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.  

Sermon – November 13, 2016 – A Letter to My Sons

Grace and peace to you on this Lord’s day in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

When our boys were teeny-tiny, back in Colorado, my sermon one Sunday took the form of a letter to our boys. It was mostly advice, inspired by the gospel that day, about things I hoped they would remember as they grew. I don’t know what I did with that letter but I am sure it is saved in a computer file somewhere. They will get the letter someday.

This week, I wrote another letter…because it has been the kind of week where people think a lot about the world in which they live, the world in which the children we love are growing up. For some it has been a great week, for others it has been a devastating week – but for all it has been hard because we’ve come to understand in a way we didn’t before there is a great divide within our country. People, good people, seeing things very differently, responding in fear, lashing out with anger – these are strange, hard times. So, today, I’m sharing this letter, I want to let you eavesdrop on my prayers for my children, because these are my prayers for all of us.

A letter to my sons – November 13, 2016

Dear Owen and Jesse,

Your mom is a pastor. You have known this your whole lives. From the time you were only days old you have come with me to visit and pray with people – in nursing homes, hospitals, houses, places of work – you have been there and you have bowed your little heads and prayed with us. It has been my greatest joy to share that with you. To see you come to know and love Jesus, my heart can’t get more full than when I think of that.

So, on a week like this, when there’s been elections and shock and hurt and protests and winners and losers and those who are excited and those just plain terrified, I want to point your eyes away from the media, away from the divisiveness and ask you to focus on as Saint Paul said, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, excellent or praiseworthy” to fix your eyes on those things. I need to remind you who you are as Jesus’ people, as children, not just of me and your dad, but of God.

First, there’s this: you remember a couple years ago, that lady at the nursing home in Texas who frightened you one night? We were there visiting our congregation member Estella in those hard weeks right before she died and you two decided to wait for me on the big, soft chairs in the lobby while I went down the hall and prayed with Estella? One of the residents wheeled up to you as you were sitting there and told you to leave. She was confused and convinced you didn’t belong there and she yelled at you. You cried and you didn’t understand why she was yelling at you – but you grabbed each other and came to find me in Estella’s room. I could see how sad you were – your whole lives you had only known older folks to be kind to you and suddenly this happened. We talked about how sometimes people who are in the nursing home get really confused, especially after dark. Or maybe she had just had a really bad day and was upset about something else but took it out on them. We talked about how it didn’t do any good to be angry about it, we just needed to respond with kindness and gentleness. 

My dear boys, kindness is key. It always is. We don’t know the battles others are fighting. We don’t know half the demons that follow others around or the sadnesses that have bitten at their hearts. Whenever possible, be kind and it is almost always possible. Our Christian faith instructs us in this as the Bible reads in Ephesians, “Be ye kind one unto another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.” And Jesus’ words in Luke, “If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also.” Kindness, mercy, grace, forgiveness, these are words that we hold close, cherish, center ourselves around as people who believe in Jesus.

But, my dear boys, hear this – being kind is different than being complacent, complicit, or a doormat, or even nice. Jesus himself, when he turned over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple, taught us to stand up for what is right. Jesus was always, always, always on the side of the oppressed. Jesus always, always, always spent time with those who lived on the margins – the poor, the outsiders, the refugees, those who had messed up big time, those with bad reputations, Jesus was all about finding ways to make room for everyone. He had no patience for leaving anyone behind or creating walls of division. Do you remember the Bible story where there was a group of people who were angry at a woman who had sinned, they were so angry with her they thought they should just kill her, but Jesus said, “Okay, then, whoever among you has never sinned, you get to be the first to start killing her.” And of course, no one could say they had never sinned. He pointed out all the time that we are all sinners, all of us need forgiveness, we can’t judge each other. 

My boys, I’m so in love with your loving hearts. When I see you do something kind, my own heart couldn’t be more full. But I’ll always pray, too, that when the time comes to call someone out who is being mean to or speaking badly about anyone because of their race or gender or political affiliation or sexual orientation, that you will have the strength to do that. Turn some tables over like Jesus did – it has to happen sometimes. Never be okay with injustice. Always, always, always speak up for those who are being bullied, no matter what age you are or they are, because this is the way of Jesus. And because if you don’t, your mama will kick your butt. And you know I will.

But even more than that, take it one more step. Don’t just react to injustice, but work first to promote peace. How does this look? Well, every day it looks different and for each person it looks different. Find ways to build community. Look for opportunities to build bridges. Your mom hasn’t always been so good at this – sure, within my own white, churchy, Lutheran, Christian, Scandinavian-American circles I can network and reach out like crazy, but what about beyond that? I need to keep looking for ways to be a safe person for those outside my own bubble of life and faith and experience. Pushing my introverted self to not only speak peace but live peace – look for ways to do that with all people. People of color, white, gay, straight, immigrant, native-born, Muslim, Catholic, able-bodied and disabled, men and women, the crabby and the sweet, the democrat and the republican, the gun-toters and the gun haters – everyone. Jesus crossed boundaries and social barriers to share a message of love and peace, radical inclusivity, grace for all – and so that is our goal, too. I promise, my dear boys, to keep looking for ways to do that, and you must, too. Because this is the way of Jesus.

