Oh Say Can You See?

A Sermon based on  Mark 10: 32-52

Our Lenten journey continues with the theme “opening our eyes to God,” framed by a gospel that artfully places before us a story of spiritual and physical blindness.  It is a kind of vision test that invites us to become aware of how we Bartimaeusare using our physical and spiritual eyes.  Referring to our spiritual eyes, the 13th century poet RUMI said “Close both eyes to see with the other eye.”

It’s a timely reflection during a contentious election year when we are living with a level of division that can cause us to question what we see and if others are looking at the same thing.  Clearly not everyone sees the candidates or the presidency or the best course for America the same way–not our neighbors and not even our family members.

What we see and how we see it is more than a matter of how light rays reflect and enter the cornea.  Vision infers a kind of interpretation or as Anais Nin famously said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are”.

I learned the hard way that even history is up for interpretation depending on who is doing the interpretation.  What happened was that I simply brought home my middle school history homework.  Not surprisingly my Serbian mother took issue that my textbook pointed to the two Serbian “terrorists” who started World War 1 when they assassinated Arch Duke Ferdinand.  Apparently that was a small part of the larger story. Still she was furious that Ferdinand’s death was being viewed in isolation and she was ready to march down to my school to give my teacher a history lesson of painful personal context.

She knew first-hand the complexity of events and ideals that would become World War 1, telling me what the classroom had not. That years of ethnic conflict had resulted in 30,000 Serbians being held in Austro-Hungarian death camps. Her mother, grandmother and my aunts were held and several died there. This was the first time in my life when I questioned that not everything we’re told—even in school–is the entire truth.

So does that mean truth is a moving target? Not exactly but it can involve a certain amount of bias, positive or negative. We see what we’ve been taught to see and… we see what we want to see. It was the same with the disciples. They did not want to see that Jesus wasn’t going to save them in the way they wanted to be saved. They were looking for a military hero so in the beginning it was not good news that he was a global hero of an entirely different type.

And so Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ desire to instruct his followers in matters of spiritual and physical short-sightedness. Their myopathy didn’t allow them to see who Jesus was or the fullness of why God came down in Jesus. Despite his every attempt to tell a larger truth– that he had come to set ALL the captives free, that he had come to bring sight to ALL the spiritually and physically blind, they remained blind to the big picture.

They were so blind that they skipped right past Jesus’ painful pronouncement of suffering and certain death, jumping like spoiled children to ask for status in the life to come. They may as well have said, “Wow Jesus. If you’re going to be THAT kind of king, then can we sit next to you? Do we get a crown? What color will my robes be?” Which—spoiler alert–Jesus then contrasts with a physically blind man who asks Jesus not for privilege but for mercy.

The irony that jumps off the page is that Bartimaeus COULD SEE Jesus’ truest identity when the disciples could not.

I heard recently about a strange but real innovation in tourism. It’s known as “sightseeing for the blind.” If it sounds like a cruel and insensitive joke, it is in fact a bona fide industry that enables the vision impaired to safely experience famous landmarks and locations through their other senses, particularly hearing and feeling.  It was these same senses as well as spiritual eyes that guided Bartimaeus to Jesus.

What a great lesson!  We would all be served by employing all of our senses!

What if we asked ourselves if what we think we are seeing is accurate?  What if when a person in our circle is acting mean, we ask if there something behind the behavior that we are not seeing?  Is God placing before us clues to spiritual transformation that we are missing because we don’t know to look for them?  We cannot see what we do not think is there?

If we think God is a nice idea but an absentee parent we’re secretly mad at–what if we’re not seeing the evidence that God is very much present! Even when we do not SEE God, God is there!

Bartimaeus could not see but Bartimaeus wanted to see.  Bartimaeus could see that Jesus was coming near and he called out. Jesus answered.

Be like Bartimaeus. Open your hearts and your eyes to God and you will see.


The Empire Strikes Back…Meanwhile

As a new generation prepares for the Christmas 2015 premiere of the latest Star Wars film, here are the cliff notes for all of you padawan (Jedi apprentices).

Star Wars tells the story of a pstar-wars-and-the-bible-cover-e1374981428379eople and a galaxy in the distant past described as “far, far away.” Those representing good are known as the Jedi and the Jedi are in conflict with the evil “Sith.” The Sith’s culture of war and oppression is referred to as “the Empire.”

The six films that precede the one premiering December 18 have taken movie goers through the narrative arc of the story of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker who battles the evil
Darth Vader.  Like all good storytelling, the plot thickens when we are taken further back in time to meet young prodigy Anniken Skywalker. Anniken is selected for Jedi training though his Jedi masters sense that he is somehow conflicted and his future could go either way.  As he grows to become a man he is haunted by premonitions that his secret wife, Padme Amidala, will die and Anakin Skywalker is seduced by the dark side.  In a stunning plot twist, we learn that Anakin left good behind changing his name to be forever known as….Darth Vader.  Later in mortal battle with Luke Skywalker, Vader reveals “Luke I am your father.”  Luke and Darth Vader are faced with a choice.  Will good triumph or will evil?

