On Tongue Twisters and a God Who Won’t Be Nailed Down

45335473211_a962396ba7_b<To listen to the sermon, click here. Sermons are best listened to, like coffee is best fairly traded>

[Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

On Tongue Twisters and How God Won’t Be Nailed Down

On this last Sunday of Easter,

Resurrected one,

We are reminded of how unpredictable

And mysterious

You are…so that we don’t get too comfortable

And think we have you nailed down.

Amen.

Alright, let’s do an experiment, shall we?

I want you to say “toy boat” three times fast.  Go.

Not easy, right?  It’s a tongue twister.

And how about that old favorite: How much wood would a wood chuck chuck, if a wood chuck would chuck wood?

The new one, of course, a modern twist with Brat Pack actor and heartthrob Rob Lowe: How many Lowes would a Rob Lowe rob if a Rob Lowe would rob Lowes?

“She sells seashells by the sea shore,” and “a tutor who tooted a flute”… back when I was an actor, and by that I mean little community theater, mind you.  The only time I was ever on TV was to once give the news forecast in 5th grade and then I had a bit part in a commercial that only aired twice at the 5:30am hour for a product that would help you clap louder at sports games.  It was literally two pieces of hand-shaped plastic you’d slip on and it was, unfortunately, called “The Happy Clap.”

But I digress…

Back when I was involved in community theater we’d begin most rehearsals saying tongue twisters.  And we did it not to tie up our tongues, but to make them more malleable.  Loosen them up.  It was an odd paradox: we became more articulate by tackling tough tongue twisters.

And today’s Gospel lesson, Beloved, is a theological tongue twister where Jesus, praying to God, blesses his disciples as a final blessing of sorts.  It’s the same sort of blessing that Moses gave before his death.  It’s the same sort of blessing that Jacob gave before his death.

And this scene, on the night before the crucifixion, follows in that tradition where Jesus, in a theological tongue twister of a prayer, asks God to bless these disciples who, truly, did not truly understand who he was and what was about to happen.

And I fear, friends, that we, like those disciples, can too easily become too familiar with Jesus, too acquainted with God, and forget the awesome mystery that God is.

We too often default to the vision of an old man sitting on a cloud.

We too often default, when we think of Jesus, to a smiling white guy with children on his lap or sheep around his shoulder.

In parts of the Hebrew scriptures God is described as bronze-skinned and shock-white, wild hair.  And while we don’t know what Jesus looked like, you can bet he was not white, friends, no matter what those popular 1950’s paintings want you to believe…

And don’t even get me started on the Holy Spirit.  A Wild Goose, as my Irish ancestors called her.  Wisdom, as she’s called in the book of Proverbs.  God’s breath, or Ruah in Hebrew.  And, yes, I say her because in all of those cases the feminine is used in the grammar…

On this last Sunday of Easter we are invited to remember that God is larger than what we’ve traditionally thought, and we’re invited to do this through this lovely little tongue twister Jesus provides us today.

In this Gospel Jesus says that he and God are one.  How is that possible?

In this Gospel text Jesus says that we are in him and he is in God and we are all one.  How is this possible?

It’s a theological tongue twister, friends, and we’d do well to practice before we enter the doors of any church, before we sit down to pray, before we attempt to talk about God because this theological tongue twister, amongst many others in the scripture, remind us that God is beyond what we’re used to talking about, that Jesus is so much more than our little historical minds want to give him credit for, and that the Holy Spirit, who takes center stage next week, is not just some ghost hopping around, but is a wild force, like a magnetic field, pulling us closer to the Divine, and then to one another.

And as convoluted as that all is, remember why actors say tongue twisters: not to tie our tongues up, but to loosen them.

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying here.  I’m not saying that we can’t think of God as familiar.  Not by any means.  We must say something, after all, and our language is limited, and the scriptures do tell us that God is as close as a heartbeat and a song on our lips.

