Love That Won’t Let Go: A Sermon on Amos, Righteous Anger, and Tough Love

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
15 July 2018 + Lectionary 15B (Pentecost 8)
Amos 7.7-15


I have some bad news. I tried so hard to get a fantastic guest preacher for this morning, but Amos just wasn’t available. I know how much we were all looking forward to a good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone, sinners-in-the-hands-of-angry-God sermon — so I’ll try my best.

Speaking of bad news, Amos is such a short book — only nine chapters — short enough to read in one sitting (which I would encourage you to do sometime) but not quite short enough to do so right now. So here come the CliffNotes…

First things first: We need to understand the trajectory of the Old Testament, essentially a history of ancient Israel. It’s not exactly the kind of history you would find in a textbook. There’s certainly more poetry, and there are details that biblical scholars have found to be puzzling, if not outright historically inaccurate. The history of ancient Israel in the pages of the Bible is more theological, more about what God is up to in the lives of God’s people, rather than a History Channel documentary.

Way back in Exodus, after God had brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land, it wasn’t long before Israel got itself in trouble — repeatedly. The pattern was predictable: When Israel would enjoy a time of peace, they got comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, even lazy. They started to ignore the laws God had given them to establish order and justice and promote the wellbeing of their neighbor, and they began to worship the gods of their neighboring nations. Inevitably, this would get them in some sort of mess with those nations, and they would cry out to God for deliverance, who would, inevitably, deliver them. And repeat…

Early in Israel’s history, that deliverance would come through “judges,” leaders that God would raise up specifically to help Israel when they got themselves in trouble. Later, Israel decided they wanted a king, to be like the other nations around them. Not entirely without irony, it’s being like other nations around them to begin with that constantly got Israel in trouble — so you can already start to see the problem here.

Israel’s history of kings was an uneasy one — each king evaluated based on how well they upheld the laws that God had given the people way back at Mt. Sinai, not long after their deliverance from Egypt, laws that were meant to govern how the people lived in relationship with God and, just as importantly, with one another. Laws, in other words, that were about justice and social welfare.

Enter the prophets. These were figures set up in stark contrast to Israel’s kings, whose job it was to challenge the king when he led the nation away from observing these laws of justice and social welfare.

To make a long story short, Israel’s period of monarchy ended even worse than it began: with a divided nation of Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Soon, Israel would be conquered by Assyria, and not long after, Babylon would conquer Judah.

It’s in the midst of these turbulent latter days of the monarchy that we encounter Amos, a shepherd unsure of his own status as a prophet, but nevertheless faithful to God’s call. Amos came from the south, from Judah, but his prophetic career took him north to Israel. Amos’s message was clear. In the opening judgment against Israel, Amos declares: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment: because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals—they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way…” (2.6-7). Economic injustice and social inequality is the chief judgment leveled against Israel, and for this, God threatens to destroy them. (Like I said, good old-fashioned fire-and-brimstone!)

The passage we heard read today comes in the latter half of the book, after Israel’s sin of neglecting social justice and promoting prosperity for the few at the expense of the many has been made clear. After all this, God shows Amos five visions of destruction. In the first, God prepares to send a plague of locusts and, in the second, a shower of fire. In both of these, Amos is able to intercede on behalf of Israel, and God backs down.

But in the third, finally, we get the plumb line. It doesn’t really matter if you know what a plumb line is because the vision of a plumb line is not actually a plumb line. The meaning of the word in the original Hebrew is uncertain. “Plumb line” is one translation. A better translation is “tin” — as in, one of the metals that makes bronze, the metal of choice for making weapons in the ancient world. So the vision is, more accurately, a huge pile of tin, a stockpile of materials to make weapons — essentially God declaring war on Israel. And in this vision, unlike the first two, Amos does not intercede. Israel’s sin is too much. Destruction is inevitable.

The final two visions confirm what the third suggests. In the first of these, God shows Amos a basket of “summer fruit.” Well, that sounds pleasant enough (almost like something that would go nicely in sangria!). But in the original text — and this is why you should all learn Hebrew — it’s a pun. The word for “summer fruit” sounds a lot like the word for “end.” Forget melons and mangoes (and sangria). This is a vision, yet again, of the inevitable destruction of Israel — a point made abundantly clear, in case the people haven’t been paying attention, in the final vision, in which God speaks orders of destruction directly. Destruction is inevitable.

So now what?

