Monday, July 18, 2016

Love Your Housemate as Yourself—A Sermon at the end of a Program Year

Wow, here we are, on our final Monday night in the Belfry together. What a year it has been!

When I look at your faces and think back to the first week we spent together in this room, 11 months ago, I remember the infamous group photo, now plastered all over our social media and marketing. I remember our first retreat to Camp Noel Porter in Lake Tahoe; the adventures you went on around town, the murder mystery film you made. I remember the long car ride to and from Diocesan Convention, and all the hard work you did to such praise from the event coordinators. I remember our Reformation Day games, pinning the theses on the door, lovingly painted by a handful of you for years of future Belfry students to roll their eyes about. I remember our Advent craft party and the Star of Bethlehem collage we made out of advertising, which I am keeping in my office forever. I remember our Liberation Theology retreat at the Bishop’s Ranch, a heavy weekend of films and essays and hard conversations. I remember sending Pastor Jocelynn off on her sabbatical, and wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. :) I remember the Monday we tried and failed to make rosaries, and then the other Monday where we tried again, and still didn’t really manage to get it just right. I remember Holy Week and Easter, where we were sadly not together, since it was also Spring Break. I remember our spring retreat to my beloved Berkeley, where we wondered aloud about the movement of the Holy Spirit.

It was certainly the movement of the Holy Spirit that brought you here, to this yellow house. You probably wondered a few times about what you’d gotten yourself into, and it may be still quite some time before you figure out what this year even was.

From my perspective, this year has been one learning experience after another. I am blessed beyond measure to be in community with the eight of you, here in this place. This is not to say that it has been a walk in the park. Y’all have challenged each other. Y’all have challenged me. Y’all have challenged yourselves.

Working in ecumenical ministry, in general, is full of challenges for me. For example: we Lutherans do not have the same relationship with saints that Episcopalians have. I had to spend some time noodling around online, and eventually just texting a friend, to find out what it meant that today we celebrate Saint Bartolomé de las Casas—let alone if there was anything problematic about him. He lived in 16th-century Spain, and is considered a human rights activist, but didn’t have it totally together. He was opposed to the developing practice of enslavement of the native people on the island of Hispaniola, currently the Dominican Republic and Haiti. However, he advocated for the enslavement of Africans instead, so, not really a winner. Once he became a priest—the first one ordained in the Americas—he realized he’d been wrong, and that slavery of any kind was contrary to the Gospel. So deep was his conviction, Saint Bartolomé spent 50 years of his life arguing for the full humanity and emancipation of enslaved people, and went so far as to refuse absolution—the forgiveness of confessed sins—to slave-owning Catholics. It is for this that he is celebrated. [1]

Like Saint Bartolomé, we’re all learning on a spectrum. There’s a steep curve sometimes, especially when it comes to matters of deep human suffering and our personal convictions. Sometimes, we take what we believe to be principled stands, only to discover that we’ve inadvertently excluded or offended someone. We can also learn from Saint Bartolomé, though, just how strong we are when we stand on the Gospel. When we look out into this messy society, and read tonight’s lessons, words repeated throughout scripture—“love your neighbor as yourself”—we can see that it doesn’t match up. We can see that our neighbors are not listening, and our neighbors are not being heard, and our neighbors are not loving, and our neighbors are not being loved.

This Gospel text is part of the Sunday lectionary during the season of Lent. During Lent, we are prepared and we are preparing. Sacrifice, discipline, work, prayer. We sit in the desert and wallow in our existential desperation, right? Though we are far from Lent, the world around us these last few months has been dreadful. Terrorism at home and abroad have relentlessly overwhelmed our television screens and twitter feeds. The epidemic of gun violence in this country has somehow worsened from the last time we thought it was as bad as it could get. We have been flooded with anxiety as a nation, as a church, as a community here in this room. All of us are operating, maybe even without noticing completely, with an added layer of fear and distrust of our neighbors. This generalized anxiety rubs off on even our smallest interactions, whether it’s with a barista or our coworkers or our housemates. We bristle, and we put up walls, and we protect ourselves.

We know, though, that living in community cannot, fundamentally, be done alone. Eight isolated human persons do not make an intentional Christian community. Renita Weems, a womanist scholar, reminds us that “As human beings, we are all mutually connected to each other and dependent on one another for our emancipation and our survival.” [2]

Eight people who are learning together, struggling together, eating together, praying together, laughing together, arguing together, singing together—that’s what you’re made of.

