Tag Archives: Jesus

Learning from my neighbors without homes

homelessA number of years ago, not long after I moved to Seattle, I was walking through the Capitol Hill neighborhood and a young woman with a sign asking for food caught my eye. I asked her if she would like to eat with me, and she said yes, so we went to Magic Dragon for some wonderfully gross pseudo-Chinese food. This woman’s story seemed to be homelessness’ greatest hits. Her mother was a heroin addict, she was gang raped by some of her mom’s friends at 15 and ran away not long after. She subsequently got addicted to heroin and had just recently gotten herself clean. She was working to get some of her friends clean and trying to get money to go to Hawaii, where she presumed it was a lot better to be homeless since the weather was so much better. Two things she said have stuck with me ever since.

  1. She told me that what really gets her is when people walk past her like they don’t see her, like she is invisible. Even eye contact reassured her of her humanity, kind words meant the world to her.

So often, we shuttle past the homeless because we don’t want to give to them or (and I think this is actually an and) because we can’t handle looking at them because they expose a lot about ourselves. The homeless people around us expose that we really do have a lot and we really aren’t willing to share. They expose our fears that we, too, aren’t too far from where they are. Were it not for a supportive family or a job or a variety of other things (things that amount to privilege), we, too could be on the street. Also, I think that we believe if we don’t look at the homeless, we won’t feel like a jerk for not giving to them. Or maybe that’s just me. I know that, for me, every time I walk past a homeless person, I hear Jesus in my head saying, “That which you did not do to the least of these, you did not do to me.” I deeply feel like I am ignoring Christ when I walk past a homeless person, like I have just denied giving food to a God who is often found in the weakness, the need, and the pain of others.

2. She told me that she gets why people don’t want to give homeless people money because they might spend it on alcohol or drugs. However, for her and some of her friends, drugs are how they get through the day. Without a strong support system, a safe place to stay, the option of psychological care and rehab, drugs numb the sting of life, the sting of homelessness, and fog the brain so that the trauma of your past impedes less on your present.

In the past few months, I have begun building relationships with the homeless people who sleep on my ministry property and my understanding of this have increased 10x. One day, a chronic alcoholic who sleeps out there came in really upset. Turns out the other guy out there with him had been doing heroin. I didn’t get why this pained him so much until he began to tell me his story. He was removed from his mother’s care as a baby because she was a heroin addict. He was in the foster system for the rest of his life, and experienced neglect and abuse in many of the homes that were supposed to care for him. He now fears living inside because of all of the bad things that happened to him in houses and drowns his pain with alcohol.

I ran into him today in front of the Safeway and he was shaking uncontrollably. I asked him if he had the shakes and he said, “Yeah. Withdrawal.” I went inside and bought him a beer. At that point, the beer was medicine for him. After you reach a certain point with alcohol, quitting cold turkey can kill a person. The figures are 2-5% of people going through alcohol withdrawal will die from it, but even without death, a person can have seizures, and delirium tremens — and the worse your drinking has been, the more likely bad things will happen (fun fact: this does not happen with Heroin withdrawal. It will suck, but it will not physically kill you). And experiencing  DT in the past makes it more likely you will die from it in the future.

Most of the guys around my building who are homeless have some kind of substance abuse problem. For the majority of them, its alcohol. For a few, its other drugs. For all of them, for better or worse, substance abuse is what makes life more bearable as they live out on the streets and try to forget their problems or use drugs/alcohol (which is a drug, but we make that distinction in our society for some reason) to deal with mental health conditions like PTSD, depression, or schizophrenia.

One of the guys who stays out front was making me really mad the other day. I needed him to leave and he just would not get up. I threatened to call the cops. Once he got up he came in and told me that he had been in a car wreck a few days ago and broke two ribs (he was clearly in pain) and had a heart problem from an infection he got while he was in the hospital for pneumonia. He was really sorry it took him so long to get up, but he was in a lot of pain and really just needed to lay down. The next day when I woke him up to move on he told me he just learned his father had died — he was trying to find a way to go north to help his family with the details and say goodbye. He found a way to leave today and gave me a huge hug.

The thing that kills me is how grateful they are because I simply treat them like fellow human beings. I’m not a saint. I’m not always nice. I kick them off the property regularly, I have words with them when they are drunk or on the odd occasion they are rude. But they always apologize and thank me — even as they walk off the porch into the rain. One day I almost lost it because I was kicking a guy out of the back (he had built a fort there, basically), and he kept thanking me. I was so confused as to why he would thank me and then it occurred to me that I was treating him like a human being, asking him to move his stuff, giving him a chance.

The guys who sleep on the front porch take great pride in the fact that they clean up after themselves. They found a broom somewhere and always sweep up after they leave in the morning. They bring in my sign when I forget. They protect me from other people who are being rude or belligerent, and they corral one another to clear out when the time comes. Every time they thank me, just because I am not being a dick.

