A Wideness in God's Mercy

there is grace enough for thousands

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Change, not healing – sermon from 3/20/23

First, read the text: John 9:1-41.

Here’s the sermon:

When I was in high school, I did debate – actually I and other students started the debate team. [Pause for you to marvel at how obviously cool I must’ve been.] I was really interested in philosophy, ethics, and argumentation, but I was a nervous public speaker. I didn’t expect that another challenge was this girl from the neighboring high school – who became my debate rival. 

My rival – I’ll call her by her first initial, C – was a brilliant debater, eloquent speaker, and razor sharp wit. I couldn’t ever get around her – we’d go to most of the same competitions, and unavoidably face each other at districts and regionals – over and over – I think I only won once against her. It also happens C was born blind. She’d bring her heavy Braille typewriter into each debate, and I swore sometimes when her opponent was pulling points with the judges and winning the arguments, she’d bang out her notes increasingly louder. C took people out at the knees and won tournaments handily. Mincing no words, with none of the socialized feminine softening of her speech. I wonder now if some of that came from the way people perceived her blindness: needing to quickly prove them wrong and show her intelligence. Likewise the man in today’s story shows no shyness in sticking up for himself. Mostly subconsciously, I learned many lessons from C about disability, about when to offer help, about agency and perception.

My junior year the debate topic was genetic modification. In Lincoln-Douglas style debate you prepare both sides: in each tournament round you’re randomly assigned to argue pro/con against your opponent. I thought I was doing pretty well in a round against C arguing “pro” genetic modification, until she dropped a bomb I’ll never forget. “As someone born blind,” she began, “I would have never wanted my parents to have changed my genes to give me sight.” C didn’t insert emotion or drop the gritty fierceness she had in every argument. It wasn’t a ploy but a brilliant ethical argument from the perspective of her own experience and the validity of her existence as a blind young woman. I did not win the round.

She was right, because the implication otherwise is that something is wrong, needs correcting. In verse 2 of today’s gospel, that’s the working assumption: someone’s at fault – whose fault is it? Jesus answers in an unusually direct way: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Full stop. That’s good news. A word from Jesus that knocks down a religious bias against disability. But the next part: “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” has bothered me sometimes. I don’t like the idea of God making someone a certain way as an object lesson, or means to an end, especially when it includes exclusion or challenge. It concerns me in the same way as the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” No it doesn’t.

Pastor Duane Steele is a friend of a friend, a retired ELCA pastor who was born blind. He reflected on this text in an email, writing: “Parents of kids with disabilities still suffer with lots of needless guilt and hopelessness even in this day and age.  In order to survive the emotional ordeal they face in trying to make a way for their children in a world that is often hostile to people with disabilities, these parents need to hear the church proclaiming John 9:3, [Jesus saying ‘neither this man nor his parents sinned – he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’] every week.”

Because there’s another way to hear this verse – of Jesus proclaiming this man has a calling – and it’s not as prop or object lesson. It’s not in spite of his disability but with it – as a part of who he fully is. This is not a story of healing, but about vocation – and how sometimes, the people around you don’t realize it. Just like others called by God, or who have to boldly live into who God made them to be, sometimes the world, or even those closest to you, don’t get it at first. 

Pastor Duane said in a sermon, “For us [blind people], ‘healing’ happens when the people around us learn to heal their ignorance about us, when they learn to truly love and welcome us, when they realize what we think and say and do matters.”

We’ve still got a ways to go with that. In terms of ableism and all the other -isms. Pastor Duane’s words really are the heart of the matter, and point out that the issue here is really bias, or prejudice, or assumptions, and the healing comes in fixing those, not changing the way someone was made to be. I think it’s important for the church to proclaim the same about transgender people. It’s important for the church to proclaim the same about all the other biases we hold. 

I wonder what this man went on to do after the end of the story. Writing this sermon made me wonder what C is up to these days. Turns out, she works in NYC on accessibility issues and education. I found an interview from 2021 where C talks about accessibility in the workplace and the bias of eye contact: algorithms are scoring people on eye contact in zoom calls and interviews. She said, “If you’re allowing an algorithm to judge me by my eyes, you are going to miss out on my talent. My friend Liz Jackson wrote in the New York Times in an op-ed that we are the original life hackers, and she’s right. We take a problem-solving approach to accessibility throughout our lives, which means that we’re really creative and engaged and unafraid of problems and you want us in your workforce, but we won’t be there unless you make sure that your hiring process and tools are accessible and avoid bias.”

“Surely we are not blind, are we?” There’s always more to learn, ways to be changed and opened to see Christ in our neighbor. If this isn’t a healing story, maybe we should think of it as a story of change. And the ones really changed that day weren’t the man, but the crowd, the religious officials, maybe even his own family. Changed to realize God’s vocation for him, and that he was who he had always been – the same person, seeing or not.

A thread through the gospel of John is Jesus’ invitation “come and see,” which then becomes the phrase others say in turn as they become the inviters. So for a gospel oriented around seeing, this story invites all of us to “come and see,” and be reminded that we might be surprised who has something to teach us. That the ones who go to serve often end up receiving the most. That the ones who think they can be the savior often need the saving. That it was in fact this man born blind, and for me, C, who in their lives, and in their callings, say, “come and see.” Thanks be to God for the hard work of people who help us see and change. Amen.

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“give me a drink.” Sermon from 3/12/23

First, read the text: John 4:5-42.

Here’s the sermon:

It’s a little rude, how he says it. Maybe she isn’t even looking at him – certainly not looking for conversation. Just like when men I pass on the sidewalk tell me to “smile.” It’s not a question – but a command. There is no “please.” Jesus says to the woman, “give me a drink.” 

Some days, she would have said, “sure,” just given it to him – it’s easier than arguing. He’s not from here, and you don’t know him. Will it be safe to talk back to him? Is it worth an argument? There are days that people – especially women – just smile to try to avoid the stranger who called out to them.

But not today. Maybe she’s had enough, came from home, where the uncle she’s living with has been ordering her around enough, and this is just one too many times. So he says “Give me a drink,” and she says, essentially, “who do you think you are, ordering me around?”

He essentially says back, “no, do you know who I am?” and something about living water… She’s at first skeptical: “living water? You don’t even have a bucket.”

The conversation continues – between the exhausted son of God (who never does get that drink) and an unnamed Samaritan woman. It’s a conversation that crossed boundaries, had no big celebs, and yet – is the longest recorded conversation that Jesus has with anyone in the Bible.

All because of a rather rude beginning. Not that we don’t do the same. It says that Jesus was tired, and it’s the heat of the day, and he’s sitting on the well, resting. Maybe he forgets his manners, doesn’t have the patience for niceties, and this lady walks up and he just tells her – “give me a drink.” We’ve all been “hangry,” haven’t we? Or just over it. Jesus too, apparently. But what starts as an abrupt exchange turns into a whole conversation, turns into an opening for both Jesus and the woman. She learns about him, the Messiah, and shares with others. Whereas the disciples follow along, it is the women in the gospels who are the first preachers: at the empty tomb, a woman who bears the word in her body, and a woman preacher here who says, “come and see!” While the Christian church has struggled, in seasons, to acknowledge the calling of women or those who are outside of the traditional box, the men in this Bible story don’t have such an issue.