And conflict in community is unavoidable. Never has there been a community without conflict—never has there been even a singular human being without an internal conflict! When we read these words of the Apostle Paul, written millennia ago to a community in Rome, we might ask, “What are the lessons for those of us who are church today?” Well, “conflict in the church is not a scandal or a shame; rather, living that conflict, together in love, has been the work of the church from its beginning.” [3]

Every time we read the letters in the New Testament, there’s some issue that the Apostle Paul is trying to help a community solve. Their problems aren’t all unique to the first century—though some are—and our problems are not all unique to the 21st-century—though some are.

The questions continue. “How do we live when we hurt and anger each other? How do we live the gospel daily?”

This is what you’ve been working on all year. What does it look like when we talk the talk and walk the walk of Christian life? What does it look like when we don’t agree about all the ways we talk and walk the Christian life? We go back to our fundamentals. We listen to the words of Jesus, quoting the Torah, cited by Paul: love your neighbor as yourself.

Show up for your neighbor. Commit to your neighborhood. Commit to your common life. Be present, here, in this chapel, at this table. Shelley Douglas puts it beautifully when she writes:

“We maintain our common meal, our sign of unity and redemption. We love each other and follow God’s commands. When relationships break down, we do our best to resolve conflicts in love….We are reminded here that as a community we are not only to nurture and affirm each other, but also to guide, teach, and remonstrate. Behind every action, however, must always be the rule of love.” [4]

When you leave this yellow house next week—though you may come back—you will be leaving the community specific to the 2015-2016 LEVN program year. Never again will all eight of you live and work right here in this place. You have one week left to love these neighbors in this way. You have been doing it, for the most part, for the better part of a year. After next week, you’ll never again have the opportunity to live this particular common life with these particular beloved children of God.

But you’ll have the opportunity—for the rest of your life—to forge Christian community with your new neighbors. Your new housemates. Your new coworkers. Your new friends. Your new siblings in the family of God. Every time you come to the table, you’ll be in community with everyone else who has ever and will ever.

I am so grateful to have been in this particular community with you for this year, and I look so excitedly forward to how I’ll continue to be in community with you after you leave this place. Keep up the good work, dear friends. Continue to nurture and be nurtured; continue to affirm and be affirmed; continue to guide and be guided; and when you continue to protest each other’s actions and to have your actions protested, remember the love that underlies your life. Love and be loved.

Amen.

---
[2] Renita J. Weems, "Womanist Reflections on Biblical Hermeneutics," in Black Theology: A Documentary History, ed. James H. Cone and Gayraud Wilmore (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993).

Sunday, July 3, 2016

They'll Know We Are Christians By Our _________

I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, Davis.
___

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

I’m sort of going to start with the punchline this week. The Hymn of the Day is an old favorite, “They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Do you know it? I hope so. I hope you also recognized it in my sermon title, with that last noun left intentionally blank.

The lectionary texts for this week—and the state of our nation and world—lead me to wonder just what it is that we look like. What is it that makes it known we are Christians?

In his letter to the Galatians, this is the Apostle Paul’s concern, too. The church at Galatia is a group of pagan converts—not Jews. Some in their community are rabble-rousing on the question of circumcision. Should these new Christians need to enter into God’s covenant with Abraham in order to enter into the new covenant in Christ’s blood? Paul says no. Paul says, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” He does not mean, as many a preacher might say, that the new covenant is superior to the old, and that uncircumcision is better than circumcision. Neither is sufficient for salvation, he says. Those who are in Christ are a new creation, in which the status of the flesh is not ultimate. He brings it up as if to say, “the divisions you have created are not the point, but since you still think in this black-and-white, circumcised-and-uncircumcised way, I will make it plain for you.” “He insists that ‘only the love we show one another, not our physical markings, testifies to the God we serve.’”

Sometimes we wonder about why it’s relevant to read these old letters. They're not written to us or to people very similar to us at all, right? First century residents of the Roman Empire lived a pretty different life than 21st century residents of the United States of America. The reason we find these seemingly antiquated words to be, rather, timeless is because we are not as different as we believe ourselves to be.