There are groups that are trying to criminalize homelessness, towns that make things like being boisterous (Hi, Burien) illegal as a way to keep the homeless out of their area. This is insane. Making homelessness illegal will not stop homelessness. People don’t magically stop having mental health issues or addiction issues or get a job or a decent credit score or get an apartment because some city made a law that keeps people from being able to sit on the sidewalk.  Homelessness is solved through a complex web of education and access to resources, and much of what is needed doesn’t exist. There are 60 beds a night for people who  need to sleep it off, and a labyrinth to find your way through if you actually want to get treatment for addiction and can’t pay for it. Any given night in King County, there are around 4000 people sleeping on the street and 3000 shelter beds are full. Every year in King County 35,000 people lose the place they called home. This can’t be fought with laws that keep the homeless from sitting on the sidewalk or being boisterous.

We need more services. We need more services for people with mental health, substance abuse and general health issued. We need more transitional housing, more affordable housing, and more shelter beds (that aren’t bunk beds because while they make room for more beds, they also leave people open to attack and many won’t sleep in them). We need housing first policies that give a person shelter before asking they quit using, and a deeper understanding of the fact that within the larger homeless community there are lots of little communities and when people try to get shelter, that all too often means leaving the family they have acquired on the street.

In a nation, a county, a city as wealthy as Seattle, I shouldn’t have people seeking shelter under my eaves every night.

In a nation that has a tendency to claim Christianity as its faith, there shouldn’t be people hungry and on the streets, and I shouldn’t receive thanks from people just because I am not being awful.

Some of the people on the street are there because of bad choices — but most are not. And anyway, who among us hasn’t made bad choices? Who hasn’t taken a stupid risk? Just because some of us have the ability/support/resources to bounce back after a bad move doesn’t make others less than us. In fact, it should call us to remember that there but for the privileges I have go I.

TL;DR: sometime try talking to a homeless person, you may hear an amazing, heart wrenching story. Try to understand them; have compassion. If you’re a Christian, seriously think about that person being Jesus. Remember Matthew 25:31-46. And work like hell for public policy that provides services to ensure that, someday soon, this isn’t a problem at all.

 

Info on homelessness in King County: http://www.homelessinfo.org


Fear, hope, and Jesus the refugee

Cranach_Massacre_of_the_Innocents_(detail)

Twas the night before Christmas

America cried out in fear

of foreigners coming from far and from near.

“They might take our jobs, they might take our life!” the people shouted out, overtaken by strife.


Many seemed to forget the savior they claim

was also a foreigner with little to his name.

His parents, unmarried, far from their home,


as foreigners they were completely alone.

No room at the inn, they gave birth homeless, in a manger

to a son whose life would soon be in danger.


The baby, a king, born in poverty.

Lowly, unknown, a king he would be

.
A king who would turn the world on its head,

proclaim good news to the poor,

call for the hungry to be fed.

The embodiment of love, God in human form,

come to save us from the sin with which we all are born.

The way of peace, the way of love,

the way of the cross, and for these teachings he would pay the ultimate cost.

And so we remember, this wet winter night

what happened, what is now and what is not yet.


The hope that was born long ago in a manger

that love that calls upon us to love our neighbor

that peace which passes all understanding

come to Earth in Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Live into love, cast out all fear, act in the hope the Christ child is here.

 

Tomorrow, the church universal will celebrate the Day of the Holy Innocents. The day when King Herod, terrified of this baby of whom he had been told, this child he was warned would grow up to destroy all that he had built, called for all of the children under the age of two to be killed. Mary and Joseph, having been warned of Herod’s wrath, escaped to Egypt, where they lived until the reign of Herod had ended. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus became refugees, fleeing an oppressive government that threatened the life of their child. Had they not been able to flee, had the neighboring nations thrown up walls, fences, or red tape, we would not have the story from Luke today, the story of Jesus the smart, devoted, yet petulant twelve year old. We would not have the gospels. We would not know of this thing that God had done, coming to earth to be with us. The miracle would have ended just as it was beginning.

As we are given these stories of Jesus in his early days, we are given the story that Jesus was some of the things that we look down upon, some of the things we fear, some of the things we despise. Jesus was homeless. Jesus was a refugee. Jesus was a petulant preteen.

We do not have the details of Jesus’ time in Egypt, but they likely sought out other Jews, people with whom they had a common culture, a community of faith, people whose scriptures taught them to welcome the stranger, to welcome the alien for they had once been aliens. This is a heavy emphasis of Jewish scripture – scripture that we happen to share.

Were Jesus to be born today in a similar way, he could be born to a family in Guatemala, living in fear of gang violence, a family in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Nigeria, or any of the many nations that are embroiled in civil way – a family running for safety, looking to find safe harbor in any nation that would take them – and the current dialogue in our nation would make it somewhere between difficult to impossible to come here. We would build walls, create red tape, to keep him and his family out, because we are afraid. We are so very, very afraid.

