Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Power of Apology Part II

I preached a sermon in June about the power of apology—not the defense of Christian faith kind of apology but the gut-wrenching admission of fault we all know too well.  At the end of my sermon, I asked the congregation to think of someone or some situation in need of an apology in their lives.  I also asked them to apologize and to report back to me about their experience.

I came into this little experiment with assumptions (as every researcher needs a hypothesis).  Yet as so often happens, the data surprised me.  I thought I’d receive stories about repaired relationships and long-lost friendships renewed.  I thought people would tell me about estranged relatives and re-energized marriages.  These situations may have occurred, but people didn’t tell me about them.  Instead, I received stories of people apologizing to themselves—and not one but multiple stories.  I was floored.  Throughout my sermon writing and delivery, and even as I waited for the responses, this option didn’t even occur to me.  It’s a good reminder the Spirit works between my mouth and the hearer’s ears—and thank God for that.

I received a gorgeous email from a woman who went home that Sunday after worship and took out a JC Penney photo of herself at age two.  I don’t even want to try to summarize her words as they are so heart felt and beautiful.  So here they are as she wrote them:

I talked to that beautiful child. I told her she was beautiful and smart and kind and strong. I told her she didn't deserve some of the things that have happened to her. I told her that her faith was strong and that she was alive because of that faith. I told her that the faith that her parents lovingly taught her would save her life time and time again. I told her how smart she is because she believes that God provides. Then, I told her I was sorry. That she didn't deserve to be treated so harshly by her adult self. Too much blaming. Too much shaming. Things in life happen. Some people go through life fairly uneventfully and some people have a different journey all together. In this beautiful little girl's life, she would have many struggles and she would suffer tremendously. But, she came through it all. I told the little girl that, from now on, she would be treated with the respect that she deserved. Because, as it turns out, she's a pretty great human being. She's not the reason so many bad things happened. They just happen. And, God provides.   

And if that wasn’t enough, she ended her story with this:

I got the sense that she forgave me. Praise God for that gift. I think that it has taken me so long to apologize because I wasn't sure if she would forgive me at all. And, how would I live with that? But, as always, fear is not real. All is well with my soul.

Thank God for the sighs of the Spirit.

I’m reminded of BrenĂ© Brown’s assertion in her book Daring Greatly that our ability to love others directly hinges on our own self-compassion.  Connecting with others requires connecting with ourselves first.  God’s grace gives us the gift of a precious identity—as beloved children of God.  When we can see ourselves as God sees us, it moves us to see those around us in the same way.  Maybe true apology to others can’t happen until we’ve apologized to and accepted ourselves.  The reality is forgiving ourselves may be the hardest forgiving we do.

I received another powerful story from someone struggling to forgive himself for mistakes made in his past.  He regrets some choices he made (don’t we all?) and isn’t sure how to move forward with forgiving himself and letting his regrets go.  Yet his past led to experiences of deep learning.  He learned to walk away from difficult pressures and embrace his own values.  His profound wisdom about what’s truly important in life is now razor-sharp.  Yet forgiving himself is still an ongoing struggle—as it is for so many of us.          

Throughout our lives, God’s grace is sufficient.  Even if we struggle mightily to accept ourselves with all our flaws and mistakes, God’s grace is bigger than any self-doubts we may have.  When our emotions are unreliable and our self-criticism can’t be contained, we are called to trust in an unwavering and dependable God—a God who already knows our deepest shames and hurts.  The gift of the cross and resurrection stands for all, and God embraces us as we are, for Jesus Christ already had the last words with sin—no more.

"For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus." Romans 3:22b-24

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Prayers for Reconciliation and Grace

I’ve been struggling to form a post about the recent court case in Florida.  I don’t know the details of what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that night.  I don’t know what was said in the courtroom that led to the decision of the jury.  I’m keenly aware of my removal from these issues and race is such a fiery topic, I’m afraid to approach it.  Yet as people of faith we need to figure out how to think about and react to a decision that affects our neighbors deeply.  I hear shock and anger from fellow pastors who work with urban congregations.  I know there are parents in my own community who are having conversations over the dinner table with their teenage children—conversations that include warnings about walking alone in their own neighborhoods.  The ripples from Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal will spread for many years to come. 

Our faith is living—it’s meant to be used at times like these.  How do we process societal issues and happenings through the lens of faith?  Undergirding the highly emotional topic of race (and in the Martin case, the death of a young boy) is our common belief in God’s emphasis on community and care for the neediest among us.  How do we as Christians engage Zimmerman and his family after the acquittal—are we going to ostracize them or work to bring them back into community?  How do we engage Martin’s family?  And most importantly—how do we work together to prevent something like this from happening again?  How do we create a world where kids (of any race) are safe as they walk their own streets?  Bishop Mark Hanson of the ELCA posted a tweet on Sunday asking, “Are we now ready to build a world in which George and Trayvon would be contemporaries in Jesus’ Good Samaritan story, not violent enemies?”  And Pastor Rick Warren’s simple tweet on Saturday said it all: “Hurt people hurt people.”

The first step is keeping our eyes open.  As much as we hope and wish race relations are getting better (and in many ways, they are), this case opened up a flood of emotions and reminded us there’s still work to be done.  I'm sharing some articles that are helping me process the events and learn why they're so deeply hurtful for so many.  You may not agree with the assertions made.  It’s eye-opening reading nonetheless and helps us all view the outcome from a different perspective--for faith is also about opening ourselves up to other views.  The loving creator of the universe is big enough to hold you up when you feel your faith is challenged.  It will come out stronger on the other side.