Immediately after the fifth vision, Amos ends with this: “On that day I will raise up the booth  of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it… I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them…” (9.11, 14). God promises restoration. Restoration presupposes that everything has indeed been destroyed, but it reminds us of the overwhelming message of the prophets, Amos included, indeed the message of the whole of Scripture: God’s final answer to God’s people is always yes, not no. Restoration, not destruction. Life, not death.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t take God’s threats earlier in Amos seriously or take for granted that everything will somehow be okay in the end. As if to say, it doesn’t really matter because God will forgive us anyway and fix everything. The promise of restoration and life is inevitable and certain, but it shouldn’t be taken as a license to ignore and even perpetuate social injustice.

Theologian James Cone reminds us that even God’s wrath and anger are part of God’s love. God is not angry in the book of Amos for the sake of being angry. God is angry because God loves God’s people too much to ignore the ways we hurt and inflict pain on each other. Cone writes, “The wrath of God is the love of God in regard to the forces opposed to liberation of the oppressed.” In other words, God’s righteous anger in the midst of so much human suffering, oppression, and injustice shows just how much God cares. God’s wrath is God’s love. Indifference to suffering, oppression, and injustice is not love; it’s apathy. God is not apathetic. God is angry because God cares for and loves God’s people too much to let us keep going on in the ways that harm our neighbors. Tough love, we might say.

Tough love — and unrelenting love. This is the promise of Amos, even amidst destruction: God’s love does not give up on us, even when we are guilty of sins that perpetuate systemic injustice at the expense of others’ humanity. This is the promise for us: God’s love does not give up on us, no matter how many times we mess up, no matter how badly.

God’s love
does not,
cannot,
will not
let us go.


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A Sermon about Rejection and the Persistent Love of God That Breaks Through Anyway (especially when and where we least expect it)

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
8 July 2018 + Lectionary 14B (Pentecost 7)
Mark 6.1-13


Rejection hurts.

No one likes being rejected.
Because rejection means exclusion.
And we’ve all experienced it.
Being rejected goes back as far as we have memory:
Being excluded from the “cool kids” lunch table.
Being chosen last for kickball at recess.
Getting the dreaded “no” when you finally muster up the courage to ask that special someone out.
Feeling alienated from family over differences in political views or religious beliefs.
Getting turned down for a job you were really hoping to get.

Rejection hurts.
It’s never a good thing,
and yet it’s a part of life.

Jesus knows something of what it’s like to be rejected.

We know that Jesus’s message wasn’t a hugely popular one among the authorities and the powers that be. We’re used to hearing that much: Jesus upsetting the status quo, threatening the power that “haves” had over the “have nots” in the ancient world, threatening to topple a brutal imperial regime and its oppressive social structures.

But what we don’t often remember is that Jesus was also rejected by his own family, by his own people, no longer welcome in his hometown.
Think about that for a minute—
Imagine what it’s like to be outright rejected or cut off from everyone you know and trust and grew up with and everything that’s comfortable and familiar and safe. I suspect some might not have to imagine all that much.

Rejection hurts.
And it’s a part of Jesus’s experience.
Jesus is no stranger to rejection, to exclusion, to being kicked out of his hometown, cut off from his own community. There’s a profound solidarity in that on its own.

It doesn’t take much probing to wonder what could have elicited such a strong rejection by Jesus’s own community. Earlier in Mark’s gospel, we heard the story of Jesus’s family coming after him to restrain him, accusing him of having gone out of his mind, even being possessed by a demon. His teaching and preaching and healing were all too much, too quickly. He was drawing too much attention to himself, causing too much of a scene. It’s embarrassing us, Jesus.

Even if his family and closest childhood companions were on board with his message, they knew it wasn’t going to be the most popular, that it wouldn’t end well for him. And truth be told, they were right.

There’s a resistance and a hesitancy to get fully on board with the message of the reign of God, the proclamation of God’s extravagant, boundless love for all of God’s creation. As Karoline Lewis puts it, “When we realize that this is a love over which we have no control, a love that will infiltrate the world like a persistent weed despite our best efforts to curb its spread, a love whereby we do not get to decide its objects, it seems less attractive than it did at first blush.”

Isn’t that most often the case?
Our need for control,
getting to decide who’s in and who’s out,
trying to set limits of the breadth and depth of God’s love?
The church has done it for centuries:
It’s as old as the debates over circumcision and clean and unclean foods among the early Christian church in the book of Acts.
It’s the stuff of ancient church councils that came up with the creeds we still recite today in worship.
It’s even part of the work of committees and synod and churchwide assemblies today.