As we’ve studied the older testament these past years, does the narrative sound a bit like those more unfamiliar bible stories?  The bible invites us to make choices.  We are not Jedi. We are disciples of a man named Jesus.  The battle for good over evil is timeless, though we wish that battle was fantasy.

The bible tells us the stories of a people and a land also in the distant past that could be likewise described as “far, far, away.” God has tried to remain central in the lives of his chosen people.  God has sent kings to rule righteously only to have them become seduced by the greed and… the dark side. God has sent judges to help the people choose right over wrong and God has sent prophets to teach the people, bringing God’s word directly.  And doesn’t it all come down to the same question?  Way of Empire? Or way of God?

In today’s reading, the prophet at the center is who scholars refer to as second Isaiah. This is the Isaiah of the Babylonian exile. We’ve moved 40 years into the future, from King Josiah in the year 620 BCE to 586 when the Babylonian empire’s military has invaded Jerusalem, destroying the city, the temple and deporting its people into exile. God calls Isaiah to preach good news to frightened and lost people. (Anyone else hope he is talking also to us?)… But Isaiah thinks they won’t listen. “People are like grass and what’s more they’re incapable of being constant,” he says.  In verse 8 God answers with “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever! [Now] get up on that high mountain and preach it!  Tell them “Do not despair. I’m coming to get you. Just as I always have always done, I’m building a road to bring you back to me. Go! Tell them Here is your God!

Sounds eerily similar to something we might hear in Star Wars, as if the Millennium Falcon starship has just radioed “we have you on visual and we’re coming to get you!” The Empire will be struck down and evil will not prevail!  Han Solo out!

Isaiah is speaking words of comfort to the exiles but, yes, what about you and I? Don’t we need those same words of comfort? Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly. When bullets fly in places bullets should never fly, speak tenderly because we are afraid!

What has dominated in this week’s news cycle, from serial violence right here in Minneapolis, to San Bernadino, California and from ISIS–these are the newest installments in the piecemeal war that’s been going on for centuries.  Look again at the word of God and let it speak to you. The God announced by Isaiah is both powerful and gentle, able to comfort as well as defend. This God is a shepherd who will “gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom.”

And then we hear what we wait for each and every Advent.  A new voice joins the scene declaring: “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  For soon and very soon, God is personally coming onto the scene!

According to Mark’s gospel, “From The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”  Lord in your mercy get ready to get ready! Stand by to stand by!

Because my “padawan” star followers, isn’t that what Advent is all about? The Good news proclaimed is this!  “Here comes God!”  The ultimate Jedi force for all that is good; all that is holy is coming, is here and will never leave us.

Said in Star Wars parlance, “The force. It’s calling to you. Let it in. “ May the force AND the faith be with you. AMEN.

Rediscovering a New Hope

Welcome to Advent, the season when HOPEFULLY we rediscover GOD’s hope for the each of us as revealed in Jesus.  Hopefully we are transformed by that rediscovery.  Which is why we enter the story of Christ’s birth again and again.  And so as a way to bring that about, I thought I might seize on the December premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the first new installment in the Star Wars franchise in more than ten years.  It has inspired my advent sermon series which I’ve titled “The Faith Awakens.”

I confess that I am a Star Wars geek but I’m also a bible geek. StarwarsWhether we’re talking first century Palestine or a galaxy far, far, away, there’s something magical and transformative in both.  Author director George Lucas admits that the Star Wars films contain elements of biblical truth mixed with fiction designed to lift up the ongoing battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

But would the movie going public recognize hope when they saw it?”  Apparently they did. From Christians to Taoists to those who identify their religion as “Jedi,” fans of “Star Wars” have long seen elements of their faith reflected in the films.  The films offer a model for how to find strength in God or internal balance. He knew exactly what he was doing when he created the concept of “The Force.” (The mystical energy of good and evil) In fact he said, “I put the Force into the movie in order to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people.” He also said “Not having enough interest in the mysteries of life to [ever] ask the question, “is there a God or is there not a God?’–that is for me the worst thing that can happen.”  Lucas and I have that fear in common.  Every time I step into this pulpit I pray that your faith will be awakened and that you’ll find a fresh relevance in these old stories.

And so in the words of Yoda “Much to learn you still have…my padawan.”… “This is just the beginning!” On this first Sunday in Advent we begin with the little known but important story of  King Josiah.

Josiah’s reign changed the history of Judah forever because something happened to Josiah that changed HIM forever. Josiah discovered the word of God.

Throughout our Old Testament study the story has been building to this scene. There has been this long trajectory of the people falling in and out of relationship with God. It’s a cyclical story of remembering God and forgetting about God, of God sending a king, then a new king, then a judge, then another judge, then a prophet then another prophet.

