Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve: The Night with the Lights in It

Sermon for Christmas Eve, 2009
Preached at St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle


“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Luke 2:8-9


Many years ago the author Annie Dillard wrote a collection of essays on nature that she called Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In one of the essays she writes of an experience of seeing as if for the first time. “One day,” she writes, “I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.”

“I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

Annie Dillard’s experience of “the tree with the lights in it” is, I imagine, in a similar category to what was experienced by the shepherds on that holy night so many centuries ago.

They were out in the fields. Had they lived in the city, they might have known about the decrees of Emperor Augustus, and of the census being taken, and of the towns so full of pilgrims that there was no room in any inn. But they lived in the fields, out in the country. Not knowing the goings-on in the urban areas wouldn’t have bothered them, I don’t think. They knew their Scriptures: Nothing good ever came from a city. Wretched places, they are, full of scum and villainy. Better to stay in your own fields.

And in the fields, they kept watch. Not over the skies, mind you, but over the earth, and over the things of the earth, over the living, breathing creatures that were entrusted to their care. This was enough to occupy them, to fill their days and to fill their nights and to almost – almost – fill their bellies. It was certainly enough to fill their eyes. Or so they thought.

And then it happened. Then, Luke tells us, then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them.

They suddenly saw it, saw everything, as if for the first time: The skies with the lights in them, the fields with the lights in them, even the sheep with the lights in them. There were no words to make sense of this. Only the words that seemed to well up from inside them like tears filling your eyes, words they couldn’t have made up if they tried: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.

A moment of revelation that came suddenly out of the everyday, the everynight, one moment when they saw clearly, as if for the first time, when they heard clearly, as if for the first time.

And then they were on the move, swept along by the moment toward the city, the place out of which nothing good could come. Before they could change their minds they found themselves on the road, on a doorstep, on their knees.

There he was: The child. He shone like any other child, really, like any other person when the lights are shining through them. Legs kicking, arms waving, body wriggling, and in the center of it all, the eyes. The lights shining in his eyes. I imagine the shepherds with Annie Dillard’s words in their mouths: It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen.

For a moment they stayed there, together, strangers and friends, gathered together as they were, most improbably, most unpredictably. Two or three were already finding themselves gathered in his Name, gathered around a place meant for food: a manger, a feeding trough, a table for creatures of the earth. A motley crew it was, strangers and friends, shepherds and carpenters, people of the fields and people of the streets, on very different journeys, all mixed up together, and all drawn together by this child who was making the world shine with light.

What could it all mean? I don’t imagine that at that moment the shepherds had the slightest idea. The words washed over them, announcing the new thing that had begun with this birth, that this child was somehow a king, that this child would somehow overthrow the world as it was, that this child would come out of an unexpected place to turn the world upside down, putting mangers and tables at the center and throwing imperial decrees overboard. They heard all of this, and no doubt the words already began to do their work.

But on this night there was no sense in making sense of it. On this night, I imagine, the shepherds were simply overwhelmed with the giddy wonder of seeing the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in him. They had been their whole lives bells, and never knew it until at that moment they were lifted and struck.

“When they saw this, they made known what had been told them.” Their voices rang like bells through the night. I imagine them running through the dusty streets, shaking the hands of every person they met, like Ebenezer Scrooge after the holy ghosts helped him to see his life in a new light. “Merry Christmas!” said Scrooge, and I imagine that whatever the shepherds said it probably made about as much sense as that.

And then it was over – or at least, a part of it was over. The shepherds returned – to their fields, one assumes – and they were “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” Take note: As they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. The experience was already past. They might have lived their entire lives glorifying and praising God for the memory of that one experience, the night when they saw the world with the lights in it, lit up by the child with the lights in his eyes.

Annie Dillard writes that after that first vision,

“I have since only very rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.”

Well. That’s Annie Dillard’s experience of the incarnation. Maybe yours is different. I expect all of us have different paths to the manger, to the feeding trough, to the table for the creatures of the earth. The Spirit of the Lord moves in mysterious ways.

But every once in a while, she lights up the night. And on one night, many years ago, she lit up the world through the birth of a child, and struck humanity like a bell, gathering the unlikely together and making them ring.

We are still ringing, from mountain to mountain, and everywhere in between.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Advent 4C, Friday

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Prayer of the Day for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 2009


File under: Things that God frees us for.

Click here to see what I'm working on at the LPPO...

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Advent 4C, Wednesday

advent blues: a playlist for december

1. Stumbling To Bethlehem / Patti Scialfa
2. When I Look At the World / U2
3. The Waiting / Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
4. If God Will Send His Angels / U2
5. Sitting, Waiting, Wishing / Jack Johnson
6. Hey World (Don't Give Up Version) / Michael Franti & Spearhead
7. White As Snow / U2
8. That Was the Worst Christmas Ever! / Sufjan Stevens
9. Joseph, Better You Than Me (feat. Elton John)
10. I Believe In Father Christmas / U2
11. Light a Light / Melissa Etheridge

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent 3C, Sunday

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent, Year C
for St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, 2009


The holy gospel according to Luke.

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him,
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?
Bear fruits worthy of repentance.
Do not begin to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’;
for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.
Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees;
every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit
is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them,
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none;
and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”
Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them,
“Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation,
and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John,
whether he might be the Messiah,
John answered all of them by saying,
“I baptize you with water;
but one who is more powerful than I is coming;
I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fork is in his hand,
to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary;
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

So, with many other exhortations,
he proclaimed the good news to the people.

The gospel of the Lord.


There is a scene in the Lord of the Rings…

Ok, so I know just saying those words for some people will cause eyes to glaze over, ears to tune out, but hear me out here, just hang with me for a moment. If I promise not to speak in Elvish, can you hang with me for a moment? Ok. Here we go.

So there is this scene in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that always gives me the chills, and always makes me think of Advent.

Gandalf, the white wizard, is waiting and keeping watch in a city under siege. He has no allies, no friends with him, save one little hobbit, Pippin, who, in a sudden fit of conscience signed up for the king’s personal guard but who really has no skills to offer, has no business being there.

The skies above them have darkened. The air has grown unseasonably cold. The people in the city are afraid, and huddle in whatever they shelter they can find. And the leaders of the city, the stewards, those given the task of protecting the people, are lost in a mindless despair and are no longer able to see the task at hand clearly.

The situation seems hopeless. Gandalf tries to rouse the people; he is the only one who seems to see things clearly. He pushes the paralyzed leaders aside, bypassing them entirely, and goes straight to the footsoldiers and common people, urging them to live up their calling, to be the people they are supposed to be.

But he has no illusions about what they can accomplish on their own. He knows it can only get them so far. And so he turns to little Pippin and tells him to light the beacon.

The beacon is a great pile of combustible wood, a pyre sitting at the top of the highest point in the city. Little Pippin struggles, stumbles, scrapes his knee, hides from those who would try to stop him, and then, finally, he lights the beacon that is much bigger than he is.

