Sermon June 21, 2020

There is a African folk story of Sankofa – the story begins with a bird named Sankofa. She grows up in her community being confident in herself and loving life. One day, she decides to sneak away from her village. When she does, she meets a bird who insults her and causes her to doubt herself.

Sankofa has to return to her village in order to find herself again and confront this “voice” of the big bird. She is supported by all of her friends and ancestors. When she returns to the bird with her own sense of self-knowledge, the other bird disappears.

When she returns back to her village, her image is carved so that other youth in the village can remember her and her story. Because she had forgotten from where she came, she is depicted with her neck turned backwards.

The “Sankofa” has become a metaphorical symbol used by the Akan people of Ghana, generally depicted as a bird with its head turned backward taking an egg from its back. It expresses the importance of reaching back to knowledge gained in the past and bringing it into the present in order to make positive progress.

I love that symbolism. It’s so important that we learn from the past.

Kaj Munk was a Danish Lutheran pastor and playwright – and was a strong opponent of the German Occupation of Denmark (1940–1945). Several of His plays were direct attacks on Nazism. Despite friends who urged Munk to go underground, he continued to preach against Danes who collaborated with the Nazis.

The Gestapo arrested Munk on the night of 4 January 1944, a month after he had defied a Nazi ban and preached the first Advent sermon at the national cathedral in Copenhagen. Munk’s body was found in a roadside ditch the next morning.

Munk preached and wrote against the injustice of his time. He said, “What is, therefore, our task today? Shall I answer: ‘Faith, hope and love’? That sounds beautiful. But I would say ‘courage.’ No, even that is not challenging enough to be the whole truth.

Our task today is recklessness. For what we Christians lack is not psychology or literature. We lack a holy rage – the recklessness which comes from the knowledge of God and humanity. The ability to rage when justice lies prostrate on the streets, and when the lie rages across the face of the earth – a holy anger about the things that are wrong in the world. To rage against the ravaging of God’s earth, and the destruction of God’s world. To rage when little children must die of hunger when the tables of the rich are sagging with food. To rage at the lie that calls the threat of death and the strategy of destruction peace. To rage against complacency. To restlessly seek to change human history until it conforms to the norms of the Kingdom of God.

And remember the signs of the Christian church have been the lion, the lamb, the dove and the fish, but never the chameleon.”

Munk’s words have been echoing in my brain the last days. I wonder if we Christians in the year 2020 are brave enough to speak against injustice in our own time? Have we learned from the past? Are we willing to rage against injustice – even though that might feel upsetting and go against our inclination to keep everything nice.

I like to keep things nice. I admit that. I have prided myself on being a nice person. I like nice people. I always thought being nice was a good thing – and of course it is…But it is imperative we don’t forget that this faith in Jesus Christ is about so much more than being nice. In the gospel for today, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” The word of God – while comforting at times can also be convicting. It calls us to take a hard look at ourselves and our actions.

As followers of Jesus, he calls us to work for a better world and justice for all. It calls us to be uncomfortable sometimes – to risk having not everybody like us in order that we speak up for what is right.  Jesus understands discipleship as a series of choices made daily – to follow Jesus or to chase after something else. Jesus desires our sole allegiance. He even encourages us to pick up a cross and follow. Make no mistake – a cross made of wood is heavy. It cannot be casually thrown over a shoulder along with other things. Instead, carrying a cross takes a certain determination and persistence. But in doing so, Jesus promises we find life. Not comfort. Not ease. Life.

We have too often confused being Christian with being nice. Being a Christian does not mean being nice – it means being filled with holy anger at injustice. Being a Christian does not mean being nice – it means calling out those who treat any life as being less than other lives – no matter that person’s race or what side of the border they were born on. Being a Christian does not mean being nice – it means refusing to accept what is wrong with the world and working to be the change we want to see in the world. And as we do, we come to understand the fullness of life Jesus offers.

Usually when I pray for people, I pray for the peace that passes all understanding – but these days I also pray for us to have a bit more holy rage. A good measure of dissatisfaction with the way things are and a deep longing to use our energy to work for justice and goodness for one another. I pray for us to experience a thirst to learn about other cultures and issues and problems that we may not have paid any attention to in the past.

There’s a famous quote that reads, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In the spirit of Sankofa, that West African folk story, in the spirit of Kaj Munk, the Lutheran pastor who died rather than keep quiet about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, Let’s learn from the lessons that life and history has taught us, and pray for the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, and strength to work for justice and goodness for one another.

Let’s pray – dear God, we pray you guide us in these times. There’s so much hurt all around and we pray for all in need. Teach us how to care for one another as all children of the same Heavenly Father. Help us to lay down our pride and be willing to be instructed in the ways of justice and what each of us can do to work toward lasting peace. How might we do that this week? Show us, Oh God.

God, we pray for all who are struggling in body, mind, or spirit. We pray for your healing presence to be with all in any need – those who are recovering from surgery or are healing from an injury. We pray for those who feel lost or despondent. Help us to uplift one another with kindness and caring concern.

Dear God, we pray for our congregation during this time of worshipping differently. Unite us with your love and grace. Help us to invite others in and reach out to those who may be feeling isolated. Draw us all near to you.

Oh God, for these precious summer days, for friends, for family, for long evening shadows, for the cool breeze on the lake, the laughter of children, the smell of good food cooking, honest work, music – and all the millions upon millions of moments that make life worth living – we give you thanks. May we never stop giving you thanks and praise.

We pray these prayers and the prayers in our hearts in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Reverend Dr. Ruth E. Hetland

Pentecost

John 15:26-27; John 16:4-15 The Message (MSG)
26-27 “When the Friend I plan to send you from the Father comes—the Spirit of Truth issuing from the Father—he will confirm everything about me. You, too, from your side must give your confirming evidence, since you are in this with me from the start.” “I’ve told you these things to prepare you for rough times ahead.
4-7 “I didn’t tell you this earlier because I was with you every day. But now I am on my way to the One who sent me. It’s better for you that I leave. If I don’t leave, the Friend won’t come. But if I go, I’ll send him to you.
“I still have many things to tell you, but you can’t handle them now. But when the Friend comes, the Spirit of the Truth, he will take you by the hand and guide you into all the truth there is.’

