Monday, June 14, 2021

Sermon: Welcoming all birds into our branches (June 13, 2021)

Full service can be viewed HERE.  

Pentecost 3B
June 13, 2021
Mark 4:26-34

 

INTRODUCTION

         A lot of people in biblical times were intimately familiar with farming and growing things, so it is no surprise that such images appears as often as they do – we will see it today. The comparison of God’s kingdom to a cedar tree, as in Ezekiel, was a familiar image – cedars are grand and dignified, after all! But then along comes Jesus, who instead will compare the kingdom of God to the scruffy, invasive mustard bush. No wonder the disciples are confused! As you listen, hear the humor and confusion in that. Imagine how dumbfounded the listeners must have been. And in general, notice all the different growing imagery in our texts today – with what would you compare the kingdom of God? Let’s listen.

[READ]


Middle eastern mustard bush

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         Have you ever tried to explain something to someone that you know and understand so well, yet you cannot figure out how to explain it to someone else? This happens regularly if you have small children – we are often having to explain things like, the correct way to use air quotes, or why you can’t turn off the sun. It’s so intuitive for us, and yet… how do you explain that?

         That’s what I imagine as we watch Jesus try to explain the kingdom of God, something he knows intimately, to a bunch of disciples who totally don’t get it. You can imagine him using this parable about the sower, satisfied with his attempt… and they all stare blankly back at him, blinking. Jesus looks around, realizes his explanation fell flat, and tries again. “Ok, let me see, what other comparison or analogy can I use to explain this… Ah, okay, how about this. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground…” But he’s already lost them again, because they are now laughing at the sheer absurdity of sowing mustard seeds. Why would anyone want to sow mustard seeds? Mustard bushes are ugly, scruffy, a far cry from the dignified cedar typically used to describe royalty. They’re also invasive, and will take over everything. And while those birds in the branches may sound like a lovely image to us, in truth, while some birds are good for crops, many kinds of birds wreak havoc on crops, making a mess and eating seed and fruit. Mustard bushes and birds are the last things you would want in your garden or farm! Yes, it is an absurd prospect! And yet, this is how Jesus describes the kingdom of God, so, absurd or not, we must try to understand why.

         The beauty of Jesus’ parables, or any story, is that there are so many entry points. That’s why Jesus uses so many stories in his teaching – they are rich, they offer opportunity for connection, and they invite deeper reflection than would simply saying, “These are the facts about how it is.” God transcends mere facts!

The power of stories is why we are currently working on developing a story of St. Paul’s, because a story is something people can enter into. So, speaking of that work writing our story, here is something else that has come up in the work we’ve done so far: St. Paul’s, we observed, is a congregation that is welcoming and accepting of people wherever and however they are. This is beautiful, and exactly what every church should be!

I believe that is true about St. Paul’s, and at the same time, I want to push us to think more deeply about this claim, especially as we start returning to in-person worship and activities – and I want to do that using the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God as an undignified mustard bush with branches and shade for the peskiest pests tells us that when we are part of that invasive, scruffy kingdom, we, too, are welcoming to all manner of people and situations, even those that may require some accommodation on our part, or may require us to approach a situation differently in order to make them truly feel accepted and welcomed. Do we offer that sort of welcome and acceptance here? Is it enough to plaster “All are welcome!” on our website and our publications, and call it a day? What does it look like to welcome and accept one another, no matter what we might have gone through since we were last together, or where the pandemic has dropped us off in terms of our mental and emotional health? And, beyond that, how will we welcome and accept those whom we don’t yet know, who may yet walk through our doors in search of… something.

Maybe we should start by asking: what people are either not here, or at least are not as well or openly represented, at our table, in our pews, logged into our livestream, and what do we imagine are the barriers for them? What would show them we are ready for them to take up residence in our branches?

Let’s look at some specific groups who might struggle somewhat to feel welcome and accepted in a congregation like ours. The month of June is Pride month, a time when we are invited to think more intentionally about our siblings in Christ who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender, bi-sexual, or otherwise “queer.” June is also a month when we think a lot about the African American experience in this country, because of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre June 1st, and Juneteenth next week. What would it take for people of color, or people who identify as LGBTQ, to feel welcome and accepted in these branches? Is it enough to say, “I don’t see color!” or adopt a sort of church version of “don’t ask, don’t tell”? I can’t speak for either of these groups, since I don’t share their experience, but I think both of those approaches fall short because they sound an awful lot like, “I don’t see, or don’t want to see, or would prefer to ignore this significant part of who you are. I will choose only to see the things that don’t make me feel uncomfortable. As long as you ‘fit in’ here, and look and act like what is ‘normal’ to me, you are welcome!” But that is the opposite of accepting, isn’t it? Asking someone to “fit in” is not accepting them or loving them for the wholeness of who they are. Fitting in is different from belonging. Fitting in implicitly asks someone to be or act different, or tone down who they are, for our own comfort. Now, I’m not saying St. Paul’s members do that or would do that… but it is certainly a very human temptation to want someone else to be or act a certain way for our own comfort. I know I am sometimes guilty of that, and most times I probably don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It takes a lot of self-awareness, not to mention humility, to recognize that sort of thing in ourselves.

So, how could we do better? One of my favorite observations about welcome actually spoke specifically to a third group I haven’t mentioned – families with young, potentially disruptive children – but it says something important about welcome in general. One Sunday when then 3yo Grace had been especially interested in being up front with me, one visiting young family told me, “I loved seeing your daughter up there. It made me feel welcome to be here with my young children.” Powerful! You see, people feel welcome when they see a piece of themselves reflected, when they can see how their unique story could become a part of the story they see here.

