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). 


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. 


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. 


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, 


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. 


Monday, December 2, 2019

Let's Be Honest about Grief

Grief is a weird thing. Some people are able to push through and they think everyone can, if they want to. Some people are paralyzed and it's confusing to them how the world even thinks they can function.

Most people manage to find their basic new level of functioning (because grief inaugurates a whole new era), but that functioning waxes and wanes. All of this is normal.

There's a tiny moment of acknowledging what grief is like in Frozen 2. It passes fairly quickly in a song, but it was true enough that I wanted to call out, "WAIT! Anna is telling us something real."

Elsa (the blonde one) has gone off on a quest, which has unexpected results. The consequences of this (SPOILER) is that Olaf (the snowman) disappears. Kristof missed the women's departure and he is searching for them, lamenting that he hasn't fully expressed his feelings to Anna. Thus, Anna is alone and she can perceive that something not good has happened. Olaf's disappearance means something has happened to Elsa and this fear and sadness and confusion hit Anna like a sheet of ice.

The song is called "The Next Right Thing" and the lyrics are very sharp. It won't be your six-year-old's favorite song, but it might be yours.

Besides the lyrics about being unable to rise, this section gets me right there:

Just do the next right thing 
Take a step, step again  
It is all that I can to do 
The next right thing
I won't look too far ahead 
It's too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath, this next step
This next choice is one that I can make

Sometimes the next right thing is just taking a shower and changing the sheets before you get back in bed. Sometimes the next right thing is texting a friend to bring you groceries. Sometimes the next right thing is pausing before you click "buy" and asking yourself if you really need that new whatever (and maybe you do).

Grief is hard and it is everywhere.

It can look strange from the outside, but there's no timeline. There's no "should be past this" or "should be able to do X" or "should feel better by now". Grief moves in and takes its luggage to the thrift store on the second day because it has no plans to pack up and leave any time soon.

Confession: Every few weeks, I go to Rachel Held Evans's Instagram or Twitter feed because I am hoping that she's not actually gone, that there was a mistake, that she's still there- speaking words that bring hope to us all. That's my grief.

Confession: Sometimes I dream that I'm in my grandmother's house and I'm going through her drawers, trying to find something, anything of hers that can be mine. She's been dead for thirteen years, but the truth is that she was someone to me who she wasn't to others and both my missing her and that mystery of her behaviors haven't fully sorted themselves out yet.

Confession: A guy I dated died years after we dated and I'm still sad that he's not in this world, doing some of the amazing things that were his passion. And I miss his Kahlua chocolate chip cookies.

Grief takes up residence in your house and you learn to live with it. You cannot wait it out or force it out or pretend it's not there. Eventually, you change your own spiritual and psychological interior design based on your preferences in consultation with grief. So it is and so it will be.

Most of us are doing the best we can in the midst of fresh grief and griefs that have scarred over, but still ache on occasion. Like Anna, most of us are trying to breathe, take a step, and do the next right thing for us.

What I hope we can learn, if not from Frozen 2 then somewhere, is that it is okay not to be okay. It is okay to admit that we are sad, that we are grieving, that we are angry. Honesty IS the best policy and the whole truth, especially about grief, lets us share our burdens and helps others know they are not alone.

I say: more honesty about grief. It's the next right thing.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

In the Time to Come

Luke 20:27-38 Common English Bible (CEB)

Some Sadducees, who deny that there’s a resurrection, came to Jesus and asked,  “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies leaving a widow but no children, the brother must marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers. The first man married a woman and then died childless.  The second  and then the third brother married her. Eventually all seven married her, and they all died without leaving any children. Finally, the woman died too.  In the resurrection, whose wife will she be? All seven were married to her.”
Jesus said to them, “People who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage.  But those who are considered worthy to participate in that age, that is, in the age of the resurrection from the dead, won’t marry nor will they be given in marriage.  They can no longer die, because they are like angels and are God’s children since they share in the resurrection.  Even Moses demonstrated that the dead are raised—in the passage about the burning bush, when he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  He isn’t the God of the dead but of the living. To him they are all alive.”