I love when the timing of things comes together – like I always think it’s lovely that we remember Pentecost this time of year that is traditionally a time when changes are happening. Graduation, confirmation, people moving back from being away for the winter and some moving away for summer jobs, flowers and trees blossoming with life again, some of our normal routines ending and making way for different routines – it’s a season of change and motion. Like Pentecost – the rush of the Holy Spirit coming in, like fire, like a strong wind – moving and refining us, changing us.
Changing us. What do you think of when you think of change? I’ve always said I love change, seeing different places, doing different things. There’s something inside me that needs it, craves it. Lately I have been going through my closets and books, getting rid of a ton of stuff. When Chad’s parents died and my parents died, we ended up with a lot of their stuff – and they had ended up with a lot of their parents stuff – and over time, when added to our own stuff, it just got to be a lot of stuff. Some of that I needed to hold on to for a while after they died. I couldn’t quite bear to get rid of my grandmother’s waffle maker even though it weighed about thirty pounds and the handle had broken off the lid so it was pretty much guaranteed you were going to end up with some kind of burn on your hand every time you tried to make a waffle. But it had been on that old waffle maker mom would make waffles for me and we’d sit and talk forever over breakfast. And I couldn’t quite get rid of many of my dad’s books even though they were so old and musty. I didn’t need them, I had plenty of my own books…but those were the books that filled the shelves in my dad’s room and brought him comfort through years of sickness and being homebound.
But lately I’ve started to feel like I can let go of some of those things, release them. It’s been a surprisingly spiritual process, to let go, to make room, to create space. To remember that a waffle iron collecting dust in my garage doesn’t bring me closer to my mother whom I always carry in my heart. Some books I never open have nothing to do with what my dad meant to me.
And it seems like the process of getting rid of a few things is catchy because then I started to look at everything with a discerning eye and asking myself questions about it. Do I own that painting because I like it or because a parishioner gave it to me 18 years ago and I felt like I should put it up? Do I own two crock pots because I need two crock pots or because I might need a spare just in case?
Anyway, the change of letting go of these things has been really life-giving lately. But I was ready for that change. I gave myself time, I didn’t have to rush into it.
Some changes are nice, right? Like graduation or confirmation, weddings, promotions, etc. – you’ve been preparing for it, there’s lots of good stuff about it, it’s exciting and you get cards and cake. Change is good! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Right on!
But sometimes, oftentimes, changes come that we didn’t prepare for. Changes come that we didn’t want or feel like we needed in the least. The disciples must have felt this when they ate that final meal with Jesus and he started talking about how he wasn’t going to be with them much longer but the Spirit of Truth would be. “What? He’s leaving us? Why is he yammering on about this Spirit – we need Jesus with us, our Teacher. Where is he going? Why does everything have to change?”

It was confusing for them then and confusing when a short time later there was the sound of the rush of a violent wind and tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and rested on each of them and all were filled with the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit allowed them to understand each other speaking in their own native language.
And it can be confusing for us now as we think about the Holy Spirit and what it means for us in our daily lives.
There’s this great Rabbinic story about three disciples who used to study with their master teacher on Sabbath evening. And one night the three disciples were walking home and one says to the other two, “I’m so sorry the Rabbi spoke with me the whole night.” Then the second one said, “What are you talking about, it was clear that the Rabbi spoke with just me.” Then the third said, “You both are crazy, it was obvious the Rabbi was talking only to me! And it is me who should be apologizing to you two.”
Just then, all three of them fell silent because they realized what had happened. The ancient commentary says, “So it is with Spirit, that each person swears the divine was speaking to just them.”
You know that feeling, don’t you? When a something someone wrote or sang or spoke seems like it was written entirely for you and for what you are going through in that moment. That’s the motion of the Holy Spirit right there.
The Holy Spirit may seem difficult to describe, and yet we know it. We feel it. It’s what gives us a glimpse of encouragement when despair is setting in too close. It’s that intangible thing that unites a group of people, bringing a sense of kinship and light and peace. It’s when a deep truth settles in your heart, and you know something matters.
It’s like love – you can’t reason it out or ever describe it fully, and yet you know it. When it touches your life, you are never the same.
The Holy Spirit, also referred to as Comforter, Encourager, and friend, is always with us. It’s here right now as we worship and will go with you as we leave and go our different ways later. It’s with our friends who aren’t here this morning – wherever they may be – sharing cups of coffee over breakfast, on a trip out of town, sleeping in. It’s with you graduates as you take your next steps now and each day become more of who God made you to be.
Sometimes it is what comforts us through times of difficult change, and sometimes the Holy Spirit is the very thing encouraging us to make the big change. It’s a mystery and as close as your own heartbeat.
Maybe that’s why it seems like we talk more about God and Jesus than we do about the Holy Spirit. The other two parts of the Trinity seem more well-defined – God created all the things and Jesus the Savior of the world – meanwhile the Holy Spirit is this misty, filmy, ambiguity.
But it isn’t really. In some ways, we know it best – but the Holy Spirit is just easier to feel than to explain – because it can’t be explained. The Spirit is poetry and music, not a speech. The Spirit is a whisper and a nudge, the holiness of holding a newborn and smelling their head, it’s the sound of the wind in the leaves, the way your name sounds when it’s spoken by someone who loves you most, it’s the taste of good food shared with friends, that sudden great idea that came to you when you were daydreaming during the sermon, it’s the sunrise, the sunset, a walk in the woods, your favorite song, the scent of fresh-cut grass – or anything that makes you feel truly alive.
The Holy Spirit is what brings the things of God right into our day to day – right into us, our very breath. Remember that the Hebrew word for Spirit, Ruach, it is the very same word for Spirit as for wind and breath. That’s right, breath. You breathing in and out right now, that’s holy. The Spirit of God alive in you and through you.
You see, the high holy day of Pentecost is the day of the church year when we seem to try to put to words what can really only be felt. It’s true. So, I’m going to stop talking – and let’s pray…

Scars

I have a scar on my index finger from a car accident back in 1996. One minute, I was cruising down a road near Parkers Prairie and the next my car was skating across glare ice until I landed upside down in the ditch. In the sub-zero November temperatures I assessed my situation. My glasses were broken. I had been in the midst of moving to a different apartment and so I had a bunch of my stuff in the back seat that was now blowing across the snowy countryside. Papers, clothes, a random tube of eyeliner. My right index finger was bleeding and as I looked closer, I noticed a bone, snapped and sticking out of the skin. I observed it thinking, “Hmmm…I would think that would hurt more than it does.”

I grabbed a sweatshirt that had landed next to me among the wreckage and wrapped it around my hand. I remember it all in slow motion – the nice farmer stopping to help me and giving me a ride to the hospital, then laying in an operating room with just enough anesthesia that I couldn’t feel them putting my finger back together, but I could hear the doctors talking to each other, one said, “That was a bad accident – did you hear her vehicle was completely smashed in? Did you know she is a seminary student – I think someone is watching out for her.” And the other doctor said, “Oh yeah – well if someone is watching over her so closely, why did the accident even happen?” Touche, I thought.

The wound has healed. But sometimes when I write too much or do a lot of work with my hands, that old broken bone in my finger aches and calls my attention to it. Nearly twenty years later I didn’t think it would still bother me, but it remains…a tiny, dull ache.

Years ago, I ran across a little article meant to explain to children about scars and why they form and what to do about them. I saved it because I heard wisdom in it not only for our physical scars – but maybe for others as well.

Dr. Brian Flyer, the author of the article, says, “A scar isn’t always a sure thing. It’s not so much how deep or severe a wound is that determines whether a scar will form, but rather the location of the wound and that person’s tendency to form scars.”

What sorts of scars do you have? If I asked you this question, I wonder what you would say? Would you pull up your sleeve and show me the mark on your elbow from your first time out on rollerblades? Would you tell me about the blemishes that remain from your bout with chicken pox? The interesting thing is that each scar has a story – and people are usually more willing to talk about the visible scars that remain on their bodies than the invisible ones that have hurt their spirit or their heart. The thing is – we all have them. The question is – is there anything to be done about them?

