Sunday, February 18, 2018

First Sunday in Lent

One of the dangerous myths that has been propagated since Wednesday’s killing of seventeen people in a Parkland, Florida high school is that God wasn’t there when the bullets were flying. The storyline is that because our elected officials have upheld religious freedom in our public schools and no longer require prayer, God got mad and left.  

Thankfully, Scripture offers us a different picture of the world and the character of God.

The reading from Genesis picks up the flood narrative near its end. The three chapters preceding this morning’s text describe how God witnessed the ways that humankind repeatedly turned to violence and God expressed remorse at creation.

From Eden onward, God has desired relationship with creation, and intended “that creation’s comfort is found in God’s own care and promise.”[i] But instead of recognizing how we belong to God, humankind continually distances ourselves from God and insists upon living in a world that is in-dependent of God.[ii]

In Chapter 6, the author of Genesis writes,
“The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.” (Gen. 6:5-6)
While we like to remember the ending of the flood story with images of brightly colored rainbows, its beginning is rooted in a grieving God who first decided to blot out all creation. But that’s why it’s so important to get the whole story!

What begins as a story of violence that begets violence has a surprise ending. As this story unfolds, God’s own heart changes.

While God allowed Noah and his sons and their wives to find safety from the floodwaters, the waters swelled on earth and killed “every [other] living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air” (Gen. 7:23)

Then, the text tells us that “God remembered Noah” and sent wind over the earth and the waters receded. Later in Genesis, God remembers Abraham and spares his nephew Lot from the destruction that rained down on the cities where he lived and he remembers Jacob’s wife Rachel and opens her womb.

While the world continues to be battered and bloodied by violence, the Word tells us that God remembers and is merciful.

Our reading today describes how God responded to Noah and to all creation after the flood. It is the first of five covenant stories from the Hebrew Scriptures that we will hear during Lent.

In Scripture, “covenant” is a word used to describe how God interacts with us and enters into relationship with us.[iii] It is a promise or set of promises made between two parties and accompanied by a sign.

God promises and we respond. Or at least that’s the hope.
Sadly, more often than not, just as we did before the flood, humankind rejects God and lives in a world without reference to God.

Thankfully, unlike us, God upholds God’s promises. “Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, [God] relents from punishing.” (Joel 2:13) The “evil, death and destruction [we witness in the world] are not rooted in God’s anger or rejection.”[iv] It is human arrogance to think that we have the power to “allow” or “not allow” God anywhere and it is ignorance to think that our human impulse to answer violence with more violence is anything new.

After the flood, God promises that “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” (Gen. 9:11) God surrenders his bow of battle, placing it undrawn in the clouds, pointing away from the earth.[v] God’s promise, or covenant, is that God will not be provoked.

God’s heart has changed, not humankind. “[God is] fully aware that the inclination of every human heart is evil from youth, still.” [vi] But “God decides to endure a wicked world while continuing to open up the divine heart to that world.” [vii]

This same God who places a rainbow covenant in the sky for us is the God who bears witness and suffers alongside us when evil disrupts and when violence destroys.[viii] This is true in Parkland, Florida and it was true two thousand years ago when Jesus was crucified. On the cross God shows that human violence is “impotent compared to God’s life-giving power of love.”[ix]

As we draw near to God this Lent and repent for of our rejection of God’s loving intention for each one of us, may we remember that God’s everlasting love is what creates life and reconciles us in a world that kills.

Let us pray.
Holy God,
We pray with thanksgiving for your everlasting covenant with every living thing in creation.
Overcome our human impulse to respond to violence with violence and teach us to depend on your steadfast promises and abounding love.
Restore us to life this Lent and give us courage to follow Your Son Jesus,
In whose name we pray.

