Sunday, June 27, 2010

Common Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Christ,

Intern Matt


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s love is like that.

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

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

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

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


Life of Folk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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.