I tried to find articles that weren’t terribly political, but let’s be real—this issue is inherently political.  But I think despite our political differences, the church should be the place where we can talk respectfully about these issues.  I welcome conversation.

Christena Cleveland wrote a helpful piece for The Exchange that challenged me.

Bishop Stacy Sauls lays out some provocative questions.

Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary, thinks about how to hold unity in the church in the aftermath.

Wonderful: An Interview with Leroy Barber.

I’m sad to say I neglected to pray about the situation and its outcomes in church last Sunday.  It’s been on my mind ever since.  Lesson learned.  Here is my prayer:

God of grace, pour your reconciling grace upon us as a community and a nation.  We pray for the loved ones of Trayvon Martin.  We pray for George Zimmerman and his family.  May we find ways to work for justice, peace and safety for all our children.  May our eyes be opened to the plights of our brothers and sisters.  We know your faith and love are strong enough to destroy shame, hatred and evil.  Use us as workers for your kingdom.  Amen.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Sermon for Annika

Sermon for 7-14-13
Text: Luke 10:25-37

Dear Annika,

Welcome to the world and to the waters of baptism.  Today promises to be a hot summer day and we’re enjoying a stretch of beautiful sunny weather after a long, cold, wet spring.  It's so good to celebrate your baptism today. 

Today’s gospel lesson is a parable of Jesus—a story.  I find it appropriate because so much of life is about story.  Madeleine L’Engle says in her book Walking on Water, “We cannot Name or be Named without language.”  We need language and stories to tell us who we are.  You’ll learn your name, Annika, connects you to your mom, your grandma, and other women in your family who share the middle name Ann.  It’s also a Scandinavian name, which is a nod to your family’s heritage and traditions.  Your middle name, Roselle, connects you to your other grandma, whose middle name is Rose.  So from the start, when your parents named you, they wove you into the ongoing story of their families—as you begin the story of your parents’ expanding family.  No doubt you’ll hear, learn and repeat countless family stories as you grow—stories of vacations and long car trips and hiking in the mountains.  Stories of great-grandparents, recipes passed down for generations and relatives who walked to the beat of their own drums.  Maybe you’ll visit old family cemeteries—full of stories and memories—or places where your parents and grandparents used to live.  All of these stories will become your story, and you’ll learn and claim the language you’re given.

Stories will be told about you, too.  Stories of how you’re attached to your mom and don’t like to be far from her for long.  How you like to be held close and nap with your mom and dad.  How you like—demand—to be stimulated and don’t like to sit still, which connects your parents’ story to the story of so many other parents around the world who know what it’s like to walk a baby for hours around the house, bouncing and talking and singing until they’re ready to fall over.  There’s a reason why once you’ve spent a lot of time with a baby, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve held one, you’ll immediately start to bounce once a baby is put into your arms.  The story stays with us and becomes a part of us, and your parents will do this too.

In baptism you receive another story.  This morning you received the waters of baptism, connecting you with the story of our God who walked with God’s people through thick and thin until God’s salvation plan had to expand to the unthinkable.  God's word was spoken over the waters and you were named a child of God.  God’s love was so deep that God came as a baby—like you, Annika—to save the world.  God in Christ endured the cross and gave salvation to all through the resurrection.  And today God continues to save, to give faith and hope and life in the waters of baptism.  So God can write in God’s book of life, “today I baptized Annika.”  You’re now a part of the story of the baptized, those who can say, as Martin Luther did when he felt attacked by the devil, “Stop! I am baptized!”  I am a child of God.  I am loved and precious.  I am adopted and grafted onto the tree of life.  I am part of the story.  I am baptized.

Story will be a big part of your life from now on and will be the way you learn and make sense of life.  L’Engle also says that stories, like music and art, make cosmos (the Greek word for world) out of chaos.  We live in this big, crazy world full of unpredictability and suffering and vulnerability.  We live with so many unanswered questions.  Yet stories help us make sense of the chaos around us.  They give us a framework to live, a way to express ourselves, and a guide to follow.  Stories help us process all we see and hear and witness around us and sense an even bigger world.  We learn and witness the possibilities of God in story.

Your parents will read you books and before they know it, you’ll be reading books to yourself.  You’ll learn about Bible stories.  There’s a reason Sunday School is all about Bible stories.  It’s the place children absorb, learn and make these stories a part of their own story.  Many adults today haven’t heard the stories, and they miss something crucial.  To have Bible stories as part of your life from the beginning—so they become a part of you and your story—is a true gift.  It's why your parents' and sponsors' baptismal promises to you include placing the Scriptures in your hands.

This is why Jesus used stories (parables) so often.  He used them to connect ideas and concepts of God to everyday life.  The familiar story we hear today—about the Good Samaritan—leads us to question how we’re living our everyday lives.  We hear of a man left beaten in the ditch, passed over by a priest and a Levite (a dedicated temple servant).  A Samaritan—someone who was considered outside the realm of a good Jewish neighbor—is the one who tends to the man’s wounds and pays for his stay in an inn while he heals. 

This story leads us to ask questions of ourselves.  What kind of neighbor are we, and who do we consider our neighbor? The lawyer asks Jesus who his neighbor is in order to limit who he is responsible to.  Yet Jesus turns it all around in this parable, when he ends it by asking the lawyer, “Who was the greater neighbor in this story?”  It’s an easy answer.  The Samaritan helped his neighbor in need.