The camera pulls back and reveals just how small the beacon is in the wide-angle lens. At the top of a mountain it looks like nothing more than a candle, just a little spark of light, just one little tongue of fire in a vast, vast world.

And then, off in the distance on the farthest mountain peak, another tiny flame suddenly flares up, as if answering the call of the first.

The camera pans up over the mountains, and again off in the farther distance, another flame answers the second, and then another, and another, and another, until the final beacon is lit in the midst of another city faraway over the mountains, and the people in that city see it and know.

The beacons have been seen. The call has been heard. Help will come.

Gandalf, the faintest sign of wild joy in his eyes, says simply this:

“Hope is kindled.”


Today, on the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist preaches his hardest words yet. Last week Pastor Carol described history that takes place far from the centers of power. Now John preaches to the people who live there, people who live in the far corners of the empire, in the far corners of their society. They have no business changing the world. What could they possibly have to offer?

Most of them, stumbling up to the River Jordan to hear this hard-edged prophet, have barely enough clothing to keep themselves warm on a cold night, barely enough food to fill their own stomachs. They struggle simply to stay afloat.

Even those among them who have stable, decent-paying jobs – the soldiers, the public servants – are hardly in a position to make big changes in society. They struggle simply to get it right, day after day, in jobs that make them little more than a cog in an overpowering machine. Empire. Conquest. Profit. Success. If you don’t want to fall in line on one of these ships that you are lucky enough to be on in the first place, then you are free to get off the boat. Good luck in the water.

Any self-respecting world-changer would not start here, with these people. But they are exactly the people to whom John the Baptist goes first.

When he opens his mouth to speak to them, he doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t beat around the bush, or treat them with kid gloves, or patronize them.

He names their brokenness, their weakness.

He reminds them of God’s power, a power that can bring life to stone.

And then he tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees. He tells them that the ax is lying at the root of the trees.

As if the ax-wielder, the great lumberjack, were already there.

As if, in the words of the prophet Zephaniah, the Lord, their God, is right there in their midst.

No wonder the crowds ask John, “What then should we do?”

Light the beacons! he tells them. Be the lights of hope! Not just with fire and water, but with the light of your very lives!

John the Baptist isn’t worried about how unimportant these people are in the grand scheme of things. He gives everyone a role to play, everyone.

And then he gives the most important role precisely to those who seem to have the least to offer – at least by the standards of empire and conquest.

He calls the crowds, all the most unimportant people, to light their beacons. Oh yes, they have beacons. Their lives, too, can be a light. John calls them to share their meager clothing and food with one another.

Of course, the important people think, this is not possible. They have nothing to share, nothing to give.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will break bread together. They will share their warmth. In the sharing and the caring, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.

They are followed by the tax collectors and soldiers, cogs in the machine of empire. These are asked simply to live justly, but that is not so easy at it sounds.

It requires them to swim upstream, against the current that pushes back against them at every moment, always threatening to overwhelm. Surely no one could survive, always swimming against the current like that.

But John the Baptist knows better. The Lord, their God, is in their midst.

And so they will be fair. They will tell the truth. They will give thanks. They will not hoard what belongs to others. And in living this way, amid the counter-current, they will form community. And they will light the way for the world. They will light the way for us.


Is this possible? Is there really any hope for this?

I find it hard to believe sometimes, when harsh words speak painful truths, awakening our worst fears, opening our eyes to the wrath that is already here.

A winter chill. A silent injustice. A casual act of violence. The everyday struggle to get it right. Our sickness unto death.

But then I look around, and I see them. I see the signs of a gospel that is so wondrous, so incomprehensible, so nonsensical, so foolishly wild that the peace it brings passes all understanding.

I see the signs of the season of Advent – signs that the Lord, our God, is in our midst.

Beacons of light in the hour of need:

Hands held under a streetlight,

Food shared under flickering fluorescence,

Rooftops strung with glowing bulbs,

An open door lit by a porchlight,

A cold street warmed by a hidden bonfire,

An evergreen wreath anchoring four candles,

Signs of a hope kindled.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Advent 3C, Saturday

A Nocturnal upon St. Lucy's Day

a poem written by John Donne in 1627

Tis the year's midnight, and it is the day's,
Lucy's, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;
The world's whole sap is sunk;
The general balm th' hydroptic earth hath drunk,
Whither, as to the bed's feet, life is shrunk,
Dead and interr'd; yet all these seem to laugh,
Compar'd with me, who am their epitaph.

Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom Love wrought new alchemy.
For his art did express
A quintessence even from nothingness,
From dull privations, and lean emptiness;
He ruin'd me, and I am re-begot
Of absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

All others, from all things, draw all that's good,
Life, soul, form, spirit, whence they being have;
I, by Love's limbec, am the grave
Of all that's nothing. Oft a flood
Have we two wept, and so
Drown'd the whole world, us two; oft did we grow
To be two chaoses, when we did show
Care to aught else; and often absences
Withdrew our souls, and made us carcasses.

But I am by her death (which word wrongs her)
Of the first nothing the elixir grown;
Were I a man, that I were one
I needs must know; I should prefer,
If I were any beast,
Some ends, some means; yea plants, yea stones detest,
And love; all, all some properties invest;
If I an ordinary nothing were,
As shadow, a light and body must be here.

But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer all;
Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Advent 3C, Friday

I was doing time
In Salvation Park
Up on the high rope me
Your ace of hearts
Just when I thought
I was so special
I thought I had it all
You take a wrong step
Before you fall and you're

Stumbling to Bethlehem
In this absence of light
Stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't think twice

Now there's this man
On the corner
In a long black sweater saying
"Sinners they will burn forever"
I must be guilty of something
Some price I forgot to pay
I must have done somebody wrong
Somewhere along the way
That keeps me

Stumbling to Bethlehem
In this absence of light
Stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't think twice

Now you can count up
All your blessings
You can count up every curse
But you never really know
Which is better
Or which is worse
So you try to do right
But it gets so rough
There's always someone
To remind you
That you're just
Not good enough
And you're

Stumbling to Bethlehem
in this absence of light
I'm stumbling to Bethlehem
Don't worry darling
Yeah, don't feel twice
Don't worry darling
Yeah, it's alright

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Advent 2, Saturday


In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us.

-Luke 1:78, from the appointed Psalm for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2009


Our Psalm for the week is actually from a Gospel - Luke - which would be weird except that it is indeed a song, the song of Zechariah.

Remember Zechariah? He was the father of John the Baptist, whose ability to speak was taken from him when he couldn't stifle his skepticism that God could bring new life from two elderly people. This song, our appointed Psalm for the day, is the first recorded thing that comes out of Zechariah's mouth once the silence-spell has broken.

It is also the Gospel Canticle for Morning Prayer, what we sing as a response to the gospel during daily prayer in the AM. (Come to think of it, the Gospel Canticles for Evening Prayer and Night Prayer are also from Luke, all of them coming from the mouths of people standing on one chronological side or another of the birth of Jesus.) In short, the Song of Zechariah is the Morning Prayer song. Liturgically speaking, it is for us as for Zechariah the first song that comes out of our mouths when they are reopened for a new day.

