Mansion in a living room: a funeral homily.

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

John 14:1-6

I’ve never shared a funeral reflection in a living room before. Usually, when I’m sharing these kinds of thoughts, I’m in a funeral home or at a church or standing next to a grave. I’m not usually preaching in a space like this. But I’m glad I am because this space….is filled with Dorothy. This is the building where she spent her nights. This is the town she called home. And this is the place where she created memories with you – memories she cherished and memories you will carry with you forever. We are in a place where Dorothy did a lot of living. And we should be here. We should be sharing our memories of her, here. We should be telling each other our joys and our sorrows, here. We should, ina sense, live in this space like she did. By sharing even these sad moments together, we are making this space a real living room. So It’s good for us to be here. It’s good for us to share how Dorothy made a difference in our lives. And it’s important that Robert and Jean picked this gospel reading from John. Because, in our reading, Jesus is also in a room filled with people who loved him. They had done a lot of living together. So Jesus makes a promise to his friends and to us – the living and love we share will continue, no matter what.

Today’s reading from John is the start of Jesus’ Farewell discourse. It’s called that because that’s exactly what is. It’s sort of like John’s version of the last supper. Jesus and his friends are in a room. They shared a large meal together. They’re starting to get comfortable and they’re wondering what’s going to happen next. But before they could decide what to do, Jesus does something unexpected. He washes their feet. Now, this action confuses Jesus’ friends because, in their world, only slaves wash people’s feet. Jesus, as their teacher and leader isn’t supposed to act like a slave. He isn’t supposed to serve in this way. But Jesus does. And then he keeps serving them by launching into a long speech that lasts 3 whole chapters. Because, in the gospel according to John, Jesus is always in control. He’s always one step ahead of his friends and his enemies. Jesus knows how his life, and his death, will play out. But he also knows that the disciples aren’t him. They have a vision of the future that doesn’t match what God is about to do. So – Jesus talks. He uses his words to say farewell but he isn’t saying goodbye. He’s promising his friends that the love they share, this relationship that binds them together, won’t be broken by what comes next. The death Jesus experiences – a death his friends will see and feel – won’t be the final word. There’s so much more in store for all of them.

So the discourse begins with this image of a giant building full of many rooms. We’re using an older translation of the Bible today so the words house and mansions brings to mind big giant spaces, like those new homes developers build on Ridge Road or by the high school when they tear down older homes and build something gigantic to replace it. But a better translation of our reading today wouldn’t include the words mansions or rooms. It would instead say dwelling places. Jesus isn’t building a castle in heaven full of palaces that his followers can live in. Jesus is telling those who know him, those whom he has called by name, that what matters most is the relationship he has with them. What’s important is how much he cares and loves them. And since love and care are verbs, the word mansion or house isn’t enough. Instead, we need dwelling places because dwelling places are lived in. They’re the kind of places where the dishes in the sink might stay an extra day because company is over and the conversation about the most recent book we’ve read is just too good to break away from. A dwelling place is filled with memories and laughter, joys and even tears. A dwelling place, in other words, is a living room where stories are created and shared and is a place where God’s promise of life and love, in the end, conquers all.

Dorothy, from what you all have shared, lived. This place was truly her dwelling place, her living room. The way she lived will continue to ripple outwards, through the memories you share, and into the new memories you create in the living rooms of your own. We are blessed because Dorothy blessed us. We are blessed because Dorothy loved. And we know that everything that made Dorothy who she is – is now basking in the eternal light of our glorious Lord, forever and ever.

Amen.

A sermon on John 14:1-6 at a memorial service held in a living room on 6/17/2017.

Work

Jesus’ ministry and the church takes work and workers. This is one of the take aways from our reading in Matthew 9:35-10:23 today. At this point in Jesus’ career, Jesus is doing what Jesus does. He preaches, teaches, and heals. He shares a vision of God’s kingdom that includes tax collectors and others typically kicked out of holy places. He eats meals with people he shouldn’t. Jesus is being Jesus. And Jesus, in our verses today, compels his followers to do the same.