Let’s see, what else? There’s so much. This task of living as Jesus’ people is expansive the most important thing you will do – but this is something that will help you: pray. Pray hard. Pray every day. Pray for those you like and especially for those you don’t like. Our Christian faith instructs in this also. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” And so we do. We pray for others, partly for them, but it helps us, too – it can soften our hearts and ease our bitterness. It makes us better. We pray for our leaders, for our president-elect, and work hard speak respectfully of them, whether they were the one who received our vote or not. This, too, is the way of Jesus. We can work for change and disagree without slipping into speech that is beneath us. Be clear, be smart, be faithful, live passionately, but also watch your words because they always say more about you than they say about anyone else.

I remember like yesterday those June days when you were born. I held you close, looked at your little faces, and then I looked out at the mountains in the distance and I wondered what life would hold for you. So much was unknown. I was scared of becoming a mom – worried I would mess it up big time, worried I wouldn’t have the kind of love and tenacity a parent needs. But then, we did what parents do, we gathered you up and took you home, trusting God would bring us through the journey of parenthood one day at a time. And God is faithful.

One day at a time, my dear boys. Trust God is with you. Be kind. Work for justice. Live peace. Pray. Follow Jesus. 

I love you to the moon,

Mom

 

Evangelism (a sermon from 1/19/14)

I wonder what comes to mind for you when you hear the word “evangelism”?  Do you think about street corner preachers calling out phrases such as “repent and be saved”?  Do you get a picture in your mind of the television evangelist in an expensive suit on the stage of a stadium-size church?

Do you think of yourself?  After all, we are a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  In truth, each of us are called to evangelism, to be evangelists – and yet there are many who would steer far from calling ourselves such a thing.  Perhaps that is because we have witnessed many times evangelism done so poorly. 

I think of a clear and cold winter day back in the mid-nineties.  My car had broken down on a freeway in North Dakota and a man and his wife had stopped to pick me up and bring me to the nearest phone.  I was thankful for their kindness and we chatted as we shared in that short time together.  Inevitably, they asked me where I was from and what I did and at the time I was a student in seminary studying to be a pastor and I told them so.  Their response was one that by then I had gotten used to as they then began to evangelize to me about how I was being misled, that it was sinful for a woman to presume she could be a pastor, that they would be praying for me that God would point me back on His path.  I sighed and politely thanked them for the ride.  I knew by then that they were just two of many, many people who interpreted scripture in such a way.  There was nothing I was going to be able to say in such a short amount of time that would change their mind.  Yet I wondered why they thought they could change my mind.  Did they imagine that what they were saying (these entire strangers) was going to be entirely new information and by the end of the car ride I would abandon religious studies after years and years of pursuit and the calling placed on my heart since the age of fourteen, a calling that had been affirmed and nurtured within me by my home pastor and my home church and my family who loved me and brought me up in the faith and taught me not only a love of scripture but to understand  and live in the life-giving faith and grace found in Jesus Christ – did they imagine their few words were going to strip away all of that?

What that couple tried to do that day, while I’m sure it was well-meaning, was hollow and only alienating.  It took into account nothing about me or my journey or my understanding of who God was and is.  They were trying to take their experience and their journey and impress it upon me, squish me into their idea of what a Christian really should be like in the time it took to travel over a few windswept Dakota miles.  I resented it. 

And that sort of thing, unfortunately, is the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of the word evangelism.  I don’t like that because I know the heart of evangelism is much deeper and richer and far more meaningful than that – but I know well what our knee jerk reaction to that term “evangelical” can be – because I have felt it myself.

So what is being evangelical at its best really about?  We can take some lessons from our gospel today as we think about that.  First, there is John the Baptist who when he sees Jesus he can’t help but tell others about his experience, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb! He forgives the sins of the world! This is the man I’ve been talking about, ‘the One who comes after me but is really ahead of me.’ “I watched the Spirit, like a dove flying down out of the sky, making himself at home in him. That’s exactly what I saw happen, and I’m telling you, there’s no question about it: This is the Son of God.”  So John can’t help but share this amazing thing that has happened and what he has witnessed to be true.  And he’s doing just that one day, and John’s witness must have been very compelling because two of his disciples who hear him then follow after Jesus – they want to experience some of the wonder that John is feeling in knowing Jesus. 

