Sunday, July 26, 2020

God's Punctuation

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, 
who are called according to his purpose. - Romans 8:28 

Never place a period where God places a comma. - Gracie Allen 


Some of you may be familiar with the comedy duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were active together in show business in the middle of the 20th century. George played the straight man to Gracie's comic timing. They were also married and had children. They were deeply in love. When Gracie was dying and George was deeply grieved, she wrote him a final love letter. One sentence that George shared from this letter was this, "George, never place a period where God places a comma." 

This was Gracie's way of reminding George that his life wasn't ending. There was a pause, but there would be more the sentence God was writing as the life of George Burns. 

That sentence, which may have been a proverb before Gracie wrote it, has taken on a life of its own. The United Church of Christ adopted the line as part of its "God is still speaking" campaign in 2004. Others have worked it into speeches to underscore their points about all kinds of struggles- political, social, economic, physical. 

Never place a period where God places a comma. 

When I think about that phrase, I think beyond the idea that we sometimes misunderstand God's word- both the written scripture and the living Word of Jesus. The phrase itself, "Never place a period where God places a comma", reminds me that we are not called to be God's editors. An editor goes through a writer's work and checks for errors, lack of continuity, and places that need elaboration. 

We often cast ourselves in the role of God's editor, deciding that we are sure we know for sure what was meant in the Bible, the intentions of the saints, and even why God chose to act in certain ways. We edit God's word by lifting our favorite parts and letting what we don't like to fall away. We modify God's intentions by aligning them with our preferences and understandings, instead of wrestling with how we may be called to act differently for the sake of Christ in the world. 
 
Today's readings remind us of the dangers of editing God, of deciding we know how God means to punctuate God's words and work in the world. God is pleased when Solomon asks for wisdom and grants it to him. Later Solomon acts unwisely. He takes many wives, some for affection and attractiveness and some because it is politically expedient to do so. This entangles him in many relationships that damage his loyalty to God. He conscripts his fellow Israelites, and others, for the building of the temple and his palace. He acts so unwisely that you and I might decide to punctuate his story differently, but God doesn't. God puts a comma in Solomon's story. Even when Solomon's choices are ruinous, he is part of the line to whom God intends to keep a covenant with Abraham. And Solomon is part of the line through whom God will keep a covenant with the world. We tell the truth about Solomon, but we learn, we gain wisdom when we accept that God will use whom God chooses. God's work through a leader does not necessarily make that leader good, but God is still speaking and we do put a period when God places a comma. 

Any decent editor might look at Matthew's account of the good news of Jesus and recommend some tightening up of the text. Not just punctuation changes, but maybe leaving a few of these confusing parables on the cutting room floor. In my mind, I can even see Matthew, writing with the help of the Holy Spirit, recalling Jesus' stories, and wondering how many to include. "Do we need all of these?" he wonders, looking at how much papyrus he has left and considering his cramping hand. 

The parables, in their strangeness and curious composition, are reminders that we are not God's editors. These brief glimpses into the shape of the kingdom of God reminded Matthew, his audience, and us that God's ways are not our ways. God is wild like yeast, causing change even in our measured circumstances. The kingdom of God stirs so much enthusiasm that one who comes to it unexpectedly is willing to sacrifice everything to keep it. Our God, the God to whom we belong, draws all people in, in the net of Divine Love, and it is God who does the sorting at a time that we do not know. These stories are fantastic and they push our imaginations. We who especially want things to be logical and reasonable can be frustrated by the parables. It is tempting to rework them, to smooth them out, make them clearer through allegory (God is this, we are this, we should do x), but that is editing. We are not called and we are not equipped to edit God. 

Never place a period where God places a comma. 

When the apostle Paul dictated his letters, which he likely did, everyone probably longed for a comma. Certainly his amanuensis, the person who wrote for him, likely did and we do, too. His long sentences can be confusing and years of translation mean we feel far from Paul's context and his way of speaking. We often edit Paul so that we can understand him, but our editing of his work means that we lose some of what he intended to say and what God has said through him to the church then and now. 

When Paul says, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, 
who are called according to his purpose"- he does not mean that only good things will happen to faithful people. He doesn't even mean that we will understand the why and the how of difficult things that happen to us. That sentence is part of that whole section of Romans. A faithful person will likely reach a place where they don't know how to pray, possibly because they are so overwhelmed or grieved or frustrated. The Holy Spirit will help them pray, creating effective intercessions out of even their deepest sighs. 

A person who is struggling to pray is not in a position to understand how God is working amid difficult and confusing times. (Let me say here that if none of you can identify with that statement, I will own it for myself,) A person who is relying on the Spirit's help to pray needs to be able to trust that God is still at work, still speaking, still healing, still bringing resurrection power into a world that is obsessed with death. 

If we say to that person, that person who is struggling, "God won't give you more than you can handle" or "Everything happens for a reason", we are editing God. We are putting a period in the sentence, implying that feeling overwhelmed or frustrated or grieved is a sign of weak faith. God has a comma in that sentence. Even Paul's translators put commas in there, 

The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. -Romans 8:26-27

The Spirit intercedes, meaning God knows faithful people will come to a place where they don't know how to go on, when they aren't even sure how to pray. We cannot edit that by implying that people who are struggling can buck up if they want to. Sometimes things are hard and the Holy Spirit is what keeps us going. When we are seeking to be in alignment with the Spirit, we must be still, listen, and wait until we can speak what we know is true and what is not our edition of God's word. 