The apostles’ mission is an outgrowth of Jesus’ own ministry. Jesus visits new places and tells his followers to do the same. Jesus tells his followers to share God’s message of love and hope using the same words he uses. Jesus’ followers are called to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. And Jesus’ followers are told to provide this physical and spiritual care for free. A follower of Jesus doesn’t act only to benefit themselves. They are told to give freely and abundantly because that’s what Jesus does too. In the words of Colin Yuckman of Duke Divinity School, “To be sent by Jesus is, in some sense, to be sent as Jesus.” Jesus is training his followers on how they can be his disciples. When people encounter us, they are encountering and experiencing Jesus Christ and we need to act accordingly.

This encounter with Jesus Christ is an unexpected mission God invites us to share. It’s also a mission that is not easy to do. An invitation to follow Jesus is an invitation to live a different way. An invitation to live in God’s kingdom means we need to realize the hard truths about the brokenness of the world around us. An invitation to live as Jesus is an invitation to recognize the ways we push ourselves and others away from God. Jesus decides that people like us can, through the help of the Holy Spirit, show others Jesus Christ. This seems like a daunting task. It can make us feel afraid. But, like we heard last week, we don’t do this job alone because Jesus is with us to the end of the age.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 2nd Sunday After Pentecost, 6/18/2017.

The Right Time: Promise, Hope, and Faith

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 5:1-8

My sermon from 2nd Sunday after Pentecost (June 18, 2017) on Romans 5:1-80. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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Yesterday, around noon, I was sitting at my dining room table, putting the finishing touches on a funeral sermon I would share a few hours later. When I was done, I gathered my things and headed out the door. And that’s when I noticed…the rain. By the time I was halfway down the block, it was pouring. This..wasn’t good because the funeral service I was about to lead was taking place outdoors in our Memorial Garden. When I finally got to church, I stood in the narthex, looked out the front doors, and did all I could to make the rain stop. I said a prayer. I stared intently at the sky, hoping the seriousness of my face would convince the clouds to back off for a little bit. But nothing I did worked. The rain kept falling. I then decided to move the service inside, hoping we could by some time, and give the skies another 15 minutes to clear out before we would bury ashes in the ground. We started the service, read the lessons, said our prayers, and the rain kept falling. Now I know it’s a bit presumptuous to act like yesterday’s rainstorm was specifically designed to interfere with what I wanted to do. But the rain came at the exact right time to upend the plans I made. If the clouds had stayed away for just one more hour, the service would have gone on without a hitch. But instead, the right time for the funeral was also the right time for the rain to fall.

Our reading today from the book of Romans mentions this…idea of the right time. Now, we call Romans the book of Romans but it’s really a letter. Paul is writing to a group of people in the city of Rome who believe in Jesus. We don’t know when this community was founded or who was first to bring Jesus there. Yet by the time Paul is planting churches all over the Eastern Mediterranean, a church in Rome had already been formed. Paul is hoping to visit this community and he introduces himself with a very long letter. The community in Rome seems to have some…concerns about who Paul is and what he’s teaching. They want to know more about what the gospel means to him. We sometimes make this long letter to the Romans seem like it’s Paul’s great attempt to put all his experiences of Jesus and faith and the church into a neat, cohesive, and coherent package that should be easy to understand. But I don’t think that’s Paul’s goal. He’s not trying to talk about Jesus as if Jesus is…some kind of fancy thought experiment, something we only have to keep in our heads. Paul isn’t hoping that the community in Rome will hear his words and then start nodding their heads in agreement. Instead, Paul is trying make Jesus happen to them. He’s trying to convey an experience that touches the core of all who hear it. Paul, using the only thing he has at that moment to share Jesus, uses a scroll and a pen to plant seeds of faith in those who hear it. And this faith doesn’t start by understanding an idea or a concept. This faith begins with a promise. In Christ, God has claimed you. In Christ, God has shown how much God loves you. In Christ, you are given a gift of faith that’s always in awe because the creator of everything has decided that this is the right time for you to know how much you matter. And you matter not because you are perfect or because you always do the right thing. You matter because God has created you. And that’s…enough. In a society that still makes up rules about who has value and who does not, God promises that even those society views as valueless are seen and noticed by God. The values of our society and of our culture are not the limit to the values God has. Everyone’s value is grounded in the relationship God starts with them and not the other way around. This promise God makes is a promise of hope. Because when your hope is rooted in God, it’s a hope no one can take away from you.