And I get the fear. The world seems to be a very dark place right now. As a campus pastor, I am afraid. I fear for my students safety. This fall, the day after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, I was walking to campus and heard helicopters above and sirens seemingly all around me. My first thought was oh dear god, no. Not a shooting, not here. I quickly realized that the helicopters were for the fall startup activities on the quad and sirens were unrelated, but for a brief moment, I was terrified. This low grade fear lives within me – I am gathering the campus religious leaders to try to form a unified response to a shooting in the event we ever need one. I get the fear.

But we worship a God who tells us again and again to not be afraid. Fear is the enemy of love. When fear has a grip on our hearts love has a hard time finsing its way in. One cannot simultaneously fear and love ones neighbor. And so God says to us, through the scriptures, the ancient stories of our leaders and prophets, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid, the angels said to the shapers in the field, to Mary, to Joseph, to the prophets — to us. Do not be afraid.

Fear is the weapon of Satan. It is the sword Satan yields to keep us separate from one another, to engender strife, war, envy, hate… all of the things that lead to violence, all of the things that block us from the ability to love as God loves us, the things that cloud our hearts so that we cannot hear that still, small voice inside of us pushing us to love, to trust, to forgive – to be willing to give our lives for the lives of others. Fear keeps us not only from one another, fear keeps us from God.

Fear would keep us from welcoming this homeless, refugee baby into our nation, into our homes, into our lives. And the rhetoric of fear that pervades the conversation in the United States today is working. It is driving us to violate the Christian love we claim to hold so dear, to push away the stranger, to ensure that there is no room at the inn.

These words today from the Apostle Paul are a prescriptive against fear. To begin, we are reminded that we are holy and beloved. You, people of God, are holy and beloved. They, people of God, are holy and beloved. We are called to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. To bear with one another, and to forgive. To forgive, To forgive. Forgiveness which, through the power of God’s astounding love, frees us from hate, from anger, from the desire for retribution. Above all, writes Paul, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. This clothing sounds awesome. It reminds me of when you get a new pair of sweats and they are soon soft inside and you don’t want to wash them because you know that will ruin the amazing softness. It’s like wearing that, but a softness and comfort that will never wear out, like wearing that all of the time — to work! To the mall! To fancy gatherings! We would always be soft, always comfortable, always ready to love, no matter what the situation. We are called wear these clothes; to let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts.

Fear cannot co-exist with this clothing. This clothing destroys fear and opens us up to be the people of God we have been called to be.

What would it look like were we to let go of this fear? What would it look like were we to let go of our anger, our hate, our suspicion of others, to give and love freely without worrying about what would happen next? To some, it may look like foolishness. But, for real, is this the most foolish thing in which a Christian believes? We believe God came to earth in the form of man, died and then was physically resurrected! So much of our faith can be called foolishness. To believe in God is not foolishness. To love without fear, without asking for anything in return is not foolishness. It is the Christian life. To live this way looks beautiful. It looks like heaven. What if were were to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the homeless, the petulant teenager into our hearts and homes the same way we welcome the sculptures of the baby Jesus that lives in our cresh?

Hope was born in that manger 2000 years ago. Hope that love would be the law of the land, that fear would be no more. Fear cannot coexist with hope – at least not the hope that was born in that manger. That hope is a living hope, an active hope that we live into each and every day as we wait for Christ to return, a hope that calls to us to prepare the way of Christ each and every day, to love as we are loved. This hope is alive, it is calling to us to put down our weapons, to put away our fear, to say yes to love, to say yes to Christ.

Because we are loved. Deeply. Without requirement, without payment, without earning it, we are loved. The proof of this lovelies in a manger, in the child of an unmarried couple without a home, who would soon become refugees, This proof of love lies in the man who would die so that we might live an abundant life, a life free of fear.

Hope is calling. Listen, do not be afraid.


Who are our heroes?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Selma with my students. It is an amazing movie. Beautifully shot, well acted, excellent writing… It’s the kind of movie that, when you walk out, you are just quiet for a while, letting it all sink in. It was, at times, very difficult to watch. Selma is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go, and an examination of the power of love in the struggle for justice.  This powerful film could bring about a time of soul-searching for an American. We have an ugly history when it comes to race relations, and there is still much work to be done.

I wish all of America would see this movie and be stirred into contemplation about racism, activism, and the power of love in making change. To date, Selma has made $48 million , and is currently being shown in only 566 theaters, down from a little over 800. People are not watching it on a grand scale. I imagine it is hard to watch, but moreover I imagine that people do not want to be challenged to think about race in spite of it being so very necessary RIGHT NOW to think about and talk about. But I wish more people would take the risk to be disturbed and inspired by this film.