Here in Seattle we've had several mornings of heavy fog. When I looked out the window this morning I couldn't see across the street. After an hour or so, though, the sea level cloud began to dissipate, and by the time I left the apartment it was clear enough to see... what?

People. People chattering about happily, hanging green boughs and garlands everywhere, along the railings, along the windowsills, along the rooftops. I waved hello to those I knew and continued to our car, which was covered in the most beautiful paisley-patterned frost. (I know what you're thinking, but frost really can be a happy thing when you're moving at a leisurely Saturday-morning pace!) No snow yet, but as I turned down Market Street the snow-capped Olympics came into gorgeously dramatic view, the perfect backdrop for the little neighborhood shops of Ballard.

I guess what I'm really trying to say, with all of my 21st-century words, is this:

In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high is breaking upon us.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Advent 2, Wednesday

A reading from Malachi.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me,
and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight -
indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.
But who can endure the day of his coming,
and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap;
he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi
and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD
as in the days of old and as in former years.

Word of God, word of life.

First Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2009


The Mountain was out this morning. We could see it on our drive to work. As we turned right onto 15th Avenue, there it was, a grey shadow towering over the Seattle skyline, making the Space Needle look like a toothpick beside it. It was breathtaking. The Mountain is out so rarely these days that you almost forget it is there.

When I arrived at work, and turned to see if the Olympic range was visible, I gasped. There it was, clearer than it has ever been, and topped with majestic snow like a vertically stretched and inversely colored ice cream sundae. Most mornings here, you must understand, are so overcast that you give thanks for the good rain and and the plentiful inland seas and leave it at that. But then, every once in a full moon, there are mornings like these, mornings so filled with beauty that you just want to stand there grinning like an idiot, taking it all in for as long as you can. Today, I thought, today is going to be a very good day.

Now, hours later, the sun sets. Was it a good day? As usual, I didn't accomplish nearly as much as I'd hoped. I still feel more restless and unsettled than I'd like to. I've decided to retire the word "frustrated" for at least the season of Advent, which should tell you something about how often I've been using it lately.

And yet, despite it all, it was a good day. It was a beautiful day, a gorgeous day, filled with good conversation and good work. Despite it all.

Is a good day a sign that the Lord of hosts is coming? Is a fleeting view of the Mountain a messenger, at least for today? Did it confirm the covenant that God is still here, and that grace incarnate is on her way?

Maybe. And maybe that is enough, for today. Satis est.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 2, Monday


Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

-Prayer of the Day for the Second Sunday of Advent, 2009


Stir up our hearts, Lord God, stir up our hearts. Stir up our hearts, even on a day with skies as gray as this one. Part the clouds of our lives, and make a way for your holy light. Open the pores of our skin and draw in the breath of our lungs, that your holy freshness might fill us up anew. Disturb our waters and form new eddies within us and around us. Clear the debris from the streets of our hearts and the streets of our neighborhoods, and remove all obstacles to the way of peace and justice, the way of creativity and liveliness, to the places we yearn most deeply to go. Stir up our world, Lord God, and stir up the world inside of us. Part the clouds of our lives, and make a way for your holy light. Stir up our hearts, even on a day with skies as gray as this one. Stir up our hearts, Lord God, stir up our hearts.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

What I made for Sunday School today...

... to teach the kids about Advent.

Advent 1, Sunday

Editor's note: Even though grace travels outside of karma, I still love this song. Biblical prophecy can be rough around the theological edges... but sometimes with good reason. Shine on, John, rough around the theological edges or not, shine on...


Jesus said,

"There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars..."

Luke 21:25-36, Gospel for the First Sunday in Advent, 2009


Saturday, November 28, 2009

Advent 1, Saturday

How can we thank God enough for you
in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?
Night and day we pray most earnestly
that we may see you face to face...

1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, 2nd Reading for the 1st Sunday in Advent 2009

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Advent 1, Wednesday

Show me your ways, O LORD,
and teach me your paths.

Psalm 25


image copyright daniel w. erlander

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Advent 1, Tuesday

The days are surely coming, says the LORD,
when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel
and the house of Judah.
In those days and at that time
I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David;
and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In those days Judah will be saved
and Jerusalem will live in safety.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
"The LORD is our righteousness."

- Jeremiah 33:14-16, First Reading for the First Sunday in Advent 2009

A righteous Branch that will spring up... for David. Leave aside for the moment what a "righteous Branch" might be and look at that concluding prepositional phrase. "For David." A Branch for the king, for the governor, for the leader and caretaker of a people. For a person whose primary duty is to care for the needs of others.

Which leads right into the payoff: Thanks to this mysterious "righteous Branch," the one who has been crowned a caretaker "shall execute justice and righteousness in the land." It is not the righteous Branch who executes justice and righteousness - though of course the execution would not be possible without this Branch. No, it is David who plays this part; it is David for whom the branch has been sprung, and it is by David that the justice and righteousness will come to be.

It is, in fact, the primary purpose of the king, the governor, the leader, the caretaker. Not conquering foreign lands. Not acquiring a great wealth of treasure. Not even keeping everyone happy and content so that the king's opulent living can go merrily on. No: The primary purpose of the one who has received the great gift of the righteous Branch is to carry out justice and righteousness. It is why the Branch has been given at all.

Of course, we do not have a David, nor a king. We live in a democratic land, where we share the kingship with each other; we are all governors, all caretakers of each other. We are all Davids.

So if we were to find ourselves living in those days and at that time, if by some heavenly miracle we were to be given the gift of the righteous Branch, if the day were to come and the promise were to be fulfilled, well, then, the next thing to happen seems pretty clear.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Advent 1, Monday

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

-Prayer of the Day for the First Sunday in Advent

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Stir up... your power? A comforting thought, at first, and then a terrifying one. I imagine the ways that Holy Power has been stirred up in generations past. Noah comes to mind, a world destroyed. Jonah, too, swallowed by a whale and an inescapable destiny. And Job - poor, miserable Job, who, when he finally stands up for himself, is flattened again by Your voice in a whirlwind.

But then the other stories: The first story, Creation - the first time your power was stirred up, the first time in the story we share with You, anyway. Exodus, too: your power against the powers that be, and a people were set free. And not freed and then abandoned, no - after that your power was stirred into a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, visible signs of a power stirred.

So you will, I hope, forgive me if thoughts of stirring up your power leave me with less than clear feelings. Tremendous excitement! yes, but also a fear of a power I cannot fathom.

And so it is with care that we pray that the advent of your stirred power in our time be one of merciful protection; of the imparting of knowledge, wisdom and courage; of, yes, a justice that redeems this broken and fearful world. It is more comforting to put it that way. Comforting at first, at least. And then a little more uneasy, once the sharpness of mercy, once the brightness of vision, once the instability of justice-making starts to happen, then it begins to be, just a little, terrifying. And yet we pray it all the same.

Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

What I Preached for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost, 2009

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost (Year B), November 15, 2009
Preached at St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

The readings for today are
Daniel 12:1-13 // Hebrews 10:11-25 // Mark 13:1-8


This month Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary. I know this because for several days last week anytime I used Google – which is a lot – colorful characters would show up against Google’s white-as-snow backdrop. First it was the orange, vertically striped legs of an 8-foot-tall yellow-feathered creature. Then it was a furry, grumpy little green monster poking its head out of a garbage can. And then, finally, the entire word Google was transformed into a collection of chocolate chip cookies and eaten by a furry blue mouth with googly eyes (no pun intended).

Now if you clicked on any of these fantastical images, you would be taken to a list of news stories about Sesame Street. And as I began to read these articles, I not only remembered all the times I spent watching Sesame Street with my dad, but I began to realize just how visionary Sesame Street has been.

Forty years ago, when the show was developed, the television landscape was still radically segregated, and featured overwhelmingly white characters, largely preferring not to address the difficult issues of the day. Ok, so not a whole lot has changed in that regard. But in 1969, the world was changing. Dr. King had been assassinated, but his dream had captured imaginations.

Sesame Street decided to take the dream and put it on television. The basic intent of the show was to bring a preschool education into the homes of poor children in urban neighborhoods who didn’t have access to good schools.

But in addition to teaching the alphabet and numbers and colors, the world presented on Sesame Street sought to instill tolerance, racial pride, and equality. Sure, it did so with fantastical creatures – I’m looking at you, Mr. Snuffleupagus – but that didn’t change the deeper truths contained in its vision. Sesame Street took the dream of racial harmony, economic equality, and religious tolerance, and sought to make it real, even if only on the television set, and even if the world around that television set still had a lot of catching up to do.

It’s a little bit like our Scripture readings for today. Today’s Gospel reading is from the 13th chapter of Mark, a passage sometimes referred to by Biblical scholars as “the Little Apocalypse.” Now, when we hear the word “apocalypse” we probably think of things like the ads for that new John Cusack movie, where the world is coming to an end through a variety of earthquakes, explosions and floods. And it’s true, when we hear today’s Gospel reading we do hear Jesus speak of wars, earthquakes, and famines. But this kind of disaster movie shtick is not really at the heart of what the word apocalypse means. The Greek word apocalypses is often translated as “revelation,” which is where we get the title for that “colorful” book at the end of our Bible. What the word apocalypse literally means is “a lifting of the veil.” A lifting of the veil. A pulling back of the curtain, to reveal some deeper truth about the world and where it’s going.

And if we think of the Little Apocalypse, the Little Revelation, in that way, then we might see something a little different in Jesus’ words. Jesus speaks of wars and earthquakes and famines, yes, but we know about these already. That part is no revelation. All we need to do is read the newspaper to learn about that; we don’t need a revelation from God to learn about the famines and the wars and the earthquakes. What we want to know is what they mean. Will they ever end? Is there anything beyond them? Or is life just one long tumult of earthquakes and wars and famine?

And Jesus, thanks be to God, gives us an answer. Jesus is, in fact, an answer to the question in his very incarnation, in his very existence on this earth. God made human, made vulnerable, sent to rescue us from a neverending cycle of famine, earthquake, and war, a neverending cycle of death. Jesus is God’s answer.

But we live in the meantime. We still live amid the famine, earthquakes, and war, and that seems odd, if Jesus was sent to end those things.

And so I wonder whether this is why Jesus gives us these words today. I wonder if he anticipates that confusion. I wonder if that is why Jesus tells his disciples the following Little Revelation:

This is only the beginning of the birth pangs.

This – by which Jesus means not the famine, earthquakes, and war, but his own life, death, and resurrection – is only the beginning of the birth pangs, is only the beginning of a much larger process. There is so much more to come. God’s great healing of the entire universe has had its beginning in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, truly. But those events are just that – a beginning.

And in order to remind us that this is only the beginning, and that the end is much, much greater, and definitely much, much greater than any large stones and large buildings, much greater than anything we could accomplish on our own, in order to remind us of this, God gives us a Little Revelation from time to time, a little hint of the end of the story, lest we mistake the present for the end. God gives us a little vision of the world as it could be, as it will be.

Now these visions – like the one in the Book of Daniel – are sometimes full of strange shapes and colors and even, yes, fantastical creatures, but underneath them all is God’s holy dream of a world of compassion and curiosity and creativity and, most of all, love, a world as it could be, a world as it will be. The visions show us where we are going, where God is taking us. They are a little like Sesame Street, actually. The biggest difference between Sesame Street and Shalom Street, though is that no one has to tell us how to get to Shalom, because God’s giving us a lift.

And so what do we do while we ride in the backseat of God’s cosmic cab, as we surf God’s teleological timeline with the rest of creation? Well, we might take a cue from the author of the letter to the Hebrews in our epistle lesson for today. The author proposes that we not only lift the veil but walk right through the curtain to begin living the vision today, just like Sesame Street did 40 years ago. Eugene Peterson’s translation of our reading from Hebrews goes like this:

So, friends, we can now – without hesitation – walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” …So let’s do it – full of belief, confident that we’re presentable inside and out. Let’s keep a firm grip on the promises that keep us going. God always keeps God’s word. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out, not avoiding worshipping together as some do but spurring each other on, especially as we see the big Day approaching.

Let’s do it. Let’s see how inventive we can be in encouraging love and helping out and worshipping together and spurring each other on. Let’s see how inventive we can be.

I know the Sunday School kids are already being inventive. They’re starting a campaign to buy a cow for their brothers and sisters in Kenya, and I think they’re going to tell us more about it next week.

I know Meridee is helping our Social Ministry Committee be inventive and think up new ways to live out our calling as an Advocating Congregation.

I know that several congregations, including our own, are being inventive as we prepare to join with other Seattle churches and synagogues and mosques to share an Interfaith Thanksgiving Service, a witness to that future day when all of God’s creation gathers around the eternal feast and gives thanks to one God, Father and Mother of us all. (Eat your heart out, Sesame Street.)

So let’s keep doing it. Let’s keep encouraging love and helping out and worshipping together and spurring each other on. Let’s keep dreaming out loud, let’s keep living the vision in the month of November, the month of All Saints, as the church year nears its end and God gathers us up and walks us right to the cliff of the kingdom and we peer over the edge into a vision of the holy communion of all people under their cosmic creator, a vision, as Daniel imagines it, of a sleeping dust awakened and transformed into a sky of shining stars, a vision that is the very Reign of Christ.

And so let us approach the table with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

What I Preached for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week

Sermon for Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week
Preached at Pacific Lutheran University Chapel, November 9, 2009

A reading from the book of Exodus.

But Moses said to the LORD, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.” But Moses said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him.”

Word of God, Word of Life:
Thanks be to God.

I picture Moses at the burning bush, alone.

