The Path of Life: Re-reading Psalm 16

In light of the Resurrection, what do we do now? This question is central to our reading from Acts today (Acts 2:14,22-36). Peter and the other disciples are in Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost), a Jewish festival celebrating the giving of the law (Torah) at Mt. Sinai. The disciples are not the only ones in the city. Jerusalem is filled with many different pilgrims and tourists speaking many different languages. During the festival, a mighty wind blew through the disciples and tongues of fire appeared over their heads. The disciples made Jesus’ story known to crowds who heard that story in their own languages.

In the church calendar, we celebrate Pentecost 7 weeks after Easter. We will hear that story on June 4. But our interpretation of today’s reading depends on remembering the Pentecost event. Peter is explaining to a confused crowd what just happened. And he does this in a specific way. He dug into the Hebrew Scriptures (what we sometimes call the Old Testament) to understand what God is doing now. By engaging scripture, Peter suddenly read Psalm 16 in a new way.

Peter’s sermon does something new. He took seriously where he was (Jerusalem under Roman control), who he was speaking to (Jews from everywhere), and what scripture teaches (quoting Psalm 16:8-11) in light of an ongoing conversation with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. Ellen T. Charry writes, “Christianity is born by wrestling with ancient texts in light of startling events that require textual grounding…” (Brazos Theological Commentary – Psalms 1-50, page 76). Peter knew Jesus because he spent time with him. He was there when Jesus heal the sick and shared God’s love through word and deed. He mourned Jesus’ death and celebrated his resurrection. Peter’s faith is molded by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Psalm 16 was, most likely, a psalm designed to show people what a “morally flourishing and satisfying life with God” can bring. But after the Resurrection, the text changed. The Psalm is now an invitation to cling to Christ. Even though the reading of the text changed, the hope within the text did not. Hope begins and ends with God so let’s set the Lord always before us.

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 of Easter, 4/23/2017.

Ground Goes Boom: A sermon for Easter Morning.

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

Matthew 28:1-10

My sermon from Easter Sunday (April 16, 2017) on Matthew 28:1-10. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below:

Silence. Then noise. Noise. Then silence. When I lived in New York City, I craved the noise of the city street. On warm days like today, I loved to open the windows of my 5th floor walk up apartment and just listen to the traffic below. I would hear my neighbors, sitting on their fire escapes, talking to one another in languages I didn’t understand. And, just down the block, the Piragua man would be telling jokes while he shaved a block of ice to make a young child a delicious treat. But now, as a parent with two young children, my need for noise has changed. The traffic of city streets below my apartment window has been replaced by the sounds of plastic cars being launched off my dining room table. The words of my old neighbors are now overwhelmed by words from new neighbors led by a cartoon tiger named Daniel with his friends the Power Rangers, Peppa Pig, and Thomas the Tank Engine I now long for those seconds of silence I’m able to scrape together when the rest of my family are busy playing on the other side of the house. The sounds that fed my soul in the past do not necessarily feed me now. Sometimes, I need the noise of a loud city street to remind me that there is life in this world. And sometimes I need a bit of silence to remember all the life there is in me. We live our entire lives surrounded by cycles of noise and silence. When we’re in the womb, the rushing sound of blood pumping through our mother’s veins is as loud as a running vacuum cleaner. And when we’re a little older, one of the first skills we learn is how to sleep through the silence. We don’t always get to choose the silences and the noises that surround us. But we do learn how to live through them. The noise and the silence makes a rhythm we live out each and everyday. And that rhythm can bring us meaning, if we only learn to look for it.