Your baptism today brings you into a greater story—a story of humanity and the Christian faith.  From now on, the gift of baptism will change you.  You won’t be able to walk by a hurting stranger without feeling a pull in your gut or see difficult images on the news without wondering if and how you can help.   You may not always be able to act on it, but you will feel it in your bones, because that's what faith does to us.  God’s gift of faith will shape how you see everyone else in your life.  You’ll see all people as children of God, loved and cherished like you, and this will guide and direct you as you seek to live according to God’s will.  Anyone in need—despite cultural, religious or ethnic distinctions—will be your neighbor.  Jesus’ stories are now your stories, Annika.  Hear them often and well.

Jesus’ parables almost always have surprise endings.  The man who wonders who his neighbor is ends up questioning his own identity and ability to be a neighbor.  The rich man is asked to forget the commandments and give all he has to find salvation.  The one sheep who is lost—despite many other sheep still hanging around—is sought and found.  An all-powerful God becomes a vulnerable baby to save humanity from the powers of sin and death.  This flesh and bones God becomes ultimately vulnerable at the cross, giving his life for ours, and out of this powerlessness comes the power to change the story of history.  Today, the story continues as we baptize babies—those who can’t choose or even accept God’s love—knowing all we need is God’s love to make a baptism work. 

This is your story, Annika.  May it make cosmos out of your chaos and guide and direct you as you grow.  You will always be baptized.  Amen!   


Monday, July 8, 2013

My Daily Books

All I’ve wanted to do lately is read.  I find myself stopping at the library with armloads of books at least once a week—last Friday I realized I may have a problem when I checked out 14 books even though I still had plenty at home.  (Many of those books were for my kids, but still.)  It’s been a chaotic year at our house, and reading has been my escape and therapy (it’s a good activity for introverts).  We’ve been experiencing a lot of changes—many of them very good changes, but disconcerting nonetheless—and books have been my friends through them.

This is my nightstand.  I have more books on the floor (though I didn't take a picture of them as to appear *normal*). 

Every time the weather gets hot and school is out I flash back to wonderful memories spending entire summer days reading all over the house where I grew up.  I read in my bed with a flashlight, in the worn armchairs and the basement couch with books propping up the place where the leg fell off, and in my beloved hammock in our yard.  I remember reading The Hobbit in two days, physically grieving after finishing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and A Wrinkle in Time, falling in love with Judy Blume, and devouring book after book in The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins series.  Summer simply makes me want to read.

We also quit cable.  This may also have something to do with my increased time spent at the library. I haven't yet decided if this is a good thing.

I’m so, so fortunate to have a job that allows me to read (and write)—a lot.  Sometimes I still feel like I’m getting away with something when I’m in my office reading through Barbara Brown Taylor sermons or keeping up with Rachel Held Evans' blog.  There’s nothing better than a morning sitting down at my desk with a cup of coffee and one of Eugene Peterson’s books.

I stumbled upon Sarah Bessey’s wonderful 10 Books a Day For a Week series recently, and I realized hey!  I can take all this crazy book obsession and put it on my blog!  I won’t be doing 10 books a day—I need time to read, mind you—but I’ll put up lists as I’m inspired.  Here’s today’s list:

Devotional Books I Read Regularly (Meaning Almost Daily)

The Bible Of course I had to put this first.  A very helpful tool for me is the Moravian Daily Texts.  You can subscribe to them over email and receive Bible verses every day along with a prayer.  It’s a great way to start the day.

Living the Message Eugene Peterson is my pastor.  He always manages to convict, inspire and direct me in unexpected ways.

Bread for the Journey Oh, Henri Nouwen.  His writing is so full of wisdom and gentleness and truth. 

Faith Alone These short devotions are taken from Martin Luther’s writings and sermons.  I’m still amazed at how contemporary many of them feel.

Good Poems Garrison Keillor’s collection makes poetry accessible and oh so real. 

The Cup of Our Life Joyce Rupp is one of my favorite authors and thinkers.  She helps me make sense of life, grief, and change.

Share your favorites with me too!   

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Friday Five: Tuesday Edition

I'm late to play the RevGalBlogPals Friday Five from last week.  So here is my Tuesday edition:

Whoosh!  My calendar is packed.  And June is almost gone!  There's the old saying, "Bad luck comes in threes" but I've decided that "Busy-ness comes in fives!"  So this week we'll take things five-at-a-time.  Tell me:

1.  Five flowers you'd like in a bouquet or in your garden:

Orange roses, number one.  Followed by tulips, begonias, tiger lilies, and hydrangeas.  I don't do much of the flower planting at my house, but I reap the benefits of a husband who enjoys landscaping.

2.  Five books you want to read (or re-read):

VB6 by Mark Bittman
I'm just beginning to discover Frederick Buechner (I know, I'm behind the times) so his books/sermons/essays are at the top of my list.
The Brothers Karamozav by Dostoyevsky.  I've picked up this book numerous times but just can't get through it.  Someday.
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is currently on my nightstand.
Notorious Nineteen by Janet Evanovich (and yes, I've read all 18 other Stephanie Plum novels)

3.  Five places you want to visit:

Washington, DC
Iona, Scotland
New Zealand

4.  Five people you'd invite for coffee/tea/beer and pizza:

My Mom
Barack Obama
Eugene Peterson
Amy Poehler and/or Tina Fey
Madeleine L'Engle

5.  Five chores or tasks you'd gladly give to someone else:

Again, thanks to my husband for:
Doing bills and tracking tax information
Cleaning the gutters

I would also gladly hand over:
Washing dishes
Cleaning the bathrooms
Picking up socks everywhere. in. my. house.

Bonus: A five ingredient recipe!