The first thing that comes to mind when I read this passage is the phrase, "Be careful that you're not so obsessed with heaven that you become no earthly good."

The first significant point to understand here is that the Sadducees, as a religious group, valued the Torah or the five books of Moses (Genesis through Deuteronomy) as the only valid scriptural resources. They rejected the oral tradition, which other Jews embraced, and they also did not count the words of the prophets as having religious authority. Since the Torah itself does not discuss the idea of resurrection or any life beyond this life, the Sadducees rejected that idea as possible.

When people are not willing to consider a new idea, they tend to try to reduce that idea to its most absurd conclusion. There's even a name for this kind of argument: reductio ad absurdum. You have likely seen this kind of thing when you may be having a discussion with someone about a given principle and either one of you makes a a big leap, off a slippery slope, to a conclusion that isn't actually relevant to the conversation. I see this most often in confirmation students, youth group members, and people outside the church who think they are the first person to find a flaw in the argument for the existence of God. Thus, they present me with the question- if God can do anything, can God make a rock that's too big for God to lift? Ninety thousand dollars of theological education means being willing to deal with that question repeatedly for years. 

Thus, the Sadducees are presenting Jesus with a rock question of their own. In the ancient Near East principle of levirate marriage, if a man died without children, his brother was to act as a husband to his widow. The children created in through the brother would be known to carry the name and heritage of the first man. In a life without an understanding of resurrection, having one's name carried forward and remembered by the living was the only way of existing beyond one's death. 

It's important to remember that marriage in this time is not about love, but about property and power. Women belonged to their fathers until they belonged to their husbands until they belonged to their sons or to a very generous son-in-law. The Sadducees are not imagining a woman who has loved seven men deeply or even seven men who have had a deep emotional commitment to the same woman. They are essentially asking, "To whom will this woman belong in the afterlife, if such a thing were true?" 

Jesus' first response is to explain that no one will belong to anyone else in the next life. For those who are inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, their way of being will be redefined according to God's economy of justice and mercy, not in accordance with how things have worked on earth. 

Secondly, Jesus says, when we are alive in and with God in the world to come, we are alive in a way we have always been. When God speaks to Moses through the burning bush, God does not say, "I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." God says, "I am... I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." Even though Moses is many, many generations removed from the patriarchs, they are not dead to God, but still alive to the One who made and loves them. Just because we do not understand how this can be so does not make it untrue. What's true is true, regardless of our belief or understanding. 

Those listening to Jesus, especially the Sadducees, would have been familiar with the characters of stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob beyond the patriarchs. The God of the patriarchs is also the God of Sarah, Hagar, Keturah, Rebekah, Leah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah. These women are also alive in God. Given the complexities of some of those relationships, my sanctified imagination sees Jesus raising his eyebrow at the Sadducees, daring them to posit how they believe those relationships would look in their reductio ad absurdum discussion of the afterlife. 

Jesus' main point, then, is that people in this life and people who are in the next are both alive to God. The way we make connections here does not determine the shape of our relationships in the life of the world to come. Being alive in God makes all things new and gives higher, broader, and deeper meaning than we can begin to imagine or comprehend. 

Being alive in God gives specific shape to our life of faith and our life in community now. Jesus is making a subtle attempt to upend the Sadducees' understanding of relationship. What does it do to a woman to be widowed seven times, have no children (and therefore no social capital), and be thought of as property- neither belonging to God nor to herself? What does it do to community to have an expectation that marriage can only look and function in one way? How is keeping God's laws to the letter helpful if it crushes the spirits of those who are alive and beloved to God? 

Jesus sees the Sadducees' questions and raises his own points, silencing their arguments. The scribes tell Jesus that he has spoken well and the Sadducees do not appear again in Luke's gospel account. 

