Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Dios.


Sermon for the Celebration of Mary, Mother of Our Lord
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

Almighty God, in choosing the virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you made known your gracious regard for the poor, the lowly, and the despised. Grant us grace to receive your word in humility, and so to be made one with your Son, Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
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I woke up early one morning last week and took a walk to Sunset Hill in Ballard. I did not plan to go that far when I started out, but at some point I got it in my head that I wanted to see the water before I turned back… and then there was no turning back, I had to walk all the way to the bluff. But you’d think I’d have learned by now about Seattle weather.

When I reached the edge of land, I couldn’t see anything beyond the blackberry brambles. It was all shrouded in a thick fog, gray nothingness as far or as near as the eye could see. There really was no line on the horizon. The Puget Sound, the Olympic Mountains, the ferries in between, had vanished. I stood there for a moment in disbelief.

And then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw them, slowly coming into view: the ships at Shilshole Bay, just visible in the early morning light. There they were, floating in the grey mist, proof of the water beneath them, and witnesses to a reality that existed far beyond what I could see from my solitary perch, high on the bluff.

Dear friends in Christ, the fullness of time has come. At least, it has come again for Chris and I, as we prepare to move for the sixth time in four years. Call us tired. But call us blessed, too. This week, as we have prepared to leave, I have been thinking a lot about all the blessings I’ve received this year, blessings showered from God through you. And as I thought about those blessings, my heart was glad that today we are celebrating Mary, the Mother of Our Lord.

I’ve known Mary for a long time, but I didn’t really get to know her until I went to Mexico. Our digital banner this morning is the image of Mary called the Virgin of Guadalupe. It’s an amazing thing to see Guadalupe up there next to Thorvaldsen’s statue of Christ, because what this image of Christ is for Danes, that image of Mary is for our brothers and sisters from Mexico.

Anyway, when I was in Mexico City, I went to see the original image of la virgen one day, and when I was there, I picked up a little card with this image on it. On the other side of the card is La Magnifica, the Magnificat, the song of Mary. The words of the song on this little card are in Spanish, so at first I needed some help in the translation. I had to read it slowly. And as I did, I started to realize just what it was Mary was singing about.

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God
And my spirit rejoices in you

You have looked with love on your servant here

And blessed me all my life through.

Great and mighty are you O faithful one

Strong is your justice strong your love

How you favor the weak and lowly one

Humbling the proud of heart

You have cast the mighty down from their thrones

And uplifted the humble of heart

You have filled the hungry with wondrous things

And left the wealthy no part.

I remember when I first read those words, really read them, as if for the first time. Does it really say that God favors the weak and the lowly one? Does it really say that God casts the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble? Does it really say that God fills the hungry with wondrous things? These are words that proclaim God’s good news for the poor and the powerless, for the sick and the dying, for the lonely and the left out.

I was amazed… and then immediately skeptical.

Could it really be true? Mary speaks not of some far off future but as if these things have already begun to happen. But that was all rather hard to believe when I picked up the newspaper.

Violence in the neighborhoods of Chicago. Poverty in the shadows of the Gold Coast. Bickering politicians who seemed to care more about scoring points than doing justice and loving kindness. I wanted to preach the good news, but nothing I came up with seemed quite enough to counter the troubles of the world. Like the day last week when I went looking for a view and found only fog, I struggled to see how God could really be at work in this world.

But God was at work, even in a heavy fog, calling me to new places and new faces. From the hills of Southern Indiana to the corners of the Chicago’s South Side to the barrios of Mexico City to the ranchos of Jalisco, I caught glimpses of Christ, present in the people of God. But they were only glimpses, just enough to keep me going, nothing more… or less. And then I came here.

Here I found God gathering God’s people, at breakfast on Saturday morning with the other amateur men, in the delicious desserts of women’s fellowship, and, yes, finally, at Hale’s Ales where we’d talk God stuff over a few pints on cask night.

Here I found God speaking to God’s people, through the kids as they made order out of chaos at the Sunday School Christmas Pageant, through different generations sharing their experiences with each other at adult forum, and through a people willing to proclaim the gospel in a new way through a U2 Sunday and an organist with the grace and the chutzpah to lead us.

Here I found God feeding God’s people, through a parkway somehow transformed into a flourishing garden in part through the donated dung of elephants. (The Lord works in mysterious ways.) The gardeners in this garden were patient enough to teach an intern the difference between a rose and a weed, and the fruits of their labor flowed into a soup kitchen, where faithful women and men served the hungry in a room where the homeless slept.

