Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Dios.


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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.

Amen.

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

Help

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.

Amen.

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

SJU2

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!

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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?

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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.

Amen.

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.

Ordinary Time

A sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost
at St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle


Welcome to Ordinary Time!

Ordinary Time is a time in the church year that is sort of between seasons, or at least between festival seasons. One of the ways we tell the story of salvation in church is through the stories of these seasons, beginning with Advent and moving into Christmas, and then Epiphany, then Lent, then Easter, then Pentecost, and then last week Holy Trinity Sunday. As we tell the story week after week, season after season, we see the larger story arc develop. It’s like watching a serial TV show - like LOST, for example.

Now, I never followed LOST, my geek TV show was – um, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – but is anyone here a LOST fan? If you are a LOST fan, you probably know that if you watched it every week you start to see how the different episodes fit into a larger story.

Well, the stories we hear in church are like that too. When we hear them week after week, we can start to see how they tell a larger story over the course of the season.

So today we kick off a new season, a time we call “ordinary.”

I wonder what “ordinary time” will look like.

One way to get at it might be to think about what our own ordinary lives look like in this so-called “ordinary time.” So let’s do that. Let’s take just a few minutes to share with each other what’s going on in our lives in “ordinary time.”

So, please turn to your neighbor, and share with each other your low point during the week, what was your low light, maybe something you could have done without this week.

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Ok, now, turn to your neighbor again, and share with each other your high point during the week, your highlight, the best thing that happened to you this week.

Well. I don’t know what you all were talking about, but judging from the way the volume jumped up there it sure sounds like there is some stuff happening in ordinary time. Some not so good stuff, for sure, right? Some of our low points can be pretty serious. But, then, too, our high points can be pretty serious, too. Ordinary time is not so ordinary, after all.

Today, we heard three Bible stories that set the stage for what is to come in ordinary time.
We have a story from 1 Kings, in a story from Galatians, and in a story from Luke in which we hear stories that really are not that far removed from the stories of our everyday lives. People struggle to make ends meet. People get sick, and they don’t get better. People hurt each other, and sometimes they hurt the very people they love the most. People get so excited about an idea that they can’t see the trees for the forest. People die, and funerals are held. This is the same world we live in.

And yet, just like the world we live in, there is more going on in these stories, isn’t there? In the midst of all the dirt, there are green shoots of life in places where we least expect it.

In the first of these stories, the prophet Elijah raises a widow’s only son from the dead. Well, actually the Hebrew isn’t clear about what happened. Scholars point out that the ancient text is ambiguous about whether the boy was dead or just seemed dead, looked dead, acted dead, or really was dead. It is as if the writers of this story found themselves tasked with reporting on an event that was so new they didn’t really know how to write about it. Raising someone from the dead? This hadn’t happened before. The thing that God did was so new that it was hard to be clear about what was going on.

In the second story, from Galatians, Paul tells the story of his life. Paul writes, “I was zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” Paul is so zealous about these holy traditions, in fact, that he was, ironically, destroying the church of God. And then, Paul writes, God “called me through his grace.” As if something just happened out of the blue that changed everything. And then, without the proper training, without consulting with the authorities, without going through the proper channels, without jumping through the right hoops, without trusting the process, Paul just starts doing stuff, stuff like talking about what happened to him, he just starts telling people about the grace he’s experienced. He doesn’t need any theological training; he just tells them what happened.

And then, in the final story, from Luke, Jesus and all those who are travelling with him come upon a woman who is mourning the death of her future. Luke tells us that her only son had died, and she was a widow. Her grief must have been deep; that would be easy to assume even if the first words Jesus says to her didn’t acknowledge her tears. But in the first century, there would be even worse hardships to come. As a widow, she was already one of the most vulnerable people in society. This woman was facing a very uncertain future, if one could say she was facing a future at all.

