No Greater Love Than This: Ash Wed in a Congregation Awaiting Re-development

John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

This congregation is in a very specific moment, for which Valentine’s on Ash Wednesday is the perfect weird combination. In re-development, you are invited to lovingly embrace the death that leads to resurrection. Maybe it will be the death of things “we’ve always done this way” or death of expectations for the staff’s time, or the death of your control over the building or death of an unconscious hope that things will somehow return to when this church was in its “glory days”. Any of these could feel like a loss, and judging by how committed this core group of people are, it could also feel like a death of part of who you are. But it is not defeat; it is love. It is plunging into the waters of baptism in order to be born again, drowning the old self so the new might emerge. By the power of God’s limitless, unconditional love, death is the beginning of resurrection.

Jesus invites us to abide in him as he abides in the Father. How did that go? Well, Jesus submitted himself so thoroughly to the will of the Father – loving us even in our sin– that he died. The Father endured the heartbreak of losing a child, so that we would know definitively: we are all God’s beloved children always and forever.

What does it look like for faithful church members, of a certain demographic, to abide in Christ as he abides in God? Can you live into Christ’s body, emptied of himself for the sake of others’ resurrection? Can you live in God’s heartbreak over God’s only child for the same unconditional love? “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” And it is clear in re-development that we’re not just talking about “friends” as those you are already close to, but those you will choose to love although they have no claim of family loyalty over you. It is always a loss, a sacrifice, to put someone else’s needs first. But for “friends” who are not even related or perhaps similar to you in any way? That requires deeper sacrifice, more akin to death of our will.

I’m not sure any of us can actually muster up that love. Maybe for our children or parents or beloved spouse or dearest friend. But for the “friends” we haven’t met yet? I can’t do it. I don’t want to do it. But Jesus does. God the Father/Creator does. No one has greater love than Jesus has shown, in dying by human hands, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, or God in bringing a child into the world who would do so. Their acts of love, facing death for love of us, expose the complete injustice at the core of our beings. Yet once it is exposed to the light and air, our sin can be cleaned out and begin to heal. It is nearly unfathomable, this love; it is shown by facing death. So if Hope is to attempt this new birth, the resurrection of re-development, you will need to abide completely in Christ. Clothe yourselves in Christ, live “hidden” in him, embody “God with us.” Then you stand a chance, of death revealing the greatest love of all.

 

Both sides of the stole

This stole carries a lot of transitions.

I wore it – white side out – today for Transfiguration. By (Ash) Wednesday I will turn it over for purple, the color of Lent. Today I read the Gospel when Jesus’ robes were turned dazzling white, and God spoke directly to the inner circle of disciples saying, “This is my Son; listen to him!” Then I preached about the shadows in that scene of dazzling light, to a small congregation about to get some very disappointing news: the pastor they were eagerly anticipating is not coming after all.

So I showed them my stole.

It’s not just a job well done by whomever made my stole, that the celebratory festival/season and penitential season of anticipated grief are sewn together, back-to-back. There’s more transition, joy and grief in it than even that.

My family bought this stole at the Poznan Cathedral, the oldest in all of Poland, while adopting our oldest daughter. Adoption creates a resurrection, new life for an entire family, but the new life only and always comes out of fear and grief.

“I will wear this stole before you, every week for awhile,” I said. “It will seem like a long time on one side, but eventually we’ll see the other side again.” At Easter.

Resurrecting the Stories that Hurt Us

“Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

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Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.”

This is one of those Scripture passages that raises the hackles on the back of my neck, and likely the same for other ordained women in ministry. Those who have questioned the legitimacy of women’s ordination or even women’s roles outside of the home will use this passage to say, “See? Peter’s mother-in-law was healed by Jesus so she could get up to serve him. That’s a woman’s place.” Now, those aren’t sermons preached in an ELCA congregation, but even in a church body that has been ordaining women since before I was born, those two verses stop me in my tracks. The fever leaves and she immediately gets up and serves them? With only a pause long enough for a comma? Come on, disciples of Jesus, someone should have said, “Please, rest. We’ll take care of the guests and family for awhile. Take care of yourself. We love you.” Anything along those lines would have been welcome. This is a frighteningly accurate portrait of how we use the “worker bees” in congregational life, many of whom are women of a certain age. Let’s do better at taking care of each other, especially for those whose work is often behind the scenes making everything run smoothly without any of the credit. So little credit, in fact, that “Peter’s mother-in-law” doesn’t get her own name, but is defined by a man in her family; just for today, I’m going to call her Miriam, to remember that she has her own identity.

