Sunday, December 8, 2013

Wild and Holy is Our God (Sermon)

Advent 2

Ezekiel 37:1-14

            God is wild and holy, untamed by our efforts to tame, contain, or fully understand. The book of Ezekiel reveals some of the nature of a wild and holy God. The prophet Ezekiel speaks to the people of Israel as they are in exile in Babylon. He is among the first deportation from Israel and is still there as two generations of children have been born on Babylonian soil.

            Ezekiel rails against Israel’s idolatry (worshipping of other gods) and failure to trust in the covenant God has made with them. He receives and presents visions of God’s holiness that pursues Israel in a chariot, seeking to overtake them, even as God’s people flee to other paths.

            Ezekiel notes the unfaithfulness of the people again and again. In almost the same breath, he pours forth promises from the Lord that the covenant will still be upheld from the Lord’s end. That God will not fail to keep God’s word is the refrain of the fiercesome song that is the book of this prophet.

            In chapter 33, Ezekiel gets word from a refugee from Jerusalem. The temple has fallen. The place where God was believed to reside was now a pile of rubble. What does that mean for where God is now? How can God act without a base of operations? What will become of those who called themselves people of God?

            Now you will see, Ezekiel says. Now you will understand God’s faithfulness, God’s holiness, God’s way of being in the world and beyond. And so we come to the vision described in chapter 37. Up to this point, Ezekiel has been describing the destruction and pain of the Israelites in Babylon and scattered throughout Egypt and along the trade routes of Northern Africa and toward India.

            The scene we see at the beginning of 37 is a battlefield. In ancient (and not so ancient) tradition, the victors did not bury the bodies of the defeated. Those who lost in battle and who lost their lives were left where they fell. Presumably the victors carried any living off into slavery or also slew them on the spot. The dead lay out, under the hot sun, as carrion for all predators, including the birds of prey. The bones would have been picked clean and then sun-bleached. The battlefield, with its dry, gruesome memorial, would have been a testament to the strength of the victors.

            So we are talking about a scene of death. Nothing living. Nothing even rotting. Just death. Yet nothing is too dead for God. Nothing is beyond God’s ability to restore life and bring wholeness. Nothing is past where God can heal and bring peace.

            This is the vision and message that God brings to Ezekiel to tell the people who are prepared to abandon all hope. God doesn’t need a base camp. God is wild and free and able to bring life out of death.

            For we who are Easter people, that God brings life out of death is a refrain we are almost too used to hearing. Yet, that was not the case in this time period. The people of Israel, at this time, did not have a fully developed embrace of resurrection. It was not part of their religious faith or understanding. Thus, this vision was ASTOUNDING. God would bring dead things back to life… God would restore life to Israel… a life of promise and possibility… enfleshed, muscled, and filled with breath, with the Spirit.

            Why does God do this? We would be quick to say because of grace. Others would say it is for the sake of God’s reputation. I don’t think it is grace or because God is worried about what people think.  Instead, this vision is a revelation, like so many from Scripture, about the fundamental nature of God. God is a God of revelation, resurrection, and reformation. Not just in Babylon, not just in 15th century Germany, not just in the person of Jesus (though especially in the person of Jesus), but in all times and all places.

            God brings life out of death… creation out of a void… light out of darkness in all times and all places. This is who and what God is about. That is the essence of the wild and holy nature of God. What we might declare dry, life pours out of – by the hand of God. What we would declare dead lives- by the hand of God. What we would declare unchangeable is recreated- by the hand of God.

            There is nothing that is too dead for the God who has called us, named us, and claimed us. Not society, not creation, not the church, not anything in our lives. Thus, we are called to look- look for real signs of life, look for the shoots of promise growing, look for springs of hope pouring forth. We too, like the Israelites, must avoid the idolatry of resignation, of impatience, of lack of eager anticipation. What in your life, in your neighborhood, in the world needs resurrection? What is the vision God is giving you of flesh on that skeleton, of breath in that body, of movement in what was previously still?

            Many centuries ago, Advent lasted until Epiphany. It was much more clearly a season marked by prayer and anticipation of God’s promises in Christ. Slowly, as Christmas became a bigger celebration, Advent became smaller. It was still a marker to think about Christ coming again, but as that became intertwined with anticipating the celebration of Jesus’ birth… Advent became somewhat secondary.

            However, Advent is the season to speak to dry bones. Advent is the season that speaks to God’s wild holiness. Advent is the season that says we are engaged in a mystery- a mystery which we cannot fully understand or resolve, but in which we are called to full participation.

            If you are here, if you can hear my voice, if you are reading this… you, like Ezekiel, are called to speak to dry bones- whatever they might be in your life. Declare that the very nature of God is to restore life to what seems dead. Speak firmly that nothing, nothing is too dead for God. The very hope we have in the Christ we await is the clearest revelation of that truth: nothing is too dead for resurrection. God is wild and holy, untamed by our efforts to tame, contain, or fully understand.

Thanks be to God.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Ubi Caritas

Originally posted at RevGalBlogPals.

            This past Sunday, I read The Sparkle Box to a group of children. The premise behind this book is that a family notes the things they do to help other people during the Christmas season. They write down their efforts- donating to blankets, funding a well, giving mittens- and put the slips of paper in a sparkly box under the tree. Their deeds are their gift to Jesus on his birthday.

            As I read the story to the kids, who were very engaged, I also explained how we could do this kind of thing, not just at Christmas, but also during any time of the year. Even as I spoke, I watched the reactions of parents. I could see some who were nodded and interested. I could also see those who were skeptical and some who frowned.

            I knew some of the frowners wanted to point out that the man who was sleeping in the park could have made better choices, that food distribution goes to support “welfare queens”, that building wells doesn’t help people change their system or their behavior. We have moved from understanding “charity” not to be associated with caritas (Latin: costliness, esteem, affection), but to be something that is anathema to many, including those who might give and those who might receive.

