Lutherans are Stingy with Their Amens…

<This one is better heard than read because, you know, singing…>

Mark 10:17-31

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 9.28.57 AM17As [Jesus] 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?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You 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.’ ” 20He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21Jesus, 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.” 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It 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.” 26They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29Jesus 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, 30who 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. 31But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Lutherans are Stingy with the Amens…

Give us your grace today

Gracious one.

Without regard

…because we so often fail to notice it.

Without condition

…because we so often fail to make the mark

Without hesitation

…because we need it, now.

Give us your grace today

And we will respond with grace.

Amen.

Let’s sing today, ok?

Now, not all of you will know how to respond to these songs, but let’s see who does, ok?

And, Lutherans, this is not a time to be reserved, alright?  Sing. Our own Blessed Martin Luther said that when you sing it’s like praying twice, so let’s sing, ok?

Easy one first.  “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man, sing us a song tonight….”

So here’s a bet I’m willing to make.  I’m willing to make that at most any restaurant, or any social club, if you start singing that song people will respond.  They’ll gladly join in.  And there are like a million key changes in that song, so no one except for St. Billy of the Joels sounds great singing that song, but they’ll sing it anyway.

How about this one, “Nibblin’ on sponge cake, watchin’ the sun bake.  All of those tourists…”

St. Jimmy of the Buffetts, right.  You responded. I heard once that Margaritaville is playing somewhere in the world at every moment.  I don’t know if that’s verifiable, but I heard it’s true.  And since we just sang some of it, it was absolutely true on a Sunday morning, which I think takes out the most unusual time bloc for that statistic.

One more song, ok?  A little harder this time.  “I see a little siloetto of a man…”

The new movie on Queen is about to come out, so I thought it’d be appropriate to throw some St. Freddy of the Mercury’s in there.  That man was born to sing, and you agree, because you responded.

In The Empire Strikes Back Han Solo and Princess Leia have this whole scene at the end where he’s about to be frozen in carbonite and at the last minute she says to him, “I love you.” To which he says…anyone?

A line that Harrison Ford snuck in there because he felt that the line written for him didn’t sound like Han Solo.

Sometimes it’s all about how you respond.  And there are some things that we are really good at giving a response to.  Like music.  We respond to music.  Or how about, “The Lord be with you!”  See, Lutherans love that.  But I can tell not many of us are Episcopalians by heritage, because you’d have probably said, “And with thy spirit” there.

And there are some denominations who will pepper a church service with Amen! everywhere, right?

And then…there are Lutherans.  I’ve mentioned this before, of course, but most Lutherans prefer the approving stare to the verbal Amen…we’re a bit stingy with our Amens.

Sometimes it’s all in how you respond, Beloved.  Responses make or break things sometimes.

How you respond sets the scene, and it does in this Gospel reading for today, too, Beloved, though you may not have picked up on it.

See, Jesus is setting out on a journey, and the man comes up to him and says, “Good teacher…” which totally sounds like just a nice thing to say to our ears, right?  But here’s the thing: you didn’t offer a greeting like that and not expect a similar greeting.  He expected Jesus to say something complimentary about him, too.

But instead Jesus says, “Whoa, whoa, whoa…why are you calling me good?  Only God is good.”

And in that response, friends, the scene is set, because Jesus makes something very clear to him, to anyone within ear shot, to us: Jesus isn’t going to play our little games of call and response, of quid pro quo, of mutual back scratching.

Because God doesn’t play those games, Beloved.

Then the man, undeterred, goes on to prove to Jesus how good he is: he follows all the commandments to the letter, and has his whole life.

Wait, let me rephrase that a bit because I’m not sure you heard me quite right.  See, the man goes on to make an account to Jesus just how much he deserves praise, how much he deserves God’s good graces, how much he deserves this inheritance of eternal life.

And the scripture says, “Jesus looked at the man and loved him.”  He loved him.

And because he loved him, get this please, because he loved him, Jesus gave the man a task that he could not do: “Go sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor, and then you will prove your worthiness…”

Oh friends, what a scene.  Because I bet half of you are thinking, “Well, the man certainly could do that. He just chooses not to.  Jesus told him what to do and he just can’t do it.”  And the other half of you, if you’re like me, are kind of like, “Oh…that hits a bit too close to home…”

And I’m not sure, friends, if the man is grieved because he didn’t want to sell his things, or because he didn’t want to give the money he got from selling his things to the poor.  See, I’ve heard this played out and preached on dozens of times, and each time, including the times I’ve done so, the focus is usually on the man’s attachment to his things.

But I wonder, friends, if perhaps we might not entertain the notion just a bit that the man’s problem isn’t his love for his things, but maybe his dislike for giving things to the poor.

Because, remember, this man has earned his way through life.  He deserves it.  But the poor…?

I notice a lack of Amens in here with that interpretation.  I just wonder if it kind of hits close to home for us, me included, because we have been raised in and live in a meritocracy, friends.  It’s what you taught your children. It’s what you’ve been taught.

And a meritocracy is all about getting, earning, what you deserve.  The response to hard work, to good work, to right living, is, well, what this wealthy man lays out before Jesus.

But here’s the thing, Beloved.  God does not work in a meritocracy.  Grace has no place in a meritocracy, at least not for long, and in God’s economy the only currency is grace, Beloved.

Which is why Jesus gives the man something that he cannot do: so he will realize (and this is totally Lutheran) so he will realize that everything is God’s gift, even eternal life, even grace, and cannot be earned.

Earning God’s grace is about as possible as sticking a camel through the eye of a needle.

But here’s the thing, folks, for any of us holy rollers out there who smirk at the wealthy man’s answer because we’re like, “Oh, please…God doesn’t like people who brag.  God likes the humble.”