But when Jesus shows up and starts doing crazy things. He breaks the religious rules by touching a coffin. Then he raises a dead person to life, and in so doing raises the widow to life, too, raises this family to life. And when the bystanders see what has happened, it changes the way they see the world. “God is back,” they say, “looking to the needs of his people!” Jesus lifts up first one person, then a family, then a whole village, until, Luke tells us, “the news of Jesus spread all through the country.”

Well. All well and good for Bible stories, but can the same be true here, in our ordinary lives? Can God do a new thing among us?

Last week the (RED) campaign released a film on HBO and YouTube called The Lazarus Effect. It’s about a new class of antiretroviral medications for HIV/AIDS patients. These tiny little pills are so effective that witnesses have been talking about a Lazarus Effect, after the man Jesus raised from death to life. These people are near death, and they are coming back to life because of pills that cost 40 cents a piece. This is a new thing happening in the world.

Last fall our neighborhood saw a series of arson fires put an end to local businesses, restaurants and gathering spaces. And now, less than a year later, several of those businesses are preparing to reopen once again – new life, right in our neighborhood.

And right here at in this congregation, new things are happening. Babies are being born. New garden plots are being divvied up. Plans are being made for summer potlucks with the neighbors. Concerts are being organized. All sorts of new things happening, like green shoots coming up out of the ground.

What will our green shoots look like in the days and weeks and months to come? I can’t say, but given the things that happen in ordinary time – the things that have happened in your life this week, the things that happen in our Bible stories, the things that are happening in the world, in the neighborhood, in our congregation, given all of these things that happen in ordinary time, well - if you’re wondering what’s going to happen next, you might just want to be prepared for anything.

Welcome to ordinary time.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Thanks and have fun being the Body

An Advocacy Sermon for Ascension Day, 2010
for Luther Memorial Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington




About a year ago an organization called 826 published a collection of letters written by kids to the president. They called the collection: Thanks And Have Fun Running the Country: Kids’ Letters to President Obama.

The subjects covered in these letters are comprehensive and offer the president advice on everything from what kind of pet he ought to get for his family to detailed suggestions for changing the tax structure. For example:

Dear President Obama,

You are just like a big me, because I am from Chicago and I am biracial and have curly hair. I live in Seattle now, but I’m still from Chicago.


How do you feel about being president?


My advice for you and your family is be yourself and you will change the world. If I were president, I would try and make the world a better place.


Sincerely,


Avante Price, age 7

Seattle

Dear President Obama,


My name is Eli. I’m ten years old. I live in Seattle, Washington. I am the oldest child in my family. I have one sister named Mahala. I have two dogs named Maggie and Roger. My favorite series of books is Harry Potter. It’s the best series in the world!

Now that you’ve heard about me, I want to give you ideas about how to make our country prosper.
I need to bring up a huge problem, the economy! I have a chain of events that you could trigger to lower the economy. First, get a green design company to design a new environmentally safe piece of technology. Then, create new jobs to install the new piece of technology. Finally, from the new jobs people will have more money, there will be less homeless people, which will end in a better economy.

I am very lucky to be writing to you like this. I hope you enjoyed my idea for a better country. It was very enjoyable writing to you like this, President Obama.

Yours truly,


Eli, age 10

Seattle


Dear Obama,


I like you because you won. We saw you on TV. I hope I am your friend.

Sincerely,


Edwin, age 6

Los Angeles

When I read these letters again last week, I was floored by what these kids had to say. In these letters you see their clear-eyed sense of what is broken in the world, their hope in the possibilities of the future, and, maybe most of all, their boldness in seeking to make friends with another person, even if that person happened to be the president of the United States. It is truly amazing.

And yet as I marveled at these things, my heart sank, because the spirit of these letters is so different from the more, shall we say, “adult” rhetoric that is being hurled about in the public square these days.

Some of the things that have been spoken over megaphones recently have been so awful they are not repeatable in polite pulpits. We hear them at rallies and on television sets, over the airwaves and over the Internet, in statements from elected officials including even, yes, from time to time, from the president himself as a new election season swings into high gear.