            We argue about enabling, about worthiness, about “feel-good” measures. We lament and, often, we become resigned to systems and ways of thinking that seem unchangeable. Injustice and a culture of death seem insurmountable. Thus, charity becomes something we all wrestle with, that causes mixed feelings, that is never elevated to the caritas and mutual benefit that is the desire of God- when we are commanded and commended to the care of the poor.

            This week was filled with gushing commentary on Evangelii Gaudium, the urgent letter from Pope Francis to clergy, religious, and all people of faith in the world. Some people could not say enough about the letter, which lifted up the plight of the poor, urged joy in evangelism, and encouraged a posture of reason and rationality among the Church’s faithful. Others howled that the letter encouraged “Marxism” and denounced capitalism.

            Pope Francis never mentions capitalism at all, but instead speaks firmly and forcefully against the way that money has come to possess our minds and habits, rather than being a tool of or for them. The pursuit of money causes people, churches, governments, and nations to trample over what is perceived as weak or weakness. The greater gain triumphs over the greater good.

            In abandoning caritas, we reject the truth of Mary’s Magnificat- that God can, has, and will bring down those who are in high places and lift up the lowly. God’s desire and plan is for those who are hungry to feast and for those who are wealthy to learn what it means to do without. We grow used to hearing arguments about people who “don’t try” or who “game the system”. We feel frustrated by the assumptions we make about the people around us, without knowing their whole story. Exhausted by what seems to be a never-ending need, we start to dial back our efforts- certain that the problem can never be fixed.

            Pope Francis writes:

Realities are more important than ideas[1]

 231. There also exists a constant tension between ideas and realities. Realities simply are, whereas ideas are worked out. There has to be continuous dialogue between the two, lest ideas become detached from realities. It is dangerous to dwell in the realm of words alone, of images and rhetoric. So a third principle comes into play: realities are greater than ideas. This calls for rejecting the various means of masking reality: angelic forms of purity, dictatorships of relativism, empty rhetoric, objectives more ideal than real, brands of ahistorical fundamentalism, ethical systems bereft of kindness, intellectual discourse bereft of wisdom. 

232. Ideas – conceptual elaborations – are at the service of communication, understanding, and praxis. Ideas disconnected from realities give rise to ineffectual forms of idealism and nominalism, capable at most of classifying and defining, but certainly not calling to action. What calls us to action are realities illuminated by reason. Formal nominalism has to give way to harmonious objectivity. Otherwise, the truth is manipulated, cosmetics take the place of real care for our bodies… We have politicians – and even religious leaders – who wonder why people do not understand and follow them, since their proposals are so clear and logical. Perhaps it is because they are stuck in the realm of pure ideas and end up reducing politics or faith to rhetoric. Others have left simplicity behind and have imported a rationality foreign to most people. 

233. Realities are greater than ideas. This principle has to do with incarnation of the word and its being put into practice: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is from God” (1 Jn 4:2). The principle of reality, of a word already made flesh and constantly striving to take flesh anew, is essential to evangelization. It helps us to see that the Church’s history is a history of salvation, to be mindful of those saints who inculturated the Gospel in the life of our peoples and to reap the fruits of the Church’s rich bimillennial tradition, without pretending to come up with a system of thought detached from this treasury, as if we wanted to reinvent the Gospel. At the same time, this principle impels us to put the word into practice, to perform works of justice and charity which make that word fruitful. Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and gnosticism.

            Dealing with reality is more important that holding onto ideals that never come to fruition. Where have we seen this in practice? Certainly this principle was visible in the work and life of Nelson Mandela. Had he simply held that apartheid was evil and should be ended, without acknowledging the serious work that would be part of tearing down that practice, it might well continue today.

            If Mandela had said, “We need to come together,” but never donned the soccer jersey and strode onto the field during the World Cup in 1995, his ideals would have been nothing more than symbolic. His willingness to put into practice, to live out what he hoped would become true exactly undergirds what Pope Francis is explaining now: a failure to heed realities makes a mockery of truth.

            Certainly Advent is a season of acknowledging reality. We wonder if Jesus is really returning. We are no longer certain that peace can happen in our lifetimes. We despair that anything will be better for our children. We are resigned that our efforts to improve the plight of the poor actually makes any difference.

            The difference between charity and caritas is the difference between the idea and the reality. The idea behind charity, as we have come to say the word today, is improving the situation of our neighbors. The reality of charity is that the improvement is usually short-term and rarely (but sometimes!) systemic.

            The idea behind caritas is a lifting of all boats, a growth in understanding of our neighbors, a genuine sharing of what is deep, essential, and costly. The reality of caritas is that, when lived out, everyone can participate. Every person can give of what is costly to him or herself for the sake of neighbors, for the sake of the world, for the sake of Christ. Caritas is what brings ideas into being new realities. Caritas is what works to end oppression, division, and strife. Caritas is how God brings the kingdom through our hands. Caritas goes beyond the sparkle box to the manger to where God’s ideals of mercy and grace became the reality of Emmanuel. To again quote Pope Francis, and to channel Nelson Mandela: Caritas… “Not to put the word into practice, not to make it reality, is to build on sand, to remain in the realm of pure ideas and to end up in a lifeless and unfruitful self-centredness and [ignorance of material truths]”.

Monday, October 21, 2013

God's Best to Our Worst

1 Samuel 16:1-13, Psalm 51:10-14

            Two years ago, a man called the church and asked to come speak with me. When we met, he told me that his son had died from suicide over twenty years before. At his son’s funeral, the pastor lamented that it was too bad that the man’s son was in hell, using the opportunity (a funeral!) to warn others against suicide. This warning, of course, ignores the fact that most people who are considering suicide feel as though they are in hell already.

            So, two years, this man, this grieving father, came to talk to me about heaven. In particular, he had a little booklet about heaven that he had carried around for about ten years. He’d read the slick pages over and over until they were soft and floppy. He wanted to question me about the specifics of heaven. In particular, he was very concerned about the idea that we will be able to recognize other people in heaven.