And here, finally, I found God sending God’s people out into the world, to love and serve their neighbors. They were sent into a myriad of vocations, teachers and researchers, nurses and engineers, lawyers and bankers, volunteers and, of course, the creatively retired. They were sent to homeless shelters and recovery centers, to soup kitchens and food pantries. And they were sent further upriver, too, to dig out the roots of structural sin. On Interfaith Advocacy Day they were sent to advocate in the halls of power where important decisions were being made, and here they spoke up for peace in the face of violence, justice in the face of injustice. They sang Mary’s song in word and deed. And through them, God made her song begin to come true.

Dear people of God, you have taught me so much. But you have done more than that, too. You have restored my hope and my courage. You have been as Mary to me, singing a vision into life and bringing it to birth. You have been as Christ to me, truly. My sisters and brothers, I have seen the body of Christ at work in you. Thanks be to God. And thanks be to you.

As I met with Pastor Carol for the last time week, I told her how hard I was finding it to say goodbye. She smiled. “Yes,” she said, “but we’re all part of the same body.” Throughout the year, my supervisors, Carol and Paul, have taught me how to put passion into practice, how to live the baptized life. And now here they were again, with a final truth to carry with me, here at the end of things. As the gospel hymn goes, we’re all a part of God’s body, a cloud of witnesses throughout space and time, a holy communion of sinner-saints sent out for the life of the whole world, from Seattle to Chicago and far, far beyond, the body of Christ gathering, speaking, feeding, sending.

You see, dear sisters and brothers, there is a neighborhood out there, a city, a planet yearning for the vision of this table, hungry for a world where there is manna and mercy for all. God has work to do, and our hands to do it with. God has a song to sing, and our voices to sing it with.

So let us be gathered, once again, at this table, that God might feed us and make us one, that we might see the vision and live it, that we might, once again, be set free for the life of the world.


Friday, August 13, 2010

On the Road Again

Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

Prayer of the Day:

Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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Hear again, sisters and brothers in Christ, the words of today’s reading from the book of Hebrews. This is a slightly different translation, but it is the same reading. It begins like this:

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. When he left he had no idea where he was going. By an act of faith he lived in the country promised him, lived as a stranger camping in tents. Isaac and Jacob did the same, living under the same promise. Abraham did it by k
eeping his eye on an unseen city with real, eternal foundations – the City designed and built by God.

By faith, barren Sarah was able to become pregnant, old woman as she was at the time, because she believed the One who made a promise would do what he said. That’s how it happened that from one man’s dead and shriveled loins there are now people numbering into the millions.

Each one of these people of faith died not yet having in hand what was promised, but still believing. How did they do it?

They saw it way off in the distance, waved their greeting, and accepted the fact that they were transients in this world. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were after a far better country than that – heaven country. You can see why God is so proud of them, and has a City waiting for them.

That is our reading from the Hebrews, as translated by Pastor Eugene Peterson. And I don’t know about you, but I can’t hear those stories of Abraham and Sarah without thinking of other stories, of forebears in the faith who are not so far removed from us as these Biblical characters. For me, it’s the separate stories of my father and grandfather that come to mind.

When my mother was very young, my grandfather decided that he could no longer make a living farming his little plot of land in the northwest corner of Iowa. And so he and my grandmother sold the farm, packed up their daughter and two sons, and headed West. My grandfather had never been to California, but he had a distant relative there who thought he might be able to secure him a job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out with his family for a distant land.

Some years later, on the other side of the country, my father graduated from high school in a small town in the mountains of West Virginia. But there was no work in his little hometown. And so, at the age of 18, he packed his things and moved some 300 miles east from Appalachia to Washington, D.C., the closest city, where he hoped he might find a decent job. It was only a possibility, really – hardly the promise that Abraham had. But it was enough. By an act of faith, he set out and traveled to an unknown place.

Eventually, my father found a job working for the airlines as a flight dispatcher. After a few years, his office was transferred to San Francisco, where he met my mother. A few years later, I was born.

It has not escaped me if these two men had not set out in faith I would not be here. My very existence is the result of these journeys made on faith – not only those of my father and grandfather, of course, but those of my parents, who celebrated their thirty-first wedding anniversary last week. “By faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see.”

Well. You probably know some stories like this yourself. Maybe they are the stories of your own parents and grandparents, moving across the ocean or across the country. Maybe they are your own stories; maybe you have lived them yourself. And if so, then maybe you know that it is helpful, from time to time, to remember these stories for the anatomy of faith they reveal.

Always faith begins with a promise. We often think of a promise as having something to do with certainty and a clear commitment, but it is not always that. God does not begin by telling Abram exactly what will happen at 11am on Sunday the 8th. No, God simply calls Abram outside and draws his gaze toward the stars. “The life I intend for you and for those who come after you,” God tells Abram, “is as full as the sky is full of stars.” That is all the promise amounts to. That kind of promise is long on possibility and rather short on details. The promises of God are often more vision than clear visibility; they are less like photographs of the future and more like looking at the stars and finding constellations.