But we must not make the mistake of thinking that our words, our thoughts, our ways of talking about God are the fence that pens God in.  They are, rather, the feedbox from which we gain more and more ideas about God, and insight into God, and for as broad and deep as our knowledge about God becomes, we must never believe we have God figured out.

Because if there’s one thing we know about God, Beloved, it’s that God cannot be pegged down. God cannot be nailed down.

It’s one of the reasons that Jesus left the scene in the first place, what we typically call the Ascension.  He wasn’t going to accompany his disciples in his resurrected form forever, or else the quest would always be one to find Jesus.  Instead he left, promising that they’d never have to look for him again, that he’d always be with them, and so instead of looking for Jesus, the disciples could do what they’re actually meant to do: look after their neighbor.  Love one another.  Embody Jesus, as they and Jesus are one…

Jesus left the scene so that, just as the woman touched the hem of his garment to stop her bleeding, there is a possibility that every hem is the hem of God imbued with Divine grace and love.  Jesus left the scene so that, just as the mud was spread on Bartimeaus’ eyes to give him sight, we might see all the earth as having the potential to give us insight into the Divine mind.

Jesus left the scene, Beloved, so that we wouldn’t just follow him around anymore, but could actually embody him for a world that is still bleeding, still suffering from lack of sight and insight, still tormented by the demons of racism and sexism and all the isms, still run by the powerful who prey on the weak, and still intent on trying to nail God down so that the can control God.

God is more mysterious than we can ever imagine, which is good news for us, because it means that there is nothing but possibility when it comes to the wild, mysterious, tongue-twisting God we have.  Possibility that, even if we can’t figure out how, life can come from death, hope will triumph over cynicism, and love will rule the day.  A God who can’t be nailed down is full of surprises, Beloved.

I mean, remember what happened the last time they tried to nail God down?

It didn’t work then, either.

Amen.

Advertisements

Happy Himmelfahrt

481015-98793a3a-f04e-11e3-94a8-09c2117d0a9eHappy Himmelfahrt, Beloved!

Yes, read that title out loud and laugh like the school-aged child inside you wants you to.

Himmelfahrt is two things.  Secondarily it is the title of the third full album released by the German industrial metal band, Megaherz. I do not suggest you look them up.

But, primarily, Himmelfahrt is German for “Ascension,” the feast day the church honors on the last Thursday of Easter, leaning into the culmination of Eastertide.

In Norwegian it’s the even more fun Himmelfartsdag…but I digress...

You may wonder why Jesus would even leave at all after being resurrected, right?  Why didn’t he just stick around, continuing to appear in the bodily form, eating fish on a beach (Jesus invented brunch, after all), and walking through doors to invite people to gaze upon his wounds and believe?

Why didn’t Jesus just stick around?  It would have made things much easier…

Well, think on this: when you were learning to walk, did your parents move your feet, left, right, left, right, to get you to do it?  No.  They held your hand for a while and then, what?

They let go.

And when you fell, did they catch you every time?

Not if they were any good.  You have to fall to learn to walk, Beloved.  They’d say, “Woopsidaisy!” and help dust you off and then they’d let go again.

Jesus had to exit stage left so that we, you and me, might learn to embody God in this hurting world.

Jesus ascended into heaven not to hang out with God, but so that we’d start hanging on to the promise that, in God, we can do and be what God intends us to be: healers of the nations, hope for the hopeless, friend for the friendless, love for the loveless.

Jesus left so that we might arrive, by God.

And we don’t arrive alone, of course.  The Advocate, the Spirit, the Divine Wisdom, the Wild Goose, comes along side us, moves through us, empowers us, and sustains us.

But more on that next week where we celebrate Pentecost.

Until then, I wish you a very happy and healthy Himmelfahrt!

Sharp and Fancy

<Click here to listen to the sermon. Sermons are better heard than read.>

Pink-Notch-Lapel-Linen-Blazer-33150Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise God in the heights!

Praise God, all his angels; Praise God all the hosts!

Praise God, sun and moon; Praise God, all you shining stars!

Praise God, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.

God established them forever and ever; God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,

Fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!

Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!

Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!

Young men and women alike, old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord, for God’s name alone is exalted;

God’s glory is above earth and heaven.

God has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to God. Praise the Lord!

Sharp and Fancy

Today, Lord

We give you the awe and wonder

That you deserve.

Amen.

At Christmastime we decorate the Brown house, and there’s this tradition passed down to me from my parents, that any long handrail in the house, going upstairs to downstairs, must be wrapped in bright gold garland, from top to bottom.

As a child we always did this, and we’re continuing that tradition now, much to Rhonda’s chagrin.  She thinks it’s tacky.

But Finn, upon seeing it again this Christmastide with older eyes, spied it with awe and wonder and exclaimed a breathless, “Oooh…fancy!”

And that, Beloved, is exactly why we do it: for that reaction from one who spies it with fresh eyes.

A couple weeks ago Finn and I were walking through a department store, the Men’s department, and as we were passing through the section with the blazers I spied a bright pink blazer and said, “Oh, sharp!” in jest.

But Finn, who heard me, said, “Oh Dad, that is sharp!” And there was a pause, and he asked, “What does sharp mean?”

I looked at him and said, “It means it looks good,” to which he reached out his hand, touched the pink blazer, and with wide eyes said, “Yeah Dad, it is sharp.  It looks good.”

If there’s one thing that children have done for me, always, even before I had children, it’s that they remind me that the world is amazing.  Walk anywhere with a four year old and it will take you forever, not just because they have short legs, but also because their close proximity to the earth allows them to spy things you and I generally overlook.

Bugs, worms, small flowers, amazing little creepers, as our Psalmist calls them today, are largely invisible to those of us busy with mortgages and car payments and work stress and allergies.

But the other day I saw my two boys embark on a heroic rescue of a worm forced out of the ground by those torrential rains, and as they saved it from drying and dying on our concrete driveway, I heard Finn exclaim, “Live free and in the wild!”

One of the things that ties all religions together, and thus all religious people, is a sense of awe and wonder for a God who has such imagination.

Remember that in the beginning God created all things, and as Genesis says, after the day of creating God looked back over the work done and said, “That’s good.”

Or, maybe a better translation might be, “Ooh, fancy!”  Because God, with new eyes, spied it all for the very first time.  And you don’t have to be too imaginative to understand that after God made the peacocks God wiped his hands in satisfaction and said, “Looking sharp!”

I say this all as a reminder to us all that awe and wonder are spiritual muscles that we must practice.  The more we view the creation with awe and wonder, the more we stand in awe and wonder of the creator, the imaginative mind who sung it all into being.

The Kentucky mystic, the bald and beautiful Thomas Merton once said, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying [God]. It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to [God’s] creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”

The ancient cathedrals had huge columns in their sanctuaries not only to hold up the roof, but also to mimic those tall God glorifying trees.  The inside of the church, with its stained glass (which was ancient multi-media, if you think about it), statuary, and columns was meant to bring the outside inside for the faithful, to remind them of God’s amazing works even inside.

Awe. Wonder. When was the last time you looked at a tree and said, “Ooh fancy!”?

I don’t ask that condemningly, I ask it honestly.

Because it is easy to take advantage of all of these wonderful, beautiful things in the world.  Even other people.  It’s easy to take advantage of other people, especially when we don’t see them. When we overlook them, like we might overlook the trees we see every day.

And remember that, when God created humanity, it was the only time in Genesis where God stepped back and said, “Oh, that is very good.”  Everything else was good, but humanity was very good.  It’s like God created humanity and said, “Ooh…that’s fancy and sharp!”

But, Beloved, we don’t give God praise and glory just for the trees, or for God’s wonderful imagination in creating everything.  No.  We give God praise and glory because we know, through Jesus, that God loves creation enough to redeem it.  To save it.

It’s as if God is walking through the department store of the world and, upon spying the blazer of creation hanging there, said, “Ohhh…I love this.  It’s fancy.  It’s sharp.  It looks good.”  And a sales person comes up and says, “You love it, huh?  How much would you pay for it?”  “Everything,” God responds. “Anything.”