So, let’s apply that to the other groups I mentioned: Do people of color see themselves reflected, if not in our people, then in our art and music, or do they mostly see a white Jesus and European music? Is there space where stories that challenge our status quo can be safely shared and believed? Do we value the experience and perspective of LGBTQ people as different but beautiful? Do we talk to or about them in the way they self-identify, rather than the way with which we are most comfortable? Do we expect the people who come through our doors to look and act a certain way, a way that looks pretty similar to how many of us look and act?

These are not political issues, my friends; they are human issues. I have no agenda here beyond the gospel, I’m just asking the questions. But part of welcoming and accepting all the birds into the branches of this mustard bush that is God’s kingdom, is welcoming and accepting people for who they are, not for who we want them to be. Of course, there is always room for growth, for all humans – we all want to be the best version of ourselves, to be growing ever closer to God’s hope for us – but we must start with loving others exactly where they are, even as we trust that God loves all of us exactly where we are.

I will say again, I think St. Paul’s does welcome pretty well in a lot of ways. We are handicap accessible. We have good signage. Jonathan strives to feature a diversity of composers in the music he chooses, and I try to lift up different voices and perspectives in my preaching – though we are both always trying to do better. We all readily offer smiles, and like to make connections with people. That’s all great. Keep up the good work! As we start to come back to more and more things happening in person, it will be all the more important to be both compassionate and intentional about our welcome and acceptance of each other, and those we don’t yet know. Because even though it seems like we should be able to slip right back into where we were in March 2020, we have all been through a trauma, and everything looks a little different now. And of this, too, we need to be accepting, receiving people wherever they’re at. We are all in different places with our mental and emotional health. We all crave different things, and sometimes we don’t even know what it is we are longing for! This transition time will require much patience, for ourselves and for each other.

But know this: the kingdom of God is like a big, ol’ invasive bush that grows whether we want it to or not, and in ways we can’t even understand or figure out. And in that big bush, there is room enough for whatever kind of pest wants to be there – even pests like you and me. Because every one of us, with our strengths and our shortcomings, our wisdom and our ignorance, is claimed, marked, and beloved by God. So bring your uncertainty and questions, your emotional baggage, your childhood trauma, your pandemic trauma… bring it all, and make yourself a home in the invasive, messy, not always pretty but always life-giving kingdom of God. There is room for you here. There is love for you here. Here in God’s kingdom is a place to rest, a place not to “fit in” but to belong, a place where who and how you are is dearly beloved by our God.

Let us pray… Compassionate God, you love and accept us no matter what pain, suffering, or shortcomings we approach you with, and you welcome us into your kingdom. Help us to do the same for all of your children. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 



Sunday, June 6, 2021

Sermon: Life over self-protection (June 6, 2021)

 Full service HERE.

Pentecost 2B

June 6, 2021

Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35

 

INTRODUCTION

         Today begins the season of Pentecost, a season without any big festivals or events but that focuses instead on the sort of day-to-day teachings and ministry of Jesus. We’ll hear lots of stories this summer that can guide us in our lives as humans trying to be faithful. And today, today we’ll see some of the most very human-ish of humans! We begin with the story of the fall from Genesis, as Adam and Eve are confronted with their Big Mistake of believing the serpent in the Garden of Eden when he said they could know as much as God. We’ll see the consequences of pride, and how quick humans have always been to point fingers and avoid taking the blame. In 2nd Corinthians, Paul reflects on the condition of being stuck in this flesh that is wasting away, living in this broken world, even as we await the renewal of our inner nature by Christ.

         If Genesis shows us our human tendency to cast blame elsewhere, and how this behavior damages even our most important relationships, our Gospel reading does the same. We will see how quick we are to dismiss that which would challenge our beliefs, that would dare reveal something different from what we believe to be true. We see this as Jesus’ adversaries are so put off by him and his teachings that they say he is possessed by the devil himself. As you listen, as painful as this might be, try to see yourself in these stories, and hear how God’s Word can help guide our lives of faith. Let’s listen.

[READ]




Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         From the beginning of time, humans have pointed fingers, dismissed each other’s pain, and been divided. Since the very first humans, we have hidden ourselves from one another and from God, hoping that no one else will have to see our insecurities, that if we put up a strong front and deflect any blame, then we can continue to hold onto our beliefs, no matter how misguided they may be.

         I have always loved and also hated this scene in Genesis, where the insecure Adam and Eve hide themselves from God, and as soon as they are called out on their shenanigans, they point fingers anywhere else to keep themselves safe. I love it because I can relate to it… and I hate it because I can relate to it! I, too, am prone to deflect blame and accusations, to keep myself safe. But don’t we all want to feel safe? Physically safe, of course, but I mean, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually safe. We don’t want our deeply held beliefs to be challenged, we don’t like to admit that someone else could be right, and we definitely don’t want to admit that we were wrong, or that we messed up, especially not in front of anyone else. We’ve padded our various unhealthy patterns with layers and layers of reasoning and stories we tell ourselves, justifying why we act the way we do, and we do not like for those layers to be pulled away. And so, we blame, blame, blame, even if it means throwing someone else under the bus, and we cast people’s attention anywhere else to discredit the thing that might accuse us.

We see the same thing happen in the Gospel story, when Jesus comes along doing things differently from how they expected, differently from how it’s always been done before. When their ways are challenged by Jesus, they do just as Adam and Eve did and more: they hide from the truth and instead offer false information. “He’s crazy,” they say. “He’s lost his mind. He’s clearly possessed by the devil.” Discredit, dismiss, do whatever they need to do in order to protect their understanding of the world, no matter how misguided it may be, from being challenged. Hm.