When I was walking out of Selma, deep in thought about Dr. King’s calling out of white church leaders for their silence while black folk were being killed just for being black, I noticed another movie on multiple screens at the theater: American Sniper. American Sniper is the story of a sniper, American soldier Chris Kyle, in war and his struggles to readjust to life at home. By all accounts, it is also an excellent movie. Good acting, writing, directing. I haven’t seen it. I can’t stomach war movies. I cry and cry about man’s inhumanity to man, how we end up in war, our inability to see the other as a human being (which is necessary in war, I get it, but I don’t have to like it). I thought about going to see it so I could write this post, as I know it is dodgy to write about something I haven’t seen, but I am pretty sure I would be curled up in a ball for days on end if I did. But this isn’t about the movie, so much, as the idea of the movies, and what we value as a people.

american-sniper_612x380_1American Sniper, a movie about war, warriors, and facing violence with violence, a movie that from what I read in comments and chat rooms, leaves one with quite the strong Go America! spirit, has made over $300 million at the box office. It is still being shown in over 3,000 theaters.

And I am disturbed. Not that people want to go see what is, by all accounts, a good action flick/drama, but that so many more people would rather watch a movie about continuing war than working for peace. I am disturbed that Chris Kyle, a war sniper, can be so much bigger a hero than Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who shrewdly led a peaceful movement to grant freedom and equality to black Americans. I am disturbed that we would rather watch something that makes us tread deeper into blind and unbridled nationalism than something that leads us to examine the darker parts of American history so that we might work for a brighter future.

Who are our heroes? What is important to us as a nation? War or peace? Loving action or violent action? What kind of Christianity do we claim?

Chris Kyle was a Christian. He embraced the kind of black and white good vs. bad Christianity that seems to be everywhere today. He believed that the people he killed were evil, that Jesus would be okay with his kills. He, himself, felt like killing was no big deal. It didn’t trouble him to take a life. He believed that he was fighting evil individuals.

selmaDr. King and those who worked with him were (largely) Christian. Dr. King believed in using love to fight hate, he believed that inside every one of those racists who hurled epithets at his brothers and sisters, there was a shred of humanity, a little bit of God. He tried to appeal to a person’s better nature, to call that little bit of God out so it could take over a person and banish hate. He believed in evil, for sure, but not without a spark of hope.

We, it appears, would rather buy into the American Sniper view of the world. Everyone else is the enemy, violence wins, God would be cool with us killing. We prefer a world in which there are three kinds of people, “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs,” instead of the complex reality that there is a little of each in everyone, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint. We would rather our heroes be strong warriors who go to battle with guns, kick ass and take names, shoot first, ask questions later, etc. than men and women who fight hate with love and patiently endure beatings without fighting back so they can reach an ultimate goal. We would rather soak in nationalistic fervor than take time to reflect on the darker parts of our history and ask question about who we are and how we can change. We would rather have black and white than gray (and we would rather a terrible movie about an abusive relationship than Selma as well, but don’t get me started on that one).

Is this who we want to be?

Moreover, for those of us who are Christians, is this who we are called to be? Those of us who follow a man who said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, is this who we were created to be? Our Savior and our scripture again and again command us to love above all else. Not to love until we feel threatened, then to shoot. Not to kill the evil (because God takes care of that).

I know this isn’t good foreign policy. I know war leaves little room for gray. But I also know that the revolutions that have lasted the longest and led to the most change, have been peaceful revolutions. I know that killing upon killing leads to more killing. And I know that God in Christ asks us to go against the grain and to love unto death.

And, ultimately, it’s he who is my hero and it is he who I will follow to my grave.


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.

 

 

 

 


Ask and you shall recieve. Or, you know, not.

Sometimes you can ask, and ask and ask and... nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

Sometimes we can ask, and ask and ask and… nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

 Text: Luke 11:1-13

I find this text to be… difficult. I mean, the Lord’s Prayer, I’m fine with. Who can argue with that? The part I find difficult is at the end. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” We’ve all heard it. And I think it is safe to assume we have all asked and not had it given unto us. It’s hard, and it hurts.

When I worked at Northwest Memorial in Chicago, during my seminary chaplaincy, I was called to the room of a woman who had, for lack of a better phrase, full body cancer. It had metastasized everywhere. While we were talking, she asked me about prayer. She was a lapsed Catholic and wondered if I might bring her a rosary and help her learn the Hail Mary. I went to the office and grabbed her a rosary and a Catholic prayer book, recited the Hail Mary with her (as my Swedish Lutheran grandmother’s head spun somewhere in Ohio), and said goodbye. Weeks later, she was back in and asked to see me. She wanted to tell me that she had been cured through prayer. After her last time in the hospital, she started going to church and attending a women’s prayer circle. The women prayed for her and laid hands on her every week. Now, no cancer. They were just running some final tests.

