Sunday, June 29, 2014

You're Invited -- Matthew 10:40-42

On weeks like this, as a preacher, you read over the assigned gospel text and say, “Well, I could just read that aloud and sit down.” Some weeks, the message delivers itself. “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” Welcome! 

Though you would not have asked me here today if that was all you needed, so, I suppose I’ll say a few words.

In this tenth chapter of Matthew’s account of the good news, Jesus is explaining to the disciples just what they ought to expect as they go out to continue the work of proclaiming the good news to the world. Over the last few weeks, the lectionary has walked us through the ups and downs. First, Jesus told them who to proclaim to, what to proclaim, and what else they should be doing: cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons—you know, the usual. They should take no payment for this work, but rely on the kindness of strangers. However, the disciples will be like lambs among wolves—not ideal. They should be prepared to be arrested and beaten and put on trial because of their affiliation with Jesus. He assures them, though, that the Spirit will move through them in this trauma. 

This really drives home the idea that Jesus was not necessarily the most popular guy in town. And we’re aware of that. Christians are still not necessarily the most popular guys in town. We’re “welcome” in a community (or a conversation, even) based on how people feel about knowing we’re affiliated with Jesus. Because of what most people associate with words like “christian” and “pastor” and “worship” and “baptism” and “salvation” and “evangelism”—the Religious Right—we the Religious Left have a hard time getting our message through before people’s eyes glaze over. 

And that’s a best case scenario! Plenty of folks have been hurt by the church—you and me included—who struggle to believe that “Progressive” and “Christian” can go together. Our own ELCA has had it’s struggles with this, when it comes to the ordination of female pastors and the ordination of queer pastors. 
How many of the first female seminarians—told they could study just as hard and care just as much as their male classmates but were “unfit” for the ministry of word and sacrament—felt welcome? 
How many queer seminarians—told they could study just as hard and care just as much as their heterosexual classmates but were “unfit” for the ministry of word and sacrament—feel welcome? And though we have rules and regulations and Vision and Expectations on the subject, we’re not perfect. 

Pulpits aside, what about you? 
What about the people in our pews and the people not in our pews? What does that welcome feel like? 

While we’re at it, let’s look at that word, “welcome.” Think about how that word works. When someone arrives at the place where you are—your home, probably—you welcome them. Right? Sometimes they’ve arrived unannounced—like if you’re welcoming them to your place of business. They’ve come to you, and you have offered them, at the very least, the word “welcome!” 

A friend of mine, Rob Moss, is a pastor in suburban Denver. Last year, he and his congregation decided to change that word. Because, welcoming someone is “passive. It denotes waiting for visitors and guests to drop by. When they do, we attempt treat them very well and do everything possible to make them comfortable. We’ll be willing to change who we are. We’ll follow particular formats that have proven to be more welcoming to new people. We’ll do whatever it takes to have them come back the next Sunday, even if they shouldn’t. Welcoming is about us, not about them.” 

Welcoming people into our church communities assumes that they’re going to know to show up at our door. That they’re going to come to us.  That they’re going to be the ones doing all the work.

Rob and his congregation decided to change their verbiage to being an “inviting” congregation. Because that’s different. In order to invite someone,  “we leave the comfort of our congregational home-court advantage. The main activity doesn’t happen in our worship space when people drop in, but in the neighborhood when we go out. It isn’t so much welcoming them into our place, but going out into their place and meeting them there.” Pastor Rob synthesizes the whole idea when he writes, “Welcoming involves hoping whoever happens to find you will join. Inviting involves sharing God’s specific gifts—made real in your congregation—in the world.”

How does this change Jesus’ words in the text for today? “Whoever invites you invites me, and whoever invites me invites the one who sent me.” Later on, in the text, Jesus says that those who welcome prophets—no matter if you agree with that prophet’s message—will be rewarded as those prophets will be rewarded. How people receive us is going to be affected by how we receive them. How people receive us is going to be affected by how we invite them. 

I can feel you all squirming. Invite someone? To church? The horror! Heaven forbid we engage in evangelism, out loud, to a real fellow human person! Ahhhh! 

Today, of all days, is going to be a great day to do that. After church today, I’m going to watch the Pride Parade, and cheer for all of the incredible performers and floats and groups doing incredible work for everyone in this city—for people of every gender and sexual expression. This is a welcoming day, of course. But today can also be an inviting day. 