Maybe you heard about the United Methodist minister who had been in a serious accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. He had a lot of pain, and was given shots to reduce it. The procedure was always the same. When the pain got bad enough, he would ring a buzzer, and a nurse would soon come to give him the shot. One day, he rang for the nurse and then rolled over on his side (with his back to the door), pulled his hospital gown up over his exposed backside, and waited for the nurse to come in. When he heard the door open, he pointed to his right bare buttock and said, “Why don’t you give me the shot right here this time?”

After a few moments of silence, he looked up. It was a woman from his church! Following a brief embarrassing conversation, the woman left, and the minister—thinking about what he had done–started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes when the nurse arrived. When he tried to explain what had happened, he began laughing even harder.

When he was finally able to tell the nurse the whole story, the wonderful thing he noticed was that his pain was gone! He didn’t need the shot, and didn’t ask for one for another 90 minutes.

You and I both know people who have been through terrible tragedy in life – illness, loss, chronic pain…and there can be a huge difference in the ways people let those sorts of tragedy affect them. Some become broken. Some show amazing resilience. But what a blessing, no matter what our natural response might be, when God grants us the grace to laugh even when things seem most grim. It may not solve the problems of life – but it makes them easier to bear.

Peter Berger calls laughter a “signal of transcendence” – a sign built into us so that deep down, even if our heads are telling us that there is no God, our hearts tells us different. Laughter tells us that life, despite its seeming randomness and chaos, actually has meaning and purpose.

However, while finding laughter in the midst of hardship is certainly wonderful, one might ask, isn’t there a way to prevent wounds and scars altogether? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “The best way to prevent scars is to prevent wounds! You can reduce your chances of getting hurt by wearing kneepads and helmets – but even with protective gear a person can get hurt once in a while.” If this happens, you can help your skin heal itself by treating it well during the healing process.”

Enid was a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly two years before she sought counseling with Dr. Rachel Remen. Withdrawn and distant, she no longer cooked or looked after her garden or her house. Most of the time she sat in her bathrobe in the living room, looking out the window. She had been brought to see Dr. Remen by one of her daughters who had told her, “I lost both my parents the day my father died.”

Enid was a lovely woman in her early seventies, but she seemed as lifeless as the chair she sat on. Dr. Remen opened the conversation by asking her why she had come. “My husband has died,” she replied, “My daughters would like me to talk about it, but I do not think that I care to.” “No one could possibly understand.”

Dr. Remen nodded in agreement. “Yes, of course,” she said. “Only your husband could understand what you have lost. Only he knew what your life together was like. If he were here Enid, what would you tell him?”

She considered this for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and began to speak to her husband aloud, telling him what life was like without him. She told him about going to their special places alone, walking their dogs alone, sleeping in their bed alone. She told him about needing to learn to do the little things he had always taken care of, things she had never known about. She reminded him of times that only he would remember, old memories that no one else had shared. And then she began to cry.

When her tears stopped, Dr. Remen asked her if there was anything she had not said. Hesitantly she said how angry she was with him for abandoning her to grow old alone. She felt as if he had broken a promise to her. She missed him terribly.

“Enid,” Dr. Remen asked her, “If Herbert were here, what would he say to you about the way you have lived since his death?” She looked startled. “Why, he would say, ‘Enid, why have you built a monument of pain in memory of me? Our whole life together was about love.’” She paused. Then she said, “Perhaps there are other ways to remember him”.

Afterward she said that she had felt that if she let go of her pain, she would betray Herbert’s memory and diminish the value of his life. She had begun to realize that she actually betrayed him by holding on to her pain and closing her heart.

There is no way to prevent the wounds that occur in the course of our lives. The cost of love and life is that we will end up hurt sometimes. But we help ourselves heal when we realize that every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this.

Even so, we might still ask ourselves if scars are things we have to bear forever. Aren’t there ways to rid ourselves of them completely and start fresh? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “Some scars fade over time. If yours doesn’t and it bothers you, there are treatments that can make a scar less noticeable.”

My mother had major heart surgery in 1995. At first after the surgery she always wore blouses with necklines that were high enough to conceal the top of the long scar that began just at the bottom of her throat.

Over time, however, she didn’t mind if people caught a glimpse of her scar. It’s like she almost became a little proud of it because that scar spoke of something she had been through – a tale that she lived to tell.

Could it be that we are wisest when we learn to see all of our scars that way? Not just the scars of surgeries we have survived – but the battle scars that life has given us. The scars that remain inside us from love lost, from all the hard stuff of life, even the scars that we hardly dare speak of because if people knew about them we think those scars would say something about us that we don’t want everyone to know. Scars left by things like failures, like bad choices made, like shame at something we said or did that we know was beneath us?

Could it be that a part of our healing is to be able to show the scars we have acquired – to not hide them but to say “See – see what I have been through. These say something about me. These scars tell you who I really am.”

Jesus himself knew that it was only by showing his ruined hands and feet to the disciples when he appeared to them after the resurrection that he could prove to them it was really him. He said, “See my hands and my feet – that it is really me.”

Let me tell you something – your scars are exquisite. Have you ever noticed how when you come to know someone as a friend – you may initially admire them for their strength or their bravery or their success – but they become real and dear and more and more beautiful as you begin to know the things that have caused them pain, the parts of them that have been broken, and the stories of their suffering?

There are so many reasons that we only show those parts of ourselves to those closest to us. We worry about seeming weak. We worry about people thinking we are fragile or incapable.

But I love what Paul writes in our second reading for today – he talks about a thorn given to him in his flesh and how he prayed it would leave him. We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh was. It could have been some physical ailment or maybe even an emotional ailment. Whatever it was, it troubled him and even though he prayed for it to go away, it didn’t.

And yet, he came to understand that even still, God could work through him – writing, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Trying to understand why the scar-causing things in life happen is futile, but we can find comfort in knowing that somehow, God’s strength, God’s provision, God’s grace can still shine through.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a woman who was injured in a diving accident in 1967 – the accident left her, then 17, a quad­riplegic in a wheelchair, without the use of her hands. Since then she has written over 50 books, and has become an advocate for all those with disabilities. She has been quoted as saying, “Deny your weakness, and you will never realize God’s strength in you.”

Tell me about your scars. Let’s be okay with being honest with each other about our flaws, our imperfections – because when we do, we’ll more readily begin to see all the beauty that God can still create even and especially in our brokenness.

What Does God say about Love

My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love. (I John 4:7-8)

12-14 So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it. (Colossians 3:12-14)

34-35 “Jesus said, Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” (John 13:34-35)

16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.  (John 3:16-18)

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.I Corinthians 13:4-8 

Love must be completely sincere. Hate what is evil, hold on to what is good. 10 Love one another warmly as Christians, and be eager to show respect for one another. 11 Work hard and do not be lazy. Serve the Lord with a heart full of devotion. 12 Let your hope keep you joyful, be patient in your troubles, and pray at all times. 13 Share your belongings with your needy fellow Christians, and open your homes to strangers. (Romans 12:9-12)

A message on Living a Life of Love

What Does God Say About Fear, Anxiety, and Worry?

It was January of 1993 – the lonesome stretch of winter when the novelty of the season has worn off and everyone knows there’s still a long way to go until spring.  I was between college and seminary and traveling around with a Lutheran Youth Encounter team. I’ve shared with you stories of those years before. We put on programs in churches sharing music and stories and puppet shows. The team I was on that year traveled mostly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Canada, and North and South Dakota.