Abram tells God as much; he’s not thrilled about the lack of detail. But in the end, the promise of possibility, the promise of abundant life for himself, for his family, for all nations, is enough. Hope is kindled, and as its fire grows, faith is forged.

“By an act of faith,” the writer of Hebrews says, “Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place.”
I am not sure where God is calling you, dear people of St John United. But I do know this: You don’t have to travel as far as Abraham did to show extraordinary faith.

Perhaps you are considering a move to a new home, not across the country but across town. Perhaps you are already in the midst of one. Or perhaps you are preparing for a long road trip to see the sights or to visit family, a temporary move for a few weeks, an exercise in wayfaring. Or perhaps you are simply planning a walk around the neighborhood, which can be its own sort of adventure. Whatever the reasons for your movement, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

You might be a member of this congregation, trying to discern the direction this church ought to set sail for. Into what uncharted territory are the winds of the Holy Spirit blowing this place? What role will this congregation play in this community five years, ten years down the line? What new needs will arise? What new gifts will come to the fore? Where can we already see it happening? Whatever your ideas, wherever you are in discerning the answers to these questions, dear friends, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

Or you might be picking up one of these little buttons, and you might be deciding that today is the day you get involved by writing a letter or making a phone call to speak up for ecological justice. The earth is in a state of brokenness, and we are the ones who are responsible. The word on the button says Converted? But to convert in the Biblical sense is to repent, to make a complete life change, to quite literally turn around. The call to give up our addiction to the things that warm this planet, given the state of our politics, given the state of our economy, seems at this point to be harder than anything Abraham had to do. And yet even Abraham’s journey began with a single step, a foot set forward in faith. If you think the situation is hopeless and there is nothing more we can do, hear again the words of Christ: Do not be afraid. The God of Abraham goes with you, and has promised you a world of possibility.

Near the end of Jesus’ exhortation in our gospel reading, he describes a scene in which the master sits the servants down at the master’s own table, and serves them up a meal, a feast akin to a wedding banquet. It is like what God does in our lives, serving up countless graces, day by day, each one ripe with possibility, our Lord showing up in places we least expect him to be. Step forward in faith, God says. Step forward to the table of all creation. Come and eat, come share the feast I have prepared for you and for all the creatures of the earth. Come, taste and see. Amen.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Table Talk

Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church

Prayer of the Day:
Eternal God, you draw near to us in Christ, and you make yourself our guest. Amid the cares of our lives, make us attentive to your presence, that we may treasure your word above all else, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

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From the Wikipedia entry for “faux pas:”

A “faux pas” is a violation of accepted social norms (for example, standard customs or etiquette rules). Faux pas vary widely from culture to culture, and what is considered good manners in one culture can be considered a faux pas in another. The term originally comes from French, and literally means “false step.”

The plural of faux pas is, in fact, faux pas, and yes, I had to look that up because we have before us today two such violations of accepted social etiquette. (I will leave up to you whether using an extensive quote from Wikipedia in a sermon counts as a third faux pas.)

In our first story, taken from the book of Genesis, we find our forebear Abraham, sitting under a tree in the heat of the day. It was an oak tree. If you have ever spent a morning working outside – heck, just being outside – when the mercury is high and the there are no clouds to shield you from the blazing sun, then you have some idea of how nice it was for Abraham to be able to sit down under a little shade after a morning of work.

You might also know how easy it is for your mind to wander as you sit there, and how easy it is for someone to approach you without you really noticing until they are right there next to you. It is so easy to lose yourself in a restful moment and not realize that the Creator of the Cosmos has sidled up next to you.

Abraham looked up and saw three men standing near him. He didn’t call them Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but he treated them like royalty all the same. Did he know they were of divine origin? Or was it simply common practice that taught him to offer strangers hospitality?

There is a flurry of activity in the Abraham and Sarah house, and before you know it Abraham is back out under the tree, standing while his guests sit and eat the best food he and Sarah knew how to make. Abraham waits. He wants to see them enjoy the food. And he wants to hear the stories they are sure to carry with them.

But instead of simply telling their own stories, the strangers make themselves a part of Abraham’s. They step over the line, really, setting aside standard custom and speaking directly to Abraham’s deepest fears and hopes. They recall the promise God had made long ago, a dream God had promised to make a reality, a dream Abraham and Sarah seem quite reasonably to have given up on. It was rather odd, really, for the strangers to bring it up in polite company. And then to suggest that the dream could still come true after all these years, realities being what they are, well… it was scandalous, really. Maybe they didn’t know. Maybe they were just putting their foot in it.

I wonder if Luke has the story of Abraham and his three strange guests in mind when he tells the stories of Jesus and his companions on the road, on foot, as they nearly always are. They walk everywhere. I can’t imagine the blisters on Jesus’ feet from all that walking. At least they try to walk in the cool of the day whenever they can. No sense walking from town to town when it’s hot as blazes out there.