He stands there, barefoot, and I imagine that his legs have turned to something roughly approaching the consistency of raspberry Jell-O. Moses is overwhelmed, and he is overwhelmed not just because there is a bush that burns without burning and a voice that comes from out of nowhere. The greatest wonder, really, is in what this voice is saying.

First of all, God: I am God, the voice says. Listen up.

Second, the Israelites: They are suffering in Egypt, this place that is not their home. They hunger for justice, they cry out for it. And God says to Moses, these people, these hungry and homeless people are, God says, my people. These hungry and homeless people are God’s people.

Third, I will come down. God has not only seen the hunger and the homelessness of God’s people, God is doing something about it. God has come down to bring them up into a new home. This is about as good as the good news gets: God has heard the cry of God’s people, God’s hungry and homeless people, and God is acting to save them.

Now, if God were to stop here, Moses might well have sang a song of praise and continued on his way except that then God gives Moses this last part, and it’s this part that turns his legs to Jell-O and dries his tongue so that he can barely speak.

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh.

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh. So come, I will send you to the President. So come, I will send you to the Governor. So come, I will send you to the Senator, to the Representative. So come, I will send you to the Mayor… of Tacoma. I don’t care what you call him or her, Moses, I am sending you there, to speak on behalf of my people, my hungry and homeless people, to be their advocates.

Oh my Lord, please send someone else.

Oh my Lord, please send someone else. Have you read my resume, Lord? I don’t have the right skill set for that. It’s a public speaking gig, right? Yeah, that’s not for me. Moses looks at his own talents, looks down at his hands, sees his reflection in the flickering flames, and he says, “This is not going to be enough.

And he's right.

Fortunately for Moses – and fortunately for us – God doesn’t expect it to be enough. God’s work doesn’t depend on our skill sets, it depends on the One who created them. And then, having created us, having sustained us, having sent us, God sends people to help us, people whose talents complement our own, people who speak and in so doing teach us to speak.

And sometimes these people are the very people we thought we were helping. That is what happened to Moses. Aaron, Moses' brother but still one of God’s own hungry and homeless people, is the very person God sends to help Moses. The very people we think we are rescuing end up rescuing us. Look, Moses – even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad.

Together you will walk to Pharaoh; together you will speak; together you will walk to freedom. You and your brothers and your sisters. For you there will no longer be us and them, only us. No longer will you walk alone. Your journey and their journey will become one. Your journey and their journey will become one.

For the last few months I have had the privilege of working at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State. As a branch of the church, rooted in the church, we go to the halls of power, in the state capitol, to plead the cause of the least among us whenever and wherever important policy decisions are being made. As representatives of the church, we urge lawmakers to fund food banks and shelters, to improve childhood nutrition, to increase the availability of low-income housing, always in pursuit of a more just and compassionate society.

But we do not do this alone. When we go to the halls of power, we go with coalitions of social service agencies and community partners, including organizations of the homeless and the formerly homeless. And we go with faithful advocates in churches and missions and universities across the state, advocates whose journeys once upon a time intersected with the journeys of God’s hungry and homeless people, and whose journeys were never the same.

I recently heard a story from one of these advocates.

She had gone to speak at a public hearing, where policymakers were deciding whether or not to fund a network of homeless shelters. She was very nervous. There was a large crowd, and she had to face a panel of powerful people. But she drew up her courage, and she pleaded with the policymakers not to cut the funding for those who needed it.

As she finished her testimony, there was a burst of applause and loud cheering. She turned around. An organization of the homeless had gathered to support her, and they let their presence be known. As she left the hall, they thanked her for speaking up for them. She never forgot it, the day that their journey and her journey became one.

In our hymn for today we will sing: Un pueblo que camina por el mundo, gritando: “¡Ven, Señor!” Un pueblo que busca en esta vida la gran liberación. The people walk throughout the world together, and cry out, “Come, O Lord”; the people who long to claim the promise, God’s liberating Word.


Sunday, October 18, 2009

What I Preached on the Feast of St. Luke, Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of St. Luke, October 18, 2009
St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

St. Luke. The Physician. And, it should be noted, St. Luke the Ox.

Yes, it’s true: Just like St. John, the Eagle, St. Luke has an animal symbol, his very own patronus charm, extrapolated from a few obscure passages in Ezekiel and Revelation and handed down through the annals of a wilder and woollier Christian history than we Protestants like to remember. An Ox. Which is why St. Luke is also the patron saint of butchers. Yes, it’s true: St. Luke is the patron saint of both doctors… and butchers. The man casts a wide net. These are just good things to know.

Anyway, the truth is we don’t know much about St. Luke – who he was, where he lived, when he was born or how he died. The name Lukas only shows up three times in the entire New Testament, when Paul mentions him in his letters to first-century churches. Paul and Luke, it seems, were traveling companions, friends in the faith.

We first find Luke mentioned at the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, when Paul passes along greetings from those who are with him. Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates the letter.

Aristarchus, who is in jail here with me, sends greetings; also Mark, cousin of Barnabas (you received a letter regarding him; if he shows up, welcome him)… Epaphras, who is one of you, says hello. What a trooper he’s been! …Luke, good friend and physician, and Demas, both send greetings…

Later Paul writes a letter to his colleague Philemon, and again he sends a list of hellos.

Epaphras, my cellmate in the cause of Christ, says hello. Also my coworkers Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke…

In these letters you can imagine Paul with his friends around him. “Oh, you’re writing to Philemon? Hey, tell him I said hi, would ya?”

Paul, Mark, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Demas, and Luke. It’s quite a little gospel gang they’ve got. And it has to be. They’re constantly under threat, marked for death by their involvement with the Christian Underground.

And when we read Luke’s Gospel, we can feel the influence of these fierce friendships, forged in a furnace as fiery as anything Daniel faced. The words are soaked with the love Luke has for his companions. The other gospel writers address their work to a general audience, but not Luke. Luke addresses his gospel as if it were a letter written to a particular person. For you, Theophilus.

In Luke’s gospel, Jesus finds the bonds of love everywhere. When the sun went down, Luke writes, everyone who had anyone sick with some ailment or other brought them to him. One by one he placed his hands on them and healed them.

Did you hear the crucial detail? It isn’t simply that sick people streamed to Jesus, but their loved ones brought them to Jesus. And through this faith Jesus heals. Listen to how this is detailed in just one of Luke’s healing stories.

Some men arrived carrying a paraplegic on a stretcher. They were looking for a way to get into the house and set him before Jesus. When they couldn’t find a way in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof, removed some tiles, and let him down in the middle of everyone, right in front of Jesus. Impressed by their bold belief, he said, “Friend, I forgive your sins. Stand up, take your bed, and go.”

It’s crucial to note here that when Jesus heals the man, he commends not his faith but their faith, the faith of the friends. Jesus looks at human friendship and he says, This is good.

Throughout Luke’s gospel, these human relationships are a crucial way that God works healing in the world.

It is Mary’s visit with Elizabeth that brings forth her prophetic Magnificat, her song of good news for the poor, the oppressed, and the hungry.