Jesus’ response to this is a very logical one: “a house divided cannot stand,” he says. Basically, how could he be using the spirit of Satan to cast out Satan? Why would Satan work against himself? It doesn’t make sense.

And yet, the irony in his response is that working against ourselves is exactly what we humans do all the time. We often choose what does not bring us life. We let the voice of the devil convince us we are unlovable, even though we know ours is a God of love. We drive wedges between ourselves and other children of God by casting blame on one another, labeling and dismissing each other, making assumptions about each other, and clinging to false truths that make us feel safe. When we feel the movement of the Holy Spirit blowing us in a way that scares us, or that requires us to let go of a belief that does not bring life but does provide us a false sense of safety, we shut it down, and convince ourselves that we know better than the Spirit.

         Why do we keep doing this if it does not bring us life? What are we so afraid of?

         A couple weeks ago, as I mentioned in my sermon last week, we began working on telling St. Paul’s story about who we are and who God is calling us to be. (If you want to know more, check out last week’s sermon!) One thing we noticed in our conversation so far was that we sometimes struggle to find and name how God is acting even in the mundane moments of our lives. The big moments are easier – births, deaths, near-death experiences, we can see God there. But what about our day-to-day struggles: times like these Adam and Eve moments, when we are quick to blame others, when the protection we have built up around ourselves to make us feel safe is being chipped away, and we are confronted with the possibility that what we previously held true might in fact be wrong, or at least not completely right. Could we find God acting even in those moments? How might that look?

Any time you want to start searching for God in your story, you can start with recalling the foundational story of our faith: our shared faith story is one of freedom from captivity. It is one that is rooted in death but does not stay there. The story of our faith is one in which earthly powers put to death a man who challenged what they held dear, thinking that this would put him out of sight and mind, that it would keep safe their beliefs and way of life. But it didn’t work. Instead, Jesus rose from the dead and showed the world once and for all that trying to stifle God’s Word of life would get us nowhere, that no human actions can stop God from being a God of freedom and of life, a God of new life that emerges out of death and captivity. We can’t stop it!

This story is the central one of our faith, and it plays out in different ways over and over again in our lives. So, if we look, how do we see it playing out when we find ourselves acting like Adam and Eve, or like the authorities in Mark?

Well, in my experience, recognizing I am wrong can feel very much like a death – it is death to something I hold dear, something even that I thought was protecting me but was in fact only holding me back, holding me captive. And this is a death I have experienced many times in my life! When those old patterns are threatened, my inclination is to cling to them for self-protection – that is, I blame, deflect, discredit, and dismiss, so that I can continue holding onto my previously held beliefs, the ones that make me feel safe. Anyone else do that?

So what if instead of staying in death and captivity, we looked to the possibility of new life, by taking a moment to ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? What is God trying to show me here? What in me might need to die so new life can come about? What belief or story of mine is being threatened, and why do I insist on holding to it even more tightly, even at the expense of my relationships? Where is life trying to spring forth here? And if I loosen my grip a little, could I step into that life?” Suddenly, what had felt like a death – releasing the defense mechanisms we have depended upon – has turned into an opportunity for resurrection. Suddenly, we have the chance to step instead into freedom and new life.

It is vulnerable to do this. We might even feel naked, like Adam and Eve, standing before God with only a fig leaf. But friends, we were never hiding our unhealthy patterns from God – just as God knew exactly where Adam and Eve were and what they had done, God knows exactly who and how we are. We’re not fooling God with our fig leaves. But God does give us the chance to notice and name it ourselves, to come to God with broken hearts exposed and to say, “I’m doing this thing that doesn’t feel like life. I don’t want to be afraid and ashamed anymore. Bring me into life, Lord!” And God does. It may not happen immediately, and it may take lots of hard work. But ultimately, ours is a God of life, who longs to be in relationship with us, who desires for us to be free. Are we willing to seek God here? Are we willing to take the risk?

Let us pray… God of life, we are quick to discredit and dismiss people and ideas that challenge our patterns and beliefs. Yet we also know you are at work in everything, taking what feels to us like a death, and turning it into life. Help us to seek you in all things, to search for the ways you are bringing about new life. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Sermon: Approaching God with a spirit of curiosity (May 30, 2021)

View full service HERE. Sermon begins around 32 min. 

Trinity Sunday
May 30, 2021
John 3:1-17 

INTRODUCTION

         I asked my retired pastor dad what his favorite way is to preach on Holy Trinity Sunday, and his answer was, “Go on vacation and find a sub to do it.” It is not an easy Sunday to preach, especially for people who like to understand things, because well, the Trinity is impossible to understand! So, as you listen to the readings today, I urge you NOT to try to understand them. All of the readings will mention some or multiple persons of the Trinity, so notice that but don’t try to understand. Instead, listen with a spirit of curiosity. In fact, as you listen, instead of seeking answers, try to come up with at least one question you have about each text. Let’s listen.

[READ]



Grace to you and peace from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I’ve been thinking these past couple of months, as we start to emerge from some of the restrictions Covid brought upon us, about St. Paul’s future. We’ve had a whole lot of change the past five years – a complete staff turnover and a pandemic, to name a couple! And looking ahead, we are just about to pay off a $1.3 million mortgage for a building project that allowed us to open our hearts and our space to some new ministries and outreach. So… what will be our next big thing? Whenever there is so much change in an organization, whether good or bad, it warrants taking the time to take a step back, taking a bird’s eye view, and asking, “Who are we now? What are our values? What is our story, our unique St. Paul’s story, and what is the best version of ourselves? And finally, how do we sense God is calling us into being that best version of ourselves?”