We sometimes show up to the well – or church, or prayer – or our relationships – with the same attitude Jesus had sitting there that day. “Give me a drink. C’mon. That living water. Cut to the chase, Jesus. I am too tired and the day is too hot for me to come up with some nice kind of prayer – or reflect upon thankfulness, or connect with others. Just give me a drink of water.” We sometimes do this to a partner, friend, coworker, or family: “give me” and sometimes, like the woman at the well, they give that attitude right back to us and it ends up waking us up to who we are and what we’re supposed to be doing.

Some days, I’ll be on my way somewhere, wearing my clergy collar, walking determined, and someone I don’t know calls out to me. At first my hackles are raised and there’s the instinct to react like when people tell me to smile. But they pull me into conversation and I soften. In that conversation I meet Jesus and I often come away – refreshed. It was the living water I didn’t even know I needed. 

Sometimes I treat God or Jesus like a vending machine, give me ____, so transactional. But Jesus pulls me into conversation, into connection, relationship with others, and I end up finding what I was looking for. Because living water doesn’t come from a vending machine, but from real people – community, connection. Living water comes from wells where two people who are totally different meet, and get into a conversation. Wells – not walls, not the walls we put out. We are like the woman, who in the end has realized her own need and says to Jesus, “give me that water.”

Anna Carter Florence wrote, “Jesus’ question is a conversation starter. It’s his way of getting our attention and slowing us down, reminding us to breathe… and let the walls of defense go…so we can sit down, right there at the well, for a drink and conversation we really need to have. That conversation is our weekly abiding practice. We never think we have time for it. We usually forget it’s on our calendar. But Jesus doesn’t. He keeps passing through Samaria [places you think Jesus would never go with you]. At the hottest and worst time of the day for conversations – unless you have a cool drink first, from the well of living water, gushing up to eternal life.” (Sermon “The Wall at the Well” I heard at the Festival of Homiletics 2017, and published in Preaching Prophetic Care: Building Bridges to Justice)

It’s hard to tell who pulled who into conversation here – was Jesus aiming all along for more than a drink of water? Was she ready to give an earful to whomever she encountered? In a way, they both “preached” to each other, brought good news, let down defenses, and reminded both who they are. 

So, get into Samaria – let yourself cross borders occasionally. Let your humanity and your needs out like Jesus did, and see how others respond. Don’t be afraid (in appropriate circumstances) to talk to strangers. Get into conversations with people the world would never think you’d chat with. That’s one beauty of being church. Some of us would never cross paths another way – different generations, neighborhoods, jobs, perspectives. Where else does respectful discourse with people different from us last longer than a minute, or get past the transactional to talk about our real lives? Carter Florence put it, “Wouldn’t it be incredible if the church could step up and model what real, on-the-border, crossing-the-border, long conversation would look like – if we could teach the world to choose the well over a wall?” (ibid)

If you have come here wanting a drink of that living water, you’re in the right place. But if you have come for any other reason, or it’s a daily chore, fetching water like the woman, don’t be surprised if Jesus catches you off guard, in conversation with someone so different from you, and changes your life.

In closing, I offer you Jan Richardson’s “Blessing of the Well:

If you stand at the edge of this blessing

and call down into it, you will hear your words

return to you.

If you lean in and listen close, you will hear

this blessing give the story of your life back to you.

Quiet your voice.

Quiet your judgment.

Quiet the way you always tell your story

to yourself.

Quiet all these and you will hear the whole of it

and the hollows of it: the spaces in the telling,

the gaps where you hesitate to go.

Sit at the rim of this blessing. 

… Rest yourself beside this blessing and you will

begin to hear the sound of water entering the gaps.

Still yourself and you will feel it rising up within you,

filling every emptiness, springing forth anew. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Leaving it behind – sermon from 3/5/23

First, read the texts: Genesis 12:1-4a; John 3:1-17.

Here’s the sermon:

“Leave it…” is an important command many dog owners try to instill. Or, likewise “drop it.”

To do so, the dog must either obey the person, be well-trained with treats – or, and this one I doubt but it’s true about people – in order to leave something you must trust that something else will be better. That this dead thing you found will make you sick, or that the person telling you “leave it” knows what’s best for you, and has your best interest at heart.

This can be hard – for dogs, and certainly for humans. To leave something. To give up something that attracts us – maybe tastes good, or that we’re curious about, or is familiar, like home. In part, a Lenten discipline – or any spiritual discipline – helps us practice leaving it. Whatever “it” is – and reinforcing instead that we’re ok without the shiny new thing, the tasty treat, or the thing habits we’ve fallen into. Leave it…

In our first reading from Genesis, God holds out to Abram (later, Abraham) a big set of promises. But it comes first with a command – “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” Leave it  . . . Everything you know – your home, family, culture, community. Leave it behind. Trust there will be promises ahead. When God calls or offers promises to people, it often includes the requirement that you leave what you know, who you’ve been, your line of work, or your family. For Abram, Moses, God’s prophets, the disciples, even Jesus himself – following God means leaving home. Sometimes God’s call is too big for your hometown. 

Here in DC, most of us are transplants – and nowadays, most people have left a job, left home, moved, or made big transitions that included a leap of faith. Leave it . . . 

Along with our Jewish and Muslim siblings in the Abrahamic faiths, we Christians look to Abram and God’s promise to him as a part of our heritage and spiritual ancestry. And, we leave behind big parts of Abram’s story. When our  Sunday scripture readings were set into a lectionary, it meant leaving out a whole lot. This excerpt from Genesis awkwardly cuts off in the middle of the verse (see how it says 4a?). What comes after is a list of what, and who, Abram brings with him. 

In a way, we too are called to leave behind our father Abram’s house, to go find and be a blessing in our current day. We leave behind Abram’s family’s practices of incestuous and sibling marriage. We don’t talk much about those parts of the text, and rightly, leave them behind and don’t try to follow lots of things about Abram because it’s “biblical.” We hear that Abram is taking his nephew, Lot, before he mentions Sarai (or any other of his wives).  Sarai doesn’t get a voice in this highly patriarchal text – but we leave that behind too, and listen for the blessing in the text despite its mess.

This reading ends before the next verse so we don’t hear Abram mention his slaves. Most folks leave behind the slaveholding in the Bible, neither excusing it nor totally writing off Abram because of it. But as the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney writes, “The founding fathers and their slaveholding cronies wanted to hold onto the patriarchal promise of wealth to Abraham that explicitly included slaves. What then is left in [God’s] promise [to Abram] if we let go of the patriarchy, androcentrism, misogyny, and heterosexism in the story, and the whiteness that is so often spackled onto it? A paradigm for leaving behind the things we need to let go.”

What are the things we need to let go?

I like in the “Colbert Questionnaire” he asks his guests, “what’s one thing you own you should really get rid of?” It’s worth some reflection – and not just on our stuff.

We have in these Bible stories – examples in the practice of letting things go. Abram takes that bold step to leave home, to leave a narrower view of where God may be and act – and eventually, who God will be for. Nicodemus also leaves things behind – literally to come see Jesus under the cover of darkness, leaving his religious home and thoughts to explore if Jesus could be real, and if Jesus could be for him, too.

