A Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas

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This is the final sermon preached at my internship congregation, as I draw my year (how quickly it’s gone by!) to a close. I am so grateful for the privilege of being invited into so many lives over the past year, in sadness and in joy and everything in between. The people of Augustana will remain in my heart for a lifetime of ministry. Deo gratias!


Augustana Lutheran Church
2 July 2017 + St. Thomas the Apostle
John 14.1-7



Unbelievable. A word which, by definition, implies something too improbable to be believed, something extraordinary, outside the bounds of what we expect to be true.

For nearly the past century, the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! franchise, founded by its namesake, American businessman Robert Ripley, has wowed audiences with tales of people and events so bizarre and unusual that leave many scratching their heads in disbelief. Some of their claims have indeed been too dubious and called into question, like the urban legend of Frank Tower, who, they suggest, survived the sinkings of the Titanic, Empress of Ireland, and Lusitania. That claim, as my limited internet research (and a bit of common sense) tells me, has indeed been debunked.

Outside of bizarre events and persons that may or may not fall under the category of #alternativefacts, the unbelievable also permeates the natural world with spectacular and breath-taking vistas — from the Grand Canyon to the Pacific and Atlantic coasts to our own picturesque, pastoral landscapes here in Nebraska, many of which I have been able to see for myself over the past year.

Unbelievable, too, that my time among you this past year as your vicar officially draws to a close this morning. It seems like only yesterday that I was pulling a U-Haul westward down I-80, through the surprisingly hilly landscape of Iowa, across the Missouri River, and into midtown Omaha.

It seems appropriate, then, that this morning we commemorate St. Thomas, one of Jesus’s twelve disciples, who gets rather a bad reputation for his own unbelieving. A picture I stumbled across last year when I preached on “doubting Thomas” shows an image of the apostle that poses the question, “Thomas, do you think Christians will ever appreciate that you were actually a person of great faith?” At the bottom of that image, we read his fictitious reply: “I doubt it.”

It hardly seems fair that this is how we remember Thomas — as a doubter — but I also don’t think it’s very accurate. Indeed, his three direct appearances in John’s gospel suggest a far more dynamic, nuanced picture of this disciple. In chapter 11, after Jesus has learned that Lazarus his friend has died, it is Thomas who boldly insists the disciples join their teacher on his journey to visit the bereaved family, a journey that would also begin Jesus’s path to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Several chapters later, after Jesus has been raised from the dead, Thomas’s infamous episode of disbelief is not necessarily a sign of complete skepticism or unwillingness to believe. Instead, I suspect his doubts come from a place of deep concern. In the Easter gospel, his disbelief could easily be attributed to his life experience, especially over the past few days: His rabbi had been arrested, tortured, and killed at the hands of a powerful empire, like so many others who dared to question the empire’s authority before him. Execution, period, was the ending to be expected. In other words, nothing about Thomas’s experience would have led him to think any good news could possibly come from this.

Then in today’s gospel, we hear Thomas’s words: “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Situated in the context of Jesus’s “farewell discourse” to his disciples, after the raising of Lazarus and of course before his crucifixion and resurrection, Thomas’s deep concern and anguish over the events that were about to unfold are clear. One can imagine the questions on his mind: What’s going to happen to Jesus? What’s going to happen to us?

In contrast to popular perception, in these few verses from John’s gospel Thomas would actually appear to be an exemplar of faith — a faith which includes doubt and questions and anxiety and fear, a faith which is by no means perfect.

Thomas, I suspect, has much to teach us about the life of faith. For starters, faith is far more than pure, unquestioning subscription to a particular belief or doctrine, let alone denominational loyalty. Because, shocker, sometimes the church gets it wrong, like how the church got human sexuality wrong for many years and until only recently made it impossible for someone like me to follow my calling, serve this internship, and stand before you today.

Anne Lamott has famously written, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” To take that one step further, I would assert that as soon as we think we are certain about our beliefs, faith is dead. Instead, questions and doubt along the way are not only expected but welcomed, and likewise, imperfection is guaranteed along our life’s journey. No life of faith is lived in a linear fashion, and any example that suggests otherwise should be held with deep suspicion.

This is why I think Thomas is such a perfect example of a faithful disciple, not in spite of but because of his imperfection.