            He felt that if he was able to see who WAS there; he would also know who WASN’T there. His little booklet told him to anticipate a great reunion with many loved ones. This man believed it would never be heaven for him if he had to spend eternity knowing that his son wasn’t there. He asked me how heaven could be a perfect place if, while he was there, he would know that his son was suffering elsewhere.

            This man, like many others, grew up and had been told again and again about suicide as an unforgiveable sin. Some people have been taught that it’s unforgiveable because you can’t repent. Some people have been told that taking one’s own life is usurping God’s power and privilege. We even, still, talk about suicide like it’s a crime: we say “commit” suicide. I try to use the phrase “die from suicide”.

            What does this have to do with David, who died of old age- probably in his seventies? As we’ve been studying David on Sunday mornings and talking about the cross on Wednesday nights, one of the issues arises repeatedly is the idea of God’s justice. We want to think of God being “fair”- even though fairness is not a Biblical principle in any stretch of the imagination.

            We like the story of God calling the little brother, the youngest, the sheep-keeper . We like knowing that he was musical and had a heart for God. We like the idea of David killing Goliath and speaking forcefully for the living God of Israel. We are drawn to the deep relationship and promises between David and Jonathon.

            But then we think of David using his kingly advantage to seduce Bathsheba and to have her husband, Uriah, killed. We think of him over-indulging his sons and placing them among his advisors when they were likely too young. He neglected to lead his military generals. He was a mercenary for a while with the Philistines. He conducted an illegal census of the people of Israel. He killed the remainder of Saul’s family, except Mephibosheth- Jonathon’s son who was crippled in some capacity.

            We wrestle with the idea that David did these terrible things and yet remained God’s beloved. There are events in David’s life that were perceived to be God’s punishment for his actions, yet God did not withdraw God’s love from David. God did not turn his back on David. God did not undo God’s promise of bringing redemption to Israel and to the world through David’s descendants.

            When I met with that man two years ago, we talked about the nature of God. I asked the man if he had ever thought that his son might be with God now, might be at peace. He looked at me like I was crazy. In twenty-plus years, no one had ever asked him this outright. I asked him if he thought soldiers went to heaven. He said yes- because they kill in the line of duty and they can repent. I asked about executioners and people who kill someone else in an accidental death. Yes, because they can repent- he replied- they can go to heaven.

            We talked about his son, about his struggles and pain, about why he might have come to the decision he did. I asked the man if he thought God was with his son in those struggles. Yes, he thought God was there, but then his son did what he did. In the long conversation we had, we went around and around. This man had spent these many years believing his son was in hell. He just wanted to understand how he, the father, could expect to find heaven a perfect place, when he would obviously know that his son was not there.

            We do not live in a world of fairness. Even with laws and governments, there is very little justice because of our entwined and enmeshed systems that contribute to and perpetuate the struggles of many people. Given what we see and experience all the time, it is very important to remember that God does not function in the same way that we do.

            In a fair system, Jesus would not be from David’s line. He’d be from a lineage of fine, upstanding citizens. All the women would be pure and perfect. All the men would be robust and faithful. Jesus would be from Lake Woebegon- where are the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are above average. And what consolation would that be to us? God comes and lives among us, but lives as the crème de la crème? Instead, Jesus spends his toddler years as a refugee, his youth in a backwater as the son of a carpenter, his early adulthood working with his dad and friends in community life, his ministry years with fishermen, tax collectors, and women, his moments of death as a criminal and one wronged by both religious and civil leaders. This is God’s experience as one of us.

            And we shouldn’t be surprised by it, since we’ve known from the moment that God didn’t kill Adam and Eve, gave Cain a second chance, preserved Noah, called Moses (the murderer), and used David to bring Israel into a place where they could truly be a light to the world, if they so chose. God doesn’t do fair. God does grace. God does power. God does God’s justice.

            Our justice would result in Mary Magdalene showing up on Easter morning and weeping over Jesus’ lifeless body. God’s justice, God’s ways, have her met in the garden by her rabbouni, her teacher and Lord- Jesus the Christ. Our ways would have us muddle along, hoping to get things right. Instead, God’s ways have Jesus meet us too… in all kinds of times, places, and people.

            Our ways would have squashed David like a bug after the Uriah and Bathsheba incident. Our ways would declare that some sins are unforgiveable- even those committed in the depths of despair. Instead, God’s ways continued to use David, defining him not by the worst thing David ever did, but by the best thing God ever did. If God does that for David, isn’t that surely what God does for each of us? Not seeing us by the worst thing we ever do or that ever happens to us, but by the best thing that God ever did.

            That’s what I told that man two years ago and what I’ve prayed every day since for him to receive and understand. It’s what I want you to hear on this Sunday as well. The God of resurrection, the Christ of baptism and holy community, the Holy Spirit of constant renewal does not see or define us by our worst, but through God’s best.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

God's Servants Are Never Retired

1 Samuel 3:1-21

            Since Samuel is a child when God calls him and his work as a prophet begins immediately, this story usually focuses on that fact alone. We use that information to underline the fact that God calls and works through all kinds of people- regardless of age, experience, or even knowledge of the Lord (see: “Samuel did not yet know the Lord”). Many of us have heard this part of the story lifted up so many times; we begin to miss the other details in the story.

            Pretend you never heard this story before. This is entirely fresh to you- as an adult. You have not been hearing about Samuel for 20, 30, 40, 70 years. Instead, you’re hearing this for the first time.
What might stand out to you?
-       Eli knows who is talking to Samuel.
-       Eli is punished for his sons’ misdeeds (or for ignoring them).
-       Eli’s call is undone so that Samuel can be called.
-       Samuel’s first experience as a prophet is to retire his predecessor.

How is God’s character portrayed in this story? Is this a God you want to serve? A God who calls and speaks through children, that sounds hopeful and promising. A God who withdraws favor without warning… less hopeful. If this were the first Bible story you ever heard as an adult, what would you think about God?