It’s times like this when they praise Adonai for people like Martha, who would welcome them into their homes for a cool drink and a hot meal. The host expected stories, of course, always they expected to hear stories. Martha’s sister, Mary, especially loved them. And this man seemed to tell the strangest ones. Like that story about a Samaritan – a Samaritan! – who helped a man on the side of the road when a priest and a Levite passed him by… so bizarre! Such stories! And so there Mary sat, riveted. She sat there for so long, listening to Jesus’ stories, that she didn’t even notice when her sister got up to clear the table.

I’d rather not repeat what happens next. It is one of those ugly arguments that ends a perfectly good meal. Do we really need to tease out who is in the wrong? Mary fails to do her duty, Martha reacts inappropriately, and then Jesus tells off his hardworking host in an act of shocking rudeness. There is enough blame to pass around, even, yes, to Jesus, whose words clearly break with any reasonable standard of good manners.

And perhaps that is because Jesus is no angel. He is, in fact… human. I don’t mean simply that he makes mistakes, I mean that he is really, truly, fundamentally human. As Paul writes in today’s excerpt from Colossians, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in flesh and blood, that through this incarnation God was pleased to reconcile all things.

But incarnation is messy. It means that Jesus enters into our messy lives, gets involved with the push and pull of our messy relationships, gets in the middle of messy arguments that good etiquette advises we stay out of. But Jesus doesn’t stay out of them. He gets right into the middle of everything. He says rude things. He commits the occasional – ok, the frequent – faux pas. Through this incarnation God was pleased to reconcile all things.

Abraham knew as much. What the three strangers said was ludicrous, borderline offensive in its outright disregard for common sense. And yet contained within the craziness was a promise of new life, a promise God was making a reality through the very presence of these people in Abraham’s midst.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, in the story of Mary and Martha, in the mystical words of Paul, we catch a glimpse of a God who drew near to us by becoming as human as we are, that through Christ we might meet God at the table here, and at every table of our lives.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Sermon for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

Since arriving in the Northwest – and especially since the weather has been a little nicer – my wife and I have been doing a little camping. Just last week we camped our way down to Crater Lake and up the Oregon Coast, and I think after several nights of sleeping under the stars we’re finally starting to get the hang of it.

It wasn’t always this way.

The first time we tried camping this year was on the Olympic Peninsula, at the Kalaloch Campground in Olympic National Park. We found a glorious campsite, perched on a bluff overlooking the endless horizon of the Pacific Ocean. If you were to try and nab that campsite on a weekend in July or August, good luck. But we were camping on the first weekend in May. April showers were not just lingering, they were throwing an after-party and they had invited high winds and crashing waves to join them. There were a few other brave souls who had decided to crash the joint, but they were huddled in their cars and RVs, gaping at the storm through fogged up windows. This was no place for first-time tent campers.

But adventure was out there, and so we soldiered on. We stretched out the rainfly over our little tent and tried to stake it into the ground. Except that, despite the torrential rain, the ground was still hard as cement. And I had forgotten a hammer. So I tried lashing it to a tree, to a watercooler, to a picnic table… nothing really seemed to work. All the while the wind and rain and gray sea worked up a frenzy around us.

Suddenly a man stepped out of the RV parked next to us. Under the pouring rain he walked over and stuck out his hand in a friendly greeting. He introduced himself and said he and his family would be staying in the camper next to us all night, that we’d be neighbors for the evening. Then he looked over at our tent, and back at us. And then he asked us a very important question.

“Do ya’ll need any help?”

Nope, I said, we’re good. Got it all under control. Thanks for the offer, really, but we’re doing fine.

It can be hard to accept help when we need it.

Many of us were raised to be good helpers, to serve our neighbor in need. Our gospel story for today is often cited as a prime example of how to serve our neighbor in need; in fact, the idea of being a “Good Samaritan” to a person in trouble has made this parable part of the common lexicon. Sometimes we even put laws into place to make sure this sort of helping happens; Washington State has had a “Good Samaritan” law” for a few years now.

Of course, as a church community we’ve been hearing the story of the Good Samaritan for years. The idea of helping those around us has become so ingrained in us that we’ve come up with all sorts of ways to serve our neighbors in need. We have a soup kitchen, and a garden that feeds our soup kitchen; we have a fellowship hall that we turn over to folks who need a place to sleep for the night; we have rooms that we rent out to recovery groups; we even support a public policy office to advocate for structural changes that might help heal society’s systemic sickness, and not just its symptoms. We are not the only community of faith that does so; in fact, so many churches do things like this that I wonder why there aren’t more congregations in the ELCA with the name of Good Samaritan Lutheran Church.