Spoiler alert. You and I know what Josiah did not.  Ultimately God will take matters into God’s own hands. How? By being born in a manger as a baby who would walk with us, directly leaving it up to us whether or not we recognize hope when we see it…

It’s a human conflict as old as time. God continuously calls us back to the centrality of relationship.  Sometimes we listen and sometimes we relegate the entire matter to a very nice story that doesn’t have much to do with our real lives.  Or worse, we memorized just enough bible stories to pass question night during our confirmation years…and for some, never picked up a bible again.

Last week I read an article about a recent survey. The survey rated how involved Christians were with their faith as evidenced by how often they attend worship and what kind of programming they participate in.  Would it surprise you to learn that Lutherans are at the bottom of the list with the only denomination less engaged being Episcopalians? At the top of the list were the Mormons and evangelical Christians.

I am a convert to this Lutheran faith. I was a Mormon and it breaks my heart that most Lutherans do not recognize the theological treasure that is ours.  Evangelicals rush to church because they cannot get enough of the bible. Mormons and evangelicals hang on every word, every preposition, and every participle in certain and desperate hope of deepening their relationship with God. It’s an obsession.  But there’s a problem. Their literal and sometimes ignorant interpretation of scripture gets them in trouble.

Mainline denominations like ours brings with them a method of interpretation that is sane, historic, contextual and full of grace and scholarship.  It can lead us to a depth of relationship with the holy that cannot be rivaled.  But Lord in your mercy we have got to open the book and let it speak to us as it spoke to Josiah. King Josiah was transformed by the reading of the book and so should we be transformed.

The hard truth is that church is no longer central in people’s lives because God is no longer central. Why is everything in life more important than wanting to be here and wanting to be about THAT?  Otherwise we’re throwing the baby out with the bath water even if we put the baby back into the manger for the annual Christmas pageant.

Which brings me back to Star Wars.  Are not you and I are star followers who, like the wise men, spend our lives following the Christ child?  In the gospel according to Yoda, “Yoda says, `Do or do not. There is no try.’ Becoming a Jedi master and taming the force, this isn’t something you just try. It’s the same as Jesus’ saying, `Be doers, not hearers.’  Advent is our time of reawakening our faith. It is also a lot like a gym. You get out of it what you put into it.

I hope you will be a part of the adventure.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’  (Luke 24)


…In the place just right

Hosea 11:1-9

Pray with me please… As we focus our compassion on France, Beirut, Bagdad and beyond remind us this day that our every action allows us the opportunity to expand love or contract love, to hear & see the divinity within another or disregard their humanity. Remind us today that in the midst of the grieving you are present, saddened by the failure of your people — all of us — to live as we were created to live.

All over the world people of faith are gathering. Gathering to worship and gathering to make sense of what is happening in the world. People of God gathered here today– you are in the place just right.

The things that have happened in Paris, in Beirut, in Bagdad and in Syria have prompted many to conclude that we have entered a new kind of world war, a piecemeal war.

The world doesn’t feel safe today.

This— is a molten moment for the people of God. How will we arrive in a place just right when we are frightened out of our wits sitting in Lazy Boys in Minnesota?

Is our faith relevant and is it enough when the world feels off its chain?

And there is something else. No doubt there are those who rail at God asking “Why did God let this happen?” Answer: God didn’t. God is never the author of such atrocity. It is one of many miscarriages of theology that lead people leaving the church.  Believing God to be author of violence is not an accurate depiction of God’s pathos! Believing God is an absentee God is wrong.

It is not God’s job to stop evil in the world. Defying evil is humanity’s job.  However, God promises to be in it, with us.

Which brings us to this beautiful and challenging passage from the book of Hosea. The metaphor of parent and child can be powerful and intimate when it shows us how God feels, when it shows us God in relationship during times of great joy and great pain.

Hosea was a prophet from the northern kingdom of Judah. And he was a prophet to the northern kingdom. He lived about 850 years before Jesus. He was no stranger to unstable governments and dynasties which puts him in the place just right to teach us things about God we forget when we’re frightened. Having spoken judgement, his predictions have come true and now Hosea issues this incredible and beautiful promise of God.

Hosea offers us an accurate pathos of babiesGod’s tender and very real love and pain—the love and pain of a parent. How do I exercise my relationship with this rebellious child of mine? Hosea’s metaphor shocks us into facing a God who weeps, loving Israel despite Israel’s continued infidelity.  God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, its part of the love.  Parents, am I right?

At one time or another every parent has to deal with an errant, strong willed child! When we disappoint God, God never gives up.  I wonder to what extent children are oblivious to all that their parents do to make them happy and whole, courageous and competent? Does any parent have any less of a wish for their children? Of course not.