         After weeks of reading, praying, talking and listening, we have begun a process of answering some of these questions. Last weekend, I met with 7 members of St. Paul’s – a representative sample of the congregation – to talk about our individual values, experiences, important people and events, and then to find some common themes. Because, there is something about St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Pittsford that has drawn each of us here, as opposed to any number of other churches in the area. What is that specific something that makes us unique?

         Our findings so far likely won’t surprise you. We discerned that people of St. Paul’s are generous and eager to serve others. We are accepting of people, however they self-identify, and wherever they may be on their journey of faith. Many of us have been seekers at some point in our life story; many in fact still are – we all come to faith with questions, not unlike Nicodemus in today’s Gospel reading! We all are searching for a place to find safety and peace, to be filled up, in a world that often demands so much of us; to be centered, grounded, and strengthened for the week ahead. And perhaps most of all, we long to make meaningful, authentic connections with one another and with God.

Does any of that resonate with you, and your own story of faith and life?

         But here’s something else we noticed, that may also resonate with you: that while we do all long for those connections, we don’t always have a very easy time talking about it, at least not in faith terms. Several people last weekend struggled somewhat to talk about their lives in the context of the biblical story, for example, or to discern specifically how God was acting through the mundane moments of our lives as well as the significant ones. Though we long to find that life-giving connection with both God and community, the community connection is much easier to come by, being concrete and, although messy, at least clearly accessible to us. But discovering God’s action in our daily lives is much more elusive.

         To be clear: if this describes you, there is no shame to be had in this. I suspect this is the case for many mainline Christians today. Lutherans especially have a long-valued tradition of being very good thinkers and educators. Our faith is often largely in our head, and consequently I fear Lutherans by and large have done a poor job of equipping people to notice and articulate how they encounter God with their hearts. Not all Lutherans – some people do this with ease, and in a way that is authentic and accessible, and these folks are a gift to us, and a model, but many of us struggle to articulate that heart connection. I also wonder if being a mainline Christian in Pittsford, a community filled with highly educated, professionally successful, high powered and high achieving people, makes this even more of a challenge.

         Which brings me to Nicodemus, and the Holy Trinity. Nicodemus was a highly educated, black and white thinker who was adept at experiencing life through the concrete, not so much the spiritual. As a Pharisees he was a keeper of the law – it was his job to know scripture and know what was right and what was wrong, and according to the Pharisees, Jesus was doing things wrong. Yet something about Jesus is cracking Nicodemus’s certainty. So, in the cover of night, he goes to talk to Jesus, to ask him some of his questions. And his encounter with Jesus begins to soften his need to know things. Instead, he is pulled into conversation, into relationship, with Jesus, into relationship with the living God.

Nicodemus’ experience can enlighten us as to how to approach our own engagement with the Trinity. The Trinity, by definition, cannot be explained or understood. We can sure try, but finally we cannot approach the Triune God with our heads. Christians have been trying to to explain it for 2000 years; after all that, what we are ultimately left with is that the Trinity is not something to be understood. It is a mystery.

And, my friends, that is a good thing. If we could understand God, what kind of God is that? As soon as God can be grasped and explained by our feeble human minds, God has ceased being the ultimate, omniscient, omnipotent being we know God to be. The assumption that everything can be explained and understood necessarily limits the essence and power of our God.

So if God is a vast, ineffable, paradoxical mystery… then what are we supposed to do with that? This, too, can be answered in part by looking at Nicodemus’s story. Nicodemus leads with his head, something we are familiar with. But notice, he goes in with a statement, but then, he doesn’t stop asking questions. I heard a great quote this week about how when you think you are right, when you think you already know the answer, you stop taking in new information. So what if we cultivated a willingness to let down the armor of knowledge, the assumed certainty about how things are, and instead asked questions with a spirit of curiosity? Curiosity then becomes a sort of spiritual practice, a way of remaining open to possibility, and, essentially for our faith, open to transformation.

When we approach the Trinity not with a desire to know and understand, but rather, with this spirit of curiosity, then we allow ourselves to be invited – invited by our living, dynamic and ineffable God, into worship and praise. In a moment we will sing (meditate on) a hymn called “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity.” I love this image, of the Trinity as a sort of circle dance into which we are invited. As the hymn says, “the Three, in love and hope, made room within their dance” – made room for us, to see ourselves as a part of God’s story, and God as a part of our story, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and all of creation moving and breathing and loving together.

And that invitation, received and accepted with curiosity instead of knowledge, is where we can experience that deeper connection that we crave. It’s when we stop trying to figure God out, to understand, and instead just open ourselves up to the relationship, to listen, to ask questions, to pray alone and with one another, or simply to sit and breathe deeply of the Spirit – not knowing where it comes from or where it goes, but hearing its sound, nonetheless.

This sort of vulnerable, heart openness to God does not come easy for those accustomed to approaching God head-first, like Nicodemus, and if I’m honest, like myself! We can almost feel Nicodemus’ discomfort with it in this short passage as he struggles to find understanding. I feel that same discomfort and frustration at times! I hope and pray that over the next months and years, St. Paul’s might find some ways to support people in this effort, to normalize not-knowing and question-asking, to approach God not just with heads but also with hearts, and I hope you will take advantage of it. After over a year marked by an experience of disconnection, the time has never been better to invest our energy into finding a sense of connection once again to God and to one another.

As we try and fail in this effort, we can also find comfort in knowing that the invitation to join the dance of the Trinity is never revoked. God has every desire to be in relationship with us, and has gone so far as to become like us to achieve it. And God does this not to judge or condemn our failed efforts, but so that we might all be saved and transformed through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Let us pray… Holy Trinity, we long to understand you, to grasp you with our heads. Help us instead to experience you with our hearts, to accept your invitation into worship, praise and transformation, to join your joyous dance, that we would find you in our story, and ourselves in yours. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Sermon: Sighing prayers on Pentecost (May 23, 2021)

 View the full service here. Sermon begins at 38:00. 