But here’s the thing: Service is only one side of the parable we hear today.

The story Luke tells begins with someone standing up and asking Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
The question itself is a bit comical in its incoherence. The person speaks of an eternal life – in other words, the full life that God intends for us – inherited, received as a free gift, salvation through grace alone. He’s practically a Lutheran, what with his theological training and understanding of God’s grace as freely given to all, inherited, not earned. And yet, like so many of us Lutherans, he still finds himself asking what more he must do to receive it.

And so Jesus tells him a story. It is the story of a man going down the road, making his way through life. For a while things are going okay but soon life takes its toll. Best-laid plans end abruptly; the road map is stripped away. He might as well be dead, for all he has left.

Ah, Jesus’ listener is thinking, this is where I come in. A person in need of help, surely that is my neighbor! And, sure enough, along come a couple of religious folks, a couple of helpers.

Except that they just pass on through the story. Before the listener can raise an objection, another character has arrived on the scene. It is a Samaritan, an outcast, a person living on the margins of society, a homeless person, an undocumented immigrant, a name on the no-fly list, a convicted felon, a drug addict. At worst, the Samaritan is outside the bounds of who we are supposed to help. At best, the Samaritan is a helpee, one to be helped, not a helper.

But the Samaritan is shown to bear the image of a loving God just as surely as any the priest and the churchgoer, maybe even so more, as Jesus tells it. The Samaritan comes near the man in the ditch, perhaps because he knows the ditch himself. The Samaritan is moved with pity. He is moved like the father of the prodigal son is moved when he sees his lost boy. He is moved like Jesus is moved when he sees the widow whose only son is carried out in a funeral procession. Luke uses the same word three times in his gospel, a verb describing a heart broken in compassion, once to describe the prodigal father, once to describe Jesus, once to describe the Good Samaritan.

And then this Samaritan who bears the likeness of his Creator, who shares the compassionate heart of Christ, bandages the wounded man, puts a salve on his cuts and bruises, like aloe on a sunburn. He nurses the man in the ditch back to health.

Jesus concludes the story with a question, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” But here again is a question that reveals even more than its answer. We thought Jesus was going to tell us about a neighbor in need, but instead Jesus shows us the neighbor as one who gives. The one in need in the story, the one in the ditch, the one with wounds in need of healing, is not the neighbor, but us.

It is no accident that Jesus tells this story right after he has sent seventy disciples out into the world to heal the sick and preach the gospel, using words if necessary, and relying on the people they meet for shelter and sustenance. As Pastor Carol preached last week, Jesus sends his disciples out to be interdependent. As they carry out the mission of God in the world, Jesus instructs his disciples to receive even as they give.

Because this inhaling and exhaling of receiving and giving is what it means to live into eternal life, into the life God intends for us. This is what it means to be fully reconciled with God and with one another. Receive the peace of Christ. Then share the peace of Christ you have received.

Perhaps that is why God promises to meet us in the water and in the wine. They are not things we can accomplish, but only gifts we can receive.

In baptism and communion, we become like the man in the ditch. In the water and the wine, salve is put on our wounds, and we are anointed, and given a new life to live. It is a way of life that we inherit from God through a cloud of witnesses, Samaritans and Seattleites alike.

And so we come again, like the one in the ditch, broken and wounded, run down and ready for Sabbath, in need, once again, of a fresh start. In water and word, in bread and wine, in a community gathered, we come to receive the grace, the mercy, and the love of God.

It is only then that we hear Jesus saying, Go. Go and do likewise. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, advocate for justice. Share the grace, the mercy, the love you have received. For these are the gifts of God, and they are given for you and for all the people of God.


Sunday, June 27, 2010

Common Cup

The following is my "Intern's Message" for the July church newsletter.

For the last few weeks Chris and I have gathered with others at the Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA) to watch World Cup matches on the giant screen set up there. Doors opened at 6:30am on most mornings, yet people streamed in, filling the little basement room to the brim with the colors of their countries. Red, white, and blue were popular, of course, but here in our nation – and neighborhood – of immigrants there were also yellow-jerseyed South Africans, Parisians decked out in bleu, sky-striped Argentines, Dutch orangemen, even a white-shirted Slovenian here and there. (Chris and I, we admit, were decked out proudly in a deep green, for our adopted side of Mexican futbolistas.)

It is an extraordinary thing to see people being gathered together, to see their different-colored strands of life side by side. Yet God is doing just this sort of thing at St John United all the time. Our diversity may not lie in the colors of our flags or the colors of our skin – not yet, anyway – but our community is still one marked by many strands, many generations, many vocations, many gifts, many stories. Through word and meal, God gathers our many strands and weaves us together, that we might be a sign of God’s reconciling love for all the world.