When was the last time you “detected” someone “in a transgression” (as Galatians 6:1 indicates) and—instead of rolling your eyes, cutting them off two miles later, yelling back, plotting your revenge, or simply sulking—decided to “restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.” When someone has committed an offense against me, my first reaction is rarely gentle. But this is step one in our Christian life. Basic human-to-human kindness.

Maybe, they’ll know we are Christians by our kindness.

Next, in this Galatians text, Paul implores us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Here in Christian community, it is not every man for himself. We are one in the Spirit.

The great Elie Wiesel—Holocaust survivor, author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner—died yesterday at the age of 87. He was famous for his words, and he said a lot of things. But what I will never forget are these words of his: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference; the opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference; the opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference; the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

We cannot be indifferent to the suffering of others. The suffering of any among us is the suffering of us all. The burden of any among us is to be the burden of us all.



This is the first sermon I’ve preached since 49 beloved children of God were murdered at Pulse in Orlando. At first, I hesitated to bring it up, like it’s already old news, just three weeks later. As I worked on this very paragraph earlier this week, I got a notification on my phone from the Associated Press that the death toll in the terrorist bombing of Ïstanbul, Türkiye’s Atatürk Airport had been raised to 36. [It has since been raised to 41, with 239 injured.] This morning, I woke to the news of over 100 dead at the hands of Daesh in Baghdad, more than 20 of them children.

There is hardly time for the sun to set on one act of violence before we’re mourning another.

Certainly, they’ll know we are humans by our violence.

In the aftermath of violence, we are quick to pray and to mourn with our loved ones and to post on our social media feeds about how we cannot believe this has happened again. We write letters to our congressional representatives about their responsibility to keep us safe, to keep guns out of the hands of terrorists, to keep bad people away from us. We wonder in private and in public about what it is that has driven these terrorists to do what they have done, what has made them so angry, what has made them so fearful. Rarely, though, do we as a nation confront these reasons head-on, before the next act of violence shatters our peace. Rarely, though, do we as a Christian community get out in front of this hateful political rhetoric—for fear that we are muddying the line between church and state.

Our violence, then, is not always gunfire, or suicide vests, or roadside bombs, or even fists. Sometimes, our violence is verbal. And sometimes, our violence is our silence.

They know we are Christians by our silence.

In these United States, whose independence and freedom we celebrate this weekend, we are well-versed in the inalienable rights of our Constitution. Our freedom to speak is, to me, the most precious. According to the First Amendment, we are free to speak our minds and hearts in the public sphere. We are not free of consequence, but we are free of prosecution. We confuse these two, a lot. And folks from every political persuasion and religious affiliation share in this freedom. Sometimes, that drives me nuts. Quote-unquote Christian voices, in particular. How quick I am to say, “Oh, no, I’m not that kind of Lutheran. I’m not that kind of Christian. I’m not that kind of American.”

They know we are Christians by our divisions.
They know we are Christians by our hate.
They know we are Christians by our fear.

Dear friends, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The human distinctions we have made (race, gender, class, ability, nationality) are not from God. Do not misunderstand me—they are real, but they are not from God and they are not ultimate. The Apostle Paul has invited us into a “distinction-free form of life.”

They can know we are Christians by another way. They can know we are Christians not by our silence, or by our divisions, or by our hate, our by our fear.

When you encounter violent speech—even when it’s subtle—you can say something. If a racist, or sexist, or classist, or ableist, or xenophobic word is uttered in your presence, you can counter it. You can. When the “Christian” voices in our nation and world are not saying what you’d say, or what you believe Jesus has said, you can speak up.

You, Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, are a Reconciling in Christ congregation and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Sierra Pacific Synod are a Reconciling in Christ synod, and for that, thanks be to God. We, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America are, a place where we claim All Are Welcome. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.

As followers of Jesus we are a people of non-violence. In the kingdom of God, there is no need for a stockpile of assault rifles. We can proclaim that truth much louder than we do.

They can know we are Christians by our prophetic voices.

And in our Gospel lesson for this week, Jesus sends us on our way! He sends 70 disciples into the neighboring towns—to “every town and place where he himself intended to go (Luke 10:1). Some among the 70 were likely hesitant; before, they had always gone a step behind Jesus—not ahead—watching him interact with people, hospitable and not-so. Some others were probably chomping at the bit, ready to take their discipleship out for a spin!