Miriam actually does a whole lot more than getting up and serving the disciples, with Jesus’ help.

She is the first to be resurrected.

You see, the word used for “lifted her up” is the same one translated as “raised her up” – as in “resurrection!” This is what resurrection looks like – not just for women, but for all of us. When Jesus takes your hand, and raises you up, you are meant to use your renewed life to serve others: Women, men, children, all followers of Jesus! This word will show up repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark, as Jesus heals people; he’s bringing the resurrection into their lives. There’s no account of Jesus’ actions after his own resurrection in the Gospel of Mark but the disciples are instructed to go to Galilee, where Jesus did all these acts of healing to remember what resurrection looks like. But this Miriam’s story is the first resurrection story of all of them! Let’s consider her for just a minute. We know she’s a mother-in-law, so imagine: probably past the age of bearing or raising children herself. Possibly past the age of being pursued by men who find her attractive. But certainly not – as Jesus’ actions suggest – past contributing to the good of her community and the work of God in it. Huh. I guess a woman’s primary value is not just in producing or raising children, or providing an outlet for the sexual drive of men. Well, I’ll be. If that was her worth, then Jesus could have just let her succumb to the fever, and started the cascade of resurrection healings with somebody else.

Now, if you have been through a serious illness or injury or even childbirth, and healed to the point of returning to your previous life, resurrection might ring true to your experience; just to be able to do the most mundane things for yourself again is like a breath of new life.

But other times we don’t spring back. We don’t end up being cleared from the nursing home, or maybe your condition is chronic and is not going to get better; or new parents struggle with postpartum depression. We don’t know if our Miriam sprang back into action without any side effects. Jesus still extends a hand to raise you up to new life, but instead of returning to the old one, it is to a “new normal,” and we have to learn to navigate what service to others looks like for us now. Part of your new way of interacting could include a new-found empathy with those who are suffering. The “new normal” is new life, it’s just different because we have been changed by our suffering.

After Jesus raised her up, Miriam “served” them (not just Jesus, but the whole lot of them). The word for “served” is the same one we use for ministering, “diakonia”, from which we get “deacons” those rostered leaders who are consecrated to “Word and Service” instead of Word and Sacrament. Miriam is not only the first resurrection story, but the first minister, here in the first chapter of Mark. Serving epitomizes Jesus’ own ministry: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). As one commentator noted, Miriam “is an icon of resurrection and a paradigm of Christian ministry.”

Huh. I’m feeling less defensive and more loved by this story. So now I’m going to do something a little unusual, and talk about the sermon itself: meta-preaching, if you can follow me.

Notice the process I took, in dealing with this Scripture that has been used to hurt people like me.

  • I named the interpretation that is unjust,

  • gave a personal connection of how it hurts me,

  • then gave an alternate interpretation based on a detail of the Scripture that maybe we haven’t considered before.

This is one pattern for speaking to the damage done by bad theology, or toxic churches in people’s past. That may be part of your calling in re-development. You know, it’s kind of hard to exist in our country and not have some exposure – especially in the media – to somebody’s unhealthy version of Christianity. So even if they’ve never been to church, most people have some impression of it and it’s not good. It usually involves the church condemning people for some part of their identity, with verses taken out of context to justify it.

Martin Luther described Scripture as the cradle in which the Christ child lays. The Scripture – especially given how easily we misuse it and twist it to our own agendas, must be read through Christ: all that he was and did. Such as resurrecting one whom others might write off as past her prime, as the first minister of his legacy of resurrection. You might want to have some short, pithy notes about Jesus in your head, adaptable to many people whose faith has been damaged by a church or Christians:

Jesus saw the value in everyone (even those possessed by demons, mother-in-laws, children).

Jesus can bring us back to life after any kind of loss, even death.

Jesus gives us new life so that we can serve others. That’s what we’re about.

That Christianity will not alienate. It only lifts up to new life.

Sermon for a congregation awaiting re-development, on Feb 4, 2018

Gospel – Mark 1: 29-39

Credit to Prof. Karoline Lewis for inspiration: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=5052

Honestly: The Truth About Us and Our Neighborhood

You know what is deadly to God’s work in the world or in us? Pretending we’re good, or okay even.

