A Sermon about Change and Being Called as Dearly Beloved Disciples

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Augustana Lutheran Church
22 January 2017 + Third Sunday after Epiphany (Lectionary 3A)
Matthew 4.12-23



How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I won’t make us do a show of hands (though that would be kind of fun), but I’m willing to bet most of us who made some sort of resolution for 2017 will likely fail, if not already. In fact, there’s even an unofficial holiday, observed every January 17th: “Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day.” (Who knew?!)

A statistic I stumbled across in Forbes magazine suggests that only 8% of people actually achieve their intended resolutions. The reasons for failure are varied, from making too many resolutions to setting goals that are simply unachievable. In short, our resolutions often set us up for failure. And of course, as we all know, change is hard.

Change, it seems, is the order of the day in our gospel text. John the Baptist has been arrested. Jesus retreats and moves to Galilee. He begins to proclaim that the dominion of heaven has come near, and he starts recruiting followers. Followers who experience drastic change, immediately leaving their occupations, families, and livelihoods. And they go throughout Galilee, as Jesus only intensifies his public ministry of teaching and preaching and healing.

If the calling of these first few followers is any indication, it’s a given that change is caught up in what it means to be a disciple. Indeed, discipleship demands transformation.

Last Monday, in the thick of the ice storm, I happened upon an episode of the daytime talkshow The View. One of their guests that day was Arno Michaelis. His story began in an alcoholic household with parents who would often fight. By his own admission, he reacted by lashing out and turning to bullying and violence as an outlet. By the time he was a teenager, he had gotten into the punk rock music scene, an interest which led him to fall in with the white supremacist movement. Eventually, he would become a founding member of one of the largest white supremacist organizations in the world, using his own band as a platform for his hate-filled agenda.

Then, slowly, his life began to be interrupted.  He attributes his gradual awakening to people he claimed to hate—people of color and sexual orientations different from his own—who showed him kindness when he least deserved it. At 24, he became a single parent to his young daughter. A few months after that, he lost a second friend in a violent street fight. “It was the slap-in-the-face moment,” he said, that gave him the opportunity to leave a life of hate behind.

Today, Arno has become an anti-hate activist. In 2012, one of the members of the hate group he had previously helped form killed six people at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Following the shooting, the son of one of the victims reached out to Arno in an attempt to better understand what had happened at his place of worship. The two have since become close friends.

It’s an inspiring story of transformation. Though most of us have never and probably will never experience a change quite that dramatic in our own lives, the call of discipleship is nonetheless caught up with change.

One pastor (T. Denise Anderson) writes of this week’s gospel text and the abrupt call of these disciples, “[Their] assignments have to change because the culture—indeed, the world—has changed. God’s call often seems to be directly related to some major shift that requires a strong witness.”

In the aftermath of the most divisive election in recent history and a new administration that has left many of us feeling afraid and angry—indeed, in the midst of national change—our call as disciples only intensifies our public witness to a radically inclusive, justice-seeking gospel that proclaims love, not hate. Just last night, I participated in the Women’s March downtown, with hundreds of thousands of others around the world who did the same. It was a powerful witness that love can and does indeed trump hate.

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Women’s March through the Old Market in Omaha, NE (photo credit: Josh Evans)

Often, though, I fear that we lose sight of the why in favor of the what, focusing on the work itself and its results and not our calling and identity that compel us.

I suspect this is also why so many New Year’s resolutions fail: We are coerced into making commitments to better ourselves that are not really goals that are important for us and who we authentically are. When you’re not in touch with your own identity, it’s easy to suffer burnout and lose energy for the things we think we’re supposed to be doing.

Yes, change is demanded in the life of a disciple, but it is a call to change systems that are hurting people, because indeed we are already changed through the work of Christ. The Reformers called this idea the third use of the law in our book of Lutheran Confessions. For the Beloved Community of the Church, the law—God’s unchangeable will for justice—becomes “a sure guide, according to which [we] can orient and conduct [our] entire lives” (FC Ep VI.1). The call of the disciple, therefore, is to do those things which the law requires—to do justice and to love kindness—freely and without compulsion, and most especially in the face of hatred and all the forces that tell marginalized communities they don’t matter.

