Wanted: Dead or Alive

 Easter sermon on Luke 24:1-12

I was wondering about my place, about our places in this Easter Bible reading.

It may seem egotistical, but I think of my outfit for worship as pretty dazzling clothes. And if I invite John Rowe in his sport coat and necktie to stand up here with me, then we’d be two men in dazzling clothes! Since I’m stationed to deliver a message about resurrection, I can make the leap to picture us like those greeters in the reading.

It doesn’t call those two men angels, so we could probably just picture a coupla schnazzy dressers hanging around the cemetery Sunday morning with gossip, except the actual word isn’t just schnazzy or dazzling, but—even flashier—that their clothes looked like “lightning.” I can’t claim that, and neither can John. Maybe it involves more sequins? I guess you can sit down.

Continuing to look for our place in the reading, I then notice the women. These faithful women had been with Jesus since early in the story, aiding him, evidently wealthy enough to support him and his entourage.

As followers, they were there for his teaching, healing the sick, helping the poor, had been with him to feast and celebrate, through confusions and confrontations, radical inclusions and shocking expectations. They traveled with him as his face was set to Jerusalem, were with the multitude who acclaimed Jesus as a king of peace when he arrived last Sunday, with him at his last supper, as he was betrayed, arrested, condemned, demeaned, as he was crucified, died, and was buried.

That’s plenty of experience for these faithful women. They faced some daunting challenges, some daring mission, some horrible sadness, and now some creepy mystery. They’ve faced a lot, yet nevertheless they persisted.

After the tragedy, after goodbye, after loss and death, this morning they were no longer able to provide for Jesus’ needs, but at least to show the right respect to his corpse.

I figure they align with dedicated women, and a few non-women, here today, who have persisted through life’s ups and downs, sorrows and joys, through all the demands that come, striving to respond and meet them faithfully, as you are eager to do what’s right, as you want to be close to God.

Unfortunately, those women weren’t trusted and ended up sidelined, along with the shocking news they came to bear. The deeply egalitarian early church went on succumbing to neglect the goodness of this good news from faithfully apostolic women and instead ossified back into corrupting powers of patriarchal society, from which God’s Spirit is still trying to resuscitate us, call us out from deadly harm, so we, too, rise again, renewed for life in right relationship.

That tragic, failing edge, falling back to deadly ways makes me look for our place in the story neither with me and John cast as flashy angelic heralds, nor with our women who keep on keeping on, tenaciously continuing through life’s story.

We had the best news, the most incredible belief, liberating us for the sake of life that could not be stopped, and yet we somehow fell through and failed at it and kept backsliding and couldn’t break free. We give in to the ungodly. That makes me believe that our place in the story is with the dead.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” those dazzling messengers prompted outside of the tomb.

We must admit we draw these lines with self-confidence, never comprehending we could be wrong. We immediately say it’s either/or, dead or alive. In a cemetery, you claim your category simply by which side of the grass you’re on. I’d bet every one of you wants to tally yourself in the living column. Who here is alive?

Yet we begin to recognize it’s not so clear-cut or obvious.

This week there was an NPR story about pig brains.* (Not to nauseate you before ham lunch.) Scientists got pig heads from a slaughterhouse. We start with our unambiguous decision: severed pork skulls, living or dead? Dead! And yet the scientists pumped in a chemical cocktail of anti-seizure meds and ten hours after those cloven-hoofed cleaved-off craniums were officially dead, electrical signals kept sparking.

The story said, “The implications of this study have staggered ethicists, as they contemplate how this research… fits into the current understanding of what separates the living from the dead.” Because NPR is a classy outfit, they had the good taste to include a Princess Bride quote: “There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.”

Now, I think that’s pretty cool research. But I’m not here for the details about it. I’m not here to tally what counts as all dead. I’m not here for the ethical conundrums. I’m not even here for good movie lines. And I’m certainly not trying to prove that Jesus, crucified and laid in the tomb, was not just “mostly dead” before he was alive again.

What struck me with this news story and the cutting-edge (butcher pun intended) research, is the element of surprise about what separates the living from the dead and questions of life vs. death. Those are old issues for us who come to church, especially during this Holy Week. We’ve known the blurriness of those lines all along, and known where we stand. Or perhaps lie. “We have been crucified with Christ, buried by baptism into death,” the early church proclaimed.

The lightning ambassadors at the tomb asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” To be honest, those faithful women weren’t looking for the living among the dead. They were expecting to find the dead among the dead. They thought they were alive, but that Jesus was firmly and forever removed from that category into the classification of dead. Period. Solid stop.

But Jesus undid that equation, not only for himself but for those women at the tomb seeking death, and for all of us, trapped in death and captive to its clutches. It’s an odd phrase for the standard framework, but here’s the truth: Jesus used to be dead. He isn’t anymore. You, too, used to be dead. No longer confined in the tomb, no longer finalized in death, no longer ended, no longer subject to the empire, no longer constrained by oppressions, no longer even trying to define the days by duties to do or how to avoid death as long as possible.