In a few minutes we will participate in another depiction of God’s relational hope for us as we witness the baptism of Genevieve and Henry.  Little Vivi and Henry will be sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. We will reprise our oaths to renounce the forces of evil that defy God.  That is how we “come round right” for this world God loves and how we consciously allow God to work in, with and through our lives.

Baptism is its own defining and molten moment. It’s when we acknowledge what God has already done.  Remembering our baptism is the daily spiritual practice of paying attention to what God has, is, and will do in our lives and in the world.

Michael Chan is assistant Old Testament professor at Luther Seminary. He writes, “When Christians think about God’s willingness to suffer on behalf of sinful humans, we often think about Christ hanging from the cross. And we should. But Hosea 11:1-9 helps us realize that the cross is not a new development in the life of God, it represents who God is fundamentally.”

It is that truth that should captivate our hearts. The terrorists will continue to wreak havoc but think of this.

According to reports it only took a handful of people to cause the level of havoc we’ve seen this week.

In a moment we will sing the Shaker Hymn Simple Gifts. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYi9Vr8bHJY What is our role in turning the world and bringing it around right?

What if the body of Christ said, “No more!”  What if we expanded and radicalized love? What if we never again disregarded the humanity of another person? What if we did all we could do to help others live as they were created to live?

What we know for sure is that despite pain, God will redeem. God will heal. And God will bring to new life. “Liberté, égalité et fraternité” These are God’s values. Amen.

The Divine “US”

We begin the narrative lectionary year with the story of Creation. No doubt you’re familiar with the story. So what do you remember?

The story as told in Genesis 1 is cosmic in scope. It paints a broad picture of the creation of earth and humanity.  In it God speaks Adam and Eve into existence.

Genesis 2, however, is different and it reveals as much about the Creator as it does about Creation. It zooms in to that larger story layering it with detail, emotion, intention and even humor. And if we’re open to it, there is something divinevery special about scripture and its capacity to speak new truths to us.

When God creates humanity in Chapter 1, God says “Let US Create humankind in OUR own image.”  Does this mean that God’s chosen pronouns are US and OUR? Had you ever noticed that?  Not saying MY suggests a wider mystery than is described by a single gender.   We are blessed to take gender roles from this story’s telling, however,  it seems clear that those gender roles are wider than we have previously noticed  in this text.

And in Genesis 2, humanity is not spoken into simultaneous existence in the way Genesis 1 treats the story.  In Genesis 2 the first human is formed by God’s own hands out of the dirt or the hummus of the earth.  Even Adam’s name is a Hebrew word play, taken from the word Adama which means dust or hummus.  Adam is the earth’s first “hummus being.”

If in hearing the story you think it sounds almost poetic, you would be correct.  Genesis is in fact a Hebrew poem. The bible is full of poetry and music along with first person narratives and rich storytelling, which can help us mine the reasons why the two chapters expand the story in different ways.

Throughout Genesis we find God pictured as caring, relational and charmingly funny. God says in verse 18, “It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper as his partner.”  But God does not get to work making the second human according to Genesis 2? NO!  First God presents him with pets! With animals.  Did you see it? It’s in verse 19. One after the other God forms and brings Adam every animal…and every bird. Adam gives them all names and in verse 20 it says “but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.” Poor Adam.

Adam now has more pets than any human can manage but still-he needs a spouse. So in the image of the Divine “US” God puts Adam to sleep and takes a rib; a piece of Adam’s own self is what and who God forms into a partner— a partner and a helper equal in every way.  This first human combines the divine male and female all within itself.  And the two shall cling to each other becoming the one flesh they were created from.    In Hebrew the words “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” would be more accurately translated as, “Now that’s what I’m talking about. THIS one shall be called woman.”

But for what larger purpose were they created? What is God’s greatest imagination for Creation?  Reflecting on these questions, I took a break to enjoy the season opener of the Minnesota Orchestra.   Conducted by the deeply respected and loved Finnish musician, Osmo Vänskä, the emotion and intention with which he lovingly forms music out of this self-described family of musicians is in itself cosmic. Vänskä uses his entire being to create a level of musical interpretation that hangs in the air before bringing you to tears and then to your feet.  Osmo Vänskä brought this Genesis text to new light.

God is the ultimate maestro, the conductor of creation, composing the music of life, calling it into being, caring for it, naming it and imagining a fullness of purpose and expression. There is sacred intention in naming all the parts of creation. Naming is holy. Even Mary didn’t recognize Jesus at the tomb until Jesus called her by name!

In every holy way, God is inviting us to live in harmony with the whole of Creation and  God’s holy vocation as Creator of the Universe is our divine heritage. We too are part of the Divine US.

This is important as we look back at verse 5 when God has laid out the earth as our future home but as yet there was no one to till the ground. In Hebrew the verb to till is as much related to caring about it as it is caring for it.