When we listen to the gospel according to Matthew, we hear a rhythm of noise and silence that is the heart of Jesus’ story. When Joseph, Mary’s fiancée, finds out she’s pregnant, he wants to break up with her but he plans to do so quietly. God changes Joseph’s mind by sending him a very noisey dream filled with words from an angel. As Jesus grows up and begins to teach about God’s vision for the world and what God’s love actually looks like, his teaching and healings are met with a silence filled with confusion, fear, and jealousy. When Jesus is finally arrested and interrogated by the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus stays silent. He doesn’t answer many of Pilate’s questions. Even the soldiers, when they are mocking him while he hangs on the Cross, get no real response. The rest of the world rages but Jesus…doesn’t. Instead, when death finally comes, the weeping of his disciples and the grumbles from the guards posted outside his grave cannot penetrate the stone walls of his dark tomb. For 3 days, quiet surrounds Jesus. For 3 days, he knows death. And then, once the sabbath day is over, a group of women leave the city. Since it’s before dawn, the city is still asleep. The terror and sadness of Jesus’ death still hung in the air. The women want to finish the traditional burial rituals for their friend. And I imagine, as they walked, they stayed quiet. They didn’t dare break the silence with even a whisper. So God, with an angel and an earthquake, breaks that silence for them.

Now, Matthew does something different in his telling of the resurrection. Not only do the women feel the ground shake, they hear the grinding of stone as the angel opens the tomb. They watch as professional soldiers faint in fright, their armor and spears clattering as they hit the ground. And, just in case that wasn’t enough, the angel, sitting on the rolled away stone, speaks. The silence of death isn’t broken only by seeing an empty tomb. That quiet is shattered by an earth that moves and bellows. Soldiers from the greatest military power in the world, fall over; their weapons clattering and announcing the failure of their power. These women followers of Jesus, disciples who clung to his teaching, heard his promises, and saw him die – they are having their expectations undone. The silence of pain they carried with them is being broken. The noise of the world is being undone by the love of God. And it’s after the ground moves and the earth shifts when the silence of death is finally undone by something very human and very soft. It’s merely a voice that shares the message. It’s a word that announces the promise. The angel says “Jesus is not here.” And with that, the rhythm of the world is undone. The women expected death – but now, only new life remains.

We know the noises that make up the rhythm of our lives. And it’s sometimes easy to point to the loud and over the top sounds that other people can also hear. But there are those noises that keep us silent. There are those thoughts and fears and concerns that stay with us, in our hearts and in our heads, never letting us go. They are the weights we carry on our shoulders and the troubles that burrow into our souls. They are the worries, anxieties, fears, and sadness that make us feel less than whole. No one else might hear the noises we hear. But they are loud. And they can push out hope. But they can’t push out God – because Easter is when the noises we know and silences we live through are met by the love and promise of Jesus Christ.

Because God decided that creation was worth living in. God decided that the sick, the poor, the outcasts, those who are afraid, and those who are weighed down – are worth friendship, healing, and love. The rhythm of noise and silence that makes up our lives will not be our final story. There is a new rhythm in our reality that God has already written. It’s a rhythm where the noise of this world is replaced with the noise of hope, generosity, and love. It’s a way of life where service to others is a language everyone’s speak. It’s a reality where our pains, our sickness, and our sorrows are embraced by Jesus Christ because you are worth more than any of the silence that has been imposed on you. Your rhythm of noise and silence, of fear and hope, is now in the hands of a God who does not let the silence of death win. Today we celebrate Easter. Today we remember that the rhythm of this world has already been changed. We celebrate the gift of God’s love that makes a difference now. Because Jesus did more than conqueror death; he lived through our noises and our silence and wrote us a new ending that will not be contained in a tomb.

Amen.

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Do Not Be Afraid: an Easter Reflection

The Gospel Reading is Matthew 28:1-10.

One of the most common phrases in the bible is “Do Not Be Afraid.” When angels bring messages of hope and promise, they begin with this simple phrase. We imagine angels to be gigantic beings with white wings, golden crowns, and carrying swords and harps. When an angel shows up, the sight can be terrifying. But an “angel” is really someone (or something) that brings a message from God. And God’s message to the two Marys is “do not be afraid.”

If anyone had a good reason to be afraid, it was the early disciples of Jesus. They witnessed Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and execution. They saw their friends deny their relationship with Jesus and run away in fear. They felt vulnerable, exposed, and completely confused because Jesus’ death wasn’t what they expected. They expected Jesus to “win” by removing the Roman Empire from Jerusalem. They expected King David’s kingdom to be politically and military re-established. The followers of Jesus didn’t expect Rome to “win” instead.