I think John the Baptist was a great evangelist because a synonym of the word evangelize is “Proclaim” – and he couldn’t help but proclaim who Jesus was and by doing so, he drew others to Jesus.  Some are able to do that.  Have you known people like that?  Their love for the Lord is infectious, their thirst and hunger to know God and live for God and study God’s word is so beautiful and humbling and passionate that it makes you want to have a closer walk with God?  That can be a beautiful form of evangelism, to be so in love with God and so devoted to learning as much as we can and serving as much as we can that we are consumed by love and we can’t help but share that joy we have found. 

However, while there are some who can do this, and perhaps all of us can at certain times – the difficulty of trying to be this kind of evangelist is that very few of us are always spilling over with our passion for faith.  It’s not because we don’t want that, I think all of us would want that, but the truth is that life is complex and there are dishes to be done and the cat needs to be taken to the vet and there are  appointments to keep and the constant buzz and hum of things to do and think about can so easily overpower our inclination toward always having our thoughts turned toward God.

So for those of us who might fall into this second category, we can take comfort in knowing there is another, even more powerful way of being an evangelist.  A way that draws us gently together and creates a space for the spirit of God to enter.

And it is all about relationships.  Yet not in the ways we might initially think about relationships and evangelism.  Oftentimes when we talk about relationships and evangelism in the church we think of them as a means to an end.  You know what I’m talking about – we worry about our attendance and so we say “invite your friends to church” and we think that will help fill in some of the empty spaces;  and we worry about our finances and so we say, “we need more people to come so then we will have more people giving.”  Or perhaps that couple I met back on the road in North Dakota was worried because the ways God had called me to serve him challenged everything they had been taught about what was right and so they needed to try to point out my error of thinking and set me on the right path.  Too often in the church when we think about evangelism and relationships we think of doing so as a means toward something else in the end.    As it says in the book, “Relational Pastor” by Andrew Root, “We have deeply wanted our ministry to be relational, but not for the sake of persons, for the sake of ministry, for the sake of initiatives.  In other words, we have wanted people to be relationally connected so that they might come to what we are offering or believe what we are preaching or teaching.”  I think it is human nature and we all fall into this way of thinking sometimes – sort of a selfish evangelism – one that focuses on a goal somewhere off in the distance, not simply on that person and that relationship right here and right now. 

Yet how would it be to think of the relationship as our only goal? Not so that we can have them come to church someday and not so that we can get them to think about Jesus like we do someday and not so that their kids might come to youth group – no, just so that we can know another person and they can know us.   What if that was our only goal?  Could that possibly evangelism at its finest?

May I give you an example?  I think of the first Bible camp counselor I ever had.  Her name was Beth.  I was a terribly shy kid, uncomfortable in my own skin, awkward, deeply uncool.  She liked to tell us stories – sometimes about Jesus but sometimes just about life and every night she would hug each of us goodnight and as she did she would whisper to us that Jesus loved us.  It was powerful and welcome – I would lie there in the dark and think about it.  Jesus loves me – I’m so strange and unpopular, but yet Jesus loves me.  Beth said so.  And mom and dad say so.  Grandma says so.  And if these people who take time for me and care enough to journey along with me in life wanted me to know about this precious love of Jesus, then it must be really something.  And so over time, the background noise that people kept telling me about Jesus’ love for me became a song, the dearest thing I had ever heard.  It was not a sudden thing, it was not because of just a moment or a single person, and it was never because of anyone trying to win me over for a particular cause or goal other than they wanted to know me and for me to know them.  And to know them was to know they loved Jesus.  And because of them and their care and the witness of their very lives – I fell in love with him, too.

Being evangelical will only start to sound like a welcome thing when we realize what it really is.  It is sharing faith, yet only sometimes with words. Sometimes it is sharing faith through a powerful and positive verbal witness to Jesus Christ but it is also sharing faith no less when you took time to bring over that food after he had the surgery, or to pause, even though you had so much to do, pause long enough to sit down and listen to the story when she was heartbroken.  That’s sacred, folks – Someone who wants time with you, whether going on a walk down the road, or hearing someone say “come on over sometime” or sharing a cup of coffee. There’s a reason these things feel like they matter, because they do.  It’s time shared, it’s life shared, it’s why when those disciples caught up to Jesus and they asked him where he was going, he didn’t just tell them, he said, “Come along and see for yourself.”  Jesus was modeling evangelism for us right there.

In the church we might do well to focus less on what the fruit of building relationships might be and more on just being present with one another.  At work, at home, at the grocery store, at the post office – being a gentle presence, being interested in others, listening without judgment, wanting to know the stories others bear and share ours with them and trust that in ways we don’t know and may never see, God will work through us to bring others to Christ.

So go on and be evangelical, church.  Proclaim Jesus through your words and through your lives this week.  Love and live in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Sacred Passages

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased (Luke 3:22)

Jesus was baptized at about 30 years of age. At this age, according to Mosaic law, he could be baptized into priesthood. 