Both Nicodemus and Abram give us a model – but both come with pitfalls that we too must leave behind. The patriarch, Abram was blessed – but we’re called to hear the blessing and leave behind the patriarchy, sexism, slavery, and other baggage Abram came with. Abram himself isn’t perfect at this – in each of our Bible heroes – as in real life – they have admirable qualities we can learn from and admire, but also ones we must name and leave behind, not aspire to, but renounce. 

Nicodemus, too. The danger in admiring his leaving behind comes with the pitfall of implied anti-Semitism. Rabbis have pointed out how Christian treatment of “Pharisee” as a negative archetype is hurtful and contributes to anti-Semitism. Can we learn from Nicodemus, admire the courage it takes to question, challenge, and be open to a new path of faith, without implying something negative about the Judaism from which he came? Nicodemus’ story may resonate with folks who must sneak out of the house to go learn about a different faith, who find their own way. We can lift that up without pushing down those who stay. God didn’t call them. What about Abram’s siblings and all the rest? Despite that little part about cursing, there is good news for them here too – that through the promise to Abram, all the families of the earth will be blessed. God only calls some – but the blessing is intended for all! 

Abram is also a reminder that God calls people on adventures at all different points in life. Our reading cuts off right before we hear that when God called Abram to leave his dad’s house – he was 75. About time!

Dr. Gafney continues (ibid), “Sarah and Abraham are not the only folk who have needed to leave home to become fully who they needed to be… It may take some time to leave the house of patriarchy and all that comes with it behind… 

“Whose house are you leaving and what are you leaving behind? While you’re making your list, I’ve got a few suggestions for you: Leave patriarchal interpretations of the scriptures behind in the house of patriarchy. Leave any theology or biblical interpretation that does not lead to the full humanity, liberation and just treatment of any human person behind. Leave willful ignorance of the complexity of scripture behind. Leave kindergarten theology behind if you’re not a child. Leave using the name of God to harm God’s children behind. Leave those things that don’t lead to life, health, wholeness and justice behind and don’t look back. And you will be blessed, and your name will be  blessed and all of the families of the earth will be blessed.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Jesus on the therapist’s couch – sermonS for 2/26/23

Ok – I don’t usually do this. Sometimes two sermons do get written, or more likely, one discarded, or one halfway done before the Spirit blows in with the better idea for the week. But this week, two sermons – not on purpose, but that had to get written. Both drive at the same points. Both are on the gospel text for today, Matthew 4:1-11.

I was torn about which to preach. It turned out that I shared sermon A at our early service, and I let the later service choose – and they chose B. Thanks to Sophie who was willing to volunteer and read the part of the therapist, cold. B would’ve been better with more polishing, or if we had microphones to be able to sit across from each other and have it be truly more like a dialogue.

Sermon A below is a fairly straightforward, typical sermon, and touches on this theme that as there are no other witnesses in the desert – Jesus must have told someone – and perhaps models telling someone about our hard times, too. I imagined that what if Jesus told his therapist, and what if the therapist later was a ghostwriter/source for the gospels? Sermon B is that imagined dialogue between the therapist and client, Jesus, as he reflects on the temptation. Both are below.

Sermon A

Have you ever thought – how’d we get this story? After all, there are no witnesses, other than Jesus, the tempter, and angels. Yes, the cynic could say pausing here makes you think it’s likely, simply made up.

But if not, then it must be that Jesus told someone, who likely told someone else, who told Luke or whoever wrote this down. Which means Jesus admitted it to someone else – wasn’t afraid to share that he’d been tempted. Perhaps that’s intentional to model it for us.

Stepping back, the narrative shape, and this concept of the Son of God, divine, who would be tempted – and – admit it – is thoroughly unlikely. Our human tendency is that history is written by the victor, and that the most likely stories to be shared and retold are the ones of power and triumph – not temptation or shame. It’s remarkable that this story made it past the editors’ desks. Because they could have – just cut it. Imagine if Luke had a teenager at home – or an unfaithful partner – who said – “but Jesus was tempted too, you can’t expect me to be perfect like him.” That could have been temptation enough for Luke to cut this from the manuscript, not retell this story that has a limp, this God who has vulnerabilities. 

It’s these unlikely inclusions in God’s story that make it more believable to me. The fact that an imperfect set of scriptures, conflicting and at times contradictory, at times unflattering or unresolved, makes it down to us – feels more real than easy stories with a nice little bow.  

I have at times wrestled with this story. The figure of the devil or tempter bothers me, because (partly because of my middle-class, Lutheran, white upbringing) I haven’t ever had a big place for or need for a fully embodied devil. For those of us that feel that way, we must realize that this is at least partially our cultural conditioning – that we are skeptical and less imaginative of what evil looks like – partly because we have less often been forced to face it. What that tempter looks like, and how we conceive of it and where we shelve it in our beliefs, is partly due to our own culture, conditioning, and heritage. But whatever you think about the whole devil thing, let the temptations and story be real.

Because if a temptation is dangled that isn’t actually enticing, it bounces off like teflon. There are things I’m not tempted at all by. I’ve never wanted to smoke. But other vices are more tempting.  Things you’re apathetic about and not tempted by aren’t usually the ones you’ll offer a deep, quoting scripture kind of response to. But Jesus did, here.  Things that don’t really tempt you aren’t things you’ll tell someone about later, or need to be waited on by angels afterward, as Jesus was. Temptations that don’t really get under your skin don’t even justify a response – just ignore – keep walking. Jesus was truly tempted.

Consider with me the second temptation, to throw himself down from high, and dare the angels to come catch him. Jesus’ response is about tempting God, and we generally think of it that way. But on the face of it the temptation itself is either to think yourself invincible and impossible to be hurt, or, frankly, the temptation to just end it all. Which means Jesus models the strength to admit to someone else (because someone wrote this down) that he was tempted by – and hence, had thought about, risking his body with invincibility or suicidal thoughts. Here Jesus shows us it’s ok to be tempted with thoughts – and it’s ok to tell someone, it’s important to get help. It’s another scripture that makes me think Jesus encourages us to go to therapy, to process our temptations, challenges, and situations. In fact, I had some fun imagining that the gospel writers got some ghostwriting help from Jesus’ therapist – or whoever acted as that for him. And maybe Jesus’ therapist or friend/confidant taught him the tool of holding onto key phrases, scriptures, and truths about God and himself that would be like anchors to cling to when he got into conflict or internal temptation. Jesus steadied himself with key phrases – things from the Hebrew Bible and his Jewish faith. When we are in moments of conflict or temptation, how can we anchor ourselves and steady ourselves, remind ourselves of our identity? Maybe there are words – or scriptures – or a physical reminder – or a song – or people – that God gave you to be your anchor.

Even if it originates from outside, temptation is ultimately a conversation within oneself. You could even push this story to wonder if there even was a physical or apparition of an external devil at all – or whether it was an internal “tempter” that appeared and tormented Jesus. I’m not sure it matters. Whether you’re sure that a physical devil appeared, or completely doubting that, it doesn’t change the fact that these temptations presented Jesus with an internal struggle. If they weren’t temptations they wouldn’t make his stomach flutter and demand such eloquent, sharp responses of rejection. 