Gospel: John 1:43-51

“Can anything good come from there?” Let’s correct Nathaniel’s wording first – can anyone good come from there – and remember we’re talking about people. Children of God. Beloved to their families and in theory, to us as their siblings in Christ. Are they still all of these things, no matter where they come from? Yes.

I’ve always heard, read, and thought that the implication behind Nathaniel’s cynical remark was that Nazareth was perceived to be a backwater place, middle of nowhere, the opposite of worldly. But this time a commentary by Professor Thomas Slater named something that actually sounds like the opposite. “Nazareth sat in the heart of Galilee, a region populated by Jews and Gentiles from several ethnicities. Positively, it could be said that it was a diverse region. The Jewish communities, at most, constituted about 60 percent of the Galilean populace. Judea was over 90 percent Jewish. Those in Judea paid the temple tax, kept the rituals more rigorously, and were less likely to intermarry. On the other hand, Galilean Jews were less likely to pay the temple tax, more lax in regard to ritualistic traditions, and more likely to intermarry.” Hmmm…sounds like the East Side.

What if Nathaniel was critical of Nazareth not because it was out of touch with the world, but because it was so diverse that the “real” Jews didn’t consider it pure? There is something so much more reliable about a homogeneous group. We know we will speak the same language – figuratively and literally. We can hold each other to standards that are, well…standard. We can ensure that our traditions and institutions will go on in perpetuity as we have known and loved them. Diversity can feel threatening in its unpredictability.

As Lutherans – in a 99% white denomination – do we really believe anything good can come out of diversity? Not just grafting people on who fall right into step and assimilate, but those whose different ways of doing things or even different beliefs or understandings will change ours? It is really hard work. And if everyone does not intend to become multi-cultural – it won’t work.

 

We have to be honest about why we are doing what we’re doing, you know?

Bigotry has no place in the beloved community, or in following Jesus. But it is the place in which Jesus meets many of us, like Nathaniel: still feeding off our prejudices. Acting like we know what “those people” are like even though we have no experience with or interest in knowing them. Or maybe we have just a little experience, and think that is enough to go on. You know what is deadly to God’s work in the world or in us? Pretending we’re okay, or good even.

Just before Christmas I heard Marlon James, a Jamaican-born writer and professor at Macalester College, talking on MPR about the 6 month anniversary of the “not guilty” verdict in the case against Geronimo Yanez, the police officer who killed Philando Castile, near the state fairgrounds in the summer of 2015. Professor James lamented that people insist on seeing themselves as “good people;” so we only want to see racism as a malicious problem. If I’m not a malicious – intentionally harmful – racist, then I’m not one at all. There are malicious racists, of course, and now they think it’s fine to be public about that. But if at base level racism is a systemic problem, then even those who think we are not can talk about or have pointed out to us how we are contributing to the problem at any given time, without becoming horribly defensive about it. Because we are part of the system, and we can’t see clearly to change anything unless someone turns the light on.

“Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” Jesus describes Nathaniel with what almost sounds like a compliment, because at least his prejudices are out in the open. He’s not burying them deep, then unconsciously sabotaging the mission of the Messiah because he won’t deal with his own baggage. It spills out of him. And it’s horrible. And God in the Flesh engages him, tells him that he sees him, and Nathaniel is changed. Suddenly he’s declaring Jesus the Messiah. I hear Jesus’ response as saying, “Whoa, slow down. Let’s not be ‘all in’ because of a comment about a fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” But if Jesus had gotten any more specific about those greater things, Nathaniel might have cut and run. We all would.

Seeing “heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” would certainly be impressive, but is truly astounding is how God can and will take a person like Nathaniel – or any one of us in our prejudices – and transform us until we are telling everyone who will listen that we are all brothers and sisters, loved unconditionally by our one heavenly Parent. It is a long and painful process to get there, and it ends at the foot of a cross. Disciples like Nathaniel mess up a lot: following Jesus, while trying to keep children away, and women who demand justice, escaping crowds of hungry folks and people from Samaria and other places they would refer to with slurs. The gradual transformation of these folks, through daily living with Jesus seems like his greatest miracle, maybe even more so than rising from the dead.