What Paul is doing in these short verses from Romans is to invite the community to live that promise out loud. This hope-filled promise begins in a God who sees them, knows them, values them, and won’t leave them on their own. This kind of hope isn’t wishful thinking or one that is so abstract and heady that we leave it out there, on the horizon, knowing we’ll never see if fulfilled so it never inspires us to live a different way. The hope that Paul sees is certain and sure and true. And it’s hope that knows God acts. In the words of Elizabeth Shively, “what God will do for the believer in Christ is grounded on what God has done.” God didn’t wait for us to be perfect before Jesus visited us. Jesus didn’t wait for us to understand everything he said before Jesus claimed us as his own. The God who acts is a God who doesn’t wait for us to catch-up. Instead, the God who acts is a God who comes to us first. Because the right time for God to meet us is always at our beginning. And God keeps coming to us over and over again because we need a lot of new beginnings. We need God to give us new eyes to see the world as it truly is. We need God to give us new hearts so we can love each other as much as God loves us. We need God to break the bonds of injustice that keep systems of oppression firmly in control. And we need God to keep giving us this hope that the God who has acted in Jesus won’t let upended plans get in the way of what God is about to do.

For people who are claimed by God, the trick to living your faith out loud isn’t trying to wait for the right time or right situation or right feeling to hit you before you start living. The trick is to always live in God’s love and hope and promise – even when the rain of sorrows, anxieties, fears, and hardships fall. Faith doesn’t mean that sorrows won’t come. Faith doesn’t mean that we never will be anxious. Instead, faith means that in spite of what comes, we live and act and believe that the future God has planned will actually come. And faith trusts this because Jesus has already come. Jesus has already called you by name. And once Jesus knows you, there’s nothing in this world that can push that promise away.

Amen.

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The Seed of it All: forgetting and remembering

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:16-20

My sermon from Trinity Sunday (June 11, 2017) on Matthew 28:16-20. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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What’s the last thing you forgot? I…don’t remember. I’m sure, if you asked my kids or my spouse or checked my email inbox which is my default to-do list, I’m sure you’d find the last thing I forgot to do. But when we frame forgetting in this way, we make forgetting seem like it’s only about a promise we broke or it’s something that happened when the busyness of life got in our way. But forgetting is more than that. Forgetting can feel like we’ve lost something. This week I stumbled on an article from the New Yorker written by Kathryn Schulz with the title “When Things Go Missing.” It’s an essay that starts in Portland in the summer when suddenly, according to Kathryn, everything “fell out of place.” She writes:

My first day in town, I left the keys to [my] truck on the counter of a coffee shop. The next day, I left the keys to the house in the front door. A few days after that, warming up in the midday sun at an outdoor café, I took off the long-sleeved shirt I’d been wearing, only to leave it hanging over the back of the chair when I headed home. When I returned to claim it, I discovered that I’d left my wallet behind as well….later that afternoon I stopped by a sporting-goods store to buy a lock for my new bike and left my wallet sitting next to the cash register. I got the wallet back, but the next day I lost the bike lock. I’d just arrived home and removed it from its packaging when my phone rang; I stepped away to take the call, and when I returned, some time later, the lock had vanished. This was annoying, because I was planning to bike downtown that evening, to attend an event at Powell’s, Portland’s famous bookstore. Eventually, having spent an absurd amount of time looking for the lock and failing to find it, I gave up and drove the truck downtown instead. I parked, went to the event, hung around talking for a while afterward, browsed the bookshelves, walked outside into a lovely summer evening, and could not find the truck anywhere.

Even on our best days, we’re forgetting something. One insurance company claims that we misplace nine objects every single day. That means, by the time [we’re] [Marcus is] sixty, [we’ll] [he’ll] have lost up to two hundred thousand things. Now, we mostly find the things we lose. But looking for things takes time. When you add up all the time we will spend in our lives looking for things we’ve lost, we’ll spent almost six months looking for our keys and wallets. We’re good at losing things because we’re good at forgetting. But we shouldn’t limit forgetting to just losing things. Forgetting can also be heartbreaking. I’ve witnessed an illness causing someone to forget their own name. I’ve been at the bedside of people who forgot how to speak English and instead, started speaking Spanish and Swedish and all these other languages they hadn’t spoken since they were six. Many of us have parents or siblings or loved ones who have forgotten who we are and who, at the same time, seem to have lost who they are too. Forgetting can be as simple as asking a friend to call our cell-phone because we have no idea where it is in our house. And forgetting can be as terrifying as losing who we are.