Like the first two of the tempters, most temptation goes for our Achilles’ heel with making us worry with this “if you are…” question, challenging your identity. Padraig O’Tuama said “This wasn’t a question of whether Jesus was or wasn’t of God, this was a question of Jesus encountering himself and wondering what kind of a self was he becoming. Temptation ultimately challenges our sense of ourselves – can we be who we claim to be, or others think us to be? What are things that get under the skin, and you think, I’m not sure who I’ve become, I’m not sure I like who I’ve become, not sure I can control who I’ve become? Jesus met himself in the desert and wondered what self will I be, who am I talking to, and what will I say back?”

The gospels weren’t written teach us about the devil, or evil. We know enough about that from the real world. The story of scripture, and the gospels, are written to teach us who God is. Here we learn God has experienced temptation, and hence is in  solidarity with us when we do. Jesus models for us some ways to respond: be honest about it – and tell someone – get help. Hold onto the truths that anchor you. 

Called to love by Jesus’ example, perhaps also the challenge this story offers us is to be more tenderly compassionate to those who struggle with temptation. To the one who relapses. To the one who has their own tempters. To have the strength and patience to listen, as Jesus’ friends did, and then to point people toward help. To realize that if even the Son of God was tempted, then we can’t expect our neighbors to be perfect, and realize that same grace will be offered to you as well. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon B (The imagined therapist’s voice is in bold – the regular text is Jesus, reflecting with his therapist on this experience and on sharing it with others.)

“Hmmm… can you tell me more about that?” [The therapist leans back in her chair and waits.] 


When you were in the wilderness – can you recall the feeling in the moment? 

No – it was all a blur – I can recall the words so clearly. But my body – already exhausted by 40 days out there. I’m not sure I was paying attention to how I was feeling and body sensation – it was just really intense.

Yes – that makes sense as a trauma response. There are things that are really clear, and others that are missing or hard to trace back the feelings. But you said you’ve been having nightmares about this, or flashbacks?

Yes. Sometimes I wake up and I’m glad I resisted, proud of myself, though still stressed out from the thought, is the temptation going to pop up again? But other times, in the dream I’m there in that moment that feels like forever before I gave my answers – who knows if it was actually a moment or an hour – and I’m wrestling with making the other choice. 

Why do you think that is?

I know it’s a cheap party trick, but maybe I could have fed more people if I did the stone to bread thing. If I’d taken power and ruled like a traditional king – we wouldn’t have these ones that hurt people. We wouldn’t have to take to the streets or fight so hard for justice – could I have prevented these wars that seem endless. Could we have changed how the big picture works – economically – socially? In that part of the dream I’m looking out over the kingdoms, the different cultures, nations. And I see how beautiful they are – that’s what I think of when the tempter says “their splendor” though I think the tempter was pointing at their like gold, palaces, and armies and stuff. 

It sounds like what bothers you about those two temptations is whether there would’ve been a better outcome. This part still sounds like an intellectual argument, though. A matter of winning and losing. Is there something else there?

I mean… The hardest one is that second temptation – or was it the third – can hardly remember these days. But the one where the tempter took me off high – and said – just jump… 


Yeah – I mean, I feel ashamed even to admit it.

I’m proud of you that you are. It’s not easy to admit that this was tempting for you.

Well, the tempter made it like a dare – to dare God or the angels to come catch me. So it feels like the temptation – the gross feeling in the pit of my stomach at this part of the dream is that there is like a little voice that says – ‘you’re invincible – untouchable – irreplaceable – you’ll certainly be caught.’ And that feels gross and totally not what I’m about. But also somehow, true?

Hmm… Is there another little voice in this temptation?

Yeah. The other one is the even heavier feeling in my stomach. This temptation makes me imagine – the tempter saying – or whatever little voice, whatever you call it – I mean, are people going to think I’m crazy talking about this? A tempter? I’m not sure if it’s better if I say it’s “a voice I heard.”

Sure – and as we’ve discussed, true mental disorders of hearing things or splitting from reality are a separate matter. Have you ever thought that maybe other people wrestle with these things too? Maybe they’ll appreciate it if you share it – they won’t feel so alone in their own temptations?

Huh. Hadn’t thought of that.

Well, hold onto it, because I think it’s very brave. It might be a part of this whole human thing that you – we all – struggle with. But you’re safe here to share – what’s the other voice say in this moment of temptation? 

Well – it’s kind of the opposite of the invincibility voice – it’s saying – it might be ok if you jumped and didn’t get caught. That the world could be better without me. Which is weird, because I don’t feel depressed or suicidal in my normal, waking hours. But there’s a part of this that must’ve been, in some corner of myself, actually tempting, to just be done. Maybe it’s just the exhaustion of it all, or what my body had been through in those 40 days alone in the wilderness. But it troubles me. 

That’s a brave thing to share. So what do you do in the moment – what did you do – to face these temptations, or when they come back to you in dreams or worries?

Well – kind of what we’ve talked about in previous sessions. At least in remembering them, or other times I’ve been challenged, I try to kind of ground myself, and then I reach for the things that feel like solid anchors. Those phrases I can trust – or at least I know to be true even if I don’t feel very strong in the moment. 

Yes – so what kind of things do you reach for?

Well – in the desert that day I mainly quoted scripture back at the tempter. Not like whole passages or anything. Not trying to win an argument. But simple phrases and truths. One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Huh – see, some of them I even remember as songs. The other one – Do not put the Lord to the test. Those gave me the confidence to eventually to just tell the tempter to get lost. Then my friends showed up to help me, and that was a lifesaver.

The angels, you mean?

Yeah, whatever you want to call them.

Hmm. How do you feel right now?

Better than when I started telling the story. Weird – it’s like really troubling, and heavy stuff but like you always say – 

It’s better if you talk about it.

Yeah, I guess even for me, son of God.

Well – what does that make you think? I know you’ve been thinking a lot about how much of your internal process you should share with your friends. How about this story, these temptations?

I don’t know – will they judge me?

What do you think?

I mean – I know them – I know they’re tempted too. Maybe I should share it. It might scare them a bit. It’s a messy story – not easy – not that any of my story is. Maybe if I share it they’ll feel a little less alone. I’ll tell you, I think this happening at the start of my ministry made me a lot more compassionate and gracious to how annoying – and easily tempted people are. Maybe if I share this they’ll be more compassionate with others – when they mess up, or give into temptation. 

Yeah. That’s good – sounds like you think it’s worthy of including this in your own story  you share. But it isn’t just the bad parts, right?

What do you mean?

Well, the tools are here too. The fact that you had the foundation of your faith, words to say back to the tempter, something to fall back on. So don’t forget God’s role in this too. That even if you were alone, God was there, right? 

Yeah. And God was there in giving me an identity that had nothing to do about whether I got this right or not. I mean, the tempter says “if you are the son of God” – just trying create – that – what’s that syndrome thing people call it?

Imposter syndrome?

Yeah. But I knew my identity can’t be taken away. Maybe that’s why right before this, at my baptism, God’s voice said I was God’s kid, the beloved, with whom God is well pleased. And I hadn’t even done anything to prove myself yet.

What if it isn’t about proving oneself? 

I guess this is a good reminder that it never was. That’s comforting to think when this comes back to me as a stress dream – I couldn’t make a wrong choice in those temptations that would change my belovedness with God. 