The measure of how well we honor this creation and our Creator is by whether or not we get it, how well we care for this planet and each other. Just as Osmo Vänskä gathered what could just as easily be a disconnected group of diva musicians, the art of Vänskä’s vocation is in how he orchestrates their individual gifts into a seamless musical community.

And the art and vocation of our Creator God is in how God divinely orchestrates you and I into the beloved community who lovingly accepts our calling to care for and till this wonderful earth.  That brothers and sisters is a calling cosmic in hope, rich with purpose and bubbling with divine possibility.  Now that’s what I’m talking about.



Flexible Faith

A sermon on Ephesians 6:10-20

All month I’ve been carrying around an article clipped from the in-flight magazine during our vacation.  I was intrigued by the title. “A Shape-Shifting House that Transforms with the Seasons.” In it London-based architects tell of a house that literally changes its shape, opening and house articleclosing on itself to create eight unique configurations, each designed to take advantage of the conditions of changing seasons.  In the winter, the house is a compact insulated square like a tightly closed flower. But in the summer it stretches out like a housecat, rotating and opening towards a warm sun.  This is a house that is never static. It’s flexible. What if our faith were also not static but flexible?

This morning I’m closing up my sermon series “What’s in Your Faith Closet?”  It’s fitting to hold both the image of this unique house, and Paul’s letter to the believers at Ephesus.

It is an act of faithful flexibility to de-clutter and separate out those things that offer life from those that do not. Once we’ve let go of what we no longer or never did believe; and once we’ve rediscovered new things about our faith, there’s another question that awaits us.

How does what we believe inform the way we live? You’re committed to a life in Christ. What next?

Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus offers a final extended metaphor for how belief in Jesus might shape the way we live their lives, illustrating his point with references to the armor that might be worn by an army.

THIS is one of those times when the old stories and our story intersect. You and I have more in common with the addressees of this letter than we may think.

Paul’s audience was a minority group.  Today the Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. To be sure, the United States still remains home to more Christians than any other country in the world, however worldwide, Christians are still a minority.

Sadly most of the decline is in today’s young adult population—in part because churches have rigidly hung onto tradition, seldom offering a life giving way of talking about our ancient BUT STILL very relevant faith.   When we take one way of articulating our faith, we need to replace it with something where our spirit can go “ding-ding-ding-yes! Now that makes sense!”

So for those who, as an example, couldn’t swallow what it said about God, for God to sacrifice a child as a substitution for us—the alternative was to walk away. And walk away they did.

But for those who stayed, engaged and transformed their questions, deeper truths were revealed.   In love God provided Jesus to show us what a life lived in synchronicity with God looked like. God provided Jesus to walk with us, to teach us how to live and do the right things, EVEN if his countercultural life would result in humans to crucifying him. It is a game changer to follow Christ because he lived full out even to the point of death.  Jesus represents relationship, not patriarchal punishment. God is not an angry meanie.

Our faith is like a garden. If you don’t pull the weeds, the weeds will overtake the flowers. And frankly, I have to wonder if a good cleaning would move the “in name only” Christians from “yes I believe but I don’t much go to church anymore” to “I practice a life informed by my faith and I enjoy gathering with other pilgrims on Sunday to renew that faith these friendships.”  OK, it still doesn’t mean you have to come every Sunday says the pastor whose secret longing is for Sunday traffic, traffic due to so many people trying to get to church.

Now looking at Paul’s letter, it is quite remarkable the way it applies faith to life.  What if every day we put on our faith, like clothing? What if the lessons of our faith were so current, so alive, and so central, that it was like putting on a belt of truth? And what if even our shoes were metaphors for our walks of peace in the world.

I love when he writes about putting on a helmet of salvation. Salvation! Now there’s an archaic word. In progressive parlance salvation refers to “wholeness in God.” How awesome is it to regard our minds as the engine of a faith that is all about the wholeness of God?!  Word!

This is the difference between a flexible, evolving faith and a rigid, static faith, a faith.

And just as with Jesus’ example, Paul wraps everything in prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times, he writes.  To live consciously- in continual prayer—do you agree that would be a very good way to live and be in the world?

My prayer it that we each fall in love anew with our faith, engaging those things that bring us new life.

And finally, using Paul’s own words.

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Because I am just that.  I am chained to the truth of Christ, convinced, convicted, and renewed not by fairytales but by the Spirit of what I know and believe.

Pray that I may declare it boldly.  Amen.

You Are What You Eat

(A sermon on John 6: 51-58)

So, we’ve been having this conversation of late, posing the question– “What’s in your faith closet?”  What do you believe? What is at the heart of your faith? And with that, what do you find hard to swallow? What for you is theological junk food versus super food?

I sincerely hope you are experiencing a deepening of Taste and See.002faith as you let go of some things, and fall in love anew with others. Sometimes we need a fresh review. Just as when we inventory any closet, making decisions about what we keep, toss or rediscover takes laying it out where we can look at it.  So fasten your seatbelts. We’re going deep.