            It’s important to remember that 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings are written down for the preservation of the life and lineage of David. Everyone else is a footnote in that story. The recorders are not interested in what happened to Samuel, Saul, Eli, or anyone else beyond their role in the story of David.            

Eli is a temple priest in the time of the Judges. The book of Judges closes with the acknowledgment that there was no king in Israel, so everyone did what was right in their own eyes. Part of this statement is technically untrue. There was always a king in Israel. Who was the king? God. With God as a king, the leaders of the people were ones who pointed to God and to God’s expectations. This would have been Eli’s call and work. At some point, he wasn’t able to do that work. He apparently fell short in training his sons correctly or in sufficiently correcting them when they “did what was right in their own eyes”.  

            This passage opens with the note that the “word of the Lord was rare in those days”. Does that mean that the Lord wasn’t speaking or that people weren’t listening? I know for a fact that I can tell my son to four or five times to put on his shoes before it finally happens. Is the word of his mother rare, unheard, or unheeded (or some combination thereof)? So Eli has given his life to the service of God. Maybe that service interfered with his ability to be a good parent. Nevertheless, Eli is released from service, which has the distinct look of falling out of favor with God.

            We’ve already discussed how God comes across in this story (uncaring, cold, capricious). Is that your experience of God? Is that the scope of God’s character as revealed elsewhere in Scripture? If you think about the Bible as a whole, how does God come across?

            Part of reading this story is pulling away from its narrow understanding of vocation. When we do that in the story, we also have to do it in our daily lives. We have a tendency to judge our own worth and the value of those around us based on the work they do for pay or on the “success” of their relationships. Paid work has more value than unpaid work. Parenthood has more value than being an uncle or an aunt. Being a widow or widower has a higher perceived rating than being divorced. The CEO has more value than the kindergarten teacher who has more value than the garbage collector.

            Our culture has a ranking system based on perceived contributions to society and status therein. We study people for how they fit into the categories we’ve been taught. Occasionally, we’re able to move things around, when a child receives a clear call from God- for example, but otherwise, we keep things the same. Furthermore, as society works to uphold that framework, God’s favor is subtly (or not) attached to the status of higher value. Surely a better position, family success, material wealth… etc. are all signs of God’s favor. And which comes first- God’s favor, then success? Or success, and then God’s favor?

            When the writers of 1 Samuel begin to write for the main purpose of recording the life of David, it seemed obvious to them that Eli had lost God’s favor. How could God call Samuel, if God doesn’t first “uncall” Eli? And once Eli is no longer the chief priest, who cares what happens to him?

            Except that his priesthood is not the only way God could use him. It may well not be the only way God did use him. Eli is still a father, perhaps still a husband, a father-in-law, maybe a grandfather, a neighbor, a Jew, a child of God. While he might no longer have paid work, he is not outside of God’s plans or God’s ability to use him.

            So we too have multiple vocations… paid worker, volunteer, spouse or partner, sibling, child, parent, friend, neighbor, citizen, library card holder, sandwich maker,… etc. The end of any one of these roles does not indicate a withdrawal of God’s favor. It does not signify the end of that relationship. It does not put you or me or Eli or anyone else beyond the ability of God to use or to bring about God’s kingdom through us.

            When Peter and Andrew stopped fishing, they started following Jesus. They became disciples. However, they were still husbands, children, friends, and Jews. They still had other defining characteristics. Each of those vocations was now shaped by following Jesus. Their other relationships changed, didn’t end, but were changed by their new understanding of what it meant to be a child of God.

            That same meaning is part of our lives. All that we do is shaped by what it means to be a child of God- as we have seen God revealed in Jesus. When we hear the Scriptures, we are called to always listen with new ears. Each of us is also a Bible interpreter- not for ourselves or to make things easier, but for the sake of the people around us and for God’s sake.

            Despite how the story is recorded, God wasn’t done with Eli. Neither is God done with any of us when one chapter ends and another begins. God’s favor is not revealed through success or failure, but through grace and the ever-present promise of renewal and abundant life. That’s good news that we are to take to heart. And, more specifically, that’s the good news we are to take into the world.


Audio here: 


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

I AM is Enough (Sermon 9/29)

Exodus 2:23-25; 3:10-15; 4:10-17

            When I was graduating from college, I accepted a position to be the deputy news director of KNOM radio in Nome, Alaska- (KNOM, Yours for Western Alaska). I took this position over offers in for positions in England and in Boston. At the time, it seemed like God had given me many choices and I got to choose from several great options.

            Moving to Nome led to loving Alaska. Loving Alaska led to meeting and dating Rob. Marrying Rob led to staying in Alaska. Staying in Alaska led to restricting where I was available for call. Restricting meant that I was available to come here. Coming here meant that we learned to live with and love each other. Living with one another means that I was here to do the premarital counseling for Joyce and Bryan, preach at their wedding, pray during their medical emergencies, frustrate Bryan by my softball ineptitude, have the privilege of baptizing their children.

            All of those things, ostensibly, became possible when I said yes to KNOM. Some doors opened and others closed (some temporarily and some permanently). I was thinking about that this week as I looked at the verses we have from Exodus. The Israelites- the descendants of Abraham and Sarah- are in Egypt. When God made promises to Abraham and then, later, to Jacob, the covenant included the flourishing of generations, the strength to be a blessing to others, and the gift of land. God promised people, presence, and place.

            When Exodus begins, the Israelites are not where they are supposed to be. After Joseph’s brothers (Jacob’s sons) sold him into slavery, he eventually became a very successful assistant to the Pharaoh. In a time of famine, Joseph had overseen the storage of enough food to sustain Egypt and their neighbors. Thus, the Israelites were among those who arrived to eat and multiply through Joseph’s resourcefulness (inspired by God).