[i] Interpretation, Brueggemann, 21.
[ii] ibid, 19.
[iii] “Covenant” in Crazy Talk. Rolf Jacobson, Ed. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books. 46-47.
[iv] Brueggemann, 84.
[v] ibid, 84-85.
[vi] Cameron Howard,
[vii] Terence D. Fretheim,
[viii] “February 22, 2015: First Sunday in Lent”, Paul Nuechterlein. Christian Century.
[ix] ibid.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Ash Wednesday

For most of us, February 14th has only ever been a day associated with heart-shaped candies and chocolates and paper cards with sweet words printed on them. The last time it coincided with Ash Wednesday, in 1945, Franklin Roosevelt was in his fourth term as President and the end of World War 2 was in sight.

So, it probably comes as a surprise that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday are a mash-up that works.

Tonight as we gather, we recall the immense love that God has for each one of us.  From the first creation story that tells how God breathed the very breath of life into the dust of the earth to form the first living being (Genesis 2:7), we hear all through Scripture about God’s love for God’s people.

But words were not enough. God’s people rebelled and insisted upon their own ways, returning to God only when they failed. Gracious and merciful, God relented from punishment.
And then, God’s love for the world comes to us with skin on it, in the person of Jesus Christ, in what Joy Cowley calls in her poem “Incarnation” “a miracle of love made by love.”

Divine love isn’t the stuff of the Romantic poets, fluffy teddy bears or bouquets of flowers. It is the love of a parent when their child’s heart is hurting and Mommy and Daddy can’t make it better. It is the love that sits at a hospital bedside waiting for danger to subside. It is the love that holds a person’s hand when death is near. It is the love that sees the Son of God spat upon, beaten and executed.

And in Jesus’ life, crucifixion and resurrection, we witness the unbounded love of God given for the world, that we might know God and experience the freedom of forgiveness that is offered to us.

In giving us Jesus, God places relationship before judgment, and offers us forgiveness for our sins — our errors and mistakes and all the ways that we have turned away from God.

On Ash Wednesday, particularly, we are called to repent, not to just “feel bad” about our sins and resolve to “do better,” but to look into our hearts and actually change direction, to go about being in the world and with God differently.

Instead of red roses, God asks for our lives, that we would live, freed from sin, in relationship with the God who loves us.
Lent gives us a whole season – forty days – to fall more deeply in love with God.

Do you remember your first crush? Now, you can pass notes to God, praying and listening for God’s Word for you, while you journal your hopes and your desires, your fears and your confessions.

But first crushes fade and like short-lived New Year’s resolutions that are forgotten by Valentine’s Day, shallow attempts to change our patterns of living and thinking fail.

So Lent calls us, in the words of Joel, to rend our hearts and return to God, to enter into a life of discipleship that lasts a lifetime. Just as the waters of baptism wash us clean and give us new life, the ashes we receive tonight remind us that God breathes life into the ashes of our lives, and we live a new life in Christ, marked by the cross as belonging to God.

Let us pray…
God of love,
Through the prophet Joel, we hear your cry to return to You “with all our heart”;
By your transforming Word and Spirit, provide us with clean hearts.
That in this Lent and this life, we might follow your Son Jesus with a heart set on heaven.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Transfiguration of our Lord

On Thursday, Philadelphia Eagles’ center Jason Kelce paraded up Broad Street, celebrating the team’s Super Bowl win dressed in a glittering, sequined Mummers’ costume borrowed from the Avalon String Band. It was a dazzling spectacle.

But it still doesn’t begin to compare to the display of light and awe that dazzled the disciples who accompanied Jesus to the mountaintop in the Gospel this morning.

Each year, on this, the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday,
we hear one of the Gospel accounts of the transfiguration of Christ, when Jesus is transformed by God, and, at least in Matthew and Mark’s telling of the event, we hear God speak, proclaiming,
“This is my Son, the Beloved…”

In the Gospel of Mark, the event takes place almost exactly halfway between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan and his crucifixion at Golgotha. The disciples have traveled with Jesus and witnessed miraculous healings and feedings of thousands, but they also know John the Baptist has been beheaded and they have seen the Pharisees, the religious leaders, arguing with Jesus.