In our current social and political environment, there has indeed been much to be anxious about. The feelings that Thomas and his fellow disciples would have experienced are our feelings: fear, uncertainty, doubt, worry, lament, questioning. And these things are a natural, even permissible, part of the life of faith.

“You know the way… I am the way,” are the words of promise Jesus offers Thomas. Because the disciples knew Jesus in the flesh, they could know God and experience God’s unfailing presence.

Amid and in spite of doubt and fear, Jesus reassures Thomas that he knows the Father because he has known Jesus. So too, we are also promised Christ’s very presence in tangible signs: in the waters of baptism, in the Word of God proclaimed, in the grape and grain of the eucharist, in this very community whenever and wherever we gather. If you know me through these things, we can hear Jesus saying, you know God and you know God’s presence. These are the places where God promises to meet us in our life of faith, whether in its ups or in its downs, and these are the places in which we can take refuge.

Thanks be to God.


Hymn of the Day: “Faith Full of Doubt”
Dedicated to the people of Augustana

1) Faith full of doubt and full of fear,
faith is far more than believing.
Discord and violence all we hear
give way to worry and grieving,
asking “How long, O Lord, how long?”
pleading for God to right the wrong.
To you we cry, Lord, have mercy!

2) Thomas the twin, true sign of faith,
knew not his own life’s fulfilling.
To Bethany the path he’d trace,
to go with Christ was he willing:
“Let us go too with him to die!”
in faithful loyalty replied.
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

3) Among his friends one last repast,
Christ his farewell to them making.
Thomas alone was bold to ask,
e’en as his heárt was breaking:
“How can we know the place you go,
if the way there we do not know?”
Still was his cry, Lord, have mercy!

4) When the apostles saw the Lord,
risen in glorious splendor,
Thomas could not believe their word;
all his experience rendered:
“This is too much, this cannot be!
Impossible unless I see!”
To you he cried, Lord, have mercy!

5) Like Thomas we well understand
journey implies imperfection.
Certainty faith does not demand;
doubt and lament are expected.
When all around is cause to fear,
hope is resigned, hope disappeared:
The cry of faith, Lord, have mercy!

6) Claimed as God’s own in wat’ry bath,
marked on our brows the sign tracing;
ever with Christ to walk the path,
rest in God’s gracious embracing.
Let not your hearts be troubled here!
In bread, wine, water God draws near!
To you we sing, Hallelujah!

Text: Josh Evans, b. 1989
Music: KIRKEN DEN ER ET GAMMELT HUS, Ludvig M. Lindeman, 1812-1887
Text: © 2017 Josh Evans. All rights reserved; used by permission.
Music: Public Domain

A Sermon for Ordinary Time (again!) in Which I Quote Lady Gaga

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Augustana Lutheran Church
18 June 2017 + Lectionary 11A
Matthew 9.35–10.8-23


[Video/audio unavailable due to ornery technology. Also, a generally delayed posting due to an overworked vicar at the end of his tenure.]


Our gospel text this morning comes on the heels of Jesus’s famous Sermon on the Mount, and as any good preacher will tell you, there are often more than enough ideas and unique angles and interesting illustrations that come up during the sermon writing process than one could or should ever try to pack into a ten-minute message. Now, I’m not sure if that makes Jesus a bad preacher, but the Sermon on the Mount does go on for three whole chapters. (Just sayin’…) And it includes such doozies as:

Blessed are those who mourn.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Do not resist an evildoer.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.

The gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Not exactly the kind of nice little maxims you’d want to cross-stitch on a throw pillow. To quote a recent song from that great theologian Lady Gaga, “You’re giving me a million reasons to let you go…” To put myself in the place of one of Jesus’s newly minted disciples hearing this stuff, Gaga’s words sound like an apt response: Blessed are those who what?! I’m sorry, love who exactly?! Oh, hell no.

Indeed, a million reasons to let it all go, right then and there. But, Gaga’s refrain pleads, “I’ve got a hundred million reasons to walk away, but baby, I just need to one good one to stay.”

The gospel’s gotta get better, right? I mean, it’s literally the good news. On the heels of his great sermon, Jesus summons the disciples, “Proclaim the good news… cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Alright, it’s daunting, but I can get on board with that. “Take no gold, or silver…” Sounds risky, but sure, let’s go with it. “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves…” Hold up!

