Find the good

1-7-18

Matt. 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Around Christmas I saw Star Wars twice. I liked it a lot better the second time, but both times my favorite line was the same. No spoilers, but it’s when a character named Rose Tico has made has made a dramatic and risky judgment call (that I know not everyone here agrees with) and she explains it by saying, “We're going to win not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” It’s a quote that sums up a lot of the story arc in the movie, but it also tells us something as the audience: Rose has found something that she believes is worth saving, and in spite of the chaos around her she believes it’s time to stop and recognize that.

I confess that this year I felt more hope from Star Wars than from Christmas. Not because of the stories themselves, but because of how they were each presented. In Star Wars I could see the struggle, the courage and the joy of the world the characters live in, but around Christmas time it’s like we pretend that Jesus was born in a snow globe, all pretty and walled off from the rest of the world. And that’s a problem, because the world that you and I live in can at times feel closer to a nasty galactic battle than sparkly snow drifting onto a softly lit manger scene. The truth is that I’m tired. And that if Jesus showed up in some fairy tale then I don’t see what good that does you or me.

So in a weird way it’s helpful to read today, “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born.” King Herod was a nasty character, the sort of politician that will do anything to increase and hold onto his power no matter the cost to his people, or even those closest to him. He is among other things remembered for killing several immediate family members, including his second wife. In our own story, Herod is about to order the death of every baby boy in Bethlehem in the hopes that Jesus will be among them, and Jesus only survives by fleeing as a refugee to Egypt. If Jesus was born not in a snow globe, but in the time of King Herod then that is a world I can recognize. That is a world of struggle and courage. And yet today we hear not about fighting Herod, or even about saving anyone from him quite yet, but about searching, and bringing gifts, and joy.  

When the three wise men, probably astrologer priests from Iran, get to Judea they very logically go to the palace. After all they are looking for a prince. But when they find Herod, not Jesus, they are wise enough to leave and keep following the star until it stops above an ordinary house with an ordinary looking woman and her toddler inside. The wise men are wise, not so much because of their astrology, but because they recognize what is good when they find it. They recognize that it is Jesus that they have come to pay homage to, not Herod, and in finding him they are overwhelmed with joy. In spite of the fact that Herod is still out there, in spite of this not being what they expected, they recognize that with the star God has led them to something truly and purely good. So they stop and they give proper honor to what they have found and they offer what they can. It’s only after recognizing and rejoicing in finding something precious, that they protect it by defying Herod’s orders and sneaking out of town without telling him where to find and kill Jesus.

Many of us have spent a lot of energy in the past year fighting what we hate and protecting what we love. And that is good! But I at least also need to remember the wisdom of the wise men, to focus when God is trying to lead me to what is good and when I find it, to stop and recognize that. To bring what I can offer and to enjoy it! When he had grown up, Jesus took the time before saving us to make his first miracle changing water into wine at a wedding: simply recognizing what was good in that moment, what he had to offer and pausing with the joy of the people he had ultimately come to save. When we take the time to follow where we are being called, we also find what is good and what we have to offer, and our own joy in pausing there, in spite of the Herods, and as reason for the difficult decisions of when to fight and what to save.

So as this year begins I encourage you: find the good. Let God lead you towards the things in your own life that are precious, meaningful and of God, even if they’re more like a fragile baby in an ordinary house than the power and prestige of a palace. What is truly good is worth spending the time to find and to stay with. There will be times to save what you love, and even times to fight what you hate, but first there is time simply to find joy in the good that God has called us into.

On waiting with joy

12-3-17

Luke 1:46-55

 And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 
   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name. 
His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation. 
He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy, 
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’

 

Today we celebrate Advent, the season of waiting for Jesus to be born, and we celebrate with the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song of praise as she also waits.

First let’s get a few things straight about Mary. She was young, but of normal marrying age for her era and not as much younger than Joseph, as is often depicted. She is neither meek nor mild, I think her song about bringing down the powerful from their thrones speaks for itself on that count, and she is not a divine advertisement for female sexual availability. When she told the angel yes, she would carry the child of God her answer, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” is the answer of a prophet, not a concubine.

But the accumulated muck of bias aside, Mary is a bit of a shadowy figure. We know a few events in her life as they relate to Jesus, and even a few of her personal reactions to them, but in the scheme of the gospels we hear very little from her. Today’s reading is the most she speaks, or rather sings, and it is not at all what one might expect a pregnant teenager to say. There’s nothing here about babies or family, in spite of the fact that she might very well have expected delivering her firstborn son to be the most important achievement of her life. Instead Mary begins with praise for God’s faithfulness to her personally and then leaps straight into the greater meanings of this birth: God has fulfilled the promises to Abraham, has filled the hungry with good food and sent the rich away, and has “scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.”