And then, God speaks, and authenticates Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, in all his glory.[i]

This humble carpenter’s son from Nazareth is God’s own Son. He isn’t merely a wise teacher or encouraging role model; he isn’t simply a miracle-worker; and he isn’t even another prophet. He is the Messiah, “the one promised to save”, altogether wholly human and wholly divine.[ii]

Mark tells us, “All at once [the disciples] looked around and saw no one with them anymore, except Jesus alone.” (v.8)

The disciples are given only a glimpse a mere glimmerof the glory that will be and it sustains them through all that awaits them in Jerusalem.

In our lives of faith, often we are like the disciples who accompanied Jesus, and even more often, like the religious leaders who questioned his teaching and healing, his involvement in the lives of the outcast and the ritually unclean. We second-guess what he meant and what his motives were.

Seeking understanding of how Scripture fits the world around us, we consider first the knowledge we have and look to the authorities that are familiar to us, and then we wonder why it’s so hard to find God in our midst.

This is what Martin Luther wrote about when he described the “hiddenness of God.” It isn’t that God wears an invisibility cloak and cannot be seen, but that God actively hides [from us].[iii]

Don’t misunderstand – God is not playing a game, like parents who send their children on a snipe hunt. Luther notes that, God hides in order not to be found where humans want to find God. But God also hides in order to be found where God wills to be found.”[iv]

Our dilemma is that we want to find God in the boxes we have built, within the limits we have set and in things we can control.

“Hiding is the law and gospel in God’s activity with us.”[v]  The law in Scripture teaches us to know ourselves, that we may recognize our inability to do good apart from God.[vi] “God outside Christ, outside the word, is an impenetrable power who holds our lives in his hands and is hiding his will from us.”[vii]  God’s hiddenness leads us to places where we find Christ alone, just as the disciples find Christ alone in the transfiguration.

And, like the disciples, each glimpse of Christ sustains us for what lies ahead.

These glimpses come in all different circumstances. And while I don’t diminish the ways that we can be awed by the night sky, changing seasons and the display of God’s paintbrush in sunrises and sunsets, some of the most poignant glimpses we are given are in other human beings.  Celtic tradition recognizes places where the veil between heaven and earth is minimal, where the sense of God’s presence overwhelms a person, and sometimes these “thin places” are experienced in an encounter with another person.

At the Women of the ELCA retreat that we hosted Saturday, several women told stories of hymns such as “I Love to Tell the Story” or “Jesus Loves Me” that a mother or father sang even after dementia or other illnesses had taken away their everyday speech.

One woman shared how a group, whose friendship had been forged during a weekend retreat years ago, now gather to sing together at the bedside of a sick friend. She is alone, without children and having never married, and they are essentially her family, caring for her cat and tending to her needs.

These glimpses of God can be joyful surprises that one mentor of mine calls “God winks” – Debby and I experienced one of these this week was when we were in the office talking about how popular socks are in the free pantry and, not even an hour later, one of you called us offering to bring us boxes of new socks. We laughed aloud at God’s goodness.

And they happen here in our worship Christ is revealed in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine, so that you and I would know God’s complete love and abundant mercy for each of us.[viii]

On this Transfiguration Sunday, all the glitter and bling the world can display cannot outshine the wonder of God’s grace given here for us and the lengths to which our God goes to reconcile the world to God’s ownself.

Let us pray…[ix]
God of Glory,
Thank you for your abundant mercy, and your reconciling love for the world.
Shine the light of glory into our hearts, that we may follow Your Son Jesus Christ into the world.
Sustain us with holy moments where we witness the fullness of Your Kingdom in the people we encounter and strengthen us for what lies ahead.
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ.

[i] Sermon Brainwave. Working Preacher.
[ii] Rolf A. Jacobson, Ed. Crazy Talk. Minneapolis: Augsburg Books. 35.
[iii] Steven D. Paulson. "Luther on the Hidden God." Word and World, Volume XIX, Number 4, Fall 1999. St. Paul: Luther Seminary. 365.
[iv] ibid, 366.
[v] ibid, 367.
[vi] Martin Luther, “Freedom of a Christian.”
[vii] ibid, 369.
[viii] ibid
[ix] Adapted from Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Throughout this season of Epiphany we have heard stories about how God’s love for the whole world is being revealed. And in the healing of Simon Peter’s mother, we see the transformation that happens when Jesus reaches out to her and lifts her up. In his gospel, Mark jumps right into the teaching and healing work that Jesus does in the world, real ministry to real, hurting people and communities.