Not that those things are inherently always bad, but they’re also part of our human need to contain the divine, somehow to box in what cannot be boxed in.

But that’s just the thing:
God’s love can’t be boxed in.
It can’t be controlled,
it can’t be tamed,
it can’t be pruned back…
Remember the mustard plant?
The kingdom of God is like an invasive species…
It pops up where we least expect it,
it takes over,
it threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear and violence and hate,
and replace it with God’s reign of equity and love and justice-seeking peace.

But there’s a certain resistance to that, even among those of us who should know better.
It’s a popular joke that church people don’t like change, but there’s a lot of truth to that, too.

It’s too much, too quickly.
it’s drawing too much attention.
It’s causing too much of a scene.

So we reject it outright.
Not yet, or maybe after another committee meeting, or council vote, or congregational survey…
We reject change.
We resist the stirrings of the Spirit pulling us into new directions, more expansive ways of doing ministry and being the church, ever bolder, if not riskier, ways of proclaiming the boundless, limitless love of God in Christ Jesus.

But the love of God can’t be contained.
The message of Jesus can’t be boxed in.

Even amidst rejection,
even in Jesus’s hometown,
even in our own churches and denominations…

Even there, the gospel writer says, Jesus could do no deeds of power… except (did you catch it?) to lay his hands on a few sick people and cure them. Even there, Jesus could no deeds of power, except—he kind of could.

Even amidst rejection,
God’s love cannot be contained.

Even in the face of resistance, the power of God’s life-changing, world-altering, table-turning, status quo-toppling love for the sake of the life and wholeness of all cannot be stopped.

Nevertheless, God’s love persists.

A Sermon about Healing, Subverting Boundaries, and the Promise of Restoration to Community

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Edgebrook Lutheran Church, Chicago
1 July 2018 + Lectionary 13B (Pentecost 6)
Mark 5.21-43


“Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…” Those are, of course, Judy Garland’s, aka Dorothy Gale’s, famous words from The Wizard of Oz as she takes her first steps in Munchkinland. Those words have also become somewhat of a rallying cry for anyone who finds themselves all of a sudden in a strange and different place.

“I have a feeling we’re not in seminary anymore…” I’d like to imagine I said to myself, as I walked the halls of the Cleveland Clinic during one of my first overnight shifts as an intern hospital chaplain in between my first and second years of seminary. Suddenly, this was real life ministry. Suddenly, this whole being a pastor thing wasn’t some far-off idea I only read and studied and talked about in classes. Suddenly, I was doing it.

During my summer internship as a chaplain, it was not an infrequent occurrence to be on my way to one call to visit a patient when another page to visit someone else would come in. In a way, you might say I could relate a bit to Jesus in our gospel reading today, being on his way to see Jairus’s daughter on her death-bed, already stressful enough, as this other woman comes up to him suddenly, and all of this in the midst of a tremendous crowd that just won’t leave him alone. It’s like the chaplain’s pager just won’t stop beeping.

“Jesus, I have a feeling we’re not in the parables anymore…” Suddenly, this is real life in Jesus’s ministry — not some theoretical parable or abstract teaching, but an actual story with actual people with actual needs for healing — all pressing in on him at the same time. No wonder the disciples respond to him sarcastically: “Who touched you?! You’ve got to be kidding us! Literally everyone! Literally everyone wants in on this healing thing you’ve got going on, that you can’t even get to one person without another coming after you.”

Suddenly, we’re not in the “safe” world of parables and stories anymore — the “safe” world of abstract concepts and textbooks and seminary classroom and bible study discussions. These are real people, coming to Jesus with real problems, real brokenness, real needs for healing.

It’s easy to fall into the dangerous trap, when talking about healing stories in the gospels, of putting our focus on the physical healing. A trap because it’s not really the point, dangerous because it only leads us to question why healings like that don’t seem to happen anymore.

In this pair of healing stories, the emphasis is much more on what the healings mean. Jairus is deeply grieved over the very real possibility of losing his daughter, being separated from his family. The hemorrhaging woman is exasperated, having exhausted every attempt for medical treatment for a condition that has left her as an outcast, cut off from her own community. When Jesus offers healing to them, he restores them to community. That’s what healing in the gospel is all about: restoration to community.