If you’re out today, and someone notices that you’re, say, wearing a cross and also waving a rainbow flag—take that opportunity to say, “Looking for a way of being church that wants you, celebrates you, loves you? I’d like to invite you to mine.” If you’re out today, and you run into a protestor waving a horrific sign that puts words in God’s mouth that we’ve never read in this book—take that opportunity not to swear at them or spit on them (though Lord knows we’ve all considered it) but rather to say, “God loves you and me and everyone, actually, and if you’d like to experience that God, I’d like to invite you to my church.” I have my doubts that people will agree on the street to come to worship next Sunday, but they’ll at least think about the idea that you, and St. Francis, and the ELCA, and people who love Jesus could also invite, welcome, and love them. 

We know (or are learning) that God loves us. That we are claimed and loved as children of God despite and because of everything that makes us unique individuals and a motley crew.  We know that though we have not always done everything according to plan—ours or our parents’ or anyone else’s—God has loved us and the Spirit has moved throughout. We know that, as the Apostle Paul claims in this week’s text from his letter to the Romans, though we have been slaves to sin, and we have done things of which we are now ashamed. This much cannot be denied by any among us. But what is undeniable, too, is that we are free from that sin. We are freed by the grace of God. Who wouldn’t want to be invited into that?

Amen.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Father Abraham -- Matthew 10:24-39

Genesis 21:8-21
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always. Amen.

When I first read through today’s scripture, I was like, “whoa.” Some really seminal stories from our tradition, for sure, full of meaning. I don’t know how much you all know about sermon preparation, but I was thinking, immediately upon reading these foundational words that it’s a good thing I get to consult thinkers besides myself for this sermon this morning. It’s a good thing that the only resource available to me is not just these words on these pages and the thoughts in my head, but rather the words that surround these words in this whole book, and the thoughts in the heads of all those who have come before me in faith. That extreme is also overwhelming, but it’s a huge relief. This is probably not the first sermon you’ve heard on these texts, and it probably won’t be the last—which is also great, because now there’s no need for me to rattle off everything you ought to know about Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael and Sarah and Hagar and Paul and Jesus and…the gang’s all here. 

So, where to begin?

Let’s begin in the Family Center, just across the way. It was there, nearly 20 years ago that I first learned the Sunday School song “Father Abraham” during Learning Circles one morning. “Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had Father Abraham…” If you know it, you’re welcome that it will be in your head now, forever. The next line is “I am one of them, and so are you,” but this ancient story also produced my first experience of feminism, as my friend Elizabeth Limbach sang, instead, “I’m not one of them, cuz I’m a girl.” The song ends, “So let’s all praise the Lord.” Let’s. 

Praise the Lord that we are here together this morning!
Praise the Lord that the sun is shining!
Praise the Lord that we are mostly happy and mostly healthy!
Praise the Lord that when we are mostly unhappy and mostly unhealthy, we are not alone!
Praise the Lord for old friends and for new ones!
Praise the Lord for ends and for beginnings!
Praise the Lord for adventures and for homecomings!
Praise the Lord for struggles and for reconciliation!

I know this is a Lutheran church, but can I get an amen? A hallelujah? Praise God. Okay, awesome. But now let’s take a look at those texts. 

We know these characters well. We’ve heard their stories and we vaguely remember their names and what lessons God taught them and what lessons that teaches us. But what, really, do we do with this part of being one of Abraham’s “many sons”? 

Just to recap, this story is the end/beginning of the struggle between Sara, Abraham, Isaac, Hagar, and Ishmael. Sara and Abraham had no children and were very old—like a few hundred, because that’s how ancient storytelling works—but God had promised that they would have descendants as plentiful as the stars. So Sara agreed that Abraham should father a child with Hagar, their slave, so that he’d have offspring. God promised to make of that son, Ishmael, a great nation, too. And then Sara got miraculously pregnant and had Isaac. Two heirs to the lineage of Abraham, two promises from God. Uh oh. 

So, in the portion we heard this morning, Sara demanded that Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael, because there was no way that the two boys could share in the promise of God. That had never happened before and it wasn’t about to happen now, apparently. 

This story is an easy allegory for the ongoing struggle between the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—that have followed. Though separated, Isaac and Ishmael—and we—must live together in the extended family of God. A Rabbi named Arthur Waskow writes that Isaac and Ishmael—and we, descended of Abraham, too—are a “cloudy mirror to each other.” The problem is not that we are so different, but that we are so similar. 

For the Israeli/Palestinian crisis, it is impossible for both groups to reconcile that they “love the same land.” God has promised this land twice—to Isaac and to Ishmael, to Jews and to Arabs—because God wants all of God’s people to “live out their particular pattern of holiness” in an embodied, planted, rooted, earthy, place

Rabbi Waskow does an incredible job of giving Christians the lay of the land in this millennia-old war—and then offering us a specific place at the table. [If you want to know more about this, specifically, I can point you toward Rabbi Waskow’s essay. If you want to know more about this, in general, I can point you toward Pastor Daren and his PhD research.] 