Which is why I struggle with our translation of Jesus’ last words in the gospel according to Matthew today. Jesus, after his death on the cross, after his resurrection, and after he has spent time showing his followers that the brokenness of this world is not the final chapter God has planned for us, Jesus makes one more public statement. He gathers his friends on a mountain top because, in Matthew, that’s where important things happen. Some of his followers are excited to be there. Others…don’t really know what’s going on. Even though Jesus is right in front of them, some of his friends doubt. But Jesus pulls them all together because he has one more thing to say. In a few short sentences, Jesus explains who he is. Jesus gives his followers a list of things to do. And then he ends on a word of promise, a promise that our translation today begins with the words: “And remember…”

Now, there is something powerful about remembering, especially during difficult times. When life is hard, we can remember that Jesus lived and died for you not because you are perfect but because Jesus loves you. Jesus is there with you while your heart breaks because his heart is breaking too. That’s… who Jesus is. But the words, “And remember…” can also be a tad terrifying because it seems as if Jesus is giving us a task to do that we’re not always cut out for. I mean, I have literally forgotten where I have put my shoes. And I have sent texts to my spouse, telling her to bring the plastic collar I wear around my neck, this collar that signifies my role as a pastor, because…I forgot it and left it at home. Jesus is asking an awful lot of us when he asks us to remember because there are times when we won’t. There are times when we can’t. And there are times when we’re experiencing so much joy and so much sadness that Jesus will be the last thing on our minds. When we take a step back and look at our entire life of faith, it’s easier to talk about what we’ve lost rather than what we remember because losses linger. Loved ones die. Friends move away. Relationships end. We lose our jobs, our sense of stability, and our bodies no longer work the way they use to as we get older, ill, and frail. As Kathryn Schulz writes further in her article, “We lose things because we are flawed; because we are human; because we have things to lose.” I’m not sure Jesus should rely on our ability to remember because forgetting and loss is sometimes all we have.

But I don’t think that’s what Jesus is doing in these last verses from Matthew. The Greek word that our translation translates as “Remember…” isn’t usually used in that way. Instead, it’s an interjection. It’s a shout. It’s the same word that announces the sudden appearance of an angel and lets us know that Jesus’ friends freaked out when the prophets Moses and Elijah showed up on a mountain. The word really means “Look! See! Hey, over here!” It’s pointing out something that is sudden, exciting, and totally unexpected. It’s a word to that let’s us know that whatever follows it, matters. Jesus doesn’t order his disciples to remember his promises, as if our actions can somehow make these promises true or not. Instead, Jesus is saying: “look! I am with you. I will be with you. And you cannot lose me like you will lose your car keys…or even your memory.” Once God knows us, we cannot stop God from coming to us. Once Jesus claims us in our baptism, we can’t ever stop him from loving us. Our faith and the relationship God has with each of us is too important for God to leave up only to us. Instead, God takes the initiative to claim us, to hold us, and to live with us because God says we are worth more than we will ever know. Our relationship with God doesn’t depend or being with something that we do or rely on whether we can remember who God is. Our relationship depends only on the promises God gives to us – a promise made real in the gift of faith itself. This faith moves us, this faith transforms us, this faith pushes us into the promise Jesus makes here. “Look! See! Hey, this is important.” No matter where we are, or what we do, or where we go – Jesus promises that little Marcus and all of us will never be alone.

Amen.

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Rest: Take a Break

Imagine, after a super busy week, being confident enough to take a break. And if God rests, why can’t we?