Healing restores people to community.
Healing brings wholeness to a woman plagued with an alienating, debilitating illness.
Healing brings a little girl back to her family.
Healing brings life where life seems to have died.
Healing brings wholeness where there is brokenness.
Healing brings restoration to community.

Where life seems to have died… where there is brokenness… where there is community in need of restoration…

Healing on these terms is desperately needed if we just look around at our world:

An immigration policy that separates children from their parents.
An executive order that claims to stop family separation but only ensures that parents as well as their children can be detained indefinitely. (Oh, but it’s okay, at least they’re together, right?)
A Supreme Court decision that allows for our country to deny entry to people simply because of their religion.

We desperately need this life-giving, wholeness-seeking, community-restoring healing.

This is the healing that Jesus offers in the gospel. And just as important is where this healing happens. Time and again, Jesus stands on the cusp of boundaries. After the stormy sea adventure last week, Jesus crosses over into the land of the Gerasenes to heal a man possessed by demons. In our reading today, Jesus crosses back over to the other side of the lake. And on his way to one family, another woman approaches him in the in-between place from starting point to destination. Crossing over, on the way, in the midst of the journey — Jesus is perpetually found at these boundary places.

Boundaries, or borders, we might say, keep some people out and other people in. There’s a certain security about borders, an alluring sense of protection, but at what cost?

Borders separate.
Borders divide.
Borders exclude.
Borders alienate.

But Jesus chooses to subvert borders and boundaries. He crosses over to one side of the lake and back again. He doesn’t let one healing get in the way of another. Instead of letting borders and boundaries have the final say, Jesus stands in the midst of them and offers healing that unites, that restores community, that promotes inclusion.

One of my favorite religious icons shows Jesus as an immigrant, his hands holding on to a barbed wire fence. It’s a powerful image that promises Jesus’s presence with those who suffer, those who are separated from their loved ones by borders and boundaries of all kinds, those who are in need of community-restoring healing. But the most intriguing part of this image is the unknown: We don’t really know what side of the border Jesus is standing on. And that’s exactly how Jesus subverts boundaries, by dwelling in the midst of them, offering healing and wholeness and restoration to community, revealing the absurdity and insecurity of the ways we divide ourselves from each other.

In the midst of life drained of itself, in the midst of irreparable brokenness, in the midst of isolation and severed community, Jesus stands at the boundaries, and reaches across with healing, with wholeness, with life abundant, with the promise of community.

A Sermon about How the Kingdom of God Is Like an Invasive Species

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
17 June 2018 + Lectionary 11B (Pentecost 4)
Mark 4.26-34


When I was growing up, I remember this giant turquoise planter in my grandma’s backyard, nestled right in the corner of the fence. Every year, it would blossom into the most gorgeous morning glories. They never just grew like normal flowers, though, but  would actually take over the fence, to the point where it was nearly impossible to see the chain-link underneath.

One year, when grandma had had enough — because, let’s be honest, morning glories are beautiful but they’re a pain to weed out of a chain-link fence at the end of the season — she dumped out the planter and scrubbed it clean. Morning glories no more! Or so she thought… until they came back the very next year, taking over her fence all over again.

The kingdom of God is like a planter full of morning glories that takes over the garden. Even when you try to get rid of it, it’s still there.

Jesus, too, uses a lot of strange metaphors to talk about the kingdom of God in the gospels. The kingdom of God is like someone who sows seed… is like yeast… is like a treasure… is like a merchant searching for fine pearls… is like a net thrown into the sea…

Parables, Jesus calls them, a word that literally means to throw alongside — stories that are thrown alongside our own lives, our own reality, to make some spiritual principle Jesus is trying to convey seem easier to grasp… except it almost always needs explaining and might even make the original point more difficult to understand.

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Along with the parable of the seed that grows by itself, these are Mark’s only two parables about the kingdom of God. Maybe Mark just wasn’t as creative as the other gospel writers, or maybe he missed a few days of Jesus’s teaching… or maybe, this is all he needed to say about the kingdom of God.

Mustard plants were, basically, like weeds where Jesus lived. They were hardy, they could grow nearly anywhere with minimal human effort to keep them alive, and they were big and difficult to get rid of.

The kingdom of God is like an invasive species. Now, invasive species, as we know, are not typically, if ever, considered a good thing. Whether animals or plants or even their eggs or seeds, invasive species, by definition, are non-native species that actually cause harm to their environment. They grow and reproduce quickly and spread aggressively. I’m no botanist, but it sounds a lot like a mustard plant to me.