I hate to hand this over as it's my go-to potluck/party recipe, but here it is (I'm counting the two sugars as one):

Grape Salad

4 lbs. grapes
8 oz. cream cheese, softened
8 oz. sour cream 
1/2 cup sugar

Stir together the sour cream, cream cheese and sugar (and a little vanilla, if you want) in a big bowl.  Stir in grapes. 

Sprinkle on:
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans

Let sit overnight in the fridge.  The brown sugar and pecans will form a crust that is irresistible to most (if not all) people.

Bring to a party and watch it disappear.  Prepare by bringing copies of the recipe with you.  You will be asked.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Do Something

Sometimes I get so caught up in the business of being church I forget the Spirit actually moves in this place.  I read articles about how God is acting outside the church and we need to escape our walls but sometimes I see God moving right here, in this building, in this congregation.  I get so outward-focused (rightfully so, in many instances) I fail to see God’s presence in worship and in committee meetings that take place in our library or around the big table with some questionable chairs surrounding it in the Conference Room.  I forget the prayers in this place actually do something.

One evening I sat with a group of people who told me how special it is to be alone in a church building.  One man talked of prayer vigils in a former congregation when he’d sit alone in the sanctuary at two in the morning full of prayers as he tried to stay awake.  Another woman talked of practicing the organ in the quiet of her childhood church on Saturday evenings when she was in high school.  I realized I take it for granted when I practice my sermons in the empty sanctuary as the afternoon sun slants over the pews.  I don’t always notice when I come in early on Sundays and walk through the stream of colors lighting up the floor from the sun shining through the stained glass windows.  God is outside this building—but God is in it too.

I experienced a lot of prayer last week and I didn’t do much of the praying.  Someone reminded me our fancy Lutheran scripted prayers can take the wind out of Spirit-filled prayer.  The beautifully written words are wonderful and have their place—but not at the expense of spontaneous prayer (as writer Anne Lamott says, there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks and Wow).  I don’t want to snuff out in-the-moment prayer.  At a church small group gathering, I heard heart-felt tear-filled prayers prayed around a friend newly diagnosed with cancer.  I sat with a group of people hell-bent on moving this congregation to a new place—sometimes birth is easier—praying that God would be present in this discernment.  I was lifted by the honest prayer around me as we all spoke to God filled with hope that God really hears us.  Faith tells us this is so.

I found myself held up by the prayers around me.  These prayers did something to me.  As a pastor, I’m almost always the one to pray out loud.  I don’t mind it.  But when someone offers to pray for me or pray instead of me, I’m able to step back a moment and experience the power of prayer.  It’s so good to remember prayer has nothing to do with education or experience or age or faith.  The powerful prayers of children are a testament to its all-inclusive nature.  The prayers of last week lifted me, gave me hope and inspired me to keep moving ahead knowing this church—this little building—does something to bring about the Kingdom of God. And maybe I need to start letting others pray for me (and instead of me) much more often. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Sermon for Lauren

I thank David Lose at Working Preacher, as is so often the case, for the inspiration for this sermon.

Text: Luke 8:26-39

Dear Lauren,

Today is God’s good day.
A good day to baptize you.
Unconditional love, declared for you
God crossed all boundaries to make this day happen

To call you Lauren, my child, beloved
You are Mine

God made you, Lauren Lyn
And says, “She is good”
Gave you a sweet smile
Calm demeanor
A big sister who likes to teach
Though some days you won’t want to learn
You’ll challenge, stretch and bless your family
Your parents will ask, “Why us?”
Some days this will be a pleading question
When you pace them to exhaustion with questions
Sticky furniture, whiney dissatisfaction and nap-neglect
At the same time they ask, “Why us?”
With awe and reverence for the girl you are
All of you—your quirks and blessings
Created and claimed by a loving and faithful God.

God in Jesus did the same, long ago
Crossing the sea to Gentile land
For one act
To meet and free a man
Called Legion
Named after the demons who possessed him
At least 6,000
No one knew his real name anymore
They spoke for him
Ran from him
He was trapped in the tombs
Wandering in a graveyard
No clothes to protect him from scorching sun or sandy wind
Breaking the shackles with great, heaving seizures
Running frantically into the wilderness to spare others his sight
Empty, devastated, no one
Dangerous, separate
Bound.  Chained.

Bound. Chained.
The world tells us:
We’re never good enough
Skinny enough
Smart enough
Organized enough
Joyful enough
Rich enough
Talented enough
Friendly enough
Strong enough
Nice enough
Happy enough.
Worth enough.
Worth anything.

We tell ourselves
I lack.
I’m deficient.
I fail.
I’ve failed a lot.
I disappoint.
I can’t.
I’m not.
Legions of issues.
On medication.
Screwed up.
Let go.
Broken up.
Aren’t I worth keeping?

The world may tell you
Convince you
Worse yet--
You’ll convince yourself
You’re nothing but a patchwork
Of what you lack
Mistakes you’ve made
Talents you don’t possess
A body that doesn’t fit the right type
You’ll say, I’m Legion
Identified by my 6,000 problems and wrongs
You’ll ask
Aren’t I someone?
Aren’t I worth keeping?

Oh yes.
Jesus crossed the waters for you.
JUST for you.
He takes your sin and perceived lack and throws it into a herd of swine, 
hurling themselves off a cliff, 
shattering your chains, 
removing bounds
We don’t lack. 
Abound in God’s love
Child of God
Washed clean and cherished

So much more than our failures and disappointments
So much more than our addictions and health issues
So much more than our insecurities and egos
Not more, but through
Not lacking, but whole
God taking our weakness, our sin, and making something good out of it
For God knows how to work with weakness and make it powerful.
You are good.
All of you.