Our first reading today (Genesis 1:1-2:4) is the opening to our Bible. These verses share with us the first creation story in our scriptures and how God created in seven days. The universe began as a formless void. God, in this story, doesn’t create out of nothing. Instead, God brings order to a chaotic soup of randomness. For six days, God creates. Animals, birds, plants, and people are formed. I love how the giant sea monsters are named specifically in this story and how humankind begins their lives as vegetarians. The opening words of the bible are not meant to be a timeline detailing the history of the universe. Rather, these verse show God’s relationship with everything. Unlike other creation stories floating around during the time of ancient Israel, the world isn’t created through a violent act. There is no war between various gods that caused the earth to come into being. The world, instead, is created by a God who declares that creation is good. Everything within creation matters because God says it does. The sea monsters and the blades of grass are connected to a God who loves them.

So after creating everything, God took a break. God, for a brief period of time, stops working. In our modern context, we are used to the idea of weekends. We live in a society shaped by over a century of people, systems of thoughts, organizations, and labor unions that created the weekend. In a sense, the weekend is an ideal. We take a break from a normal workweek to instead, rest. This is an ideal because not everyone’s work week begins on Monday and ends on Friday. And our lives are so dedicated to busy, we stop working on Fridays only to start again with other projects, sports games, homework, and more on Saturday. We work because we have to. We keep working because, if we don’t, we imagine what we’re doing will never get done. We’ve built lives where we need to be busy because we don’t receive the help we need to take a break. We are, in the words of some, a society addicted to being busy.

But God, who doesn’t need to take a break, actually stops working. God rests. God, who has a relationship with every blade of grass, every sea monster, and every person, has created a world where taking a break matters. God invites us to live in a world where everyone has the time and resources they need to stop doing everything. Instead, we can sit, enjoy, and bless each other and the world. When we take a break and help the people around us take a break, we’re not encouraging laziness. We’re encouraging people to connect with creation and the God who created it. And when we can connect with God, we discover how we can bless what God has blessed. And we discover the blessing God wants us to be.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Trinity, 6/11/2017.

When Doves Cry

When you picture the Holy Spirit, what do you think of? Unlike Jesus, the Holy Spirit has no physical form. The Holy Spirit is not something we can touch or objectively see. Even though the gospels describe the Spirit of God in the form of a dove, the dove is merely a metaphor. The metaphor describes what the Holy Spirit is like but the metaphor shouldn’t limit what the Spirit can do. For centuries, the translation of Holy Spirit as Holy Ghost misidentified what the Spirit can do. We know ghosts. Ghosts go by the name of Casper. They are something we see in a horror film. They can walk through walls, vanish in an instant, and help us make pottery when we star in a Patrick Swayze film. But because ghosts are recognizable, they seem containable in some way. The Holy Spirit, as depicted in scripture, is the opposite. The Holy Spirit, as we see in our reading from Acts today, is not contained by anything. Like the cry of a dove across a large valley or a rush of wind blowing through a small room, the Holy Spirit moves, breaking the ways we keep to ourselves and forcing us out of our self-imposed containment.

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21) is sometimes described as the “birthday” of the church. That’s a metaphor that’s not quite right. The church is always the community of believers who proclaim Jesus Christ, crucified and risen from the dead. This new kind of community began the moment Mary and other women told their friends that Jesus was raised from the tomb. Pentecost is really a celebration of the different kinds of people God is calling into this new kind of community. The city of Jerusalem is filled with Jews from all over the world. These pilgrims speak many different languages and have many different nationalities. The Holy Spirit gives the apostles the ability to make Christ’s story heard in many different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is not the apostles’ ability to speak different languages. The miracle of Pentecost is God calling many different kinds of people to be part of this new community because Jesus’ message of hope, reconciliation, and love is for everyone.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for Pentecost, 6/04/2017.

Make It So: Keeping the Spirit as a Violent Wind

When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles’] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Acts 2:1-21

My sermon from Pentecost (June 4, 2017) on Acts 2:1-21. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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What do you do when you see storm clouds moving towards you? That question has been on my mind since Wednesday night, after I spotted a thunderstorm south of here. I had just left a church meeting and was busy trying to convince my four year old and two year old that staying in their car seats was actually a good idea, when someone pointed out bright flashes lighting up the southern sky. As we looked through the tops of trees, we could see bolts of lightning flashing from cloud to cloud. We couldn’t hear any thunder. And I don’t recall any gusts of wind. But I do remember staring intently at those storm clouds as they moved from west to east. As I put my two kids in their car seats, and I said goodnight to those who attended that church meeting, I kept my eyes turned south. I wanted to know where the storm was going and if I needed to rush home to close some windows before the rain came. But as I stared at that storm, I realized I was also looking for something else. Even though it was dark and the flashes of lightning were the only thing illuminating the storm itself, my eyes were trying to see what the clouds themselves were doing. I strained my eyes trying to see if the clouds were rotating. Regardless of where I am or what time of day it is or even whether the clouds are bringing rain or snow, the first thing I do when I see a storm is to look for clouds rotating around each other. As a kid growing up where the Rocky Mountains met the Great Plains of the midwest, violent winds were just a part of life. During the school year, instead of lock down drills, we had tornado drills. I remember learning how to go into the hallways of my elementary school, kneeling down on the floor, and covering my head and neck. I watched countless cheesy made-for-school movies about what happens to a house when a tornado comes and how the wind announces itself by sounding like a freight train. When a violent wind comes, we were taught to never go towards it. If we were caught outside and couldn’t get into a basement, we were told to run into a ditch and cover our head. We learned how it’s safer to run and hide than trying to outrun a tornado in a car. Violents winds are scary. Violent winds are not something were called to confront. When a violent wind comes, like a tornado or a hurricane or a superstorm, we’re told to find someplace safe. We’re told to protect ourselves. We’re told to stay away. Which is why, when it comes to our reading from the book of Acts today, I wonder: why didn’t the disciples run? When the wind began to blow, when the curtains and doors started to shake, when the wind blew out the candles and knocked papers and dishes onto the floor, when the entire house itself shook – why did they stay? And why did the Spirit of God come to them in this frightening, terrifying, and completely disruptive way?

We have a tendency in the wider church to make the Spirit….safe. We cling to images of the Spirit as a dove, as a little white and fluffy bird. The bird is perfect, without blemish, a bird we think is beautiful enough to have been sent out from the Ark by Noah and to announce who Jesus is at His baptism. And when the bird moves, it never really seems to flap its wings. It just seems to float and glide, as if it fell off a cloud in heaven, caught a bit of an updraft, and is taking it’s time to, ever so gently, come down to earth. When this dove finally lands, making itself known to us, this Spirit doesn’t land with a thud. Instead, we imagine it landing on us with grace and gentleness and comfort, like a feather floating from heaven. This image of the Spirit is very calming. It’s peaceful. It’s comforting because it doesn’t really challenge us. A dove doesn’t ask us to do much. A dove is soft and cuddly and doesn’t disrupt the world around us. A dove invites us in a gentle way to be a little more holy, a little more Christ like, and to share Jesus in whatever way we find comfortable. A dove….isn’t a violent wind. A dove doesn’t shake an entire house. A dove doesn’t knock everything onto the floor, making a mess of everything we set-up and planned for. And a dove doesn’t immediately cause us to go out into the street and start babbling in languages that only immigrants and foreigners and non-citizens understand.

Keeping the Spirit as a dove is safe. Keeping the Spirit as a dove keeps us from seeing what the Spirit does. We don’t want to imagine God’s Spirit literally blowing us out the front door, out of our comfort zones, moving us away from everything we know and love and that keeps us safe until we suddenly find ourselves face to face with people who aren’t like us, who don’t believe like us, but who God has put in our path to know, and to love, and to share Jesus with. When we keep the Spirit locked into the image of a dove, the Spirit stays small, contained, and feels like it’s only designed for me, myself, and I. But when we let the Spirit be the Spirit, we recognize how God’s Spirit shakes our homes, upending the order and stability we built for ourselves, forcing us to do uncomfortable, scary, and even mind-boggling things – all for this wacky thing we call faith. When we let the Spirit be the Spirit, we recognize how the Spirit isn’t only a thing or a force or a wind or some abstract metaphysical concept designed by pastors to confuse and confound Confirmands (like Connor, Josette, and Brendan). The Spirit, at its core, is a promise – a promise that God made to each of us. When God first met us, God made a promise to know us. When Jesus first called us by our name, he made a promise to be with us, no matter what. And when the Spirit was first breathed into us, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the presence of everything holy and divine was wrapped around us, tight. Right now, the mighty wind that shook the apostles’ house is the same Spirit shaking you. The Spirit that makes old men dream dreams is the same Spirit inviting you into the dreams God has for each of you. The Spirit is not abstract. The Spirit is more than a dove. The Spirit is the promise that you have value; that you have worth; and that a world filled with different kind of people from different kinds of places, from Mesopotamia to Cappadocia, from Rome to Arabia, is not a world where God’s love is reserved for a select few. Rather, the Spirit that holds you is the same Spirit that is moving you to help others discover a new vision of love and hope and to dream dreams of safety and peace. In a world where the violent winds of hate and fear, of climate change and terror, of sin and war, cast a long and dark cloud over everyone, the promise that holds you tight is that no wind or evil or even death itself can blow Jesus’ love and care away from you. When the storm clouds come, when they twist and twirl and rotate around you, cling to the promise that the Spirit is with you, the Spirit is acting through you, and that God’s love cannot be torn away from you. The storms in your life, no matter how strong, will not win because the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of the Holy Trinity, will carry you through.