And more: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” Well, happy Fathers’ Day to you too!

Not exactly the most compelling reason to stay, if you ask me.

Behind these words is the irrefutable fact that the work of discipleship is hard, but it is of utmost importance. At the start of our reading, we get a snapshot summary of Jesus’s ministry of healing and liberation, but it’s in the next verse that we get his key motivation: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless” — or more literally, “oppressed and thrown to the ground.” It’s out of compassion — the willingness to suffer with as the root meaning of that word suggests — for their social situation that propels Jesus’s ministry among them, and it’s out of that same compassion that he recognizes the need in his context is so great that he can’t manage it all on his own and so sends his disciples to do the same.

Out of compassion Jesus cures every disease and every sickness, and out of compassion Jesus gives the same instructions to his disciples. These acts are the hallmarks of the coming of the reign of God — the new way of life rooted in healing and liberation. Which is all well and good, but what does that have to do with our time and place? When was the last time you saw a pastor walk into a hospital room and instantly cure a patient? And last I checked, The Exorcist was just a movie.

Maybe it’s not the acts themselves, then, but what they mean. After all, disease or demonic possession in the ancient world was viewed as a physical manifestation of sin, so healing someone of these ailments would have been viewed as a dramatically subversive act, upsetting the status quo and proclaiming liberation in the midst of oppression.

While these acts of healing and exorcism might be unfamiliar or irrelevant to us, the meaning behind them isn’t. To heal the sick is to advocate for health care justice. To proclaim the good news is to say that immigrants and refugees are welcome in this country and in our city. To cast out demons is to pursue equality for LGBTQ+ persons by exorcising from our society discriminatory laws and in their place championing anti-bullying measures to protect vulnerable youth.

Wherever a message of healing and liberation from oppression is proclaimed, there is the reign of God, subversive in and of itself because it pushes back against the status quo and upends all our expectations, subversive because it is rooted in grace — the unmerited, undeserved, unrelenting love of God in Christ that, so freely offered to us in our need, compels us to share it with a world in need.

If it still sounds like a daunting task, consider the original disciples sent to proclaim this message of healing and liberation. These are persons that are the least likely candidates for such a mission: Matthew is a tax collector, and Judas is named as Jesus’s future betrayer. Beyond the surface of the text, we also know that Simon the Cananaean was a zealot (a violent revolutionary) and that the other Simon, aka Peter, would one day deny ever knowing Jesus. Imperfect as they are, these are those whom Jesus sends, together. Imperfect together, they don’t have to do this work alone.

There is a movement in the gospel from Jesus’s teachings to his mission, from Jesus’s acts of compassion to his disciples’ commission to do likewise. This is a movement that includes us as well, as the church moves out of the times and seasons that trace Jesus’s life and ministry, death and resurrection, from Advent through Easter, now into Ordinary Time.

This is a time for discipleship together. As we remember whose we are and the grace shown to us, we remember for what we are claimed and sent so that that grace might also be shown through us.

A Pentecost Sermon about Diversity in Unity

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Photo by Josh Evans, Stained Glass (South Window) at Augustana Lutheran Church, Omaha, Nebraska, © 2017.


Augustana Lutheran Church
4 June 2017 + Day of Pentecost
Acts 2.1-21; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13



There’s a certain pleasure in watching a cooking show on TV — my personal favorite is The Barefoot Contessa — and then searching out the recipe online, hurriedly jotting down the ingredients, and embarking on a quest to make that dish your own. Except it never quite turns out like it did for Ina Garten, does it? Maybe that’s just me, but then again, no one has ever mistaken me for a chef extraordinaire.

In cooking, one quickly learns the lesson that every ingredient matters. Case in point: When you’re making brownies, eggs are kind of crucial. Not that I would know anything about that from experience…

Every ingredient matters. Similarly, Paul writes to the Corinthians that there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, many members but one body. For Paul, every unique gift matters to make up the whole. But it seems that the lesson we learn from this and similar texts is to place greater value on the end result — the unity, the oneness, the sameness. And yet quite the opposite is true when you cast even a passing glance at this text, for indeed Paul spends the majority of his time naming these various gifts of the Spirit — wisdom, faith, healing, prophecy, and so forth.

The emphasis here is much more on the diversity of the community. So why then do we so quickly jump over that to arrive at a sort of kumbaya/we’re all the same/let’s all get along conclusion?

