Longing for reformation

I've got a lot to put on this door, put up my my friend Jeremy Serrano at his congregation in CA.

I’ve got a lot to put on this door, put up my my friend Jeremy Serrano at his congregation in CA.

a sermon on Matthew 22:34-46. sorta.

I love being a Lutheran Christian. I have tried other things, wandered down other spiritual paths to see what they are all about. I love being a part of a Christian church founded by rebellion through speaking truth to power. A church that began with someone seeing something very wrong with how the church was behaving and expressing the kingdom of God and doing something about it. You see, I have always aspired to be a rebel. I have never really fit in anywhere (even church), and I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I think something is messed up. The Lutheran church is my spiritual home.

I love that Lutherans are so comfortable in the grey space of life, that we acknowledge that life is hard and complex, that there are no easy answers. I feel at home in a place that talks about how we are all both saints and sinners at the same time. Luther’s railings against theologies of glory are more necessary than ever in our world that prefers self-aggrandizement to self-sacrifice. Most of all, I have been formed from the beginning by the idea that God’s loving grace is for everyone, there is no earning it, there is no being “good enough” to earn God’s love or eternal life. No one is good enough, so everyone is good enough. Sinners of the world rejoice! There is a place for us in the kingdom.

These things are all a part of my Lutheran identity, and I would assume they are a part of yours too. There is another thing that is a part of our Lutheran identity, a thing which we celebrate today: Reformation. We are a church that was founded in rebellion. Martin Luther spoke out loudly about what he saw going on in the church. He pointed out to the church its brokenness, the ways in which it was courting the world’s favor instead of Gods. To do this meant possible death. He did it anyway. Lutherans are steeped in the words, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

While this is our heritage, this is not exactly our culture.

A joke I have heard since I was young:

“How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?”

“None. Lutherans don’t like change.”

I grew up knowing this joke and it’s reality. I grew up hearing about all of the hubbub of switching from the red book to the green book — for those of you younger than I or not raised Lutheran, before our current hymnal (which is cranberry, btw), there was a green one. Before that, a red one. And hoooooooo boy, was the switch to the red one a big deal. I was little when the ELCA was formed and remember all of the hand-wringing over joining churches of different ethnicity and polity even though we were, in theory, rooted in the same faith in Jesus Christ as viewed through the lens of being saved by grace through faith.

Throughout my life I have heard story after story of altar guilds being torn apart over paraments and candles, of congregations splitting in two because of a move towards more modern music. I have watched the greater church split because of the ordination of women – in the process witnessing two of my pastors receive hate mail because of their gender – and again because of ordination and marriage rites inclusive of LGBT folk. I have heard tell of congregations that stick their heels in over all kind of issues, congregations mired in harmful politics and in gossip, of clergy who would rather stay safe than challenge their parishioners (to be fair, it’s our jobs if we challenge and that’s not what people want). I have known church members, staff and clergy to react in fear disguised as disgust to the possibility of new music, of guitars and screens in church. I have witnessed younger clergy and younger members get treated and pushed aside like children because their ideas just didn’t fit in with what the older generations thought of as church.

We have become a people tied to the law. And not even tied to God’s law, though we are tied to that – but to things we have decided are law. Ritual, ceremony, heritage, doctrine, the way things have always been done – we, over time, have turned so much of this into laws that must be followed. We have developed this idea that if this thing or if that thing isn’t present, it isn’t church. No organ, it’s not church. No procession, it’s not church. No pews, it’s not church.

The only things necessary for church are word and sacrament. That’s it. Nothing else matters. All of the rest of it is what we churchy types call audiaphora — matters not essential to faith.

So far as the other things we cling to as law, some of which is actual scripture and can be found in our reading today from Leviticus, allow me to give you some Luther.

“Therefore, when the law impels one against love, it ceases and should no longer be a law; but where no obstacle is in the way, the keeping of the law is a proof of love, which lies hidden in the heart. Therefore ye have need of the law, that love may be manifested; but if it cannot be kept without injury to our neighbor, God wants us to suspend and ignore the law. Thus you are to regulate your life and conduct.

There are in our day many customs, many orders and ceremonies, by which we falsely think to merit heaven; and yet there is only this one principle, namely: the love to our neighbor, that includes in it all good works. I will give you an example we recently heard. Here is a priest or monk, who is to read his prayers or the rules of his order, or to hold mass, or say penance. At this moment there comes a poor man or woman to him who has need of his help and counsel. What shall this priest or monk do? Shall he perform his service, or shall he assist the poor man? He should therefore act prudently and think: True, I am required to read my prayers, hold mass, or say penance; but now on the other hand, a poor man is here; he needs my help and I should come to his rescue. God commanded me to do this; but the others man devised and instituted. I will let the mandates of men go, and will serve my neighbor according to God’s commandment.”

What matters, what really matters in ALL THAT WE DO is that we love God and neighbor. If we are not doing that, we are not fulfilling the law. What if we, and all Christians, evaluated every law with the questions, “Does this show love of God? Does this show love of neighbor?” What if we asked this question regarding the things we argue about? What if we asked this question about our jobs, our behavior on the freeway, how we treat those with less than ourselves? Think about the image of Cristendom is we all evaluated the law in this way. If we all looked at all of the laws – the laws in scripture, the laws we have chosen, the laws of our society – what if we lived this way? What a glorious world this would be!

This, as we know, is not the global image of Christians. And, at least in my context, Lutheran doesn’t mean very much. It just gets lumped in with the rest of Christendom.

My students and I need your help. The church, the world, needs your help. We need you to live out loud as Lutheran Christians, loving God and neighbor before all else.