We traveled in a beige paneled van from place to place and this was in the days before everyone had a cell phone with GPS. We used maps and directions given to us by people at the churches we were headed to. We learned in those days that most people are not very good at giving directions. We also learned that there are some roads in North Dakota that are not plowed all the way through during the winter. We figured this out one day as we were trying to take a short cut from one small town in North Dakota to another, cruising along on a wintery gravel road. We went over a small hill and as we came down the other side were stopped abruptly as we were buried up to our hood in snow.

So there we were. No cell phones to call for help, the winter wind swirling the snow all around us. The temperature hovering around zero. Miles from anywhere. The seven of us all responded differently. One stayed in the van eating snacks. Some tried to dig out the van. A couple more walked down the road for help. One put on headphones and waited and worried. And after briefly attempting to help dig out the van but feeling our efforts were futile, me and my friend Chris bundled up, took pictures, trudged to an abandoned house nearby to explore, pretended we were the Ingalls family in the Long Winter, and laughed until our sides hurt. I maybe should have been worried and afraid – and I’m sure if I had been alone, I would have been. But I wasn’t alone. I was confident that help would come and in the meantime, I had a ball goofing around with Chris. Sure enough, within a couple hours, the two who had gone for help returned with a tractor to tow us out of the snow bank. All was well.

But I have often thought about that day – how what I remember the most of it wasn’t being lost or stuck or cold or scared or how we were late for our program that night. No, what I remember is laughing with my friend and how a friend can make even the least favorable circumstances better just by being there.

The Bible contains many scriptures about fear, anxiety, and worry. God knew that part of every life is experiencing those emotions. And it seems to me there is plenty to feel anxious about. Pandemics, finances, the well-being of people we love, what might happen, what might not happen, aging, will I say something stupid, will I miss my chance, am I wasting my time, will he fall off the wagon again, how will that debt ever get paid off, will the business crumble, will I ever feel healthy and good again, will my loved ones be deported, why are there so many guns, will somebody take away my guns – you name it. Fear, anxiety, and worry are our daily companions.

But they aren’t our only companions. Something we talk about a lot is God’s promise that God is with us to help carry the burdens, shine a path along our way, give us wisdom we need step by step. God is our daily companion along the journey of life and knowing that brings us comfort as we face the fears, anxieties, and worries of life.

But God knew that sometimes we need God with skin on – so that is why God has also given us the companionship of friends. What a precious gift friends are. It’s our first friends who teach us important lessons about sharing and taking turns and forgiveness.  Friends we meet when we are young help us survive the growing pains of the pre-teen and teenage years. Whether playing on a sports team together or going to camp together, it’s never simply experiences that make life rich, it’s experiences shared, isn’t it?

Studies show that friendships not only make us happier but they help us live longer and better lives. People with friends recover more quickly from illness. Social ties reduce stress which helps to lower blood pressure. Getting together with friends helps lower depression. And this doesn’t mean one has to be a social butterfly – even having one or two real friends is all that one needs.

We experience the grace and love of God through our friendships – God works through them in our lives to remind us of important things – to laugh, to relax, that it’s okay to talk about things that matter, and that we aren’t alone as we journey through the seasons of this life. As the old saying goes, “Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil.”

And friendship is something we find in our community of faith as well. While the word of God gives us life and hope and grace, we come to understand what that means through our life together. Oh, congregations are far from perfect – there can be hard feelings or misunderstandings or brokenness in a congregation just the same as in any group of human beings – and yet, somehow God works through us to help dispel the darkness for each other.

I know many of you are missing the community we share here – it’s hard to not be together. And I know many of you carry worries of all different kinds, maybe things only you and God know about. And when you are feeling fear or worry or anxiety, remember you are not alone. God is with you.

And remember also that at any moment you can be God with skin on for someone else by sharing your word of kindness or compassion or grace. Your friendship to someone today will help make their burden easier to bear. You have the power to do that. Your words and actions are incredibly powerful – you can bring healing and hope and joy to someone today. Your phone call or letter can shatter the loneliness someone is feeling today.

We rarely think of ourselves, our words as that powerful – and yet it is so true. Oprah tells a story about Dr. Maya Angelou. She said they were at a party at Dr. Angelou’s home and a guest told a “joke” that had foul language and ideas. And to everyone’s shock, Dr. Angelou quietly escorted that man out of her home: kind, firm, but unmistakeable. And she said to Oprah that she did that because words have power and weight especially in our homes. She said something like, “I will not allow you to paint my walls and my furniture with your filthy toxic words.”

Words matter. Your words matter. Words build or destroy, plant seeds of friendship and goodness or division and pain. How will you use your words today?

Immediately

Sermon – December 29, 2019

Beginning today and going through Easter, the Sunday morning readings are centered on the gospel of Mark. Mark is considered to be the oldest, the first of the four gospels written. It is very similar in nature to Matthew and Luke.

Each of the four gospels begin very differently. The gospel of John begins with beautiful poetry about the Word of God coming into the world. If you remember just last year at this time when we were beginning the Gospel of Matthew we saw how Matthew chose to begin his gospel with a long lineage of ancestry – reminding us of where and from whom Jesus was descended. And both Luke and Mark begin by sharing about John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is a well-known figure of the new testament. He is known for several reasons. Partly because of his unusual appearance and habits. It was said that he dressed and ate very differently than most everyone else. And he acted differently than others as well – everything he did and said pointed other people toward someone else. He baptized Jesus in the Jordan.  But this gospel doesn’t linger very long on John or on anything – it is the shortest gospel by far – in fact, it’s possible that this gospel was written so that it could be easily memorized and told aloud.

Mark was written for a wide audience. This gospel focuses on Jesus’ role as the suffering servant and son of God. While the other gospels contain long teachings and sermons of Jesus, Mark is all about action. This is where we see Jesus doing things, and then doing more things. Of the four gospels, Mark reads most like a story.

After eight verses about John the Baptist, chapter 1 of Mark takes us on a whirlwind – from Jesus’ time in the wilderness to the beginning of his ministry and then the calling of his disciples.

It’s very action-oriented – the word “immediately” shows up frequently – 44 times in the 16 short chapters of Mark. 

Immediately.
In some ways I love the gospel of Mark – it’s kind of like the Cliff’s Notes of the gospels. You can read it fast and get the bulk of the story. But in other ways it is my least favorite because I love the rich imagery that we get to linger over in John and getting to hear the inside stories and details found in the other gospels.

But I think that’s because in general I’m tired of so many things being immediate all the time, trying to cram too many things into a day. I’m tired of telling my kids to “hurry up” constantly. It’s become a joke in our house – but kind of a sad joke, I think – because apparently I am forever telling my kids to hustle, and “there’s no time”. Like many, many families, it feels like we cram so much into our days that we are constantly rushing around from one thing to the next – feeling like there is so much to do and rarely feeling like we are doing a good job at any of it.

Immediately. Fortunately, though – even though it is a quick gospel – there’s a lot packed in there – And lucky you – because over the next three months you will get to hear a different perspective on this gospel from all sorts of different preachers! Twelve different preachers! You are going to have so much fun and learn so much. I’m so happy for you – even though I’m going to miss you.