Amen.

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Is This The Time: a sermon on a question that is really a prayer

So when [the disciples] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

Acts 1:6-14

My sermon from 7th Sunday of Easter (May 28, 2017) on Acts 1:6-14. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.

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I always love a bible passage that starts with a very honest question. Today, in our first reading from the book of Acts, the disciples are just outside Jerusalem. For the last forty days, they have been hanging out with the post-resurrection Jesus. Jesus said hello to Peter. He showed up when two of his disciples took a long walk to the village of Emmaus. And Jesus even ate a piece of broiled fish while all his disciples watched to prove that he wasn’t a ghost. For forty days, Jesus taught them and the disciples experienced Jesus after the Cross. Jesus then led his followers to a hill not far from the city of Jerusalem. And it’s there when the disciples ask Jesus their question. “Jesus – is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” “Is this the time when you will kick out the Romans who are occupying your city and oppressing your people? Is this the time when you will establish your kingdom so that your followers can have the peace of mind and the safety they are looking for? After seeing your ministry from Galilee to Jerusalem, after watching you die on the cross, and after seeing you resurrected from the dead – Jesus, is this the time, when you will finally make everything right?”

Now, on one level, we’re supposed to tilt our heads and look a little bit askew at the disciples for asking this question. Because this is the question they’ve been asking since day one. When Jesus first called them as his own, they assumed Jesus would be like every other leader they knew. Jesus, as the Messiah, as the one who would save Israel, would make everything right by putting together some kind of army that would drive the occupying Romans into the sea. The disciples expected Jesus to establish a kingdom like David’s but one that was bigger and better with a special place in it for each of them. The expectations of the disciples never really gelled with what Jesus actually showed them. When they argued over which one would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them to serve one another. When the disciples tried to keep the sick, the poor, and those who were different away from Jesus, Jesus welcomed the unwelcomed to his table. Jesus lived God’s kingdom out loud. And this caused problems. The Romans saw this mixed band of disciples, of men and women, old and young, rich and poor, the socially acceptable and those who should be left on the margins, – the Romans saw the disciples as the beginning of an army designed to rebel with violence. So the Romans killed Jesus, hoping to end his entire movement. And the disciples saw this. They experienced Good Friday. They watched as their teacher was buried in a rocky tomb. But the disciples also witnessed what God did in response. They hung out with Jesus in his full post-resurrection glory. They knew that God had upended our expectations through Jesus’ work on the Cross. And yet…their old question is still their current one: “Jesus, is this the time when will you make everything right?”

I can’t really blame the disciples for not getting it because haven’t we all asked the same question? When we flip on the news, pick up a newspaper, or scroll through a Twitter feed, we can watch in real time as evil makes itself known all over the world. We can be in Manchester as a bomb explodes at an Ariana Grande concert and read eye-witness accounts posted online mere minutes after Coptic Christians on a pilgrimage in Egypt are singled out for their faith and killed. We can see the faces of the two men in Portland who were killed when they stood up to a white supremacist harassing a young woman wearing a hijab and we can be in our homes, sitting on our couches in our pjs, and watch live video as torch bearing mobs gather around the statues of the Confederacy to protect these idols to white supremacy. The early disciples of Jesus knew that evil existed all over their world. But they couldn’t see it unfold in real time like we can. We can witness plenty of events, happening far away from here, where the disciples’ question is our question. And if we turn our eyes inward, taking a look into our cities, homes, families, and lives…the disciples’ question stays as our question too. When unemployment is about to run out, and the 200th resume we sent didn’t even get a response, and we don’t know how the mortgage, the car loan, the grocery bill, or the electricity will be paid…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up, and make everything right. When the experimental drug trial we are on isn’t showing any improvement,…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up and make everything right. And when the scourge of addiction, of greed, of infidelity, and when our own sin has destroyed the relationships that matter to us most…that would be a good time for Jesus to show up and make everything right.