The salesperson is skeptical.  “You say you love it, right?  Well just how much do you love it?”

To which God responds, “I love it to death and back.”

And that, Beloved, is why we give God the praise God deserves.  Because in Jesus we know how much God loves us, to death and back, and that kind of love…it is truly awesome.  And if God would love the trees, and the birds, and babies, and you and me, to death and back…well, it inspires me with awe for everything that God has made, and even more awe for the God who made it.

In Praise of Awe

13988023127_0b233b82c5_bI’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it: we overuse the word “awesome” in this world.

Once when I inquired into how a friend’s lunch was, they responded that their burrito was “awesome.”

I will just be honest with you: if your burrito fills you with awe, your standards are too low.

But one of the reasons I’m kind of hoping we’ll keep the word “awesome” for things that fill us with awe is because we can absolutely lose our ability to see anything as actually awesome when we smack that label on most anything and everything, whether it fits the definition or not.

Awe is the root of all religions, Beloved.  It’s the one thing every religion, every single one, has in common: awe and wonder fuel the fires of faith.

Our reading for this week is just Psalm 148.  You can read it here, if you want.  It’s not long.  I’ll wait.

Ready?  Onward.

Psalm 148 is called a Psalm of Praise, or a Hallelujah Psalm, but I really think it could be called a Psalm of Awe.  It is basically a rehashing of Genesis, but instead of God speaking creation into being, the Psalmist invites creation to speak God’s praises.

Creation is in awe of creation in this world, but it is also in awe of the creator in this Psalm.

And when my mind spirals down that path, the avenues of actual awe are endless.

My mug is handmade.  Someone created it.  I’m grateful for the mug, and its elegance and beauty, and when I ponder it, also for its maker.  And, of course, for the coffee it holds, which was processed by someone, and picked by someone, and grown by someone.  I’m in awe of how it has come so far to end up in my cup.

And this computer I’m typing these words on.  Its parts were mined, assembled, manufactured, programmed…so many creators went in to this very creation you’re reading!  How are we not in awe of this collaborative work?

And when I think back on all of that tungsten and clay, programming know-how and packaging, I’m led all the way back to the God who first sung it all into being.

Now, look, if you want to say your burrito is awesome because of the taste, well, that’s your prerogative.  But you know what’s really awesome?  How it got to your plate at all.  And how that particular ethnic food fell down throughout culture and history.  The people, the ideas, the animals and vegetables, the sun and the moon and soil, and yes, the God that made it all happen through creative creating.

That’s awesome.

 

On Scars and How You Know Something is Real

<If you want to hear the sermon, click here.  Sermons are best heard, kind of like BBQ is best served hot>

Chapel_of_the_Resurrection_-_Altar_at_Christmas19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

On Scars and How You Know Something is Real

Reach out today, wounded and risen One,

That we might reach out.

Invite us to imagine our world

Changed by your body

And our body

Changed into the shape of your kingdom

Amen.

Valparaiso University has this huge chapel.  One of the biggest University chapels in the country.  And up around this massive altar, literally hovering over it, is this golden shape of a risen Jesus, taller than me, arms outstretched, almost like it’s rising out of the ground.

The chapel is called “The Chapel of the Resurrection,” and so it makes sense to have that statue in it.  And the chapel was built after the previous one burned down in a freak fire, so this Jesus statue is kind of like a phoenix, rising from the ashes of the previous chapel.

It’s beautiful.  It’s golden.  It’s awesome.

And it’s fake.

Totally fake.

You know how I know it’s fake?

Because if you look at the outstretched arms of that risen Jesus, you’ll find no scars.  This was pointed out to me by one of the pastors of the community one time.  They meant no harm in mentioning it, of course.  We photoshop all sorts of things in this world to make them more palatable.