Jesus tells them as they go on their way to be certain that, upon entering each house, they proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God—“Peace to this house!” they’ll announce.

One of the surprising take-aways of this text is its emphasis on hospitality—not just provided, but received. We are well aware that our Christian vocation emphasizes being welcoming to strangers. We know that when a new person moves into the house next door, we should introduce ourselves and maybe bring over some cookies or a bottle of wine to say “welcome to the neighborhood!” We know that when a family we don’t recognize is in church on Sunday morning we should introduce ourselves and be sure they know when Vacation Bible School is.

This text though, turns hospitality from passive to active. Hospitality must also be accepted. We cannot just welcome others into our homes, to our tables, to our cultures, to our norms. We must go where we are foreigners. We must feel what it feels like to be a guest. Provide hospitality to strangers, yes, but also allow strangers to provide hospitality to you.

They can know we are Christians by our mutual hospitality.

The first half of 2016 has been quite an adventure, and shows no signs of slowing, let alone stopping. We can be discouraged by this. We can throw up our hands and refuse to participate any further. We can double down on our divisions.

Or, we can be the transgressive radicals Jesus calls us to be and we can instead speak peace to each house we enter. The peace of God which passes all understanding. “God’s peace is a peace founded on life, rather than death. On relationship, rather than enmity. On engaging and accepting mutual hospitality, rather than building walls of division.”

They can know we are Christians by our peace.
They can know we are Christians by our hope.
They can know we are Christians by our love.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Go! Come! Do This!—A Sermon on Verbs and Faith

I preached this sermon to the good people of Lutheran Church of the Incarnation in Davis

I bring you greetings this morning from the Belfry, as our frenzied students prepare for their last week of classes and the onslaught of finals. Keep them in your prayers! The LEVNeers have several weeks before they move on, so keep us in your prayers as we keep up the good work!

As you may have heard, I was recently ordained—just two weeks ago, in fact—down south at my home parish of Bethlehem Lutheran in Encinitas. It’s so exciting to get to be with y'all this morning in an official capacity! Thanks for your support of the Belfry that helped in small and large ways to make calling me to serve there possible. Since Pastor Jocelynn has been on sabbatical since February (she returns August 1), I’ve been at the helm. The new responsibilities therein have included being the preacher each week! I have always loved preaching—inasmuch as I have always loved talking, and I have always loved the good news of Jesus the Christ—but this is my first full-time gig, and I am learning very rapidly just how much there is to say!

I often say that I self-identify as a word nerd. One of the best parts about that identity is that the words themselves rhyme. So good. In high school, I copy-edited the yearbook. In college, I worked in the Writing Center, helping students improve their papers and presentations. I pay an inordinate amount of attention to grammar in everything I hear and read. I was recently bothered by Presidential candidates—from different parties—who misidentified a group of nouns as adjectives and a group of adjectives as verbs, respectively. Words matter to me.

My seminary preaching professor, Tom Rogers, gave us approximately one million exercises to try with the words in our lectionary texts each week. During his class, we were expected to do all of them on our assigned weeks. Now, in our professional lives, we probably do a fraction—our favorites, the quickest ones. I’m grateful, in this new weekly role, for the word toolbox he provided me.

One of the things I do each week is excavate all the texts on the grammatical level. I mark up all the verbs, all the adjectives, and divide the nouns into categories of places and people. It helps me frame what’s going on in the story, or who’s doing and saying what to whom, and what’s being asked of us in the process. Looking at all the component parts of the text is different than the big picture. This week, the most grammatically, theologically, and ecclesially interesting text is the psalm. Let me explain.

By the way, I love that here at LCI you read the psalm on Sunday morning. Not every parish does, and that's a bummer. The fact that the lectionary compilers included an accompanying psalm for every day of the year—not just Sundays!—should tell us a little something about their value. Some of the more underrated words in our scripture, but the sources of so many of our great hymns and songs. This week’s psalm, number 96, is so excellent. It’s packed full of goodness. And it’s packed full of verbs! In the 13 verses we read this morning, there are 12 *different* verbs directed at the hearer.

Sing to the lord! Bless God’s name! Tell of salvation, declare God’s glory, praise, revere, ascribe, worship, tremble, say, rejoice, and exult! We’ll do a handful of those together this morning, fortunately, but a few of them have to happen outside these walls. We have instructions to follow; we have work to do; we have words to say.