Scripture doesn’t give us a lot of glimpses into Jesus’ life before this moment and it’s not hard to guess why.  He was born for this day – this day of his baptism.  This day the heavens opened and revealed to all that what had been foretold was now coming true and what was until now only a whisper was a shout of revelation. 

How did Jesus feel that day?  Surely he had known this was coming, or perhaps he hadn’t – some scholars think that scripture shows evidence that Jesus’ divinity was hidden from him until his baptism day. Regardless, how must it have felt for him to finally be in the moment where he knew what he was born to do?  When he stood on the edge of who he had been and stepped forward into all that he was to become? 

We’ve glimpsed such things ourselves. God makes it to be so.  We may not get to see the Spirit descending like a dove or hear voices from heaven marking our passages but we feel their weight and joy nonetheless.  When you clasped your hand with hers and realized that was the hand you would be glad to hold the rest of your days.  When you heard the baby cry and gasped to know nine months of heartburn and swollen ankles had finally come to this – blessed THIS!  When you embarked upon that task which both exhilarated and frightened you nearly to tears, yet you knew you were the one to do it. 

Our passages are sacred as well.  And God is no less present in the waters that run over the head of every mortal as God is present in the water and the word at the river Jordan the day Jesus was baptized.

This Is The Gospel of the Lord? (a sermon from 7/12/15)

Our gospel for today from Saint Mark is actually a flashback that Herod has when he hears of all the work that the disciples are doing in Jesus’ name.  Some were saying the John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and Herod was thinking they might be right – and this is when we have this flashback where we get to hear what happened to John the Baptist.

It’s not a happy story and it’s kind of a big wet blanket text right here in the middle of the summer.  It’s one of those gospel texts that when I read it, instead of proclaiming afterward, like I always do, that this is the gospel of the Lord, I want to put a question mark after it.  This is the gospel of the Lord?

King Herod in this gospel is a descendent of Herod the Great, who was infamous for having all the toddler boys killed after the Magi announced Jesus’ birth.  Herod the Great had a few sons – two of which he had killed, along with his favorite wife, because he heard a rumor they were plotting his death. 

Two surviving sons were Herod Philip and Herod Antipas.  It’s like that show, Newhart – do you remember that show? This is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl.  Anyway, here it is Herod and his other brother Herod. Herod the Great’s grandniece Herodias came along and married Herod Philip, her uncle.  I read there was a lot of inter-marriage within this family because they believed that their bloodline was superior and they didn’t want to sully it by marrying outside the family.  Herod Philip and Herodias had one daughter.  The story that we read about in our gospel begins when Herodias leaves Herod Philip for Herod Antipas – her other uncle.  Unlike Herod Philip, Herod Antipas was the greatest Prince in the family – he held rank and wealth.  It didn’t matter to Herodias that Herod Antipas was already married – she quickly left Philip and took their daughter and went to Tiberius to be with Herod Antipas.

This was not legal according to Mosaic Law.  If Philip were dead, it would have been honorable, in fact it would have been required at one point in Jewish history for a brother to marry the widow of his brother – but there was nothing good about what Herod Antipas and Herodias have done.

Now even though their marriage arrangement was illegal and distasteful, no one interfered – Herod was powerful and influential.  Only one person spoke out against what had happened – “Mark 6:18 reads, ‘for John had been telling Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”

So here is John the Baptist, pointing out the sin that no one else will point out. He’s got guts. And we might say, “Good for John the Baptist!”  Until we remember that time when someone pointed out some sin or shortcoming of ours and we remember that it doesn’t feel very good.

What do you mean I could be a better giver?  I do pretty well.  Well, sure I didn’t need that new pair of heels but they were so pretty and they were on sale.

What do you mean I really need to stop gossiping?  I mean, it’s not like I said anything that wasn’t true.  Well, sure that’s not exactly an uplifting way to talk about my neighbor, but come on.

What do you mean I better think hard about the first commandment and the false gods sucking up time in my life?  I mean, sure I spent way more time on Facebook and catching up on old episodes of the X-files last week than studying scripture or in prayer, but everyone needs some down time.  Right? Come on.

None of us like being faced with our sins.  Those who call us on them become an unpopular drag really, really quickly.

This was the place in which John the Baptist found himself.  He called out Herod and Herodias on their sins and they did not like it one bit. Herodias wanted him dead immediately but Herod was afraid to do this because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man.  In fact, here in the gospel of Mark it says that Herod liked to listen to John.  Maybe he wondered if there were things he should be learning from John.  The gospel of Matthew contradicts this, however, and says that Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people.  Regardless, we do know that ultimately he had John imprisoned.

But that wasn’t enough for Herodias.  She was out for blood.  Our translation reads, “She had a grudge against him.”  Other translations read that she “nursed this grudge” – she fed it and tended to it and kept it alive.