            Thus, generations after generations were born in Egypt until there arose a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph. This Pharaoh looked at the numerous people who were NOT “his” people and, thus, enslaved them. While I am in no way trying to blame the victims of slavery here, part of the problem is that the Israelites never returned to the place in which God had covenanted to bless them. They grew comfortable in Egypt and didn’t go back to Israel- the land that was their inheritance and insurance.

            So when Moses is in Midian (having fled a murder charge in Egypt), God speaks to him from a flaming bush. Consider the character of God in this story. God doesn’t surround Moses with flames. God doesn’t pin Moses down so he has to listen. The bush burns, but is not consumed. Moses can’t help but get closer to investigate and then God speaks to him. This reveals God’s compelling, but not coercive nature. When considering what God can do and does, it is hard to look away.

            Moses tries to resist. Five times he has a great excuse for why he can’t do what God asks- Moses is a nobody, he’s not eloquent, he doesn’t want to go, he’s afraid, he doesn’t know God’s name. Moses wants a sign, a signal, he can use when he goes to people so they know that he’s really from God. He wants a badge or a number- Moses, God’s Moses, Agent 001.

            Instead, God says, “I am who I am. Tell the people ‘I am has sent me.’” What kind of name is “I am”? God goes on to tell Moses, “You can remind them that I am the God of their ancestor- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel.” Presumably, the Israelites will recognize God’s call through Moses’ words and respond. They need to get back to where they’re supposed to be- to the place of covenant and blessing. It’s not that God is not with them in Egypt or even that God is not blessing them in Egypt, but the specific promises of God to them involve being back in the land of their ancestors.

            This is the good news for Dottie, and for all of us who are children of God. The font is the place of promise- God’s covenant of welcoming, of redeeming, of presence, people, and promise. The font isn’t the source of these promises- it is the reminder and the refresher.

            When we are baptized, we come into a new life- a life that is united with Jesus’s own death and resurrection. It is in Jesus that God clarified the “I am”. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the bread of life and the living water.” “I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus is God enfleshed. Jesus as the Christ reveals to us the nature of God.

            The God who is revealed in Jesus is love. God is not sometimes loving or usually loving. God is love. This is the love that is. Love that says “I am”. Love, that through baptism, says, “Dottie, I am with you. I am in you. I am wherever you go. I am not letting you go. I am always with you. I am never leaving you alone. I am guiding you.”

            The God who attracts, the God who knows what Moses is capable of, the God who is made known to us in Jesus… this God says, “I am.” And, though we long to have that be a longer sentence… it is still complete in those two words. And “I am” is enough. It is enough to know that God is. It would be enough to know that God had blessed our ancestors. It would be enough to know how God had spoken through prophets. It would be enough to know that God had come among as Jesus. It would be enough to know that God had resurrected once.

            But we do not live in a God who says, “I am done.” God says to Moses, to Dottie, to all the baptized, and to all creation, “I am.” That’s an identity we can’t escape. That’s a bush that burns, but is not consumed. It is a reality that weaves in and out of what we perceive to be our choices (KNOM, Rob, LCOH), but in truth is the guiding hand of the Spirit and the power of God at work in the world, moving us to where we need to be.

            “I am” is enough. It is enough of a name to know, to call upon, and to be claimed by… For because of “I am”, we are.


Friday, September 27, 2013

God is like...

I received this prompt for prayer writing in my email today from Rachel Hackenberg at

A frequent scriptural image used to identify God's faithfulness is rock. "For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?" (Psalm 18:31) I thought that I might write a prayer today using new images for God's faithfulness . . . but to my surprise, I'm stumped! What is more constant than a rock?! My cell phone, which is constantly by my side? It will glitch and die just before its two-year contract expires. The sun, rising every morning? Its lifespan is only as long as the day. The river, with its endless run toward the ocean? Its paths are ever-shifting and eroding, and its ecosystem varies depending upon pollution, salinity, droughts & floods.
So I pose the challenge to you for your creativity in prayer: what image of faithfulness might you use to describe God?

 I wrote this prayer, which doesn't exactly capture the idea of faithfulness, but does consider some different similes for God (cross-posted at

“For who is God except the LORD? And who is a rock besides our God?” (Psalm 18:31)

God, you are like water- present in all living things, surrounding us at birth, above us, below us, besides, within.

Holy Parent, you are like the scent of cinnamon and vanilla- comforting, pervasive, overwhelming, mouth-watering, magnetic.

Spirit of Hope, you are like calculus- mysterious, enigmatic, amazing when understood, an explanation for how things work, essential, but just beyond my grasp.

Jesus, you are my brother- teaching, teasing, wrestling, hide-and-seek, companion of long nights, fellow traveler, of the same stuff as me and yet even more. Even when I don’t speak to you, I cannot undo that I am your family.


What are your images for God and for God's faithfulness? 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Brother's Not Heavy. Jesus Said So.

I’ve been thinking about the cuts to SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) last week. Remember the House voted 217 to 210 to separate SNAP from the farm bill. The legislation that passed will significantly reduce SNAP funding in the next four years.

Good! Too many people abuse that program. Too many people sit around- expecting handouts.

Do you really think that? Do you truly believe the majority of food stamp (SNAP) recipients are just sitting around, doing nothing, and waiting for the mail?

Yes, I do. I’ve been to the grocery store on the day the benefits come out. It’s crazy.

Did you think it might be because people didn’t have the funds to go shopping prior to that day? Maybe their spare cash went to rent or a car payment.

Or to cable or to pay for an iPhone.

What would satisfy you in this scenario? There are genuinely people who cannot make ends meet. Do you care at all about that?

Let them get a second job.

Who will watch their kids during that time?

Maybe they should have thought about that before they had kids.