We can follow this path of discipleship—Jesus’s call to “follow me”—precisely because of who we are as beloved children of God, made in the divine image, with inherent sacred worth and dignity. These first followers of Jesus most assuredly had no idea what on earth he meant by becoming “fishers of people.” But the fact they were called to begin with indicates that Jesus saw something of value, some potential, in them.

This is true for us, as well. As another preacher (David Lose) writes, even when we don’t know what being a child of God exactly means, or when we’re not confident of what precisely we’re being called to do in the world, we can rest in the assurance that God values, honors, and loves us, just as we are.

This is a truth that we need to be reminded of, regularly. Being a disciple is hard work, and we need to be fed in that work. We are fed every Sunday at this table. We are fed in fellowship during adult forum, coffee hour, and our potluck meals. We are fed in small group book studies, and we are fed in relationship with other people, both within and outside of these walls.

Once we are fed, I suspect we will find that the rest will follow.

A Brief Reflection for MLK Day

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…which started out as a Facebook post that became a wee bit too long.


The first class I took in seminary was The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr. I learned so much in that class — from readings from King, from classmates, and of course from the brilliant Dr. Pete Pero.

One of our first assignments was reading a trio of King’s sermons, and one short but profound quote that has always stuck with me comes from the one entitled “The Drum Major Instinct,” preached in 1968, just months before his assassination. About serving, King says:

“You only need a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.”

A tall order, indeed.

I’m also reminded of another quote, this one from King’s famous letter from Birmingham city jail:

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’…

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is…the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

I quote these words, not as a preacher (as though I can say them with the same authenticity and integrity as King), but as an act of confession — a confession that I have far too often been part of the “white moderate” of which King speaks. And I suspect this is a confession I will need to continue to make — a confession that my calling to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the ELCA requires of me:

“Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, every minister of Word and Sacrament shall…speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.” (ELCA Constitution, Chapter 7.31.02)

The gospel is clear: God in Christ has reconciled the world unto God’s self. Likewise, our calling: We are agents of reconciliation, love, and justice. Not for some “more convenient” time in the more distant future, but now. Now, in a world where people are hurting. Now, in a world where people live in fear. Now, in a world filled with refugees and immigrants and people afraid of losing their health insurance under the ACA.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is not just a federal holiday that means no work, no mail delivery, and posting quotes from “I Have a Dream” on Facebook. It’s a call to be about the work of justice, always, a call to confess when we fall short, and a call to recommit ourselves to that work.

All you need is a heart full of grace and a soul generated by love.

A Sermon about Stories and Baptism (or, Who says Snapchat is a frivolous waste of time?)

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Augustana Lutheran Church
8 January 2017 + Baptism of Our Lord
Matthew 3.13-17



I confess that, as of late, I have become obsessed with Snapchat. I normally consider myself to be pretty tech- and social media-savvy, but it was only a few months ago that a friend introduced me to this app. I have quickly become something of an expert.

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If you’re not familiar with Snapchat, it’s essentially designed to share photos and short videos with friends, but the content shared only lasts for up to ten seconds before disappearing. I think it’s a brilliant concept. Suddenly I can post all the selfies, pictures of food, or feline photo shoots I want—with no lasting evidence to suggest that I might be a self-absorbed, gluttonous, crazy cat person.

While “snaps,” as the messages are called, can be sent to particular friends, you can also post them to a feature of the app called “My Story,” which anyone can view for up to 24 hours—the idea being that your “Story” would capture your day over a handful of individual moments.

As a preacher, I can’t help but imagine the idea of stories through a theological lens. In pastoral care classes in seminary and one-on-one conversations with many of you, I have come to greatly value stories as windows into what makes a person who they are and what motivates them to do what they do.