So it is for us as we think of our saints and of heaven. Just because we do not fully understand it does not mean the reality of the life of the world to come is not true. And efforts to explain and clarify heaven take time and energy away from the life of faith we are called to here and now. 

I was recently asked what I think heaven is like and I replied, "I don't. I don't think about heaven. I believe in it, but heaven is not my job. I'm not in charge of getting people in, room assignments, or landscaping. I am charged with faithful living and teaching in this life and repair of the world for Christ's sake in the here and now. Heaven belongs to God and is God's job, not mine." 

How do we go out today- glorifying God, modeling Jesus Christ, and sharing his love? We celebrate that we are alive in God, as are the ones who have gone before us. We take questions seriously, but do not get sucked into ridiculous debates. And we believe and teach what God says is true about welcoming others, being generous, and trusting in grace. Then we will find resurrection truth, not only on Easter Sunday, but on all the days of this life and into the life of the world to come. 


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

You and Me and the ELCA

A recent decision during the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has stirred up controversy. You can read the official statement about being coming a sanctuary church here and you can read a pastoral letter explaining that action here. You can read a letter from a bishop of the ELCA about the decision here. Talking points from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton can be found here. I strongly recommend considering denominational resources for interpretation of the action, rather that external news sources or hearsay.

Since there already exists a body of writing to explain the action at the churchwide assembly, I'd like to offer a brief explanation about the polity of the ELCA. 

The denomination has three co-equal expressions: the local church body (congregation), the synod level, and the churchwide level. As evidenced by the screenshot of the constitution of the ELCA, each expression of the church has its own work, but in that work supports the other two. The congregation works to the glory of God in the community, in word and deed. The synod level exists to support congregations in a specific area, to house joint resources, to provide some oversight and support to congregations and to pastors, and to facilitate communication between the congregation and the churchwide office, all to the glory of God. The churchwide office exists to be in relationship with Lutheran partners across the world, with other denominational partners, with other national and international agencies for the purposes of justice, peace, and disaster relief and prevention. 

Decisions made at the churchwide level rise up from congregations through synods to the floor of the churchwide assembly (CWA) every three years. If you look here, you can see how many resolutions and memorials were brought forward to be decided at the CWA. Due to the co-equal nature of the expressions, the churchwide office takes direction from congregations and synods, which serve as the springboard for the prophetic action of the more visible arm of the denomination.

The co-equal approach also acknowledges the significance of the location and circumstances of the local congregation. Any given congregation in the ELCA may choose to be in disagreement with the larger church body or to be in agreement with the church, but to express it differently. For example, a congregation of the ELCA that is distressed about the sanctuary church decision (after fully reading the actual parameters of the action) could decide that they can get onboard with the part about immigration reform, acting to make such reforms stricter in accordance with their interpretation of the scriptures and their prayers for God's guidance.

This is what it means to have both congregational polity AND a supportive denominational structure.

Your congregation decides things for themselves, but also benefits from the relationship with the synod and with churchwide.

If you have ever received a pastor who passed a psychological evaluation, has a seminary degree, had an internship, and was reviewed by a candidacy committee- you have benefitted from the structure of the ELCA.

If you have given money to help after a disaster or received money after one through a Lutheran organization, then you have benefited from the structure of the ELCA.

If you have gone to a WELCA event or to a Lutheran youth event or a Lutheran outdoor ministry or a college of the ELCA, you have benefited from the structure of the ELCA.

If you have had help when your church was in trouble or got a grant for a program or project, you benefited from the structure of the ELCA.

It is VERY true that the ELCA is not perfect and there are plenty of things that have happened through the years and at all levels that have been more hurtful than helpful. Nevertheless, this denomational is trying to hold the tension of congregational autonomy within a supported and supportive area and national denominational framework. We are church together and we are better church together.