It’s crazy how crazy anger can make us – especially if we feed that anger.  A very long time ago I remember a fellow I had been dating broke up with me and of course that was hard and sad – we had been dating for a couple years.  But then a day or two after we broke up, I found out that before he broke up with me he had started dating someone else.  This completely changed my sorrow to righteous anger.  How dare he?  My indignation knew no end.  My energy immediately turned from weepy tears to plotting how I could inflict the most pain upon this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Norwegian Lutheran jerk.

But all the angry letters I might want to write him, all the little speeches I planned in my head that I would present to him when I saw him next, all his friends that I planned to date in retaliation – I knew none of it would really be satisfying.  Oh, I definitely let him know that I found out about his sorry little cheating heart – I had to do that.  But then, I stepped back and I remembered what Jesus said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you.  So I prayed hard – every day.  I prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed for myself and I prayed for that ex-boyfriend, I even prayed for his new girlfriend.  I prayed for them with bitterness for a long time, but I kept praying, until the anger started subsiding, the hatred melted, and I could start to see clearly again.  I could feel myself slowly starting to forgive them – and that felt so much better than the cold little stone of anger I was tempted to keep carrying inside. 

I wish Herodias could have understood how good it feels to forgive rather than to nurse hatred and grudges.  It sounds like she was laser-focused on her revenge, however. 

She made a plan – so she would be ready when the opportunity came.  The opportunity for her revenge came on Herod’s birthday – there was a big party for his birthday.  This would have been a party for men – women of good reputation didn’t go to these parties – not even Herodias, his wife, would have been invited.  I read that the only women usually found at these kinds of gatherings were women who danced and entertained men after the meal.  Whatever the equivalent was in those days of women who jump out of cakes.

So then it is peculiar that his daughter, who is actually Herodias and Herod Philip’s daughter, comes in to dance.  Here the daughter is simply called Herodias but in other places she is called the daughter of Herodias or Salome. Most theologians I read speculate that it was Herodias who sent her daughter in there, not caring about her daughter’s reputation as much as she is banking on that Herod has been drinking and just might be feeling generous enough to offer her what eventually does.  The King said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”

The girl leaves and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?”  Now what kid does that?  If you ask my kids what they want, they don’t come and ask me – they know very well what they want.  They probably have a list prepared right now they could hand you.  Coming up with requests isn’t hard for kids usually.  So that’s why some think that Herodias had coached her daughter beforehand, “After you dance for your stepfather, if he offers to give you something, come and tell me.”

Well, we know what Herodias told her daughter to request – the head of John the Baptist – on a platter.  I always thought that part was a bit extra nuts – that it had to be on a platter. But whatever.  The scriptures say that Herod was grieved to do it, but because he didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests and go back on this promise to the girl, he had John beheaded.  The head was placed on a platter, given to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.  This is the gospel of the Lord?  This is the good news of Jesus?

Well, thank goodness, this story doesn’t stand by itself in scripture – right before this, we are hearing the story of all that Jesus was doing and how word was spreading about his healing and the disciples were going out and casting out demons and curing the sick in Jesus’ name.  And right after this story about John’s death, the miracles continue with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water and doing more healings. 

But just as John was killed for speaking truth to power, the same thing would eventually happen to Jesus.  This gospel of Jesus Christ – this gospel that makes life worth living, that brings healing to the sick and wholeness to our hearts and amazing grace, it is not without cost.  For John the Baptist and for Jesus and for countless martyrs for the faith it cost them their earthly lives.  And we are living a very shallow, hollow, surface sort of faith if we think it does not cost us something as well.

 C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different:  harder, and easier.  Christ says, “Give me your all.  I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work:  I want you…no half measures are any good.  I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree….  I will give you a new self instead.  I will give you Myself.”

What does this mean?  It means we are the children of God, given the gift of God’s grace – and a gift like this – how can we help but want to thank the Giver?  How can we do this?  How can we live lives of responding in thankfulness for God’s beautiful grace? 

Being willing to be convicted when we are wrong and try to do better is a start.  Giving not just out of our leftovers but giving our first fruits, the best we have to offer to God, that is a start.  Stepping up, being brave to use our voices and efforts to speak up for justice for those who are experiencing injustice, that’s a great start.  Forgiving, even and especially when it is hard, turning away from the temptations that make us less than the people God has called us to be, being diligent about studying the Word of God, beginning and ending our days and filling the hours in between with prayer, visiting the sick and the elderly and the homebound, writing the note of encouragement and support, teaching your children about the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the ten commandments, honoring your parents with visits and support especially as they age, being honest in word and deed, using your words to speak well of others and never cut others down, be faithful to your spouse, be thankful for what you have….all of these things are a great way to start.