The great thing that Rabbi Waskow gives to us is this deep wisdom: As Christians, we’ve weaseled our way into weird positions—some us are Christian Zionists, more zealous even than most Jews about their right to inhabit the land we call holy, condemning Palestinians as aggressors and terrorists; some of us are aggressively Pro-Palestinian, claiming that the land was unlawfully given to the Jews as a sovereign state, with no regard for anyone’s holiness. We insert ourselves into arguments about Jewish tradition and Muslim tradition, meanwhile, we notice not the log in our own religious eyes.

How can we, then, as complex people of complex faith affirm all of the above—Jewish, Muslim, Christian—“children of God in the body and spirit of Abraham”? 
Sorry if you’re expecting an answer. This is not a question for one sermon or one church or one nation—but we are better for it if we wrestle with these big questions again and again and again. Together.

We’re going to do some things wrong—we’re going to grab at words as they tumble out of our mouths, wishing we could stuff them back in there before anyone heard them. It happens. 

In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he acknowledges that the stakes are pretty high. I just love the abrupt start of our portion this morning. Right off the bat, he’s like, “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!”—if any of the high schoolers are playing sermon bingo this morning, I hope “sin” and “grace” are on your card. But I don’t know about that, y’all. Martin Luther says “Sin boldly! Trust and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” A fun thing about having so many “fathers” of our faith is that even they disagree sometimes, and we get to draw our own conclusions, taking theirs into consideration. What fun! I’m with Marty on this one. Grace abounds. Be who you are, unafraid of what pieces of you others may name as sin. Speak truth to power. Speak the truth to one another in love. Err on the side of saying so. Grace abounds. 

This brings us to the third confusing text of the morning, the Gospel. Jesus is talking about slaves and masters and teachers and Beelzebul and secrets and dark and light and bodies and souls and then sparrows…? (Congratulations, by the way—you are of more value than many sparrows. I’m putting that on my résumé.) 

These verses are meant to be reassuring, but I’m not reassured. Shelley Douglass, who’s part of the Catholic Worker movement, is with me on this one. “Who wants to lay down their life?” She asks. “Baptismal death is comfortably symbolic; we’d prefer to leave it that way.” 
The part of this dying to life paradox that is comforting, after all, is “not that we won’t die, but that if we die for [Jesus’] sake, we will live again. Like Jesus, we will live a transformed life.” 

Sometimes, in this transformed life, we’ll run into those hard conversations and insolvable riddles and those foot-in-mouth moments. We’ve been warned by Jesus in this text that we’ll be set father against son, mother against daughter, in-laws against in-laws—families might be torn apart. That’s a huge risk. That’s some bold sinning we’re about to do. 

But Shelley Douglass continues to keep it real, writing, “We cannot know as we begin to act what the outcome will be. We can only know that as we respond to the mercy shown to us by showing mercy, we invite the death of our former selves. And we believe—sometimes barely—that when the dust has settled…we will regain our lives.” Mmm. 

And so my favorite prayer that Martin Luther wrote seems like the ideal way to draw this to a close: “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”


Amen. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

#YesAllWomen

I've been a little busy (you know, graduating from seminary) and so I haven't been here, addressing all the things that have caught my attention in the last few months. My newfound freedom (this week has already been sprinkled with "what now?" and "I think I'm bored" more than once) allows for some words on #YesAllWomen, and what that has to do with me.

I've been mulling over just how I want to talk about it, and a lot of that has to do with how everyone else has chosen to talk about it. If you've been on the internet in the last week, you've seen a lot more think pieces about misogyny than you're used to (unless you're me and you follow feminist writers who rarely put down the subject). You've seen the responses from men and women in support and in opposition. I don't really want to give you the scoop on who thought it was great and who thought it was stupid--you have the rest of the internet for that information. What I want to tell you is how I experienced it. Because this is my blog and that's what I do here.

On Saturday night (5/24) I crawled into bed after a wonderfully busy day of graduating and celebrating. I checked Facebook and Instagram to like some more of my classmates' pictures, and then perused twitter to see what had gone on that day, since I'd been largely absent. My feed was full of tweets and retweets tagged #YesAllWomen, sharing stories of harassment and trauma and the added terror of never being heard.