But the Marys didn’t expect an angel to be in the tomb either when they came to finish the burial rituals for their teacher and friend. The message for the women was simple and profound. Their expectations were being rewritten by a God who rewrote the experience of life and death. Life is no longer defined by the limited time we have on earth. Life, instead, begins and ends in a God who cannot be overcome by violence, pain, or sin. Life is about a love that breaks the bounds we try to give it.

A love that is boundless is an amazing gift. It’s also a gift that scares us. The invitation to love like Jesus is an invitation to change our relationships with the people around us. We’re invited to serve people we do not know. We’re invited to share meals with people who do not look, talk, or believe like us. We’re invited to break the limits we place on our realities. We’re invited to bring new life to our world by participating in what God is already doing: transforming the world so no one is ever afraid again.

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 Easter Sunday, 4/16/2017.

The Cross: A Good Friday Reflection

The Second Reading is Hebrews 10:16-25.

One of my favorite features about this church building are the crosses. Before we enter the sanctuary, a large cross hangs over the doorway. Above the altar space, another large cross looms silently but still speaking volume. And then, from a distance, we can see the large roof slope upwards, forming a crown with a cross on top. These crosses do more than provide a nice place for birds to sit. Each cross proclaims this is where Christians are.

But in the words of Sharon Ringe, professor emerita of Wesley Seminary, “With its exalted status as the focal point of our faith, the cross has lost its power to scandalize.” In the years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, crosses did not show where Christians were. Crosses were located at the edge of cities marking the palaces where people died. Crosses were used to execute slaves or those accused of committing treason against the Roman Empire. Crosses were symbols of pain and suffering. Each cross proclaimed this is where the Empire won.

Our reading from Hebrews is an attempt by the early faith community to “articulate the religious meaning of the cross in imagery and language powerful enough to transform the immediate horror it represented.” The cross is never plain. The cross always points to those who used it. The Roman Empire saw Jesus as a threat during the yearly Passover celebration. Pontius Pilate used the cross to eliminate the problem violently and completely. Good Friday remembers this violence and the world that uses violence to punish others.

But Good Friday also remembers what happened next. The cross was the Roman Empire’s ultimate symbol of pain and death. Yet in the least likely place anyone would reasonably looked, God showed up to save the world. Jesus did not run away from death. Rather, Jesus confronted it. Jesus saw the violence, pain, and love of power inherent in the world. And he lived, taught, and died showing there is a different way to be. The cross is a symbol of horror that became a symbol of life because God does not let death triumphant over hope and love.

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 Good Friday, 4/14/2017.

Red: Blood in Exodus.

Our First Reading is Exodus 12:1-14.

It was my first year in college. I was picking up some lunch while on campus. I don’t remember why the glass Snapple bottle slipped from my fingers but I do know what happened next. I caught the bottle but I was too late. The bottle shattered on the ground while my hand was around it. A deep gash tore through one of my fingers. A trip to the university health center was in order.

At the health center, I was prepped for stitches. The nurse asked me if it would be okay for a student volunteer to watch the procedure. The student was thinking about a medical career. I said, “Sure. The more the merrier.” The physician assistant invited the student (and me) to watch the simple procedure. The finger still bled but I was fascinated. I tried to get the best position possible to see my finger put back together. The pre-med student looked at the still bleeding finger. She then ran out of the room. The sight of all that blood was making her nauseous.

In our reading from Exodus tonight, blood is central to the text. The ancient world did not have the medical knowledge we do. How the body functioned was a mystery to them (and is still a mystery today). But the ancient world did know the importance of blood. Blood flows. Blood is pumped through the body. Blood makes life happen.