That’s good news to hold onto. Well, that’s our time. 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Offensive ashes – sermon for Ash Wednesday, 2/22/23

First, read the text, Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Of course, this is one of those times that sermons kind of veer into preaching the day more than just strictly the text.

Here’s the sermon:

This morning as I was setting up ashes to-go, one of the GMC guests asked to talk to me outside. “That’s offensive” she said, pointing at my sign. I said – what do you mean? She motioned again at the sign, and said – “that’s a Catholic thing. Why are you doing it? It offends me.”

So we had a conversation, and partly because of her own muddled understanding about the history of religions and some misunderstanding, we had to leave some things to agree to disagree. But it was a reminder that some folks still see ashes and think “Catholic.” As I told her, they don’t have a corner on the market, and this faith practice which is over 1500 years old, is a part of our shared Christian story and heritage. It’s powerful to me to think that my ancestors (many who were catholic) may have received ashes with these same words. They now are dust, as I one day will be…

In any case, this and many other conversations I’ve had with folks today is because this is one of those days when Christians do sometimes wear this outward symbol – though frankly to wear it straight home or wash it off is, ironically, more in line with today’s gospel teaching from Jesus, about not parading one’s faith. 

To even encounter such a conversation, or funny looks, is something we don’t often take the risk to do, and maybe something we need more practice with, sharing of our faith.

Back to this conversation this morning, she just kept repeating “this is offensive.” And I asked her – tell me what’s offensive, so I can understand. She responded, which was more about her confusion about why were doing it at all, insisting she’d never seen anyone but Catholics do it.

I told her – that the ashes are a reminder of our mortality. (I thought later, that the words we say, remember you are dust, are ironically not religious at all. This is a simple truth that is completely secular.) It can be hard to hear but for Christians it’s about this faith practice of entering into this season of Lent, when we are invited to reflect, confess, and consider our faith more intentionally, not pretending that we are invincible. 

Set aside with me that individual conversation and person’s concern, which are separate. But I’ve been thinking more today of how Ash Wednesday is on some level, offensive.

We say “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” because in Genesis chapter 3, God tells this to Adam and Eve. They should’ve known it already. But they followed the advice of the serpent – who said just a few verses earlier – “you will not die.”

Jesus, the word made flesh, God who reminds us that we – and everything else – are dust – has an offensive word for us. Well – at least to part of us. The part that thinks – this will last. The part that hopes that the hyaluronic acid under-eye cream will do the trick against my quickly aging skin. The part that makes me learn about how best to invest for retirement. The part that closes her ears to Jesus’ clear warning – “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” To the part of me that installed ring doorbells at home, who marvels at the things that rust in my old home, and here at church – we want to listen instead to the tempter that says, “you will not die.”

But it is out of care that God’s words through the dust, encouraging us to have seasons of discipline and sober contemplation, and Jesus’ nudge that the moths, and rust, and thieves may still come, that is offensive – to everything that wants to tell us lies. In love, Jesus says – where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Dear ones, God holds your hearts. The same sign we make tonight hearkens back to the one made in oil at your baptism – sealed by the holy spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.

As we’ll sing this coming Sunday – Martin Luther reminds us, just like the ashes do: “God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes, who fear it; for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit. Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse, though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day. The kingdom’s ours forever!” (last verse of A Mighty Fortress) Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Down the mountain – sermon for 2/19/23 (Transfiguration Sunday)

Apologies to anyone for whom this is their favorite church festival (anyone???) . . . As you can probably notice below, I wrestled with the internal dissonance of this bright festival day and the tough news of the week.

First, read the text: Matthew 17:1-9

Here’s the sermon:

Do you intentionally follow the news? Do you daily open yourself up to learn what’s going on in the world? 

It’s an old adage from theologian Karl Barth that Christians – especially pastors – should preach with the “Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other.” 

I’ll admit that Transfiguration isn’t my favorite Sunday of the church year. Is it anyone’s? Is anyone counting down – like – yes! Transfiguration of our Lord! Now, I get why it’s here. It connects Jesus to the broader narrative as he’s joined by the Jewish heroes of faith. It’s a foreshadowing of the resurrection, just before Lent, and a callback to Jesus’ baptism – he’s reminded of his identity, before he goes on to the hardest parts ahead. But shiny, glorified Jesus on a mountaintop – feels far disconnected from our everyday lives, much less the people in the valleys and crises that make the news. So how do we interpret both these scriptures, and the news, this week?

This week, the news is heavy. I’ve been troubled by stories from around the world – the terrible, unfathomable destruction in Turkey and Syria. Heart wrenching stories of incredible loss. Homes gone. Mountains of rubble and dust. 

Across our country, at Michigan State, more tragedy. In Ohio, train derailment and subsequent chemical disaster – a black, ominous cloud, sickened water, soil, air, soot, and confusion. 

Here in D.C., in McPherson Square, after days of homeless service partners, including GMC, trying to stop it, DC HHS cleared a large encampment of folks from their homes in this public space. They had set up tents, like Peter wanted to, and stayed, but they were cleared out. While DC officials promised to house these folks, it’s not so easy – more than 2/3 remain unhoused and some were arrested. I can understand the confusion because it’s taken me some time to learn and understand, but this kind of tactic doesn’t help – it leads to distrust and makes it harder for service providers to continue support and get folks housed. 

Hearing these news stories, and our gospel story, it made me think about discernment: the times when it’s good to stay, and the times when we’re called to go. I’ve been wrestling with how these news stories which all have elements of the gospel reading, the transfiguration: mountains, clouds, confusion, fear, tents, talk of death, the question of staying or going, and who to follow.

I know there are reasons we ignore the news, to take care of ourselves and our mental health (and avoid the ways media can exploit trauma, designed to trigger our own reactive impulses). Sometimes we’re not tuned into the news and world events because real life isn’t any mountaintop, and you’re struggling just to get by. Maybe you have your own crises, your own struggle of discernment to stay or go, your own mounting load of stress or work, or a cloud of confusion or fear.

We can also understand the temptation to stay on the mountain, which feels like the impulse to tune out the news when you’re doing well. Peter, James, and John held their breath – for a moment thought – what if we could stay – leave behind the troubles of Galilee, the neighborhood squabbles, the stress of my family dynamic, global stress and Rome’s impending domination, the pressure to “get a real job” other than being a disciple. Let’s just stay, ignore everything else… 

But those who are able, with bandwidth to help, Jesus says, “get up and do not be afraid.” Let’s go down the mountain – to where we’re needed. 

The good news of the transfiguration is not just glory, but simply that Jesus goes down the mountain with them. Jesus comes beside them, back into the real world. After the shine has dimmed. When life pulls us back – God’s still there. 

As they walk back down, as we again get swallowed up by the hard things in the world, it makes more sense what Jesus says. Don’t talk about the mountaintop down here – not yet. The shiny, glorious vision doesn’t hold a lot of water for folks just trying to survive. Jesus doesn’t come to victims of earthquake, or chemical spill, or violence, poverty, racism, and just say – look at this cool party trick! No – Jesus goes down with them in the valley. God rolls up sleeves and goes to be with the people. When you’re in the valley, God’s glory is seen in the people who help you out. Not the shiny vision that seems so far away. There will be a time for that, when new life comes again, when resurrection happens. So this is a promise that new life is coming – but in the meantime, the good news is a God who is with us amid the struggle.