When congregations immediately start talking about leaving the denomination without fully reflecting on the whole story and also what it means to be a denominational family, they deciding that they are better off without both the stresses and the bonuses of being in relationship. When they quit giving to the synod (which then gives to the national church), they're not changing the minds of people with whom they disagree, they're hurting the disaster responses, the adoptions, the home rebuilds, the camps, the campus ministries, the curriculum development, and many other realities of the denomational work in the world that create the space and time for people to hear about and experience Jesus.

Part of orienteering is remember that a landmark looks different depending on your angle. Fulfilling the Great Commission, evangelism, justice work, healing, rebuilding, and reformation all look different in the ELCA depending on how you view the mountain of  the baptized life. (I don't like mountain imagery for this kind of thing because we're not climbing, but still I hope you get what I am saying.) Occasionally we get a view or a description of what the mountain looks like from the perspective of the other expressions of the church, but it's a view from their angle and maybe not ours (whomever "we" is here). We have to process the information that is true for both (vegetation, some terrain elements, maybe weather or animals), but we mostly have to focus on the ministry (mountain) that's in our view.

When we threaten to leave or we actually do, we're telling our siblings in Christ that we refuse to do any work with them or alongside them because their view of the work is different. Worse, many churches are threatening to leave or beginning that action because of the opinion of a fourth viewer, unfamiliar with our polity or life together, but determined to weigh in on the matter.

I'm a Lutheran because I believe that the message of salvation by grace through Christ's faithfulness is the message that has saved the world and is saving it still. This powerful reality brings me joy and gives me structure. I feel grateful to be a member of the ELCA and I feel privileged to be part of working to make it better- a stronger witness in the world. Do I like everything? No. Do I keep working? Yes. That's what it means to be a family, to be church together, to accept that the congregation I serve can benefit and wrestle with our partner expressions, as well as focus on what we know to be needed in our own community. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Bitumen, Bricks, and Guns

Genesis 11:1-9 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. 

Genesis is written down, not by Moses, but by temple leaders and others during the time of the Babylonian exile. In their grief and their fear, they commit to writing down the stories of their oral tradition, so that they may have a book of God's history and God's historical commitments (covenants) to them. Such a book was both a consolation and an encouragement when they were far from their own homeland and the site of their temple and, what was in their minds, correct worship.

In this series of stories about God's work in history, each story reveals things about God's nature and character, meaning the way God is from human perspective, and each story also attempts to answer some questions about why things are they way they are. What are questions that could be answered through the Tower of Babel story? 

- Why are there so many languages around the earth? 
- Why do some people (nations) build ziggurats (stepped pyramids) and others do not? 
- What would happen if we tried to reach God through our own power? 

Ziggurats, stepped pyramids across Mesopotamia, were usually built to honor gods or to serve as temples of different kinds. Certainly the people who were taken from Jerusalem to Babylon in the exile would have seen such buildings, tall against the horizon, as well as other imposing architecture in Babylonian cities. Even prior to the exile, those who traveled and then returned to Jerusalem or traders coming to the city would have shared stories of the architecture in surrounding areas. People may have wondered or worried about their own buildings, but also knew that they had built in accordance with their tradition, which was influenced by God's communication to Moses and the very different nature of their religion, which worshipped one God alone. 

In the story, the people are building such a tower. They are building it either intend to reach heaven and control God or make a name for themselves by causing other people to seem them as being as powerful as gods. Their tower will speak to their unrivaled power and all will fear them and, consequently, do their will. God keeps this plan from happening by scattering the people and confounding their language. 

In such circumstances, the Tower of Babel story would have been a comforting one. Remember what happened when people thought they could build powerful towers and reach God? What did they think would happen? Did they think they would be able to control God? Don't they know the Lord's power? And look what happened! It didn't go so well for them, now, did it? 

The story, full of human pride and self-confidence, shows how the Lord does and will confound plans that attempt to control the Divine. Making a name for one's self either means taking the credit personally, which the people in the story intended to do, or giving credit to one's Maker, which the hearers of the story would have known was the right action. 