A couple of weeks ago, some students and I were tabling in the student union, giving away free coffee and telling people about Lutheran Campus Ministry. I had this idea that we would ask everyone who wanted a coffee a question – what do you value most. An interesting, not Jesus-y, non-threatening question. A young woman approached the table and asked for some candy. I said yes, but would she answer a question for me first. She said, quickly, “No, I would rather not have a candy then.” And she ran off. I realized that she had no idea who we were, that we were lumped in with all of the other Christians she had ever seen or heard about and that we scared her. She had no reason to trust us — in fact, she probably had many reasons to not trust us. I realized that we have to be a presence on campus finding ways to live out Christ’s love without words, finding ways to engage those who are interested in engaging with us and to just move from threatening to innocuous in the eyes of many before they would even come near us, much engage in relationship.

Over the years, the Christian narrative has become a story not about God’s love for all as shown in Jesus Christ, but as a vehicle for selfishness, judgement, and societal transformation into a world of God’s law, not God’s love. We are called to change this narrative. We are called to stop arguing about the things that don’t matter – about paraments and worship styles – and to start showing the world what does matter to us.

We have beautiful theology that will become meaningless if we don’t show it to the world, if we don’t stop holding it tight in our quiet, humble Scandanavian/German enclaves. Our acknowledgement of humans as sinners and saints is diametrically opposed to the Calvinist depraved human theology that is spouted by congregations like Mars Hill. People need to hear this word of grace, this admittance that while we are indeed messed up, we are also beautiful (and vice versa)! Our theology of the cross is a cure for the prosperity theology that runs rampant across our land, encouraging people to believe that what is most important is my personal relationship with God and that God wants us to be rich and happy. God wants us to be filled with joy, but that does not always mean being happy and certainly doesn’t mean always getting what we want. We are called to the cross, called to sacrifice for God. God calls us to so much more than our own happiness and we Lutherans (in theory) know this. We need to find ways to show this to the world.

Note that I keep saying show, not tell. Millenials and those who identify with millennial culture are deeply suspicious of institutions and they have heard it all before. “Words, words words!” they are likely to say when they hear a Christian spouting off about God’s love. For too long they have heard those words coming from the mouths of those who would see women stay in the kitchen, and the LGBT community stay in closets or be changed, from people who claim they want to love but really, that love means “change to be like me.” For too long, the world has heard the words of love while witnessing acts of indifference at best, hate at worst. Our words have become meaningless. We have to act. We are called to love God so deeply that we cannot help but love our neighbor because to love our neighbor is to love God. We are called to evaluate law against love. We are called to ask ourselves how we live out the resurrection in our every day lives and to then to act. To live differently than the world while loving the world and, in that way to transform it.

This is not to say we shouldn’t use words to witness, it is imperative. But after we have shown, after we have been asked the question, “Why do you do this? Why do you love so freely, forgive so easily, give without ceasing?” Then we have permission to say, “Because I am a Lutheran Christian and I believe this is who Jesus calls us to be.” Then we are called to shed our quiet ways to bring the good news to someone who has not seen it in action before, who has not witnessed Christ in this way. But only when we are invited into conversation after we have shown who we are will these words really matter and carry any weight.

I long for reformation. I long to be a part of a church that puts as much investment in the future as it does in the past. I long to be a part of a greater community that values youth as much as it does life experience, that is willing to have difficult conversations with love and respect, that is willing to challenge the status quo and is willing to make people uncomfortable in the pews at least as often as it placates them. I long for a church which really means that all are welcome, a church that welcomes people to come in all of their broken, messed up glory and does not require Sunday best to mean putting on a shiny, clean, false “everything is okay” face along with your Sunday clothes. A church which lives out in every day life these words “love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can do this. We can be this church. We have the tools, we have the theology, we have the words and we have the Word. Now, let us act. Let us go out into our communities and witness with our actions to the transforming love of Jesus Christ. With the grace of God, the example of Christ, and the inspiration of the holy spirit, we can once again claim the title reforming church. Let this be our new Lutheran motto, “Here I act in love, I can do no other.”


Confessing the racism in our hearts is the first step to recovery for ourselves and our nation

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun,
or fester like a sore, and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat,
or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load…
or does it just explode?

-Dream Deferred, Langston Hughes

 

A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

Over the course of the past two weeks, we have once again seen the explosion that results from a dream deferred. The protests

A dream deferred

Another dream deferred

and riots in Ferguson started with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. There are many stories as to what happened, little is clear about what transpired. What is clear is that an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer and then left there in the street, dead, for four hours, as though his life had no worth. His community walked past this body, left there to rot, to stink like rotten meat, a visual example of a dream deferred. The argument about what Michael Brown was doing or why he got shot are pointless to a community besieged by violence and poverty, a community that has seen jobs disappear, that was displaced to build an airport that never was, a community that knows it has little value to the police force or the others in the city. Michael Brown was a human being, a human being left to rot in the street for hours. His death and the actions following are a visceral example of how the black people of Ferguson, and the United States, are valued by the rest of society.

It is so easy to say that this is Missouri. But we know this is not true. We know that our police department has its own issues. We know that our neighborhoods have their own issues, that in spite of our thinking of Seattle as an egalitarian place, we are still pretty darn segregated. A friend of mine has had the n word shouted at him numerous times, not too long ago while walking on Queen Anne. We read in the news about a white man going ballistic and screaming racial epithets at protesters at Westlake center, spitting on a black man, the men trading insults and the black man getting pepper sprayed in the face. White guy going nuts, black man gets pepper sprayed.

Those of us who are active on social media and are paying attention to what is happening in Ferguson have seem the numbers, we have taken in so much news about racial disparities in this country, about the worth of life of black people in the United States.

We watched Melissa Harris Perry do a short piece on the fact that from 2006-2012 a black man has been killed by a white police officer on an average of twice a week. Twice. A. Week. All over the country.