You might notice something else odd about Mary’s song, and that is that she is singing about the future actions she anticipates for Jesus in the past tense. Much academic ink has been spilled over this, but essentially Mary is rejoicing over something that hasn’t happened yet, but is consistent with what she knows of God’s actions in the past and what the angel told her to anticipate for the future. So she claims the joy now, even in the first fragile months of her pregnancy, before she could know beyond a doubt that she would have a son, she knew that this child was worth waiting for beyond anything she had experienced in her young life. She knew that she was not alone in her waiting; that God and generations of promise stood with her. And she knew, even as the full beauty and pain of who her child would be were still beyond her, that what was holy would turn her whole world upside down.

Like Mary, we never really understand the full implications of what we hope for, especially when those hopes involve God and the holy. Our hopes go out beyond us, and they should. In our anticipation we can only know part of what it is we wait for. Our anticipations may not be as world upsetting as giving birth to the Christ child, but they do go beyond what appears on the surface and even have potential to go into the realm of holiness more often than I think we realize.

I don’t know what it is that you are waiting for, whether the longings most personal and dear to your heart or the things that might seem a bit frivolous, but I believe they are all more than meet the eye. That even in your most joyful, or nervous, or sad or frustrated anticipation, there will be parts that are more beautiful, more complex and more holy than you can know. So I hope that together we can wait like Mary, knowing that what we wait for with God is so worth it, trusting that we can go ahead and claim some of that joy even of things that have not yet come to pass, and making room for a bit of awe that all that we wait for is both very human and will be brought by God’s presence into being something that is also a bit divine. May you find joy in the waiting.

 

Enough and more than enough

8-6-17

Matthew 14: 13-21

13Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 

 

My question about the Feeding of the 5,000 this week has been “Why is this so important?” It’s one of very few miracle stories that is repeated across all four gospels, it’s taught to children, depicted in art and there are even Churches of the Multiplication…though not a lot because that’s really hard to say. And yes, in some ways it is an extraordinary story… but in the scheme of Jesus’ miracles: walking on water, raising Lazarus, casting out demons, calming the storm…taking bread and fish and making more bread and fish is pretty ordinary. So why does it stick in our imaginations the way that it does?

            I think that’s because for Christians, this is a miracle story, yes, but it’s even more an identity story. We understand God as the one who shows up with us, heals us, and feeds us in both our physical bodies and our spirits. And we understand ourselves as people who gather looking for something from God, then eat together, provide for each other as we are able, and always believe that whatever we are able to bring to the table, God will make out of it enough, and more than enough.

            Now in a way I mean that very literally: eating together is what we do. Christians have been having gatherings much like tonight for thousands of years now and sharing both ordinary and ritual meals. Of all Christian ritual, the most central is a meal. Communion is now quite stylized but at its bones, it’s dinner with friends and dinner with God. It echoes Jesus’ last dinner with his friends, but also this story of bread and fish for thousands, and dinner on the road to Emmaus, and heavenly banquets, and every person through time and space who has gathered around a table like this. There are layers upon layers of meaning brought together by what we do that is both ordinary and extraordinary: eating together and eating with God.

            …and in some mysterious way, eating God. That’s a much more extraordinary claim that having more bread and fish than you started with. In some ways, it’s downright offensive, and it’s no wonder that Christians have been accused of cannibalism from time to time. Some Romans believed we ate babies since they heard stories of dinner gatherings that included a ritual meal of body and blood, and also noticed that when Christians found babies who had been been “exposed,” left out to die in the elements, they took them home. Putting two and two together, we must be eating the babies.

            But in reality of course, what we eat is in most ways very ordinary. The wine is from Total Wine, the bread, crackers and grape juice are from Target. Part of what connects us to communion is that this is the recognizable stuff or our daily lives. Yet it is also body and blood of Christ, in a miraculous but very real sense, so that in this ritual God becomes both the hosting friend who is always cooking for us, and the meal itself that gathers community, gives strength and forgives whatever is twisting our spirits. It is the most visceral reminder possible that God loves us creatures enough to die for us.

            And so Christians gather, week after week, all over the world to follow some ordinary and yet extraordinary instructions, “this is my body that is given for you, do this for the remembrance of me.” And we remember again who God is and who we are:

God is the one who sticks around and feeds us. We are people who eat together, share what we have, and expect that in both ordinary and extraordinary ways, God is present and will make it enough and more than enough. Amen. 

Hearing in your own language

 

Pentecost: 6-4-17

 

Acts 2:1-17

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.

 

 

What does it feel like to suddenly hear your native language? Many of us hear our native language all the time and may not think about it that much, but if you’re someone who’s spent time in a place where your native tongue is not spoken, or only rarely spoken, then you know the sudden relief and delight of hearing deeply familiar words when you didn’t expect them.