Here’s the thing, Beloved: if the Jesus you’re following is like, totally perfect, pristine, and expects you to be totally perfect and pristine; if the Jesus you’re used to looks a little too much like a smiley business man, successful, driving a nice car, pearly white teeth; if the Jesus you’re used to is more concerned about rules and regulations instead of the real life issues of what it’s like to have your arms cut up because you’ve been bullied so much you tried to end it all, or because you’ve been abused, or because, and this is a truth we don’t want to talk too much about, if you’re the abuser, too, and living with guilt because of what you’ve done, cause that’s super real.

If your Jesus any of that and is on a pedestal instead of emerging from a tomb, it’s a fake.

When it comes to Jesus, you know it’s real because Jesus always comes with scars.

Or, like I said in my Friday Faith Prints, they don’t tell you this in seminary, but if you talk to people in 12 step programs, or in the psyche unit at the hospital they’ll let you in on this knowledge, resurrection comes with scars.

One of the most beautiful and bare-bones things about the Sunday after Easter is that the church goes straight from talking about the miracle of the resurrection to reminding us all that resurrection doesn’t mean everything is perfect again.

Everything is not perfect.  I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect.  We may be born again, but we’re not perfect.  We have scars.

It’s one of the reasons I feel like I need to be honest about my scars with you: so you’ll know I’m real.  And so you have permission to be real.  Because if Jesus is real, then we can all be real, and one of the ways you know something is real is if it has a scar.

Because that means it’s bled before.

One of the ways you know love is real is because it breaks your heart.  And to prove how far God would go to be real with humanity, to be for humanity, to save humanity, that heart, that body, broke open for us like this loaf of bread up at this table.

There’s a poem in the back of your bulletin that I chose for this Sunday.  It’s one of my favorites, and the Sunday after Easter God has blessed us with a short sermon, so we’re going to end on this.

“Believing Till it Hurts” is all about how hard it is to follow the God known in Jesus in this world because the pain of our imperfection fills us with shame…and yet we know it shouldn’t because our risen Christ has the imperfection of scars on his hands, feet, and side.

The best part of the poem, if you ask me, is that first line. “There must be more to faith than tidy homes, and healthy children, and a peaceful sleep.  I think I’ve heard that true believers prosper” and, listen if there’s one lie I want to dispel from your hearts and minds it’s the lie that following Jesus leads to prosperity.  Jesus has asked me to give up more of my prosperity than I’ve been able to keep, Beloved.  That’s the call of Christ.

But the poet goes on,

“and yet I know the Fountain of belief became a human being, failed and failed, again and again, spurned hearth and home, gave up, the comforts of this world, gave up the prime of life, and gave up life itself.”

“Faith in the failing Lord picks me with pain, again, I seek the comfort of insulated images-a home removed from all untidy people, removed from trouble, removed from pain.”

“I know it is not true,” the poet says starkly.  The tidy life of faith is not true.  Faith, like life, is messy, and invites us into the messy, scar-ridden places of this world.

“Disciples follow, and I cannot follow the Master to the comforts of the world. His steps do not lead there. I will believe until it hurts so much that I am broken, crushed with a cold despair, and then I’ll rise, for such is God’s good pleasure, lifting up the fallen in the depths.”

So, the Chapel of the Resurrection is beautiful, and touching, and I’ve felt God in there, but I know that the Christ in there is a fake.  That Christ has no scars.

But if you walk outside the chapel, across the courtyard, you’ll come across another statue.  It’s a statue of a man lying on a bench, covered in a blanket.  It’s the statue of a homeless man.

And you can’t see his face. Or maybe it’s a her, I don’t know.  But you can’t see their face, it’s covered in that blanket, but I know it’s Jesus.

homeless-jesus-sculpture-main_article_imageI know it’s Jesus because its feet are sticking out the bottom of the blanket, as his knees are curled up to fit on the bench.

And in those feet are the scarred marks of nails, nails that pierced him through, the cross be born for me, for you, as the Christmas hymn goes.

And that, Beloved, is real.  I don’t even need to see his face to know that that is Jesus.