And the thing about an invasive species is that it’s almost always perceived as hostile and a threat to its environment.

This past week, I have to say I was a bit surprised and perplexed to hear that separating immigrant families from each other at the border is, at least according to some, “biblical.” It’s “biblical,” they say, to enforce and to obey the laws of the government — laws that would and are ripping away children, most under the age of 13, from their parents and treating them all as criminals.

I don’t know what Bible they’ve been reading, but the one I know tells very a different story: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… (Ex 22.21). The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself… (Lev 19.34). Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice… (Deut 27.19). Do no wrong or violence to the alien… (Jer 22.3).

Clearly, Jesus stands in a long religious tradition of justice and equity for the alien, the foreigner, and all who are perceived as “non-native,” outsiders who are seen as hostile and threatening. This tradition of justice is the message of the kingdom of God.

When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come near, it is itself threatening because it seeks to subvert and dismantle the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of the empire, the kingdom that normalizes injustice, fear, and criminalizing people because of where they come from or who they are. Like an invasive species, the kingdom of God threatens the very viability and survival of the kingdom of the empire.

Not all invasive species are bad. In the natural world, researchers have found that certain invasive species actually benefit their ecosystems: butterflies in California that feed on non-native plants, non-native trees that have helped restore pasturelands in Puerto Rico, even the infamous non-native zebra mussel that helps filter toxins from lakes.

And what happens when the environment the so-called invasive species is in is itself hostile and the real threat? Well, that sort of flips the tables, doesn’t it, and subverts what we mean by invasive and threatening.

In the context of the hostile kingdom of the empire, the kingdom of God is one invasive species to be welcomed.

In a hostile kingdom that separates families, that oppresses the other, that respects “law and order” more than human life and dignity, the kingdom of God invades. It comes perceivably out of nowhere, when and where we least expect it, and it spreads like wildfire, without regard for borders or boundaries. The kingdom of God is an invasive species that threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear.

The status quo might seem insurmountable, but it is surely under threat because the kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God happens whenever God’s justice and God’s love are made known in places that are  innately hostile toward it. And like the seed that sprouts and grows on its own, the kingdom of God happens and is happening — no matter what.

Jesus says that the kingdom of God is here — not that it’s coming someday or that it will be here soon. The kingdom of God is here, is now, is in our midst, threatening and dismantling the status quo, even at this very moment.

A Sermon about Casting Out Demons: Lectionary 10 / Pentecost 3

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Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
10 June 2018 + Lectionary 10B (Pentecost 3)
Mark 3.20-35


Well, that escalated quickly. In one moment, Jesus and his disciples are about to sit down for a quiet meal at home. And then, all of a sudden, Jesus is confronted by an angry mob, made up of the religious scribes and his own family. He’s gone out of his mind! He’s possessed by a demon!

How did we get here? What happened, only three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark, to elicit such a strong reaction against him? When his family heard it… heard what? Maybe it’s helpful to back up a bit…

Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’s disciples plucking grain to eat and Jesus himself healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath — actions that lead to a debate about what Sabbath is all about and, ultimately, to the beginning of the conspiracy to have Jesus destroyed. Then, Jesus retreats with his disciples, with a great multitude in tow, and Jesus continues to preach and teach, to cure and heal, to cast out demons and drive out unclean spirits. So overwhelmed by the response and all the people coming to him, Jesus starts recruiting followers, twelve of them to be exact, whom he appoints to proclaim the message of good news and continue the work of casting out demons that he began.

And then he comes home, to sit down and have a little rest and something to eat, which brings us to our passage at hand. When his family heard it… When his family heard about everything Jesus was doing — announcing the dawn of the reign of God, proclaiming the message of good news and liberation, casting out demons and driving out evil forces — they went out to restrain him…

“While confined here in the Birmingham city jail,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. begins his letter to his fellow clergy colleagues, “I came across your recent statement calling my present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’” In the hard-fought struggle against segregation, the response among many in the church, and mostly the white church, if we’re being honest, was one of hesitancy: Wait! they said. It was to those who tried to restrain King and other civil rights leaders, who thought it was all too much, too quickly, whose words and actions (or lack thereof) suggested that those fighting injustice had gone out of their minds, it is to these people that King responds: Waiting doesn’t work because waiting almost always means never. Because freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor.