On Wednesday, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton hosted a the third in a series of live webcasts from Chicago, with Mikka McCracken from ELCA World Hunger moderating, and guests Matthew Stuhlmueller and Rubén Durand, ordained pastors doing work in Chicago and around the country. (Did any of you watch? Stay tuned for the next one in October!)

The four of them talked about a number of things, particularly about how we as the ELCA can get outside of our Northern European ethnic bubble and out into the multicultural world we live in, inviting everyone in our communities to the table and to share stories. This is something we say that we are deeply committed to, but as the second-LEAST-diverse denomination in the United States, we have, um, room for improvement.

One of the most concrete suggestions they made was the vulnerable task of evangelism. Eek! We all take a step back when we hear that word. But what they suggested was not so scary. As the people of God, we are called to be in relationship with one another and with everyone else. In fact, there isn’t even supposed to be an “everyone else” with us. We’re supposed to love our neighbors, and that begins with knowing our neighbors. That begins with friendly conversations—not just transactions—with the staff at restaurants and in retail stores; that begins with notes of appreciation to our children’s teachers; that begins with civility between parents at the soccer tournament; that begins with kindness to our coworkers, especially those who work “below” us; that begins with slightly deeper small talk at coffee hour this morning.

We can’t invite our friends and colleagues and neighbors—let alone strangers—to join our communities if we have not truly joined our communities. If we are not truly connected to one another, we are not truly connected to God.

One of the most-asked questions during the webcast—and throughout our lives as Christians—is: how do we do that? What do we do? But this is where we are in luck, because of our psalm full of verbs! We can do so many things! We can sing to the Lord; we can bless God’s name; we can tell of our salvation; we can praise and worship and revere our God—these are all important in the work of the Gospel. As we live out our lives, everything we do can be done in the name of Christ. Our main man Martin Luther reportedly said once that a Christian shoemaker does not do his Christian duty by putting little crosses on every pair of shoes, but by making good quality shoes and operating an ethical business.

Evangelism can be beautiful in this way—if we are engaging our fellow humans in ways that are kind and just, we are doing what God has asked of us. Taking the next step—inviting someone to join in our worshipping community—is where we get all squirmy. It doesn’t have to so uncomfortable, though. I am certain that there are activities that this congregation does that are not worship services on Sunday morning. Things like service trips, and movie nights, and BBQs, and climate summits. Those things might intimidate a neighbor a little bit less, no? It’s funny, because all of those things are on the list of verbs our psalmist gave us. Aren’t those situations of joy, and of fellowship, and of work, and of celebration of creation?

Our work is not as hard as it sounds, anymore, is it? We know that all our neighbors are beloved, yes? Inasmuch as we are beloved children of God, so are all those who share in our community here in Davis and across the globe. The sort of odd story presented to us from the Gospel According to Luke this morning has something to say about that universality of God’s love.

In our story, a Roman centurion—a soldier of the occupying force in town—has a slave who is ill. We are told that he values this slave very highly, and many might romanticize that situation, forgetting that slavery is a human rights violation, not a business partnership. We should doubt that the values the slave highly for any reason other than the monetary value of that slave’s work. There is little benevolence to be found in this setup.

This Roman soldier is well-known in Capernaum—the story tells us that he built the temple for the Jews. He’s familiar, then, with this holy man, Jesus of Nazareth, that they talk about. He has heard the stories they’ve told about his power to heal. He has heard about a paralyzed man walking, and a blind man seeing, and a leprous man cleansed, and a hemorrhaging woman healed, and a possessed man exorcised. He has heard his Jewish subjects speak differently about this man than they do about the other so-called healers who travel through town. He has heard them say that this man is different. This man, Jesus, speaks to Samaritan women. And eats dinner with tax collectors. He touches the untouchable.

In a lot of our Bibles this story is called “The Faith of the Centurion.” I think that’s an error. This story speaks not necessarily to the faith of the Roman soldier, but of the faith of the Jewish people in his midst. It speaks to the truth of who Jesus is, and to the power of the God who sent him. That this man, Jesus, and therefore his Lord, YHWH, the creator of the universe is so enamored of humanity that he loves not only the Jews but the Gentiles! And if he heals the Jews, then, might he, in his depth of compassion and power heal the slave of the occupying Romans?!