Through Paul, God reminds people in that type of situation that nothing is stronger than God. Nothing can separate God's people from God's love. Not only does God have no eternal counterparts,  but even entities that will die away cannot compete with God for loving us, providing for us, saving us, all through Jesus Christ. I'm tempted to edit here by throwing in some exclamation points. 

For I am convinced! That neither death! Nor life! Nor angels! Nor rulers! Nor things present! Nor things to come! Nor powers! Nor height! Nor depth! Nor anything else in all creation! Will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! - Romans 8:38-39

But that's also my editing. 

The main thing I want you to understand is this: God is still speaking. Even through words that have been written for centuries, those words are alive with the spirit and bring freedom to us through Christ. We are not the editors of those words. We are not the editors of God's will. We cannot and must not place periods where God places commas. 

During this pandemic, in the middle of our present political tensions, in the center of our community tensions over all kinds of things, speaking with certainty gives us a sense of control. That control is a false idol, encouraging us to lean on our understanding, which is most definitely sinking sand. 

God is still speaking to us. God is working, actively, powerfully, lovingly, in the world right now. We may not fully understand how or even what we are to do, but we can pray, with the Spirit, for understanding and peace. And we can sit with each other, in that same understanding and peace, supporting one another and reminding each other that we are not God's editors. 

Over the years, people have talked about how the Burns and Allen show ended with George saying, "Say goodnight, Gracie" and her reply, "Goodnight, Gracie." Recordings of the show demonstrate they didn't actually say that, but that sign off has taken on a life of its own. Keep that in mind now, so you can help me end this sermon. 

We are not God's editors. God is still speaking. Do not place a period where God places a comma. 

Say amen, congregation. 

Readings 



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Sunday, July 19, 2020

Undivided Heart

Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth;
 give me an undivided heart to revere your name
. - Psalm 86:11



What does it mean to have an undivided heart? Specifically, the psalmist requests an undivided heart for the purposes of revering, holding in awe and respect, God's name. A heart that is focused on keeping God's name holy is truly an undivided heart. 

 

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther writes, "Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God... Idolatry does not consist merely of erecting an image and praying to it, but it is primarily a matter of the heart, which fixes its gaze upon other things and seeks help and consolation from creatures, saints, or devils. It neither cares for God nor expects good things from him sufficiently to trust that he wants to help, nor does it believe that whatever good it encounters comes from God." (Book of Concord, 386f) 

 

Our hearts are divided if we believe that God takes care of the next life, but not this one. Our hearts are divided if we say we are God's people, but we speak ill of others or feign ignorance about the oppression and pain of the world. Our hearts are divided when we worship God with our words, but our daily actions are focused on success, status, and stuff. Our hearts are divided when we take all the credit for what we have and what we do and do not offer praise and gratitude to the One who created everything and is at ceaseless work in the world. 

 

When we ask God, through this psalm and our prayers, for an undivided heart, we must accept the changes that will bring. As our heart finds a permanent anchor in God's presence and power, there will be a shift in our priorities. We will find ourselves aligned with God's will and God's way. When we try to go our own way, we will experience the pain of division once more. 

 

How can we know what is God's will? We look to Jesus. In today's parable, the gospel writer expects those hearing the parable to align themselves with the disciples and, therefore, also with the workers in the master's household. That means us. We do not concern ourselves with determining who is going to hell and who isn't. We know a weed when we see it, but our work is to tend to the wheat. Our task, the task of hearts aligned with God, is to take care of the soil, the wheat itself, and the surrounding field so that God's hope, God's love, God's mercy, God's justice matures and increases its yield. The harvest and the destruction of the weeds are God's own work of God's own creation, while we are hired hands for that work in the same creation. 

 

I don't like to speak for this long in metaphors. I understand the desire to have a parable simplified and the desire to have the pastor clarify, once and for all, weeds do this, wheat does this. Be wheat. End of sermon. 

 

That's not how parables work. Additionally, if I do that, then you know that my heart is divided. It means I care more about you and your comfort than I do about God's expectations of me and the holy discomfort the Word stirs for all of us. When preachers make things too easy and too comfortable too often, we are making an idol of you liking us and our preaching. When I'm unfolding pieces, but leaving you to complete some of the puzzle, we are both respecting that God's word is a little bit mysterious, a little bit disquieting, and something from which we wrestle a blessing, like Jacob. 

 

In that light, back to the undivided heart. But, pastor, I can hear someone saying: what about my family, what about my job, what about my friends, what about things I have to do for the community? 

 

Friends, God has given you all those things. God’s love has been poured out for all, from the beginning of creation, through the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through to the Spirit’s presence today. If you find a division between how your care for your family or how you act in community roles and what you believe God wants of you, then you are truly experiencing a divided heart. The forces that oppose God often try to mask things like co-dependency, suffering, and complications as love by saying that life is hard, but God is with us. Life can be difficult and God is with us, but suffering and pain are not inevitable. Our attempts to control others, to relieve them of the burdens of their bad choices, to make people like us, to demand respect- all energies that go to this kind of thing and related situations are part of having a divided heart. 