Jesus isn’t tone-deaf to the realities of the world. He goes down the mountain. He comes down to you. God rolls up sleeves into our regular lives. We need God out there, here, in the trenches, in the decisions about whether to stay or go, in the clouds of confusion, the dust and the mountains and valleys. 

The black dust for Ash Wednesday is already in the world – always is – but so too is the promise that God is with us in it. So let’s sing full-throated “alleluias” – because it is good to be here. Though we and our Alleluias will someday be buried, like Christ, with Christ, we rise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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taking God to court & Micah 6:8

First, read the texts, Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12.

Would you ever take God to court? It sounds silly. But sometimes I’d like to, for any number of reasons. Like maybe slow delivery on the promises of the Beatitudes. I’m ready to see those who mourn be truly comforted, the meek go ahead and inherit the earth. Is the inheritance hung up in probate? Why’s it taking so long? Can you think of people whose news, either personal or public, you understand why they might want to take God in for a hearing? People who deeply need the blessing of the beatitudes, who Jesus names there…

Some think they could never call God out – too scared, or humble. If you’ve been taught not to question God, you’d find the idea of dragging God to court perhaps blasphemous or at least fearful. But if you’ve been taught not to question God, you’ve skipped a lot of parts of the Bible, and missed something essential. In fact, many or most of God’s heroes challenge God, call God out, and protest.

Doing so might seem antagonistic, childish, or even surprising, remember, like I said most of our Biblical heroes challenge God. In fact, this concept of imagining a legal trial with God runs through scriptures, including in:

  • the Psalms, 
  • the Holy Spirit is sometimes described with legal language – the advocate, 
  • the word in the Hebrew that we translate “redeemer” and attribute to Jesus, is understood something like prosecuting attorney, arguing on behalf of the victim
  • and then there’s the entire book of Job! 

Remember Job, the story of the guy who loses everything spectacularly? It’s written as a legal drama, a personal injury lawsuit Job brings against God. Spoiler – God wins, but so does Job, in not cursing God but also not letting God off the hook for God’s promises.

So, it would be highly “Biblical” for you to look at the world, or something in your own life, and be like, alright, God, how about some Beatitudes? Where are those blessings?

That kind of fierceness seems the opposite of Bible verses that get put on plaques at craft stores and badly-done social media graphics. Today, in our first reading, we have one of those plaque-enshrined, beloved scriptures, from Micah. The joke is that this is the only thing most folks know from the prophet/book of Micah. Micah? Oh, yeah, love that verse. Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly. It’s great! And for good reason, though also perhaps a bit unexamined as to its wider context, this is a very, very popular Christian tattoo. I know personally many people who have a Micah 6:8 themed tattoo – some of them on their feet, as a reminder to walk humbly.

But – take in the wider context of this passage from Micah and you’ll notice – it’s not a pastel scene but an intense legal drama. Micah’s court drama may have an answer for us in those times we ourselves want to take God to court. So, start with the good news that we can challenge God like this – and listen for more comfort as we revisit this text.

The Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney writes that this part of Micah was likely first told as a “dramatic performance, because sometimes theological articulations and sermonic proclamations are insufficient. Unfortunately we don’t have… recordings from the Iron Age but we do have the script.” So, here’s Gafney’s own translation from the Hebrew, interspersed with her descriptions of the action – flip back to compare this with the version in your bulletin as you listen. Gafney writes: 

“The courtroom drama begins with the bailiff: Micah 6:1 Hear ye what the Just One says: All rise. Litigate before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. 2 Hear ye, mountains, the litigation of the Righteous One, and everlasting foundations of the earth; for the Judge of All Flesh has a lawsuit against God’s people, and God will prosecute Israel personally.

In the next scene, God takes the stand:

3 ‘My people, what have I done to you? And how have I wearied you? [We might say, “How have I gotten on your nerves?”] Answer me! 4 For I brought you up from [dragged you out of] the land of Egypt; I redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5 My people, please remember what King Balak of Moab plotted, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, also the righteous deeds of the Faithful God from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know them.’

[Gafney continues, explaining:] Then things get interesting. Israel takes the stand. Israel doesn’t seem to have had the benefit of counsel… Israel’s strategy is passive-aggressive angry sarcasm against the Living God who has granted them a hearing. Needless to say this isn’t going to go well. God’s people, Israel say:

6 ‘With what shall I come before the Incomparable, [imagining them saying, “Your High and Mightiness”] and bow before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with year old calves? Well? 7 Will the Eternal be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

God doesn’t even dignify that  foolishness with a response. God just leaves the courtroom and lets the verdict speak for her. Most know the verdict apart from the farcical legal dramedy in which it appears:

8 God has told you, children of earth, what is good. And what does the Holy One require of you? To do justice, love faithfully, and to walk humbly with your God.’” 

Case settled. And that beloved verse so sweetly offered out of context, is a fierce response from God, who has shown the case. God held up God’s end of the deal. God is faithful. God stated historic examples that imply the ongoing promise. Those examples of times God enacted the blessings of the Beatitudes. And God will continue to catch us when we fall, execute justice once and for all in all the unfair cases and long burdens we’ve carried in this life, and eventually, someday, wipe away every tear. 

The Beatitudes, this list of blessings, are not conditions by which we work ourselves up to or toward God, or earn God’s favor, but they are ways God is actively coming down, scooping up, and saving us who are in need.

It can feel like – the case never gets settled. The work is ongoing. It can seem like good and justice don’t prevail for long before evil peeks around the corner or makes the headlines again. Maybe that’s why we are restless, eager for something more. In Micah, God hears our restlessness and grief, comforts, holds, but then directs it. God is still in control. It was never about a certain amount of pious activity – as God’s people mockingly offer in this imagined trial – but about your neighbor, who God turns us again toward in this verdict. 

Hear it again and realize: the verdict is not a sentence, not our condemnation but invitation. God invites us to join God in healing the world. We’re not sent away without answers but fiercely equipped with a calling. With a direction. So if you get discouraged, wonder if the protests do any good, or are so tired of the bad news of the world, God says, “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly.” You’ll notice it in the world, and the people doing this make a difference. Look out for this, and you’ll see God actively blessing the world, and be a part of it. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Mentors, hesitating on our calling, and finding it – sermon from 1/22/23

First, read the text: Matthew 4:12-23

Here’s the sermon:

Can you think of a mentor who you really admired? Maybe for their integrity or kindness, sense of mission or work ethic, or sheer brilliance. Maybe they were a teacher, a big sibling type, a professor, a mentor at your work, a parent or family member. Maybe when you were starting  your career they were that person who guided you. Who you could ask questions. Who people followed instinctively, because they exuded trust. 

If this person is still around, today is a reminder to not take them for granted. To call and ask the questions, bask in the relationship with someone who walks a few steps ahead of you on the path. If this mentor you thought of is gone, the feeling may be bittersweet. Maybe just after they went away – to another job, or from your life, at first you didn’t know where to turn, or felt a little handicapped by their loss. But the loss also makes space could empower you to step up. To take their place.