By the way, I saw a meme the other day that said, “It’s not bragging if it’s true” which is absolutely wrong, people.  And look, people tell me I brag all the time.  In fact, someone not long ago was like, “You’re arrogant, you talk too much, and you’re not funny” and I was like, “Hold on a second…I’m very funny…”  But it is totally bragging even if it’s true.  If it’s not true it’s called “lying…”

But for all of us holy rollers out here who think that humility will earn God’s good graces, that somehow we have to be the most pious, that we have to be obedient but not talk about it, that we have to put other people in their places, but do it quietly, well…you’re not going to like Jesus’ response to Peter, then.

Because this little scene is a lovely little grace sandwich, friends.  Peter, who can’t just leave well-enough-alone to borrow a phrase from my grandmother when I was talking too much or trying to be too funny, has to pipe up and say, “Hey Jesus, you know that whole sell everything and give the money to the poor thing?  Well, we’ve totally done that to follow you!  What that guy couldn’t do, we can!  We deserve this abundant life thing.”

To which Jesus, who loves Peter too, I imagine pats him on the shoulder and says, “You’re so right, buddy.  Except, you must know, that the last will be first, and the first need to be last my friend…”

Because if there’s one thing we know about Peter, he can’t not be first.  So, because he loves him, Jesus gives him something he can’t do, either.

So he’ll know what it is to live off of a diet of grace.

See, friends, this is all good news for us, because we like to have the right responses in life.  We like to know how to answer the question, totally in type.  But this gets really tricky for us sometimes because things will come up in our lives that don’t fit the script, that don’t follow the notes, that don’t make any kind of sense.

Because sometimes the marriage ends in divorce.  Because sometimes our kids get addicted.  Sometimes we get addicted.  Sometimes we do everything right, and still get the short end of the stick. Laid-off. Broken-heart.  Sometimes that friend we thought would stick by us cuts us out.  And sometimes we’re that friend.

Because sometimes we shove needles in our veins to stop feeling anymore, and sometimes we cut our veins just to feel something, by God.   When I sit down with our Confirmands for coffee at the end of the year and ask them what youth their age are struggling with, the top answer for the last two years running has been feeling the unending pressure to succeed and be the best and…and…

Earn it.

And into that tortured reality where the right response doesn’t seem to come, God speaks a word of grace today to you.  No matter where you fall on the spectrum: totally think you deserve it because of what you’ve accomplished, or totally think you deserve it for what you’ve sacrificed.

And that word of grace is, well, grace.  Because we are loved.

Because in a world where we get all sorts of responses, God’s response to us is, again and again, grace. Grace we can’t earn, even though we try. Grace we can’t do enough to get, even though we secretly think we can.

Because while Lutherans are stingy with our Amens, which, by the way, literally means, “Let it be so,” God is not stingy with grace, Beloved.

And in the end, the first-born of all creation, Jesus, will end up at the end of the line standing between two criminals with his arms stretched out to them, inviting them into that eternal life.  The cross is that final sign that God will not play our little games. Not our games of violence. Not our games of quid pro quo.  Not our games of earning the good life.

God will die before God let’s us die thinking that we are anything but loved just for who we are. That’s God’s response.

And that, Beloved, is grace.  And to that, whether your Lutheran or not, I think we can all say, “Amen.”

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Generosity with Roots

nature-moneyPadraig O’Tauma, an Irish theologian and poet, once told a story of meeting with fellow Irishman and poet John O’Donohue to chat.  O’Tauma was discussing with O’Donohue about how he was thinking about loaning a family member some money.  Their exchange went something like this,

“How much will you loan them?” O’Donohue asked

“Oh, about $500 pounds,” O’Tauma replied. His relative was living in Britain at the time.

“Double it,” O’Donohue said.

“What?” O’Tauma said.

“Double it,” O’Donohue said with a smirk. “Be over-generous. You can, so do.”

O’Tauma did.

A time later, O’Donohue and O’Tauma were at a party together, and O’Donohue remarked to his friend that he was now thinking about loaning one of his relatives some money.

“How much?” O’Tauma asked.

“Uhoh, I know where this is going…” O’Donohue replied.

Money is a tricky thing in this world.  A very private thing, for most of us.  And as we come up to this weeks first budget forum at church, I imagine that we’ll be looking at a bunch of numbers together, money together, and thinking about it in those economic terms.

But what if we all looked at it in the same sort of way that O’Donohue and O’Tauma encouraged one another to look at it?  What if it wasn’t about numbers and amounts, but about an opportunity to be generous?

What if all of our life looked like an opportunity to practice generosity?

This week’s Gospel lesson has the rich man coming to Jesus to inquire about how he might achieve eternal life.  “What must I do?” he asks.  You can read it here…do so before we go on.  I’ll wait.

Ready?  Ok.

One of the interesting realities that we’ve lived into over the course of 2000 years is that the current culture wars that rage in the world, and rage within Christianity, don’t seem to have been on Jesus’ radar.

But one thing on Jesus’ radar, continually, is wealth.

Because Jesus knew, and perhaps we’ve forgotten, that how wealth is used indicates the spiritual health of a person and the communal health of a people.

I hear Christians quite concerned about who people love, how people vote, what people think about this policy or that policy, but very few concerned about how people use their money.

Money is a private thing, after all…or is it?

When the rich man is invited to sell his possessions, and balks at the request, his true god in life is revealed.  He says he wants to be in God’s good graces, all the while surrounding himself with the graces his god, and he’s surprised to realize they aren’t the same thing.

In Confirmation when we talk about other gods in this world, I rarely talk about other religions.

I usually talk about money, power, fame, and piety.

And sometimes with that last one I note religion, too.

Because it’s easy to fall into the trap that Peter falls into in this passage.

When Jesus says, “Sell all you have” to the man with wealth, Peter pipes up and says, “Oh, we’ve done that!”  As if to say he’s in God’s good graces because he’s achieved what the wealthy man couldn’t.

But even that won’t do it for Jesus.

Because God’s good graces are not about achieving anything, but about God achieving everything.

And when we truly internalize the idea that God’s good grace doesn’t have to be earned, we can get rid of all the ways we bow down to the other gods in our lives (money, power, piety) and “return to the Lord our God” as the prophet Joel says.