And life is what the blood on the door is all about. Each family gathered together to take the life of a lamb (its blood) and make a sign on their door. The angel, checking each household, would see the sign of life and passover their house. The life of the lamb does more than keep the family safe. The life of the lamb also invites the family to experience the entire Exodus story. A story where God’s people are moved from slavery into freedom; from suffering into abundant life. God doesn’t want God’s people to just survive. God wants God’s people to thrive.

The story of Maundy Thursday is what a thriving life looks like. A life that thrives is a life that gives. A life that thrives is a life that serves even those who betray it. A life that thrives is a life that sees Jesus, serves everyone, and always loves.

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 Maundy Thursday, 4/13/2017.

Collision: Two Parades Enter Jerusalem

Our First Reading is Matthew 21:1-11.

Broken branches. Dirty cloaks. A road covered with whatever is at hand. Today is Palm & Passion Sunday. We are beginning our journey through the center of the church year. We will spend this week re-experiencing Jesus’ final journey into Jerusalem. Jerusalem is flooded with visitors and tourists. The festival of Passover is about to begin. We can imagine every home, hotel, motel, and campground is bursting at the seams with guests. People can barely move through marketplaces jammed with merchants selling souvenirs, knick-knacks, food and more. Jerusalem is full.

And then Jesus comes. A crowd celebrated his arrival by putting cloaks and branches on the ground. By covering the road, dust and dirt stay on the roadway. Jesus’ donkey stays clean. The crowd treats Jesus like a king returning home from a victorious military campaign. He should have gold banners, soldiers carrying swords and shields, and prisoners of war and booty to show off. The entire city should be in their Sunday best to welcome him home. But, instead, we have a crowd full of tourists, the poor, and the sick. The crowd gathered at the last minute so they cut down palm branches from trees in the city. The crowd of almost inconsequential people meets a king who comes with “an army” of only a handful of disciples.

According to Matthew, the crowd that welcomes Jesus was large. But there’s a larger crowd that did not know who Jesus was. It’s probable that, at the same time Jesus is entering the city, another procession is entering Jerusalem from the other side. With so many people in the city, the Roman Empire needed to make an appearance. The Roman Governor Pontius Pilate arrived in the city at the head of his legion. His soldiers would keep an eye on the crowds during Passover and serve as a reminder that Rome is in charge. Rome’s procession would have banners with gold eagles on top. Every soldier would have their swords and spears ready to use. Pilate’s procession would inspire awe and fear, reminding Jerusalem that the mightiest empire in the world is in control.

Jesus and Rome are on a collision course. The might of the world is about to meet the might of God. Even 2000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we still place our trust in our ability to force others to do our will. We still celebrate power. Our power is about to encounter God. And, for a moment, we’re going to think we’ve won.

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 Palm Sunday, 4/9/2017.

Rattling Bones

Ezekiel is having a moment today. In our first reading (Ezekiel 37:1-14), “the hand of the Lord” sets him down in the middle of a valley. Ezekiel is having a vision which might be happening only in his mind. For him, this could be a very vivid dream. But I like to make this story real. I see God physically grabbing Ezekiel by the hair and carrying him into this valley full of dried bones. When he lands, I imagine his feet touching the bones. The bones rustle, clang, and clatter as he kicks them around. His religious concern about being unclean is overwhelmed by the sheer number of bones he sees. The visual overload he is experiencing would stop him from even processing what is going on. In that moment, he wouldn’t know what to say. His brain would just shut down. He could do nothing but look and see. And, in the process, he would be as still and dry as the bones around him.

God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones. Prophesy is more than a prediction of the future. Prophecy is a life-giving word for right now. The words Ezekiel shares are words of promise. As he speaks, life takes hold, even among old bones. The bones start to move. The bones start to rattle. And if I was there with Ezekiel, I would be terrified. It’s sometimes easier to stay among dry bones than to see those bones rattled. It’s sometimes easier to stay with the status quo or keep things the way they are than to see the chaos and unpredictability that rattling can bring about. As the bones rattle, fear grows. But the rattling of bones is not the end of the story. Change happens. The bones turn into something new. As the vision evolves, God’s own breath comes into view.