Such a moment is the setting for today’s gospel, though it’s easy to overlook that introductory line. It’s important, because it sets Jesus’ whole ministry in motion, gets him to move out of his parents’ home and get started: “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested…”

Those of us who know Jesus’ story recall it starts pretty quick and linear: birth/manger, fast-forward to Jesus’ baptism, temptation in the wilderness, begins his ministry, starts calling the disciples, today’s story. But here in the gospel of Matthew, the timeline is unclear. We read about Jesus’ baptism, when God’s voice says, “this is my Son, the beloved,” and then after the 40 days of temptation, it sounds like Jesus – just went home. And today’s reading picks up right after that – and we don’t know how long it’s been. How long was Jesus back in Nazareth, helping with the family business and carrying on with life – not sure how or when those “son of God” duties would start, if ever? It’s unclear. And I wonder if Jesus thought – well, John’s out there – he’s spreading the message, he’s baptizing people. He’s got this. Are there times that we hesitate in the calling we know has a hold on us – for any number of reasons? Are there things you feel called to but aren’t sure if the time is right?

But then John was arrested. Jesus’ world shifts. We know they’re cousins, that John’s ministry started first, and seems more wild and fringe, but maybe we overlook that John was some kind of mentor to Jesus. Did Jesus’ heart fall when he heard the news? Did he kick himself for not going back to the river to observe him at work, to ask questions about his ministry, what it was like to have followers and do public speaking about this kingdom of God stuff? 

In any case, John’s arrest is the precipitating event that starts Jesus’ ministry. I grew up with a pretty sanitized image of Jesus. But Jesus of the gospels is a rabble-rousing preacher, whose ministry begins and ends with someone’s arrest – John’s and his own. 

Each year on MLK day, I read or listen to long form writings of King’s, always including Letter from a Birmingham Jail. This year, what struck me was King reflecting on how at the beginning of his civil rights work he thought that the interfaith clergy would be their biggest supporters. It sounds like King felt like the clergy would have, when they saw one of their own arrested for nonviolent protest, immediately come to action themselves, perhaps willing likewise to be arrested (like Jesus was for John). King’s sadness reaches from the page, feeling if clergy had been like – alright, one of our own is arrested, time to get going, if they had, the jails would have been so full of clergy bearing the work of justice that they would not have been able to hold them, and the “freedom movement” could not be ignored. But King writes, “all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows.” Whew.

Jesus didn’t have stained glass, but he (most likely) had a “job” and “responsibilities,” a home in Nazareth to give as an excuse, excuses we all use sometimes. But when he hears about John, he picks up and moves to Capernaum. He had to know doing so meant taking risk of his own arrest. 

Now, who – what mentor, or really, message, would you follow, even risking arrest? Maybe that is where the kingdom of heaven is drawn near for you? Now, I know, not all of us are called to be freedom fighters like King, or revolutionaries like John the Baptist. But we’ve all got a share in the kingdom, baptized, called, empowered, to follow and serve in the way God calls you.

Jesus doesn’t give a long pitch to the fishermen. It feels more like he says, “c’mon!” For whom or what mission would they just have to say, “c’mon,” and you’d go? This may sound like an extremist’s question – but consider King’s words in that same Letter that we are called to be extremists for love. So, maybe for you it’s the love of a family member, your kids, or others you love or have a passion for, that you would follow and risk it all. Maybe for the love of inclusion and freedom for those excluded or oppressed in some way. Or is your calling making something better – more accessible, working better, in deep innards of a system that needs your help. Aren’t these all ways that the kingdom of heaven comes near?

In the gospel, verse 17 would be the cinematic sweep that begins the montage or the music swells – this is where Jesus’ ministry begins – “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Here Jesus takes on the mantle – with the words of his mentor, John. Yes, these are John’s words, just a chapter before, this was his refrain. Have you ever taken a role from a mentor, now charged with saying something they used to say, and at first, it felt funny coming out of your mouth? You hear it in the voice of your mentor, and have to overcome momentary imposter syndrome. Words of a mentor are a gift – and can empower you as you take them on and share them. They can be a crutch you can lean into as you learn to make them your own. In a new language, we rehearse given sentences before we start speaking in our own words. So did Jesus. 

So if the words of Jesus feel a little funny in your mouth, or you’re not sure where your calling might be, it’s ok. You’re in good company. Jesus himself took time and words of his mentors to get going. You too have a calling – and we have one together. How is the kingdom of heaven coming near? Where would you like to see it? You might be called to bring light to those things that have been in the dark, or to loving, teaching, healing, and being with people. You may be in the holy calling of following – and showing with your life, not necessarily your words, what good news and God’s love looks like. 

In the ordination liturgy (which, by the way I considered if it’d be heretical to use to “ordain” you all as fishers for people, but you can exhale, I decided against it) – after the questions and charges – which really are not that different from the questions at baptism – which we are all called into, – there are these words, which I offer to you today: Almighty God, who has given you the will to do these things, graciously give you the strength and compassion to perform them. Amen.

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Church more like Ace Hardware, less like Safeway – sermon from 1/15/23

First, read the text – John 1:29-42.

Here’s the sermon:

My last year of seminary I worked at a large retail store. The chain and especially that particular location was known for its customer service. And they were good at it. There, we were trained and expected to say – not “Can I help you,” but warmly greet people with a hello and “what can I help you find?”

The key to this is that it’s not a yes or no question, but designed to engage. It can catch people off guard. Maybe like the first disciples here – when Jesus greets them not with “hello” but a direct, rather intimate question. It’s the first time Jesus speaks at all in the gospel – asks them, “what are you looking for?” Did Jesus work in retail?

I’ve always read this story as the disciples getting caught off guard, like in a store when you’re ready for a yes/no question, get asked something else and you stumble for a moment. I always read them that way, not sure how to answer, so instead they profess him Rabbi, creating a connection. But maybe they were answering the question – what are you looking for? A rabbi, teacher, someone to follow and learn from. I feel like a lot of folks these days are seeking that, an intimate relationship of following and learning, from which they can help and pattern their lives. Does this hunger partly explain the rise of social media “influencers”? 

In Jesus’ day, becoming a disciple of a rabbi was usually a formal process, applying before being admitted to an inner circle of ongoing, committed tutelage. But here John refers them in a quick hand-off: “the messiah! There he goes!” – and they go. Jesus asks for no resumes, doesn’t get to know them first, see if they are going to be annoying people to hang around him all the time. Their first question of Jesus seems random. I would’ve started with – “so, are you the messiah?” They ask him “where are you staying?” – out of curiosity, or wanting to connect, or maybe momentary awkwardness. Or did they want to know who he was aligning himself with – who are your friends? If we’re following you, who are we connected with? Or maybe they’re just hungry and inviting themselves over: so, where are we eating dinner? But he seems unfazed, and to both the first disciples and us now, Jesus says “come and see.” 

Do any of you do your grocery shopping at the Safeway a few blocks north on Wisconsin Ave? Well – last year they reorganized a lot of the aisles – to add another aisle to an already crowded store. Though I’m there often, I find myself standing and just staring at the ends of aisles, squinting to see what’s down it. I get frustrated – I feel like it should be obvious, but don’t know where to find anything! 