The Tower of Babel story makes a second important point. This point is discerned not from the words of the story, but from its location in Genesis. The Tower story is in Genesis 11. Genesis 6-10 deal with the story of Noah and the flood. Then we have Babel. Chapter 11 concludes with the lineage of Noah's son, Shem, which goes right up to Abraham. Chapter 12 of Genesis begins the story of Abram, a man whom God counted as righteous, even when Abram/Abraham made egregious mistakes. 

The location of the Babel story illustrates how some people never learn to honor God, since they would have been in the generations to have reflected on the flood, but didn't. Thus, the Lord thwarts their work and scatters them. Then God blesses Abram as well as those who bless Abram. The Babel story is situated as a reminder to Jewish (and then to Christian) listeners and readers that God keeps God's promises and that God extends blessing generously, even to those who are kind to God's people. Furthermore, God gave Abram the name Abraham, meaning "father of many". It was not a name that Abram could make for himself or give himself. 

What does this have to do with us today?

I would be remiss and very negligent in my duties as a pastor if I did not acknowledge that in the past 24 hours, 30 people died in mass shootings in the United States- in the incidents in El Paso, Texas and in Dayton, Ohio. More than 70 other people were injured physically. This does not count the mental and emotional pain causes to people who were witnesses to the shootings, the pain of the families of the victims (dead and survivors), and the stress and danger to police and first responders, as well as the strain on their families who worry always about this kind of situation. 

If I talk about guns or gun control, some people will say it is too soon, that the Second Amendment is what it is, or that guns don't have anything to do with this. If I don't talk about guns or gun control, some people will say that I am too afraid to be honest and that I softpedaled my role as a preacher and a prophet. So I am in a tight spot, but I am ultimately answerable to God and I want to share with you what the Spirit has laid on my heart in the last 24 hours. 

The bricks and bitumen that built the Tower of Babel were not to blame. They were useful tools and they could be used however people saw fit. Certainly they could be used as weapons, but their main intention was as tools. Once the people corporately decided to build a tower to make a name for themselves, to reach to the heavens and control God, they have changed the bricks from tools into weapons. The bricks and the bitumen become false idols that give the people imagined power that is not theirs to claim. 

Similarly, in our own time, our guns- as tools or toys- have exactly the role that we give them. If they are used or collected as things that feed our families, are enjoyable to shoot, or maybe used defensively in a rare, if not ever, situation, then they have an appropriate location and are no more than the bricks and bitumen were meant to be at Babel.

However, if our conversation around our guns (and I say our because we have guns at my house) becomes about the power they give us, the fear we have about someone taking them away, or the way they could be used to make a name for ourselves, the guns have become idols. We are giving them inappropriate power and use in our thoughts, words, and deeds. Idols are objects, people, or ideas that take up time, talent, and treasure that is rightly devoted to God. 

In parts of our country, and around the world, but specifically in the United States, our conversation around guns has become idolatrous. The answer is not necessarily to get rid of the guns, but to have much sharper and brighter lines about how we talk about guns. How often are guns used to solve a problem in popular entertainment? How often do we casually say or hear, "I could shoot him" or "I could shoot myself"? How often do we talk about a leader or a candidate, falsely, with regard to what he or she might do with our guns or the tools for our guns? How often do we grow silent during a conversation about gun ownership because we have mixed feelings, but we know stronger voices will shout us down? What are the corners of our culture where the forces that oppose God foment conversation about how guns will permit a person or persons to make a name for themselves

If we live in a culture (if!) with these symptoms, then guns- like brick and bitumen- have become weapons that we use to make a name for ourselves, rather than tools and toys. If we are genuinely intent on keeping the first commandment, You Shall Have No Other Gods Before Me, if we genuinely intend to fear, love, and trust God above all else- then we cannot permit guns to become or to remain idols. 

And we as followers of Jesus must be willing to embrace the joy of our salvation, we must be willing to walk the way of the cross, we must be willing embrace the Spirit that is greater than our fear and have real. honest conversations about guns in our homes, in our community, and in our world. If we do not, then the word for us- the word of our freedom in Christ to care for our neighbor- has been sown on rocky ground. 

The story of the Tower of Babel reminds us how quickly we can go wrong, how quickly we make idols of tools and then weaponize them that we may have control and make a name for ourselves. 

We have a name. We are children of the living God, the God who kept and keeps promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Mary, Martha, and John of Patmos (the writer of Revelation who warned about lukewarm faith). We are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. The power we need for living comes through our baptism, God's gift of faith, and Christ's renewal of our inner selves in holy communion. We cannot and must not embrace items or stories about anything else as sources of power- not our family names, not our heritage, not our denomination or political party, not any item we own, including our guns. 

If we want to show the world, if we want God to show the world through us, the truth of God's power and might- then we must stand up for Jesus and be willing to have the hard conversations that will tear the towers and idols of our culture. It is only this way, rooted in good soil, that our light will shine and others will see it and give glory to our Holy Parent in heaven. 

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Fable for Your Consideration

A fable is a short story or piece of writing meant to convey a moral lesson.

The Tiger

Once there was a tiger. This tiger had always lived in the forest. The tiger roamed, preyed on smaller animals, and generally did tiger things. While no animals attempted to befriend the tiger, most also were not unduly scared of him.

One day, the tiger declared war on the field mice. Roaring through the forest, the tiger declared that field mice should return to the fields. They did not belong in a space populated with trees, said the tiger, they must go back where they came from.

It did not seem to matter that there were field mice born in tree trunks and in old nurse logs. The tiger had spoken. Other predators in the forest agreed that the field mice should go. They bring disease, some animals noted, truthfully, forgetting how many other animals transmitted illness from one to another. They eat food that should be ours, said the smaller critters. The foxes didn't want to contradict the tiger, but they did need the mice for their diets. They began to eye the birds' nests. Some animals, like the deer, didn't necessarily want to get rid of the mice, but they didn't want to be in the fight, so they said nothing.

The tiger patrolled the edges of the forest and the mice who could fled. Those who couldn't get out for one reason or another burrowed in more deeply, now more terrified and vulnerable than ever.

After the mice were banned, the tiger demanded that rabbits and weasels must go. They are too small, roared the tiger, and small means inconseqential! The tiger presided over the forced evacuation of the rabbits and the weasels. Some of the other predators became concerned because now there was very little food for them in the forest itself. The tiger's roar, however, was terrifying and no one dared to point out the flaws in the plan or maybe that mistakes had been made.

One morning, all the deer fled. They ran through several fields to a different wood, removing themselves from the tiger's reign.

All that remained in the tiger's forest were the tiger and other predators. Things became tense in the forest. Many animals, especially the scavengers, had to travel far each day to collect food and then bring it home to their dens and their children. The wolves and the bears were particularly exhausted as the constant hunt prevented them from storing their winter fat.

The tiger killed all the foxes. I wanted a fox fur coat, he said, as he patrolled, draped in the bloody hides. He glared at everyone he passed and the animals ducked their heads and busied themselves with various tasks.

No one dared to cross the tiger.

There were quiet rumors of meetings of dissenters, potential plots to overthrow the tiger or end his reign, some grumblings if one was sure he wasn't there.

But no one stood up to the tiger.

It was hoped that perhaps, with so few animals left, animals that shared much taxonomy with the tiger, perhaps they would be safe.

The badger, with a bellyful of roots, waddled back to his burrow late one evening. Roots and the occasional grub were not as satisfying as a dinner of mice or perhaps a rabbit, but it would do.

Suddenly, the badger found himself flipped over, staring at the sky. The tiger loomed above him, one paw raised high.

"Why?" said the badger, knowing this was the end.

"Because I can," laughed the tiger, slashing the badger's throat. "I didn't spare anyone else. Why would you think I cared about you?"

Moral: When the tiger shows you his stripes, believe that he is a tiger.