It is when the shepherds are gathered together in the fields that a messenger speaks to them, sending them to wrap the Holy Family in a swaddling cloth of community.

It is a group of faithful women who together provide resources for Jesus; they pool their finances to support Jesus’ ministry.

And it is, finally, these same women who find the tomb empty, and who run to tell the others the best good news.

Again and again, God works through the fellowship of God’s people.

In Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice, author Stephanie Paulsell tells a story of how God heals through a people gathered together. Paulsell writes:

A group of friends responded when one of them became terminally ill.

As he grew sicker, his body first became a stranger and then an enemy to him, a source of nothing but anguish. In the last months of his life, he told his friends of his feeling of having been abandoned by his body.

They began reading about and training themselves in therapeutic massage. They began to gather regularly in his home, to stroke his hands and feet, to touch his skin, to offer his body back to him as a source of comfort, not of pain alone.

Through these sessions of therapeutic touching, he found himself more able to speak freely about his illness and his inevitable death. Through the practice of touching, his friends found themselves able to respond with compassion rather than fear, with openness rather than denial. And when their friend died, they found comfort in the healing touch of one another.

That group of friends challenged me to enlarge my understanding of healing. How wonderful it would have been if those friends had touched their dying friend, and his sickness had disappeared. But that didn’t happen. He remained sick. And he died. But there was healing in the midst of his illness, healing in a deep sense. Before he died, he was able to experience his body as a good and holy creation. His friends returned his body to him, broken, yet beautiful, a temple of the Holy Spirit still.

Paulsell’s story confirms something true about the way God works, the way God heals: through people, working together, on behalf of one another.

But Luke knows the flipside, too. That fellowship fails. That friendship fractures. That the ties that bind, even when they are bonds in Christ, can fray and leave us hanging, alone.

The neighbors of Elizabeth and Zechariah grow afraid, and spread gossip throughout Judea, isolating the parents who have a strange son.

When Jesus begins his ministry by echoing the words of his mother, proclaiming good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed, he is rejected by those closest to him. The people of his hometown, the people he had grown up with, desert him.

So Jesus makes new friends, disciples who travel with him throughout his ministry. But they, too, desert him at his hour of greatest need, first falling asleep when he asks them to be vigilant, then leaving him altogether.

Peter’s betrayal, how he denied Jesus three times before the cock crowed, is a story told in all four Gospels. But only Luke mentions the devastating detail that after the third denial, Jesus turns and looks at Peter, and allows Peter one vivid, horrifying moment to linger over the terrible truth that the bond between the two men had been torn apart.

It’s no wonder, really, that Luke would give us this particular detail. He, too, knew the pain of a broken relationship.

The last time Luke is mentioned in the Bible is in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, from which our Epistle reading for today is taken. Throughout the letter, Paul’s mood is upbeat, but the details betray his situation.

He is in jail, again. But this time there is no list of friends sending their greetings. Here at the end of his life, Paul is almost entirely alone. Do your best to come to me soon, he writes, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you… There is not even mention of Aristarchus or Epaphras. The fellowship has fractured.

And yet, and yet. Somehow Paul still writes to Timothy, encouraging him to keep the faith. Somehow Luke still writes his gospel, reaching out to Theophilus.

And the reason, I think, is that Luke knows that God’s healing power does not rest on our faithfulness. Earlier in 2nd Timothy, Paul writes something that he tells Timothy to repeat over and over.

The saying is sure: If we are faithless, he remains faithful.

If we are faithless, he remains faithful. No matter what we do, Jesus remains faithful, still gathering us together, still healing our brokenness, still sending us out to give good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. I work, God says through the mouth of Isaiah, and no one can hinder it. No one.

Near the end of Luke’s gospel, Jesus dies. But God’s work does not. Within days of the cross, Jesus is back on the road, making friends. He gathers people together. He breaks bread. He sends people out. And God heals again.

God heals through friends who gather to care for one another.

God heals through communities who come together to face common problems.

And God heals, finally, through God’s people, gathered, fed, and sent.

Just ask St. Luke.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

God's Dirty Work. Our Dirty Hands.

The following is a post I wrote for my seminary's blog. They're celebrating "Earth Year" for 2009-2010, and my post is a response to one a friend of mine wrote kicking off the year.

The clearing rests in song and shade
It is a creature made
By old light held in soil and leaf,
By human joy and grief,
By human work,
Fidelity of sight and stroke,
By rain, by water on
The parent stone.

We join our work to Heaven's gift,
Our hope to what is left,
That field and woods at last agree
In an economy of widest worth.
High Heaven's Kingdom come on earth.
Imagine Paradise.
O dust, arise!

-Wendell Berry, "The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade"

A few weeks ago Zach Parris challenged his fellow SS bloggers to think and write about our next steps during LSTC’s Earth Year. In classic Zach fashion, he urged us, as we seek to join the growing green movement, not to shirk the strengths of our theological heritage, nor to skirt the messy nature of ethical choices in a sin-soaked world.

Zach is right. If we fall into the trap of thinking that voting for a Democratic president, eating organic food, and buying a Nalgene bottle is all it takes to save the world, we will indeed build up a "works-righteousness bubble” that will be punctured as soon as we encounter a political headwind, read Michael Pollan, or see REI’s new BPA-free Nalgene bottle. As the air rushes out, we finally realize that no cobbled-together cure-all, taken on its own in increasingly desperate doses, can save us. We are grateful for Luther’s rediscovery of this crucial truth, and we Lutherans would do well to carry our forebear’s insight with us into the future.

Yet our goodly heritage has, unfortunately and for a variety of reasons, too often been used to justify an all-too-typical Lutheran quietism. The story of Lutherans in North America – and in Europe, for that matter – is ripe with examples of our church giving short shrift to the world-changing work God has called us to do. Trapped halfway through our paradox, we have sat out too many social movements. Oh, we have our heroes, and rightly so – our Dietrich Bonhoeffers and our Jon Nelsons – but as a church we have too often been inactive enablers of evil, often with our theology as an excuse.

But – thanks be to God! – we are sinful and forgiven, sinner and saint, dust and yet arising. It is well past time that we claimed our full Lutheran heritage, the one that declares the great paradox that we are sinners, yes, truly, but we are also saints, yes, truly, empowered by God through our baptism to, as Zach puts it, “act and move” for justice. And though we, the sinner-saints, work in “what is left” of a world – indeed, a creation – already devastated by sin and its brutal effects, we are freed by the cross and yes, called through our baptism, to, in the words of Wendell Berry, “join our work to Heaven’s gift.”

So, in answer to Zach’s question, what’s next in Earth Year for me? It is the work of joyful discovering that - much to my surprise - this sinner-saint work-joining is already happening!

I am blessed this year to be on a pastoral internship in a place where I am seeing God working through our hands every day through communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest. Three-fifths of my time this year is spent at St. John United Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, a congregation already engaged in innovative Care of Creation ministries. (The other two-fifths is at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, but I’ll say more about my Earth Year discoveries there in a future post.)