I wanted to be happy for her, I really did. I tried. But as she prayed for a cure, so did I. I prayed and prayed for my father’s brain to somehow be rid of the malignant tumor that was killing him. There was no cure. He would die. God is so fair that God is unfair, a friend once told me. Some prayers are answered in the way and time we want and, well, some just aren’t. And it sucks.

Sometimes, I watch televangelists when I can’t sleep.

I was watching a particular evangelist known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants you to have everything you want, and you will get it if only you pray hard enough and work hard enough (and, often, donate a lot to the church or preacher who is telling you this). This preacher was on a prosperity gospel roll when he remarked that people who have financial troubles have them because their faith is not strong enough. Then he went on to say that people who are ill, people who have cancer, people who are dying, are in that state because they weren’t praying hard enough.

Wait, what the what?

But there it is in the scripture, right? Ask and it shall be given unto you! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened! Jesus said it, it’s right there. So if it’s not happening for you, there must be something wrong with you. That’s what this preacher was telling the people in his congregation and the people he reaches across the world through the glowing screen.

Few things get my hackles up as much as placing the brokenness of the world on people’s shoulders and telling then that it would go away if only they worked hard enough. I guess that is the Lutheran in me.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. It can kill faith. When we walk around with the idea that God is a cosmic butler who will respond to our desires (as long as they are Godly desires, naturally. Or maybe desires for a new car), with a resounding yes!, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

But still, we have this section of the Bible (and in Mark and Matthew as well) that tells us that if we ask we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock, a door will open. So what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What do we do when we have been unemployed for months and we are knocking and asking and seeking, but no doors seem to be opening, no answers coming, no jobs to be found? What about when a loved one is ill and we pray and pray and pray and yet there is no cure, no remission, no end to the pain?

If we have hung our faith on a God who will do exactly what we want, when we want, it may not sustain us through hard times – because that’s not how God works.

We have ways we explain God’s apparent lack of response to our prayers. God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no. It wasn’t the right time, be patient. But these answers are wholly unsatisfying. I want what I want and I want it now.

It’s one thing when I don’t get something I want like a parking space (yes, I have prayed for those before), or a shiny new car. Then it’s pretty sensible that God’s answer was either no or silence (because I don’t doubt God has better things to do than help me get a parking space). But when we pray for a cure, for an end to pain, for a job that will help us feed our families – then the silence on God’s end seems uncaring and distant. It is this silence that leads people to disbelief, to observe that a good God just wouldn’t let these horrible things happen, so either there is no God, or God is not good.

This misunderstands who God is, what God is, and God’s role in our lives and the universe.

God is not a genie, or a celestial butler or a vending machine. God is so much bigger and more than this. God is a mystery we have only seen in pieces and parts. But all of those pieces and parts add up to one thing: God is love. God is the creator, the ground of being, beyond our comprehension, And sometimes, this is really hard to deal with. We want a God who is like us. We want a God whose primary job it is to respond to our demands in the time we want the way we want. When we do this to God, we make God small, and relegate the source of our being to our servant.

But what so we do with the fact that something that Jesus said doesn’t jive with our experience of God and our stories of God in Jesus Christ that tell us God is a God of love? What do we do when something that Jesus said doesn’t appear to be the way the world works?

We put it back in context. We look at the verses around it, we use the rest of the Bible and our tradition to help us out. When we do this, we discover that  maybe because we aren’t making the connections Christ wants us to make, we’re making the connections we want to make, the connections that give us butler God.

To make sense of ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, let’s look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. What are we to ask for? What are we to seek? Where shall we knock?

For Jesus, it is all about the kingdom. Start with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude. Ask for our basic needs to be met. Ask for forgiveness. Seek the ability to forgive others. Seek God’s will. Knock on the door of the kingdom.

I can tell you from personal experience that when things are falling apart, starting the day or your prayer with gratitude feels impossible. It is really hard. It can feel forced. But it can also switch your frame entirely and change the way you are looking at your life and change how you approach your day.  A little thanksgiving to the creator can refocus not only your day, but your life.

It’s about God and the kingdom. God wants us to seek the Kingdom, God wants us to knock on the door of the kingdom. This is the gift we are to ask for – and it is already here. The kingdom, Christ said, is here. It is in prayer that we encounter God and it is in seeking God’s will, seeking to forgive and be forgiven, to praise, to ask for salvation and to ask for our basic needs to be filled that we knock on the door of the kingdom. When we live in a Christ centered way, when we live in prayer and love, we seek the kingdom and we will find the kingdom. For most of us, the discovery will be fleeting. We will have kingdom moments, moments when we are filled with God’s love that everything feels perfect. Then the moment will fade. The world will get in our way. We will start thinking about ourselves and our needs and what we don’t have, we will compare what we have to what those around us have. Or our illness will break through, despair will grab a hold of us and we will become blind to the kingdom again. Sometimes we may pray and pray and pray and it will seem like the door isn’t opening and there is nothing to find. Then a friend will appear at the perfect moment with words of encouragement and the kingdom breaks through into our world again. And again. And again.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying God doesn’t want us to pray for cures or love or hope or for the pain to go away or for whatever else we may be praying for. God does. God wants to know what we want, God wants us to be in relationship together and one of the paths to relationship is by being honest about what you want and need. But it’s not always going to work out the way we want it to. Sometimes it will. Cures happen, jobs appear out of the blue and sometimes love falls out of trees. But it also might not. Because the world is a broken place, and as much as God may love us as individuals and as a people, we aren’t always going to get what we want. But we will get what we need: love. Forgiveness. Community. Small glimpses of the kingdom.