Clothed in a warm robe of righteousness
Grafted onto the tree of life so we grow from God like branches from a Redwood
Sturdy, ancient
Part of a long, long story
Rooted in our identity as children of God

When you’re lost
Forgotten who you are
Think of this warm, rainy, sticky summer morning
When the waters of baptism flowed over your head
When God drew you into God’s community
Sealed you with the Holy Spirit
Marked you with the cross of Christ

Ground yourself in the ancient tree of God
Deep roots
Nothing can shake you
Nothing else has the last word
The bonds are shattered




Only God's voice left to tell you through the sheer silence:

You are beloved
Child of God
Blessed and claimed for all you are
Abundant and full

Let your light so shine!


Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Power of Apology

Sermon for 6-16-13
Text: Luke 7:36-50

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’ Jesus spoke up and said to him, ‘Simon, I have something to say to you.’ ‘Teacher,’ he replied, ‘speak.’ ‘A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?’ Simon answered, ‘I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘You have judged rightly.’ Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.’ Then he said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ And he said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace.’

Let us pray:  God of grace, help us to admit our need for your grace and forgiveness, and to receive your forgiveness with gratefulness that leads to transformation.  Amen.

This morning, Luke gives us a beautiful story of forgiveness and transformation.  Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a Pharisee named Simon.  Simon’s role as a Pharisee means he's part of the religious elite.  This dinner is a formal affair.  It’s a gathering of powerful men in the community for conversation and debate. That’s what makes the entrance of the bold woman so surprising—even though privacy was different then and people were used to strangers coming in and out of their homes.  She clearly doesn’t belong.  She’s identified as a sinner.  We don’t know her specific sins, but that’s not important.  What’s important is everyone seems to know about her sins.  Her sins have become her identity in the community.

Her actions are shocking.  She intends to anoint Jesus’ feet with oil, but first she washes them with a river of her own tears.  She wipes them with her hair, which meant she had to take her hair down—another politically incorrect move.  She covers his feet with kisses, and finally gets out her oil to anoint them.  Her actions—inspired by her overwhelming gratitude—are absolutely outrageous!

This story provides a wonderful sense of balance.  Simon is the woman’s counterpoint.  For every appreciative gesture she makes, Simon makes an equally cynical move.  She shows gratitude and he shows judgment.  He can’t believe Jesus is allowing a sinner to act in such a way—in his home!  Why isn’t Jesus admonishing her?  Simon says to himself, “If Jesus really knew what she has done, he wouldn’t let her near him—much less touch him.”

Some interpret the woman’s actions as a plea for forgiveness and think she is anointing Jesus out of repentance.  But I tend to agree with those who think she anoints him because he has already forgiven her.  This changes our view of her actions, and we are left with her sheer and total gratitude.  Her gratefulness knows no bounds. She’s so overwhelmed by what Jesus has done for her that she can’t hold back.  She breaks all the rules about politeness and manners to express her thanks.

Simon, her opposite, sees himself as the righteous one. We often judge Simon as the bad guy in this story.  We like to think of ourselves as more like the woman--but we relate to Simon.  We know Simon’s hardness of heart, for how can we live life without a developing a few callouses?  Often we can’t see our own need for forgiveness.  Jesus turns all of Simon’s (and our) assumptions upside down. The woman had a great need for forgiveness and so she feels the most gratitude.  Someone who knows no need for forgiveness loves little.

This is what got Jesus in trouble.  Not his healing acts or teaching or feeding thousands.  It was his forgiving (or more accurately, his boundless forgiving).  His willingness to touch known sinners and those who thought forgiveness was out of reach is what stirred up controversy.  He identified with the lost and that is what led him to the cross.  Those in power didn't want to look deeply at their own hearts and actions, and Jesus forced them to time and again.

The themes of apology and forgiveness still ring true today.  There was an powerful story about forgiveness in sports news a few years ago. Umpire Jim Joyce blew a call that cost pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Yet the amazing part happened after the game—Joyce actually admitted he was wrong and asked for forgiveness. Bill Geist covered the story on CBS Sunday Morning.  He tells it like this:

…It was looking like just another depressing news story when something shocking occurred:  the umpire admitted his mistake and … and apologized.  “It was the biggest call of my career and I kicked the s--- out of it. I just cost that kid a perfect game," he said.  He didn't make up excuses, didn't say the devil made him do it, didn't announce that he was going into umpire rehab.  How old-fashioned!  Nobody takes responsibility and sincerely apologizes anymore (often on advice of their attorneys).  But what about the victim?  The wronged pitcher?   He forgave the umpire, saying, "Nobody's perfect.  You don't see an umpire after the game come out and say 'Hey, let me tell you I'm sorry.' He felt really bad," said Galarraga.  Such an act of grace, class and maturity is so rare in these contentious times no one quite knew what to do! General Motors presented Galarraga with a Corvette.

Before the teams' next game, Joyce and Galarraga met at home plate, the umpire wiping away tears, and many Detroit fans cheering them both … even the fans were showing sportsmanship! One man admits his mistake, the victim forgives him. That shouldn't be news … but these days it is.

It may be a stretch to compare Jim Joyce with the woman in our story from Luke, yet when is the last time you saw a MLB umpire cry? His display of emotion, regret, and gratefulness at being forgiven by Galarraga hits us in the gut.  