Every moment is a moment of Divine generosity, Beloved.  Every second God is doubling grace upon grace.

And because of that, we’re invited to tap into that generosity, to grow from there, and to respond from there: with our wealth, with our power, with our various pieties.

Jan Richardson, that weaver of words, has a poem called “A Blessing with Roots.” If we root all of our blessings in this life, all of the wealth, power, piety, what have you, in the Divine, the blessings are protected from becoming the curses that they have become for the rich man and Peter in this reading.

Let’s have blessings with roots, friends.  All of life is an opportunity to be generous, even over-generous, as God is over-generous.

We can, so do.

A Blessing with Roots

Tug at this blessing
and you will find
it is a thing
with roots.

This is a blessing
that has gone deep
into good soil,
into the sacred dark,
into the luminous hidden.

It has been months
since the ground
gathered the seed
of this blessing
into itself,
years since the earth
enfolded it.

Sometimes
that’s how long
a blessing takes.

And the fact
that this blessing
should finally show
its first fruits
on the day
you happened by—

well, perhaps we shall
simply call the timing
of this ripening
a mystery
and a sweet grace.

Take all you want
of this blessing.
Take every morsel
that you need for
the path ahead.
Let its fruits fall
into your hands;
gather them into
the basket of
your arms.

Let this blessing
be one place
where you are willing
to receive
in unmeasured portions,
to lay aside
for a moment
the way you ration
your delights.

Let yourself accept
its inexplicable plenitude;
allow it to give itself
to sustain you

not simply for yourself—
though on this bright day
I might be persuaded
to think that would
be enough—

but that you may
gather its seeds
into yourself
like the ground
where this blessing began

and wait
with the patience
of seasons
and of years

to bear forth
in the fullness of time
a stunning harvest,
a plenteous feast.

 

Take It Seriously. Listen. Seriously.

IStandWithYOuBrother Martin Luther said that “We are not only responsible for what we say, but we are also responsible for what we do not say.”

This is an unusually partisan time we’re living through.  As a pastor and public person, I feel it heavy on me at times.  And though I know what I’m about to offer might sound like I’m furthering those partisan lines, I hope you know my heart, and know that I offer nothing but honesty and bare humanity in these words.

Allegations of sexual assault must always be taken seriously.

What also must be taken seriously is the role that male-dominated systems play in quieting the voices, especially those of women, who have been victimized by sexual assault.

And not just sexual assault, but sexual harassment, sexual discrimination, and misogyny as a whole.

In the ancient world, women were not able to testify in court. Their testimony was considered “unreliable” in those days. We have certainly come a long way since that official silencing, but there still exists today a culture of silence when it comes to hearing and trusting the testimony of women who have been sexually abused, assaulted, harassed, and harmed. Fear of retaliation, further victimization, and of alienation keep the hurting quiet, and therefore keep the hurt alive.

On the news today (9.27.18) there is testimony of such hurt. Hearing this testimony may trigger pain in others. We must acknowledge this, and offer our ears and hearts to help bear whatever pain we can with those who know this particular pain all too well.

Women need to be free to speak without fear, and we men need to listen, to trust, and to acknowledge the pain and the wrong. All victims of whatever gender need to be able to speak without fear.

Indeed, as a man, I need to listen, to trust, and to acknowledge the pain and the wrong.

Take it seriously. Listen. Seriously.

You know, despite women being unable to bear witness in the ancient courts, it was the women at the tomb that the resurrected Christ first chose to make himself known. They became the first witnesses, and the first proclaimers, of God’s good news of Christ’s resurrection.

God seems to always choose the person on the margins. God chose the ones the world called “unreliable” to proclaim the first Gospel message.

We should take note.

I said at the beginning of this note that I had some worries in writing this letter. I worry as a pastor that some of my parishioners will think I’m taking a partisan stance, or that I’m once again pushing some sort of agenda.

But, in all honesty, that worry for me is secondary to the worry that I have of being silent.

Sexual discrimination and sexual violence don’t care about your politics or your party, folks.

Today I want to say to victims of sexual assault, I hear you. I trust you. You did not deserve it. There is no excuse. I am for you. I am with you.

 

On Paper, Rock, Scissors and A New Definition of Greatness

<Stories are better heard than read. Click here to listen along…>

Mark 9:30-37

4444670504_878f0db2de[Jesus and the disciples went on] and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.
33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

On Rock, Paper, Scissors, and a New Definition of Great

Teach us your ways, Lord,

For they are not our ways.

Make us people who include

Not exclude.

Make us people who love deeply

Not just tolerate.

Make us people who know you more

Not just know about you.

Help us to be about what you are about.

Amen.

Since the hurricane last week life has been a bit hectic here in Lake Wobegon.  Any of you feel that way?

Like, I was having trouble remembering what day it was all week.  And it kind of felt like I was in the Twilight Zone a bit, because things aren’t just quite normal yet.

Like for instance, this last week after a long day, late visits, I get home and open the fridge and it was like a cave: cold, dark, and empty.  Which was fine for Rhonda and me back when we didn’t have two strangers living in our house, but now that vacuous echo from the empty fridge will certainly be filled with crying in the morning if there’s not milk for the Count Chocula, which is perhaps the only cereal that you can eat when you’re coming up on Halloween…

Yes, we’re working that far ahead.

So I head to the Food Lion to pick up milk, and cream, and tortilla chips because, I don’t know about you, but we have like 19 different jars of half-eaten salsa, but never any chips, right?

So I get to Food Lion, and I guess Hurricane Florence has just totally disrupted the shipping process, which is totally expected, but I kid you not there was no milk in the entire store.

It was like “beer, beer, beer, smattering of eggs, canned biscuits, cheese, heavy whipping cream, and then a whole lotta nothing.”

And as I’m walking down the aisle just amazed that there is such a drought of lactose products from the bovine species, I spy at the end of the aisle, coming toward me, another guy, about my age, doing the same slow walk of amazement.

And it was totally like some sort of Western, where we slowly walk toward one another and meet right in the middle in front of, I kid you not, the last, the very last, half-gallon of high-priced, no lactose, Bougie, this costs more than craft beer milk.