And me, I get to shove that word “immediately” out of my mind for a little while. Or at least I will do my best.

Someone asked me shortly after our congregation received the Lilly Grant what a sabbatical is. It comes from the word sabbath – which means to rest. The intention of a sabbatical sometimes is to produce something – like sometimes professors will use the time to write a book – but in its purest form, a sabbatical is a time apart to rest with the intention that when you return, your mind and body will have had a chance to be renewed.

I hope that’s true. Even though I am only a couple days away from the beginning of my sabbatical, I still can’t imagine how it is going to feel to intentionally step away from work, but I know it will be good for me and for my family. I feel guilty because I know not everyone gets a gift like this – and I think everyone absolutely should. Rest is so important, time with family is so important. One of my main goals for these next weeks is to not rush. Unless we are about to miss a plane or something. Otherwise, I just want us to be. No ‘immediately’ for me. I know that is what I need. Down to my bones, I am certain that is what my life, my ministry, my family needs. And so I promise not to take a minute for granted of this time of rest. Pray for me that it will be a time for the Spirit to speak afresh into my heart so I can return to you energized for all that is yet ahead.

And I will pray for you, too. That these next months hold whatever you are needing, too. Is it healing you are needing?  Is it more of peace? More of health?  Less of worry? Whatever it is you are needing, please know I pray for that refreshment and renewal for you as well.

If there is anything I know, it is that our God is faithful and near. I think sometimes we get so busy or brokenhearted or hardened that maybe we forget or can’t see it – but that doesn’t make it any less true. God is faithful. God is near.

And I pray you feel that. Feel God’s Holy Spirit granting you the peace and wholeness you need, the unburdening you are craving, the grace and forgiveness God has promised. God is faithful. God is near. Remember that, dear friends.

Let us pray…

Joy Matters – sermon from 5/13/18

Rob Bell, a well-known pastor, author, and speaker tells a story about a time he was sitting in a meeting at the church where he was a pastor. It was a huge church and this was the meeting where the various leaders of the different departments of the church came together to discuss the running of the church.  Important stuff. But it was a very large staff, and so at one of their meetings, a couple of the people said that after those meetings they have to go back and tell everyone else about what happened in the meeting and so it might be good to invite more of the staff to come to the meeting so they could get the information first-hand. This was discussed for a long time and nothing was resolved, so they spent much of the next meeting talking about this, too. And Rob said that his heart began to sink because he realized now they were mostly just having meetings about meetings. So, he went to the person who was in charge of the meeting to talk to him and he said, “You know, I’ve noticed that we’re spending an awful lot of our meeting time lately just talking about the meeting,” and then he said he stopped because he realized with horror that in that moment he was having a meeting about a meeting about a meeting.

He talks about how in the course of all of it, he felt a whispering in his mind saying, “What am I doing here?” He said it was a feeling deep in his bones – that although figuring out all the meeting stuff was important and there were other people who may have been really into that and whom God put on earth to organize and attend meetings about meetings about meetings, he knew that was not his work to do. He had other work that needed to be done, other work that God had given him to do, work that energized him and gave him life and was hard in its own right, and it wasn’t to sit in meetings about meetings about meetings.

As we continue going through Paul’s letter to the Philippians, Paul is talking a lot about humility and service. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

This is the kind of verse that is so contrary to our culture today. Most everything in our culture is hyper-focused on developing the self and looking out for number one. In fact, this culture elevates a positive self-image to such a degree that we run the risk of becoming our own false gods. Having a positive self-image is important, but it seems like it can run off the rails pretty quickly, too. For example, during a confirmation class some years ago, I asked a teenage girl to name someone she admired the most and she said herself.

Herself? Is that the message our kids are getting? That they should love themselves so much that they refuse to open their eyes and admire all the varied gifts and beauty of the people around them? To think so much of themselves that they have unwavering certainty that their way of seeing the world, their story, their little plot of land on which they live, their past and their future, is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end? I inwardly did the hugest eye-roll possible and then calmly asked her, “how about someone aside from yourself?”

Oh, trust me, Saint Paul would have done an eye-roll, too. As he sits in jail, writing letters of encouragement to his co-workers in Christ, urging them to put others first, think more highly of everyone before themselves, so much so that they consider themselves slaves to others.

These words about selflessness are powerful – and they can conjure up visions for us – maybe we think of Mother Teresa, serving the poorest of the poor in India. Maybe we think of our mothers, sacrificing their time, their energy, their own interests for the sake of our growth and security. Maybe we think of teachers, who so selflessly give of their energy and love and wisdom to teach our kids.

And probably, if you are at all like me, you feel a little guilty. Because it can feel like there’s no way to measure up to what Paul is asking of us here. The truth is that we don’t want to always think of others first – sometimes we want and need to look out for ourselves. We are fine with thinking highly of others, but we need to value who we are, too, and what we have to contribute to the world. And as far as being a slave to others?  It’s just hard to get behind that one at all.

But it’s good to remember here that the word slave is from the greek word ‘doulos’ – which means slave or servant – and usually by one’s own free will. One has chosen to serve, chosen to give one’s life over in this way. And that makes all the difference, along with something Paul says a bit later in this same letter, “Rejoice in the Lord.”

Yes, this giving over of ourselves, this putting others first, this thinking more highly of others than ourselves, it’s important to who we are as followers of Jesus, but the key is to find a way of doing that that brings us joy, and brings joy to the world through us. Joy matters.

There was a fellow I knew at seminary who, like me, was studying to be a pastor. He was a very good student, he always knew the right answers in class and everybody liked him. We graduated at the same time and lost touch, but years later he found me on Facebook and I was interested to notice he wasn’t a pastor anymore. He was a full-time traveling musician now and leads song-writing conferences and retreats. I asked him a little about his work and he told me a bit about his journey – how he had gone to seminary because his parents wanted him to and because it seemed like the right thing to do. He wanted to serve God. It seemed like a good thing to do, even though he wasn’t ever very excited about it. “Seminary was fine,” he said – “I liked the classwork and our friends and the variety – but once I got into a church it got harder. I felt claustrophobic and like I was playing a part that wasn’t me. I stayed for many years, partly because I had invested so much money in the education and partly because I felt like maybe I was just supposed to suck it up and try harder.” He talked about how the church he grew up in had stressed that you had to think about others first and die to yourself and so he wondered if maybe he was supposed to be miserable. Maybe that was part of learning how to really follow Christ. After all, he thought about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other martyrs who had suffered and died for the faith – surely he could withstand a bit of unhappiness for the sake of his love of the Lord, right?

He began to get chronic backaches and headaches, various other aches and pains – but figured he was just getting older and that happens. He got used to a low level of despair hanging over him and took comfort that his work may not make him happy, but at least he could be useful.

The only time he felt really joyful in his work was when he was leading music – which he would do often at church or for other events that needed a musician. He wrote music and recorded some songs, always thinking of it as a hobby but nothing more. It wasn’t until one day a woman in his congregation stopped him after church and told him about how she appreciated his ministry of music. He thanked her – others had kindly said this to him before. But then she added, “I wish you could only do that. I mean, it seems like that is when you are happiest.”  And something deep within him said, “Yes.”