We’ve probably heard more Pentecost sermons about Christian unity than we care to remember, and while they’re not inherently wrong in any way, I want to suggest a nuance here — unity not as the opposite of diversity, but unity in the midst of and even harmoniously alongside diversity.

The movement in our Pentecost text from Acts draws us from the cloistered group of disciples into the wider community. They were all together in one room… and then suddenly the Holy Spirit shows up… and before you know it, they’re in the midst of a crowd of Jews from every nation, speaking in the native language of each.

Now let’s be clear: It’s not that the disciples were suddenly speaking some universal language that everyone could miraculously understand. These were all different languages. The litany of nations and nationalities isn’t there for its own sake or for the sake of keeping church readers everywhere on their toes. It’s meant to emphasize, or even exaggerate, the dramatic diversity of people to whom God’s Spirit and message of liberation is being revealed. As Peter declares, quoting the prophet Joel, God will pour out God’s Spirit upon all flesh. But what the text doesn’t say, and what  I fear we all too often read into it, is that God’s Spirit will make everyone the same. Instead, there’s a movement here from unity to diversity, and it’s a diversity that enhances our common humanity.

Still, this diversity doesn’t come about all on its own; it’s the doing of the Holy Spirit. But we don’t seem to talk about the Spirit much, do we? God the Creator? Sure, that’s basically the main divine character in the Old Testament. God the Son? Well, that’s Jesus, of course. But God the Holy Spirit? That’s where we get a little fuzzy…

Martin Luther himself ascribed great significance to this oft-neglected third person of the Trinity. In his Large Catechism, he writes, “Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ…unless…offered to us and bestowed on our hearts through the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit” (LC 436.38). This Holy Spirit, for Luther, reveals to us the Word of life and brings us again and again to faith.

Luther also says something else quite remarkable: “Creation is now behind us [God the Father], and redemption has also taken place [God the Son], but the Holy Spirit continues [their] work without ceasing… for [they] have not yet gathered together all of [the] community(LC 439.61-62).

The Holy Spirit continues in their work… The work of the Spirit is ongoing. It is as ancient as creation, when God’s Spirit hovered over the waters before life began, and it is promised and received anew on the Day of Pentecost. For the Spirit has not yet gathered together all of the community…

I suspect the Spirit is at work, too, in places like Storm Lake, Iowa, a town of just over 10,000 residents. A recent New York Times article highlights its growing immigrant workforce. Defying state trends, in which the vast majority of Iowans are non-Hispanic white, nearly the opposite is true in Storm Lake. Local grocery store Valentina’s Meat Market showcases a variety of ethnic foods side-by-side, while in the halls of Storm Lake’s public schools, as many as 18 different languages can be heard. “A lot of different communities are living together,” remarks one resident, and another: “This is who we are now.” There is a vivaciousness, a sense of new life, in Storm Lake amidst its diversity.

Here at Augustana, too, the Spirit consistently urges us to draw the circle wide and wider still, as our choir sang not long ago, to include more and more of God’s whole creation — from North to South Omaha and West Omaha to Midtown to downtown, to immigrants and refugees from halfway across the world and our siblings in Christ at Masama Kati, and even and especially the non-human parts of creation, animals and plants and waters, under great threat amidst a changing global climate.

The Spirit is all-inclusive, far-reaching, and ever gathering her people into one. The Spirit doesn’t magically change all those people into the same carbon copy of the next person. But the Spirit thrives in diversity and uses that diversity to enhance our common life. The Spirit draws us together in new and varied ways of worship, song, and prayer; she engages us ever more fully in unique facets and vantage points of understanding and knowing; and she unites us around one table — our diversity intact, honored, celebrated — as we share of the fruit of the one Tree of Life, whose leaves are for the healing and wholeness of all the nations.

A Sermon about Resistance in the Face of Suffering

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Augustana Lutheran Church
7 May 2017 + Fourth Sunday of Easter
1 Peter 2.19-25



Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Fourth Sunday of Easter brings us to Good Shepherd Sunday. It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dwell in the midst of the idyllic early Christian community described in our reading from Acts, or to linger beside the psalmist’s green pastures and still waters, abiding in the tender care of Jesus our shepherd. So given all that, it’s also tempting to just gloss over that second reading from 1 Peter. I mean, really, who put that in there alongside today’s other readings? On the other hand, at least they spared us an even more disturbing opening line that didn’t make the cut in the final lectionary edits: “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is a credit to you…” the epistle writer goes on. Kind of changes the perspective, doesn’t it?