I lived in Japan for a while after college and my Japanese was dreadful to non-existent. For the first seven months I was there, I lived in a tiny coastal town where very few people spoke English. Sometimes I’d go for days without being able to communicate with the people around me, and it was a strange sort of silence that would descend. I wanted to talk, and people tried to talk to me, but I felt trapped in the silence of my own language. One day I was at Aeon, the local Target equivalent, looking for some foundation. I was struggling with all the labeling in the make-up section because I could tell that most foundations included skin whitening ingredients and I really didn’t want that, but I couldn’t read enough to find one that didn’t. Then an employee a few years older than me approached and said with complete fluency, “Hello! Can I help you find something?” and I just about fell over. “You speak English!” I said. “Yes, I speak English. What are you looking for?” It turns out her name was Etsuko and she was a pharmacist in town for a few months working odd jobs and we went on to become good friends. But at that moment I was simply amazed and perplexed.

So I can only imagine how the crowd in Jerusalem felt, especially because they weren’t just hearing about make-up. The people who were speaking were the very beginning of the church. The Book of Acts picks up where the Gospel of Luke ends and continues the same story, so this was just barely after Jesus and people were beginning to gather in a small Christian community called The Way. The author says it was about 120 people. Then these 120 people have this incredible experience with the Holy Spirit, where it sounds like a windstorm and it looks like fire, and then they begin to speak in the languages of everyone in the city. And people begin to gather because it’s noisy, and because they’re having that experience of suddenly hearing their own native language. It doesn’t say exactly what everyone was saying, just that they were “speaking about God’s deeds of power.” Maybe they were talking about the Exodus when the Israelites were freed from slavery, or about Jesus’ resurrection and how it means that death doesn’t get the last word, or quoting from the prophet Joel that Peter quotes in his speech about the Holy Spirit making the young people see visions and the old people dream dreams. Whatever they were saying, the crowd heard it with double amazement, as familiar words and as words of grace.

Hearing words of grace has a similar effect on us to suddenly hearing in our native language. They both make your heart skip a beat a little, make you think “Oh, that’s what I’ve been longing to hear but I didn’t expect.” I can think of times in my life when I’ve been caught of guard by grace in someone else’s words, and at that moment that person was the sign to me that Milosz asks for in the poem, someone who I both see for themselves and who causes me to marvel at God. There are some words of grace that we probably all share, but I also think we each have our own. These are the words that we most deeply long to hear, and the ones that speak God’s grace the loudest to us. I’ve realized that my word is “welcome.”

I know it’s a common enough word. You can find it on doormats or coffee mugs or hear it when you walk into a hotel, but I don’t mean like that. I mean when someone really means it. Because then, “welcome” is a vulnerable word and a remarkable one. You’re telling someone, usually someone you don’t know very well, that there is a place for them, just as they are, in your life or your community. That’s a risky and a grace-filled thing to do! I can think of a few times when that’s happened to me. One was when I was just starting to work as a receptionist at Central Lutheran and at the time I was pretty quiet about being gay because I wasn’t really sure how that would go over in a church. So one day another staff member there was in the office and he said something offhandedly about being gay. So I gathered up my courage and said, “Yeah, me too.” and he turned to me with this giant grin, swept me into a huge hug and said, “You are?? That’s wonderful! Welcome!”

Or there was the time years later when I was in grad school and I needed to find an internship site here in Minneapolis so I could be near my fiancée at the time, Maggie. But I went to school in Chicago and the local school here had taken all the internship sites. So my school started just calling around to churches to see if any of them would consider an intern. There was one place that said that they hadn’t had anyone in years but maybe they could work something out. So I was really nervous because I felt like this was my one shot to be near my fiancée.  I went to go interview with the pastor there and when I showed up at the church, she flung open the door with a big smile and said, “Welcome! We’ve been praying for you!” And I was amazed, and a little perplexed.

Maybe “welcome” isn’t that word for you, but there’s another word you long to hear. One that makes your heart skip a beat and you think, “Oh, that was what I was longing to hear, but I didn’t expect.” Maybe you haven’t heard it in a long time, or not from the people who most needed to say it to you. But when you do, suddenly there is God’s grace reflected back at you. Because you know it’s something God would say, but sometimes we need visible signs.

And maybe, the other way, you know of words that need to be said; words that a person or a place in your life longs to hear. It could be your partner or your friend, or your workplace or congressional district. What words of grace do they long to hear? And could you, even just for a minute, be that visible sign of God’s grace to them?

I know it’s a little cheesy, but this evening I want to share my word with you: welcome. Welcome to this new little faith community. We don’t know exactly what it will look like yet, and we may not know each other very well, but there is a place for you here, and there are more than enough words of grace for all of us.