Several years ago St. John United, together with its then-intern, decided to reclaim a sidewalk and adjoining parkway in a residential neighborhood in the heart of urban Seattle. Over the past few years God put their dirt-covered hands to good work: They planted crops, from green beans to bright yellow sunflowers, adding new varieties every year. They invited others in the community to join in planting, nurturing, and harvesting. They built an irrigation system to run through pipes under the parking lot. And they grew more and more wild plant life to beautify the neighborhood, and produced more and more good food to donate to their weekly soup kitchen ministry.

Of course, the harvest is still small by most standards. We often bring in only a shoebox full of veggies – a harvest that pales in comparison to the one reaped by Celebration Lutheran Church in East Wenatchee, Washington, where I am visiting this weekend. They regularly cover several fellowship-hall sized tables with food (big orange pumpkins this Sunday!). And if I were to compare our crop to the big industrial farms that stock the Safeway grocery store, well… let’s just say the economists would tell us to give it up. But, as we well know, they’ve been wrong before. And so we press on, confident of what God can do with a few loaves and fishes – or a few green beans and sunflowers, for that matter.

As for me, I still have a lot to learn about gardening. On my first garden work day, I pointed at an ugly-looking plant that had pricked me and asked whether it was a weed.

“No,” a fellow garden steward told me. “That’s a wild rose.”

I stepped back to marvel at the mystery of God’s creation, and to marvel even more at the mystery that God can do such work through such clumsy, dirty hands as mine. Heaven’s gift, indeed.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Back from Holden

Had an amazing time theologizing, hiking, conversing, basketballing, singing, wildlife-spotting, and enjoying Holden Village immensely. We can't wait to go back... and stay longer next time.

And of course, you can find more photos. Click here for the Facebook photo album (should work even if you're not on Facebook).

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Holden Village Week

This week Chris and I will be in Holden Village, up in the Cascade Mountains, for a theology conference.

Well, I will be there for a theology conference; Chris will be there to write; and we'll both be there to enjoy what everyone tells us is a really cool place - mountains and lakes and rivers, oh my!

But: There's no cell phone service and no internet service there. So we're incommunicado until Thursday evening.

Until then!

What I Preached on September 20, 2009

Sermon for Bible Sunday, September 20, 2009
St. John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington

Gospel: Mark 9:30–37

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the way?" But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."


Today we celebrate Bible Sunday. In a few minutes, we are going to have our Bibles blessed. And we will recommit ourselves to another year of reading the Bible – in Bible classes, in homes, in worship. And in each of these settings – class, home, worship – we read the Bible together.

Together. It’s more difficult than it sounds. Being together can be hard. We gather with the best of intentions, but before long we’re irritated. Some people talk too much; others are too hesitant – or too proud – to speak at all. Inevitably a pecking order develops.

I don’t mean like Robert’s Rules of Order, I mean the kind where I begin to believe my job, or my experience, or my income, or my education, or any number of other things about me somehow makes me a better person than you.

I confess that I have fallen into that trap, more than once in my life. And I’ll probably do it again. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, I begin to believe that these people are ok, but they’re not like me.

And I begin to crave the status I deserve. And so I push my chair away from the table. And maybe I seek another table, one with people more like me, but that doesn’t work and so I do it again, and again, and again, until I am sitting alone at my own little table.

It’s not far from what happened in our Gospel text for today, where Mark tells us a story of status-craving among Jesus’ own disciples.

Their conflict has been growing for some time, long before the passage we have before us today. The Twelve have been together for months, following this strange teacher who had invited each of them to come along with him. They had a special thing going, this little band of traveling healers. But then things began to break down.

In the chapters that precede today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had handpicked a select few of his disciples to climb a mountain, and to be witness there to a mysterious and highly secretive revelation, the Transfiguration.

Meanwhile, the others, mystified at being left out of this special trip, try to keep the mission going on their own, and they offer to heal a man’s sick daughter.

But they fail, and now the crowd has turned on them. Fortunately Jesus comes back just in time, but the deeper damage has been done.

Before long the disciples are engaged in a back-and-forth dispute over pecking order. Jesus is leading them on, but who is second-in-command? They whisper in hushed voices.

Is it Peter, James, or John? It’s got to be one of those three, Jesus chose them to go up the mountain!

The others scoff. Peter? You can’t be serious. They roll their eyes, but inside their pride is wounded, and they are hurt and confused.

Jesus, seemingly oblivious, keeps on trucking. He pulls his disciples away from the crowds and tries to teach them. But instead of explaining everything that just happened, he begins speaking again about his imminent death.

Some of the disciples, especially those who went up to the mountain with Jesus, nod their heads solemnly, as if they understand all this death and resurrection talk. He chose us for the special trip, he must think we’ll get it. And so they nod their heads as if in agreement, but really they have no idea what’s going on.

The others avert their eyes and shuffle their feet uncomfortably. We already messed up the healing, we don’t want to start messing up the teaching, too. If he learns how clueless we are, maybe he’ll kick us out. Just keep quiet, they tell themselves, and try not to draw too much attention to yourself.

Jesus leads the way back into town, but he walks far ahead of the others, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. As he walks, the murmurs behind him grow louder. It’s the pecking order argument again, and this time it gets heated. Voices raise, and then are shushed again. Nobody wants Jesus to find out about what they are arguing about.

But alas, it is the first thing he asks them when they are settled indoors again. Had he heard everything? Or just enough to know? Either way, everyone begins to prepare for a rebuke. After all, they’d seen what happened to Peter. “Get behind me, Satan”? Ouch.

But Jesus, rather than getting angry, sits down, takes a deep breath, and begins again to teach. They are different words than before, but the message seems somehow the same. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

That is so not what they wanted to hear. And so they don’t hear it.

And then, as Jesus is speaking, a little boy walks in. I imagine him dressed in ragged clothes. He hasn’t bathed in days.

The boy walks up to one of the disciples with his hands out and his head bowed, mumbling something robotically, as if he had his lines rote memorized.

He goes to each of the disciples in turn, pausing only long enough to see if the man will give him a few coins before moving on to the next one. Some hands dig around in their coin purses, other heads shake dismissively.

Jesus stops talking. He is riveted by the scene. He calls the boy over. The boy’s head is still bowed. Jesus gives him a piece of bread and speaks softly to him.

The boy stuffs the bread in his pocket and looks at Jesus, but his eyes are dull. He waits to see if the strange man will give him any more. But all the while, his eyes stare ahead, dull, as if he were numb to the edges of social interaction, his intent focused: Get money. Get food.

The disciples watch, some of them annoyed at this interruption, others waiting for one of Jesus’ aphorisms to explain what is going on. But Jesus keeps talking with the boy, softly and quietly.

And then, all of a sudden, Jesus hugs him. The disciples watch, wide-eyed. Some of them are scandalized. Most men they knew wouldn’t embrace their own child like that in public.