Those few words she said shifted something for him that day and he knew what he had to do. He set for himself the goal that within a year he would find a way to let music be his full-time ministry. He said it wasn’t easy, there was no direct route to follow to do what he does now, it took longer than he planned, but he loves his work now because he’s using his best, most life-giving gifts, and he’s joyfully serving God and others. The backaches and headaches went away.

Joy matters. My prayer for all of us is that we find ways to put others first, to serve often and well, but to find ways to do that with joy. Rejoice in the Lord! If you consistently have a slow sense of dread on your way to do something, even if you are good at it, listen to what that dread is telling you. Is it time to find another way to use your gifts or perhaps change up the way you are doing the same old task? Is it time for that season to end so another can begin? Listen not just to all the needs of the world and the advice of those around you, but listen to yourself and the Spirit of God at work within you. Or as the author and theologian Howard Thurman said it, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Rituals (an Easter Message)

I’ve been thinking a lot about rituals these last days especially. Probably because Holy Week is always full of them. Palm Sunday we process in with the palms and say “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Maundy Thursday we have holy communion and the stripping of the altar. Good Friday we hear those last words of Christ and then leave in silence to wait for Easter morning. The Easter egg hunts, the cross outside with the flowers, the “alleluias” – all of these are traditions we love.

But of course, the church has many rituals that extend well beyond holy week. We have particular colors adorning the walls and the lectern at certain times of the year – white and purple and green and red – all these colors telling ecclesiastical time for us. We have our certain hymns that are appropriate for this occasion but not that. Even words we use at certain times of the year – you’ll hear “Emmanuel”during advent, and now we can finally say “Alleluia” again after putting away that word for the season of lent. There are creeds and prayers and responses spoken at just the right time. The Lord be with you….See what I mean? We know how to do these things. They are part of our life together. And there are rituals we don’t even think of as rituals – the men who take off their hats and place them on the rack by the door before they enter the sanctuary, the way we teach our children how to treat this space with respect. We have rituals about so many things in the church.

In fact, some might even say that we have too many rituals. That nothing ever really changes in the church and so you don’t really miss much if you happen to miss a Sunday or two or five or more.

Yet, I like to think of these things as more a rhythm than ritual.  Just as with music – there are intricacies we miss if we only hear parts and not the whole piece. We need the crescendo of the lights and carols of Christmas Eve but we also need the diminuendo and hush of sparse Ash Wednesday, the steady beat of those Sundays in the middle of the summer where there are no big church holidays but the story is still being told of Jesus’ life and ministry. And it’s when we join in the dance where we sway from Pentecost to Holy Trinity to Christ the King Sunday to Advent to Epiphany, where we move in time to the music of Reformation Sunday and Transfiguration and Ascension and hear every note, and feel every beat in our chests – when we give ourselves the gift of not only hearing the whole story of the Gospel but to be swept up into it to be part of it day after day, week after week, season after season, year after year that’s when we begin to recognize the nuances, the special things. Think about it – your favorite song – how there’s that part where it speeds up or slows down or changes keys in a way that just takes your breath away and you want to sing along and you say, “I love this part.” That’s how it gets to be, doesn’t it, with certain readings as we hear them again and again. Oh there’s Mary letting down her hair again to dry Jesus’ feet – I love this part. Or there’s that father who brings his boy to Jesus to be healed and he cries out words we could have cried out a million times ourselves, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” I love this part. Or what about when the psalm is read that was spoken at your mom’s funeral or at your brother’s grave, a million emotions stirred to the surface as you hear those words you could speak by heart, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.” I love this part. As we hear these scriptures over and over we come to see ourselves and our own stories reflected in them. They become part of us and we become a part of them. To hear these stories and sing these hymns is to tell the truth of who we are – our beauty and our brokenness.

No, our life together is about more than simply participating vacantly in rituals – it’s about the fullness of the rhythm of faith. Truthfully, we can forget this, though. Oh, I know it. I live it sometimes. Not every text is one I’m just so excited to preach on. I know you have lived this, too. Oh, I can tell when you’ve spaced out and are probably thinking about lunch or if you can fit in a nap this afternoon instead of listening intently to the Gospel reading. Sometimes the rhythm of faith can seem monotonous, predictable, it can even become difficult to hear.

Which is why I am so thankful for Easter. Sure, we have made Easter a ritual, too – because that’s what we do – but it is a ritual like no other. Because the truth of Easter is that we remember that all the rules were broken. Suddenly everything was turned upside down and the impossible was possible. The thing that seemed to have the final word, death, no longer had the last say at all. With a stone rolled away and some women spotting the empty grave clothes – everything changed. And not just for then, but for ever.

Do you know what this means? Yes, it means that our slate is wiped clean. Praise God, Alleluia – we are the recipients of grace and forgiveness we never deserved because Jesus accepted the punishment for us. Yes. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Alleluia!

Do you know what else this means? It means that the worst things are never the last things. Not anymore. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. It means that when I stood by my mother’s grave on a November day in 2012, I could weep and feel so desperately sad, yet hovering in the cold air there was not only grief but the whisper of a promise. A promise that Jesus went to prepare a place for all of us – a home, our real home, beyond this one. It means the ones you have loved and lost are just waiting for you, a heartbeat away. Easter is the promise that there are no final goodbyes for those who trust in a resurrected Lord.  Thanks be to God.

Do you know what else this means? It means that those things that are broken and dead ends in your life, that those things that chain you or cause you misery or heartache, those things don’t have the last word either. Because of this day. Because of our dear Lord. Jesus teaches us that he is the God of new beginnings and new life and great hope – and we celebrate Easter every year because we need so desperately to be reminded of that. This faith we share in the love of God is eternally optimistic – in the words of Paul, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things.” You were fearfully and wonderfully made – you have no reason to accept anything other than being treated with respect and care and kindness by others and by yourself. Good Friday is over, the darkness of night has given way to Easter morning, folks. Whatever is causing you hurt or harm, sleepless nights, anxiety or frustration – if there was ever a time to let it go and move toward life and joy – it’s this day. May you do it with boldness and bravery and certainty that God accompanies you on your journey.

He is risen! He is risen Indeed!  Alleluia!

Easter books are available on Amazon. Click on the picture to see the selection.

A Time to Grieve – sermon for 2/18/18

It’s too hard to keep up. The stories of horrific, unchecked violence just keep coming.

It was in the middle of the afternoon this time. It was a high school this time. It was a 19 year-old former student doing the shooting this time. It was an AR-15 rifle again this time. This time there were 17 victims – students and teachers.

Parkland, Florida joins a list that seems to be becoming endless – a trail of blood and tears – Las Vegas, Newtown, Orlando, Columbine, Charleston, Sutherland Springs, and so many others. Violence. Unspeakable Loss.

Then the predictable cycle of grief, blame, debates between the various sides on the issue of gun violence, talk about mental illness and what can and should be done, and then we go back to life as usual. Just hoping that the next time the headlines spout another shooting spree has happened that we won’t be in the line of fire, or our children, or our grandchildren.