 

When we ask God for an undivided heart, a unified hope, a clarified awareness and trust in God's power, the other realities of our life will fall in line. That doesn't mean ranching will suddenly become easier or our family member with addiction will suddenly be well. What our undivided heart will do is help us to live peaceably in the midst of life's complications. 

 

Once upon a time, I was in Fairbanks, Alaska for a pastor's conference. It was early November, but I'd ridden up with a friend. One of my friends flew to Fairbanks and rented a car, but it did not have winter tires. She missed the turn to the retreat center and found herself down a hill that she didn't have the tread or engine power to get back up to the main road. She called our group for help and three of us went out in a car to get her. Since she was down the hill, we couldn't see her headlights and she wasn't exactly sure where she was. As we drove back and forth, one of the other pastors got agitated. "What if we can't find her?" she said. "Will she have to be out here all night?" 

 

"We will find her," assured the other person in our search party. 

 

We got out on the side of the road and called for her, while our lost friend was on the phone. She told us she could hear our voices, but couldn't see any street signs where she was. We told her to stay put and that we would walk down to her. 

 

Again, the other woman in the search party was distressed, "What if we can't get her car out of there?" 

 

I hadn't said too much at this point, because I had fairly recently joined a 12-step group. My new work through the group had made me very aware of my own anxiety and my desire to try to solve problems quickly, in effort to get people to like me and to be considered proficient and useful. So, in our search for our friend, I had called her, but mostly stayed quiet because I was paying attention to details and to my own reactions. 



When the leader of our rescue party said again, "What if we can't find her?" I finally looked at her and said, "We can do anything for 12 hours that would appall us if we had to keep it up for a lifetime." 

 

The other woman gave me the most horrified look and said, "A lifetime? What are you talking about?" 



She had to think I was high as a kite and who could blame her? My words weren't soothing. To her, they didn't seem to take the problem seriously at all. For me, they were very serious. We would figure out a solution, eventually, but our anxiety wouldn't control the situation, it was only controlling us. I did have the good sense not to say that or to say the dreaded and unhelpful "calm down". 

 

We rescued our friend. As we did so, I walked around the community we were in and then figured out how to drive the car out and back to the retreat center. I was the last one to attempt to drive the car out because each of the others attempted to get it up the hill. While they tried, I checked out our surroundings and discerned what I thought might be a back way, which turned out to be correct. 

 

I always hesitate to use an example like this because I know you often remember the story and not the point I am hoping you will take away. The point I want to make here isn't that you should stay calm in a crisis or that God will always provide a way or even that 12-step programs are useful. Those are good points for another day. 

 

My point is this: that is a time in my life that I can point to having an undivided heart. I knew, intellectually and spiritually, that God's desire for me was for health, well-being, and wholeness. I knew that some of the pain in my life was of my own doing and some was from others because I had let them take up space that wasn't theirs to take. This unity in my heart, my hope for healing, my experience of God's nearness helped me to know that a stressful experience wasn't going to last forever. By focusing on the only forever I knew, God and God's love, I didn't give the stress of the situation any more power than it needed to try to solve the problem. 

 

Not all situations are this easy. Not all people are going to be working with us on a team. Not everyone will respond kindly when we explain that we are trying to consider God's will for ourselves, our family, our jobs, our role as citizens, and our faithful actions. An undivided heart, though, will guide us in perceiving God's nearness. It will prevent us from making idols of our heritage, our denomination, our political affiliation, what we see on social media, what we read in the paper, what our friend groups expect of us, and so on. An undivided heart, a heart that desires to be aligned with God's will and way, finds peace in unusual places and hope in unusual times because God's love surrounds and carries it. 

 

Let us ask God for undivided hearts, hearts that are prepared as good soil to be nourished by God's word and that are strengthened to be workers for Christ’s sake in the world. Let us ask God for undivided hearts that will work with one another and with unexpected allies to end oppression, to bring justice, and to be part of establishing God's true peace. Let us ask God for undivided hearts that worship and trust in God alone, more than our own understanding or habits. 

 

And if we are not ready yet for undivided hearts, then let us ask God for the courage to desire them. 

 

Amen. 

 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

I Am Not Resigned

I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned. 
- Dirge Without Music, Edna St. Vincent Millay* 

It is difficult to communicate what it means to have a teachable spirit. How do I encourage people to live in a way that shows curiosity and a willingness to learn about others and their experiences? It is possible to learn to be different in the world while being gentle with yourself and without shaming the you of the past or expecting perfection of the you of the future. Trying to accomplish this is so hard as to feel impossible. 

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned

The political and social systems of the United States have only been united in one thing for generations. Keeping class dissension alive by exacerbating differences between people of different races and cultural backgrounds means that those who are at the highest reaches of wealth will rarely have their windows rattled (metaphorically). In particular, if people can be convinced that upper reaches of wealth is the goal and your neighbor who is different doesn't want you to reach that goal- very little will have to change because the puck will have been taken out of play and the game is just the fight. 

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned

The pandemic of COVID-19 has revealed what has always been true. A healthy economy depends on the workers who are paid the least and those who keep healthcare available and healthcare facilities open. If a country is not prepared to recognize this reality and shift priorities to support this truth, things will continue to be chaotic and confusing. Science learns and adapts and a society that wishes to be known for accepting reason and accountability will also value learning and adaptation. So far, that is only true for some communities and countries in the world. 

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned

The name of God and the will of God is being tossed around lightly without much care for what has previously been stated as divine priority. God values community that prioritizes health, sharing, and inclusion of all in the community (1 Corinthians). God values witness to the stranger over preaching to the choir (Jonah). God's house is meant to be a house of prayer (Isaiah, Matthew). God dislikes people who say that things are okay or peaceful when they really are not (Jeremiah). People of the church have a tendency to speak to their own wills, but claim their words come from God. 

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned

I am very tired. I know the present situation will likely continue for sometime. We have to learn how to do things differently. We have to want to learn how to do things differently. People aren't great at that. 

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned



*A. The poem itself is about not simply accepting that people will be forgotten after death as inevitable. 

*B. I was inspired for this post by the Rev. Liz Crumlish's post here

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Fire Assurance

What's the upshot of this post: Holy baptism is not fire insurance; holy baptism is fire assurance. 


When last I heard Pastor Angela Shannon preach in person (2019), she quoted Garth Brooks. She spoke of how we are all called to difficult work and how the world makes some people's work more difficult. That extra difficulty, by the way, is not an accident. It is by design. 


Pastor Shannon then spoke of Brooks and the song, "Standing Outside the Fire". She quoted, "Life is not tried, it is merely survived if you're standing outside the fire." She spoke to our group, acknowledging that many there likely needed a rest from their life in the fire. She encouraged the taking of that rest. Then she reminded us that we will have to go back to the fire, not stand outside it, if we want to say we are living. 


Like all sermons, there is a space between the words of the pastor and the hearer. This is how I heard Pastor Shannon's words and how I have carried them, in and out of the fire, in my heart since that evening. 


Which brings me to where I find myself, a year and a half years later, standing inside a fire, which has been burning for generations. 


My life in the Christian church has included experience with many denominations. A common thread of that experience is that most denominations treated baptism like fire insurance. We present baptism as a "get-out-of-hell-free" card. We fail to speak of this holy encounter with God's promises with awe. We shortchange the truth that baptism puts our human priorities to death and aligns us with God's priorities. 


We do not allow that the baptized life is a life of standing inside the fire. 


Alignment with God's priorities is not complicated, but it is challenging. It means 
- looking for where Jesus is, 
- listening for where Jesus is calling you, 
- accepting how Jesus is disrupting your status quo, 
- being friended by people whom Jesus calls friend. 

The baptized life is a life of standing inside the fire. In this revelation, holy baptism is not fire insurance. Holy baptism is fire assurance.


When we make baptismal promises, we understand that the living of a baptized life is for: 

so that [you] may learn to trust God,
proclaim Christ through word and deed,
care for others and the world God made,
and work for justice and peace. (Holy Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship


That's not what baptism is for, but it is how baptized people live. They live in the fire of trusting God, proclaiming Christ, caring for others and the world, and working for justice and peace. 


To attempt to limit God's work in baptism to mere salvation from eternal damnation is a work of spiritual bypassing. It means to try to skip by God's true intention of healing the world through the work of God's own people- us. When we decide to stand outside the fire of God's work for justice and peace because it's too hot or feels irrelevant to us- we commit other people to burn. 


If this seems like an exaggeration to you, then I commend Luke 16:19-31 to you. If you cannot hear my words, I believe you will struggle even if someone comes to you from the dead. 


Last night a friend asked me, "Why were we asked to love boldly and do justice?" 


My reply, "Because that's what baptized people do." 


You may need to take a break. You may need to regroup. You may need to admit to someone that it has taken you longer than you care to admit to reach a new understanding. You may need to say that you are struggling to understand. I will be the person to hear that for you. I can hear you with compassion. I will walk with you. 


But I will not let this go. 


I am not content to merely survive with fire insurance. 


I want to live. And living a baptized life means fire assurance- hard work, work of tearing down and of building up, work that brings deaths and resurrections, work that is alongside Jesus Christ.


As Garth Brooks says, 

There's this love that is burning  
Deep in my soul 
Constantly yearning to get out of control 
Wanting to fly higher and higher 
I can't abide standing outside the fire.



Thursday, May 21, 2020

I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

I live in Montana, a state with a very low number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases. Even more specifically, my county has not as yet had any cases. This passover is both a blessing and a curse because it divides the community, with some of our citizens feeling as though we have been spared because we have been careful and others suspecting that our precautions were "sound and fury, signifying nothing". (Macbeth)

Now we have the ever-present questions about what we can do, what we should do, and from what should we abstain. In the conversations around masks, distance, and open v. close, the word "fear" gets bandied about. It is murmured that people who are cautious are "fearful" or being led by fear, as opposed to faithfulness or freedom.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I can speak for myself. As a mother, as a wife, as a sister, as a friend, as a pastor, as a neighbor, as a daughter, as a citizen, I am not afraid. I am heartbroken.

My heart broke when I posted a sign in March, closing the church to the public and to in-person worship. Praying for those who depended on the building for 12-step help, a source of community, and actual sanctuary, I ached and I grieve.

Another fissure came through weeks of preaching without seeing faces, feeling the energy in the room, or hearing singing other than my own. Learning that singing may be off the table for awhile brought tears and sorrow too deep even for sighs. Remembering our harmonies between the Yellowstone and the Boulder, I hung up my harp. I ached and I grieve.

The experience of Holy Communion brings heart wholeness through Christ's presence in the elements and in the community as we eat, drink, and breathe together. In our present fast from the physical sacrament, the pieces of my heart vibrate with longing. Making the decision for the fast was right for our community, but I ached and I grieve.

This past week, I denied a person a hug because I had permitted a person outside my family to hug me the day before. In embracing one another, I also embraced a waiting period to be sure I neither caught nor transmitted anything but love and compassion. To be physically present to one meant denying another. For the same reason, I am continuing to only eat takeout from local restaurant and not to sit inside. In the waiting, I ached and I grieve.

A friend of mine, another pastor, talked with her community about the fact that continuing to worship virtually permitted the pastors of the church to be present- with masks and other precautions- to the sick and dying of the church. When a pastor hasn't been exposed to 50, 60, 90, 150 people on a Sunday, he can more easily go to a bedside or home because it is a more calculated risk for himself and the person he is visiting. This isn't the case in all places right now, but it is for this church and the pastors in question. In choosing the needs of the few for the sake of spiritual care, I am hoping not to drive away the many. For the whole church, I ached and I grieve.

I have offered commendation of the dying over the phone. Heartbreak. I have watched divisions and harsh words in online spaces and in-person conversations. Heartbreak. I have stood on steps and talked across the porch to people who are bored, lonely, and worried. Heartbreak. I have wept over whether I am currently an effective pastor to the 13 people with no internet connection at all. Heartbreak. I have seen an increase in our church's attendance online and wondered how we may be true community to those who are experiencing church in a helpful way for the first time. Heartache.

Recommendations about how to space people in pews, skipping coffee hour, and how to encourage masks in church are difficult to decipher and painful to consider.

Worry about people whose marriages were struggling, children and teens who need structure for their mental well-being, seniors who live alone and receive little information or communication- these things fill my mind.

Navigating tense political, emotional, and social conversations is a tightrope that I balance across, Bible in hand, not because I want to be liked, but because I want the relationship to remain open for the sake of Christ in both of us.

This is the truth, but not all of it. All of it would be too much to write and too much to read.

One final truth, though, I am not afraid of re-opening because of COVID-19 or because I am "cowed" by rules and regulations.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if someone or several someones became sick at church.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take it if we resume in-person worship, which means I am unable to visit the most vulnerable, even on their porch.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot take resuming worship only to refrain from Holy Communion, sharing the peace, corporate speaking, and group singing.

I am afraid my heart and my spirit cannot taken it if I have to do more funerals, by interment only, and mourn apart from the consolation of being physically together.

So, yes, I am afraid. I am afraid not of the virus, but of more unending, bone-deep wearying heartbreak.

Some of these things will not be avoidable. They will likely come because this will be a long journey. But you can carry the baton for your pastor (and your neighbor) a little way if you understand and respect that they are not afraid. They are heartbroken.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Into Our Blind Spot

Fourth Sunday in Easter
John 10:1-10

It is a dangerous thing to preach about sheep to people who know more about sheep that you do. I’m not quite that dumb. I have nothing to say about ranching, sheering, lambing, or butchering. I won’t offer comment on fodder, spacing, or breeds. I do have a comment on sheep physiology, though. Even that is risky, but I did a lot of research (science reading, not theological) and I did attempt to talk to a couple people about my questions. 

Sheep have excellent vision- in their peripherals. Due to having eyes on the side of their heads, they can see things sneaking up on them from the right, left, and behind. This is called monocular vision, which means each eye has its own field of view and the eyes do not share a field of view. Binocular vision, what humans have, is when both eyes receive the same information at the same time- in the best of circumstances. 

Due to monocular vision, sheep can see to their sides and when they lower their heads to graze, they can see very well around them. However, monocular vision does sacrifice depth perception. This means sheep can have a small blind spot right in front of them, when their heads are raised. You may observe this if you see a sheep run into the fence instead of going through the empty gate. 

The author of Psalm 23 spent enough time with sheep to be able to perceive some of these realities of sheep physiology. Guiding sheep to green pastures not only meant taking sheep to fresh graze, but also guiding them over changes in terrain that might make them balky. Leading them beside still waters meant bringing them to safe places to drink. In a desert climate, stagnant water could create illness. A still pond, perhaps fed by a stream, could help thirsty sheep, but they might need to be watched if it was a deep pool. 

Monocular vision offers safety in the periphery, but as sheep evolved superior vision from side to side- they sacrificed vision that looks up. Since sheep have been domesticated for thousands of years, sheep haven’t often needed to look up into trees to watch for predators. Shepherds do that. This means that traveling through a valley needs the shepherd to be with the sheep because the sheep are not able to look up at the terrain where threats might be present. 