And yet, I believe, this text, including the address to slaves, begs examining. It begs examining because the history of this country, built on the institution of slavery, makes the very word slave difficult to digest and yet at the same time necessary to confront. It begs examining, too, because so many in our world today still suffer injustice and violence and the last thing they need to hear is someone from a lectern or pulpit telling them to suck it up because the Bible tells them so.

In the first place, let me be clear: The point of this text is not to suggest that suffering for suffering’s sake wins over God’s approval. Nor is it meant to insist that those in physically abusive and potentially life-threatening situations should continue to endure abuse. But, the epistle writer clarifies, if you endure when you do right and suffer for it—or to put it another way, if you are pursuing justice and righteousness and that lands you in hot water to the point of suffering—so be it. The epistle writer’s aim in the larger context of this passage is to outline a “code” for Christian conduct in society, and the far greater emphasis in this passage is the exhortation to do good and to pursue justice. It nearly goes without saying that the history of civil disobedience among people of faith in this pursuit predicts suffering as its probable by-product.

Oftentimes, though, professed Christians have been the worst offenders of upholding the very unjust systems that others so passionately fight against. Slavery in the pre-Civil War era was condoned by Christian slaveholders with passages such as this, and still today, many of our LGBTQ+ siblings are bombarded by so-called “well-meaning” Christians who pluck out choice passages of Scripture to deny their very humanity.

In recent weeks, the newly debuted TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale makes us keenly aware of this point. The series depicts a not-so-far-off future United States, now governed by a strict totalitarian government based on an extreme form of Christian fundamentalism. Here, the class divide is stark, comprised of an elite ruling class and a class of servants and sustained by a select, literal interpretation of Scripture. In one scene this dramatically comes to a head when one of the handmaids is reminded, “Remember your scripture. Blessed are the meek.” And in a short-lived but fierce act of defiance, for which she is then subjected to an attack of physical violence, the handmaid responds, “And blessed are those who suffer for the cause of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Like the handmaid and like the slaves to whom the epistle writer writes, the condition of slavery and oppression is never one that is sought out or chosen, but there are ways to live defiantly even in the midst of injustice while fighting against it.

Another verse outside the bounds of our lectionary reading is key: “As servants of God, live as free people,” verse 16 begins. So, while this is still an address to actual slaves in the first-century world, it also includes a reminder that they are first and foremost servants of God and therefore are free. It does not deny their present suffering nor make excuses for it, but it does offer them hope and encouragement even in the midst of it.

The principle of Christian freedom—that we are not only freed from sin, death, and the power of evil but also freed for service to our neighbors in the world—is a core part of Lutheran theology. Of course, as we know, using that freedom for the pursuit of justice is not easy. In recent months, people of faith have marched in the streets and called and emailed legislators to bear public witness to the faith that compels us to oppose harmful and life-threatening policies around health care, immigration, and so much more.

Nearly 60 years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this well when he wrote of the path of nonviolent resistance. Nonviolent resistance is not passive: it does not mean being a doormat in the face of injustice. Nor does it mean that those who resist become the aggressor or oppressor in return. Nonviolent resistance, for King, meant opposing evil itself, not the persons who commit evil acts, and he admitted that it also meant a willingness to suffer and sacrifice.

In that same spirit, the epistle writer offers us Christ as an example of what it means to suffer as a result of opposing evil for the cause of pursuing justice. Lifting up the lowly and reaching out with unconditional love to the marginalized was the whole point of Jesus’s earthly ministry. And it got him killed.

As James Cone has said, “If you are going to worship somebody that was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Following in the path of Jesus, as we who profess to be Christian claim to do, we are told that we don’t suffer in isolation for the cause of justice, but that the crucified Christ who has gone before us still accompanies us today.