To help with this conversation I asked some friends what things they can no longer swallow. I also asked what is feeding their faith.

I knew I’d hear some interesting things but in the end I heard some doozies.

(Responses are put into a bowl for people to pick from and read out loud)

  1. Atonement theology; that life is fair; that suffering is good for you and that it makes you stronger.
  1. When I was a tyke, I was told that God kept a big tally sheet and made a mark on it every time I was “bad.” Then, on judgment day, He would review those marks and decide whether I got to go into heaven.
  1. Our pastor told us when we were in high school that races should not mix. And also, Catholics and Lutherans should not date each other.
  1. That only 144,000 people are going to heaven. The rest are cast out.
  1. That the earth is only 5000 years old and was created in 7 literal days.
  1. That God hated gay people or hates anyone for that matter.
  1. That unbaptized babies wouldn’t go to heaven.
  2. That the Native Americans are “lost Jews” that came over to North America on submarines before the time of Christ.

That list is only the beginning in what people would class as empty spiritual calories.  It’s a good lead in to today’s gospel, a discourse I would class theological super food.

Jesus’ words in John 6 are different than in other verses where he also describes himself using a bread metaphor.  But beginning in the 51st verse “Bread of life” has become “LIVING bread that came down from heaven.”  This passage seems to move from descriptive metaphor, to asking us to eat this bread.

He says, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The passage has an uncomfortable even cannibalistic tone as he adds, “for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.”  Is this a concentrated reference to the Eucharist, or is Jesus talking about something more?

But first, I don’t want to ignore an important distinction here. Catholics use this as a proof text for the belief that the bread and the wine literally become the body and the blood of Christ. They adopted transubstantiation as official doctrine at the Council of Trent in the year 1545.

Luther could not agree saying, “If you can explain how Christ is both fully God and man I will explain how the bread and wine are his body and blood.” This is an example of taking the bible seriously but not literally and why we say that Jesus is present, in, with and under the elements.

There are scholars don’t see this text as being about the Eucharist, but rather as Jesus going deeper and talking about the reality of who he is—the human incarnation of God in the flesh. You and I know how this story ends–that Jesus will give his Godly flesh-his substance- for the sake of the world. He knew that people (not God) would seek his death.

That makes Jesus’ invitation perhaps the greatest we will ever receive.

Jesus is asking us to chew on this truth, the truth of who and whose he is. He’s inviting us to consume his very substance, in fact take his substance into our substance? His body into our body.  What would our life look like if we lived on a diet of Godly substance?

To fully receive him, we get to sort through what that means.  Talk about de-cluttering your faith!

Jesus is not just asking us to believe. He’s asking us to take a filling bite of everything he stands for, all that he is and all that he hopes for the world! Put this mystery back into your faith closet and you move from a way of seeing… to a way of being–a way of living!

That’s big.

Through Jesus’ earthly ministry, God becomes directly involved in humanity’s suffering and joy. God in Christ takes shape in each of us through our baptisms, working intimately in, with, and through us-making you and I the mystical body of Christ. [deep breath]

So would you like to know what people said is at the heart of their faith, what’s feeding them?

They believe in love, in compassion and in community. They believe in sharing the gifts they’ve been given.  They believe in kindness and that God and us are never separate.

And finally, here are the beautiful words of my friend Marie.

“My faith is in Jesus, who came among us as human and by the very act of incarnation redeemed humanity, not by blood sacrifice.

My faith is in God whose love is impossibly lavish.

My faith is in the Holy Spirit who dwells in and among us, breathing God’s breath into us.”

And so brothers and sisters in Christ. If we are what we eat, let us chew on that, in Jesus’ holy name.


Why Jesus Matters (Spoiler alert…He does)

If you were here last week or have read the newsletter, then you know I’m offering a sermon series this month titled “What is in Your Faith Closet?”  Are there things you believe that are cluttering up your faith or are there things you need to take out, re-examine and be reminded of why you “bought” them in the first place.

All month I’ve been cleaning out our basement, why Jesus matterstossing things out, and separating other things for our upcoming Salem garage sale.  Not just once but several times I’ve re-discovered things I forgot I had, things I forgot I loved.  THAT is my greatest hope for this sermon series, that you will rediscover things about your faith that you can become newly delighted by–along with other things you’ll feel free to discard if  they no longer give life to your faith.

The truth is I am regularly asked why I still believe in Jesus, as if the things I no longer believe about Jesus should negate the value what I do believe.  There is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

So what holds the center in what you do believe?  Virgin birth? Resurrection? Substitutionary atonement? The trinity?  Original sin? Whatever you believe is intensely personal. There is grace enough to believe whatever it is that amplifies your faith. However, faith should never be static. It should grow, evolve and deepen.