You know, the gospel reading for this Sunday is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. You know the one where the rich man feasts every day in expensive clothes and there’s a starving, sick man outside his doorstep whom the rich man ignores. Maybe he doesn’t even ignore Lazarus. Maybe he truly doesn’t see him.
Anyway, Lazarus dies and the angels carry him to be with Abraham. The rich man dies and goes to a place of torment. When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus with water, Abraham informs the rich man that the chasm between them could not be breeched.
Furthermore, Lazarus can’t go to warn the man’s brothers what happens if they are not good stewards of the gifts with which they have been endowed. They already have Moses and the prophets to do that.

What does this have to with SNAP? Or are you trying to change the subject because you were losing?

No, we always think about how Lazarus would have loved the crumbs from the rich man’s table. We make a big deal about how little the rich man could have done and how much it would have helped them both. But, in truth, SNAP is just table scraps, it’s nothing but crumbs. Congress could have passed that legislation and it would have been the merest noblesse oblige, but they couldn’t be bothered to do even that.

You always want to give other people’s money away.

No. I want to distribute God’s gifts. We can’t just throw out scraps or cast-off clothing or donate an old car and consider our duty done. There’s no justice in that.

Where’s the justice in feeding someone who doesn’t work?

Fine. There are people who cheat. There are all cheaters at all levels of society, but our almost single-minded focus on those in the lower economic bracket is gross and misguided. If you want people to NOT use SNAP and other assistance programs, we have to start sooner. We have to work on schools and neighborhoods and our justice system. We have to actually care enough about our neighbors to want to see them flourish and to help them do it.


Would you show up at a barn raising and throw a sack of nails across the floor and call it good?

No. I wouldn’t go to a barn raising at all. I don’t care about someone else’s barn.

And why would you? Their barn is their problem. They need to get it up by themselves. Fill it by themselves. And then feed themselves from it. Just like you do.


Where do you get your seeds?

From the farm supply.

That’s cheating. Make them yourself.


NO! You can’t have help. You have to make the seeds yourself. And it’s going to be a bitch building your own tractor. Let me know how you’re going to figure out smelting your own iron and making the rubber for the engine gaskets.

It’s not a subtle point you’re making.

It must be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have the same fight all the time. No one is self-made. There is a fundamental human community that must be recognized so that life for EVERYONE can improve. Lazarus and the rich man must learn to see one another, accept help from one another, and truly desire the wellbeing of one another.

But doesn’t Jesus say, “There will always be poor among you.” If I help the poor, aren’t I proving Jesus wrong? You wouldn’t want that.

Jesus isn’t proscribing a permanent situation. He’s speaking about a specific instance wherein his body could be honored- when people could actually honor the body of God. (Mark 14:7) He goes on to mention you can help the poor ANYTIME, but you shouldn’t fail to do so- under the guise of “giving to God”.

You just have all the answers, don’t you.

No, I don’t. But I do believe God expects us to help our neighbors. And I believe that God grieves when we miss clear opportunities to lift other people up into freedom and hope. Cutting SNAP is exactly the kind of thing that causes pain and is the evidence of a society with misplaced priorities.

Do you want people to be on assistance forever?

No. I dare to dream of something bigger- where people have enough to eat and aren’t afraid of getting sick and are able to save and have dreams for themselves. I dream of the possibility of joy. Not happiness, but joy. True gospel joy that flourishes in security and trust. Not flat happiness that is fleeting and based on momentary stability that can be snatched away. We must all want that enough for our neighbors and want it more than we want money or goods or services.

What if I don’t?

Then maybe you need to revisit Luke 16. 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Horrible Inclusion of Grace (Sermon, 9/22/13)

The audio for Sunday's sermon. No transcript currently available.

Notes on Jacob

(These notes were my "back-up" reflection for Sunday 9/22/13. God delivered a much more intense word in reality. The audio is in this post.)

Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

            For me, the stories of Genesis begin to feel “real” when Jacob appears on the scene. I understand Abraham as the “Father-of-many” and father of our faith. I sympathize with Isaac- in the binding, in the grief of the death of his parents, etc. However, Jacob- wrestling within the womb, grasping all he can, wanting more than he can define clearly, and prepared to do anything to get it- Jacob is a truly fleshed-out character, a human being, a person who makes the Scriptures pop and sing. After all, why would this ancestor be included, with his cheating and tricky ways, except that through him, we understand (like many generations before us) that God is no respecter of persons.

            Jacob comes out of the womb clinging to Esau’s heel and spends the rest of his childhood trying to overtake him. An oracle is revealed to his mother, Rebekah, there were two nations in her womb and the younger would overtake the older. Whether this provokes her later actions or gives her an excuse for what she does, Rebekah doesn’t hold back from helping Jacob grab onto what’s not his.

            Of course, Esau doesn’t help. He is very willing to give into his human desires, too. A birthright, his right to inherit all his father’s material property, for a lentil stew- is this the decision of a model older sibling? Of course, we grieve for Esau when he loses out on Isaac’s blessing. This is not a mere “bless you, my child”- but a powerful blessing that conveys with it the covenantal relationship between God and Abraham that will now be passed to Jacob. God’s words brought this into being and Isaac’s words pass it to Jacob. He cannot withdraw these words once spoken.

            Jacob has to flee so that Esau will not kill him. He has both the birthright (his father’s property) and the blessing of an elder son, but he is afraid and alone. He sleeps on a rock- probably terrified for his life for the first time ever. In his exhaustion, he has a vision of heaven and God speaks to him.

            Jacob is granted the one thing he cannot grab for himself- God’s blessing. God shows him a glimpse of heaven and speaks to Jacob of what is to come. Jacob will own the land on which he currently sleeps. He will have many children. God’s own legacy will spread out through Jacob.

            And it does. It is neither Abraham nor Isaac who receive the name “Israel”. It is not Sarah or Rebekah who give birth to the man who will save the Hebrew people from starvation- it is one of the wives of Jacob. The people of Israel are named through Jacob. The 12 tribes of the nation come through Jacob. Much of the identity of what it meant to be an Israelite comes through Jacob- a man who wrestled that blessing from God.