Today we hear a word of comfort and hope that the crucified Christ is with us still, in every moment, and in this Easter season, we proclaim the victory of Christ’s resurrection over the forces of evil that newly emboldens us in our baptismal calling to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Early on the First Day of the Week

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+ Preached at our joint ecumenical Easter sunrise vigil with Holy Family Parish (Roman Catholic) in the park +


Augustana Lutheran Church
16 April 2017 + Resurrection of Our Lord
John 20.1-18


Kate Braestrup is a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. In addition to enforcing the state’s fish and wildlife laws, the game wardens Kate works with also respond to various outdoor accidents, fatalities included.

So when she’s helping train new wardens on how to respond to deaths, she tells them a story from her own life. Kate’s husband Drew, a police officer, died in a car accident while on duty a number of years ago. When the news of his death reached her, she knew that she wanted to see his body, to bathe him, and to dress him — much to the astonishment and horror of the state police department and funeral home director. After a good deal of back-and-forth phone calls, they grant Kate her request — and with her mother, she goes to her husband, bathes his body, and dresses him in his dress uniform. The experience, she says, was “better than fine, better than okay.”

Kate tells that story to new trainees to teach them this: When a family member says they want to see the body of their deceased loved one, you can trust them. You don’t have to pretend to protect them.

Kate also points them to the text we just heard read. “Back in bible times,” she says, “there were no state troopers or funeral directors to get in the way of things.” Mary Magdalene did not have to justify herself to the disciples nor overcome their protective skepticism when she wanted to go to the tomb where Jesus’s body had been laid. Nor, upon discovering the tomb open and the body presumably gone, did she have to justify her distress and her grief.

It’s natural, and more common than not in Kate’s experience as a chaplain, for loved ones to ask to see the body to tend to their loved one. Far from the common perception that the presence of a body makes the pain more acute, it’s just the opposite — which, I think, explains Mary’s weeping and grief intensified. They have taken the body away, and I do not know where they have laid him…

Which then, for me, raises the question: If there is such attachment to the body, the physical body, how did Mary not recognize Jesus when he appeared? After all, she was one of Jesus’s closest friends and disciples, and it hadn’t been that long since he died. Surely she wouldn’t have forgotten what he looks like, right?

Sidebar: To say I’m not very good at gardening is an understatement. In no way would anyone ever describe me as having a “green thumb.” If anything, that thumb is brown, shriveled up, and falling off the vine. Case in point: When, after my grandpa’s funeral one of those hardy green plants that are supposed to be impossible to kill was (foolishly) entrusted to me… well, you know where this is going. So you can imagine my surprise when I decided to re-pot a plant in the kitchen down the hall from my office this year and a little time, some sunlight, and remembering to water it at least a couple times a week later, it’s flourished. Compared to the near-dead plant it was before, it’s been transformed and is barely recognizable. You might even say it’s undergone a resurrection.

Like that plant, it’s as though we’re led to believe there’s something different physically about the resurrected body of Jesus. It would certainly explain why Mary didn’t recognize him. I don’t know what to make of that, nor am I sure there even is a definitive answer, nor am I sure it even matters. But what is certain is this: the resurrection changes things. Things are different, and new. There’s something different about Jesus, but it’s more than physical, with far-reaching implications.

Theologian James Cone describes it this way:

The cross and resurrection of Jesus stand at the center of the New Testament story… [and] mean that we now know that Jesus’ ministry with the poor and the wretched was God effecting the divine will to liberate the oppressed. The Jesus story is the poor person’s story, because God in Christ becomes poor and weak in order that the oppressed might become liberated… God becomes the victim in their place and thus transforms the condition of slavery into the battleground for the struggle of freedom. This is what Christ’s resurrection means. The oppressed are freed for struggle, for battle in the pursuit of humanity.

The resurrection changes things. The resurrection liberates and declares that God is, definitively, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for those who mourn, for those who are cast down. The resurrection empowers and urges us to be about the work of justice and love. That is the message we proclaim when we declare, against all odds: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

He Loved Them to the End: A Homily for Maundy Thursday

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Augustana Lutheran Church
13 April 2017 + Maundy Thursday
John 13.1-17, 31b-35


Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Jesus went out with his disciples to a place where there was a garden… Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place… So he brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons… and they arrested Jesus and bound him.

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus… A woman said to Peter, “You are not  also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”

Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to end.

In our reading from John’s gospel today, we encounter a familiar story read every Maundy Thursday — the word “Maundy,” of course, deriving its meaning from the Latin word mandatum, meaning “commandment,” as in: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” This is perhaps the most famous verse in the entire passage and probably the one on which at least I have heard the most sermons.