Women empowered each other to tell the world just what it is that we suffer day in and day out. We talked about everyday street harassment: catcalls, demands for smiles, lewd gestures, being followed, additional harassment for refusing advances. We talked about bars: unwanted chatter, drinks that demand something in return, being anonymously groped, additional harassment for refusing advances. We talked about dates: fear of the semi-stranger we'd agreed to meet, escape plans, "got home safe" text messages.

We talked about things like the number of men who hadn't called us for a third date after we'd said "no" to sex on the second. We talked about male friends who regularly use "rape" in sentences that are not about rape. We talked about male friends who think catcalls are compliments. We talked about talking to our friends and partners about our experiences, and about their less-than-thoughtful responses. We talked about how we hadn't necessarily thought about all of these things as misogyny before, but recognized the implications that our bodies were something to which those men felt entitled, and their ability to brush off our worst fears.

In addition, of course, to talking about all of our fears, we talked about why we have these fears in the first place. We talked about stranger rape, and date rape, and partner rape. We talked about intimate partner violence of all kinds. We talked about being attacked on the street and having onlookers literally look on. We talked about stalkers and about police departments who couldn't help until there we talked about things like the number of men who hadn't called us for a third date after we'd said "no" to sex on the second--we hadn't really thought about that as misogyny before, but recognized its implications that our bodies were something to which those men felt entitled.

The point is that we talked. We learned more about each other, we learned more about our common lives, we learned more about how to talk to children and adults about the realities of violence. I learned about how common my experiences (and the experiences of my friends) have been. It's hard to explain how gross it feels to feel lucky that I have never been raped. It's a little bit grosser to debate with myself about putting a "yet" in that sentence.

If you're male, think about the ways in which your behavior could be perceived as scary to women. If you can't think of any examples, ask a female friend or your female partner, if you have one. She may love you, but she can probably think of one. And when she next tells you about the harassment she received on her way to your house, worry about that. And when you're next with your male friends and one of them says or does something you think even borders on sexism or misogyny or harassment, say so. That's what it takes.

If you haven't spent time in the #YesAllWomen hashtag, mosey on over and read for yourself what's up. Think about the ways in which you interact with your fellow humans. I know, right? That's really all I'm asking.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Let's eat; let's walk. -- Luke 24:13-35

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Imagine for a moment that you are one of those disciples on the road to Emmaus. You’ve been walking a while—slowly, because it’s pretty warm and you’re exhausted from the chaos of the last few days. The two of you were together the last year or so, travelling with Jesus and learning and teaching and spreading the good news. Just last week you were with him when he rode into Jerusalem for the Passover—what a day!

The next few days are where it starts to get blurry because everything happened so quickly. One moment you were all in the garden together, praying, and the next those men from the chief priests came and arrested Jesus, took him away. And it sort of seemed like your friend Judas had something to do with that, but, you and the rest of your friends can’t really figure out exactly what happened—all you remember is running.

You heard through the mess of the city that he was going to be killed—crucified!—on the hillside just out of town, so you went there, hoping to see him, maybe talk to him, maybe find your friends, maybe find a way to free him, even! But when you finally saw him, it was too late. There he was. Your teacher, your friend.

Even now, as you remember the scene, you try to cover your ears to keep from hearing the echo of the hammer and nails, the cries, the jeers from the crowd as they mocked him. When it was too much to bear, you left. You’re not even sure what you did the next day—wandered around Jerusalem, looking for a friend to travel with. You’ll go home, you guess. What is there to do, here, anymore? Jesus is dead. All of your work, all of your plans, everything has been ruined. The man who was supposed to bring about this kingdom of God has been wrenched from your grasp.

The two of you, walking to Emmaus, have been rehashing what you can remember and trying to fill in the blanks and the blurs. The weirdest thing is that your friend, Cleopas, with whom you’re walking, said that some of your friends, the women, went to Jesus’ tomb this morning and found it empty. They said they’d seen a vision of angels that told them Jesus has been raised from the dead! You can’t even begin to believe that. Others went, after the women had told them what had happened, and saw that the tomb was truly empty, but, what did that prove? Someone took his body away. You don’t even like thinking about that.

There are so many stories to hear and to tell, so many things to try to explain.

And that man you just met on the road, who was he? He was coming from Jerusalem just as you were, and yet, when you mentioned the things that happened, he asked, “What things?” How could you even hope to express to this stranger what you have been through? How could he possibly understand?

You explained, to the best of your ability—even mentioning the thing about the women believing Jesus to be resurrected—and he had the audacity to tell you that you should have been prepared for this, because if Jesus really was the Messiah, like everybody said he was, it had to end this way. And then he talked about scripture, the whole rest of the way to Emmaus. It was stories you knew about your people’s history, and Jesus had told them to you a hundred times. It was a little bit like he was telling them to you, again, then, through this stranger on the road.