Day of Pentecost

May 23, 2021

Romans 8:22-27

 

INTRODUCTION

         Pentecost is one of my favorite days of the church year. I just love hearing about all the different facets of the Holy Spirit. As usual today, we will hear the story of Pentecost from Acts, when the Spirit came rushing among Jesus’ followers. Remember where this story is situated in the narrative – we are now 50 days after the resurrection, and 10 days after the Ascension. Jesus’ parting words to the disciples before ascending into heaven were instructions to go to Jerusalem where they would receive power (Holy Spirit!) and be his witnesses. The story of Pentecost is when that promise comes about. It is often called the birthday of the Church, the day the promised Spirit came to equip and accompany Jesus-followers in spreading the good news to the ends of the earth.

         But we’ll also hear about several other ways we experience the Holy Spirit – not just as a rushing, disrupting, empowering, igniting wind, but also as advocate, comforter, pray-er, creator. As you listen to the readings, see how many different ways you can catch the Spirit moving among us, and consider when in your life you have experienced those different expressions of the Spirit. Let’s listen.



[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         I recently started seeing a new spiritual director. A spiritual director is what you might imagine – someone with whom I can talk through some of my personal spiritual musings and struggles without the purpose of making it into a sermon, who will ask me the right questions to help me delve deeper into my spiritual understanding and my relationship with God. It’s an invaluable gift for someone who spends a lot of time working to help others deepen their spirituality, to focus with intention on my own! One thing this new spiritual director does with me that my previous one didn’t, is she begins each session by lighting a candle, offering a short invocation, and then having us sit together in silent prayer.

         Now, I know this will shock you, but… I’m pretty good at talking. I’m an external processor. In fact, when I was 13, I had a sweatshirt that said, “I’m talking and I can’t shut up!” and I wore it with pride. Unfortunately, this trait extends also to my prayer life. That is, in my conversations with God I tend to do a lot more talking than listening. So, you can imagine, 5 minutes of silence was… not easy for me. I was open to it – and in fact I have been trying to include more contemplative prayer into my life for quite a while. But that five minutes was mostly… a lot of monkey brain. You know the kind – where you’re thinking about your to-do list, and remembering something you want to mention later, and imagining what you’ll make for dinner. By the time it was done, I felt no closer to God, nor was I more in tune with my heart. Later in our session I admitted, “I’m going to need some help with that. I’m not so good at listening in silence.”

         With all that in mind, I turned my attention to preparing for Pentecost. There are many things I love about Pentecost. I love the drama of the violent, rushing wind and tongues of fire, the confusion, the spontaneous preaching, the dreams and visions and the calling into the future of this newly formed Church. And that’s just in the Acts story! I also love the Holy Spirit as Advocate, as named in John, as the one who speaks up on our half, and the one who guides us into the way of truth. I love the creating Spirit of the Psalm. I love the Spirit at baptism, descending and claiming us as God’s own beloved. It’s all such good stuff!

         Well, I tried for this sermon to get excited about that dramatic stuff, I did – because today is exciting! Today we are welcoming more people into in-person worship, and (at the 11am service) having communion for the first time in the sanctuary in over a year. Furthermore, schools are opening, masks are coming off, life as we knew it is starting to return. Hope and newness are all around us, to be sure.

But what I am drawn to this year is not any of that exciting, dramatic stuff. I’m drawn instead to Romans, and one of my favorite lines in all of scripture: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” This spoke to me because, even in the midst of all of the excitement, I, and I think many of us, find ourselves exhausted. In one of the New York Times’ most-read articles this spring, this feeling is identified as “languishing.” It’s not depression, but it’s also not flourishing. It’s just… languishing. Aimless, joyless, stagnant, and empty. Many of our wells have run dry. We’ve got nothin’ left to give.

         And this brings me to that image in Romans: of a Spirit who sees us in our weakness, in our languishing, and intercedes with sighs too deep for words; who enters our aimlessness and walks alongside us; who enters our dry wells and fills them up; who searches our hearts and offers the prayers on our behalf that we cannot muster ourselves, entering into our deep sighing, and carrying those prayers to a God who, in infinite wisdom, knows exactly what we need.

         This past week I had a session with my spiritual director. At first, she actually forgot to do the guided meditation at the beginning (that’s what we settled on – I can’t do full silence yet, but I can do several guided and focused moments of silence in a row). She asked me at the beginning of our time how I was doing, and my mind was a blank (a symptom of languishing, perhaps!). But then she remembered, lit a candle, and together we listened for the Spirit, interceding in our sighs and breaths. By the end of that time, that same Spirit had stirred in my heart several things I suddenly needed to talk about with my spiritual director. We had a fruitful conversation in which the Spirit continued to intercede, offering that telltale truth and wisdom.

         So today, I wanted to give you the same opportunity, a space to be still, breathe deeply, and let the Spirit intercede for you in your weakness or languishing, or even in your joy, a chance to listen and let the Spirit guide you into the way of truth. Since some of you may be new to this practice, as I am, we’ll ease into it. I’ve asked Jonathan to play some music to support your prayerful sighing, and I will offer some spoken guidance throughout. I encourage you to use this time not to talk to God, but to listen, to let the Spirit intercede and talk to and for you.