This is how church or faith exploration can feel for some folks. You come equipped with your shopping list – you’re like, ok, I need some grace for the heavy things I carry, maybe somewhere to put them down, I need to reconcile reason and faith, I need somewhere where I or my friend can feel welcome… But often we go in and are met with – like I feel at Safeway – aisle signs that are incomplete, and totally unhelpful. Although the store is full of people, no one is looking to help and it can feel lonely and frustrating. And you end up like – I just need cereal and milk and kitty litter… UGH!

But just a few blocks further up Wisconsin, there’s an opposite shopping experience (by the way, none of this is a plug) – at the Glover Park Ace Hardware. They are GREAT! Like most hardware stores in the city that are like a rabbit warren of aisles, not a big box store, it’s not easy to find things. But you can’t get far in that store before an employee helpfully asks what they can help you find. It feels warm, and they take you right to what you need. Even just being asked, even if you know where the lightbulbs are, acknowledges your humanity and feels good. 

So, Jesus asks, each time we enter the church, “what are you looking for?” And maybe some hungry part of our souls responds – “where are you staying, Jesus? Where are you hanging out these days, because we need you?” And Jesus says, “Come and see.” It’s more command than invitation and before you know it, you’re off trying to keep up, as Jesus is showing you new things, redirecting your attention. Following Jesus, we sometimes fall into helping – and then end up finding our niche. Maybe we need to feel less afraid or find ways to ask each other, “what are you looking for?”

A good store clerk’s question, like Jesus’, is designed to avoid the response of, oh, I can find it myself. It ignores that – and even if you say, oh, I know where it is, they may still lead you there. Notice also that in this story, no one comes to Jesus on their own. The first two disciples were led to Jesus by John, who helped them find him. Then Andrew goes home and gets his brother Simon, and brings him to Jesus. 

In Luther’s explanation of the third article of the creed, he writes, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel… enlightened… sanctified… and keeps me…” The Holy Spirit does this perhaps most often through others, who lead us. I know many of us are a little gun-shy about evangelism, and our Lutheran theology teaches we ought never tell people about Jesus out of guilt, obligation, or score-keeping. But don’t forget how important the leading, helping, and directing friend is. Consider the people who have been like John the Baptist for you, pointed out Jesus, inside or outside of church, led you on the way. Consider how much you appreciate those who made you feel welcome, taught you something you really valued, invited you to serve. Wouldn’t it be awesome to do the same for others? 

Ideally, then, church would be a lot like that Ace Hardware – and we’d be eager to help point others to find what they’re looking for. Church is much the same as that Ace store – a little confusing at times, they don’t have everything; it might not be for everyone, and can’t fit everyone anyway, but let me tell you, I really like it and they’ve helped me find a lot of things I’m looking for. 

Last week I was telling a friend who doesn’t go to church how when I was a kid, what I was looking for at church was forgiveness. Now, some Sundays I’m looking forward to other things about worship – and often the thing I find wasn’t what I thought I was looking for at all. But Jesus meets us here, warmly greets you, “what are you looking for?” (there’s time to think about it during the prelude) and before we can even answer, says “Come and see.” and through scripture, community, prayer, communion, and living that out in the world, leads us to what we were looking for all along. Love, forgiveness, grace, purpose, freedom, inclusion. It’s here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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The powerful, and where God is… sermon from 1/8/23

First, read the text: Matthew 2:1-12.

Here’s the sermon:

If we learn anything this week, it’s that leadership and direction are important. Clarity of direction can point our way, but if leaders point the wrong way, it can be destructive. Fragile leaders insecure about their power can cause harm or even violence. Of course I mean, these are lessons of the Epiphany story. You were thinking of Herod, right, not any current examples?

Well, the gospel reminds us that whereas the powerful imagine the world as leaders and followers, haves and have nots, God quietly subverts it here.

Herod is both powerful and impotent. While he is a client king of the Romans and maybe nominally “Jew-ish” he’s hedging his bets here – call up those magi – ask them…

Herod’s not known for his piety, but he’s in a sense a religious leader, in that he can call together the chief priests and scribes for consultation. But when he gets their answer, he goes rogue and seeks out the magi – almost like a “Christian” leader leaving a prayer breakfast or meeting with bishops – to sneak out the back and go consult the tarot card reader down the street. 

How are religion and power still often intermingled – for appearances, for manipulation of the public, or for affirmation of the outcome we’ve already decided needs to happen?

The magi are foreigners, already moving in Herod’s territory, following this star. But now Herod orders them on this errand. It hadn’t occurred to me before – maybe they didn’t even want to go, felt pressured by Herod, or looked over their shoulders as they went.

All of this is framed from Herod’s perspective – seemingly pitting strong over weak, Herod with every resource at his disposal.  But meanwhile, babies are being born, nursed, rocked to sleep, families go on, religions operate appropriately separate from the state. The magi will skirt away from Herod on the way home, though he wanted them to report back.

In this familiar story of the visit of the magi, I remembered God more directly involved – or even referenced – about the star, the magi’s feeling of pull to follow and find the infant messiah. When I get stuck in a sermon, or reading the Bible, or honestly in life, I try to think – ok, where is God in all this? In life, I often point to the helpers, the comfort or presence of peace, the ways love breaks through, or people show up for good. But in scripture, I try to look at what God is actually up to, where God is mentioned, and the action verbs of what God’s actually doing in the story

And here… God is not… here…. not pulling strings. There is no mention of God in these verses about Herod. We imagine God in the background of course, because we know the story, but there is no direct language about God setting the star, or inspiring the magi – until we imply that it’s God who intervenes via dream, to get the magi home safely. 

With all the bluster of Herod, the forces assembled, the heads of power and religion called into conference rooms and halls of power – where’s God in this story? God is – a vulnerable baby being held by a teenage mom. Crying – growing – sleeping. 

There is a huge juxtaposition here between Herod trying so hard and God who is literally the defenseless baby in this story. 

Herod (as we heard last week) in response to his failed baby messiah finding mission, will send cohorts of troops to take out an entire 2 year swath of vulnerable children. Imagine the effort – resources – paperwork – grief – stress that this caused. Imagine being a middle-manager for Herod and having to pass on those orders. Nights of sleep would’ve been lost, as well as countless innocent families affected. All to fight Herod’s insecurity.

And God – simply – lived. Was human. Didn’t try to prove invincibility or domination the opposite: was needy, vulnerable, and won people over – at least at this age, I imagine, with a baby’s coo, the little grunts of sleep, the baby smile that might actually be gas. 

It kind of makes a mockery of the powerful leader, and the force and importance they expend.

While the headlines of this story are big players, power-brokers, religious leaders, influential people, God’s – at home.

May this be good news to you the next time you feel like you’re missing out. The next time you have a quiet night at home and feel the itch of loneliness or FOMO (fear of missing out). May you feel God’s embrace of you – at home, in the simplicity.

May you also feel God’s embrace of you in your vulnerability. While leaders can posture and bluster, while fragile tyrants will continue their violence and showcases, Epiphany reveals to us that the stronger, and actually harder thing is to be vulnerable. To admit our humanness, just like God did in coming among us. Leading from humility and vulnerability is often actually much harder than sheer force. To win hearts and minds not as a bully but as a companion who is at home with the people and willing to serve – share – heal – care for – and ultimately even share in the death that will meet us all – is actually much harder, and more true. 

So, arise, shine – your light has come – God who dwells among us. Let the tyrants have their headlines – God is at home, in our vulnerability, offering hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.