Frinstance (that is a word, right) progressive biblical scholars do not conclude that God ordered the crucifixion of Jesus as a trade (a substitution) for humanity’s original sin. After all, we are children of a good and benevolent God and are therefore intrinsically good which… has given way to a new understanding of original “blessing” and not original sin.   So… Jesus I’m keeping and substitutionary atonement I’m discarding.

But here’s the thing.  God knew the fate that awaited Jesus.  Jesus was indeed sacrificed but not by God, by humanity.  Crucifixion was the punishment for anyone deemed a political subversive.

The Roman authorities thought him a political threat because they didn’t get it, and at the same time his Jewish brothers thought him a threat to their religion. As we can see in today’s gospel (John 6:51-58) they thought they knew all there was to know about this man Jesus and about their faith.

ELCA Bishop Craig Satterly of the lower Michigan synod writes, “That is what’s happening to the crowd with Jesus; they knew too much for Jesus’ words to ring true. Jesus said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:41).  But the insiders, the ones who knew the history – thought they knew how God does things and how things should be done. They also knew Jesus’ origins. “Who does he think he is?” They mutter, “Claiming to have come down from heaven? We know his folks. We know he came from Nazareth, not from heaven!” (verse 42) The Judeans also know their scripture. “The bread from heaven was the manna fed to our ancestors back in the time of Moses.” And the Judeans in the story knew the law. “The Lord God said, ‘I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods.’” End quote.

In other words, Jesus, you are not the one we’re waiting for. We’ve pushed the save button on what we know and our minds and hearts are closed.

If I learned anything in graduate school it’s that the more I know the more I know how much I don’t know!   The hallmark of intellectual curiosity is the humility to know that you don’t know, leaving you open to learning!

What the early skeptics didn’t understand is that knowledge alone is flat. If you cannot get out of your head long enough to have a heart experience with Jesus, your faith is dead on arrival.

So here’s a question. Should discarding the notion that God killed Jesus ruin your faith?  I sincerely hope not. I hope it leads you to a deeper faith.  Because your faith and what you do with your faith matters.

And why does Jesus matter?  Jesus matters because of what he reveals about God.  As the human incarnation of God, Jesus not only came to walk among us in relationship, Jesus came to model for us what it looks like to be in relationship with God and God in relationship with us.

What’s more, Jesus was in such perfect harmony with God that every act of his life was holy- every act of his life was preceded by reflection and prayer.  He approached everything knowing who and whose he was.  Jesus matters because he shows us what it looks like to live in synchronicity with God.

Jesus’s very life shows us what should matter.

The way he lived his life spoke hope to everyone he encountered. People were healed in his presence, transformed by his witness.   To be transformed by Jesus was and is to turn your life around, turning anew towards God’s greatest imagination for our individual and collective destinies.

That’s why Jesus matters.  Jesus is the pointer, and we are the followers.  It’s how children of the heavenly father learn. We learn by imitating and by following, and when we follow, when we pay attention to how Jesus lived, what Jesus did, and what mattered to Jesus, we are free to live better and to make a difference in this world that God loves.

And that matters. Amen.


The Pentecost Paradigm

As the title suggests, I’d like to shift the paradigm of how we receive the gift of Pentecost in our lives.  Yes, Pentecost signals the arrival of the Holy Spirit to the early church and yes, because of that, we’ve also called it the birthday of the church.   I would like to wonder aloud whether the “how” and the “why” of Pentecost is as important as the “what.”

The arrival of the Holy Spirit was a game changer but what really happened in that upper room?  Was it any different from the upper room we sit in right now?  Jesus had commanded them to wait for the “power from on high”.  In all, 120 people were waiting without being certain of exactly what they were waiting for.

But wait, there’s more. Jesus was also waiting–waiting for his people to step up and act, even now that they thought they were leaderless.  They were all waiting.

Most of us, if honest, hate to wait—for anything.waiting We’re the first generation who can become annoyed because the microwave oven is taking too long.  We want what we want when we want it.

Right here in this room, we too are waiting. We’ve waited for babies to be born, for an adult child to move back, wait for houses to sell, waited for the school year to conclude. You’ve waited on medical tests, test results and surgery schedules.  Waiting is anxiety producing. And not having all the answers instantly makes us crazy.

The faithful waiting on that first Pentecost was an enormous part of the Spirit’s entry, because as Bishop Yvette Flunder once said…” had the Spirit fallen on them as soon as they arrived, a greater process would have been thwarted, short circuited as it were.”  They needed to experience the waiting WHILE they waited as much as they needed what they were waiting for…

So they did.  Each one in his or her own corner of the room, waiting for power on high, waiting to reconcile themselves to each other and to God. Waiting until they had run out of their own “stuff” enough to trust God and release the outcome.      And that is so hard.

For the 120 in our story, they waited for ten long days, holding space with both the privileged and the poor, crammed into a room without air conditioning and deodorant. The power of that waiting time was that they stuck it out until they could “take off their religion and their differences and become relational.”