Stories are crucial to human existence. They’re the ways we order and make sense of our lives. We tell stories about when we were born, where we grew up, when we fall in love, when loved ones die. We tell stories to understand our origins and to give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

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Scripture too is full of stories. Whether  or not these stories are literal accounts of history doesn’t make them any less true—true in the sense of what Marcus Borg has called their “more-than-literal” meaning. In other words, the stories of our faith are  essentially metaphors that convey some truth about who God is and who we are.

There’s the story of creation, fall, and promise that shows us a God who yearns to be in relationship with human beings, whatever the cost. Or the story of the exodus, that speaks of God’s desire to liberate those who suffer oppression.

More recently in our church year, we heard the story of the nativity, the moment when God became one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, as an act of solidarity with human beings.

Regrettably, the gospels offer us precious little in the way of the childhood stories of Jesus, aside from his circumcision and that unfortunate episode where Mary and Joseph lose their pre-teen son in downtown Jerusalem.

Instead, in the gospel of Matthew, we go immediately from Jesus’s birth and John the Baptist’s preaching to the first story of an adult Jesus, just before he begins his public ministry: his baptism.

Wait a minute, though: Wasn’t the whole point of John’s ministry of offering baptism to his followers for the sake of repentance and the forgiveness of sin? It’s no wonder, then, that we get this skirmish between John and Jesus. I need to be baptized by you, John begins, and do you come to me? It seems a little backwards, doesn’t it?

Let it be so now, or perhaps truer to the original Greek text: Permit it at this specific time, for this specific purpose.

Like the other stories of our faith tradition recorded in the pages of scripture, this episode too tells us something more-than-literal. Of course, Jesus is not in need of forgiveness, but he comes to John “to fulfill all righteousness,” righteousness as an act of discipleship, a way of participating in the unfolding of the reign of God and the message that Jesus came to share.

So Jesus’s baptism is at once drastically unlike our own baptisms—I don’t remember any doves or voices from heaven at mine—but it also tells us something familiar about the life of faith. To paraphrase biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, baptism assumes wilderness.

Immediately after his baptism follows the other familiar story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. When Lewis suggests that baptism assumes wilderness, she reminds  us that being in the wilderness is part of what it means to be God’s people (just look at the ancient Israelites in the desert!). But I would even go so far as to say that wilderness is part of what it means to be human.

After all, there seems to be plenty of wilderness to journey through in this life. I was sitting in the chapel at Trinity Cathedral just this Friday when my phone buzzed with a news alert of yet another mass shooting at the airport in Fort Lauderdale.

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Wilderness, though, is often a lot more personal: grieving the death of a loved one, coping with the aftermath of a breakup or divorce, living in the uncertainty of unemployment or underemployment. Wilderness assumes that there will be ups and downs and more downs in the life of faith, but wilderness also assumes company.

There’s a reason that baptism takes place in the midst of the Sunday assembly. In turn, the pastor asks parents, sponsors, and the whole congregation if they promise to help, nurture, and support the baptized as they grow in the Christian faith and life.

Yes, in baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own, but we are also incorporated into the body of Christ, made visible in our local congregations. Baptism assumes wilderness, but it also means that we never have to go through that wilderness alone.

viewer-23g97nmIn just over a week, we as a congregation will embark on a book study, exploring together the meaning of our faith in order to be better equipped at telling our stories—our stories which begin in baptism but continue to unfold over our lives as people of God. Telling our stories offers us the chance not only to reflect on our own lives but also to offer strength and presence to others. It’s an act of discipleship and of community, as we live out God’s reign of love and justice.

Like the stories of scripture, our own stories are also sacred, revealing the ways that God continues to speak through us to a broken world.

A Sermon for the New Year on the Feast of the Name of Jesus

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First Lutheran Church of Avoca
1 January 2017 + Name of Jesus
Luke 2.15-21



Well, it’s finally over. 2016. It’s been quite a year. An understatement if ever there was one. I’m sure I was not alone last night in watching the ball drop in Times Square as we said “good riddance!” to the past year, in eager anticipation of turning the page and looking ahead to the future.