Telling the truth about ourselves is a starting point for God coming to us, and getting us to follow. Having our luke-warm responses called out, like Martin Luther King called out the white moderates in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He wrote, 55 years ago: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

“Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

King was right. And so was Jesus. Getting it out in the open is the first step, as long as we are committed to getting beyond just naming our prejudices, but fighting against them, so we can follow Jesus faithfully.

Might I suggest: Phoebe Finster, Minister?

Four days after Christmas, our 3-year-old read aloud her new book from the back seat of our car. Except she can’t read; she had memorized Rosie Revere, Engineer. Now, our youngest daughter is a book lover of the highest order, and I’d already read this delightfully rhyming book to her at least a dozen times by then. But I also like to imagine that the speed with which those words implanted in her memory has to do with the empowering message of this and another book we love by the same author, Ada Twist, Scientist: Girls can do anything, and live into their callings as their natural aptitudes are supported by others.

Nowhere in either book does any character breathe a word to the heroines even implying, “You can’t do that because you are a girl,” or “Girls aren’t suited to that.” Although “Girls in STEM” initiatives are working hard to reverse those misconceptions we know they are still prevalent. Yet in the world of these books, not even a whiff of such prejudice exists. The adults in their lives are quite bewildered by their experiments, and laugh (Rosie) or discipline (Ada) the girls, but it’s never about gender. Readers follow along as the girls follow their curiosity, do what comes naturally and others navigate how to relate to them. The calling of each girl is never in question; only how their families can support them is.

We need a book that summons a world where that could also be true of a young girl I’d call Phoebe Finster, Minister. Becoming a clergy person is certainly a process of tinkering, uncovering natural abilities, and finding support for such a vocation both internally and externally. Undeniably part of the appeal of Andrea Beaty’s excellent picture books are her clever storytelling and engaging illustrations by David Roberts. I’m not trying to infringe on their trademarked genius. But I wouldn’t mind consulting (call me)! Here are some of the elements I would suggest:

Rosie and Ada both bear names with historical ties to their passions. Phoebe is named by Paul in his letter to the Romans as a leader in the early church: (Romans 16:1-2) “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Or you might choose from the names of the first women to be ordained in various denominations in the U.S., although those time lines vary wildly, and so many mergers have occurred that virtually none of those denominations still exist in the same way now. So, I’ll continue to call our heroine Phoebe.

While Ada’s focus is questions about how things work and Rosie’s is making gadgets to solve problems, Phoebe must be invested in the power of words. She could read voraciously, play with words, delight in words. She could walk around making analogies between things she has read and situations she encounters. She is an interpreter of meaning in both ordinary and extraordinary situations. How is God experienced? Through the words in sacred texts, but also in interactions of human beings, awe-inspiring nature, and the effort we make to bring abundant life out of both.

In direct contrast to her penchant for words, Phoebe would either possess an innate sense or develop an understanding of when words are not helpful, especially when sitting with people in grief or anger. We call this the “ministry of presence.” For instance, if her friend’s pet dies, our heroine could be shown listening, or just putting her arm around her buddy. Later she could find the words that – while not telling her friend how to feel – express what the beloved pet meant to them, and commit them into God’s care, and those doing the praying to providing ongoing support.

Phoebe might, like myself, really appreciate a good theme. Is she planning an event for others, a ceremony, or a project? First she would talk her way into a theme that could resonate with many people, then point all the details towards said theme. Her theme would not only uplift people’s spirits, but point them towards some good they can do in the world. For example, she might rally all her friends to think of kind gestures towards the friend whose pet died, such as visiting the animal shelter to play with the pets, or organizing a collection of drawings and stories about the pet. Or eventually she might convince the bereaved friend to help her throw a fundraising event for the animal shelter. Perhaps this friend who has experienced loss might not even be a child, but an elderly neighbor, since ministers spend much time crossing the boundaries between generations.

The gifts of one who pays attention to words, meaning and nurturing empathy are quite different from STEM tendencies, but the same principle applies. We nurture natural aptitudes and love young people for who they are, so they can change our world for the better, effective immediately!

Twelfth Night!

Twelfth Night used to be a big deal. Although singing a carol about “The Twelve Days of Christmas” could bring the full length of the season to our attention, I had no idea that people used to celebrate Twelfth Night as a significant holiday. I stumbled upon this fact while reading some history of Regency England, when one of my favorite authors – Jane Austen – lived and wrote.DSC07358

Photo: Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas” inside due to cold temps, 2018.