Shepherds were used as a metaphor for good kings in the Hebrew scriptures (Old Testament). Shepherds cared for an important resource- sheep. Shepherds provided for the needs of the sheep, kept them safe, and guided them through all kinds of weather and terrain. Thus, these seemed like transferable characteristics for a good king. This meant that the king’s people, then, became synonymous with sheep. While this metaphor has often meant associating people with the worst (often imagined) qualities of sheep, the whole purpose of the comparison was about the king, not the people. 

Jesus as the Good Shepherd, then, is not about us as sheep, but about who He is and what he does. We have binocular vision- seeing ahead of us. Yet, we also have a blind spot there. We do not know the future. Rather, we have to trust the shepherd who provides for our needs, guides us to safety, and accompanies us through treacherous times and places. This same shepherd seeks us out when we stray and guides us back to the fold. 

Trusting in Jesus’ voice and his provision is what it means to have abundant life. Unfortunately, many of us like the idea of trusting, but find the execution difficult. Following Jesus into our blind spot definitely means acknowledging that we are not in control. 

When we instead look to the sides, where there are many temptations, or back, to what we knew before, it is very tough to move forward in faith. Thus, the Church and church people often intellectualize faith- making it about “believing” the right things, meaning knowing the right information in your head. Jesus, however, has never described faithfulness in this way. Particularly in the Fourth Gospel (John), faith equals abiding with Jesus. This means pitching your tent in Jesus’ campsite and following his rules. It also means recognizing that the ways of the world do not offer you the abundant life- peace, joy, and grace- that can only come from the Good Shepherd who provides for your needs. 

In this time of change and stress, what we can see to the sides and behind us is often far more appealing that the unknown future. We are tempted by voices that promise things that seem to give a better sense of control or offer choices that open doors we wish weren’t closed. If we wish to be disciples of Jesus, to be the sheep of His flock, then we must weigh these voices against His voice. We must carefully compare what they offer us against what our good Shepherd offers. 

This way of living can be tough. It may put us at odds with others in our family, in our community, even in our church. Yet no one else in these settings offers us what Jesus does- provisions, safety, accompaniment, and guidance in all situations. The leading we need- into the blind spot of the future- should only be entrusted to a Shepherd who is willing to die for us (and who already has). 

Amen. 

Eternal Light

In 2012, I wrote about changing the eternal candle in the congregation I served at the time. It is a very short post. I still think about this, even though I am not always the one to change the candle in the current congregation I serve. 

When Montana went into "hunker down" mode for a few weeks, I stayed home too. Even though I could have continued to cross the street to the church and worked there alone, it seemed important to set a good example. Since I also believe that the church is the people, not only the building, I set up a little place in my house. On March 26, I brought the eternal candle into the parsonage where I live. 

I lit at the start of each work day. Making phone calls, praying, working on videos, reading the Bible, leading Bible study, the candle burned. I would go up at night and blow it out, just because I didn't want to keep a candle burning all night- no matter how stable and safe. (I also have to set a good example for my kids.) 

Somehow these candles in red globes have become, in my mind, a symbol of what it means to be a pastor of a congregation. I am not the Savior. I am not God. I do not control. I lead, I pray, I mess up, I repent, I try, I forget, I remember, I grieve, I rejoice, I long, I stretch, I ponder, I proclaim. And over and over, I make sure that the symbols of light remain visible- so that we can all trust in the true Light of the World, which cannot be overcome. 

This morning, across an empty 4th Avenue, with only bird song for accompaniment, I carried the eternal candle back to the sanctuary. 

In the vow portion of the Service for Ordination to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament (being a pastor), the final comment of the bishop is this, after the pastor has asked for God's help and guidance in fulfilling many promises: 

Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things,
graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them.
And then the congregation responds, "Amen."

 Being a pastor creates a restlessness in me for service and creating community. This restlessness is the Holy Spirit stirring at my will. In the details, though, I am met by Christ who provides the strength and compassion.

No one carries a candle home and tends it for glory. They do it for love. And it is the same love that keeps on hoping for the day when we can all safely worship together in person, again.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

God's Breath and God's Hands (Sermon)

John 20: 19-31

Let’s talk for a few minutes about the gospel according to John. The Fourth Gospel is very different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Those three together are called the “synoptic” gospels because they provide a synopsis of Jesus’ life. The writer of the Fourth Gospel, on the other hand, has selected some of the highlights of Jesus’ life and ministry and then shaped his narrative to be a parallel to the whole biblical story. 

John begins in the beginning, with the understanding that the Word (capital W) has always existed. It is through this Word that God brought all things into being. As the second member of the Trinity, on equal footing with the first and the third, the Word brings forth life. Eventually, that Word becomes flesh for the purposes of the salvation and faith of creation, including us. 

Now I confess to you, friends, that this line of conversation is very near and dear to me and I am tempted to go on about it, but I also recognize that in this time of stress, it may be better to get to the main point. Some of you might argue that it is always better to get to the main point and you’re not wrong. 