The kingdom is the best gift God can give us. It is the opposite of giving a child a scorpion. The receiving, finding, and opening to God’s kingdom is the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what I want or what you want, which is hard. But it is about God’s kingdom, which, even in glimpses, is more than anything we could possibly ask for.


The devil’s question

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

If the devil really looked like this, he would be much easier to avoid.

A sermon on Luke 4:1-13

This past Wednesday, we entered into the season of Lent; the time the church has set aside for penitence, reflection, fasting and prayer. It seems only right that we begin our Sundays in Lent with this story about Jesus’ temptation. This is a season when many of us put ourselves face to face with temptation – giving up things we love like chocolate, wine, perhaps whining. We do this to practice discipline (and sometimes to lose weight or give up bad habits), and, in doing so, we enter into prayer and build our relationship to God. Jesus’ temptation was far more formidable than chocolate – the devil tempted him with some of the more difficult things that we wrestle with every day. The need for self-reliance, the desire for power, the easy way out. But at the bottom of all of these temptations, and most of the temptations we face in life is the question, “Do you trust God?” That is what the devil is asking Jesus. Do you trust that God will provide for you? Do you trust that the path God is leading you down is the right path? Do you trust God with your life?

These are the same questions the devil asks us. Do you trust God? Or do you trust yourself?

Jesus had just spent 40 days in the wilderness. He had not eaten, and was very hungry. It is reasonable to imagine that he had not slept all that well either – sleeping out in the open, weather and animals keeping him awake. And here comes the devil, doubt and temptation personified, to offer Jesus a solution to his problems. You are hungry, Jesus, and you have the power to fix this on your own. Use your power for yourself, just this one time. Be fed. Fill yourself with what you have created by yourself. God might not give you the bread your stomach so strongly desires, Jesus. Fix it.

We are hungry. We are hungry for connection, for community, for meaning: we are hungry for love. The media and product peddlers take on the role of temptation and doubt personified. They tell us that we are not attractive enough, but there are pills and diets and surgeries and clothes to fix that. They tell us we are not complete, but there are cars and furniture and kitchen sets to fix that. They tell us we are not truly loved until we have extravagant presents to prove it. We are unsure of who we are and where we belong, we are told that the products we buy can help us define who we are, and along the way provide us with a community who is into the same stuff. We will find connection through our things. And we are surrounded by it, this message. It is in our ears and faces all the time. We absorb it through our pores. We doubt our worth and fall prey to the belief that we have the power to sate our own hunger. We fall into the cycle of spending our time to earn money to buy things to fill our hunger but it never lasts. And so we do it again, and again.

Jesus knows about this cycle. He knows that, on his own, he can do nothing, that it is only through God that he can act for good. Jesus knows that life is about so much more than that bread. He knows that he cannot fill himself on his own. He is hungry, he is weak, he is tired. I would imagine he is salivating at the thought of a meal. But he is also grounded in the Word of God, in scripture and prayer. He is grounded in faith in God and the knowledge that God can and will provide so much more than the things of this world, so much more than Jesus’ own power and abilities can bring him. It is his grounding in the word of God and trust in God’s promises that allows him to put aside his hunger and reply with words from scripture, “The human shall not live by bread alone, but by the word of God.”

By what are we living? The word of the world, or the word of God? Where do we put our trust?

The devil sees that this tack will not work. What else can he offer Jesus? What else might throw Jesus off track? An offer of power, perhaps? The devil offers all of the kingdoms in the world. Just the fact that the devil was able to show this to Jesus hints at the devil’s power. The devil claims that the kingdoms of the world have been given to him – is the devil lying, or does the devil control the major cities of the world? If the devil does have this power, this could make Jesus become the messiah the people of Israel were expecting – a mighty king, a political leader, come to free God’s people. This would be a very different king than the road Jesus is currently on. His power would be more visible, more worldly, would be seen in a way that those around him could understand. Moreover, it would be a power that he could understand, that he could control. Not only is the devil offering Jesus power and control, he is offering him it in a way that makes sense in this world. The power Jesus has, the role he plays in the world is almost never understood by those around him, not until after his death. All he has to do is pledge loyalty to the devil — in return he will recieve power, control and a different destiny.