            The story of Jacob tells us that God is in places we do not expect, as Jacob found out when he slept in the desert. More importantly, God is present in people we do not expect and God is using them in ways we do not expect. Additionally, God’s blessing is not something we can grasp for ourselves. No one is keeping it from us and we are not earning it through good behavior. It is God’s to give freely and God does so, through the power of the Living Word.


Sacrifice (Sermon 9/15/13)

Genesis 21:1-3; 22:1-14


            The life of faith is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.


            Frankly, in a religious system that requires those who believe to tell others- sacrifice is among the LEAST appealing words. No one sings, “I love to tell the story. It is fierce and gory/ To tell the old, old story/ of Abr’m and his son.” We are squeamish at the songs that are about blood, about sacrifice, about giving up all our things, about the less- than- stellar human rights record of the church and its equally dull historical response to evil.


            It is also difficult to realize that even reading Scripture requires sacrifice. There are things that cannot all be true when we read Scripture as a whole. We all generally have a habit of considering certain stories more relevant than others. In so doing, we sacrifice what we don’t want to think about or what seems unimportant to what we prefer or seems more significant to us.

            Which brings us to the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac. This is a terrible story, a horrific story, and, in general, the number one story cited by atheists as a proof for the rejection of God. What kind of God would do this?

            And I’m confronted with a dilemma- do I defend God (is God’s reputation mine to defend)? Do I laud Abraham? Do I give Isaac or Sarah a voice that’s otherwise not recorded in the scripture? And I have a very small amount of time, so I will be sacrificing many things I’d like to say.
            This story requires sacrifice from us. We can choose to sacrifice from among many things, but there are three main choices that we will lay upon the altar and prepare to offer up and away from us. We must either sacrifice the idea that this story is a historical fact or we must sacrifice the idea of a God who does not test through trauma or we sacrifice the idea of God’s perfect foreknowledge, that God knows what we will do before we do it.            

            The first sacrifice that we may make is the idea that all Scripture is a historical fact. The stories of Genesis and early Exodus, in particular, were first written down when the people of Israel were in exile. Some had been told for generations and generations, but others were organized during exile to give strength to the people. A particular story may not have actually occurred, but still contained an important truth that supported the life of the people who are doing the telling.

            Israel was likely alone among its neighboring nations in not practicing child sacrifice. Other groups of people may also specifically have had a practice of sacrificing the first fruits of all things- plants, animals, and children. Israel needed story, an explanation, for the way they did things- sparing the firstborn children, refusing to kill their infants. The story of the binding of Isaac reveals a way that could have happened- God set up a situation to make it clear to Abraham that child sacrifice was NOT the things were to be done.


If this story is told during the exile- in Babylon or elsewhere- the people of Israel need to make sense of what’s happening to them and where God is in it. They perceive themselves to be the beloved of God, the firstborn of God’s plan, the vessels of God’s promises. They may be on the sacrificial altar of exile, but God will not let them be destroyed. Provisions will be made. Israel will not perish and the consolation story, the reminder tale, the encouraging word is a story going as far back as Abraham. God tested, but did not allow the beloved and longed- for son of Father-of-Many (which is what Abraham means) to die in the test.

If either of these constructions makes more sense to us than the idea that God would test Abraham in this way. Or that the man who argued on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah wouldn’t speak up for his son. If either of these reasons for the story is more acceptable, we have sacrificed the idea of historical fact (for this specific scripture reading) for a transmission of cultural truth.

Several years ago, I was meeting with some of the parents of children who attend our preschool (the kids do, not the parents). We met because a preschool family- two parents and two little girls- had died in a small plane crash. I met with people to talk about their own grief and to help them know how to discuss this with their children. We had a long talk about where God might be in such a tragedy and what we could know and what we didn’t know. At the end of a good conversation, just before we prayed, one woman said, “I don’t know. I believe God does these things sometimes to test our faith.”

I just looked at her, thinking, “If God feels the need to kill a whole family just to test our faith, then I’m out. I’m done. No more.” What I said was, “Hmm… well, let’s pray.” Maybe we look at this story and we think, “This is not the word of the Lord for me. I can’t believe in a God who tests through trauma. I have come to trust that God may stretch me and push me and even hit me upside the head sometimes. However, a God that kills children, a God that would even suggest it, a God that creates and uses horrible and traumatic situations to bolster faith, which is supposed to be a gift- I can’t believe in that God. I won’t.”

Perhaps we read this story and we have to either sacrifice the idea of a God who wouldn’t test through trauma (meaning God did and God does). Or we trust that God tempers our faith, but the wretched things that happen in life are not a result of God’s desire to see us be more faithful. They are the result of our choice (sometimes), the choices of others (sometimes), and the forces that oppose God. If God tests through trauma, then God wants Syrian civilians to die. God expects great faith to come from 8 and 9 year-old girls who are given in marriage to 40-year-old men in Yemen. God is building enormous trust through the inequality and inhumanity that is our criminal justice system.

If we want to accept that this story is factual and significant to Scripture as a real event, we must accept that God made Abraham righteous, but also tested the limits of that righteousness. That if God will test through trauma one time, God would, could, and does do it again. Is that a sacrifice you’re willing to make, a belief you’re willing to accept? Because holding that to be true will prove to sacrifice a certain peace of mind about God’s will in which we’ve usually found peace.

The last, and hardest, sacrifice we might make with this story is the notion that divine foreknowledge is perfect. Maybe God knows the arc of how things will work out, but does not always know how we will respond. God made a series of very serious covenants with Abraham- promises that involved generations, land, and blessings. God didn’t make these promises to just anyone and maybe it was time be sure the choice was a good one. Before Isaac gets to the age of reproducing, before the generations really get rolling, before Abraham tries to pass Sarah off as his sister again (as he did twice before), God needs to be sure that Abraham is truly faithful, is trusting, and is worthy of the work God intends to do through him. And God tests because God does not know for sure.