As Christians, we feel pressure to forgive and often feel guilty when we can’t muster up a truly forgiving heart.  But we don’t talk much about the transforming power of apology.  The Jewish faith lifts up the power of apology and claims forgiveness only happens after a heartfelt apology.  When an apology is perceived to be honest, forgiveness is mandated.  Rabbi Shraga Simmons says, "It is usually excruciatingly difficult for people to admit explicitly that they have done wrong. We excuse ourselves. We refuse to admit the truth. We shift blame. We deny the obvious. We excel at rationalizing. But the person who wrenches from himself the unpleasant truth, 'I have sinned,' has performed a great and meaningful act."

Maybe our gospel text speaks to our hardened hearts—hearts that refuse to see our need for forgiveness.  I’m don’t want to confuse this with shame—thinking you’re bad to the core.  Rather, I hope apology opens up acceptance of yourself and transforms you.  There is power in apology.  AA certainly tells us apology and taking responsibility for one’s actions are essential for transformation. 

So I ask you all to participate in an experiment with me.  Throughout the next week or two, think of someone who needs an apology from you.  It may be God or someone living or dead—only you can identify that person.  If you can, act on that apology and tell me about it.  I don’t need any details, but I’m interested to know how the act of apology transforms or changes you.  I want to know about the experience.  I’ll take your stories and include them in some future writing so you can see the thread of apology weaving through our community and beyond.     

The first step to knowing God is knowing we need God.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Ocean-side Faith

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the magical little town of North Wildwood, NJ.  Granted, I may love the town because I spent my time there with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in three years.  We spent our time together talking (and talking and talking), reading for hours at the beach and exploring the local delights.  We found a bagel shop where local residents (and those who’ve owned vacation homes there for years) could walk in on a quiet morning, sneak into the kitchen, and dress up their own bagel.  While playing trivia at a local establishment one evening, the local handyman haggled us from the opposite corner of the bar.  Everyone was friendly as we walked down the street or on the sea wall next to the ocean.  The conversations with strangers rarely stopped at hello—they all seemed to genuinely want to know about us and introduce us to their beloved town.  Their extraordinary friendliness almost made me wonder if I’d return home to a new slew of Facebook friend requests and wedding invitations.  Not to be, although I’m sure if I crashed their parties they’d welcome me in without any questions.

And oh, the ocean.  Our first morning there it was sprinkling and windy, yet I pulled on my shoes and set out for my first-ever ocean-side run.  The waves were active while I ran, crashing against the shore with insistence while whitecaps waved frantically.  A ship settled far off the coast in the fog and seeing it made me feel lonely as it sat in the vast empiness.  The ocean’s power is in its ability to make us feel simultaneously frightened and calm.  There’s peace and comfort to be found along with a reminder we’re only a small part of God’s good creation.

One of my friends kept saying, “The people here love it so much, and they want us to love it just as much.”  Their passion was contagious.  I’m still thinking about North Wildwood as I enter back into my patterns of leading worship and talking about the mission of the congregation I serve.  I know mission and evangelism are about more than hospitality and getting people into the building.  I know it’s about listening (and listening again) to the community around us as we look to reforming for the present and future.  I know it's not about making our congregation welcoming enough.  Even if we built a perfect building, others may not come.  I know it's about finding our unique mission.   

Yet I can’t get North Wildwood out of my head.  The people there drew me in by their passion and their genuineness.  As we walked past a neighbor of the condo we rented, each time he’d tease us about helping him wash his driveway.  A man sat by us as we watched the ocean, talking about the recent rise of the tide.  The people noticed us and treated us like we were worth a bit of conversation.  Their friendliness was contagious and heartwarming.

What if we, people of God, displayed such unabashed passion for our faith and our congregations?  We may not have a beautiful ocean-licked town, but we do have a bigger-than-the-ocean God who claims us at a font full of water made holy.  We want people to walk into our church kitchen to dress their own bagel (or coffee) as they talk with local friends and neighbors.  Our faith brings us such joy, peace and comfort.  We can speak of our faith the way the people of North Wildwood talk about their little piece of the ocean—with pride and welcome, hoping people will become part of our community and come back again and again.  Day-to-day life is different than a vacation at the ocean, yet we need to remember people are at a congregation for only moments--a vacation from and for life each Sunday.

I don't have answers, but I know my experience of hospitality was powerful enough that I'm still thinking about it.  So I'll continue to ponder what hospitality will look like in our changing churches and culture.   

                                            The view from my first ocean-side run.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Revelation Sermon

Sermon for 5-12-13
Text: Revelation 21:1-6

Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from the one who is, who was and who is to come.  Amen.

The rapture seems to be everywhere these days.  Every time we turn around we hear of another group trying to pinpoint the day of Jesus’ return.  Last fall we watched as the supposed date for the end of the Mayan calendar arrived…and nothing happened.  Many of you have read the Left Behind series and watched the movies, both of which depict the rapture event. 

If you aren’t aware, the rapture describes when a small group of faithful and chosen Christians will be quickly whisked up to heaven (leaving behind eyeglasses, watches, jewelry, etc.) and those who aren’t faithful enough will face seven years of tribulation before Christ’s final return and judgment. 

Those who believe in the rapture don’t know when it will happen, so they’re always looking for signs that it’s beginning.  There’s a website called and each day it’s updated with possible new signs of the coming of the rapture. 

The rapture is in our collective conscience.  Armageddon and tribulation are now household words.

The rapture is based on a theological system, not solely on the book of Revelation.  This system takes selected verses from Daniel, Ezekiel, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians and Revelation (along with other Biblical books) and pieces them all together to create a timeline for how the world will end.  This idea was brought into popularity in the early 1800s by an English writer named John Darby, and some Christian groups claimed it with a fiery passion we still see today.