Salem is also in a time of waiting on the Spirit as we discern how God is calling us forward.   We have a vision team that meets twice a month.  What if instead we all sat in THIS room for ten days, no church, no liturgy? What corner would you go to? What issues might emerge? How long would it take before we cleared the space for the entrance of God’s power from on high, preparing us finally to go forward into God’s planned future?

There is beauty in their willingness to wait with each other, living into the questions, not knowing what exactly they were waiting for.  So when they moved out of their corners self-interest, the Spirit was freed to fill in the empty spaces like no back-draft they had ever experienced!

In that rush of wind the Spirit touched each of them and in that moment they began to communicate and understand one other as never before.  On that first Pentecost, they trusted God enough to wait, they trusted the process of not giving up until something happened, and they leaned into that process until they were changed as much by the process as they were the outcome.   Now that is good stuff!

Each of them AND each of us holds a unique vision and represents a unique reflection of God in the world, which allows the Holy Spirit to function as a universal translator, a still small voice with the ability to bring us together as we find ways to live in community, doing justice together, all while making us a sanctuary for the healing of those who come to us broken.

God had a plan then and God has a plan now.  Word up. God’s got this.

To live as Pentecost people means opening ourselves up to the spirit, knowing that no matter what is before us, individually or together, the Spirit of the living God can and will fall fresh on every need.


On the Verge?

The book of Acts can read like Paul’s travel log. He logs a lot of miles, surely earning platinum status as a frequent flyer, were he in the air and not on foot.  The question this should bring forward for you and I is this. How are these journey’s scripture to us? What does it mean to read stories about where God sends Paul? [i]   Surely, God is carrying Paul throughout these adventures and Paul is paying attention.  Are we?

The “Acts” of the Apostles are first God’s acts.  In them we hear about remarkable people who are never remarked about again. Niger, Lucius and Manaen.  It gives us a sense of the people who the Spirit had gathered. And even as God commissions Paul and Barnabas to the work they’re called to do, the community lays hands on them (not just as ritual) but as a way of participating in what God is up to.

And then the story shifts. When Paul SEES the man who “could not use his feet and had never walked” he sees that the man has the faith to be healed.  God is already at work in him and that is what Paul responds to when he says “Stand upright on your feet.”  The man doesn’t stop to consider it. He isn’t  freaked out by it.  He simply and immediately  springs up and begins to walk!  Is it possible that the man who could not walk, could not walk because he had never USED his feet. It seems he was “on the verge” perhaps sentencing himself to sitting UNTIL a brother in Christ sees him fully and calls him upright. 

The way this is written strikes my imagination. Does it yours? Have you ever been on the verge of something? You were ready but for whatever reason hadn’t yet acted until someone called you upright. Are you on the verge now?

That’s how I ended up in the seminary. I’d always said that when I grow up I wanted to be a minister and yet I hadn’t enrolled. Things kept getting in the way. Mostly I kept getting in the way until a friend said, “You know Robyn, you’re getting older. You either need to stop telling us you’re going to seminary or you need to go.”  I sprang up and applied and here we are!

Someone else who has been “on the verge” Sawyer-Jennerhis entire life is Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner. In an interview with Diane Sawyer that aired on Friday,  Bruce, tells the world, that he has always understood himself to be female, so far living his 65 years on the verge of emerging. Until–finally the realization sets in that he cannot spend another moment not becoming who God has already created her to be.

As I watched I wanted to cheer. It made me think of author Anais Nin when she writes: “And the day came when the … the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Our Christian lives are about blossoming and becoming. Christ lives in us and through us and calls us upright AND out to love and serve one another. Martin Luther understood the body of Christ to be on the verge when he wrote, “This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way.”

What are you on the verge of? Greatness?  A new understanding of who God has made you to be?  Perhaps, better health or renewed sobriety?  Or a better relationship with a friend or loved one? Maybe there’s a relationship you need to release?  Truth is sometimes we get side tracked and sometimes we are in need of a full out healing.

The man from Lystra needed both.  And did you see what happened after he sprang up and walked?  The witnesses began shouting in a language Paul and Barnabas didn’t understand.  They call them Zeus and Hermes because they thought THEY were Gods.  They wanted to offer sacrifice to them as they did to the idols.  But the Holy Spirit was still on the scene when Paul yells, “Friends why are you acting like this. We’re people just like you and we bring you good news.”

Just what is that good news?  That they don’t have to worship clay statues of fake Gods.  There’s a living God who knows the best you and who loves you–a God of extravagant love and ready justice. Turn to THAT one true God.

The living God is present in this holy place and present in each of you. God is working in you and in your lives.  We have stood up and as a missional congregation we’ve met our neighbors where God was already moving.  And we will continue to become, as individuals and as a congregation, whatever it is that God imagines for our lives–loved, restored, called and made new. Amen.

[i]Paraphrased/inspired by Eric Baretto, Luther Seminary and Sermon Brainwave