This is what amazes Jesus. This recognition of the power of God to cross borders and boundaries and leap right past oppressive systems into the humanity of each and every person.

This all-encompassing power to heal and to restore and to make new is exactly what we are called to proclaim. When we sing to the Lord, when we bless God’s holy name, when we tell of the salvation that is ours, we are doing it because there should be no one among us who does not know! There should be no one among us who is not healed! There should be no one among us who is outside this love, my friends. No one.

As you leave this place today, carry this with you. Carry with you the deep knowledge of the love of God, and do not just keep it to yourself! Give each of those verbs a try!


Monday, May 16, 2016

#OrdainKloehn

On Saturday, May 14, I was ordained into the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA!

The service was held in my home congregation—Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA—and the Rev. Laura Ziehl, Bishop Mark Holmerud, and the Rev. Amanda Nelson presided. 


As I begin this new iteration of ministry, gratitude is all that comes to mind. These words of thanks were printed in my ordination bulletin:

The depth of my gratitude for those who made this day possible could never be expressed wholly in words, but I never shy away from an opportunity to say something.

I am grateful to my parents, Karin and Gary, for approximately one million things, but especially for their love, support, listening ears, crying eyes, welcoming arms, and open hearts. I am grateful to the Alexes for their love and joyous laughter and willingness to take probably two red-eyes to be here. I am grateful for all the Turpins and Kloehns (and everyone in between), my original cloud of witnesses and communion of saints.

I am grateful to my partner in learning and in love, Jonathan, for his seemingly un-ending willingness to try new things—like date a pastor and read poetry—and for his encouragement in all that I do. I am grateful to my best friend, the Rev. Amanda Nelson, for her grace and wisdom throughout seminary and into our ordained lives (ack!)—and for every minute of silliness that has kept us together.

I am grateful for my sister (bloodlines notwithstanding) Kelsey Sprowell and for the Rev. Gretchen Rode and the Rev. Maria Anderson—the other Pastoritas—whose presence and absence is most certainly felt.

I am grateful for the love and support of my two bonus families—the Vance and Fields clans—and for the years of joys and challenges we’ve seen through together. That so many of you are here today renders me (nearly) speechless.

I am grateful for my colleagues and comrades of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Sierra Pacific Synod, whose community and leadership sustained me throughout my seminary career and into this first call.

I am grateful to all the good folks at The Belfry—my dear students and LEVNeers, to say the least—who provide me the privilege of doing what I love every day.

I am grateful to the pastoral, professional, and professorial squad of California Lutheran University—including but not limited to the Revs. Scott and Melissa Maxwell-Doherty, President Chris Kimball, and the Religion Department—especially the Rev. Dr. Julia Fogg, for her mentorship, for introducing me to Türkiye, for laughing with me throughout Biblical Greek, and for continuing to model the particular strength that women bring to ministry.

I am grateful for Jonathan Garman and the whole BLCYM—those who led me in my youth and those who humored me as I led them in their youth. I’d drive a 15-passenger-van full of y’all every summer in a heartbeat.

I am grateful to the Rev. Laura Ziehl and to Mona Goetsch and to all the good folks here at Bethlehem who did a lot of work to make this evening go as swimmingly as (I imagine, as I type this weeks in advance) it did.

I am grateful for everyone who participated tonight—Global Music Ensemble, ushers, communion assistants, readers, reception-setter-uppers, and every other detailer whom I’ve forgotten—for being part of this monumental day in my life and ministry.


And I am grateful for you! Since you’re here and reading this, you’re part of how I got to this moment in this place. Your community, support, and prayer are integral to my life and work. I’m so glad you’re here to celebrate with me.

And for you, dear reader, I am grateful. Thanks for being the unknown people to whom I blog away the weeks. You're part of my work (and play) and I appreciate you. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Belong—A Sermon of Promises

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.

The lectionary is weird. We’re in the seventh week of Easter, but the Gospel lesson today is from the night before Jesus died. At first glance, it’s backward and disorienting. But the people who put the readings together are professionals, so I’ve decided to trust them.

Scholars, like the people who assembled the lectionary, call these chapters of John’s Gospel the “Farewell Discourses.” Jesus is saying a lengthy goodbye to his friends and disciples. In it, he sums up a lot of the things he has said before; he reiterates the most important details; he makes new promises. This week’s text is a prayer he says in the Garden of Gethsemane—just after the Last Supper, just before he’s arrested. That’s quite a moment in the life of his community. He prays “on behalf of these”—the disciples—“but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” That's us! 