I know, this might be vulnerable, uncomfortable, or weird for you. I totally get that. But trust in the Spirit, the Comforter and Advocate, who will take good care of you. Get into a comfortable position, put your feet on the floor, make your back straight but not rigid, and close your eyes. And breathe deeply…

         Toward the One who is our life and our sustenance, the giver of wisdom and the hearer of our prayers… start music

         As you breathe deeply, notice your feet on the ground, the way they connect to the earth. Feel how steady the ground is. Feel that security…

Notice any tension or rigidity in your body – in your shoulders, back, jaw – and on your next sigh, send the healing breath to that tension and release it…

         As you sigh, feel the wind going in and out of your lungs. As you inhale, let it fill you from head to toe, bringing life… As you exhale, send your prayers with the Holy One, to the ears of God.

         The holy breath enters your heart, searching. What is found there?

         The sacred wind enters your mind, bringing peace and truth. Listen to what the Spirit is saying…

         As we offer these sighs, Holy Spirit, intercede for us. You know what we need. Lovingly carry our prayers to God….

         We sigh these prayers in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Sermon: Jesus' protective prayer (May 16, 2021)

 Full service can be viewed HERE.


Easter 7B

May 16, 2021

John 15:9-17

 

INTRODUCTION

         Today is the seventh and last Sunday in Easter, and always on the Thursday preceding this, we celebrate Ascension Day. Because it falls on a Thursday, we don’t often hear the story in Sunday worship, and we won’t today, but it is an important story – that’s why we confess it each week in the creed – so I’m going to tell you. Jesus’ ascension happened 40 days after the resurrection. For 40 days he reminded them about what he taught and spoke about the kingdom of God. On that 40th day, he tells them to go to Jerusalem, because “not many days from now” they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit and fire, as John the Baptist had mentioned before. (That does happen, by the way, 10 days later, on Pentecost, which is what we celebrate next week.) He says that when the Spirit comes, they will receive power, and will be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.” As he says this, Jesus is lifted up and a cloud takes him, and the disciples are left to figure out what the heck all of that meant!

         That’s where today’s reading from Acts will pick up. Their first order of business is to find a replacement for Judas, so that they can get to the business of being witnesses with their full force of 12. The Gospel will also mention Judas, as “the one destined to be lost so that that the scripture might be fulfilled.” So we kind of get a sense of the division and the good and evil at play in the world, even from the very beginning of Christianity.

         But the real point of the Gospel is not division, but unity. This text takes us back to Maundy Thursday again, as Jesus prays for his friends. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples fall asleep when Jesus prays on Maundy Thursday, but here they – and so also we – get to overhear his prayer, and his primary prayer for us is a prayer of unity: “that they would be one.” The conflict and division we still live with makes it hard to imagine that… making this prayer all the more important. As you listen to it, truly hear it as Jesus’ prayer for you, and for us, in all of the various conflicted and divided relationships we experience in this world. Let’s listen.

[READ]


Moyers, Mike. Be Thou My Vision, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57145 [retrieved May 16, 2021]. Original source: Mike Moyers, https://www.mikemoyersfineart.com/.

Grace to you and peace from our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

         One of my favorite things to do with people as a pastor, especially after we’ve had a meaningful and self-disclosing conversation, is to pray with them. It’s strange to say this, now almost 10 years into my ministry, because this most basic and essential task of ministry used to terrify me. I was not good at doing anything off the cuff, least of all praying, when I felt that my words should all be beautiful and well-crafted, lest I somehow mess it up. I could recite all manner of memorized prayers, or read pre-written ones, but I too often got in my own way to talk freely and openly with God in front of other people.

         Now, I realize God simply doesn’t care about prayers being “right” so much as God cares about them being genuinely offered. I’ve learned how to step aside and let the Spirit take over, and when we can do that, the prayer space becomes a truly holy place. It’s a space where right words don’t matter, so much as the connection we are experiencing, with each other and with God.

         In today’s Gospel reading, we get the chance to eavesdrop on such a moment between Jesus and his disciples, in which he prays for them in their presence. It’s this beautiful opportunity to hear how Jesus himself talks to his Father, and careful reflection can show us a thing or two about how we, too, might pray.

Now, I realize: this is not an easy passage to take in or digest, because Jesus seems to bounce around to a lot of different themes. It’s kind of a word soup – honestly, it’s sort of like my own prayers in that way! Reading it, it’s a bit hard to follow. But buried in his metaphysical reflections about his ministry and his relationship with the Father, he asks God for a few specific things – and he also does NOT ask for a few things – and here is where we can learn something about our own ways of praying.        

First, let’s look at what he does not ask for. “I am not asking you,” he says, “to take them out of the world.” In other words, Jesus does not pray that the struggles of the world will be made easy, or that we would somehow be immune to pain and suffering. Jesus acknowledges that the world is a tough place, saying, “the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world.” We strive to live godly lives, see, and were indeed called to such a life in our baptism, but the world makes this very hard to do. It presents us with unkindness, injustice, depression, loneliness, infidelity, oppression, dishonesty, illness, loss… We are no strangers to how difficult it is to live in this world. Every day we are faced with situations that make it hard to be the godly creatures we are created to be. Yet Jesus does not pray for God to take us out of this world. Facing these things – with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit – is a part of being a citizen of the earth, just as it was a part of Jesus’ life, when he lived on earth.

What Jesus does pray for, however, is protection. Not necessarily protection of the body, but protection of the Spirit of God that is in them, the truth that is in them. Protect them from the evil one, he prays, from that evil spirit that would draw them away from God’s love. Protect them so that they may be one, he says, so that they may find that same love, God’s love, in one another.