I’m heartbroken. And sitting down to write this sermon felt nearly impossible. Because it was just in November that we were talking about the 26 people who died in their Sunday morning worship service in Texas – butstatistics show that on average 36 people die each day by gun violence in the United States – that number does not include suicides. Sutherland Springs and Parkland and Las Vegas and Newtown and Columbine and Charleston and all the others just make the news because in those cases the violence was all condensed in one place.

You know the statistics as well as I do. We can hear them on the news if we choose or we can turn our heads and not listen.

I think one of the reasons that we scramble toward answers and blame in times like this is because if we don’t, all we are left with is grief and lament. And I don’t know about you, but I’m so tired of this grieving and lamenting. I’m worn out from thinking of the rivers of blood in our schools, churches, homes, workplaces, concerts – you name it. I’ve grown weary in my prayers, too. It was six years ago when I lit candles like those after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was nineteen years ago, the same year I became a pastor, that the shootings at Columbine High School happened. What was an unheard of occurrence back then has now become everyday. Somewhere along the way, I stopped lighting candles on Sunday mornings for those who died in gun violence because it was impossible to keep up. There weren’t enough candles to keep up with the bullets. I wanted solutions, not more grief. I wanted answers, not only prayers. I desperately wanted us to fix this broken gun-addled society, not spend more time crying out to God over our countless losses.

But then I was reminded that each time this happens, while we must keep working for peace and solutions, first we must grieve and lament for that loss of life, that additional scar on our humanity, the stolen joy and peace. When we stop taking time to grieve, it numbs us, we start getting too used to this. Not allowing time for grieving is the quickest route to treating this kind of bloodshed as a new, horrible normal.

There are all sorts of ways to grieve, of course. There’s no correct recipe or timeline. Grief is sneaky, too – just when we think we are starting to feel better or more normal again, something can set off a fresh wave of grief. A couple weeks ago my mom’s best friend died and in the days that followed I couldn’t understand why everything was making me tear up. I felt awful. I didn’t understand it. I cared about my mom’s friend but we weren’t terribly close. I was telling a friend about it and she matter-of-factly said, “Ruth, you have to realize that this isn’t just about your mom’s friend. It’s losing another connection to your mom. In a way, you are feeling the loss of your mom all over again.” And of course, she was right. The wounds of grief are never completely healed over and it doesn’t take much to rub the scabs off and we feel the pain all over again.

But perhaps it helps to remember that grief is human and necessary – and even something that Jesus himself felt. In the gospel for today, Jesus weeps after Lazarus’ death. It’s interesting to note that the scripture says Jesus was both moved by the grief of those around him and his love for Lazarus. His grief had many layers – as grief often does. When we think of another school shooting we grieve for those families who are planning funerals for their kids; we grieve for the families of the teachers who died protecting their students; we grieve for our own kids that they live in a world in which they not only have tornado drills at school, but now they have drills for what to do if a shooter enters the building.

Jesus began to weep. It’s an important verse. Especially when we hear people who are busy trying to make sense of these kinds of situations and saying all sorts of things. One statement I’ve heard over and over after school shootings is something like, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.” I understand that the intention is likely well-meaning – that those who say something like that are promoting that they wish prayer or mention of God still be allowed in school. But there are distinct problems with this. First, it makes God sound pretty awful – like God is punishing every little school child and every teacher and school worker; like the hallways flowing with blood are due to something they have done to deserve punishment. This doesn’t sound anything like the God of grace we know. And secondly, do we honestly think school doors or school policies can keep God out? Do we believe that our beloved friends who are teachers and principles and workers of all kinds at the school don’t bring God along with them in their work and their words each day?  Do we think for even a millisecond that our beloved children who attend school aren’t treasured and adored by God wherever they are – whether at home or at church or at school or at the mall or anywhere?! God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-present – there is no place that God cannot find us and is not with us. So, when we hear that kind of bad theology, “The reason that shooting happened in that school is because God isn’t allowed in the schools anymore.”  – we must be careful and remind ourselves and others that God whom we know through Jesus Christ is not in the business of raining down bullets of judgement and bloody death because of human-made policies. Rather, where we find God in this in so many other places. Especially weeping with us.

He’s right there, right here, weeping with us. Jesus wept along with Mary and Martha and the friends and neighbors gathered – and Jesus weeps along with us today.

I know we want to fix this. I know we want just the right answer, the right policy, the right miracle, the right movement, the right hashtag that will fix this – so that this is the last time we ever have to mourn violence like this. Tomorrow, let’s get up and work toward all that, with whatever smarts and energy and insight we have – let’s work to solve the problem in big and small ways – not bicker about it on social media, not blame the right or the left, but work together so that this disease of gun violence plaguing our country stops. Our prayers must always go along with action.

But today we grieve.

We take time to grieve. Let’s pray…

Our God and God of all people,
God of the Rich and God of the poor.
God of the teacher and God of the student.
God of the families who wait in horror.
God of the dispatcher who hears screams of terror from under bloodied desks.
God of the first responder who bravely creeps through ravaged hallways.
God of the doctor who treats the wounded.
God of the rabbi, pastor, imam or priest who seeks words of comfort but comes up empty.
God of the young boy who sees his classmates die in front of him.
God of the weeping, raging, inconsolable mother who screams at the sight of her child’s lifeless body .
God of the shattered communities torn apart by senseless violence.
God of the legislators paralyzed by fear, partisanship, money and undue influence.
God of the Right.
God of the Left.
God who hears our prayers.
God who does not answer.
On this when we live in the aftermath of the 18th School shooting in our nation on the 46th day of this year, I do not feel like praying.
Our prayers have not stopped the bullets. Our prayers feel so little sometimes in the face of this kind of hyper-recurring evil.

But still, we lift them up to you. Be with us as we grieve this loss that is so senseless but not unexpected anymore. Weep with us as we yet again list names of your precious children who died violent, unnecessary deaths:

Assistant football coach and campus monitor Aaron Feis

Jamie Guttenberg – age 14

Martin Duque – age 14

Athletic director Chris Hixon

Geography teacher, Scott Beigel

Alaina Petty, 14

Gina Montalto, 14

Nicholas Dworet, 17

Joaquin Oliver, 17

Alyssa Alhadeff, 14

Meadow Pollack, 18

Peter Wang, 15

Carmen Schentrup, 16

Cara Loughran, 14

Alex Schachter, 14

Luke Hoyer, 15

Helena Ramsay, 17

Be with us as we grieve today. And help us rise tomorrow with strength, vision, and purpose to work however we can for peace.

We pray this in Jesus name. Amen.

Mary of Bethany (a Lenten sermon on John 12:1-8)

Our sense of smell can bring back memories in such powerful ways. I have what was left of my father’s aftershave when he died. I keep it in my dresser and every now and then when I come across it, I’ll open it and close my eyes and sniff – and I’m instantly brought back to when he would take my face in his hands after he was done shaving and pat some of the good smelling aftershave on my face, too. The smell of woodsmoke immediately brings me back to summer nights on the shores of Lake Carlos when I was a camp counselor. The scent of lilacs transports my thoughts directly to my grandmother’s yard no matter where I might be.