The fun thing about being Christians so many generations removed from Jesus is that there is no way that the Church looks like what Jesus thought his followers would look like. Millions of people, across the globe, organized together because of the love of God through Jesus. Except, more often than thought, we’re not very good at being “together.” We have this nasty habit of dividing ourselves on all sorts of lines—denominations, languages, races, classes, nations. 

Even when there were just the dozen or so disciples, it seems Jesus had a hunch that they’d struggle to stay together. I think the lectionary assemblers new that, just like Jesus' friends needed to be reminded of all the ways in which God would remain with them after Jesus' departure, we too need that reminder after we've celebrated Easter. We need to be reminded of the promises that were made, that are still being kept.

Karoline Lewis is a preacher I want to be like when I grow up. She wrote this about this week’s Gospel story: “...God counts on us to embody God’s promise in a world of broken ones. God needs us to give witness to the ultimate promise kept when our experience….knows only empty promises. God invites us to live in the promise that is truly ours forever—that is the resurrection difference.”

Since we are living in the world after the resurrection, there is a whole new range of possibilities open to us. But I think I speak for a lot of us when I confess that the logistics of the resurrection are distracting, and I never really get past that. Karoline continues:

“Resurrection is often relegated to a belief of the church to which we simply comply and that which we by rote confess. We go through the motions each Easter, each time the creed is said, but how often do we stop and say that resurrection makes a difference for how I live my day today? What might it feel like to know that the promise of the resurrection is mine now?”

What might it feel like to be open to the newness of resurrection? What might it feel like to try being church a completely different way? How might it change what we do and what we believe?

Let’s step back a second. What does it even mean to believe? What are some synonyms you can think of? Audience participation! 

When you google the word believe, as you might do, casually and hypothetically, the primary definition is “feel sure of the truth of.” You know those words of the creed we say before the Eucharist? “I believe in God, the father almighty…”

What if we said “I feel sure of the truth of God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I feel sure of the truth of Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord...” and then “I feel sure of the truth of the Holy Spirit…”

I think that, like the resurrection, we get stuck on the word “believe” a lot, because we worry about whether our beliefs are “right” or not. And often, especially on a college campus, it can be challenging to respond when people push you on your beliefs, right? And when you’re still sort of working them out, that can be a big roadblock.

There’s an Episcopal author named Diana Butler Bass who has written several books about church. She wrote one called Christianity After Religion that looks at what we’re going to be in this age of “spiritual but not religious”-ness. It’s an interesting book, and it has one part that I’ve carried with me since I read it. She says that in the old way of being church, there were three B’s: Believe, behave, belong.

You went to a church because you believed the things they believed (or wanted to) and then learned from them how to behave according to those beliefs, and then once you’d gotten all of that squared away, you could “join” the church officially. You could really belong there. That probably sounds familiar, and maybe doesn’t sound entirely problematic to you.

But what if we flipped it? She asks. What if instead, we belong and then behave and then believe? What if we are invited and welcomed into a community, no questions asked? What if, then, we see how others act and we learn new ways to love ourselves and our neighbors? What if, then, we come to believe the truths they teach?

Here at the Belfry, I hope you feel like you are part of something. I hope you feel like you are invited and welcome to be all of who you are, whether you’re even sure who you are. I hope you feel like the other people here are learning alongside you, and that you--as individuals and as a community--are growing. I hope you feel like, as we talk and learn and read and sing and laugh, that these promises that God makes are promises to you.

And I promise you that, while you’re here and after you leave here—whether you graduate or study abroad or finish your service with LEVN—that you will always belong here.

If you discern that you’re Lutheran or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re Episcopalian or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re queer or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re called to be a pastor or that you aren’t; if you discern that you’re going to graduate or that you aren’t.

Whoever you are, you belong here.

You don’t have to sit in this chapel every Wednesday to belong here. You don’t have to show up for Bible study every week, or for Tapping Into Theology every month, or for book club, or for Prov, or for anything. I like you, and so I hope you want to show up to all those things and create other spaces for other folks to feel like they belong here, too! That’s the behave part. That can come next.

You are part of the Belfry and you are part of God’s family at all times and in all places. I promise.