Of course I am speaking about the extreme poles of the political landscape, but none of us are immune from such things. We catch the same disease whenever we say things that went maybe a bit too far into personal attack. And we show the same symptoms whenever we have just kept silent when a word of truth, a word of peace, a word of love needed to be spoken to a person – even, yes, to an elected official – who needed to hear it.

Of course, we don’t mean to be this way. We often think we have good reason for either digging our trenches or staying out of the fray. A mighty fortress is our God, right? A sword – or a shield – victorious? That’s how the hymn goes, isn’t it?

But what if we humans have, by some horrible mistake, misjudged things? What if, instead of building a fortress around ourselves with a sword or a shield, what if we are actually building ourselves prisons, and locking ourselves inside their cells? What if we have jailed ourselves?

Today we remember when Jesus prayed for the apostles he had chosen and prepared them for mission in the world. In carrying out that mission, they would face consequences. When Paul and Silas, two apostles of the early church, carried out their mission in the world, they were thrown into jail for it.

Most of us don’t often face this problem in twenty-first century America – though, from time to time, our mission does get us into trouble with the powers that be. But we are no strangers to being held back by chains of other sorts. Too often, for us, they are chains we have made for ourselves – and chains we have made for others, too. We are jailers and prisoners at the very same time.

What a mess. Is there any hope for a people like us?

Three little words provide the answer.

Christ is Risen.
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed, from the earth to cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to sky, so we lift his name on high.

But there is more. For having risen, Christ now lifts our names on high, praying on our behalf, interceding on our behalf, acting on our behalf. On this Ascension Day, we remember when Christ rose not to escape the earth but pray, to intercede, to act on its behalf. On this Ascension Day, we remember when Christ became our advocate.

Because of what our advocate has done, we are freed from our prison cells, free to go and do likewise, free to go and free others from the cells they have built for themselves and for the cells we have put them in. The prisons of our world are many and varied.

Some are shackled by hunger and poverty. Others cannot shake the chains of unaffordable housing or healthcare. Many are behind the bars of a broken justice system. In faraway countries and on our own Gulf Coast there are those who find their freedom threatened by changes in the environment brought about by unsustainable practices. There are young people who yearn for quality and equality in education. And there are those, even in our day, who still struggle for civil and human rights.

The chains are many. But Christ’s advocates are many, too, and they are making the love of the Risen Christ known in the world by speaking up for justice and peace, for freedom and for risen life, for the neighborhood and for all the earth. Christ is clothing his people with power from on high. The same power that raised Christ from the dead is being placed on us to go and do likewise in the world, to go and do God’s liberating work with our hands.

In my internship at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State, I have seen God’s people doing God’s work with their hands in so many different ways.

In congregations across the state, I have seen God’s people fold their hands and pray on behalf of those who are imprisoned by injustice.

In congregations across this city, I have seen God’s people lift up their hands to hold signs and banners at marches and rallies.

And in congregations across this synod including, yes, at Synod Assembly this past weekend, I have seen God’s people take into their hands a pencil and a piece of paper and write letters to representatives, to senators, to the governor of Washington State, and even, sometimes, to the President of the United States.

Through writing letters, through marching at rallies, through praying on behalf of others, God’s people, God’s witnessing, serving, advocating people, are not looking up toward heaven for a Christ in the clouds. For we have heard the words from Ephesians, and we know that Christ is here working through us, his body in the world.

Come to the table. Receive the body. Become the body.

In Jesus’ name,
Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Our Quilted Future


Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, Mother’s Day, and Lutheran World Relief (Quilts) Sunday, 2010
For St John United Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington


Dear friends in Christ, it is still the season of Easter. Therefore:

Christ is Risen!
He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

A prayer before preaching. This prayer is one I heard from Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he prayed it in an interview on public radio this week. I know it’s an old prayer, a traditional one, but I’ll always hear Archbishop Tutu’s voice when I hear it. Let us pray.

Come holy spirit, fill the hearts of they faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.

I had a friend in town last weekend. When he arrived, he told me he had never seen mountains.