The rapture is not a Lutheran idea.  If you remember very little from this sermon, I hope you remember that.  

Rather, Lutherans (and most mainline churches) rejoice in the entire book of Revelation.  We don’t worry about the rapture.  Revelation isn’t a mysterious code to be broken.  Rather, it’s meant to reveal to us the character of Jesus, what our future holds, and the sense of urgency that exists as we live in a clearly broken world that needs our help.

Revelation is a letter written to give persecuted people hope.  John wrote it to seven different churches who struggled with many of the same challenges we do.  They knew persecution, violence, great poverty and suffering.  Other churches were wealthy and apathetic--a theme that may hit a little too close to home for some of us.

It’s easy to get swept up in the sensationalism and anxiety that gets drummed up by Revelation and the idea of the rapture.  Yet it’s important to view Revelation as a whole.  Rather than getting caught up in the visions of the broken seals, the bowls, the dragon, the beast, the horsemen, and the creatures with human faces and countless eyes, it’s helpful to look at the pattern and the overall themes. 

Revelation isn’t chronological, but cyclical.  It moves from visions of despair and violence to gorgeous and expansive visions of the heavenly realm over and over.  Every time we feel we can’t take any more terrible and disturbing images, John moves to a vision of worship and glory.  The book ends, as we read this morning, with the most beautiful future vision in all of Scripture.

Revelation doesn’t tell us about the rapture when we might be chosen as the lucky ones who escape the seven years of tribulation.  Instead, Revelation depicts how (as one commentator writes) God “raptures” down to us.  Salvation is not us going to a mysterious place called heaven, but God coming to us.  The book begins by telling us how Jesus Christ is in our midst.  Jesus’ presence is a huge theme in Revelation—as is Jesus’ sacrificial love.  Revelation is ecological.  God has a commitment to the earth, and the earth is where salvation will occur.  God embraces all of creation and changes it for the better.  What we know and love is not abandoned, but transformed.

Revelation 21 tells us of the heavenly city of Jerusalem descending from heaven to the earth.  Everything is transformed and made new—not annihilated, but changed.  In this changed city, there will be no more dying and pain, no more tears, and no more hatred or persecution.  There will be no more injustice.  God’s holy city is made new.  It’s wonderful how this newness is located in the city—a place of community, where all God’s people live together.  This speaks directly against our temptation to live narcissistic lives, and calls us to embrace our community and creation itself.

The tears that are wiped away are not only the tears we have shed, but the tears we have caused.  God will wipe away the pain of sin throughout time, not only now but throughout history.  As another commentator writes, “God will not just comfort us and help us to forget the bad things, but God will redeem the whole sorry story of human history.”

This vision has given hope and life to Christians throughout the ages—from the hymn “Shall We Gather at the River” to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech:  

“With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

This is the ultimate hope of the resurrection—when the lion will lay down with the lamb and creation itself will be completely renewed.

The following is a video of chimps seeing creation for the first time after being in laboratories for many years.  Many of the chimps were in the wild before they were put into research, so seeing the world for the first time is at once familiar and transforming—just like God’s ultimate resurrection of us and all of creation illustrated in John’s Revelation.

To be released from the anxieties of the rapture frees us for life.  We're free to love, to transform, and to work for justice.  We're free to care for creation and to begin God's transformation of the earth today.  All the while, we cling to hope and find strength in what is to come.  

There's a story often told about Martin Luther.  When he was asked, "If Jesus were to return today, what would you do differently?"  He responded, "I'd finish planting this tree."  In other words, the best way to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom of God is to live our lives, caring for creation and one another.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Prayers for Boston

What a world we live in.  So many of us suffer from tragedy fatigue--for me, it manifests as a slow realization to the extent of the suffering in Boston.  It's been hard for me to absorb what's happened.  This afternoon I noticed a flag flying half-staff at the house across the street from the church (I have a good view of it from my office window).  My first thought was, "I wonder why it's flying so low?..."  Moments later the sadness of Boston enveloped me once again.  This fatigue connects me to those living in places experiencing continual and unpredictable bombings--I can't imagine the terror and sheer tiredness of it.

In the midst of all of the news coverage (don't get me started on the press reporting premature predictions just because they don't have anything else to say and need to fill air time!) I have found solace in--of all places--Facebook.  I see comforting quotes from Mr. Rogers and Patton Oswalt tick through my news feed and it makes me feel better.  Others have connected me with great reflections and stories.  I have few words this day, so I share the words of others.  Prayers fill my heart, even as I feel afraid to pray--just as it feels counterproductive to get too hopeful about a new job possibility or longed-for pregnancy (and no, that's not self-disclosure).  May God open our hearts to trust and daring hope.  May we be compassionate and may it make a difference.

Here are two lovely reflections from two local pastors: John Keller and Glenn Berg-Moberg.

The Blue Room has some wonderful links.

Holy anger and affirming life.

And this:  

May God's peace and hope reign.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert

I remember Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbooks sitting on the bottom shelf of an end table in my grandma's basement.  I leafed through them, amazed this man had seen and reviewed what seemed like countless movies every year--and giggled every time I came across a turkey symbol next to a hated film.  Siskel and Ebert felt like regular visitors in my childhood home, and I watched At the Movies each week as Ebert struggled through various surgeries and valiantly tried to return to his seat next to Richard Roeper.