We read about the incredible disparities in our judicial system, where people of color are appalling. 1 of every 15 black men and 1 of every 37 Hispanic men are in prison, compared to 1 in every 106 white men. There are those who would say that this is cultural, even genetic. That people of color are genetically disposed to crime, or that their socio economic background leads them to lives of crime. However, when we look at statistics, this does not bear out. In the war on drugs, blacks have been disproportionately jailed and punished. While African-Americans make up 14% of regular drug users, they make up 37% of those arrested for drugs. African-Americans receive sentences that are 10% longer than whites and are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison. (source). There are the horrible polling numbers on how different races are viewing the events in Ferguson, the fact that people are more likely to vote for the death penalty if the person is black.

I could stand here all day and quote depressing statistics on the state of race in this country. You get the picture. Something is wrong. But what can we do? I’ll tell you what we can’t afford to do. We can’t get paralyzed. We can’t ignore this if we want any semblance of a just society. If we want this kind of violence and injustice to stop, if we want to put an end to explosions caused by dreams deferred, we must act. We must not conform to our society’s rhythm of spending a few weeks a year thinking about race and then ignoring it until another explosion. We are called not to conform, but to be transformed. Before transformation, though, there must be confession.

I have been active in one way or another in anti-racism work since the 8th grade. I have given speeches, written blog posts, given sermons, taught classes on privilege and race. I have had black friends. I have traveled. I have read. I have studied racism and prejudice.

And yet

I confess to you today that I am still racist.

I don’t want to be. Most people don’t want to be racist. That’s why we deny it so fervently. It is a horrible thing to judge someone by the color of his or her skin. It removes the humanity from a brother or sister in Christ and turns him or her into an object, a mass of skin, something not even worth an ambulance or 911 call. Something that can be left in the streets to decay and stink like rotten meat.

While I was studying the works of Dr. King and Malcolm X, while my parents were working hard to get me to events in Cleveland that would allow me to at least be around people of color, I was growing up in the 4th least diverse city in the nation. I was growing up in a town that had probably 10 people of color, 4 of whom where in my high school. I grew up around people who used the n word as an adverb – it would go before words like rig, knock and lip. People from my high school once joked about wearing white sheets to a basketball game to scare the referee. While I did react strongly to the white sheet “joke” there were so many things around me that were racist that I didn’t even notice. That’s the worst kind, the kind of racism that is so subtle you can’t call it out. That’s the stuff that gets into your bones.

It was not easy to see my own racism. After all, I am a good progressive, I do the work, I had a shirt in 8th grade that said Love See No Color. I had black friends! That’s always the thing, right? I’m not racist, I have black friends!! How could I be racist?

Then I moved to Chicago’s south side and I began to see… I began to realize that those phrases from my childhood were racial slurs – seriously, I head them so often I didn’t hear the n word attached to them – I came face to face with my assumptions about black people and the beliefs I had inherited from the place in which I grew up, the attitudes I had unconsciously absorbed from the media. Many of the things I have thought are far too embarrassing and stupid to share. They are things I confess to God. But I will say that I distinctly remember seeing a young black man running an my first thought was, “I wonder what he stole?”

Yup. I did that.

And, every now and again, I still do.

In spite of myself I have conformed to the world around me.

I am in need of transformation. Each and every day.

How about you?

This is important.

Admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery. And we have a problem. We don’t like to look into it because we don’t like ugly truths about ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we judge others based on their appearance. It’s so… unprogressive. But the transformation process is never pretty and never comfortable. Transformation is painful. And before we can transform the way our nation behaves about race, before we can really change the inequality in our schools, in our judicial system and in our government, before we can fight the systemic racism that sends people of color to jail more often and longer than their white counterparts, before we can put an end to the school to prison pipeline, we have to look in our hearts and admit to ourselves that we have racism in our hearts. That every now and then we clutch our purse tighter or cross the street when people of color are around, that we occasionally think stupid stuff regarding a person based on their color. We have to admit it and then we have to try to change.

 

This is transformation. This is not conforming.

 

If we want to put an end to the violence, if we want to work to never see an unarmed black person die at the hands of a white person, if we want to put an end to these flare ups in racial tension like we have seen these past weeks in Ferguson, and before that in Florida, and before that in Oakland, Toledo, Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Harlem, LA, Miami… (These are the moments of racial violence I found on Wikipedia since 1990)… if we want to put an end to the violence, we have got to look at how we contribute to and benefit from the problem. We have to dismantle the racism in our own hearts before we can dismantle the system.

I mean, we don’t have to. We can do what we have been doing. We can get really upset at these images we see on tv, we can protest and post about it on Facebook until we get bored with it or it gets too hard or we get tired of thinking about race all of the time and then forget that it is a problem until the next time it blows up somewhere in our nation. Maybe next time it won’t be in Ohio or Missouri. Maybe next time it will be at 23rd and Cherry.

But when we do this, when we go on pretending that we don’t have a problem we are injuring the body of Christ. The leg is being bludgeoned on a regular basis and we just keep limping along. Occasionally we bandage it or we put on some shin guards, but we do little else. It is too hard, to painful, too much. It is exhausting. Why do we have to talk about race all the time?

This is one example of our privilege. One of many. As a white person, I rarely have to think about my race. From what I hear and read from people of color, this is a luxury they do not have. This is a luxury we should give up, part of our being living sacrifices to the lord. Give up the comfort afforded by ignoring issues of race.

Transform through the renewing of our minds. Learn about racism. Learn about white privilege, break down barriers. There are organizations within the church and in Seattle that work to educate white people about race. Go. Learn. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Don’t be afraid to call yourself out on racist thoughts. And don’t be afraid to call out people in your life who do it too. Silence is permission. As much as it is easier to not say anything, as it is easier to be comfortable and quiet, we are called to more. We are called to not conform.

I was taught in seminary to always end on a note of grace. You don’t want people leaving thinking everything is awful, I’m awful, this is awful.

And, well, the state of race relations in this country IS awful. But, there is good news.  The grace of God is with us. The grace of God is the power that allows us to look at the ugliness in ourselves and know we are loved beyond belief. The grace of God is what gives us the power to change, the love of God is what shines on the darkest places within us to rid us of our shadows, to clean out the darkness, the sludge, the dirt and to be transformed into people who love without ceasing, who know good from evil, and to transform the world. With God at our backs and in our hearts, we have the power to change ourselves, to be transformed. We have the strength to be living sacrifices, and the love to see each and every other person as a member of the body of Christ. This is the gift of God. Where God challenges, God gives strength. Where God calls, God will travel with us. God wants us to be transformed nonconformists, to follow God’s will against the world’s, and God will give us the strength to do so through prayer and through community. We don’t have to do this alone. We can confront our own racism with our family in Christ, with the people in this very room. We can support each other with the power of the holy spirit that moves through our lives and through our communities. God will not abandon us even as we admit our uglier selves. God calls us to do this. It is why we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

God help us to be living sacrifices, help us to be transformed nonconformists.

Your will, not ours, be done.

Amen

 


Stop looking towards heaven: eternal life is here & now

A sermon on John 17:1-11

Can you imagine this scene? Your good friend, leader, and mentor who died – in front of you – was resurrected, came back to hang out with the gang, and then is LIFTED UP ON A CLOUD IN FRONT OF EVERYONE. Dude. That’s weird. So, when the men in white ask them why they are looking up, well, duh. They just saw their friend get lifted up on a cloud. It makes sense that they are still looking up toward heaven.

... and she's buying a stairway to heaven.

… and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

However, we are still looking towards heaven.  2000 years later, heaven, life after death, is the focus for many Christians.

I went to college in Western North Carolina at a tiny farm school just outside of Asheville. One of my favorite things about living in the Bible Belt was the church signs and tracts that littered the highway. Two gems I recall: There is no fire escape from hell and there is no thermostat in hell.  The south, however, is not alone in such … warm, welcoming displays of Christian hospitality and love. I don’t know if there is a book out there with “catchy” slogans on heaven or hell or if the pastors and administrators of these congregations sit around brainstorming the best way to use humor while simultaneously threatening passers by with eternal damnation.

For many Christians, faith in Jesus Christ is primarily about answering this question: where will you spend eternity? Heaven or hell?

If you want the answer to be heaven, you best accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior or in some other way assent to the idea that Jesus is the son of God. I used to have a tract that was all about hell and, at the end, it asked if you wanted to accept Jesus Christ as Lord. If you checked the yes box (yes, there really was a yes box), there was a prayer to say at the back of the booklet that would assure you of your reception into heaven. How I wish I still had that tract.

Theoretically, we Lutheran’s aren’t big heaven and hell people. Our belief that we are saved by grace through faith – that we can’t work our way into heaven, but only get there through the power of God’s grace and the Lutheran belief that we are all both saint and sinner tend to keep us away from threats of hellfire and brimstone. But, I’m willing to bet most of us still think about it. Where will we spend eternity?  Heaven? Hell? Somewhere else entirely?

Heaven and hell, at least in the way we think about them, are relatively new concepts. Much of the way we think about hell is drawn more from Dante’s inferno than the Bible, and our ideas of heaven are as shaped by culture as they are by God’s word.

In the Hebrew Bible, Heaven is where God lives. We don’t go there. The dead go to Sheol, the land of the dead (also called Gahanna). Sheol isn’t mentioned a lot in the Bible itself, but it does have more of a life in extra-Biblical Jewish works. Sheol, however, does not last for eternity. Sheol is a place where a person is purified, usually for twelve months, before attaining a higher spiritual state and moving from Sheol to Olam Ham-Ba. However, even though there is writing on what happens to a person after death in the Hebrew Bible and in Jewish writing, this was and is not the focus of Jewish life. The culture in which Jesus lived and died was much more interested in this life, in how life was lived here and how we behaved toward one another and God while on earth. This would have quite an influence on how Jesus thought and spoke about what came after this life, and would have informed the thoughts of the people he encountered.

Jesus does talk about eternal life, the kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven. Sometimes they seem interchangeable, sometimes they seem different, but each of them is described in terms that are at times vague and weird. Usually when Jesus starts a statement with the phrase, “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” we can be pretty sure that whatever is coming next is going to be cryptic.

Generally speaking, I would say that most of us much together these three ideas: the kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven and eternal life. These things are about what will happen to us after we die and Christ comes again and we spend eternity in heaven. Some of you might have other ideas, but I feel like it is safe to say that this is the Christian narrative (leaving out the discussion of who is and who is not “saved”) of eternal life. And we, good Christians, do what we can to ensure that we will be spending the eternity in heaven, whether that is living in faith or working our way there.

Here, in today’s scripture, we get what is possibly Jesus’ only concise and direct description of eternal life. And it is not what most of us think. Eternal life, according to Jesus as recorded here in John’s gospel, is not about what happens to us after we die. Eternal life is a state of being in this world, in this life – eternal life is knowing God.

Jesus says, “That they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

To know God is to have eternal life.

This isn’t just an afterlife kind of thing. This is a here and now proposition. And it isn’t about an intellectual assent to God, it isn’t checking off the box for Jesus, it’s not about “oh, yeah, Jesus? I know that dude!”

To know in this sense implies relationship and understanding. To be in relationship with God and have complete understanding of God and Christ is to experience eternal life.

Eternal life isn’t just about what happens to us after we die, it’s not a question of who is in and who is out. Eternal life is knowing God in this moment, in the next moment, in each and every step of our lives and beyond. That is eternal life. And that is heaven.

God isn’t in the business of keeping people out, he isn’t in the business of pushing people away from him. God wants us to know God, God came to earth so that we might be in relationship with one another, so that God might know us and we might know God.

The problem is that knowing God isn’t easy. To know God, to be in relationship with God, is to be changed by God. To know God is to be filled with God’s unending compassion for our brothers and sisters and that is painful! When we are filled with Gods love we really consider what Jesus might do and, generally speaking, what Jesus would do is the most difficult thing and is often something we can’t bring ourselves to do. Jesus would forgive those who have hurt us the most, would look with compassion on the most difficult people in our lives, would stop to care for those we pass by on the street every day and would feel their pain.  These are things we cannot bear to do every moment of every day.

 

And that is okay.

God knows that.

So we get moments of eternity.

Moments when we are so deeply in love that times seems to stand still.

Moments when we see the beauty of the world in such a way that we start to cry.

Moments when we are suddenly able to forgive the unforgiveable or moments when we get so deeply in prayer or meditation that our monkey mind stops and we are able to just be. Moments when we forget ourselves and our hurried lives and take the time to extend a gesture of love to someone who badly needs it.

Little moments of eternity.

Little moments of knowing God.

Little moments of being overcome by love.

 

May you know God.

May you have little moments of eternity this day and always.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Jesus is the stranger

And we walk together on the road to Emmaus. Waiting to see Christ in our lives, waiting for the death and resurrection of Christ to turn our worlds upside down, to change us for the better, to change our world for the better, we walk. As we walk, we talk of the impact Jesus has had on our lives, and we wonder where is he now? What happened? Why can’t we see Jesus in our lives today – all the while, looking down at our feet, focused inward on our troubles and our confusion.  A stranger comes us to us, asks us for spare change, asks us for a blessing, asks us if we need anything and we , so caught up in our conversation, so stuck in our own heads, mumble a few words and keep walking. Jesus was there, and we missed it.

Despite our desire for an encounter with Jesus, our longing for him in our lives, we miss out on him a lot. We look for him, sure, but we look for him in the expected places. We look for Jesus in prayer, we (sometimes) look for him in church or in the faces of those we love. Rarely do we look for him as we walk down the street, our heads stuck in the future or in the past, in our troubles or in our phones. Most of us pass through our days unaware that we have encountered Jesus, even though we have a deep longing for him. We are just so trained to look in certain places but not others and have such difficulty being here in this place in this moment that Jesus comes by and we don’t see him, don’t notice him, he is just another stranger on the road to work, to play, on the road home.

This is a problem. You see, when we don’t look for Jesus everywhere, when we aren’t expecting to be surprised by Jesus in strange and unusual places, we see Jesus less and less. Because Jesus is rarely found where Jesus is supposed to be. While he can be found in the synagogue, he can also be found talking to women shunned by society, by a well at the hottest time of the day. He can be found having dinner with people no one likes, the sinners, the prostitutes, murderers and the tax collectors – not the pastor and the church council. Jesus appears, again and again, with and within the stranger. We are called to look for him there. When we don’t – when we forget that this is where Jesus lives, we forget about the importance of the stranger, the necessity of loving the stranger, the foreigner, the sinner, and those on the margins. When we forget to look for Jesus in the face of the stranger, we miss Jesus, and we forget about the value of each and every single human life.

bring-back-our-girls

What happens when we forget to look for Jesus everywhere? Some news clippings about Jesus from the last week. Where has he been?

Jesus lost his ride to work last week. He is trying to piece together some way to get to his job, trying to figure out how he can keep supporting his family without a car.  Jesus might lose his job because he can’t get to work anymore. That or he will spend 2 hours bussing each way, losing valuable time with his family, easing the stress on his partner and helping his kids with their homework. We were so busy making sure we didn’t have to spend an extra $60 on our car tabs, we missed seeing Jesus in all of those people who rely on public transportation to get to work, to get to the doctor, to get groceries – to get anywhere.

Jesus was kidnapped last week. Kidnapped and sold as a child bride in Nigeria. Jesus is gone, we don’t know where. No one is looking for him because no one expects Jesus to be found in a group of Nigerian schoolgirls. Nigerian schoolgirls, apparently, are not terrible important in our world.  They are black, they are female, they are poor. A trifecta of things that make someone unimportant. These girls are important to their parents, to the handful of activists working to get this story out, to people in their villages and girls afraid of facing the same fate, but not to many other people, as is evidenced by the amount of time it took for Western news outlets to start picking up this story and the lack of offers of international assistance. These girls were missing for almost two weeks before most of us started hearing about it. Now they are gone. Jesus has been kidnapped, and we missed it.

Jesus was tortured last week. He sat in an execution chair, chemicals pumped into his veins (or his skin, rather, as the drugs didn’t make it into his veins). He writhed and tried to speak, seized and foamed at the mouth. Jesus was there, but no one saw him. Because no one would think to look for Jesus alive in the heart of a murderer. Jesus was tortured and, collectively, we just look away.

When we forget to see Jesus in the stranger, we allow people to die of hunger, of starvation, of neglect. We allow our brothers and sisters, our fellow travelers on this road, to fall to the wayside and die. What is it that Jesus said? When you do this to the least of these, you do this to me.

Our faith, at its heart, is a story of love. God created us, very good. God made covenants with us our of God’s infinite love for us. God came to earth to show us how to love one another and how to be in relationship with God. God died a painful death so that we might have life.

Again and again, God extols us to love one another.

In our reading from Peter today, we are told that the fruit of our faith, the result of obeying the truth, is love. If we are obedient to God, it will show because we will love one another fervently. Love is the fruit of faith.

And we want to be obedient, we really do! But there is just so much out there that is so shiny and distracting. Our phones. Our relationships, so fraught with drama that we often cause, our work, our desire for money, for things, for power and success. We are even distracted by replaying our pasts over and over again in our heads or by living in the future, never the present. Plus, love takes energy, and, more than that, it takes vulnerability. Who wants that? When we are vulnerable, when we invite others into our hearts and our lives we put ourselves in the position of possibly getting hurt. So we distract ourselves with things that we somehow believe will never let us down. Cause I have certainly never been let down by any of my stuff. Wait… that’s so not true.

For God so loved the world… our faith is a story of love.

To love and to be loved, you have to show up. You have to pay attention. You have to allow yourself to be loved and allow space for love to happen, to create space for interaction, to expect the unexpected, to expect love.

The two men walking along the road did not expect love. They were not looking for Jesus; they were too caught up in their lives to see love standing there in front of them. They were too busy with their own thoughts of who they thought Jesus should be and where they would find him to see him standing right in front of them.

Just like most of us.

But then something changed. They may not have recognized Jesus, but they remembered their faith. They remembered the importance of love and of showing love through hospitality. They invited the stranger inside, into their homes and their lives. They offered him a meal. It was in that act, the breaking of bread together, the act of allowing him to bless them (an act of vulnerability and love) that their eyes were opened and they saw Jesus, right there in front of them. He had been there the whole time.

Let him in. He is walking along side of us on the road of life in the face of so many strangers. Pick up your head, pull your mind out of your phone, out of your worries, out of your present and your past and look for Jesus everywhere you go. Open your heart to the possibility that he might be in the homeless person on the corner you pass every day, yet don’t know his name. To the possibility that he might be the undocumented immigrant living down the street or the young child bride taken from her family half a world away or an inmate on death row. What you find might surprise you. What you find might just be love – the fruit of our faith and our salvation.

Amen


Cloud of witnesses — a thank you

Sometimes, my mother (hi mom! love you!) tells me that I post too much on these here interwebs. I am, it is true, a chronic oversharer. Not too long ago, I was told that one of the things noted about me (negatively) in an interview process was that I overshared. I just thought well, if you don’t want oversharing (which I just think of as openness and being comfortable with myself, BTW), I’m not the right person for you. Truth.

Sometimes I can go too far. I hear words coming out of my mouth and wish I could pull them back in. But when it comes to what I post on Facebook and other social media sites, as well as here on my blog, I generally think very carefully about what I post. I am, surprisingly to some, intentional.

I do, indeed, share personal things about my life, I share my struggles, I share when things are crappy and when things are awesome and I try (and hopefully succeed) to strike a good balance between the two, reflecting the reality of my life as it is.

In part, this is because so many people whitewash their lives online so that they appear to have the perfect life, while others whine so much it is hard to think of why anyone is friends with them (I am pretty sure that I don’t have anyone like this in my news feed). I want to be real and to show my brokenness for the people out there who are going through some shit but are too private, shy, reserved or whatever to put it out there for the world (this is not a bad thing, just different). It is nice to know that someone else’s day sucks too, that other people are struggling. In fact, when I was in the deepest pits of despair after my husband left, I really wanted to have a way to filter all of the happy news (especially the happy family/marriage/engagement/baby news) out of my FB stream. I wanted to be in a community of others who were feeling as emotionally fucked up as I was. But no one wants to read that all the time and, thankfully, my life isn’t like that all the time. So I throw out the joys as well, so we can all celebrate together. And, even when I am in the pits of despair (with ROUS’),  I do enjoy knowing that my friends lives are going well. It is good to be reminded that it won’t always suck.

The big reason, however, for my oversharing is not my desire to be real, it is my desire for community. Since graduating high school and heading to college, I have lived in at least nine places. My people are spread all around the world. Seattle, as much as I love it, is not the easiest place to make friends. My community here is strong, but it is also small and made up of people who have their own lives, kids, super busy jobs, etc. So, in many ways, my community lives online.

Throughout the past year, I have received so much support via social media. People I haven’t heard from since high school have reached out to me to provide support. College friendships have been rekindled, people who I barely talked to IRL have become comrades on my journey, and new friends have been made. I said to the internet, “Divorce sucks!” and my electronic cloud of witnesses responded, “Totally. And we’ll help you through.”

So, thank you. Thank you to everyone who has sent me a message, who has provided support through comments, who has sent me a text after seeing something on my FB page, who has prayed for me, who has listened to me complain, cry out, bitch and just work out my confusion. You caught me when I was falling and carried me through this incredibly difficult time.

In the book of Hebrews, it is written, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses  let us also lay aside every weight, every sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” You are my cloud of witnesses, surrounding me, helping me to lay aside my weight, my brokenness, and break free from my sin, cheering me on as I run this race. Thank you.

To those who don’t participate in social media, who think it is some kind of false replacement for real friendships, well, you probably aren’t reading this. But if for some reason you are, please hear me saying that you are wrong. My friendships have, by and large, been formed, fed and/or strengthened by the ability to share what is going on in my life and to have people respond, to read about what is happening in my friends lives and to reach out to commiserate, laugh, cry or provide an electronic hug. Yes, I would prefer it if I could have these friendships in person, but the nature of most of our lives today doesn’t allow for that. I can’t move 10 times and have all of my people in the same place physically. But, thanks to this technology (with which, like many of you, I have a love/hate relationship), I am able to keep track of the people who have walked with me along the way. I am so thankful for this. I can’t imagine how hard this journey would have been without all of you.

Thank you.

Bright clouds over blue sky

You’re right there. See?


Stand your ground and turn the other cheek

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. – Matthew 5:38-48

keep calm turn cheekI was once taught that the reason we stand to hear the Gospel is because people were so excited to hear it that they would stand and lean in to hear the word. As I was reading this text, I could feel the desire to lean back, to back away from the words here.

This is the hard stuff. This is the stuff we would rather not talk about or think about. Most of us would rather God’s grace end with us, rather rest in God’s love and forgiveness as given to each of us individually than think about God’s radical forgiveness extending itself towards everyone – and us being the vehicle of that extension. It is easier to just accept God’s love – to have faith that God loves me, and to ignore the rest of it.

I was talking to a friend about my faith the other day, sharing the good news that we are all forgiven of our sins – there is no tally board, there are no sins that are worse than others and that each and every one of us is equally loved and forgiven by God. I was sharing with him the freedom of salvation.

As this friend had previously told me he is a Christian, I was expecting agreement, assent, some kind of response of joy at a God who loves and forgives so deeply that there is nothing that we can do that will cause God to turn God’s metaphorical back on us. What I got was frustration and anger.

“Yeah, I don’t agree with that.” He said, “that means that I could just go out and kill someone and say, “Sorry!” and that would be it.”

“Yup”

I replied

“Yeah… that can’t be how it works. People who do bad things get punished. They go to hell. There has to be some kind of justice for people who have been hurt, some kind of harm has to come to people who do bad things. I guess I believe in karma. The bad you do comes back on you – here or in the after life.”

The gospel of America. We are a people (and this is not only American, but there is a particularly American flavor of this) who believe deeply in vengeance, in justice through violence, in an eye for an eye and then some. In spite of often loud shouts about America being a CHRISTIAN nation founded on CHRISTIAN values, were we to rewrite this section of Matthew, it would likely sound something like this:

You have heard it said “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you preemptively strike an evildoer. If you think that your enemy is even contemplating taking your eye, take theirs. If you feel your tooth being threatened, take the teeth of the one threatening you.  Or someone associated with the person you think might want to take your tooth. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, sue them for their coat and cloak as well, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, sit down and complain about it. Ignore everyone who begs from you, and charge interest to anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, “you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you stay with those who are like you and with whom you generally agree. Be nice to those who are nice to you, indifferent or mean to those who aren’t and curse those who persecute you so that you may be inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, for he rewards the good and punishes the evil and you should do the same in his name…

We like the idea of Jesus, we like feeling loved and warm and fuzzy, we like knowing that I am forgiven for my sins, but we struggle with the idea that, um, so is everyone else. That the rain does fall on the quick and the dead alike. We all too often stop at the Jesus loves you stuff and forget that um, like, Jesus actually asks us to do stuff. Stuff that is uncomfortable. Stuff that is hard. Stuff that goes against the cultural narrative.

Talking about God’s call to us to act in this world seems to be particularly hard for those of us who consider ourselves Lutherans. We are so strongly against the idea that one might be able to work their way into God’s grace  that we shy away from asking people to respond to this radical love. We end at “God loves us” And are afraid to ask, “now what?”

To risk using a lot of Lutheran jargon, we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Or God loves us, forgives us, cares for us no matter who we are or what we have done or left undone. We are called to respond to this gift through acts of radical love, peace and justice. We can choose not to. God will love us all the same.

We have a choice: cheap grace or costly grace. Accept God’s love and then go about our lives (making the price Christ paid on the cross cheap), or let God’s love go to work in us, disturb us and transform us into people who can’t help but turn the other cheek and love our enemies (making the price Christ paid on the cross look like it means something to us, making it costly).

Which one will transform the world? Which choice is a choice for the kingdom of God and which is a choice for the kingdom of humankind?

What happens when we sit back and rest in God’s love without responding? When we allow our desire for vengeance, our particular desire for preemptive vengeance or vengeance based on mere suspicion to become the law of the land?

Did y’all hear about what happened in Florida this past week? A jury was hung on whether a man who killed an unarmed man in public was guilty or not because the shooter felt threatened. How many young people have died because fear  (fear likely based more in skin color than anything else) was enough of a justification to kill? We know the big stories – Jordan Davis, 17 years old killed because he was playing his music too loud. Trayvon Martin, killed for being in the wrong color in the wrong part of town. There are other stories, like that of 13 year old Darius Simmons of Miluakee, killed while he was taking out the garbage for his mom. Shot in front of his mother by a neighbor who suspected his new neighbor of stealing from him. How many people are killed every year because of something that person might have done, might have thought of doing, or the cultural perception of that person.

On the national front, we have more people in jail in the United States than any totalitarian regime in human history. Yup, that’s right. And more people in jail than in high school. And a higher incarceration rate than any other country, which is disproportionately higher for people of color than white people. We are so desperate to ensure our kind of justice is done, we are willing to experiment with drug cocktails that we aren’t sure will work on death row prisoners — we torture before, even while we kill.

When faced with dealing with threats from people outside of our borders, we strike with swift preemptive force. We have drones out there striking people who might be terrorists, drones striking people using cell phones that have been used by suspected terrorists.

Did Jesus say, “Shoot your enemy and aim at those who persecute you?”

This is the cultural norm.

This is the narrative.

This is what we are told.

We are told that that turn the other cheek and love your enemy stuff is nice and all, but we can’t actually live like that. It isn’t practical in the real world.

This is likely true.

But what about God is practical?

What about radically loving those who are left out, left over and broken, who are on the sidelines of society is practical?!

We can continue to go along with the eye for an eye, love your friends or your nation and forget everyone else way of doing things.

But God calls us to more. Christ calls us to more. We were created for more than this. We were created in God’s image, in the image of a being who loved deeply, radically, without consideration for a person’s past and only hope for that person’s future.

In the face of violence, we are called to stand strong. Jesus’ call here is not to cower, nor is it to accept violence perpetrated against us or others. It is a call to respond with strength, with self-love and love for the perpetrator – to not hit back but to also make it difficult to be hit again. The turning of the cheek is not an act of weakness, but an act of defiance. You hit me once, but to hit me again, to hit me on the other cheek would be to cross cultural norms that would make you unclean, dirty, wrong.

Let me say this again, Jesus is not encouraging anyone to just sit there and take it, to accept violence in order to bring about peace. He is calling us to force the perpetrator to rethink their actions, to do something unexpected, to change the game. Jesus calls on us to stand our ground, but God is our ground. When Christians stand their ground we are not called to ground ourselves in fear disguised as bravery or vengeance, but in God’s radical love.

Jesus is calling us to get out of our cozy, comfortable neighborhoods, our communities of people who look, think and act like us into the discomfort of the unknown and the enemy. ‘Cause, let’s face it, some people we consider our enemies for an actual reason, but most of the people (nations, religions, ethnicities, genders, whatever) we don’t like or we fear, we just don’t know.

This is not always easy. This is not always fun. But this is the work to which we are called in Christ Jesus.

We are called to live differently. We are called to go against the norm. We are called to respond to God’s loving grace by getting as close as we can to acting out the radical love that is God, that is God’s gift to us. We are God’s agents of change and radical love.

This call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute is, to turn the other cheek, to give not only our coat but our cloak as well is so much bigger than not being a jerk, bigger than being nice. Being nice is comparatively easy.

This call is a call to ask questions, to challenge, to call out for change when we see the bodies that are being left on the sidelines because of hunger, homelessness, war, to be a voice for the voiceless, to live a life that looks more like we’re working for the kingdom of God than the kingdom of humankind.

You are loved. You are forgiven. You don’t have to earn it. It is a gift.

Now what will you do with it? What will be the ground upon which you stand?


Actually, you probably should give up on some things you think about every day

never give up on...This little gem has been working its way around Facebook lately. Usually I just ignore the inspirational quotes that make the rounds, as I find many of them to be, in the words of Jack Black’s character in High Fidelity, “crappy pap.” This one, however, has worked its way under my skin.

It is terrible advice.

Sometimes, it is okay — hell, sometimes it is necessary — to give the fuck up. Throw in the towel. Fly the white flag.

There are so many things that we can’t stop thinking about that are so harmful to our lives. You know what a herion addict thinks about every day? Heroin. You know what a heroin addict should give up on? Heroin. Same for alcoholics, and any other kind of addict. Addictions take over your brain, work their way into your life so your every thought (or nearly every thought) is about how to get more of your addictive substance so that you can either get high or (depending on the level of your addiction) get normal.

Addictions aren’t just chemical substances. Video game addiction is a real thing. I wave watched kids fail out of school and people lose relationships because of their obsession with their games. If you find your mind racing with the thought of when you can again play Diablo III or WOW or you haven’t left the house in three days because you have been playing, you should probably give up on that.

Relationships can be addictive. You know what people in abusive relationships think about a lot? Their abuser. Chances are they have tried and tried to leave, or at least thought about trying to leave, and they can’t. But no, don’t give up on that relationship, dear. Because you think about it every day.

There are less harmful things that we think about every day that we should probably give up on.

For example, that person you really like and had a great date with and think about every day but he or she won’t call you back? You should probably give up on that. Also, stop calling. It is only hurting your cause (I know from whence I write).

I think about a lot of things every day that I should probably give up on: caffeine, gluten, sugar (I have a digestive disorder exacerbated by all of these but I have a hard time stopping), Diet Pepsi (that stuff is crack), Diablo III or whatever game I’m playing at the moment, whether I am good enough, whether I am really loved, whether I work hard enough doing God’s work, my weight… These are all things I would probably be better off giving up on or at least easing off of.

I do not give up. I hold on to things forever. I will not let go of people who have hurt me repeatedly. I am doggedly loyal and have deep faith in the power of love to fix human relationships. All too often, this loyalty and faith land me in a lot of pain. I need to learn how to give up. I have hurt myself in many ways because I refuse to give up.

I think the main reason this quote really pisses me off is because I spent so much time thinking about my marriage.In particular, I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could fix it. For so long, both before and after my ex left, I practically obsessed over fixing my marriage (and, unfairly, fixing him). I so desperately wanted everything to be okay.  I tried everything and anything I could think of to fix it, even to the point of losing myself and becoming who I thought my ex-husband wanted (this did not work. this never works). For months after he left I tried to be the person I thought he wanted me to be. I cleaned, worked out and dressed in a way that I thought he would approve of in the event he came back. I gave in to requests of his that, in hindsight, were absurd — just so that he might come back. Then we had an email exchange that made it clear that it would never work out. And then I gave up. Mostly.

Giving up on my marriage was the best thing I could have done for myself. I was the only one working on it until I realized there was nothing left to be working on and I couldn’t fix it on my own. A huge weight lifted from me when that door closed.

I still, on occasion, in moments of loneliness or sorrow or weakness, think about emailing or calling my ex to see if we can’t work it out. I have actually followed through on that thought a few times, which only makes me feel like a total idiot about 10 minutes later. I am still trying to give up 100%. I am not there yet, but I look forward to the day when I am.

So, I am giving myself permission to give up on the things that are hurting me, the things that eat at my body, mind and soul, the things that harm my relationships with other people and God. I’m going to learn how to give up.

I encourage you to do this too. What are the things you need to give up? What is eating away at you, destroying you slowly (or quickly) inside and/or out?  What do you think about every day that is keeping you from becoming the person God created you to be? What is in the way of your relationship with God? Give it up. Go ahead. It is okay. If you’d like to give it up but aren’t sure how or don’t think you have the strength, talk to a friend, go to a meeting, find a therapist. You can give it up. It is okay. Give it up and let it go.


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