He had never seen mountains! I said, “Oh-ho! Well, my friend, you have come to the right place. This is one of the best places in the country to see mountains. You can stand in one spot, look to the west and see mountains, the Olympics, a jagged earthen fence between the Sound and the ocean. Then you can turn around, look to the east, and see more mountains, the Cascades, dotting the landscape from here up to Canada and down to Northern California. Then you can look to the south, and there’s the biggest mountain I’ve ever seen, the greatest of the Cascades, Tahoma, Mount Rainier! Seriously, dude. You want to see mountains? This is the place.”

But do you all remember what the weather was like last weekend?

We never did see any mountains.

Late on Saturday we took a ferry ride across the sound, and at one point I pointed west and I said, “Look! You can kind of almost see a shadow of the mountains, behind the clouds there!” He said, “Yeah… I guess I can kind of see it… sure.” He couldn’t see it. My friend came to Seattle, a place surrounded by mountains, and he went back home never saw having seen one.

Sometimes it is difficult to see what lies on the horizon.

One of my spiritual companions, Bono of U2, has a phrase for the kind of faith required to live into what God is doing even when we can’t always see it from day to day. Bono calls this kind of faith “vision over visibility.” Vision over visibility. Holding on to the vision of God’s future even when our ability see that vision becomes obscured.

In our reading from Revelation today, John of Patmos is given a vision of God’s future for all creation. Visibility had become obscured in his world, and so he needed a vision to keep him moving forward. And on one holy day long ago, he saw it: God renewing the face of the earth! A river of healing flowing through his city, washing away all the brokenness. A great tree growing up beside it, with plenty of life-giving fruit for all of God’s hungry people.

If John were writing in our day, God might have taken him to the top of Mount Rainier and given him a telescope to look down on Phinney Avenue, right down on this neighborhood around Woodland Park Zoo, and John would see the new creation coming alive in our neighborhood, a wild western river of healing and a big Red Cedar Tree with so much fruit there wouldn’t be any need for a soup kitchen anymore. “High heaven’s kingdom come on earth,” in the words of Wendell Berry.

On some holy day long ago, the author of Revelation could see it. No more hurting, whether from surface wounds or deeper ones. No more hunger, whether for bread or for more than bread.

But some days it’s difficult to see the vision of God’s future. Grey clouds move in, obscuring the glorious mountains beyond, with their green trees and wet snows. Some days a fog comes in so thick that from up here on the Ridge I can barely see the waters of the Sound.

Of course, those are just weather patterns. Fog dissipates, clouds break up and move on. What’s worse is when our visibility is obscured by painful events that make it hard to see God’s vision of a brighter tomorrow. Life can dis-illusion us, un-vision us, take away the vision that just yesterday we really believed was possible.

I think of the oil spill on the Gulf Coast. I think of racial profiling and discrimination not only in the Southwest but across the country. I think of the people in our neighborhood who are still dealing with the aftermath of buildings burned down in last fall’s devastating arson fires. And this week, I think of Sam Malkandi deported, and of a family torn apart. The visibility of God’s future can grow dim very quickly.

Jesus knew this was going to be a problem. In our reading from the gospel of John, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about a time when the memory of the resurrection will fade and the vision of God’s coming future will seem to be too far off. Jesus will eventually leave – in a physical sense, at least. And the new creation will seem further and further away.

But God has more than two ways of being with us. In this passage Jesus begins to prepare us for Pentecost, preparing us for the arrival of the one who will remind us of the vision when the visibility gets bad, who will make sure we’ll remember that Mount Rainier and the Olympics and the Cascades are still there even when clouds roll in, who will make sure we remember that the path into a brighter future is still there, even when the lights grow dim.

Maybe that’s why the Spirit is so often referred to with feminine pronouns. God has no human gender, of course, but if we are to use human concepts to make sense out of God, we might do well to use the image of a mom to imagine the Spirit’s work.