But often overlooked, I suspect, is the first verse that opens this reading: He loved them to the end. A simple statement made all the more profound by its position in John’s gospel, ahead of the passion narrative we will read tomorrow on Good Friday, ahead of the Judas’s act of betrayal, ahead of Peter’s denial of Jesus. In spite of all this, says the gospel writer, he loved them to the end.

We get a very specific, tangible example of what that kind of love looks like in the verses that follow. Jesus got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

To be sure, foot washing was a common practice of hospitality in the first-century world, but it was also dirty work — work that would have been relegated to a slave or something that a host’s guests would have had to do themselves. But here, Jesus flips the practice on its head. The master becomes the servant, the teacher taking the form of a slave, emptying himself before those whom his social world would have deemed lesser or inferior.

Jean Vanier, the founder of the L’Arche movement, knows something of what it means to serve those whom our culture has deemed inferior. His movement is made up of individual group homes designed for those with mental disabilities who share daily life and spiritual community with non-disabled assistants.

In his first encounter with persons living with disabilities, Vanier recounts being struck by their cry for relationship and to be loved and seen as human beings. He also talks about meeting one woman who was so astonished that he had devoted his life’s work to ministering to persons with disabilities because, in her words, they’re so “frightening.” But isn’t it the case, Vanier reflects, that we see in others what we’re afraid to see in ourselves — that we as humans are all fragile beings, with weaknesses, limitations, even disfigurements, and we all have a need to be loved as we are.

It’s for this very reason that L’Arche focuses on the body, and particularly suffering bodies and bodies that have been deemed useless by the world’s standards. Vanier stresses the importance of touch and attention to the body in welcoming newcomers to a L’Arche community. In sharing about how he himself has been physically touched by those whom he serves, he speaks of a tenderness where touch is important, touch which is not aggressive but welcoming and which teaches something about what it means to be human and to relate and to celebrate life together.

Which brings us back to our scene with Jesus: Touch, of course, is central to the practice of foot washing, and this moment Jesus shares with his disciples is perhaps the most intimate, vulnerable moment of connection they experience in the whole gospel. This is the embodiment of the love with which Jesus loved them to the end.

This, too, is the love to which we are called as a community which follows our servant-teacher. Jesus’s love, the love to which we are urged, is a self-emptying love which is wholly concerned for the other. It’s a love which knows no bounds, and it’s a love in which we are enveloped by a God who comes to us in the flesh, emptying God’s self in Jesus for us and for the life of the world.

It’s a love that often doesn’t often make any sense to us, as Jean Vanier again says: “Jesus was quiet. And he ate with people who are caught up in prostitution, with tax collectors, with lepers… there’s something so simple about Jesus that he is disarming. We don’t quite know what to do with it. Because frequently, we would want a powerful Jesus who will put everything straight, who will cure everybody, who will do everything that we tell him to do. And it’s not like that.”

Indeed, it’s not like that at all. Thanks be to God.

Sunday of the Passion 2017

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Preacher’s Note: I encourage you to watch the video below in its entirety, especially if “Sunday of the Passion” (instead of simply “Palm Sunday”) is new to you. In the Lutheran tradition, as well as that of our many ecumenical partners, while we begin this day with a festive palm procession proclaiming “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”, the tone of the liturgy soon changes as we hear the full account of Jesus’s passion and death.

This year on Sunday, we hear Matthew’s account. First, I offer a brief homily/introduction (text below) to what we are about to hear. Then our passion readers — Augustana members Grace Klinefelter, Mike Klinefelter, and Jack Hutchinson (from left to right in the video) — read the passion as a trio of voices, not as a drama so much as readers’ theatre. In this way, and through song and silence for meditation, the congregation is invited to enter into the story, connecting the ancient narrative to our own context.

And this is only the beginning of Holy Week — arguably the most important week in the Christian liturgical year. If you’re reading this and the full experience of Holy Week — Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Great Vigil of Easter, and Easter morning — is not part of your practice, I strongly encourage you to join your congregation or another local assembly in the observance of these sacred days. You won’t be disappointed.


Augustana Lutheran Church
9 April 2017 + Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday
Matthew 21.1-11; 26.14-27.66



What day is it? Palm Sunday? Sunday of the Passion? At the risk of making things even more confusing, I’m going to suggest yet another name for this day: Paradox Sunday.