Wait! those who try to restrain Jesus tell him. It’s too much, too quickly. Sure, there are people who are hungry, who are suffering, who are sick, who are possessed by demons, and someone should do something about that, eventually. But not now. It’s causing too much of a scene. Wait…

Speaking of demons: Mark seems to be a bit obsessed with them. Jesus gains popularity by casting out demons; his disciples have the authority to cast out demons themselves; and the scribes are convinced that Jesus himself is possessed by a demon. What are we supposed to make of that? Demons, in the supernatural sense, can seem like a foreign concept to our supposedly sophisticated, 21st-century minds, though it is also true that many of our Christian siblings around the globe even today are convinced of their existence. I honestly don’t know, and that question is for another sermon.

But I am convinced that evil is real: racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, gun violence, lack of access to health care, immigrants separated from their families at the border,  the stigma of suicide and mental illness, gender-based violence and discrimination, ecological harm and destruction to our planet. Evil is real, and these are our demons.

Evil pervaded Jesus’s world as much as it plagues our own. The demons of injustice haven’t gone away in all these years and it seems they’re not going away anytime soon, and that makes the call to wait, the call to exercise restraint, all the more absurd.

Jesus sees the demons of injustice around him, and he is compelled to do something, to act: to resist oppression, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to cast out demons, to proclaim liberation and abundant life for all.

We know this is the call of the church. We don’t always practice it, but we hear it all the time. Yet even at our best, sometimes it can feel like a losing battle. How long, O Lord? we cry, echoing the psalmist, exasperated and weary at seeing so much brokenness, so much evil, so much injustice, around us every day.

In the midst of that, the biblical witness also reminds us of our chosenness by God. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus announces that the reign of God is one where outsiders will become insiders, and he redraws the lines of family and belonging. Who are my mother and my brothers? Jesus isn’t exactly dismissing or forgetting his birth family, as if he needs to be reminded. But looking at those who sit around him, he says, Here are my mother and my brothers! These, all of them, all who are oppressed, cast down, marginalized, are my family!

In God’s reign of justice that Jesus has come to announce, all are included. When Jesus redraws the lines of family and belonging, he paints a picture of what the reign of God looks like: displacing a reign of evil and the demons of injustice with God’s reign of justice and equity, displacing a reign of exclusion with God’s message of inclusion, displacing a reign of hate with the gospel message of love.

In Mark, the beginning of Jesus’s ministry starts with his baptism, a sign of his chosenness by God: “You are my Son, the Beloved.” And in our baptism, we too are chosen and beloved by God.

In Jesus’s family, water is thicker than blood. It is the waters of baptism that that make us siblings with and in Christ; it is these waters which unite us with God; and it is these waters which unite us with each other. In the waters of baptism, God chooses us and binds us together in God’s family.

It is these waters of baptism into which we are immersed and from which we rise daily, drowning evil, committed to resisting the demons of injustice, and striving for God’s reign of love.

Rooted in this baptismal covenant, our identity as God’s own children, named and claimed as God’s own beloved, an identity which no one and nothing can ever take away, we are given the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves — indeed, the freedom and power to cast out demons.

A Sermon about Sabbath, Life, and Liberation: Lectionary 9 / Pentecost 2

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This week, I was invited to preach at the weekly Eucharist at the Churchwide Office (“headquarters”) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where I have also recently started a position as Interim Coordinator for Global Service Events with the Global Mission Unit of the ELCA. Pictured above, from left to right, is me, the Rev. Kevin L. Strickland (Assistant to the Presiding Bishop / Executive for Worship, ELCA), Megan Brandsrud (Associate Editor, Living Lutheran), and Beau Surratt (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago).

An earlier version of this same sermon was preached this past weekend (June 2-3, 2018) at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian, IL.


Lutheran Center Chapel (ELCA Churchwide Office)
6 June 2018 + Lectionary 9B (Pentecost 2)
Mark 2.23-3.6; Deuteronomy 5.12-15


“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” These are the words Barbara Brown Taylor uses to describe her childhood religious experience. For her, the Christian Sunday Sabbath observance was a day defined by “could nots”: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. Truthfully, it all sounds a bit more legalistic than restful: a day set aside by God for rest co-opted by human meddling, something we seem to be pretty good at — not unlike the Pharisees quibbling over Sabbath law with Jesus.

There is, however, no debate that the Sabbath was intended for promoting life and well-being. That much was universally understood, common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees. The problem comes when we, like the Pharisees, try to set limits on the divine gift of rest, to define what God has already given us freely.