Moms can bandage our skin when we fall down and scrape a knee. They can bandage our hearts when they are broken by hurt feelings or a horrible injustice. They hold out a hand when the lights grow dim.

Our mothers – and all those who are like mothers to us: grandmothers, aunts, neighbors, friends, mentors, fathers, and yes, even sometimes kids when one day they become mothers of a different sort caring for their own mothers– these mothers of all kinds show us how the Holy Spirit works.

And at its best, this is what the church does, too. It’s no coincidence, after all, that our brothers and sisters in other Christian traditions refer to a “Mother Church.” The church is propelled out into the neighborhood, to remind the world that God is here, working for a brighter tomorrow. Through our hands, God feeds and shelters people. Through our hands, God nurtures the gardens of creation. Through our hands, God moves the clouds aside to show us the vision of a future we can’t always see.

And through our hands, God is making that future vision a visible reality. That vision becomes visible, for example, in the quilts that our Fabric Fantasy group has been making and sending. Pieces of cloth have been sewn together into blankets, and then they have been sent abroad, to faraway places. And in that very sending, a new sewing takes place. God sews the fabric of the world, connecting people across continents, mending the brokenness and making the vision – making us – whole again. Through quilts like these, God is making us one, so that what happens to others there affects us here, and vice versa. God is making us one, so that there is no separation between us and them – no borders, only a common thread. God is making us one people on our way to a common future.


Hear again this passage from Revelation:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

God is producing leaves for the healing of the nations. Do you want to know what one of these leaves of healing looks like? I have one to show you.

(Ask the a few people to help display one of the quilt for all to see.)

This is but one sign of what God is doing. Each of us here has our own pieces of different-colored cloth within us, our own creative gifts God has given us for the purpose of being added to cosmic tapestry. Come now to the table, that God might knit us together.

Let us pray again the prayer of Archbishop Desmond Tutu:

Come holy spirit, fill the hearts of thy faithful people, and kindle in them the fire of thy love. Send forth thy spirit and they shall be made, and thou shalt renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Under the Sea

The following is my "Intern's Message" for the May 2010 church newsletter.


The day after Easter, Chris and I took a mini-road-trip (a viajito, if you will) to the Olympic Peninsula to visit friends in Port Angeles and to check out the Tongue Point Marine Life Sanctuary, a collection of tide pools on the coast of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

We’ve seen miniature tide-life before; the photos we’ve taken of barnacles, bull kelp, rockweed and their watery friends that plaster our apartment walls are proof enough of that. But we’d never seen anything like what we found at Tongue Point.

Anemones that transform their dull above-water appearances into incomprehensibly vibrant colors, hot pinks and electric greens, when submerged in water. Starfish – huge starfish! – in oranges and purples Crayola couldn’t rival. And an endless carpet of mollusks – a mollusk planet, really – we eventually got used to walking on top of.

What worlds lay just beyond our horizons? What colors have we yet to see, to paint with? What thriving ecosystems are already at our shores, just waiting to be discovered?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Phyllis Tickle lecture at a nearby church in north Seattle. Tickle writes about “emerging” forms of Christianity, new ways of being and doing church that are part of an already-underway global shift that she believes will be as important as the Reformation.

As I listened to her muse about the future of global community and the future of the church, I thought about those tide pools and the vibrant worlds that flourished within them, worlds I’d never imagined could exist. Yet here they were, only a few hours from home. I wonder whether a discovery like our discovery of the tidepools is something like what God has in store for all of us in a future nearer than we think.

On May 2nd, Jerry Buss with be with us to lead a conversation during adult forum and to preach during worship. Jerry is the Director of Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission for the Northwest Washington Synod. I hope his visit will be one spark for an ongoing conversation about the vibrant discoveries God has in store for us here in this place, this year and in the years to come. Please join us.

I pray God’s blessing on all of us as one season of new life gives way to another.

In Christ,
Intern Matt

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

h2o



So, the theme of this blog was to be "finding grace in the pacific northwest," but aside from occasionally posted sermons it hasn't really turned out that way....until now!