Since the beginning of John’s gospel is focused on creation, all things coming into being through the divine power in the Word, I want us to think about the creation accounts in Genesis. In Genesis 1, God makes human beings at the same time, in God’s own image. What is that image- creative, capable of great love, caring, merciful, judicious, connected? We have to prayerfully consider what God’s own work tells us about the divine in order to consider what it means for us to be made in the image of that same glory. 

In Genesis 2, God makes the earth and wants a caretaker for it. God then makes a dirt man, which is what A-dam means because it seems related to the Hebrew word “adamah”, which means earth (as in soil or dirt). God breathes life into this creation. Life begins, then, at God’s hands and with God’s own breath. 

Now back to John, who has set up a creation story in the Fourth Gospel narrative. All the disciples, except Thomas, are gathered in an upper room. They are afraid for their own lives. They know that Peter and the beloved disciple went to the tomb and found it empty. They’ve heard Mary Magdalene’s account of the risen Lord. Yet, they are still confused and terrified. Even if Mary is right, and they probably wondered about that, they are now worried about what this news will do to the people who killed Jesus and who may still be looking for them (the disciples). 

In the midst of this chaos, this void of hope, Jesus appears. He speaks to them and shows them his hands and his side. Then he breathes on them and speaks a word of peace. Jesus, who is God, comes among the disciples in an image they recognize and, through his hands and his breath, reshapes their experience. In that very room, Jesus crafts a new creation- fear into hope, doubt into trust, grief into joy. The Word present at the beginning of creation repeats that work in the upper room.  

Reshaping or re-creation does not bring new elements into being. It takes what is and reconfigures it into something new and useful, alongside what was. Our hope is made from the same building blacks as our fears; it is just used in a different way. The same with our doubts reframed into trust. The questions are not eliminated, but they are re-arranged to be a tool for our faith. Our grief remains a part of us, but in its resurrection reformation to joy, it becomes something we can live with- can hold a little more lightly. 

When Jesus comes into that room with the disciples, he does again for them (and then for us) what God the Holy Parent does at the very beginning of all things. Through Jesus, a new creation has happened- a world where death does not have the last word. God needs someone to work in that creation, to tend it, and to cause it to flourish. Jesus comes into a room, full of people- who are made in God’s image- and makes them new. 

With his hands and his breath, the disciples- all who were gathered in that room- have their fear, doubt, and grief reshaped into hope, trust, and joy. And then they are sent, just like the first man of the earth, to tend God’s garden with those tools. 

In his own time, Jesus does this same re-shaping for Thomas. Through Thomas’s story, Jesus promises to do the very same thing for those of us who are not in that room, but who receive the gift of faith. We too have been recreated, born again, through Jesus’ own hands (crucified, died, buried, and resurrected) and his breath, which brings to us God’s peace for our own hope, trust, and joy. 

We are in a time of our own upper room. There is much fear, doubt, and grief. Just like the disciples, there is good reason for those things. We are not irrational to have those thoughts or feelings. At the same time, we are also not alone in them. Where we are, with whatever we have, Jesus comes to us. He comes to us to bring us new life, again and again. Through his hands, through his breath, we are remade as disciples of resurrection truth. Our fear is reshaped to hope, our doubts to trust, and our griefs to joy. 

To those of you who might say, “I hear your words, but I am not experiencing that right now”, I believe you. And I understand that. I urge you, friends, if that is the case, to remember our brother, Thomas, who received this blessing in his own time. The absence of personal experience does not make truth untrue. It just means it hasn’t yet happened to you, but what is true is true, regardless of our experience or understanding. 
It is true that God made all things, including people in the divine image. God’s hands and God’s breath gave life to the first humans and so it has been ever since. At the right time, for us and for our salvation, the eternal Word became flesh and was called Jesus. In his glory, he too gives us new life through his hands and his breath. 

And we are sent out into the world, even when we have to stay home- we are still in the world. We, like the first people and the disciples, are sent out to care for God’s world and to share Christ’s peace. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we are called and equipped to work where we are- reshaping fear into hope, doubt into trust, and grief into joy so that all may believe and have life in Christ’s name. 

Amen. 



Sunday, December 8, 2019

Christmas or Easter?




I have a problem. 

It is my problem and it doesn’t have to be yours, but I need to talk about it.

I want Christmas to be as important theologically as Easter is. 

I know that you probably think they are and, thus, my problem isn’t really a problem 

Hear me out. Please. 

I think Christmas is very important theologically, but between commercialism and problematic thinking about God, we have lost sight of how to understand Christmas. 

Easter is also important, but between commercialism and problematic thinking about God, we have lost sight of how to understand Easter. 

I cannot do much about commercialism. (I can remind you about the sin of idolatry.) 

I can try, with the Spirit’s help, to do something about problematic thinking about God. 


First things first: Jesus was always going to be born. 

We learn in John 1 that the Trinity has always existed as the Trinity- meaning there has always been One God with Thee Persons- co-equal and of the same substance. 

We learn in Philippians 2 and Colossians 1 that Jesus is the firstborn among creation. So that eternal Word (through whom all things were created) took on flesh in a specific time and place. Whether the time and place were always destined can be debated, that Emmanuel (God-with-us) was always going to live for a time as one of us cannot be debated. 