Not because our salvation is dependent on us doing these things but because we are so thankful for the love that Jesus has already so freely given us, we want our lives to be transformed by him. Isn’t that what we want?  I mean when someone gives you a gift, you want to respond in turn, and I pray that we never take God’s grace so for granted that we forget to seek him daily and be shaped by Jesus daily. 

Most of us will likely never be killed because of our faith, and yet this faith we share does require something.  Namely everything.  May God help us to give this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Okay, God, What Next? (a sermon from June 28, 2015)

I was ordained almost sixteen years ago.  I had a shiny new call in hand from a little church in Western New York and planned the ordination service at my home church – Good Shepherd Lutheran in Henning, Minnesota.  My pastor from all my growing up years, Rev. Darrell Vetter, preached.  Bishop Arlen Hermodson of this synod did the ordination.  My internship supervisor, Rev. Allyne Holz, placed the stole on my shoulders.  Afterward, the wonderful ladies of the church provided a lunch – little sandwiches, cake, and coffee.  It was a gorgeous September day.

A few days later I was driving out to New York with everything I owned in my black 1984 GMC Jimmy.  My two faithful cats, George and Sam, meowing at me the whole way.

There were many unforgettable moments in that trip and those weeks but one that often comes to mind is my first morning in my office.  I arrived early – the sun was just coming up.  I stood looking out the window across the street at the cemetery and the church’s former building which now stood empty and peeling paint.  I stood there and thought, “okay, God, now what?” Here I am.  Now what.

Years and years and years of preparation had led to that moment – and I didn’t have the foggiest clue what to do.  But then the phone began to ring and people began to stop by and hour by hour, day by day, prayer by prayer, joy by joy, and frustration by frustration, suddenly sixteen years have gone by.

But most days I still look out my window and my silent or whispered prayer is, “okay, God, now what?”

It’s my ineloquent way of saying, “God, please lead me and guide me.”  Partly because God must, and partly because I am clueless on my own.  I always have been – I have no qualms about saying that.  I need God’s guidance in all things.  I listen like a hawk for the still, small voice of God’s direction because without it I am just floating about on the wind.  Without God’s guidance I would be easily deceived, I have no doubt about it.  So I cling to God’s promises and I cling to the assurance that I belong to Him.

What am I going on about here?  I don’t know.  It’s just been another one of those weeks where as a preacher, I’m a little bit terrified to preach. The Bishop of the ELCA recommends that we keep talking about Charleston and I agree this is important.  Did you see President Obama’s beautiful eulogy at Reverend Pinkney’s funeral – it was gorgeous as he talked about God’s amazing grace and even sang. 

But also in the news this week we have huge news about the Supreme Court of the United States saying all gay and lesbian marriages are legal.  This is huge. And this is news that I know everyone here has an opinion about and I don’t think it does us a lot of good to not talk about it.  In fact, I don’t think it is faithful for us to not talk about it.

So let me start – I grew up as the daughter of a preacher – but my father was a very different sort of preacher than me.  He loved the fire and brimstone.  He preached law with a small sliver of grace on the side.  And don’t get him talking about “the gays” because for some reason, in his view, homosexual people were excluded entirely from God’s grace. 

I didn’t understand this.  To me, it seemed so contrary to everything else I had been taught about God.  Then I went to college where I knew a lot of nice conservative Christian people who were super kind people – when talk about homosexuality would come up there were a lot of phrases like, “hate the sin but love the sinner.”    I remember I had to do a little speech in a class after reading a required book called, “Is the Homosexual My Neighbor” and I spent hours and hours studying and preparing my opinion piece – which basically came down to the simplistic, yet I felt faithful, conclusion that God made us all and loves us all just as we are.  Period.  From that point on there was a small group of particularly ardent conservative Christians on campus who were gently trying to confront me lovingly and steer me back in the right direction. 

It wasn’t until seminary that I actually had a close friend come out and tell me he was gay.  He was so scared to tell me.  I hated that he was so scared to tell me.  But growing up in the Christian church, he knew that admitting this about himself was a big thing.  He knew there were good people for whom this would be no big deal but he also knew that for other good people, this would be a deal breaker.  They wouldn’t want to be his friend anymore.  They would distance themselves from him.  And many did. 

Over the next years there was this huge wave of honesty as friend after friend of mine came out.  All of them Lutheran Christians who had grown up in surroundings so much like mine. Some told me through conversations, quite a few through letters they constructed to tell me this news about themselves.  I was always surprised – I have no gay-dar whatsoever.  But one by one they entrusted me with this news that they had wrestled with and struggled with and had come to love and accept about themselves.  And they became even more dear to me because I knew that this process of unfolding and becoming their real selves was painful for them – but ultimately it was part of their becoming even more of the precious people God had made them to be.

I knew it.  I knew it like you know a good melon.  I knew it like you know that rain is in the air or that you are pregnant.  I just knew. 