Last week, Chris and I were poking around the Seattle neighborhood of Magnolia, really for no other reason that (a) we have this deck of Seattle neighborhood walks and we had a Magnolia walk we hadn't done yet and (b) the Magnolia walk had a bookstore and a bakery on it. We like both.

In the bookstore I stumbled upon the April issue of National Geographic. Pretty much the entire issue is devoted to water. There's even a section on "Sacred Waters" with photos of a Greek Orthodox baptism and a Mexican cenote among other examples. But of course, the coolest thing was the fold-out map, seen above, which now hangs in my office.

We call Earth "the blue planet" because it is so covered with water, but when we think of the vastness of Earth's water we usually think of the oceans. This map is different: it charts all the river systems of the earth, the veins of the earth. When depicted this way, we can see that even most of Earth's land is saturated with water!

Ok, so all this is obvious, I know. But the map hangs in my office now as a reminder that the same water in which I was baptized, the same water countless other people of myriad faiths have held sacred, have held to be a place where the divine omnipresence is especially present, that that water is EVERYWHERE.

So what does this have to do with the Pacific Northwest? Elsewhere in the NG issue there is a mapping of the relative water-stressed-ness of different regions of Earth. Guess which area has almost no water stress (relatively speaking)? Yep. Right here in el pacifico noreste.

I suppose it's unfair, and theologically suspect, to conclude that there's more divine presence here simply because there's more water here - though many a soul who has spent an afternoon gazing at the Puget Sound, with the frozen-water-capped Olympic mountains beyond, has been sorely tempted to do so.

But I will conclude this: If you want to find a reminder of grace in the Pacific Northwest, you don't have far to look, in almost any direction. Including, but not limited to, up.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Easter Breath

An advocacy sermon for Central Lutheran Church in Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington
on the Third Sunday of Easter, 2010

Acts 9:1-6
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Eternal and all-merciful God, with all the angels and all the saints we laud your majesty and might. By the resurrection of your Son, show yourself to us and inspire us to follow Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

+++

Christ is Risen!

I love that we speak those words aloud throughout these seven Sundays of the Easter season. Of course, it would have been impossible to celebrate Easter for only one Sunday, because the more we hear about the resurrection, the more we see that while it begins at Christ’s empty tomb, it cannot be contained there.

New life overflows, spilling out of the tomb and into the lives of the disciples, spilling out of their locked doors and into the most public of spaces, spilling out of their little fishing boats and into all of creation. In today’s gospel Simon Peter even dives into the sea, as if he is going to share new life with the fish and urchins and bull kelp… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

For what interests me as much as the water Peter dives into is its cousin, the air, that invisible gaseous mixture of oxygen and nitrogen and traces of argon and carbon dioxide and other rarer and obscurer molecules that we are usually oblivious to but that we spend our lives swimming in, breathing it in and breathing it out.

The air moving in and out of us is one of many signs that we are alive. As the air moves in and out, so many things happen. Oxygen flows through our bloodstream and into our muscles, making it possible for us to move through the world. Those muscles can do a variety of things, including the manipulation of even more air to create sound in the form of speech and song. Breathing, speaking, singing, signs that we are alive.

Our Scriptures reflect this centrality of our respiratory system. In the opening chapters of Genesis, the very first thing the Creator does after forming humanity from the dust is to breathe into the new creature; only when it has breath and is able to breathe and speak in the world does the creature become “a living being.” Jesus does a similar thing in our gospel text last Sunday, when he breathes the breath of the Holy Spirit into his disciples, and sends them out of the locked doors to proclaim the gospel out there, in the world.

There is an awful irony, then, in the beginning of our reading from Acts this week. In it we find the movement of air, a respiratory system at work. But is if this life, well, it does not seem to be quite what the Creator had in mind.

Our reading tells us that Saul, this wild child of God, is “breathing threats and murder.” It is a deathly breath. Saul gives this deathly breath voice, and asks the high priest for search warrants, powers of arrest, the right to lock up God’s living, breathing people. This is what Saul does with the air, moves it in and out of himself for a deathly purpose. Saul is breathing… sort of. Saul is alive… technically.