The urge to limit and define what Sabbath is and isn’t, though, is understandable. We live in a world that demands much from us, with multiple things competing for our time and attention nearly 24/7: our work, the news, social media feeds, family and friends, and, of course, our phones and devices, often our most intimate of companions. The idea of stopping all work, all obligations, is radically countercultural. It might even seem impossible.

In a world of unrelenting demands, Sabbath offers us a much-needed opportunity to stop and gives us permission to rest: take in the weekend, order takeout and let someone else do the cooking, sleep in or take a nap, go for a bike ride, walk the dog, get caught up on Netflix. Hyperconnected to all the things that lay claim to our time and absorbed in the things that drain our energy, we need these moments to recharge and avoid burnout.

And yet: If this idea of personal rest is all we mean by Sabbath, we miss the larger point. Sometimes, I think when we say Sabbath, we mean self-care. Don’t get me wrong: that part is definitely important. But Sabbath is wider in scope than that.

Sabbath is about personal rest and rest for the entire community. Sabbath, for the ancient Israelites, was for their children, their slaves, foreigners living in their town, even their animals. Sabbath is concerned for the rest, life, and well-being of everyone and everything.

If Sabbath were only concerned with refraining from work and focusing on personal rest, the scenes in Mark’s gospel would have looked very differently: absolutely no grain plucking or withered hand healing. End of story.

But that’s not what happens. The disciples are hungry, and they eat, physically nourishing and giving life to their bodies. The man’s withered hand, while not an immediately life-threatening condition, deprives him of being able to work in his society, and Jesus heals him, restoring to him the ability to live and thrive. These actions, far from breaking Sabbath law, are the very embodiment of it: promoting life, restoring wholeness, proclaiming liberation.

That kind of Sabbath-keeping is also risky business. We’re barely three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark’s gospel, and already the authorities are plotting to destroy Jesus. Already this is the beginning of the end, the way toward the cross, in Mark’s gospel. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’s announcement of the reign of God, his agenda of proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation for all people, is exactly the kind of thing that will get him killed.

Following in the way of the Jesus, the way of the biblical prophets, the way of our contemporary activists and martyrs, we know that proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation  and justice isn’t always the most popular or well-received message. The late theologian James Cone once said, “If you are going to worship someone who was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Going to those who suffer, proclaiming good news and liberation, is risky but necessary business.

But that is exactly where Jesus goes and what Jesus does. In two Sabbath scenes, Jesus centers the experience of those who are in need of liberation: those who are hungry and those who are in need of healing and restoration to community. Time and again, Jesus’s ministry takes him to the same place: to the oppressed and marginalized. Time and again, Jesus heals and offers life and wholeness.

Jesus’s Sabbath practice is less concerned with avoiding work than it is with giving life. Like the God who gave the Sabbath to the ancient Israelites on the heels of liberation from Egypt, Jesus, too, is committed to liberation, to exposing and undoing oppressive systems that undermine life at every turn, and instead to preserving life. And this, too, is the call of the church: proclaiming liberation, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, proclaiming that LGBTQIA+ persons have a place in this church, proclaiming that immigrants and refugees are human beings worthy of dignity and respect, proclaiming life, abundant life, for all, period.

It’s not difficult to get bogged down in details and distractions that keep us from our Sabbath rest and proclaiming this message of liberation. I’ve only been on staff here for a week, but already I know this is an interesting place to work: this strange mash-up of church-meets-corporate America. It’s not difficult to get lost in an endless swirl of emails, reports, phone calls, and meetings, and forget why we’re here.

On my first day, I attended the town hall hosted by Bishop Eaton. In response to a question I can’t remember, she told us something to the effect of: We are the church, and our mission is to proclaim the gospel. What a simple but powerful — and needed — reminder.

Before all else, we are the church. No matter our unit or office or ministry outside these walls, we are here to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. We proclaim the good news of liberation, God’s reign of justice, Sabbath rest for all people and all creation. Sabbath gives us rest and life in order that we might give others rest and life.

We come into this space from many places, from many responsibilities, from many demands. Here, we are centered around God’s Word and Meal of love and liberation.  Here, we receive God’s word of promise. Here, we taste and see that God is good. And from here, we are sent back into the world, renewed, recharged, refreshed, to serve a world so desperately in need of that same good news. Here we are given life, and from here we go forth to proclaim and share that life.

Love Is the Way: A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity

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St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian
27 May 2018 + The Holy Trinity
John 3.1-17


This is a weird day.