But the hard thing is that there are just as many people, good people, faithful people, people I love, maybe even some of you, who just know that homosexuality is wrong and are certain that what is happening in our country is a slippery slope to Armageddon.  You know it like you know a good melon, or that rain is in the air, or that you are pregnant.  You just know. 

In 2009 our ELCA churches had a lot of heartfelt conversations around this topic.  Good, faithful people of all opinions came together to pray and think and listen for God’s voice.  I went through this with my church in Colorado and also in Texas in 2010.  In Texas it was harder because there was a small group of people, lifelong members of this little historic church, who just saw the issue of homosexuality as the deal breaker for them.  They wanted our church to be the church in our area to leave the ELCA.  They pushed hard and rallied members but they couldn’t get much traction.  About ten ended up leaving our church and started their own non ELCA church downtown. 

It was so hard for all of us.  I prayed so hard all the time – especially then – that if I was wrong, that God would help me see it.  I wanted to do what was right, not be blinded by my own emotions, my sentimentality for the friends I love who are gay. 

But the more I prayed, the more I was just convinced that there was no part of the God I had been raised to know and love or even the scriptures I had studied my whole life that informed me that the thing to do would be to tell all gay people that the love they have for one another was lesser than the love given to heterosexual people. 

Yes, there are parts of scripture that are complex – there certain texts that some want to hold up as a beacon that homosexuality is wrong – these scriptures reside with many others that seem to reflect the culture and times the biblical authors lived in more than the timeless will of God:

Concubines and polygamy and the use of slave girls as surrogates in childbirth were all acceptable family values in the Old Testament.  Slavery was found to be morally acceptable in the Old Testament and slave-owning Christians in the early church were not asked by the apostles to set their slaves free.   Priests were commanded to burn their daughters alive if they became prostitutes, and rebellious children were to be stoned to death. Women who were raped were required to marry their rapist.  And when Israel went off to war she believed God called her to destroy every man, woman, and child among the nations she conquered—what today we call genocide.  The Apostle Paul teaches that women are to pray with their heads covered and to not wear their hair in braids.  They are not permitted to teach a man, and Paul notes that it was “shameful” for a woman to even speak in church.

But if I’m not willing to embrace slavery or polygamy or to tell a rape victim they have to marry their rapist, and if I, as a woman can feel the call to ministry and the calling to speak in church – and all these things go against certain cultural laws in the Bible – how can I tell a gay couple their love is wrong – especially when the overarching message of Jesus Christ is that love is the greatest of all things? 

How can I feel anything but glad for the healing that so many gay and lesbian families are feeling now – because of all the big and small rights they now have that they never had before.  And does that healing mean any less to them than the kinds of healing we read in our scriptures for today?  A woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years is healed.  A young girl who is thought to be dead hears a word from Jesus and walks.  A group of people feel marginalized and unaccepted their whole lives, undeserving of love, unable to participate in the gift that is family – but then allowed in, over time welcomed, over time given justice and rights.  All these things seem like healing to me.  All these things seem holy to me.

People of God, please don’t think I stand up here thinking I have everything figured out or that it is my job to convince or sway opinion.  I only share all this with you because I want you to know how much I wrestle with all these matters of faith, too.  I share my own journey with you so that maybe you will share yours with me, too, and with each other.  As we seek to listen to each other and understand each other – I think there is more room for the Holy Spirit to really move.  As we let love and grace guide us, rather than fear or judgement, we become more nimble vessels for sharing all that is beautiful and helpful and life-giving about the church.  If we can talk openly and lovingly about things that matter, if we can disagree with each other and still live and worship together in respect and work together to serve God – then our children will grow up knowing that they can do this, too.  That they will know, with no shade of doubt, that no matter who they are or who they love, they are welcome here and beloved to us and to God.

This is what we need.  We need to be able to stand together in our questions and our certainties, all our stumblings and steps of faith and trust that in the end, it’s God who catches us.  Whether we end up wrong or right, it’s Jesus who saves us and loves us to the end.  That we are wrapped, cloaked, enveloped in this Amazing Grace that is big enough to cradle us all.  That when we say, “Okay, God, what next?”  The answer is always going to be grace.  Treat yourself, treat one another with grace – because this is what God pours out to us and wants us to be about as God’s church on earth.  Amazing Grace.

Parables and Promises (a sermon from June 14, 2015)

Well, it is summertime – and summer means all sorts of things.  It means Bible School and there are beautiful days to be out on the lakes, it means family vacations and time with friends, it means mosquitos and woodticks, and it means that we are to the season of Pentecost in which we get to hear Jesus speaking in parables.

A parable is a short story that teaches something.   It is different than a fable because fables usually have animals or plants or inanimate objects or forces of nature as characters, but parables usually have human characters.  A parable is similar to an analogy.