Roger Ebert launched his internet presence about a decade ago, and his website has been on my favorites bar ever since.  Every Friday I looked forward to checking for his new reviews.  Soon he began writing his blog, which became more and more autobiographical as his illness progressed and took his ability to speak.  His writing was candid, breathtaking, wise, and heartbreaking. His perspective on life was empathetic and inspiring.  His 2010 cover photo and article in Esquire made me stand up and applaud.  I was awed by his resiliency and hope in the face of his illness, and the courage it took to reveal his true face to the world.  I feel like I lost a good friend and mentor on Thursday.

Goodbye, Mr. Ebert.

Monday, April 1, 2013

2013 Easter Sermon

Sermon for Easter Sunday, 3-31-13
Text: Luke 24:1-12

Alleluia!  Christ is risen! 
Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Kevin Kling is a wonderful local storyteller.  I recently heard him talk about a serious motorcycle accident he was in 10 years ago.  The accident left him with a paralyzed right arm and required surgery to reconstruct his face.  A man who witnessed the accident was so convinced Kevin had died that he started telling people about his death.  Even after this man read in the paper about Kevin's survival, he still couldn’t believe it.  Kevin likes to joke that whenever he sees this man on the bus in Minneapolis, the man still turns white and looks as if he’s seeing a ghost.

Resurrection is almost impossible to believe.  It’s outside of our experience.  Death always seems to have the last word in this life.  How can we believe it?

Luke gives women a big role in his gospel.  He has the most women (at least five, possibly more) on the scene when they go to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.  The women are perplexed when they find the stone rolled away and no body present.  The first thing the angels say to them is, “Don’t you remember?”  “Don’t you remember Jesus said he would rise from the dead?”

The women remember, and they believe.

The women don’t see Jesus’ resurrected body.  They only have a story, like us.

But they remember.

The women run to the disciples to tell them the news.  Even though there are at least five women claiming they saw the empty tomb, the disciples don’t believe them.  Instead, they think the women are telling an idle tale.

“Idle tale” is a tame translation of the Greek word leros.  This is the only time leros appears in Scripture.  It’s the root of the word delirious.  The disciples think the women are delirious—crazy—out of their minds.  To translate it crudely, the disciples think the women are full of crap—that their story is bull*^%#.

To dare to believe in the resurrection is an act of courage and faith.  If you have trouble believing it, you’re in good company.

Yet Easter is more than simply saying yes to the resurrection; it’s saying no to the power of death and destruction that surrounds us.  By accepting hope we say NO to the darkness. The resurrection puts darkness and death in their place.  When Jesus rose, death’s power was destroyed.

Last week I talked with someone about time he spent in the hospital several years ago.  He was there due to a serious health issue, and he told me his fondest memories are of the overnight nurses and attendants.  They were often immigrants and people he didn't connect with on a regular basis.  The hardest part of being in the hospital is often during the night, when there is time to think and worry and the visitors go home.  The compassion of the people who cared for him carried him through those fearful hours.  They brought him life and hope and pushed the darkness away.  They walked with him into the light of dawn.

The darkness was put in its place, and it was replaced with hope.  

Don’t you remember?

If you’re in the midst of death, stress, grief, depression, anxiety, darkness, self-hatred, disappointment…

Don’t you remember?

Jesus said he would die and would rise again on the third day, for you.  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia!

Don’t you remember the times in your life when death seemed like the only reality, the only option?  And somehow, somewhere, you found life and hope?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia! 

Don’t you remember?  Someone reached out to you, or you reached out and found someone, and you recognized each other and found compassion and support together?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia! 

Don’t you remember?  A warm spring day suddenly appeared in the midst of a seemingly endless winter?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia!      

Don’t you remember? When new green shoots appeared in the middle of miles of the charred and sooty remains of a forest fire?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia! 

Don’t you remember?  The time the right dosage was found and the medication finally lifted the depression and anxiety?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia! 

Don’t you remember?  Death and destruction are in their place, and the hope of the resurrection stands firm!  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia!      

WE SAY NO to the powers of death and destruction, even though they surround us, nip at our feet, and try to tell us they have the final word.  WE SAY NO.

WE SAY YES to the power of the resurrection and hope.

WE SAY YES to the resurrection, here and now.  Eternal life is lived out each day in our acts of compassion, recognition and laughter.  Alleulia!

In 2003, the Massachusetts Mental Health Center was about to be demolished after almost 100 years in operation.  Artist Anna Schuleit was asked to create an artistic exhibition to honor the building before it was torn down.  Throughout her work in various hospital settings, she was saddened by the lack of flowers in psychiatric hospitals and centers.  For her exhibition, she filled the old building with 28,000 potted plants and flowers.  The building was opened to the public for four days during the exhibition. 

She left the building as it was, but filled it with new life.  It was the same, but transformed—just like Jesus—just like us.

And my favorite--she took the basement hallways and covered them with sod, which was raked and watered throughout the day and continued to grow:

Some people found great healing in that building, and they found her exhibition to be a testament to their experience there.  Others had suffered greatly in the building, and found profound hope in her expression of joy.  They were given a new remembrance of the building.

She then donated all the flowers to psychiatric hospitals, general hospitals, halfway houses and homeless shelters throughout New England.

Darkness was put in its place, and new life created hope and joy.

We are a resurrection people.  That’s why we’re here this morning.

It’s easy to only see death in the world.  It’s much harder to say no to it and claim the hope and life of the resurrection.  There are days when it all seems like bull*%&#.

But in the midst of all of it we dare to be courageous and have faith.

Yes, the resurrection happened.  AND WE HAVE STORIES TO TELL.

Don’t you remember that Easter morning, when Jesus rose and the powers of darkness and death were destroyed?  Don’t you remember?  Alleluia!!