And isn’t that the way it is?  People seek after God in the beautiful chapels of the world.  Stunning, awesome, all of that…and they are.  Their beauty can remind us of God’s beauty.

But all the while the scarred Jesus is sitting outside on a bench waiting for us to be real with him.

What Does Resurrection Really Feel Like?

34991029602_ba3888c6f3_b
Scars | by Andrea Koerner

“She crashed into the Easter Mass

with her hair done up in broken glass.

She was limping left on broken heels.

When she said,

‘Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?'”

The band The Hold Steady starts off their song, “How a Resurrection Really Feels” with these words.  I was introduced to this song by the tattooed and terrific Reverend Nadia Bolz-Weber.  She used it in a story about conversion, but I think it’s perfect for this coming Sunday, the Sunday where Thomas is invited to touch the wounds of Christ and see how resurrection really feels.

There’s a secret about resurrection that the smiley preachers aren’t usually willing to talk about, but it’s about the only part of resurrection that I know how to talk about, at least when starting off the conversation.  And that secret is this: resurrection comes with scars.

Resurrection feels rough.

Resurrection can take a while.  It can take a while to happen, to trust, to believe.

I just got done reading the heartbreaking and heartfelt book _Beautiful Boy_ by David Sheff.  I found myself on the subway in New York City reading the book, quietly crying, and looking around to see evidence of the addicted all around me.  In fact, as I was at the point in the book where his son was on a meth binge, “tweaking” is the word usually used to describe it, a man came by me asking for money, pupils wide, teeth rotten, arms tracked up with marks.  Normally I wouldn’t have even looked at him, but the book had awakened some compassion in me that I usually suppress, and while I didn’t give him money, I did look him in the eye to tell him I didn’t have any.

That’s sometimes what resurrection feels like: being awake enough to look at someone else’s scars without flinching, without turning away, and instead of swallowing compassion you swallow judgment for a second.

I couldn’t help him in the way he needed help, but sometimes the road to healing begins with actually looking at someone’s scars.

That is, after all, what Jesus invites Thomas to do: view his scars.  The text doesn’t even say Thomas touched them, though he’s told he can.  He doesn’t need to, apparently.  He just needs to look at them to know what resurrection actually looks like.  It looks like scarred hope.  Scarred love.  New life where scars remain, but they don’t wound you anymore.

I was talking with someone a few months ago.  They had left an abusive relationship, and were just getting to the point where they could wake up in the morning and not feel that onset of panic that came as part of waking up.  The panic that the person was in the room with them.  The panic of being afraid of what the day would hold in that relationship.  They weren’t, of course; they were safe.  But it took a while to trust.

Sometimes resurrection looks like waking up with brief panic, but learning not to trust it because you know you’re safe.  They don’t tell you that resurrection sometimes still comes with a bit of panic, but it does.  Sometimes it does.

Sometimes it comes with scars.

Actually, I’d say it always comes with scars.  And that’s OK.

As Jesus shows us this Sunday, that’s more than OK. That’s normal. That’s part of it.

And new life still happens, even with the scars.

Who Needs It?

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

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

Who Needs It?

Today we sing Hosanna

And later our shouts will be

Crucify

Hold us in our indecision, Lord

So often we don’t know what to

Think of you

Or say to you

So lead us. Hold us.

No matter what we say.

Amen.

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

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lord needs it.  And would use it.

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

The Lord needs it.

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

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

The Lord needs it.

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

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

The Lord needs it.

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

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

The Lord needs it.

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

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

The Lord needs it.

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

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

And love us even to death.

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

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

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

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

“This is the night!”

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

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

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

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

But…even that’s not it.

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

It’s both ancient and future.

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

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

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

Yes, practicing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your stories.  The story.

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

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

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

Rather we get sucked up into them.

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

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

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

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

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

At our worst, we steal it as our own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And…and I could go on.

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Week and Taking Out the Trash

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

 

Storage

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room 

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden is finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them!  Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing–the reason they can fly.

_______________________

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

Yes, opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