In the first place, it’s the day before Memorial Day — but that’s not the weird part. It’s weird because Memorial Day always feels like a strange weekend in the church, often marked by a noticeable dip in church attendance…that usually doesn’t rebound until early September.

It’s also a weird day because it feels like the end of a long marathon that began late last year with Advent and Christmas, continuing through Epiphany, and into Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. It’s like the church’s last “hurrah!” before entering the long green season of Sundays of “ordinary time,” Sundays marked only by what numbered week they fall after Pentecost. It can, frankly, seem like uneventful time after all we’ve experienced in our liturgies together these past several months.

Maybe the weirdest of all about today is simply that it’s Trinity Sunday — the only Sunday in the entire church year to commemorate a doctrine. Never mind that that’s kind of mind-numbingly boring, it’s also downright unusual. Every other major feast and season of the church year has to do with some event: Christmas is about the birth of Jesus; Epiphany, the visit of the Magi; Holy Week and Easter, the death and resurrection of Jesus; and just last week, Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit. But there’s no single biblical event or story that can be tied to the celebration of Trinity Sunday.

It’s a weird day about a weird thing that no one really understands or can ever fully explain. The idea of the Trinity defies all logic and reason, and yet: It is foundational to who we are as church. When we recite the creeds, we confess what we believe about each person of the Trinity. When we are baptized, we invoke the presence and blessing of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Many churches, including my home congregation, take their name after the Trinity, and symbols for the Trinity abound in our sanctuaries. We even began today’s service with a shared greeting: the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity is so much a part of who are as a church, and yet it is also so difficult to grasp and comprehend. But maybe that’s the point: The Trinity is not something meant to be understood. The Trinity has to be experienced.

Centuries of faithful Christians have tried their best to explain the mystery of the Trinity, deeply desiring to describe the different ways God relates to us and the different ways we experience God. For them, and for us, the Trinity is about the way God is in relationship with us.

At first glance, it’s easy to overlook any mention of the Trinity in the late-night conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. It’s such a famous passage that most of us could recite it in our sleep. But, if we really pay attention, we notice that Jesus is telling Nicodemus about the ways God relates to God’s creation: God the Creator is the one who so loves the world God has made that God sends the Son to redeem the world, a world which is reborn through water and the Spirit. There’s an intricate interweaving here, almost like a dance, drawing attention to all the ways God relates to God’s creation.

But it’s God’s rationale and end-game in all of this that is most remarkable: that God loved the world… that the world might be saved through the one God has sent. Love is beginning and the end of the activity of God in the world! Love is the chief concern for the writer of John’s gospel, mentioning love language more than forty times. Love, for John, is motivated by the salvation, the health and healing and wholeness and liberation, of the entire creation.

Love has indeed been in the air this past week, surrounding the Royal Wedding — maybe you’ve heard something about it? For all the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony itself, it was Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon that stole the show for me. Bishop Curry invited us to consider the power of love and a world where love is the way:

When love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive.
When love is the way, then no child would go to bed hungry in this world ever again.
When love is the way, we will let justice roll down like a mighty stream and righteousness like an ever-flowing brook.
When love is the way, poverty would become history.
When love is the way, the earth will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside to study war no more.
When love is the way, there’s plenty good room. Plenty good room. For all of God’s children.
And when love is the way, we actually treat each other – well, like we’re actually family.
When love is the way, we know that God is the source of us all, and we are brothers and sisters. Children of God.

Love is the way of the Trinity, the way of God. As an alternative to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” St. Augustine has even referred to the Trinity as “Lover, Beloved, and Love.” Love is the way of the Trinity. Under the cover of night, Nicodemus comes to Jesus and gets to glimpse a vision of the God of love beyond anything he could comprehend as a teacher of Israel. So too in our night — and doesn’t this world so often feel like one, long night lately? — we are in need of that God of love more than ever:

A God who so loves us and refuses to give up on us,
a God who becomes one of us in the flesh and offers healing and wholeness and salvation to all of creation,
a God who continually invites us into the work of love and healing through rebirth—baptism!—by water and the Spirit.

God is Trinity, and God is love. Extravagant love, incomprehensible love, powerful love, earth-changing love, invitational love.

For we, dearly beloved children and friends of God, who abide in God and God in us, that love is both promise and hope, relationship and invitation.

God who has been,
is still,
and ever will be with us
sweeps us into the work of love, the way of love, for the sake of the whole world.


Image Credit: “The Trinity” by Kelly Latimore