New Year’s Eve has the tendency to make us reflect on the past year, which gives us pause—especially this year, it seems. Of course, there are the happy, joy-filled moments: engagements and marriages, new births and milestone birthdays, memorable vacations. But it can also be outright depressing, combing through headlines of tragedy after tragedy,  or even just calling to mind those somber moments closer to home: a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, an unsettling diagnosis, the loss of a job.

These things and more are the reason that many churches during the holiday season hold Blue Christmas services for those who experience some degree of “disconnect from the joy and cheer” of these weeks that seems to come so easily to others. So much so that it can even make us feel isolated. [1]

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Blue Christmas at Table Grace Café, December 20, 2016

At my internship congregation in Omaha, we hosted one such Blue Christmas service at a local nonprofit cafe, sensing the need for some kind of ritual space to name the complex emotions that come from difficult experiences. It was an opportunity to provide safe, sacred space for those who needed it, and in that space, as I heard in feedback after the service by so many, comes a reminder of our belovedness by God and our inherent sacred worth as individuals.

Like Blue Christmas, the turning of the year brings up a lot of feelings—some of anguish and despair and sadness that seem like they will never end over what and who we may have lost in the past twelve months, and some of an anxious and timid hope over what the future holds.

In this liminal space between endings and beginnings, our readings for this feast day of the Name of Jesus could not be more appropriate. They speak of blessing and being named and chosen as God’s own.

The account of Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke is only one verse long, but this ritual for observant Jews in the ancient world was one of tremendous importance that signified God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. And yet the even greater emphasis in this very short account is on the naming of Jesus, hence the title assigned to this feast day — Name of Jesus. Jesus’s name, which means “God saves,” signified both an act of blessing and a bold declaration of who this child was.

This twin act of blessing and naming is not a foreign concept to us who are Christian, either. In baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by that Spirit and marked with cross of Christ forever. Baptism gives us our identity as beloved children of God, and it also gives us a sense of holy purpose: being so named and claimed as God’s own, we are sent — or we might say blessed — to love and serve all people and proclaim God’s extravagant love for them and for all creation.

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The church indeed does a lot of blessing. In baptism, we bless water, and at the table, we bless bread and wine. At other times, we bless homes, and pets, and backpacks, and bicycles. We bless these things not necessarily to make them “holy” or to transform them into something else. But we bless these ordinary things to remind ourselves of the source of all that is — that source that is so very good at blessing ordinary things, as our offering prayer for Christmas reminds us, coming to us a baby in a manger, sleeping on straw, and being greeted by shepherds. The holy blessing the ordinary.

Blessing comes to us most often at significant passages of time, and it reminds of who we are and what we are called to do. The act of blessing and receiving blessing gives us an opportunity to pause, to be renewed, and to begin again.

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Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, died  November 26, 1883

 

Isabella Baumfree, who was born into slavery but later escaped, went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Of course, you might know her better as Sojourner Truth, the name she gave herself when she converted to Methodism, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Her name literally became the theme of her life’s work, a blessing as she traveled and preached justice and equality until the day she died.

As for looking back on a year that seems scarce in blessings, maybe it’s not all that bad. In the midst of a wave of tragedies and celebrity deaths, many have blamed the calendar year for these things. But a recent Washington Post article points out that it only seems like 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” This is because violence and natural disasters are sudden events that are reported instantaneously. But the more positive, albeit quieter, trends get lost in the cracks: improving global health, falling poverty, and environmental progress all take years, decades, even centuries to really notice. [2]

This is not meant to sugarcoat the terrible things that happen in our world on a seemingly daily basis, or to excuse our failure to do the work of justice where it is most needed. But it is meant to suggest that we take a broader view.

Poet John O’Donohue speaks of the ups and downs of the year is his blessing for the end of a year:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. [3]

Indeed, there are always going to be ups and downs, but a broader view takes seriously the acts of blessing and naming. Let this new year be for us a time of blessing, remembering the ultimate blessing of being named as God’s own dearly beloved people, an identity which no one can ever take away.


[1] https://www.elm.org/2016/12/22/blue-christmas/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/?utm_term=.9873bfcad3d6

[3] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 160.