Not knowing where he was headed, you invited him to eat with you. Jesus was always inviting everyone to the table, so you felt it was the right way to remember him, today.

Lo and behold, in the breaking of the bread, it is him! Jesus the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, your friend, your teacher, your God. There at the table where he had always made God’s love known to you and to your friends, he made himself known, once again.

And isn’t that the way it always works? We venture out into the great unknown, disciples of Jesus to the best of our abilities—which, fortunately, we have a great example set by the 12 of doing a very poor job of following Jesus perfectly—and encounter God in the most expected and the most unexpected places.

Y’all might know of Sara Miles, an Episcopalian here in the city—she feeds people over at St. Gregory of Nyssa. She wrote a book that’s mostly about food—kind of like the Bible. She wrote a few chapters about her sudden and slow encounter with God in the Eucharist, and how it extended to pretty much all food. She worked in some kitchens and was around an abundance of food (and food waste) and then, as a journalist, she covered the civil wars in Latin America in the 1980s, where food was very scarce.

Once she’d experienced the eucharist at St. Gregory’s, she spent the better part of a year trying to figure out how this food and faith connection worked.

About that process, she writes these great words: “Poking around in the Bible, I found clues about my deepest questions. Salt, grain, wine, and water; figs, pigs, fishermen, and farmers. There were psalms about hunger and thirst, about harvests and feasting. There were stories about manna in the wilderness and prophets fed by birds. There was a God appearing in radiance to Ezekiel and handing him a scroll: ‘Mortal,’ God said, ‘eat this scroll,’ and Ezekiel swallowed the words, ‘sweet as honey,’ and knew God.” Hmm.

And Jesus by no means abandons that medium! She keeps writing that “in the New Testament appeared the astonishing fact of Jesus, proclaiming that he himself was the bread of heaven…. he said he was bread and told his friends to eat him.”

And when we talk about Jesus' “friends”, remember who those friends were. Nobody fancy or important by their societal standards. Jesus made a point of eating with whoever was at the table, whoever would invite him to their table, whoever had never received an invitation to a table, before. Like Sara, I love how ordinary Jesus’ work was. That Jesus simply and radically ate with people, walked with people, talked with people. She even writes about this walk to Emmaus, and how it was in the breaking of the bread that his friends could recognize him.

Where is it that we recognize Jesus? Where are we being fed and where are we feeding others that serves as an encounter with the face of God? Certainly here in the Bay Area, bustling with people and noise and trains and taxis and bicycles, there are endless faces to see. But do we? There are stark contrasts in this city and in this nation between those who are seen and those who are unseen. Here at St. Francis I know that y’all have a history of making unseen people seen. A history of speaking the truth in love to our dear ELCA, and facing the consequences. It is in these acts of radical hospitality that you have provided access to the table for those who had never received an invitation, before.

At this table, there are no restrictions. If you’re in this room, you’re invited to eat. Jesus the Christ sets the table for us, welcoming those who see themselves as the least to take their place at the head of the table.

At this very communion table, and at the table of God’s grace in the world, you may find yourself sitting next to someone you didn’t really want to see, thank you very much. It’s very easy to make a list of who should not, in fact, be welcome at the table. Or maybe, it’s very easy to find yourself on someone else’s list of the unwelcome. Truth is, Jesus’ mandate that we sit with sinners guarantees my right and your right to be at the table, too.

When we emulate Jesus’ open-table practice, we break down barriers between friends and strangers, and open ourselves to addressing issues of one another’s injustice. When we join together at this table, we tell and retell and retell the story, reigniting those encounters with the crucified and resurrected Christ. Once we’ve eaten together, we can walk together. So let’s eat, and then let’s walk.

Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"The pivot of hope," Walter Brueggemann

On reading 1 Samuel 16:1-13 on Maundy Thursday, Walter Brueggeman writes:


This day of dread and betrayal and denial
causes a pause in our busyness.

Who would have thought that you would take
this eighth son of Jesse
to become the pivot of hope in our ancient memory?

Who would have thought that you would take
this uncredentialed
Galilean rabbi
to become the pivot of newness in the world?

Who would have thought that you--
God of gods and Lord of lords--
would fasten on such small, innocuous agents
whom the world scorns
to turn creation toward your newness?

As we are dazzled,
give us the freedom to restate our lives in modest, uncredentialed, vulnerable places.

We ask for freedom and courage to move out from our nicely arranged patterns of security into dangerous places of newness where we fear to go.

Cross us by the cross, that we may be Easter marked. Amen.