Power. Control. Understanding. Recognition. We really like those words. Who doesn’t, at one time or another, daydream of being in charge of a kingdom, be it having control of your household for five minutes or having control of the world. We love control, and we really, really hate to admit that we aren’t in charge of much of anything. Most of us want to be recognized for what we do, to be seen as the one who just did that awesome thing. But we have a God who doesn’t show us the end of the story but lets us work it out. We have a God who asks us to do our good deeds on the down low. We have a God who asks us to pledge our loyalty to him and only him, in return for things that are hard to see, hard to explain, and often unrecognized by our world as being awesome. The world tells us the opposite – power is visible, control is ours, and we deserve to be recognized for what we have done. What are we willing to trade for some recognition, some power, some control? What are we willing to give up to God?

Jesus is still hungry, still exhausted, and can likely see some positive outcomes of the devil’s offer. After all, he is fully human as well as fully God. But he knows his call, he knows who he is created to be. Once again, the strength of his faith comes through. His grounding in God and knowledge of his path takes over and he is able to say, “Get behind me Satan: for it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and no other.”

But the devil is not done. There is one more thing. And, really, it’s kind of bratty. Satan must be annoyed that Jesus keeps pushing him back with scripture, so he comes with some of his own. And through that, he manages to ask Jesus if he really trusts that God will protect him. “Jesus, God has said he will protect you. Do you really think he will? If you do, if you really believe in God, put his love to the test.” Or, the flip side of this question, “If you believe what God has told you about who you are, put who you are to the test.”

Most of us know this is a bad move in a relationship. It is rarely, if ever, a good idea to say, “If you really loved me, you’d…” Or to act out to see what your beloved’s response is. And yet… how often do we put God’s love to the test?  How often do we act out hoping for some response from God, for some lightening bolt from the sky. How often do we put God to the test by questioning who we are, by questioning if we are loved?

You are loved. I am loved. We are loved. By God. The proof in this lies in our lives, our community and in stories of God’s love passed down through the generations and the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus  had the stories, he had the community, he was rooted in God’s love for him. He didn’t need to throw himself off a building to prove it. He knew.

The devil is done with him… for now. The scripture here tells us that the devil will come back – at an appropriate time. Not even Jesus could escape temptation. But he could face it down, he could push it back – and so can we. With Jesus’ help.

But, why? Why should we push back temptation? Usually temptation has something fun on the other end of the line. True. Usually it does. Just like a fish sees a tasty worm at the end of the line but misses the hook. Giving in to temptation usually does have some fun, but it almost always comes with pain, loss, grief, embarrassment, and more.

Jesus was able to push back temptation because he was deeply grounded in the word of God. Not just the words of God, though his knowledge of scripture and his ability to quote it certainly helped him in this situation. He was grounded in the word of God, the word that was there at the beginning, the word that lived inside of Jesus Christ and the word that lives among us today. As the Apostle Paul writes, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We have the word in our midst! We have scripture, we have ritual, we have community, we have the Holy Spirit, we have the unending, always forgiving, never fading love of God. When the devil asks us, “Do you trust God?” We can look at all that we have been given, all that is around us, all that God has entrusted to us and respond with a mighty, resounding Yes.


Water from an unlikely source: a sermon on the woman at the well

The Samaritan Woman at the Well — He Qi

(A sermon on John 4) It is January 1998. I am at camp for the annual camp staff holiday gathering. I have come here early because I need to pray. I need answers, I need comfort, I need direction. You see, 1997 was a really, really bad year.

To begin with, my college is not the right fit for me, and I did not transition well to being the small actress fish in a large theatre pond. I am on the wrong path and it’s eating me up inside. My life (as I knew it) got exponentially worse this past March. I came home for spring break and learned that my grandfather was going to die that week. I spent the rest of the semester in a fog of partying and self-pity. I’m a little too good at self-pity.

That summer was supposed to make it all better – I was heading back to camp. I have been going to this camp since I was 10 years old. Camp nurtures my faith and fed my soul. The people there are family. I thought I was going to go to camp and sing songs and do candlelight worship and be around my friends and everything was going to get better.

We arrived to a new director, which was really exciting because our previous director had been… misunderstood (and we thought kind of mean). In our first all-staff meeting there were at least twice as many staffers, which seemed really weird. We gathered for our first session and were told that the day camp and residential camps were combining. We were all going to spend half of the summer doing day camp around Ohio, living in strangers homes, away from Camp. This is not what I signed up for. This is not why I came to this place year after year. As training wore on, we learned how different things would be. What was supposed to be my safe place became my nightmare. My already fragile health was falling apart due to the constant moving and eating at the mercy of host families and kind church ladies. One day, I was crying as I walked down a path at camp. I was sick, I was tired, I was upset. I looked up and saw the director. I tried to talk to her to see if maybe something could be changed. She looked me in the eyes and asked, “Did you follow your chain of command?” I wanted to ask, “What is this, the army?” Instead, I dissolved into a puddle of tears. The director walked away, leaving me to shake and cry. I was not the only one struggling. That summer was so bad many of my friends would never work there again.

