from it today, especially because we feel that children are often lifted up as special and exceptional (especially your grandchildren!), but children in the ancient world were the most vulnerable population, even more vulnerable than women or servants.  Children were not even considered people in the ancient world, at least not until they reached their teens.  Infant mortality rates were high, and parenting classes were hard to come by.

Child rearing and children were not that important to most in the ancient world, which was part of why  God’s incarnation in the young child Jesus and his focus on children is so scandalous!  He elevates the child!

In this seminary class we not only learned and discussed how children were marginalized and abused in the ancient world, but we also talked frankly about how children are still marginalized in this day and age.  When wars break out, children are often the first victims and the scars are lasting. Hunger affects the developing child brain more than the adult brain, and there are too many children hungry in this world. Children are still used for cheap labor around the world, and are abused in homes, schools, and places of worship, often without notice.

And they’re also leaving the church in alarming and ever-growing numbers.

In my conversations with youth, one of the reasons they leave so readily is because we’ve given them no reason to stay: little connection with other youth, little connection with caring adults other than their parents and pastor, and little opportunity to practice the faith with and for the community. We’ve preached at them and taught at them, but the whole church catholic can do a better job at worshiping with and through them.

Oh, sure, the church has done a good job at giving youth opportunities to do some “youth” things for the church (remember Youth Sundays?). I want every Sunday to be a Sunday with youth.  I want every Sunday to be Youth Sunday. I’ve found that our youth want to be a part of the church, fully.  Many music programs, including ours, do this well! Many mission opportunities, including our own, involve youth well!

But I want us to do it well in all parts of our communal life, including assisting at the altar and serving communion.

And you should see their excitement when they hear they’ll get to serve communion with an adult.  Yes, they might be shy at first, but I think it’s because they feel the weight of it all, even more than some adults!  Yes, when they are an Assisting Minister they may stumble over words as nerves catch up with them.  But think of what we’re asking them to do: write prayers for the community and communicate them to God on our behalf.  Who wouldn’t be nervous?

And the beauty, of course, is that with practice this all gets a little easier and a little smoother.  And almost every month I have a new youth who wants to help light the candles, give the blood of Christ to wanting souls, and pray the prayers.  Think about that: we have youth wanting to be a part of church on Sunday mornings.

This is part of youth ministry, allowing them to minister to adults in real, meaningful ways.  And we train for it, and practice it, and review it, and try harder each week, just as we expect all of our worship assistants to grow in these gifts week by week.

But even beyond all of these very practical reasons, we cannot ignore that the Biblical witness makes clear that youth are bearers of the faith.

Jeremiah thought he was too young to be a prophet, and God told him to stop using that as an excuse (Jeremiah 1:7).  Mary was a young teen, and was chosen to be the God-bearer for a hurting world.  And when the disciples tried to bar children from touching Jesus, Jesus said to them, “Let the young children come to me; do not stop them. For the kingdom of God is theirs.” (Matthew 19:14).  We’ve lost how scandalous this passage is, but the children Jesus was inviting to him were not just some children tagging along with their parents. They were most likely street children: beggars, homeless, “not real people” in the eyes of the disciples and those hearing the gospels.

If children could hold Jesus in the ancient world, why should the church keep them from holding Jesus in these last days? And even our own tradition has lifted it up, as the blessed Martin Luther proclaimed that children are faithful from birth (Large Catechism XIIIA “Of Infant Baptism”).  It’s part of our tradition.

In the ancient church (and in many churches today including the Orthodox church), any baptized person of any age could participate fully in the church, including Holy Communion.  I long to go back to that practice and advocate it for our ministry together, not just because it’s theologically sound, but also because we have children abandoning the church at alarming rates citing that they don’t feel connected.

Let’s connect them in real, practical, tangible ways.  It may take some getting used to, but I assure you that I encourage this practice with strong theological foundation, with Biblical witness as the lens, and, more personally, as a parent who wants his children to feel connected to the faith in such a way that they can, as one child said to me one Sunday, “be a part of it all.”

And in connecting them, over time, I bet you’ll also find yourself better connected to the faith, and to the young ones who literally have “faith like a child.”