Paradox abounds in our liturgy today. We began with a festive palm procession, commemorating Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. With the crowds we shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we wave our palm branches vigorously.

But now we turn to the heart of today’s liturgy: the passion reading — the full account of Jesus’s suffering and death. Those shouts of “Hosanna! Save us!” become “Crucify!”

This is the paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday: We hold in tension the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and his subsequent execution at the hands of the Roman empire.

The passion story is indeed central to the Christian faith and tradition, so much so that we will hear it not once but twice this Holy Week. Today from Matthew, the particular gospel for this year that we have been following since Advent, and on Good Friday from John. But far from being an exercise in redundancy, these two accounts give us two distinct portrayals of the passion.

On Good Friday, we will hear John’s passion which shows a crucified Christ who is in control of all the events which happen to him, essentially presupposing the victory of the resurrection before it even happens. But today, Matthew depicts a Christ who is utterly abandoned by his friends and followers. Jesus is betrayed, denied, and deserted, and even mocked repeatedly while hanging on the cross. No wonder he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”

Which brings me to another point: Today we don’t simply read the passion story; we hear it read aloud as readers’ theatre and we enter into it with song and silence for meditation.

Entering into the story is also to ask where we find ourselves in the story. The options, however, are bleak: Are we the ones who abandon those who suffer and thus ignore injustice? Or are we the ones who are abandoned and suffer injustice? I suspect many of us have been in both places at different times.

Even when we’re not the ones who experience abandonment, injustice, and oppression, I suspect we also find ourselves crying out with the Matthean Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” — when refugees are denied entry into a safer country, or when our national response to the suffering of the Syrian people is an attack on that country which only perpetuates violence and exacerbates suffering, or just this morning when two Coptic churches in Egypt were bombed in the middle of their Palm Sunday services.

It’s difficult in the midst of such suffering, whether directly experienced, or witnessed helplessly, to glimpse the possibility of hope and new life. And yet, that is also what Matthew leaves us with: In the long view, God has not forsaken Jesus. As biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes, “Matthew did not hesitate to have the moment of Jesus’ birth marked by a star in the sky; the moment of his death is even more climactic, marked by signs in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth” (44) — an earthquake which causes tombs to burst open and the dead to come to life, the tearing of the temple curtain, the confession of a Roman military official.

The paradox of Palm / Passion Sunday that holds in tension the triumphal entry and the death of Jesus also suggests another paradox: death and resurrection. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s savor Holy Week in each moment — the palms, the passion, the garden, the meal, the cross, the tomb — as we contemplate the mystery of our salvation in these sacred days. To paraphrase the Easter Vigil liturgy, this is the week. Let us begin.


+ THE PASSION OF OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST ACCORDING TO MATTHEW +

The Last Supper 

One of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment Judas began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?” Jesus said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, Jesus took his place with the twelve; and while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” And they became greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”

Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” Judas, who betrayed him, said, “Surely not I, Rabbi?” He replied, “You have said so.”

Hymn: Go to Dark Gethsemane (stanza 1)

Gethsemane

 When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Then Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.”

Peter said to him, “Though all become deserters because of you, I will never desert you.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” Peter said to him, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And so said all the disciples.

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again Jesus went away for the second time and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” Again Jesus came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. So leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words. Then he came to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.”

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; with him was a large crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him.” At once Judas came up to Jesus and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you are here to do.” Then they came and laid hands on Jesus and arrested him. Suddenly, one of those with Jesus put his hand on his sword, drew it, and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, who will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But all this has taken place, so that the scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 1) 

Jesus Before Caiaphas

Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.

Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death!” Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When Peter went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.”

Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 2)

Jesus Before Pilate

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave the silver for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then Pilate asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” So Pilate released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 3)

Jesus Is Crucified

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head.

They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before Jesus and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.

As they went out, they came upon a man from Cyrene named Simon; they compelled this man to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots; then they sat down there and kept watch over him. Over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Hymn: Ah, Holy Jesus (stanza 4) 

The Death of Jesus 

Then two bandits were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if God wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” The bandits who were crucified with him also taunted him in the same way.

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. 

Hymn: They Crucified My Lord (stanzas 1 and 5) 

Earthquake and Confession of the Centurion

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.