I went back to school that fall in worse shape than I had been when I left. I kept partying, I slept through exams, I gave a presentation on Ionesco’s Rhinoceros still drunk from the night before. I stranded friends on a lighting practical that I slept through. The only reason I wasn’t failing was a combination of the grace of God and my professors.

Something needs to change. I am on a road to destruction. I want to drop out of school, find the right place to be, but I’m terrified of what my parents would say and of making the wrong decision.

So, here I am at camp, ready to pray and get answers. First stop: the chapel in the woods. I drive up to Intermediate Hill and hop out of my car. It is so quiet. I love the silence of snow. My feet squeak as I walk across the chapel field. The chapel is so beautiful in its winter stillness. The altar and chapel benches are covered in snow.  I brush a bench off and sit. I stay for a while, talking to God, waiting for a response. Nothing. It’s really cold out — I’m running out of body heat and patience. This isn’t working, but I need answers. I need God. Maybe I need to really get down and touch the earth.

I head to the chapel field, get down on my hands and knees and beg God for an answer, a solution, a sign. “Dear God, if I should drop out of school, send me a sign. Make a bunny run across the field, then I’ll know what to do.” No bunny. No nothing. Just silence. I’m shivering now, and it’s almost time for dinner. So… thanks, God? Is your silence an answer?

I meander down to the dining hall. There aren’t a ton of people here, largely due to the events of the summer, but it is so good to see the people who are here. To get hugs. To be loved. We eat together, we hang out for a bit, then we head to the lodge for worship. I love taking communion with these people, with my family. I’m trying to ignore the fact that the director is here. But now that it is time to worship, I can’t avoid her. She will be preaching and presiding. I’m sick at the fact that I have to be in the same room with her, much less the fact that I have to listen to her speak for 15 minutes. Her continued presence in this sacred space fills me with rage. I try to practice forgiveness, but it’s too hard. I breathe.

We sing, and it is wonderful. We pray and I am at home. We start the readings and I become aware of her again. Aware of the woman who ruined my camp for me and so many people I love. Her sermon begins.

“You know how, when you drive down the highway, there are all these signs that say “NO U TURN?” That can be so frustrating. Sometimes you get on at the wrong place or are accidentally funneled onto the highway and, without a u-turn, you could go miles and miles in the wrong direction.”

I so know what she is talking about. What the what?

“I have done this so many times on the highway, and in life. Fortunately, in life, there are U-Turns. God lets you take them whenever you want. In fact, if you’re going the wrong way, God tells you tu turn around now. Right now.”

Tears are streaming down my face. I feel my friend Don’s hand on my back, my friend Jenny sneaks her arm around me. These words feel like they are just for me, straight from God. Straight to my heart from a woman I despise. A woman who ruined something I hold so dear. The answer to my prayer came through her – unexpected, unwanted, frankly — these words came from a place I never would have suspected. I was so, so thirsty for the water of life – and there it was.  Here is my foe, offering me exactly what I need. I never saw it coming. I had looked in fields and at crosses, in churches and in the form of fuzzy bunny rabbits. Never in the form of a woman I considered my enemy.

So it is with the woman who went to the well to draw water. She had had a hard life, at least as far as love goes. In my experience, people who are looking for love in all the wrong places are usually looking for the kind of love that won’t be found in another human. They are looking for a love that is wholly different; they are looking to never thirst again — they are looking for the water of life This Samaritan woman went to the well to draw water, as she did every day. She wasn’t expecting to have a conversation with a Jew, and she certainly wasn’t expecting that Jew to know her past or to offer her living water. But that’s how it happened.

The people hearing this story about Jesus had expectations. When a man and a woman meet at a well, the story ends in marriage. But Jesus goes and turns this story upside down. That is how it always seems to happen with Jesus. In this way, Jesus is a parable. Jesus meets us in strange and unexpected ways; he makes us tilt our head and try for a new vantage point, he confuses us, he disturbs us, he makes us think about things differently. Jesus meets us where we never expect, in people we would rather not pay attention to. Jesus rarely shows us the answers exactly how we want him to, when we want him to, saying the things we want to hear. Sure, Jesus is here to comfort us and walk with us and love us, but there’s more to it than that – that wouldn’t be a parable.

And here’s the thing: we, too, are called to be parables. As much as we are called to comfort, we are called to disturb. As much as we are called to show up where it is expected, we are called to be in places that are entirely unexpected. We are called to reach across boundaries of race and class and gender and orientation and nationality and any other boundaries people insist on creating. We are called to make people shift their view of reality and, in doing so, to point people towards God. This is our call: to live parabolically, as Jesus lived. Go forth and live the parable.
Amen.