But it’s what Jesus does next that sets him apart from many of us, pastors and other religious leaders included. In verse 35 Mark tells us, “In the morning, while it was still very dark, Jesus got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.”

Mark’s Gospel is quick-paced, moving rapidly from event to event; yet, even he stops his narrative so that we see Jesus leave his disciples and go to a deserted place and pray.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised how hard it is for us to follow Jesus in prayer. Even his disciples seem surprised to find him there, telling him when they find him, “"Everyone is searching for you." (v. 37)

But even when we accept that prayer is a worthwhile faith practice and a mark of discipleship, it can be challenging to develop a regular practice of prayer.

One place to begin, of course, is with table grace:

When I entered seminary, someone shared a book titled One Hundred Graces that included prayers from all different traditions. I brought a copy home so that we could choose from the variety of prayers for our table grace; my own daughters quickly memorized which pages had the shortest prayers and chose those.

It wasn’t quite the faith formation practice I had imagined.

More recently, a local pastor and friend shared a story about his daughter who responded to his invitation to pray at the dinner table saying, “We don’t need to pray. There’s no smoke on the food.” He asked her if she meant steam and she said yes, and then he asked her why they prayed before they ate. She answered. “We pray for our food. To wait for it not to be hot.”

Practicing prayer is hard work.

Especially when we believe that God loves us and knows our hearts’ desires and supplies sighs too deep for words, when we are silenced by suffering, the reasons we pray are not obvious.

But Jesus’ own witness to us is that seeking God in prayer is important.

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther writes about the Lord’s Prayer, teaching that God’s good and gracious will comes about in our lives without our words, but we pray that it might come about in and among us, and God delights in hearing us because we are God’s own children.

Earlier this week I was in conversation with some folks and we were imagining the joy that God experiences as a parent when two or three of God’s children are gathered together. Our prayers bear witness to God’s promises to hear us and God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

In Isaiah we heard:

29 [The Lord] gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30 … those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isa. 40:29-31)

John Wesley, who with his brother Charles founded Methodism, reminds us that first we go and be with God and then we go and do God’s work in the world. He is quoted in Mark Allen Powell’s book Loving Jesus, writing, “I have so much to do that I must spend many hours in prayer before I am able to do it.”[i]

When we encounter God in prayer, we are strengthened, we are revived and we are renewed!

So why is it that these things that draw us to pray —
knowing God and receiving God’s love and mercy, and being strengthened to participate in God’s work in the world —
are the very same things that keep us from praying?

Just as Jesus encountered temptation in the wilderness, we are tempted and separated from God by sin —turning in on ourselves and putting our own desires for esteem and affection, security and control, before God’s desires for us. We doubt God’s fidelity to God’s promises; we doubt our own value to God, and we fear what we might hear if we quiet ourselves, sit in God’s presence and listen to God. We are afraid of what God will ask us to do.

But, “Have you not known? Have you not heard?”[ii]

Jesus shows that when we follow him into stillness and prayer, we encounter “The Lord [who] is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.” (Isa. 40:28), and when we create this holy space in our lives, we will hear God speak and see God act, according to God’s promises.

Let us pray…
Holy God,
We give you thanks for Your Son who witnesses to us that You hear our prayers.
Help us follow Jesus into the silent presence of Your Spirit and open our hearts to hear you speak into our lives.
Strengthen us and renew us to follow your Son for the sake of the world.

[i] Mark Allan Powell, Loving Jesus, p. 142
[ii] Isa. 40:28

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

While we would like to relegate evil, demons and spirits to the silver screen and bad television, when we take a look around us, we have to acknowledge that they aren’t just the stuff of fiction.

Earlier this week, a Kentucky community suffered the eleventh school shooting that has happened since the new year.[i]

Closer to home, a man randomly shot and killed a nineteen-year-old in York County, South Carolina, and even before that happened, not one, but four, of the county’s sheriff officers were shot in a separate incident that wounded three and killed Detective Mike Doty.