And we both stop in front of it.

And I say, “Kids gotta have milk with their cereal.”  And he looked at me and said, “Mine, too.”

And we both stood there looking at the milk, as if we were hoping that it would choose one of us, like a puppy at a pet store, like, it would be so much easier if it would just choose us…

And then he looks at me and says, “Shoot for it? Paper, rock, scissors?”  To which I respond, “It’s only fair.”

And then we prepare, and now it’s really like a Western, and I swear there was like a tumbleweed that rolled by, and one-two-three-shoot!

What does success look like to you?

The self-help section of the book store has as many volumes as the cooking section these days, which is not a knock on self-help, but to me just kind of hammers home how elusive the definition of “getting better,” and “succeeding” is in this world.  There are as many variations on what that means as there are things that you can do with chicken.

But, here’s the thing: Jesus really has only one consistent measure of success, one consistent measure of greatness throughout the Gospels.

Success to Jesus means giving up your life for others.  The martyrs of old imagined this only meant death, and many of them sought it out on purpose.  I never really understood the idea of seeking out suffering.  I mean, if you hang around for a while, you’re liable to suffer somehow…something our Buddhist brothers and sisters point out well.

But giving up your life doesn’t necessarily mean dying for others.  It could mean going with less so that someone could have more.  It could mean sacrificing your time, your gifts, and even your reputation.

Yes, your reputation.  Because here’s the thing we forget about Jesus: he was constantly inviting people to hang out with him who weren’t welcome to hang out anywhere else.

Christians, if they’re following Christ, should be known for hanging with the wrong crowd in a way that doesn’t judge, but walks with them.  In popular opinion polls, that doesn’t appear to be what we’re known for though…

Did you see the viral video going around about a guy shaving on a commuter train in New York?

A man was videoed shaving, with shaving cream and all, no water, on a commuter train.  And it was posted online and the shaming started on this guy.  People called him a pig, called him vile, said it was disgusting.  And, certainly, it would be surprising for me, too, to see that.

But here’s the thing: news reporters tracked the man down and found out that he was in and out of homeless shelters.  And someone had bought him a ticket to go see his brother, who he hadn’t seen in years.  And he wanted to look presentable.

When we see things, especially people in this world that at first revile us, perhaps we should imagine that the perspective we’ve adopted is not the story.  When we can imagine that our perspective is not the norm, and perhaps not even the right perspective, then we can truly begin to love our neighbors as ourselves in the way that Jesus asks us to.

And if you wonder if this is true, refer back to today’s Gospel reading, where Jesus takes this child…and remember folks, in the ancient world children were not seen as cute and cuddly and the center of the world like they are in middle-class America.  They were often seen as nuisances, especially if they were beggars…which this child that Jesus brought into the center of these disciples who think they’re so great, probably was.  This child was probably a street child; a beggar.

This child was probably like a child of God who was videoed shaving on the train because he’s gets to do something important that day and has no bathroom and just wants to look presentable in a world that doesn’t look too kindly on you either way: if you don’t look presentable, you’re shunned, and if you try to look presentable but not in the way that society thinks is right, you’re shunned.

That’s who Jesus pulls into the middle and says, “Here is the greatest.”

Jesus upends what it means to be the greatest today, and if our hearts are not summersaulted because of it, we’re not paying attention.  We’re not listening.  We’re not being about what Jesus is about.

So, one-two-three shoot.

Any bets on what was thrown?

He threw paper, thinking I’d throw rock.  Because everyone throws rock, right?  Because rock is seen as strong, and it’s a fist, and we like fists…I really think that’s the psychological reason we often throw rock first.

But I anticipated that he’d anticipate that I’d throw rock, and so I thought to myself, “Self: throw scissors.”  And so I did.

Scissors cuts paper.

“Good game,” I said.  “You can have the almond milk.”  To which he said, “Well, the milks are the same price…”

“So we both lose,” I said.

And I get home triumphant with my milk, holding it up like a trophy walking through the door.  Like the gold metal.  “I have provided for my family!  I have succeeded…”

But I didn’t succeed.  I got lucky.  I mean, I guess you could say I played the game better, but it’s a stupid game, and it’s not easy to win, and it’s not easy to lose, and on any given day it ends up differently, right?

Guy Raz, the NPR host of a great podcast called, “How I Built This” always asks his guests the same question at the end of the show.  His guests include the founder of Starbucks, Bobbi Brown cosmetics, Larabars, etc…people who have founded multi-million and even multi-billion dollar companies.  And he asks them this question at the end of his podcast, “So, how much of what you’ve done is hard work and how much is luck?”  For a show made to highlight so-called successful people, it’s the most honest moment of those 45 minutes.

And I have to think that part of all of that is what Jesus is saying to the disciples, to us, too: we imagine that so much of our status is about success, about winning, about being greater than the person below us and next to us and getting toward the people we perceive to be above us.  But this life is an easy game to win and an easy game to lose, especially when a lot of the chips are stacked in your favor.

Which, I dare say, applies to the vast majority of us.

And so Jesus wants to reorient our lives a bit today.  That in the cosmic game of paper, rock, scissors, the trick is not to out think your opponent, not to strategize, and not to hold up your trophies pretending that luck is success.

The trick is not to play at all.  To opt out.  And instead sit by the guy shaving on the train to hear his story, celebrate in his joy, and be with him on his journey.

The trick is to take throw the most unexpected thing in rock paper scissors: throw your arms out, one to the left and one to the right, choosing to rather have your pocketbook suffer, your time take a hit, and your reputation even die to opt out of playing these social games of greatness that the world forces you into, that the world tries to get you to believe you need to survive.

One of the reasons Jesus would be hung on the cross would be because of the company he kept.

The ragtag men and women who followed him around.  The street children who walked at his heels.  Hanging around with undesirables like that upended the social order, upended the game…we don’t like that.

And so Jesus instead chooses to upend heaven and earth rather than play our games.

Look, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t succeed in the world, Beloved.  It’s just that Jesus, in today’s Gospel, defines success differently, defines greatness differently, and invites us to open our arms to that new definition of greatness.

Open our arms kind of like this, dying on the games the world tries to play so that, with Jesus, we might all truly live.

In other words, if this ever happens again, you can have the milk…

“The Most Welcoming Church Around” Has No People

friendly-churchIt was my first interview with a church.

I was so fresh out of seminary that I smelled like textbooks.  I was just happy to get an interview because the openings in Chicago at the time were few and the candidates who had restricted to Chicago were many.

Especially when it came to churches who would take a chance on a new pastor.

After a tour of the building, I sat down with the call team and they peppered me with questions.  And then I peppered them with questions.  And as the conversation continued, I asked a question that stumped them, though I didn’t mean it like that.

“You say you want children in the church, but I don’t see a children or youth line-item in your budget.  Why don’t you have them in there?”

After an awkward silence, one of the committee members said, “Because we don’t have any children here, currently.”

And he was right.  The average attendance at the time was 28 people on a Sunday, and the average age of an attendee was in their 70’s. Which is not wrong, or bad, or problematic until you start denying that reality altogether.

Their gifts, their vision, their action did not match their stated desire.

“I know,” I said, “but if you want something, you plan for it, right?”

They looked at each other around the table with blank stares, and it was about this time that I knew this wouldn’t be a good fit…if they ever wanted to talk to me again.

Then one of the people around the table spoke up, “We’re the nicest church in town.  Have we said that?  We are the nicest people…”

They had mentioned that. Many times.  It was kind of like their calling card: friendliness.

But “friendliness” did not translate to people in the pews, obviously.  Certainly not children.  Because if there’s one thing that I know (personally) that parents need, especially in church, it’s not just friendliness, but also understanding, patience, and often, some help…

I get what they meant when they said they were “friendly.”  They meant that anyone was welcome there.

Welcome is one thing. In its basest sense, it means “you are free to exist in the same space as us.”  And that is no small thing, mind you!  Permission to be is certainly a good thing in the world.

But what does it mean to be included?

Welcome is the first step.  The second, though…and the better…is inclusion. Full participation.

And it’s something that Jesus talks about strongly in this week’s Gospel lesson.  Because as the disciples are busy arguing over which one of them is the greatest, Jesus redirects them to a child in their midst and says, “this person is the greatest.”

Oh, by the way, you should read that before we go forward.  Go ahead and click on that link up there.  I’ll wait.

Ready?  Ok.

There are two things about this scene that I think we all miss as we read it with our 21st Century eyes:

  1. That there was a child in their midst.  Children did not casually hang out with adults in the ancient world.  Which means that the crowd that Jesus gathered to himself was a pretty eclectic bunch, especially when you consider that they were “in a house in Capernaum” (where some think Peter lived with his wife), and children were present among them.  Children in the ancient world had almost no rights, and were seen as more of a pest than something to be doted over. Jesus’ crew included children.  He not only welcomed them to be there but, as in this instance, included them in his ministry.  They were part of it all.
  2. Some scholars think that the child that Jesus pulled into the center of the disciples was most likely a child from the streets; one who begged.  We think this because Jesus seemed to always be around people who everyone else avoided.  So not just children, but probably children not welcome in any other place, which makes the symbol even more stark.

Jesus didn’t just welcome people, he included them all in his mission.  He anticipated they’d be a part of his crew, because being about what Jesus is about would mean inviting people to be a part of God’s mission who weren’t invited anywhere else.

And while the disciples were busy arguing over who was the greatest (most powerful, most attractive, even…perhaps…the “friendliest”), Jesus reminds them that the full measure of greatness according to God is not being the “most” anything, even the most welcoming.

With Jesus it’s a race to the bottom, not to the top.

It’s about being most with the least, not just the most.

Jesus didn’t bring people to himself because he was the most welcoming, but rather because he was inviting people into a new of being and living that included them in something larger than themselves.

Something with hope. Something that instilled joy and courage and costly love.  Something into which they knew God anticipated they, in all their diversity, would be a part of.

It is good to be friendly and welcoming in this world, but that is not a mission.  We can be nice to one another and never actually interact in something meaningful.  We can say everyone is “welcome,” and never ask them to actually be a part of what we’re doing.

That’s not the example, or call, of Jesus.

Jesus calls us to include one another, include Raleigh, in God’s mission.

Because God is expecting everyone to show up.

On Fulfilling Scripture and Building Houses

Dedication of Paul and Anna’s New Home

20140528__homeconstruction_houseconstruction_skyboxWhen my grandfather was alive, he talked about his childhood home in Northwest Florida—yes—there is a part of Florida that can be considered both “north” and “west.”

And it is surprisingly rural there, even to this day.  They were farmers.  And he talked about the house he grew up in, the house my great-grandfather helped build, having a tin roof.  “There is nothing so wonderful, Tim,” he said, “as a rainstorm at night under a tin roof.”

I knew he meant two things by that statement.  First, was that the pitter-patter of rain on a tin roof was mesmerizing. But secondly, he meant that being dry and safe and warm in a thunderstorm was no small thing.

Today we dedicate this home, built by all these hands, but especially the hands of the people who will live there.  There will be many thunderstorms to come, real and metaphorical, in their lives, but having a place to rest, to wait them out, to be safe, is a great gift that we can all celebrate today.

Because today we take seriously the fact that Mary and Joseph had no room in the inn, and we are not content to let that be the reality anymore.  And so we will build the rooms, by God, if we have to, ensuring that every child and every child of God has a place.

Because today we are not content to hear Jesus say that in God’s house there are many rooms and not create those rooms here in this life.  So, we all put hammer to nail to make a little room, to make a little heaven appear here on earth.

Because today we hear Jesus say that he had no place to rest his head and, taking seriously the idea that God is in all of us, we heard that as a challenge to make happen.

With the help of everyone here, with the help of these new owners, with the help of countless donors, with the love of this county, these neighbors, and nameless people we will never know who started this movement: scripture is fulfilled in our hearing today.

The scripture of loving neighbor as self.  The scripture of doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.  The scripture that says “if you love me, feed my sheep.”

We do. We have. We will again.

Pray Until Something Happens…Sort Of…

40946780_10100732866696469_2057957240853233664_nI was waiting to pick up the carry-out Thai food.

The restaurant is nestled between a K-Mart and a high-priced jewelry store.  It’s an eclectic little strip mall full of bad decisions.

Having a little time on my hands, I wandered around looking in windows.  And there on one of the windows in bold white letters was the acronym PUSH.

At first glance I thought the sign was an ironic set directions on how to open the store’s door.  The handle was a pull handle on the outside.  Doors you push that have exposed handles are the bane of my existence and the cause of much embarrassment.  I’m a fan of human-centered design…

But I took a second look and realized it was the acronym: Pray Until Something Happens.  I thought it funny to have that sign on the glass in front of a jewelry store.  Certainly many have probably prayed for the contents of those glass cases, and I could imagine seeing people lining up in prayer, hoping that “something will happen” in their lives to encourage those precious stones to fall into their possession.

That humorous thought passed quickly, though, and I honestly became irritated.  Because there is a little rumor going around that prayer is somehow the mechanism Christians use to get what they want in the world.  “Praying until something happens” is the formula for Divine gifting in many minds, and I’m just not sure that’s how it works.

Actually, I’m certain that’s not how it works.  God is not an ATM where, if you have the right pin number, you receive the riches.  And God is not some Divine Santa Claus who gives gifts to the faithful.

Also, the scientist in me (there is one deep down inside) hates the idea of an unverifiable conclusion.  As Mike McHargue notes in his book Finding God in the Waves, the traditional thought process that Christians have had toward prayer is some formulation of:

-God says “yes,” and you get what you want.

-God says “no,” and you do not get what you want.

-God says “not yet,” and you wait.

The problem with this, though, is that whatever answer you think God has given you, you’re right…and that’s not an answer at all.  If your conclusion can never be wrong, the system is rigged.

This is what happens when we imagine that prayer is transactional and consumeristic.  Certainly Jesus encourages us to pray for what we desire, and in the Gospel of Matthew he even says that we shall, “seek and find.” (Matt 7:7-8)  But we’ve taken that to mean that if we ask, we’ll get what we want.

But what if that’s not the point of prayer at all?  What if the point isn’t so that we get what we want, but that we get into relationship with God?

What if we ask for what we want not to influence God (because, let’s be honest, there are people all the time praying for things to happen in the world that you and I probably would think would be terrible outcomes), but we ask for what we want because we need to approach God with that kind of deep honesty?

The kind of honesty that lays everything bare and vulnerable?

We certainly can pray that something does or doesn’t happen, but in that prayer, the thing that I think is “happening” most is that we are being shaped into the kind of people who trust God enough not to carry the weight of whatever is worrying us anymore.

I mean, in that way I could probably get on board with the acronym PUSH: Pray Until Something Happens, because the thing that would “happen” would be the re-shaping of our very lives into ones of prayer.

I’ve mentioned this before, but my prayers these days are less petitions, and more sitting in silence.  I sit with gratitude in my heart.  I sit and name the people I want to remember, who need help, who are celebrating, who are dying.  I sit and I listen.  I listen for God.

And I imagine God listens for me.

And in that mutual listening, something in me is happening:

I’m becoming the kind of person willing to be the answer to prayers.  I’m becoming the kind of person attuned to God in the world.  I’m becoming, as St. Francis once said, a “channel of peace.”  At least that’s my hope.

This Sunday we’ll be talking about prayer, and then on Rally/Raleigh Day we’ll go out into the world to become the answers to some prayers.  If you haven’t signed up yet, please do!  We have spots available to help re-shape this city.

You can do so here: https://www.signupgenius.com/go/5080848abad2ba4f94-rally1

And, if you’ve never prayed in this way, I invite you to pray by simply sitting in God’s presence.  And, yes, I trust something will happen.

Not for you, necessarily.  But to you.

What Did You Expect?

<I really encourage you to listen to this one rather than read it.  You can do so here.>

2 Timothy 3:16-17

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.

What Did You Expect?

39872825_10100727001315739_8873927982914207744_nFor your word seen in scriptures

In song

In speeches

In people

In Christ who is The Word,

We give thanks this morning.

Release in us the freedom of your Spirit

That we may be held by nothing but

Your love.

Amen.

Tuesday we traveled with 20 of our High School youth to Carowinds amusement park for some death-defying thrills.

And having that number, 20, plus the adult participants, meant someone had to drive and take some folks, and that someone ended up being me.  Which, in theory I’m fine with, but in practicality meant that I had to take out two car seats and then do a quick vacuum of the backseat because, well, look: if my car ever went off a cliff and we were trapped at the bottom of a ravine, the police report would never say that we died of hunger.  Because there are whole boxes of Cheerios and Goldfish crackers back there…

So two youth, who will remain nameless, decide to ride in the car with Pr. Marsha and myself, and I immediately pop in a Lady Gaga CD because, you know, I’m hip.  I know what the kids like.

Except I don’t, I guess, because immediately the two youth put on their headphones.  And no matter how loud I turned up the volume, they refused to sing “Ooooh…caught in a bad romance…” with PM and I who were, if I might be so bold, in fine voice.  Air high-five.

But, I mean, what did I expect.  I’m almost 38, and 20 years have passed between where I am now and where they are now and the world is so much different…

And yet, the world is so much the same, too.

I mean there are places of relation, points of contact, between our two experiences.  And there are places of huge difference, and it will always be so, because time marches on and things change.

Think of everything that is different over the last 20 years in the world.  Now expand that lens and think about what’s different over the last 2000 years.  Now expand that a bit and think of what’s different over the last 5000 years.

And when you can imagine that, you can start to gain some perspective on the difficulty it is to relate to some parts of the Bible.  The gap there is huge.  Epic.

While it is true that the scriptures are timeless in one sense, like a diamond that retains its value, there is a very real sense, too, that it is a product of the time, the person, the place it was written in.  Like we all are.

It’s easy to imagine that Genesis was crafted in Silicon Valley, but it was written down some 2500 years ago during the Babylonian Exile by people who understood the world differently, who dressed differently, with different diets, lifestyles, and ideas to help people who had no home find a link back to a common heritage.  And yes, the Holy Spirit was involved, but that doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed a bit.

And sometimes when we take in the vast differences between when and how the scriptures were written and our situation today, one temptation is to put on the headphones.  To stop listening to them.  To stop hearing them.  But Archbishop Rowan Williams says this would be a mistake, because, he notes, “a Christian life is a listening life.”

A Christian life is one that expects that God can speak across space and time.  That’s the first thing I want you to remember: A Christian life is one that expects that God can speak across space and time.

But another temptation, kind of the opposite temptation, is one where we start pretending that the scriptures are so easy to understand, it’s like they were written yesterday. In the suburbs. By someone who looks like us and drinks pumpkin spice lattes and has middle-class problems.

And this gets to the second thing I hope you remember today: a Christian life is a learning life.  Because you are meant to use your brains when it comes to the scriptures.  You are not meant to just take it at face value, or to imagine that the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, or whatnot didn’t or don’t apply.

I know many absolutely brilliant people, brilliant in their own line of work: physics, chemistry, medicine, languages, who take big critical thinking skills to work with them every day, but when it comes to Sunday they just leave them at home when they go to church.

God did not give us the Bible to replace our brains, beloved.  I mean, what did you expect?  That somehow God was wanting us to ditch the most amazing organ in our body?

The scriptures are meant to be dissected, ingested, questioned, as well as treasured.  Like a good song written long ago whose lyrics still speak truth, even if that truth needs a bit of interpretation to make sense today.

You know, I like acronyms.  I mean, we’re in the ELCA after all.  Our church is an acronym.  This is where you LOL, BTW.

But one acronym I absolutely can’t stand is the one where people take the letters of the word Bible, B-I-B-L-E, and they say it’s an acronym for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”

Do not write that down!

That’s terrible.  It’s horrible.  That kind of simplistic view of the scriptures has caused so much damage in the world.  Because, well, what did you expect?  The Bible is full of beautiful poetry, myth, songs, history, laws, prose, and apocrypha.  And if you take all of it as the same kind of writing, you get into the terrible situation where you suddenly can divorce your wife if she burns dinner (but she can’t divorce you if you do), you can stone people, marry your daughter off to pay a debt.  You start to believe that you can move a literal mountain with your faith, and if you can’t then you’re lacking (I actually had someone in tears telling me that they tried this and were so disappointed when it didn’t happen…).

That’s not how the Bible is used, beloved.  It’s not a cookbook of instructions.  As Rowan Williams says, “The Bible is not a single sequence of instructions, beginning with ‘God says to you…’”  He says, “The reality is that as soon as you think you know what the Bible is, you turn the page and it turns into something different.”

And that, Beloved, is what a living document does.  It continues to speak because it speaks many languages, and primarily the language of story, our story, your story, and the story of the people who came before us over 5000, who saw themselves through the lens of God.

And I guess that’s the third thing I want us to hold today.  The Christian life is a life that sees God’s story and our story coming together through the lens of scripture, a scripture with Jesus as its center.

So, we get to Carowinds, and surprisingly none of the kids wanted to walk around with me, PM, or Buck.  Which I couldn’t understand because we are really fun.

So the three of us start walking around together, and since it was a Tuesday and overcast, no one was there.  Perfect day for an amusement park.  And we started riding the roller coasters.  And it’s been a good 8 years since I’ve been on a roller coaster.

And so we go on one.  Then two.  And after the third one we get off and I notice that I’m starting to sweat. And not sweat because I’m hot, it’s the kind of sweat that lets you know that your stomach is not ok with whatever is going on with you.  And you start to make mental notes when that starts to happen.  Notes like, “Ok. There are three trashcans along this path, and a bathroom toward the end of the lane…”

And Pastor Marsha is like, “Tim…are you ok?  And if you say yes I won’t believe you…”

It’s weird.  On Tuesday I found out that I can’t ride roller coasters like I used to.  They’ve changed for me.  It’s not like I don’t like them, I do!  It’s just that I can’t ride do it all the same way anymore.

And I guess that’s the fourth thing…which is totally un-Lutheran to have four points in a sermon, there should only be 3!  But I guess that’s the fourth thing I’d lift up about the scriptures today: you’ll read them differently, and even some parts differently, at different times in your life.

And it must be that way.  Because we learn and grow, both as humans and as people of faith.  And I know many of my friends who have left the faith because they thought that any change in the way they viewed the scriptures or viewed the faith made it all not worthwhile.  Some parts turned their stomach now.  Some twists and turns in the scriptures seemed unbelievable to them now.  And so they just got off the ride.

But I’m here to tell you that it’s going to happen.  It needs to happen.  Growth and change needs to happen, and that just because the experience changes it doesn’t mean somethings wrong.

In fact, that’s when we have to pay the most attention!

Because usually that means God is speaking a new thing in a new way to us.  And yes, it can be scary, and even frustrating.  But it is part of growing as humans, as people in the faith, as people of faith.

Rowan Williams in this little chapter reminds us that scripture is like God saying, “This is how people heard me, saw me, responded to me; this is the gift I gave them; this is the response they made…where are you in this?”  Scripture reading is not observational.  You are in the story, which is why you feel the twists and turns, and that’s ok.

And finally, the fifth thing (yes, 5…totally un-Lutheran, Beloved) that I think we must remember is that, at the core, Lutherans are Jesus people.  We are people who love the Bible because it tells us about Jesus.  We are not people who love Jesus because he tells us about the Bible.

You get what I mean?

I mean that, for Lutherans, and for many of our kissing Christian cousins, Jesus is the center of our scriptures, and the measuring stick against which all the scriptures are held against.  If there’s something in the law, or the history, or even the letters of the New Testament, that seem to not embody of spirit of Christ presented in the Gospels, we follow Jesus first.

Now that’s not easy, Beloved.  It’s not easy because, well, Christians have long used the Bible as a means for social control, not societal enlivening.  And so in many ways part of what we’re doing is re-educating the Christian landscape, re-orienting the church back on Christ, intentionally.  It’s a long process…I’d say it’s been a 2000 year process, with some eras being better than others, frankly.

But, as Martin Luther so rightly said, the Scriptures are not the Gospel.  Jesus is the Gospel, God’s good news.  The scriptures are the manger in which he is held.  And we are always on the quest for Jesus in the scriptures, looking for the places of love and light and grace there.

Kind of like we’re always on the look for Jesus in the text of our own lives, right?

It was the end of the day, and we were all gathering up at the front of the park to head home.  And a couple of the kids came looking a little queasy.  “Are you ok?” I asked.  And one of them said, “We road the Intimidator 15 times in a row…they just let us stay on the coaster and ran us through again and again and again…and now I don’t feel so good…”

To which I replied, “Well, what did you expect?!” You need a little relief.

The funny thing about a stomach that is upset by rollercoasters is that it usually, actually, needs some food in it to settle it.  It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.  And so I encouraged everyone who was sick to go get a pretzel, which most of them did, and it settled things down a bit.

All they needed was a bit of bread.

And, perhaps that’s a good place to end it, folks.  Because here’s the thing, when you’ve been tossed and turned, by your faith-life, by people using the Bible badly and you’re not sure you can stomach it anymore, or by just life in general, and all you’re doing is hanging on by a small handle, perhaps that one scripture verse like, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” when you’re at the end, I find that a little bit of bread and a sip of wine, here, each week, helps to settle everything down.

It just does.  So let’s eat.  And I bet you’ll say to me, “Yeah, that worked” after services. To which I’ll reply, “What did you expect?”

A Dangerous Read

danger-red-message-text-two-speeds-4k-danger-red-flashing-warning-message-text-on-black-background-two-speeds-seamlessly-loopable-4k_rkimfnkrx_thumbnail-full10The author of 2 Timothy writes, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” (3:16-17)

This, along with Psalm 23, is actually our scripture verse for this Sunday’s gathering.

And it is an oft-quoted verse when the question of whether or not a part of the 66 books of the Biblical canon is helpful comes up, as it does from time to time.  Many will pull out this little gem from 2 Timothy, point to it and say, “See! It’s all inspired by God and useful for teaching.  You can’t adjust any of it.”

But you know what’s funny about this verse?

At the time it was written, the “scriptures” for the ancient church were really just parts of the Hebrew scriptures.  2 Timothy itself wasn’t even a part of the scriptures at that time, though it would come to be included.

So, what scriptures did the author mean?  The ones used at the time, or the ones that would be added and even written after the writing of this letter?

Another favorite proof-verse for not cutting and pasting when it comes to scripture is the last part of the book of Revelation, chapter 22.  When I was in college and coming to the end of my studies, a friend and I were having a heated discussion about Biblical literalism.  He was a proponent of the inerrancy of scripture, and I am much more flexible in my view, having adopted the idea that I take scripture seriously but not literally.

He pulled out his Bible and pointed to Revelation 22:18-19, reading triumphantly,

I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book.  And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this book.”

“And this,” he said, “is why you have to take everything in here literally.  Nothing can be added or subtracted from this book!”  He rested his case.

“Ok,” I said, “but you do realize that the writer of Revelation was just talking about the book of Revelation there, right?  He wasn’t talking about the whole of the Bible…he couldn’t have been.  At that time there was no such thing.”

And his eyes widened as if he had just realized something for the first time…the scriptures had been put into context for him in that moment.  “I never thought of that…” he said.

I write all of this to hammer home two points:

First, the scriptures can be a dangerous read.  The stories of scripture are not one genre, but many: prose, poetry, history, myth, letters.  Navigating the waters can sometimes feel like whiplash as you shift between genres depending on the book (and sometimes within the same book!).

While it may be true that it is all useful, it is not all immediately accessible.  And this is important for us to remember because while Lutherans love the scriptures, we don’t hold all scripture to be created equally.  Jesus is always our interpretive lens when looking at the scriptures, and if a part of scripture chafes against the message and example of the Christ, we have to wrestle with that honestly, giving priority to the Word Incarnate over the words on the page.

That’s hard for some people to hear and understand because for a long time we’ve just assumed that all scripture stands side-by-side.  When, in reality, all scripture stands next to the example of Jesus.  And that’s the measuring stick.

The second reason I mention this is because it is really important to read the scriptures with other people, in community.  Rowan Williams in his book Being Christian says that the scriptures tell us that, “God speaks through stories.”  I totally agree.

And stories are best heard and experienced and debriefed with others, especially if we’re going to dig into them in a way that opens them up for us.

The “aha!” moments of studying scripture together are so important for developing a deep faith.  We must listen to one another, as well as the text, to mine the gems found therein.

And plus, if the scriptures are a dangerous read, it’s best not to travel through those waters alone.  They are bound to enliven your heart as well as break it.  They are bound to inspire your mind as well as enrage it (have you read the books of Judges and Ruth?!).  This ebb and flow is important because it mirrors life, especially the life of faith.

Our own blessed Martin Luther was an interesting person.  He once suggested that the books of James and Revelation should be cut out of scripture.  And he also decided not to include some of the books found in the Roman and Orthodox Bibles (like Tobit and Wisdom), adjusting the way the people read the scriptures five hundred years ago.

I note this as a way to remind us all that reading scriptures has always been a wrestling match, a give-and-take, a back-and-forth.  It has always been so, and must always be so if we’re to open our minds, our hearts, our eyes, and ears enough to engage it intentionally.

It’s the kind of danger that needs to be tackled head-on, together, expecting that, when we do we’ll find ourselves all pinned down by grace in the end.

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