Recently I have seen this happening in some pretty amazing ways. In our church garden people have gathered to work and play, to bless and to plant, to sing and – at upcoming neighborhood potlucks – to eat. At a brewpub down the street, people have gathered for Theology Pub nights where we share our stories of faith, our sources of hope, our experiences of divine love – and where every once in a while we even pull the bartender into the conversation. On “U2 Sunday,” people of different generations and different musical backgrounds gathered to sing a few new songs, drawn from the hymnbook of the FM radio, the culmination of several weeks of study and practice together.

What wondrous weaving will God do among us in the weeks and months to come? Some clues can be found in this newsletter, in upcoming events planned and publicized. Other clues can be found in your own heart and head, in the hopes and dreams you have for this place. Over the next several weeks there will be a variety of opportunities for conversation about what God is doing in this congregation and how we can invite more people to be a part of it. Please join us in whatever way you are able, that your strand, too, might be ever more a part of God’s great tapestry, woven from our life together.

May God continue to make and re-make us throughout this season of extra-ordinary time.

In Christ,

Intern Matt


Sermon for U2 Sunday, the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 2010
for St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle

For the last couple of weeks we have been holding adult forums in which we have been looking at the music and words and images in the work of the popular music group U2. In particular we have been looking at the spirituality, and the Scripture, and the theology that is present in their art. We’ve had some really good conversations during these adult forums, so much so that we’ve had several requests for more opportunities to take part in these discussions. So, I thought about that, and I thought that maybe we could it during worship.

In just a moment I’m going to ask you to turn to the person sitting in front of you or behind you. I’d like you to share about music that has been meaningful to you in your life. It might be a favorite hymn or a favorite composer, it might be a particular style of music or even a pop song, just share about music that has been meaningful to you in your life. I’ll give you just a few minutes. Ready, go!


Ok, so let’s hear about some of the music that’s been meaningful to the people of St John United. If you’re willing to share, go ahead and shout it out. What kind of music did you talk about?


Ok, so I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but we like a lot of different kinds of music. Different music speaks to different people, and I suppose that should come as no surprise. What’s a little more surprising, maybe, is that some of the music that has been meaningful to us is music we have experienced in church, while other music that has been meaningful to us is music we have experienced outside of church.

And the reason, I think, that we find many kinds of music meaningful is because God is actually present in many different places – not only in church, in the sanctuary and in the pews, but also out there, in the world, too.

Now, I know that I’m preaching to the choir here. The people of St John United know that God is present outside these walls. All you have to do is look out the window of the Emmaus Lounge or the Fellowship Hall on a clear day and you know that God is present in the mountains and in the trees, and in the waters, and in the skies… you all know this.

But what if God was not only in the rivers and mountains and trees but what if, what if God was present on the radio, too? What God were present at the concert hall, or on the television, or at the movies? Wouldn’t that be good news? What if we could say, “You want to know God, turn on the radio. No, I don’t mean the preacher on the old-time gospel hour, I mean the FM Station, the one playing Kanye West and Arcade Fire!” What if God were on KEXP?

Well, I might as confess it: I do believe that God is on KEXP, and on every radio station and in every concert hall and in every art gallery and in every piece of literature in which people find meaning. Now, I don’t always know myself how God is present in every kind of music, but if the music is moving you in some way, I’ve got to believe that the Spirit is there. It might take some work to discern her, but she’s there, moving mysteriously through our lives like a song coming out the window of a car driving down the street.

In the case of the artist whose work we celebrate today, U2, the experience of God is expressed not only the sound but in the words, too. In our first song, we sang about Love, we might say love with a capital L. This capital-L Love leaves a mark on us, just like on Ash Wednesday when we take the mark of the cross on our foreheads, a mark of our baptism, a mark of divine love that heals our scars, a mark of divine love that reconciles us, a mark of divine love that justifies us with God and with one another, so that we cannot help but cry a joyful noise. These are the marks of an ancient faith, a Christian faith, even a Lutheran faith – even if they are expressed in a rhythm that is a little different from the one we’re used to.

Martin Luther would have loved the words of a song like “Magnificent,” I think, even if the rhythms might have struck him as odd. Luther loved music, and knew that music could be a vessel for the love of God. Luther once wrote that “the riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Martin Luther said that.

But, dear friends in Christ, Martin Luther lived in a different time. We have access to more kinds of music than Luther did. We have the ability to hear, and therefore to find meaning in, a greater range of musical styles than we have ever had before. And then, on top of that, we have invented these little devices, so that we can assemble our very own playlists, our very own collections of the music that is meaningful to us. You have yours, and I have mine. We no longer need to come into contact with another human being in order to find meaning in music or in lots of other places, for that matter. We can just put in our headphones and find Jesus.

In this new world we are creating for ourselves, will there be any need for a church?