But Jesus just holds this boy tight. As if that explained everything.


Conflicts and disputes: they can make us miss everything. James, in today’s epistle lesson, knows the feeling all too well. He diagnoses the problem like a good nutritionist: “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?”

Cravings: a shallow word posing as a synonym for hunger. We crave, and we grasp for status. We crave, and when we do not get the recognition we deserve, we make a move for the door.

But Jesus knows that we are more than cravers. We need more than the junk food of a cheap solitary victory, a few minutes in the winner’s circle. We are more than cravers. We do more than crave. We hunger.

And that, finally, is why we turn and re-turn, again and again, to the Bible. Not because it is a tool to gain the upper hand in life. Not because it is a vessel to help us escape from the world – no, this book is not that.

No, this book, our Book of Faith, is more like a table. Like a great big table around which we gather, seeking food. And God feeds us there, in this book, at this table, with the bread of teaching, with the bread of life.

It’s not that we always experience it that way; there is much that can taste bland or even bitter. But somewhere, while lost in the pages of this book, we each taste something we can’t forget.

Maybe we taste it often, maybe rarely; maybe we tasted it yesterday, or maybe a long time ago. No matter – the call of that taste keeps bringing us back, back to the Book, back to the Table.

But here’s the catch. We do not eat alone. We do not even eat only with our friends, or those we agree with, or those we like. There is no greatest table and no least table. Just. One. Big. Table. For all of us.

At God’s table there are many chairs. There are even chairs for people we don’t like very much. And there are especially, especially chairs for the poor. For the lonely. For the desperate. For the hungry. We get in line behind them. Or rather, we serve them.

Those with more serve those with less, until those the world sees as the greatest are serving those the world sees as the least, and the wisdom of the world breaks down, and the very world itself is turned upside down. And is, against all odds, set right.

But where to start? Maybe we could start with this Book of Faith. In a Bible study here at St. John United. At home with our family. On Sunday morning at worship. And then we would hear the words again:

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.’

Come, Lord Jesus. Be our guest.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Keadles Invade Seattle

Last weekend my parents came for a visit - and, as usual, we took pictures. Here are a few of our favorites...

Mom & Dad Visit Seattle

Monday, September 7, 2009

Starting Blocks

Two weeks in, without about ten days of work under my belt.

At this point, by “work” I mean figuring things out and feeling clueless a lot of the time. It’s more work than you’d think, that whole working-while-clueless thing. Our friend Elisabeth put it best, writing about her first week on internship: "I think I am supposed to be working, but as to what and how I am supposed to be working I haven’t the foggiest idea." Ok, so E’s exaggerations aside, we probably have a foggy idea of what this job is supposed to look like, but you get the idea, a fairly consistent feeling of: All right, so I’m here: Now what?

As for starting blocks for you, dear readers, I should probably explain a bit about what my week looks like – so far, at least.

My week begins on Tuesday at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, whose office space is located inside Denny Park Lutheran Church in downtown Seattle (just a few blocks from the Space Needle). I spent a lot of time on Tuesday morning checking my new intern email account, clicking around through old emails, trying to get a sense of things. In the afternoon my supervisor came in, and we spoke briefly about the job description and what I’d be doing. In the evening Chris and I tried to make it to a town hall meeting with our local US Representative on the University of Washington campus, but we, um, got lost in our new city and missed it. Sigh.

Wednesday morning I’m at St. John United Lutheran Church. I’m often the first one there in the a.m. – my supervisor lives an hour or so away and works at home in the morning, coming into church after the traffic dies down. We meet for an hour or so when she arrives, and then we’re off to a gathering of six or so Lutheran pastors whose churches are in northwest Seattle. There are a lot of Lutheran churches in Seattle, and therefore a lot of opportunities to meet other Lutheran clergy. Afterwards, in the afternoon, I worked on planning the first meeting of a new young adult group at St. John’s. (We’ll be at Hales Ales pub on Wednesday at 6, everyone’s welcome!)

Thursday is at St. John (known around here as S-J-U) again, where I spend the morning in contact with members of various church committees. By 11 o’clock my supervisor and I are on our way to a text (Bible) study with another, different, group of Lutheran clergy, this one held at the church Chris and I live inside of, in a fellowship hall just underneath our apartment. We spend a little more than an hour here, and then we’re off to a lunch meeting with other folks from the public policy office who are in the early stages of planning the annual fundraiser, to be held in May. After the fundraiser planning meeting, I spend the rest of the afternoon writing the Prayers of Intercession for Sunday morning. In the evening Chris and I try to make it to a Health Care Reform Rally downtown, but get confused about the bus schedules and end up arriving too late. Again. Sigh.

On Friday I’m back at the Public Policy Office, and this time I’m the only one at the office, all day. The office manager/administrator is working from home, and my supervisor is off somewhere – he’s often in Olympia, the state capitol, doing work for the office – and thus, I am alone. All day. I spend the entire day working on a project of database searches and cross-references that my supervisor had suggested. I learn a lot, but worry whether I’m doing what he had in mind. At the end of the day, I email what I have, hopeful that I’m on the right track.

Saturday mornings will normally see me busy with church or policy office work, but this Saturday I had an empty schedule, so Chris and I took advantage of it. We unlocked our bikes and rode them down 32nd street to find a dedicated bike trail that wound its way along the locks and then along the Puget Sound, spitting us out finally at Golden Gardens Park, one of Seattle’s best. We spent a few hours walking the park’s pebbled beach, Chris taking hundreds upon hundreds of photos of all manner of nature-y thing. (That’s right, folks – Chris is the photographer this year!)

Truth be told, the little tide pools and eddies of the Puget Sound’s pebbled shores are pretty awesome, and we feel blessed to live so close to them. On the way home, we stopped for lunch (pulled pork sandwiches!) at a BBQ place across the street from our apartment, and ended the day by going to the local Goodwill store to pick some used books on the cheap.

Finally it arrives: Sunday morning. I’m at church early, printing and posting a resolution our ELCA national church body recently passed endorsing a fair and equitable health care bill. During worship, my supervisor preaches on health care and mentions our advocacy work. I won’t preach for another two weeks, but I do robe up every Sunday, writing prayers, reading parts of the service, and assisting with communion. After church I shake everyone’s hand – gotta get used to this weekly receiving line – and then it’s off to coffee hour and Sunday afternoon meetings. Chris walks down the street to a bakery/coffee shop and reads for a few hours while she waits for me to finish.

By Sunday evening I am done with my week. We enjoy a quiet Sunday evening at home. I flip on the television, but, sadly, the Bears aren’t on – this is Seahawk country, and I’ll have to adjust. Sigh.

And Monday is my day off. We spend the morning getting a tour of Seattle from a member of our congregation, and then we have lunch with him and his wife. In the afternoon I bike down the street to a coffee shop – Cupcake Royale! greatest name ever! – and now I’m writing this, right… now.

Whew! One minute you don’t know where to start, and the next thing you know you’re off and running…