How does that sit with you- the idea that God does not know what we will do before we do it? This is the ultimate definition of free will- that we are faced with a myriad of choices and responses to God’s actions (God always moves first). When human actions occur, God responds- using the Spirit to bring about good. If God already knows what we will do, then why would God be involved in the world at all now? God can retreat, sit on God’s lounge chair, and relax until whatever time it is that Jesus will return. If we sacrifice the idea that God has perfect foreknowledge, we are received, instead, into a relationship with an active and responsive God.

I haven’t explained the story of the binding of Isaac. I haven’t said a firm statement about why it’s there or what it means. I can’t. We come to this story and it does require sacrifice of us. We must either embrace it as a story with truth, but not facts. Or we must believe in a God who tests through trauma, among other things. Or we have to let go of the idea that God has predestined and knows every action. 

This story requires a sacrifice, but so does all faithful living. We must sacrifice the idea that we can save ourselves, that we are in control, that our goodness brings redemption, that sanctification (becoming more holy) happens through our willpower. We must sacrifice the idea that we can fully know and, in the ashes of that surrender, the peace that passes our understand can and does bloom.

We have welcomed Jax into a life that is mysterious, frustrating, and powerfully hopeful. And it’s full of sacrifices, starting with God’s own willingness to create, to be involved, to walk among us, and to pour out the Spirit in blessing and guidance.


            The life of faithfulness is one of sacrifice. That’s the truth of it. Sacrifice on the part of God and sacrifice on the part of those who trust God, who want to trust God, who work to trust God.


Monday, July 22, 2013

Understanding Martha: We're Doing it Wrong

Pentecost 9 (Year C)
21 July 2013

Genesis 18:1-10a; Luke 10:38-42

            With this cartoon in mind, I think that the common interpretation of this story might have been wrong for several hundred years. Each story in Scripture has three contexts, all of which we are relying on the Holy Spirit and God’s gift of reason to help us interpret. With today’s gospel reading, we have to determine what was happening when the actual event occurred, why the writer thought it was important to include over nearly fifty years later, and what God is saying to us today with regard to the story.

         When Jesus first came to Bethany and stayed with Martha and Mary, he already knows them. They are friends of his. Martha is apparently the older sister, since the house is listed as hers. Maybe there is some sibling rivalry between Mary and Martha (younger and older) or maybe Martha has always done most of the work. Regardless, Martha has begun the culturally appropriate tasks of preparing her home to host a guest (or several) and Mary is not helping. When Martha complains about her burden, Jesus tells her Mary has made a different choice.

         The implication of Jesus’ words is that what Mary has chosen is more important that what Martha has chosen. It doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t understand that dinner has to get made, but that Martha shouldn’t be consumed with what has to be done, but should instead focus on who she’s hosting. Having Jesus present means that the focus isn’t on what you can do for him, but what he does for you. Mary is learning from him, hearing his radical teaching,… she is actually paying attention to who their guest is, as opposed to what has to be done for a guest. Even when we hear this story this way, most of us still have a lot of sympathy for Martha and what it takes to get things done. We are able to understand, however briefly, what Jesus is saying about Mary.

         When Luke is writing sometime in the 70s A.D./C.E., the early church is struggling with what to say about the role of women. Are they able to sit and learn with men? Do they have the capacity? Is it appropriate? When Luke includes this story in that context, it is a rebuke to those who believe women are better suited to the tasks of hospitality at the edges of the early church, rather than the work of discipleship through learning (and maybe teaching!). Luke’s story makes the space for people to hear Jesus say that a woman learning is right and proper and even part of their duties as his followers. Luke understands the importance of hospitality and the work of the community, but it is not to be done solely by women to the exclusion of their ability to participate otherwise in the life of the community.

         When we hear that interpretation, we are a little more able to understand the meaning and the layers of the story. Furthermore, in that context, we are able to see how wrong later church interpretation has been around this story. How many years have Marthas- people who are on the go or active or who get things done- been denigrated instead of Marys- people who want to sit, perhaps let someone else do things, and who learn well in traditional classroom settings? How many women have felt frustrated and hurt by this story? How many women have been told that they can learn, but then they can’t teach? How many men feel frustrated by this as well, but left out because the parable mostly seems to be about women?

         And, in all this, what if we’ve been very, very, very wrong about what the parable means for us in our time? The following saints have their feast days in the coming week (among others): Macrina (early church monastic and teacher), Margaret of Antioch (martyr), Mary Magdalene, Bridget of Sweden (mystic), James the apostle, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, Bach, Handel, and Henry Purcell. None of these were content with sitting, but all worked… all were active in their faith- even in doubt- to the glory of God.

         Every single one of those people probably related more to Martha of Bethany than to her sister, Mary. By venerating Mary over Martha all these years, the church has mistakenly promoted the idea that orthodoxy (right thinking/teaching) will always trump orthopraxy (right practice). Jesus never expected anyone to sit at his feet forever, but to learn and to go out into the world- knowing he’s with them!

         The gift of the Holy Spirit is not so we can continue to brood over Scripture, waiting and hoping for complete clarity. If we understand anything at all, it is that the love of Christ compels us to go out into the world and live- asking God to help and guide us. We are called to the hospitality of Martha, without her worry, knowing that we will be hosting Jesus everywhere we go. We will be encountered by Christ in the store and the school, in music and in art, in knitting and in running, in cooking and in shopping, in study and in action.

         The lives of the saints teach us that the church has been carried forward not merely by Marys, but primarily by Marthas. Marthas who have learned that Jesus is for them as well. Marthas who cannot be still, but learn on the go and on the move. Marthas who appreciate the call of hospitality, but also know whom they are hosting and Who is hosting them. Marthas who compose, teach, learn, make, and wait on the Lord.

         Mary and Martha of Bethany… we’ve been thinking about them all wrong. The grace of God is for both doers and thinkers, for teachers and students, for active learners and introspective ponderers. The grace of God is for all of them. For all of us. And so is the work of the kingdom. Amen.