That’s the next interesting thing to notice about Jesus’ prayer for us: his reason for praying for our protection. “So that they may be one,” he says. How often our struggles tear us apart! We’ve all experienced it – maybe one huge catastrophe broke apart your family, or maybe it was too many little things that all built up and finally caused you to blow up at your best friend, shattering a life-long friendship. Or you received the diagnosis that you dreaded, and instead of turning toward God and toward your friends and family, you turned away from everyone, turned in on yourself, and tried to face your trials alone. It’s true, pain does have the potential to divide us. But it also has the potential to bring us together – and that is Jesus’ prayer for us. “Protect them so that they may be one,” he prays. Protect that Spirit that binds them together, so that they will know to whom they can turn in times of suffering and hatred. So that the church might not be torn apart in times of trial and fear, but instead be built up and strengthened.

Several years ago, I read a book called, Here If You Need Me. It is a memoir of Kate Braestrup, a woman who, in grieving her husband’s untimely death, goes to seminary and becomes a chaplain to the search-and-rescue workers of the State of Maine Warden Service. Her ministry is almost always to people suffering some tragedy – the parents of children who have wandered into the woods and disappeared, people whose loved one has fallen through the ice, those left behind after someone has gone into the woods to take their own life. In one chapter, she reflects on prayer. Her first act following her ordination was to pray for the game wardens and other police officers present. Chaplain Kate’s first inclination was to pray for their protection, though upon further reflection realized that if personal safety were a top priority of a police officer, than perhaps he or she should have chosen a different profession. Instead, she prays this lovely prayer: “May you be granted capable and amusing comrades, observant witnesses, and gentle homecomings. May you be granted respite from what you must know of human evil, and refuge from what you must know of human pain. May God defend the goodness of your hearts. May God defend the sweetness of your souls.”

I don’t think that is so unlike what Jesus prayed for his disciples that night, and what he still prays for us today. He prays for the protection of our hearts, of our souls. Chaplain Kate said she didn’t pray for protection for the police officers – but I think that’s exactly what she did. She prayed for the sort of protection that Jesus asks for us. We will see suffering, Jesus says in his prayer. We will experience suffering ourselves. We will see and experience pain. But in this, he goes on, protect their hearts. Keep them steadfast. Help them continue to live in God’s truth. “Holy Father,” he prays, “protect them… so that they may be one, as we are one.”

It’s not just about us, as individuals, you see. It’s about all of us. Protect them so that they may be one – one church, one people of God, one unified body of love. Protect them from division. Make them one. Protect them from destruction of each other and themselves. Make them one. Protect them from the evils that will make their way into their lives and try to draw them away from God. Make them one.

Jesus prayed this for his disciples on the night before his death, on what we now call Maundy Thursday. But that prayer continues. In the very next verse after our reading today ends, Jesus says that he prays this not only for those present that night, but for all who would come to believe through their words – that’s all of us! Jesus prays this prayer of protection and unity for all of us, and for all who are yet to come. And so, siblings in Christ, may this also be our prayer for each other: that we will find protection from all that separates us from God, that we will dwell in God’s word and God’s truth, and that we will all be one in Christ.

Let us pray… Holy Father, protect these, your children, so that they may be one. Guard them so that not one of them is lost. I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one, from all that would pull them away from you. Come now, O Prince of Peace, make us one body. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Sermon: Loving our families (May 9, 2021)

 Full service HERE.

Easter 6B

May 9, 2021

John 15:9-17

 

INTRODUCTION

         As we near the end of the Easter season and move toward the season of Pentecost, we start to see a shift, as we begin thinking about what comes after this Easter joy. We’ll hear about the Holy Spirit today, and the role of that Spirit in equipping us to be followers of the risen Christ. And we’ll hear a whole lot today about love.

         Today’s Gospel reading directly follows what we heard last week. So to set the scene: we are back at Maundy Thursday, with Jesus and the disciples as he bids his friends farewell. He has washed their feet and given them “a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” which he will reiterate in today’s reading. And immediately before this chunk we’ll hear, Jesus has called himself the true vine, imploring these friends to abide in him as he abides in them. Today we will go deeper into that image – last week Jesus said that we will bear fruit when we abide in him, and today he will talk about what that fruit is. (Spoiler: it is love!)

         Jesus will use the word “friend” today. As you listen, think about what is needed to have such a close relationship with someone, and how love in those close relationships is expressed. Let’s listen.

[READ]




Grace to you and peace from our Risen Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

         Love, love, love. That’s what it’s all about. For God loves us we love each other: father, mother, sister, brother. Everybody sing and shout! ‘Cuz that’s what it’s all about. It’s about love, love love. It’s about love, love, love.

         Yup, that is what it’s all about, for Christians. For everyone, I hope, but especially for Christians, love is the beginning, middle and end of our faith.

         But I was thinking this week, Christians spend a lot of time talking about love of neighbor, love of the stranger, even love of people who might be difficult to love, who are “other” from us or disagree with us. And that’s all really important. But I have heard few sermons, and preached even fewer, about love of our those who are closest to us. Maybe it’s because we just assume those are the easy people to love – of course we love our families, right? Well, actually, that’s a ridiculous assumption to make. Just look at the divorce rate, which was already high and is only climbing higher after a year of people being cooped up together without their usual outlets and under increased stress. Look at the number of resources and professionals who deal with family conflict – solving it in the moment, or healing from it after, or dealing with the practical consequences. And even aside from the more extreme cases, who among us is never frustrated by their family members at times? In fact, it would seem we need to offer more, not less, faith-driven guidance for managing these closest, most intimate relationships in our lives!

         In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus calls the disciples his friends. For Jesus, this is about as intimate a relationship as it gets, aside from his relationship with his Father. He didn’t have a spouse or kids, so his friends were his family. So what can we glean from Jesus’ words here about how to love those who are our most intimate relationships – spouse, parent, child, or friend?

         Reading this snippet of Jesus’ farewell discourse, there are a few phrases that stick out to me: “abide in my love,” “your joy may be complete,” and of course, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I’m going to start with that last one. Often, our love for our families can feel like “laying our lives down” for them, right? Parents who quit their jobs to be a stay-at-home parent, or who would throw themselves in front of any potential harm to their child. Adults who take their aging parents into their home to care for them, or take on managing all their affairs as their parents’ abilities decrease.

But what about the more mundane ways, the daily ways, we give up our lives for one another? I have been thinking about this lately in terms of the Five Love Languages.[1] Perhaps you are familiar with this concept, but in case you aren’t, here is the gist: there are at least five different ways that people give and receive love, and each of us gravitates toward one or maybe two. That is, we truly feel loved when we receive love in one of these five ways: quality time together, words of affirmation or encouragement, receiving gifts, physical touch, or acts of service. Now just as I can tell you all day long that I love you in Swahili, but it won’t mean anything to you unless you speak Swahili, so it is with love languages: even if you know I’m saying I love you, you won’t truly receive that love unless I give it to you in the language by which you best receive it. When we receive love in our language, our love tank fills up, and we are energized to love others. We are drawn closer together. When we don’t, our love tank runs empty, and it becomes very difficult to love anyone else. In fact, we may even become resentful that our own efforts to love are not received by our important people, and we find we don’t even want to try to love them anymore. What’s the point? It doesn’t work anyway! Everyone is on edge or ignores one another, the space between grows wider, and eventually, people seek to have their love needs filled elsewhere, whether from another person, or from a substance, or from more time at work… you get the idea.

So, what does this have to do with laying down our lives for one another? Well say, for example, that you and your spouse have different love languages – chances are good that you do. Maybe one person’s love language is something that is in fact very difficult or unnatural for the other person – like, a wife needs quality time, but her spouse works 70 hours a week at an important job, and comes home too exhausted to give any attention to anyone. The spouse buys the wife many gifts to make up for the lack of time together, but that is not how the wife receives love, and in fact it only frustrates her further because more things makes for more for more work for her. She needs quality time to know she is loved. In order truly to love the wife, the spouse needs to lay down the part of their life that prevents quality time from happening – perhaps getting a different job, or prioritizing time differently, maybe even in a way that doesn’t seem natural, in order to make sure that the wife is, indeed, receiving the love being offered. Conversely, the wife, who has been keeping house as her way of loving her spouse, may need to consider getting her spouse a gift instead (which is clearly the spouse’s preferred way of loving), even though she doesn’t want any more stuff around the house, because that is what will make her spouse feel loved – and who knows, it may even incentivize the spouse to prioritize that quality time! When our love tanks are full, we are compelled to love another, even in ways that are difficult.

The example I used was a couple, but this can easily be extended to any of our close relationships: we cannot only love one another in the ways that seem natural to us. We must be willing to lay down our own ways, our own egos, our own expectations, in order to love one another in the ways that will truly make our closest people experience our love, selflessly offered. This is Jesus’ commandment, that we lay down our lives and love one another.

This can be a joyful process – as Jesus says, we abide in love in order that “[our] joy may be complete.” The effort itself of loving those closest to us can soften our hearts, melt away the resentment, and help us to feel joy once again in what had become monotonous and discouraging. Real love, given and received, does make joy complete. But it can also be terribly difficult. It is sometimes a choice each day to love one another, to continually lay down our lives and our egos and our expectations, to choose to love our spouse, parent, or child, even though it is difficult for you to love in the way they need to be loved.

But I got news for you: you, my friends, are also difficult to love, and yet God has finds a way to love you. No matter what your love language is, God has got you covered:

Words of affirmation: God tells us repeatedly through scripture that we are beloved, that we were created good, that we are enough. You are worthy of love.

Physical touch: at our baptism, water was trickled on our brow and a cross traced on our forehead. Christ’s own body and blood are given to us and for us. God gave us these sacraments so that we might receive God’s physical touch.

Receiving gifts: God has given us grace upon grace! As Luther writes, “God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses; reason and all mental faculties.” Every day is laden with gifts.

Quality time: at Christmas comes the gift of Emmanuel, “God-with-us,” all the time. When Jesus left the earth, the Holy Spirit came, to continue being God’s presence with us. God has prioritized being with us, in every breath.

And finally, acts of service: Of course, Jesus has done the ultimate act of service, literally laying down his life for us so that we would have life and have it abundantly. Jesus lives and dies and lives again in order to serve us.

You see, God has loved us in all the ways we need love. When we “abide in God’s love,” as Jesus says, our tanks are full – full enough to risk putting our own selves aside for the sake of loving those close to us, without expectations. Jesus’ love is not so much our role-model (for we cannot love as perfectly as he does), but rather, our source and strength to selflessly love in the way that is needed, even if it is hard for us. In this way, we live not for love, but from love. We abide in love, we drink our fill of Christ, finding our strength there, and then spill over to love and bless the world. This pattern is our beginning and our end.

         On this day when we think especially about those close family relationships, I pray that we will drink deeply of that source, so that we might love those closest to us with the best of what Christ’s own life-giving love has to offer, and so that we would, through our relationships experience Christ’s love concretely. May we abide in that love, never doubting it, and always, continuously, being filled by it.

         Let us pray… God, our Friend, you have given us family and friends with whom we can share the abundant, joyful, and life-giving love you shower upon us. Thank for the ways we can experience your love, as givers and receivers, in these important relationships. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



[1] I have since learned that many of our LGBTQ siblings have not seen themselves reflected in the 5 Love Languages. If this is the case also for you, or if you want a more expansive and LGBTQ-friendly resource, I suggest looking into Speaking from the Heart: 18 Languages for Modern Love.