Our family decided to revive the practice. Like many Christmas traditions (Christmas trees, for example), our Twelfth Night Celebration mixes a bit of religious reference with a secular tradition that is just plain fun. Our daughters, ages 7 and 3, remember and talk about Twelfth Night because of the costumes and party. But I soon expect to hear one (who likes to teach) instructing the other: “You know, Christmas is not just a day, but 12 days!” And the other will surely want to show her understanding by noting: “And the chalk is about the Wise Ones!” The twelfth day of Christmas hovers around Epiphany (there is some dispute about whether one starts counting on Christmas Day or the next, making Twelfth Night either January 5 or 6), so we folded an Epiphany ritual in too.

When we threw our first Twelfth Night party 2 years ago, we had to explain it to each and every friend we invited. In Regency England, the tradition was a bit like Mardi Gras, with costumes and revelry. Our version would be Rated G, but involve costumes and a mini-chocolate fountain, our favorite messy bit of decadence. Those who asked what they could bring were invited to bring something they would like to dip in chocolate. It was something to look forward to after all the flurry of Christmas, without adding one more thing to the December calendar; besides, no one has plans for the first week of January! Last year, Frozen sisters Elsa and Anna greeted our guests, inviting them to decorate extra masks if they did not come already in costume. The first year we also brought out shadow puppets and let all the kids present make up a show behind a back-lit sheet. The giggles that ensued, even from new neighbor kids we had not met before, created exactly the spirit we were going for. Playing with light at the darkest time of the day and year reminded at least me of John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

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I have heard of congregations attempting to do the children’s nativity pageant on Epiphany because that’s when the magi arrive (and less stressful than during Advent), but it is so ingrained as a part of the overpacked pre-Christmas warm-up, that this is a hard sell. So, unless January 6th falls on a Sunday, Epiphany is unlikely to get much attention in worship, usually pre-empted in my denomination by the Baptism of Our Lord. We made an Epiphany house blessing part of our Twelfth Night party. Towards the end of the evening we encouraged everyone to bundle up, had lots of hot cocoa ready, and gathered all the party-goers at the back door of our house. We chalked it with the blessing (http://www.carmelites.net/news/chalking-door-2017-epiphany-house-blessing/) from our Episcopal/Catholic friends. Our kids see it every day of the year, until the chalk fades away and it is about time for the ritual again.

My spouse had lined our pergola with white lights, and after the blessing we all took our cocoa to the picnic table end and sang all 12 verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”! Three years in a row makes our Twelfth Night celebration a tradition, and my family’s unique contribution to our friends’ Christmas season.

Word Choice

“Oh, people know what we mean.”

“You’re being too sensitive.”

It is hard to be corrected on the words we use, or words we’ve always used, without feeling defensive. Yet words are incredibly important, when we are trying to convey the love of the Word Made Flesh. Jesus chose his words carefully, and even accepted correction. When he equated healing the daughter of a Canaanite woman to throwing the children’s food to the dogs, the woman repeated the slur back to him, with her claim that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs from the master’s table (Matthew 15: 26-28). We might imagine that what changed Jesus’ response immediately afterward was part better theology, but also part hearing his own word, and how it devalued the person in front of him.

To be heard by those around us, to have Jesus’ mission understood when we speak about it, we too need some correction in our word choices. We can start by asking how something sounds to members of marginalized groups.

A friend and colleague who struggles with fertility will not use the words “barren” or “infertile” even if one of them is used in Scripture, because even those who have not yet birthed children are fertile in many other ways. Their lives are not barren, but filled with nurturing relationships of all kinds.

A post on the light/darkness imagery of Isaiah 9 on the Disrupt Worship Project blog led our Bible study to question how the good/bad meanings assigned to light/darkness throughout Advent could subtly reinforce prejudices in a primarily white congregation.

A friend of mine who is gay once jokingly corrected me when I proposed directions by saying, “I think we should go straight for awhile here.” “You can go straight, but I’ll just go forward,” he said with a smile. I feel that nudge from him anytime I hear phrases such as “follow the straight and narrow.” I know that is describing a path, not a person, but our brains make associations with words, and in that use, “straight” is definitely equated with “right.”

If my right to say whatever I want is my highest value, then I can pay no attention to what words mean to anyone but myself. But if I want the good news to be heard through me and understood by others, then I had better ask more frequently, “Does how I’m saying that obscure the meaning for someone? How can I be better understood?”