On one hand, we can easily brush aside the disciples’ question as a question from a group of people who just didn’t get it. But we can’t ignore their question because it’s a question that sits on our lips, when our lives and our worlds fall apart. The disciples’ question is more than just a question. It’s a prayer. It’s a prayer asking God to do what God promises. It’s a prayer bold enough to ask God for something specific. It’s a prayer that actually knows God is listening because it asks a question, leaving space for God to answer or not. Which is sort of what Jesus does here. Jesus doesn’t answer the question with a no. Instead, he points the disciples’ back to a promise their question seems to miss. The disciples want a kingdom, a government, and an empire because they think that’s where God’s promises will be fulfilled. But Jesus points them to something more. The source of God’s kingdom is always God. The foundation of what God is doing is rooted always in Jesus. The disciples’ eyes are looking for a kingdom where they can see God at work. But Jesus wants them to know that, because Jesus is with them, God’s kingdom is already unfolding through them, in spite of the troubles, suffering, and sorrow that they cause or that happens to them. The life of faith is less about chasing after Jesus but more about living as if Jesus is actually with you. And since Jesus is with you, the fears and terrors of this world, and the sin that draws us away from each other and away from God, cannot overcome the relationship Jesus has with each of you. Jesus doesn’t promise his disciples an easy life. He doesn’t promise them a life without hardship or pain or sorrow. But What Jesus promises is presence. He promises love. He promises that he will be with them, no matter what. The life of faith isn’t easy. The life of faith sees the evil in this world and in our souls. The life of faith is filled with moments when the prayer “Lord, is it time” will be on our lips. But that prayer will also be on the lips of Jesus because no matter where we are and no matter what we’re going through, right now is always the right time to know that Jesus has us, that Jesus loves us, and that we will,in the end, make it through.

Amen.

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Eavesdropping on Jesus

In today’s reading from John (John 17:1-11), Jesus is at the end of his long sermon before his arrest and trial. He concludes this long sermon to his disciples with a prayer. Jesus stops talking to his disciples and turns towards God. But Jesus doesn’t pray silently. Jesus keeps talking. His disciples are in the room when Jesus starts to pray. The disciples eavesdrop on Jesus’ prayer and get a glimpse at Jesus’ own prayer life.

The Rev. Karoline Lewis in her commentary on John writes, “What difference does it make to overhear Jesus praying for us?” How often do we think about Jesus actually saying our name in his own prayers? Usually when we talk about prayer, we focus on our personal conversation with God. If we pray to Jesus, we wait for him to respond to us and act on our behalf. We don’t usually imagine Jesus talking about us. We know Jesus knows God and we know that Jesus is God. God and Jesus are so connected, it seems silly for Jesus to pray. Yet in the moment when the disciples are finally confronted by Jesus’ upcoming death on the Cross, Jesus prays for them. Jesus asks for their protection. Jesus wants God to continue God’s holy work through them. Jesus does more in this passage than affirm his presence with his followers. Jesus prays for them, too.

Embedded in this prayer is a short definition of eternal life is. Eternal life is, according to 17:3, knowing God and Jesus. We rarely describe eternal life in these terms. We imagine eternal life being something that happens after this life. Yet Jesus says eternal life is knowing God and knowing Jesus. This is something we can participate in right now. Jesus prays for his disciples, asking God to continue to grant eternal life to his disciples. And this eternal life doesn’t start later. This eternal life starts now.

Each week, I write a reflection on one of our scripture readings for the week. This is from Christ Lutheran Church’s Worship Bulletin for 7th Sunday of Easter, 5/28/2017.