Today we have a gospel story that speaks quite directly to this situation. Jesus and his disciples are sailing on, sailing on through the Lake of Galilee, sailing on through time and space, as Jesus and his followers always do, when Jesus meets a man with a familiar problem.

The man is afflicted by demons, as so many of us are. We don’t usually personify our demons in the 21st century anymore, but we still wrestle with fears and doubts, addictions and destructive habits. This particular man didn’t have just a few of these demons, he had many of them. And they tormented him constantly. As a result, he was tied up with chains and shackles.

But the chains and shackles he could break on his own. He could get free, in a way, to an extent. Somehow that didn’t make him whole. It wasn’t enough, and at the end of the day he would find himself alone with his demons.

Along comes Jesus. When Jesus meets the man, he performs two miracles. First he heals the man, he helps the man escape his demons. He gives him a way out. He saves him. And so the man falls at Jesus’ feet, and worships him.

But this is only the first miracle. The second miracle is when Jesus sends the man back to his people, back to community. Jesus reconciles the man with the people around him, and restores him to community.

At first, the man Jesus saved doesn’t want to go. They won’t accept me, he tells Jesus.

But Jesus knows that the man will never be whole without a community. And Jesus knows that the community will never be whole without him.

Jesus knows that community is not the easy thing. But it is at the very heart of what God is doing in the world. God’s love is gathering us together, with all of our differences, and making us into one new thing, one new body, through which one blood flows. As another U2 song puts it, we have One life, with each other, sisters and brothers. As Paul puts it in his letter to the Galatians, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, insider and outsider, for in Christ Jesus all of you are one.

One, but not the same. One, but not the same. You see, Jesus doesn’t just send the man back to community so he can sit down and shut up. He sends him there to tell his community about how God had been active in his life. And so, Luke tells us, “the man went back and preached all over town everything that God did in him.”

Several years ago, a group of church people got together, and, in talking with one another, they realized that God had done something in them through the music of U2. And so they said, why don’t we tell people about what God did in us through this music? And why don’t we tell them not just with words, but by actually bringing the songs and the images and the themes of global justice and divine love that U2 speaks of into our worship? And so they did. And they held the first ever U2 Sunday.

So how about you? Where has God been active in your life lately? And how can you bring that activity of God into worship?

Today we shared about music that has been meaningful to us, but that is only one of many places where God is active in our lives, moving in mysterious ways through our work and our play, through our daily commute and our nightly meals, through the people we meet in our neighborhood and beyond. Don’t leave those experiences at the door. All you have to do is look around to see the ways that people have brought their gifts and their stories into worship.

The music we have today is but one example of this. Our musicians and singers today came from different places, with different backgrounds, and different musical training. Coming together to do a new thing wasn’t easy. And yet together we were able to do something we could never have done alone.

God’s love is like that.

It is a love that gathers us together that we might sing a new song together, whether it is a song from our hymnal, or a song from the radio.

It is a love that gathers us together to write letters and to make offerings, to pray and to advocate locally and globally as we live out God’s justice-making, peace-making love around the world and around the block.

It is a love that gathers us together at a table, and gives us a window through which we might catch a glimpse of the world made whole.

So come to the table, to this window under the skies. Share the bread and the wine. Look around, and see what God’s love has done. Look around, and see what God’s love is doing.


Life of Folk

Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, 2010
for Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Shoreline, Washington

A few weeks ago my wife and I attended the Northwest Folklife Festival at Seattle Center.

I love the Northwest Folklife Festival. So much creativity in one place!

As we walked around, we saw the usual acoustic guitarists, plumbing their trade, looking for a few dollars here and there; and then their bigger cousins, not far away, the rollicking rockabilly bands set up on sidewalk corners, wearing old-timey costumes, inspiring involuntary hand-claps and foot-stomps.

Walk a little further on, though, and the cultural milieu takes a different turn: belly dancers moving to the melody of a bassoon, two little girls looking on, their eyes wide. In the open, tent-like building just next door there were dancers of a different sort, square dancers taking their turn with Cajun zydeco.

Keep walking and there’s no telling what you might find. Marimba players and country western singers, Irish dancers and rock en espaƱol, high school jazz bands and gospel choirs, countless forms of creativity everywhere you look.

It is as if the walls of a great cultural center had suddenly fallen away, and the vibrant activity inside spilled out into the streets and the sidewalks, the parks and the public spaces. In fact, it is as if there are no walls at all anymore, as if there are no limits on what kind of thing can be done, no limits to the heights of creativity that can be achieved, no limits on the diversity of sound and color and shape that can be woven together into the tapestry of the world.

One of the reasons I love attending the Northwest Folklife Festival so much is that the kind of limitless creativity present there can sometimes be hidden in the everyday world we live in. It’s still there, of course, it’s just that sometimes we like to put it inside of neat little boxes. Classical music on this radio station, rock music on another. Lutherans in this building, Roman Catholics in another. Church over here, politics over there. Good people here, bad people there.