In particular, the Hebrew scriptures hold prophecies about human leaders- kings and governors. Those persons who have been gifted by God with a specific type of faith (Christianity) are able to also interpret those scriptures in the light of Christ. 

If, within the eternal wisdom and planning of God- the 3in1- the Word was always going to come flesh, what does that tell us about the nature of God? 

Second things second: God is bigger than our understanding. 

When our attempts to explain who and how God is fall short, the problem isn’t God. 

The problem is our language and our human minds.

When we have a failure to communicate with the Divine, it is not God’s inaccessibility or inscrutability that is to blame. 

There are genuine limitations that come with being mortal. 

Our refusal to accept these limitations is a control problem, which is the actual reality of original sin. The snake presents Adam and Eve with the opportunity to know what God knows. I doubt the actual knowledge was as appealing as the idea that if one knows what God knows, one could potentially control what God controls. We still have the phrase “knowledge is power”. Most of us say we want the former, but only because we hope and pray it will deliver the latter.  

Christian theology, in its second thousand years, has painted a portrait of God, the Holy Parent, first person in the Trinity, as angry, insulted, and demanding satisfaction because of the horrible behavior of people. 

Through the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, we have created the picture of God stomping around God’s office, throwing things at the wall, and generally foaming at the mouth. We appease this picture by adding in a meek Jesus who comes to die, in a gruesome way via capital punishment, so that the Holy Parent will be appeased. Thus, divine wrath having been soothed by the holy antacid of crucifixion, we will have less to fear from our Creator. 

-record scratch- 

If point one is true (Jesus was always going to be born), then how long was God mad? Didn’t that make things hard at heavenly staff meetings- with one person (co-equal and of the same substance) so ticked off- that the other two are basically counting down until Plan Appeasement can kick off at a time that will be called 1 A.D./C.E. 

Which brings me to one of the key verses of Advent: “a shoot/branch will grow forth from the stump/tree of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). 

If God has been so outraged by human behavior, then why is God bothering to keep promises to people who are so obviously undeserving- like the covenant to David? 

If you are about to say that God is gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, then we have either a God with a split personality (at best) or we have an interpretation problem. Which one of those is preferable to you? 

Third things third: Jesus as the whipping post for our sins is not our only theological option. 

Remember when I said that substitutionary atonement has been the major Christian understanding for the last thousand years. What was the understanding for the first thousand years? 

A concept called Christus Victor

In Christus Victor, the second person of the Trinity is relevant and successful from the moment of conception. Both his earthly parents matter- his mother, Mary, because of her willingness to be used for God’s purposes for the sake of others; his father, Joseph, because of his willingness to be used for God’s purposes for the sake of others. 


When the Word is made flesh, named Jesus, and lives, he becomes something more than a body in a holding pattern until he’s reasonably old enough to be crucified and, therefore, calm down the One stomping around in the heavenly office. 

Jesus, fully human and fully divine, thwarts the spiritual and worldly powers that are attempting to derail God’s plans for the world. If Jesus was only going to be born to die for us, he could have breathed his last in the manger. It wouldn’t have mattered how he died, only that he did. 

Instead, he lives. He LIVES. He speaks truth to power- oppressive power from Rome and from some religious leaders, to social inequality, and to the devil. When Jesus speaks truth to power, he also serves to remind people that they are not God. Their attempts at control will not succeed because they are not the ones with the ultimate power. 

As it turns out, no one likes to be told that they aren’t in control or that they are powerless. People then try to control Jesus by killing him. Turns out, he was right. They weren’t in charge and they were not in control of the narrative. 

Jesus’ life is as important as his death. Not merely for moral example, the way that Jesus lived showed how God is victorious over all powers and principalities of the political and spiritual forces that attempt to oppose the divine will. 

Therefore:

If 1) Jesus was always going to be born AND 2) God is bigger than our understanding AND 3) Jesus as the whipping post for our sins is not our only theological option, 

Then- 

Christmas is as important as Easter. Jesus being born among us isn’t just God deciding to enter human history. Jesus being born as one of us is how God- 3in1- demonstrates that God has always been a part of, directing, and being compassionate in human history. Jesus being born into this part of creation reveals that the Holy Parent, the Holy Word, and the Holy Spirit have known since the beginning that we would need a lot of help, direction, and grace. 

Good Friday, the day of crucifixion, shows us the worst of what people can do. Easter shows us that the worst of what people can do is no match for the best of what God does. 

Christmas, then,… Christmas is how God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- show us that they are willing to do anything and everything to bring all of creation into alignment, into at-one-ment, with its Creator. 

The peaceable kingdom of Isaiah, the strong words of John the Baptizer about correcting one’s behavior, Paul’ exhortations about inclusion to the Romans in chapter 15 of that letter- they are all ways that people have tried to write about and capture in words some aspect of the nature of God- the one who was, who is, and who will come again. 

And I have just done the same thing. 

I have a problem. 

It is my problem and it doesn’t have to be yours, but I need to talk about it.

Christmas is as important as Easter. 

Christ didn’t come to die for us. 

Jesus was born so that we would understand and be able to trust and live for God. 

Amen.