Let’s take a look at some parts of the parable of the mustard seed.  In the gospel of Mark it says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds but when it is sown it grows to become the greatest of the shrubs.  Similarly, in the gospel of Matthew –  first, Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its’ branches.  And the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.

I have to admit that for much of my life, I’ve read these parables as something like a proverb: “big things sometimes have small beginnings” or “don’t judge something based on its size.” Makes sense on a superficial level, as each parable talks about something small – a mustard seed or a bit of yeast – growing into something big.

Until we remember, however, that actually – neither mustard seed nor yeast was viewed positively in Jesus’ world. Mustard was a weed, and farmers loathed it. It starts out small, but before long has taken over your field. Similarly, In Jesus’ time, yeast or leavening was something that people understood as unclean or evil. Unlike the handy packets of dried yeast we have today, leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.

So…why would Jesus compare the kingdom of God to a weed or something that is seen as unwanted or unusable in everyday life? Well, it may be because both mustard seed and yeast have this way of spreading beyond anything you’d imagined.

And God’s kingdom is like that!  The Holy Spirit is far more potent than we’d imagined and it usually spreads in surprising ways, always in ways that are not controlled, oftentimes even in ways that disturb us and far from the way we think it should be. 

Think about it – a rag tag group of disciples, most of them probably teenagers, none of them professionally trained or educated – chosen by Jesus to be the first to go and share his word and make disciples of all nations.

Think about it – we could listen to the best public speaker in the world give a carefully crafted sermon about the deepest meanings of a text, but it would most likely not be as moving as when we hear the words of scripture being read out loud plainly and simply by a young child.

Think about it – of all the books written over time and distributed by great publishing houses – books written by great minds and backed by powerful corporations and lots of money to distribute them – still, it is the Holy Bible that is most printed and most quoted book by far.  Even people who claim to be atheists can quote scripture – because there is something about this Word that sticks, that captivates even those who want to call it hogwash.

It doesn’t make any sense and it never has and yet we who have experienced it know it to be true.  God’s Word isn’t just words. 

It reminds me of a book called How to Do Things with Words, – it is by J. L. Austin who makes the claim that words don’t simply describe things but actually make things happen. In other words, words aren’t merely descriptive but are evocative, even creative. When two persons say, “I do” in a marriage ceremony, for instance, they are not merely describing the relationship they are entering into but actually creating it. And when some says “I love you” or “I hate you” we don’t only hear those words but actually feel the force they exert upon us. Words, in short, are powerful. For this reason, Austin contends that you ultimately know what a word means not from what it says, but from what it does.

David Lose, president of the Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia expands on this – he says, “Jesus’ parables remind us that the faith we preach and the kingdom we announce finally isn’t an intellectual idea but an experience, an experience of the creative and redemptive power of God that continues to change lives. And sometimes the only way to get beyond our head and into our hearts is to, as Emily Dickenson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And so parables come at us sideways, catching us by surprise to take our breath away at the beauty and depth of God’s promises.”

Words can do that!  And always and especially, God’s Word.  I’ve had that in my mind all week.  We could take all sorts of time to dissect what each parable means and the imagery Jesus used – but he used images and experiences people could understand in these parables so that we would know that the value to be found in these parables isn’t something we have to dig deeply for – rather our understanding of them comes from how the words fall on our ears, how we experience them.   

And perhaps mustard seeds and yeast and treasures buried in fields were great images for the times in which Jesus was teaching, they probably are still, but for those of us who love words, and I am one of those people, I wondered how it would be if we were to take a cue from Jesus and construct a few of our own parables.  How would that sound for each of us to try to describe those moments we have glimpsed the breaking in of God’s own kingdom into our daily lives?  I thought I would try my hand at that this week.  How’s this:

The kingdom of God is like a little boy who cannot sit still and is infinitely more interested in his red balloon than listening to the lesson or singing the songs in Vacation Bible School –and yet, when you ask him to tell you the Bible stories from the week, he knows every one of them in order.

The kingdom of heaven is like a small group of people gathered at the graveside of their friend.  Ancient words of scripture are read and as hot summer breezes move like a brush through the grass and the trees, they whisper that even in death, all things are being made new.

The kingdom of God is like when you are dead tired after a three days of Bible school but then you hear a small child as she walks by you in the grocery store singing the words to one of the songs she learned and the lyrics are, “My heart will sing no other Name, no other Name, Jesus.” 

Or one more:  The kingdom of heaven is like the people of God gathering together – and some are happy, and some are sad, and some are angry, and some are full of faith, and some hardly believe, and some are tired, and some are old, and some are young, and some are rich and some are poor, and some are stressed out, and some are content – they all come together hungry for different things, but they come to Jesus’ table, and all are fed.

Prayer for today:  Dear Lord, be near to us this day and in all our days.  Inspire us with your Word, give us strength and energy to serve You and love one another.  Help us to trust you are with us always in all ways.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.