Our gospel story for today reflects this tendency we have to create boundaries.

A Pharisee has invited Jesus to dinner. Like most of us who eat with Jesus, the Pharisee didn’t quite know what he was getting into.

“Jesus,” Luke tells us, “went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table.”

Luke’s description is notable for what it doesn’t tell us. It doesn’t tell us that Jesus was welcomed warmly. It doesn’t tell us that Jesus was offered a drink, or a place to hang his coat, or a proper introduction to the other dinner guests. In Jesus’ day the polite protocol for hospitality was different; a guest was to be given water with which to wash his own dusty feet – a different mode of hospitality from ours, but the idea is the same. There are certain things you do to welcome a guest into your home. And the Pharisee didn’t do them.

Maybe he was rushed. Maybe he was distracted. Maybe he was nervous about having Jesus over for dinner – wouldn’t you be? For whatever reason, the Pharisee failed to do what he was supposed to do.

Jesus didn’t say anything. Maybe he could see just how nervous or distracted or rushed the Pharisee was, and so he let it go, and quietly forgave him.

But word got out, all the same. Word got out into the streets. Simon the Pharisee made a huge faux pas! He failed to offer Jesus water for his dusty feet! And now poor Jesus is sitting there with his dirt-caked toenails at the dinner table. How embarrassing!

A woman overhears this while she is standing on a street corner. As soon as she hears what has happened, she doesn’t hesitate. She goes out and buys a jar of expensive bubble bath, and goes straight to the house where Jesus is staying. She walks right in through the open door, kneels at Jesus’ feet, and begins scrubbing.

The other dinner guests are horrified. What is this woman doing? When Jesus does not share their disapproval, they become horrified at Jesus. What is he doing?

But Jesus knows. Jesus knows that this woman can only perform such radical, boundary-breaking service because the love of God, the forgiving and renewing love of God, flows through her life, and moves her to action.

God’s love is like that. As it flows through us, it leads us to do things that don’t fit within neat boundaries. God’s love moves us to color outside the lines, even if it means that things get a little messy, at least by our standards. God’s love is so plentiful it spills right over the boundary walls we set up, carrying us right along with it. And when we experience this love, we can find ourselves doing things we never thought we’d do.

Just ask Nathan, the prophet in our story from 2 Samuel. Nathan is God’s lobbyist, hired to speak up on behalf of God’s beloved people. The rich, Nathan says, have been stealing from the poor, God’s beloved. It is not a truth the rich want to hear, and in a world of boundaries Nathan never should have received a hearing. He might as well have stayed home.

But Nathan is moved by God’s love, moved not only to serve those in need but to advocate on their behalf. Nathan is sent by God to speak to those in power and to tell the truth about injustice. To do so, Nathan speaks a word of judgment about the broken present, and the broken future that will result from it. But Nathan also speaks a word of hope: All is not lost, for God’s love can put away even this sin, the sin of injustice; God’s love can renew even this world, and make it right once more.

And God makes us a part of this renewal. Whenever love moves us, like the woman at Jesus’ feet, to offer radical service to a neighbor in need, God’s love is there, renewing the world. Whenever love moves us, like the prophet Nathan, to speak up on behalf of a neighbor in need, God’s love is there, renewing the world.

This year I have had the privilege of working at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State. In my time at the LPPO, I have seen the boundary-crossing, world-renewing love of God reflected in the lives of God’s people.

I have seen God’s love reflected in congregations engaged in radical service to their neighbors around them, through soup kitchens and community gardens, food pantries and overnight shelters.

I have seen God’s love reflected in community formed across racial, cultural, and economic lines, people brought together to pursue God’s project of a more just and peaceful world.

And I have seen God’s love reflected in people who are moved to go to the halls of power, the city council or the state legislature or the US Congress, by writing letters and making phone calls and scheduling visits to advocate for and with neighbors in need.

God’s love moves people to do these things, to move beyond conventional boundaries and into the very body of Christ, a body that goes out into the streets and the sidewalks, the parks and the public spaces, and makes God’s creative, justice-making love known in the world we live in.

So how about you? What boundaries is God’s love moving you to cross this week?

Maybe God is leading you to write a letter to the newspaper or to an elected official. Maybe God is leading you to make a phone call to your senator or representative. Maybe God is leading you to sign a petition or simply to learn about one.

I cannot tell you where God will lead you next. But if you want to find out, you might begin in the same way our gospel story began today – at a table with Jesus.

There is a table here, and it is almost ready. Come, and eat with Jesus. Come, and discover that you are already filled with God’s love. Come, and discover that you are already have what you need to live it out in the world. Come, taste and see. Amen.