And yet, and yet. Saul is in a world that is beginning to overflow with Easter. He is about to become caught up in the resurrection of all things.

For as he was “going along,” the Scripture tells us, as he was “going along” somewhere between the high priest and the lowly disciples, as he was “going along” somewhere between the powerful and the persecuted, as he was “going along” as so many of us go along, Saul suddenly sees the light. Well, he doesn’t so much see the light as he is surrounded by the Light, overwhelmed by the Light, knocked off his high horse by the Light.

To the ground Saul goes. From the heights of the high priest he is brought low until he meets the dust. Dust: the source material out of which his creator formed him. Dust: the common thread he shares with the high priest and the disciple alike. Dust: the land swirling around in the air, bringing Saul face to face with the heart of creation itself.

Amid the dust arising around all around him Saul hears the voice of the crucified and risen One. Amid the dust arising the crucified and risen Christ speaks to Saul by name and tells him the truth about his deathly existence. And then, amid the dust arising the crucified and risen Christ brings Saul to life.

“Get up,” the voice commands him. The Greek word here for “get up,” anAstethi, might be more accurately translated “Arise.” It is the same word Peter will use in our reading next week when he raises Tabitha from the dead. Arise. Saul is not converted so much as he is resurrected.

Soon Saul is breathing again – but this time it is the breath of life, a breath resurrected.

For soon he finds himself in the presence of crucified people, and in their presence he finds himself filled with the windy and wild and life-giving air molecules of the Holy Spirit.

Soon he finds himself washed clean with still more molecules, hydrogen and oxygen joined together into water for a holy bath that makes him one with all of God’s crucified and risen people.

Soon he finds himself sharing a meal with these crucified and risen people, he finds himself sharing a meal with the very body of Christ.

And from that meal they goes forth together to live their new life, a new life which of course includes the continued movement of molecules through the air, breathing, speaking, singing. Saul now breathes the breath of life and out of his mouth will now come the good news of resurrection for all creation.

Saul will bring this good news, Christ tells us, this good news of creation-wide resurrection, to the most public of public places; he will bring it before the nations, before the rulers, before all of God’s people.

This year I have had the privilege of serving at the Lutheran Public Policy Office of Washington State. And in this work I have had the profound privilege of seeing new life everywhere: in communities, in the halls of power, and in congregations like this one, where faithful advocates like you carry out amazing advocacy ministries by taking the side of the marginalized and joining your voices to the chorus of those speaking the good news of justice and peace for all the earth.

I recently had one of these opportunities to see resurrection life taking place in the public square.

A group of faithful advocates had joined together at a rally for immigration reform in Occidental Park. We gathered with people who had streamed in from Walla Walla and Yakima and the Tri-Cities, from Vancouver and Anacortes and Bellingham, from White Center and Shoreline and Capitol Hill to breathe, to speak, to sing out in a chorus of voices calling out for the good news of justice and peace for all the earth.

One of the pastors who had gathered with us joined a throng of people on the stage who had lined up to offer greetings and to call for justice and peace in over thirty different languages. We can move the air in so many different ways yet still be breathing that same Holy Spirit air, still be speaking the truth about the deathly life we see all around us, still be singing the good news of the new life that God is raising up in all of creation.

It was for this that we have been raised, after all.

We may seem far from Saul and his radical resurrection. But we, too, can find ourselves on our knees, confronted by the reality of a world gone wrong. And so we come together here, in this place, where we are gathered together through a holy bath, where we breathe and speak and sing a holy word together, where we share a holy meal together with all of God’s crucified and risen people. From this place we, too, go forth, to bring the good news of a new life of justice and peace to the nations and the rulers and all of God’s people.

For it is not just Saul but all of us who hear the voice of Christ speaking to us and to all of creation in this Easter season:

“Arise.”

Amen.