When Ezekiel experienced this vision, he was living through the destruction of Jerusalem. Waves and waves of people were being deported from the city. The Babylonians would burn God’s Temple to the ground. The dry bones Ezekiel sees are not only metaphorical. They point to a community feeling hopeless because their sense of who they are is coming undone. Their world felt like it was coming to an end. But God promises God’s presence even when conflict, loss, and fear are all we feel. God’s Word makes a difference. And the final chapter of the story God is writing is a story that includes hope, life, love, and us.

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 5th Sunday in Lent, 4/2/2017.

Cinderella Story: a reflection on David’s anointing

The First Reading is 1 Samuel 16:1-13.

Today’s first reading is the moment when David appears on the scene. He has 7 older brothers and is watching sheep when Samuel arrives. Samuel is a prophet and is the chief religious figure in the land. When the people of Israel asked for king, Samuel was the one who followed God’s voice and crowned Saul king. But Saul’s kingship went poorly. We never hear the full reason why God turns away from Saul but God does. God stops being present in Saul’s life. Saul grows erratic, violent, and paranoid. When Samuel arrived in Bethlehem, the people did not know what to expect. Did Samuel come as Saul’s messenger to deliver a warning or threat? Samuel came to do something else. He’s came to commit treason and crown (anoint) David as a new king.

One of the key lines in this story is verse 7. We have to remember that the writers of scripture did not understand human anatomy like we do. For them, the heart was the brain-soul-muscle of a person. The heart held memories, created thoughts, was the source of our will and personality. The heart was more than a muscle. The heart was the source of who we are. God is not enticed by height or strength. God is enticed by fidelity and character.

David’s anointing is not a strange story in Scripture. One of the most common storylines used in the Bible is God showing unexpected favor to a younger sibling. David is 8th in line. In a worldview that honored the first born son most, David never should have seen Samuel. But God sees David differently. God valued the least of Jesse’s sons and crowned him king. This story sounds like a Cinderella story (like a 16 seed beating a 1 seed at the start of March Madness). Yet David’s happily-ever-after is not the happily-ever-after we hope for. He will compete with Saul for years. He will create a large kingdom. He will take Bathsheba, a woman who is married to one of his soldiers, against her will. His kingdom will be rocked and torn apart by scandal. And he will lose family and friends in coup attempts and wars. David is chosen by God but the path he follows is full of dangers, hardships, joys, and failures

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 4th Sunday in Lent, 3/26/2017.

Telling Our Story: A Reflection on What We Keep

The First Reading is Exodus 17:1-7.

Our Mid-Week Lenten Soup & Study this year is combining decluttering with Luther’s Small Catechism. Both movements, I think, asks us to change how we view our stuff and our faith. Decluttering isn’t about throwing things away; decluttering is about what we keep. Luther’s faith is centered on keeping close to a God who keeps us close. Our journey of faith isn’t helping us approach God. Faith is helping us see the God who is already with us.

One way we see God is by telling the stories of the people we grew up with. We share stories about our parents, grandparents, and distant ancestors (if we know them). When we talk to someone who doesn’t know us very well, we might focus on the positive stories first. We talk about challenges that were overcome and all the good things that happened. We wait to share the negative things (violence, anger, frustration, broken relationship) until later.

But our story from Exodus 17 doesn’t do that. The Israelites are rescued from slavery by God. They go into the wilderness to escape Pharaoh and his army. They overcome exciting challenges. They are doing a new thing. We expect to hear stories showing how they survived and thrived. But should we also hear their complaining? Why does scripture share their screw ups? The stories we tell (or share on facebook, instagram, and snapchat) are stories where we try to look our best. We usually do not share our negative stories. But God’s story includes people who complain, people who are thirsty, and people who wonder what God has done for us lately. When we are at our most broken and even we wouldn’t stay near us, God still holds us close. God doesn’t ask us to only share perfect stories. We are called to share every story because God is with us, even then.

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 3rd Sunday in Lent, 3/19/2017.