And if we were living in the moment of the twelfth chapter of the gospel of John, the room would be filled with the scent of pure nard. In case you ever wondered about what Nard was, it is also called Spikenard and muskroot. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family and it grows in high altitudes. The plant itself grows to be about 1 meter in height and it has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It can be crushed and distilled into intensely aromatic, thick, amber-colored oil. It was used as a perfume, an incense, a sedative, and an herbal medicine said to fight insomnia, birth difficulties, and other minor ailments.

Anyway, pure nard is the scent filling the air after a dinner party – the scene includes we’re not sure how many people – but we know Jesus is there and Mary comes in with this oil and begins to anoint and massage Jesus’ feet.

Then as if this scene weren’t tender enough, she uses her own hair to gently wipe off his feet. This scene is scandalous in a number of ways – First, that she loosens her hair in a room full of men, an honorable woman never did that.  An honorable woman only let her hair down in the presence of her husband.

She pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, which was also not done.  The head, maybe–people did that to kings–but not the feet.  Then she touches him–a single woman rubbing a single man’s feet–also not done, not even among friends.  Then she wipes the perfume off with her hair. 

But none of these things strike me so much as that it is a scene of complete generosity and extravagant affection. This oil was so expensive – worth about a year’s salary then – that to use this oil so lavishly and all on one person seems foolish at first glance. Her giving to Jesus so completely of what she has and of herself and her attention makes the reader feel we perhaps should turn our heads, give these two a little time alone.

Judas Iscariot voices the concern that others in the room are probably thinking.  He says, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor?” Judas seems right on the mark to me. In fact, he seems to be saying something that Jesus himself would normally say. We know Jesus was a champion for the poor and the oppressed, but he defends Mary and he says, “No, leave her alone. You’ll always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me.”

So there it is:  Jesus, who used every moment as a teaching moment – was he doing it again now – reminding them he was the lamb, the ultimate sacrifice.  Or did he simply want to treasure for a moment the fragrance of the oils filling the room, the touch of a friend offering him comfort.  Did he just want to savor these small pleasures of this life as long as he could before the next things were fulfilled?

The whole story is so sad and bittersweet.  From our vantage point we know what is coming next and we know how precious those final moments with friends must be for Jesus.  Did Mary’s kindness and extravagant care for Jesus bring him some measure of comfort as he endured all that happened in the next days? Did the scent of the oils linger on his skin even as he was brought before Pilate? Did the memory of gentle hands that lovingly massaged his feet have enough power to lessen some of the blows that other hands soon dealt?

We can only wonder.  But what is not a mystery to me as I read this text are the actions of Mary.  I think I understand Mary of Bethany very well.  What she does here is clear to me – as clear as when Peter wanted to make those dwelling places on the mountaintop the day of Jesus’ transfiguration – when Peter wanted to stay in that moment of wonder forever.  His actions and words often interpreted as brash and even foolish – but who doesn’t say and do impetuous things when wonder and joy have filled you to the top?  And people around Mary might shake their heads at the foolishness of sharing all that precious oil with just one person, they might tsk tsk at her unrestrained actions as she kneels at Jesus’ feet and even lets down her hair to use it as a towel – but these were the things she had to give.  Who doesn’t understand that feeling of wanting to give all that we have for the people who mean the most to us?  We’d give anything to see them not suffer or be harmed – and if we know the end must near – then we at least do everything we possibly can to make that end be pain-free and dignified and meaningful as possible and surround that person with love.

What Mary had to give were these precious oils and her actions. She shared all of it without holding back. She shared all of it because soon she would no longer have Jesus near to give him all that she could give. She had to give it all and give it then. This was no time for stingy love or small gifts. This was a time to pour it all out because soon, there would be no more time.

And yes, she did it for Jesus but she was also doing it for herself.  That’s how giving is.  We have a need to give.  It’s a great and true mystery how generosity never leaves us empty or wanting or poorer for having done it. Generosity only helps fill the empty places and gives wholeness to our brokenness. 

I’ve heard Mary described as a prophet – that with her actions here and using these precious oils she’s not only preparing Jesus for burial but she is showing the extravagance of God’s love. 

In fact, some call Mary “the prodigal woman.”  “Prodigal” means “extravagant.”  We remember how the prodigal son took his inheritance and spent it recklessly.  But when we look at that word “prodigal” knowing its true definition we see prodigal happenings all over the place in our scriptures.  The prodigal father who welcomed back the son and gave him a robe and a meal and his place in the home, loving him extravagantly even though he did not deserve it.  The prodigal shepherd who loses one sheep and will not rest, goes over the top in his searching, until that lost sheep has been found.  The prodigal widow who only has two small copper coins and she recklessly gives them both away trusting that little becomes much when it is placed in the master’s hands. The prodigal woman, Mary, pouring out oil and tears, letting down her hair and her guard to love profusely.  The prodigal God, Jesus, making his way down the Via Dolorosa and ultimately giving up his very life – loving us with everything he was – then and now and forever.

When we begin to take note of this Spirit of generosity, the giving away of both love and possessions lavishly, that fills our Holy Scriptures it is easy to see why the happiest people are those who have learned how to give.  Yes, of possessions and money and time – there is no question that belief in Christ commands that we be good at sharing these things – but God demands even more. 

Let’s take a lesson from Mary of Bethany. 

We begin by giving of what we have.  As she poured out expensive oils without thought of the cost, we give generously as well, and if that is hard to do, which it is for most of us, we work bit by bit to become better at it.  We try to loosen our grip on stuff, loosen our worries about money and materials and instead see all that has been entrusted to us as simply means to help bless others.  Anyone who is wise knows that anything we think is ours isn’t really ours, it’s only a gift from God given to us for a time and to be shared.  Our view of the world becomes a lot more beautiful when we see everything this way.  There is no material thing to which we cling tightly.  Worries become less as we take our focus off our own wants and instead minister to the needs of others.  Our time becomes more meaningful when we use it to benefit others rather than primarily looking for our own entertainment and comfort. 

Giving is a joyful thing.  Giving lightens our load in so many ways – it frees us of things we never really needed anyway and opens the doors and windows wide for things like peace and joy and love to rush in – and heaven knows, those are the things we really need.

One night during seminary, I was sitting at supper with a group of friends. One of my friends, Joy, offhandedly said to my other friend, Steve, “Hey, I like your sweater.” Steve immediately took off his sweater and gave it to her. Joy said, “no, that’s crazy, don’t give it to me! I was just saying I like it!” But Steve insisted. He smiled and told us he had been practicing his giving. He had made a promise to himself that if anyone said they liked something he had, if at all possible, he was going to give it away – to remind himself how little he actually needed. He said that since he started doing it, it had been one of the best things he had ever done – he said, “Please, as a favor to me, take the sweater!” Joy laughed and took the sweater. She said, “you are nuts.”

I think of that night at the supper table often – how Steve was so willing, happy actually, to let go of his stuff – to walk home on a chilly night with no sweater. But he knew he didn’t need it. He knew practicing giving things away opened up something in him, practicing generosity blessed him. It was a genuinely cool thing to witness.

We may not have precious oils or hair to let down to wipe Jesus’ feet, yet we can still ask ourselves each day what kind of fragrant offering we can give to show how very much we love him, how thankful we are for this life and our blessings.  Each day we have the opportunity to be the prodigal son or daughter, too –  love, live, help and give extravagantly.