And a different kind of violence kept the spotlight on USA Gymnastics this week. When I was thirteen, I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast, and when Casey was thirteen, we even went to Philadelphia to watch the Olympic team trials in person.  But the attention this week wasn’t about girls realizing dreams; instead they were re-living nightmares. Dozens of young women who had been involved in women’s gymnastics addressed their abuser after he was convicted of his crimes against them. Altogether, more than one hundred sixty women were assaulted by a person whom they had been taught to trust.

And before we join the refrain, “What is this world is coming to?”, let’s confess just how short our memories are.

Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

Thankfully we have truth tellers who will hold us accountable to our promises to “never forget.”

A project in Montgomery, Alabama is memorializing the four thousand lynchings of African-Americans that took place between 1877 and 1950. 

And just yesterday the world marked the international remembrance of the holocaust - 73 years after the liberation. Six million Jews, 200,000 Romas and 200,000 disabled Germans were exterminated by the Nazis.[ii]

This litany has a point.

The death of schoolchildren and innocents, violence against a community and its first responders, the abuse of trust and the corruption of power — these examples remind us that evil and brokenness in the world are not new. They are part of our human condition that separates us from the good God wants for all creation.

So, when we hear the Mark text this morning, while we may not know exactly what kind of demon or unclean spirit is being described, we certainly recognize that we too face un-godly things we cannot understand in our lives today.

In our text, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. In Mark’s gospel, this is really where we see Jesus’ first act of public ministry after calling the disciples. Teaching in the synagogue, already, his listeners are commenting on his teaching because they recognize a difference between him and the scribes, the knowledgeable religious experts who had taught before him. And then the text turns to the man with the unclean spirit.

And the very first thing Jesus does is confront the evil that inhabits the man.[iii]

I think there are at least two reasons why it is important that Jesus confronts the un-godly in a synagogue.  First, it’s a reminder that our religious structures and institutions don’t protect us against evil and the ungodly.

Faith is neither a talisman nor a charm that wards off demons.

And, second, in keeping with the popular quote that “the church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints” no one told the man he couldn’t come in or he had to leave. God works in us in spite of our brokenness. We cannot wait and only come before God when we have it all together. That day will never come, and, besides, when we think that way, the only one we are really hiding from is ourselves! God already knows and loves us!

But God doesn’t leave us to struggle alone. In his book Night, writing about the holocaust in World War II, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a man facing the gallows and asking, "For God's sake, where is God?"
Wiesel writes, “And from within me, I heard a voice answer: " This is where--hanging here from this gallows..."

Facing the man with the unclean spirit, Jesus doesn’t look away uncomfortably, look past him or ignore him. He doesn’t avoid the man or the spirit’s presence, wrapping up his teaching and calling it a day. He doesn’t employ euphemisms or niceties to talk around what he sees happening right before him.

No, unequivocally, with unwavering confidence in his authority, Jesus renounces the power of the unclean spirit, silencing it and freeing the man from its clutches and restoring him to life.

In our affirmation of baptism, we claim that same authority – God’s authority – and we renounce sin, the devil and all the forces that defy God. That is what it means to be children of God.  

So, why is it so easy to forget God’s promises and desires for us in the face of evil?

This morning, the Gospel reminds us that this is the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1) As we go back out into the world, we may be bold like Jesus and confront those things that would rob us of abundant life in Christ.

Let’s name the people, the conditions, and the behaviors that tell us — you or I or any other child of God — does not have God’s love and mercy.

And empowered by God’s authority, let’s renounce all that threatens to diminish the good that God desires for each of God’s children.

Let us pray…[iv]
Holy God, Thank you for the gift of your Son Jesus. You put your holy words in His mouth, and at His word even the demons fall silent. When he was killed, you raised him to life, and now it is through Him that we exist, and in Him, that the crippling grip of death is broken forever. Empower us by your Holy Spirit to live free in faith and the knowledge of your abundant love and mercy.

[iii] David Lose. “In the Meantime.”
[iv] Adapted from Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources