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.


Adopted by God

Scripture for this sermon can be found here.

 

Once there were two women who never knew each other.
One you do not remember, the other you call mother.
Two different lives, shaped to make your one…
One became your guiding star, the other became your sun.
The first gave you life and the second taught you to live it.
The first gave you a need for love, and the second was there to give it.
One gave you a nationality, the other gave you a name.
One gave you a seed of talent, the other gave you an aim.
One gave you emotions, the other calmed your fears.
One saw your first sweet smile, the other dried your tears.
One gave you up … that’s all she could do.
The other prayed for a child and God led her straight to you.
And now you ask me, through your tears, 
the age old question of the years…
Heredity or environment, which are you the product of?
Neither, my darling … neither.
Just two different kinds of love.

-Anonymous

 

This poem, called Legacy of an Adopted Child, hung on my bedroom wall as I grew up. It still makes me misty. For I am an adopted child.

 

My birthmother was already a single mother working minimum wage in a small town in Ohio. She wanted to keep me. She loved me, sang to me, prayed with and for me, nourished me, talked to me… She birthed me and then, in the ultimate act of love, she let me go to a family she knew would love me and provide for a good life because she didn’t feel as though she could provide for me in the way she would like to given her current life situation. She loved me so much, she gave me away.

 

My parents so desparately wanted children. They tried every fertility treatment available to them in the late 70’s. Nothing worked. They signed up with Lutheran Social Services of Ohio and went through a few huge letdowns before they got the call about me. When I was born, they rushed around to prepare – painted my room, went out and bought all the wrong baby things because they had no time to really think about what kind of high chair was right for me. My Godmother and Godfather who already had three of their own stepped in to help them prepare.

When I was three weeks old, my parents came to pick me up. As my father told the story, I was hanging from the judges bench by my diaper, ready to be plucked off and taken home. My mother says that was the longest drive from Colombus to Cleveland ever – my dad wouldn’t go above the minumum highway speed.

From the moment I was put in their arms, my parents loved me as their own flesh and blood and then some. I was both miracle and gift. Through the power of love manifest in adoption, I was. I am theirs fully and completely. But I am also my birthmothers child. She loved me through my gestation and then gave me away. My parents and I love to play the nature vs. nurture game. I have my birthmother’s mouth and cheeks, my birth fathers hair color, my father’s sense of humor and my mother’s frankness. I am the child of all of them.

I don’t remember being told I was adopted. I was so young when my parents told me that it seems like I have always known.

What I remember most, what I know the most, however, is love.

I know not every adoption story is as pretty as mine. Some are tragic, some are trying. I know not every person who wants to carry a child to term in order to give him or her life is able to. I know I am incredibly blessed.

Why am I telling you this?

Because, in one way or another, this is our story. Your story and my story.

This is God’s story.

God is both the birthparent and the adoptive parent. God gave Christ to the world – knew him, loved him, cared for him – then gave him up knowing that he would be rejected. God gave Christ to us for our own sake, for our good, out of God’s love.

In doing so, God adopted us – the unclean, the broken, the outsiders, those who were not a part of the chosen people of God, Israel – into the family. God gave up Christ and drew us in.

I have known many people in my life who struggle with not being good enough. I have known people who have not felt right walking into a church or taking communion because they didn’t feel worthy of God’s love. My heart grieves for anyone who feels this way; for anyone who has ever been taught that they are not good enough for God’s love — because there is no earning God’s love. There is no being good enough because it’s just not possible. We all fall short, we all mess up, we can all be selfish jerks sometimes. God loves us anyway. We are still a part of the family.

That’s the thing about adoption – it’s not earned. Generally there aren’t tryouts – particularly not in the case of God’s adoption of us. You are automatically precious in God’s sight. You are a beloved child of God.

God sent Jesus to us to help us see this, to help us see how we are all related. God sent Jesus to us to take down the boundaries that had been built up over time by well meaning priests and scribes. In an attempt to help people follow God more closely, people became separated from God and from one another. The unclean were sent packing – there were lots of ways to be out but few ways to be in.

Many of our human families function in a similar fashion – some of us have relatives who we can no longer bear to talk to because of the hurt they have caused, for our own good we cut them off. Some of us have family members who we cut off because we can no longer bear to watch them hurt themselves. Some of us have been the ones cut off, placed on the outside, often for transgressions we don’t know we did or we don’t understand. Some families have no room for the different, the broken or those who have hurt us too many times for them to be let back in again. Often the story of family has a few tales of pain.

But not in God’s family. God will never cut us off. We can walk away, we can hide, but God will always greet us with open arms, will always call us to him no matter how far we have wandered. As many times as we let God down, as many times as we go against God’s will and do things that hurt ourselves, others, creation and God herself – we will always be welcomed back with open arms, always gathered back up into him.

This is not just the way God deals with me or the way God deals with you, this is the way God deals with us. All of us. Our inheritance is the same. Our inheritance is the kingdom. We all get it.

In our contentious world, it is hard to remember that we are all adopted children of God. We have all been brought into God’s family. And, unlike in our families, there are no favorites, no black sheep. Or, maybe it would be better to say we are all favorites and we are all black sheep. Simultaneously saint and sinner. Loved beyond measure. A wanted child. Each of us. Doubly loved.

Welcome to the world of adoption. It is a wonderful place.

 

 

 

 


And the light breaks through the darkness… Christmas Eve 2013

For Christmas Eve this year, I was privileged to preach at my home congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church in Lakewood, Ohio. The people of Trinity were some of my main teachers in the faith (alongside family and the staff at Camp Mowana in Mansfield, Ohio). I am both proud and blessed to have been raised in that community. They are shining Christ’s light into the darkness.

Tonight’s reading from Isaiah speaks of light and darkness.  Image

Darkness and light.

Darkness and light. We are a people of the light, yet we spend so much of our lives wandering in the darkness.

This is the human condition. Some of us experience more of one than the other, some of us are better at seeing the light in the darkness, some of us are not so good at finding the light.  But still, we search. We grope. We cry out for the light. Like the generations before us, we crave light.

Sometimes, the darkness is our own doing – we become focused too much on our own needs, break relationships, indulge our desires to the point of illness that we cannot escape. We close out the light. Sometimes the darkness is something in us we cannot control, at least not without difficulty – mental illness, a physical illness, a darkness we fight with all our might but still seem to have difficulty finding the light. Other times, the darkness is imposed on us on a personal or structural level – abuse, relationships broken by the other party (or parties), loved ones who are ill, a government or society that doesn’t view us as a full person, life in a land ravaged by war, famine, a system that keeps people poor no matter how hard they try to move up.  Often these conditions are the result of others who are living in their own darkness; people who don’t realize they can’t see the light.

Wherever you are, however much darkness you may be in, the light of Christ is with you.

Tonight is the night we celebrate the central miracle of the Christian faith: God came to earth to be with us, to understand us, to feel pain and joy just like us, and, most of all, to be a light that would banish our darkness and lead us home to God, to everlasting life.

The God in whom we place our hope is not a God who stands far above us, judging us, moving us around like little pieces on a chess board. Our God is a God who plunged himself into our deepest darkness, plunged himself into death, only to return in light and glory and to leave us with light to follow until he comes again.

Our God is a God who walks with us in our pain because God has been here. In Jesus’ time on earth, he lost loved ones, experienced betrayal, felt death breathing down his neck, experienced physical and emotional pain, cried out to God that he he felt forsaken. God forsaken by God. He was fully human and fully divine. He gets it. In Christ we are never alone. God is always there to walk us through. Even when we can’t feel it, even when we are so lost in our own darkness that we can’t see the lanterns on our path. God is there.

God came to us as a child, breaking into human history, breaking into time and lived among us. Christ ascended into heaven but left the Holy Spirit and remains present with us in the gospels, in creation and in community.

God is here. Christ is here. Right here, in this place. The bright light shining in the darkness, lighting our way home.

Christ lives in this community, holding you up as you hold up each other.

That’s the only possible explanation for how you, dear members of Trinity, are still here.

My dad would come home from council meetings in the 80’s stressed out about the future of Trinity. The finances were ugly, he would say. There isn’t enough money. The building is falling down around us.

Twenty-five years later you are still here.

This is because Christ‘s light lives in your midst.

For those of you who might be visiting tonight, I want you to know this is an amazing community. It is a place where Christ’s light truly shines. Trinity folk, for 35 years, from near and far, I have watched you, dear Trinity friends, walk with one another through the joys and pains of life, watched you lift each other up, share each other’s triumphs and failures. You not only do this for members of this direct community, you reach outside of these crumbling walls to feed, clothe and assist those who come to you needing help in any way you can.

Christ lives among you and within you.

And yet, my father’s worries of the 80’s are coming to pass. This building is falling apart. It hurts my heart to think about this building going away.; to think that I could come home for another Christmas and not worship in this space This building is where my faith was nurtured, where I learned women could be pastors, where I would sit to listen to my father’s wonderful bass voice float down out of the choir loft, where I first preached and where I was admonished to take prayer more seriously. This community held my family as my father fought and lost a battle with cancer, and has prayed with and for me as I took a windy, weird journey to ordained ministry. I love this place. I misted up a little on Sunday when I wandered down to the fellowship hall and admired the walls we painted (with the Robar’s wonderful direction) so many years ago. It is painful to think about this community leaving this place.

But how much of what I just said was about this building? The painting downstairs  is a result of the community, no the building. My father’s voice couldn’t have floated down from the choir loft were it not for the encouragement of a caring choir director who saw a gift in my father and worked with him to uncover it. Trinity is not this building. We were as much Trinity when we worshiped in Lakewood park for the steak fry as we are when we worship in these walls. Christ is with you, Christ lives in you, your work is evidence of Christ’s continued presence on earth. Be confident in that.

The miracle that we celebrate this night is not just that God broke into our world in a material, historical, time bound way, it is that Christ continues to be with us at all times and in all places. Christ is with us in the Gospel, in this community, and, in the most solid, material way, Christ comes to us in the eucharist. When we eat the bread and drink the wine we are crossing the bounds of time and space to experience Christ’s love and light in a tangible, real way. How? I don’t know (I disagree, you’re a damn good pastor and Christian, you know how Christ appears-here’s your opportunity to name it in concrete terms). Christ’s presence in these things is a mystery to me, but it is there.

Christ is here.

Overcome with joy this night? Christ‘s light is with you. Feeling content in your life? Christ is with you.

If you are hurting this night, the light of Christ shines for you. If you are alone this night, Christ is with you. If you are ill, Christ is with you. Jobless, Christ is there. Losing hope? Christ is there. Christ is with you now and always.

If you can’t feel it, if you can’t find the light, ask someone to help you. Reach out. This is why we gather in community as Christians. If you can’t find the light, if you can’t find your faith, someone will walk with you until you can see the light on the path.

On this night, we remember God coming to earth to know us, we remember a scared young woman giving birth to a hope that had been promised for generations, a hope that lives with us still. Let that hope, that light, live in you. Nurture it with prayer, with song, with presence in a community that believes in God, in God’s presence in this messy, broken world and insists on acting in the name of God to spread love, justice and hope to all.

If you have found the light, if you can see the light, it is up to you to shine the light so that others may follow. When we keep the light to ourselves, it goes out. When we claim the light as our own or place rules and boundaries around the light, we diminish it to the point of the faint glow of embers, the fire that once was. Christ’s light is for all regardless of who we are, what we have done and what we have left undone. Christ is for everyone. No boundaries. No fences. No in or out.

When we shine with Christ’s light , when we hold the light of Christ’s love for all creation up high for all to see, we become partners in Christ’s work. God’s work, our hands, as the saying goes. We are called to be “God with some skin on.” To be the light for those who can’t find their way and to shine our light brightly on the places where the light is dim – to the places where injustice rules, where the voices of the poor, those who are considered minorities, the different, and those on the margins are silenced, to the places where I is more important than we. We are called to shine the light on the false gospels that tell people that god rewards the faithful with material possessions, that with faith comes power, might and freedom from pain and illness. We are called to take our light into the depths of poverty, despair, hunger, addiction, abuse and to shine it. We are called to speak truth to power so that all may walk in the light in this world as well as whatever comes after this life. We are called to let Christ’s light shine from every mountaintop into every dark corner of this world.

If you can’t see the light, let someone know.

If you see the light, follow it and let it fill you.

If you are filled with the light, let it overflow into the world around you.

The light is with you. Christ is with you. Forever and always.

Amen.


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