Jesus has stepped from the other side of our imaginary line, and left us realizing the line isn’t so clear as we name in statistics or in our scarediness and scarcity.

Why look for the living among the dead? Because that’s where Jesus comes to find us. He brings his life everywhere we’re entombed and doomed by death.

Yes, absolutely, this means the biggest thing: that death is not the end. That’s why our early service began in the memorial garden sharing communion. We are still and ever the communion of saints. The full graves and empty spots at our tables aren’t really the permanent reality. There is reunion feast and life to come. Separation is not final. Death does not last. Life is final and forever!

Still, this isn’t a hope on hold, a recourse only for what were allegedly last moments. If it’s about reunion beyond death, not just about one empty tomb long ago, but every final resting place becoming a mere rest stop on the way to fully renewed relationships, then it’s also about the so-called dead ends now, when things seem to be over. This must mean reconciliation, possibility, new beginnings, healing not just of fractured and failing bodies but of our interactions.

Sometimes that may hit close to home, like in your house, which may even feel like its own tomb needing new life. But it’s also much more rampant, running across this world, against a sense of helplessness or hopelessness. Besides death creeping into our bodies and lives, we feel despair in these days declared dark, that we’re worried, attacked, captive to trauma in each headline, with the inescapable harms inflicted on the planet through systems we can’t seem to do anything about.

In another death this week that was not quite ultimate, I kept reading that the burning of Notre Dame was sad because we needed a good, beautiful place like that when the world seems such a bad, ugly place. I have to say, that feels a like looking for the living among the living, as if God is someplace separate from this world, as if we need an escape room, to flee our reality in order to have good or find God.

But Jesus comes into and through death to share life. So maybe Jesus is not looking to be shut behind the stone, re-buried in our buildings, but instead wants to be out roaming and rambling on behalf of life, showing up in memorial gardens and hospitals and in detention centers and during despair and depression, against destruction and domination. He’s in this service of a memorial meal in confusing communion, but also at your lunch table agitations and somber fearfulness that awaits Monday and Tuesday and each day.

Why do you look for the living among the dead? You think you’ll find life by turning over each secret stone? This isn’t about your hunts and searching. I’m sorry, but this isn’t about the road to recovery or your path to success or pursuit of happiness or seeking the meaning of life or spiritual direction. Those only contend with death. And all your looking won’t provide a way out, while it also ignores the greater truth.

You come here to remember the words of Jesus, what he told you. That’s what the flashy messengers mention. We look back to look forward. As you’re looking forward to leaving here, you don’t go out with something to do, to chase after. You go out free. You go with confidence, with faith. You may go out with joy. Because Jesus is on the loose to find you, and he leaves no stone unturned or unrolled away. You go out to live, to life, alive. The one who always looks among the dead finds you to give you life.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/04/17/714289322/scientists-restore-some-function-in-the-brains-of-dead-pigs


I Spy

sermon on Luke 18:31-19:10


Let’s look at three modes of practicing our faith, or versions of following Jesus.

The first simply looks at Jesus himself in the first part of this reading. In these weeks of Lent, we’ve heard that his face is set toward Jerusalem, and now he’s close. At Jericho, near the Dead Sea, it’s a climb from 850 feet below sea level up the desert mountains to Jerusalem 2500 feet above sea level. Jesus is almost there, with apparently full awareness of what he’s walking into. He says again today he’s expecting to be hurt by this, to be betrayed, insulted, and even to give up his life.

This is the big self-sacrifice sort of thing, and some people envision that exactly as what it means to be faithful, that it means being like Jesus, being willing to take any risk and confront danger and go against the grain and not do what’s easy, but really to stand up for what you believe in, putting life and limb on the line. That it’s in some way giving yourself up for others.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I wouldn’t say Jesus is looking to be flattered, but maybe we’d still identify this as praise, recognizing the validity and value of his way and striving to be a disciple in this quintessential form, of doing like Jesus. Indeed, it’s become so much the epitome example that we may even presume simply that that’s what it is to be a Christian, that you’re supposed to give up your wellbeing, your time and resources, your identity, to give up your life. It’s a high standard of expectations!

And if that’s what you imagine for practicing this faith and following Jesus, to do just what he does, and be like him, then you’re not exactly in line with the followers story, since those around Jesus didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. They’re physically following along, but don’t expect or understand that it should be like this at all!

So we move to the next version or mode of faith with the next person in the story. We get a blind beggar. This model is not the charging into danger version, not the one who forsakes security in order to encounter risk, but the one whose life is already at risk, already in trouble, already dealing with dangerous circumstances, for his own sake, who needs relief, some escape, some help, something other than his current state.

These are also apparent moments in our lives, when we are desperate and scared and searching. I occasionally have friends who never usually come show up at church after an accident or some sort of trauma, when the bottom seems to be falling out of life. It’s when I get phone calls as a pastor or people stopping into my office, as well. Faith (and maybe the church) can be a ready answer when there feels nowhere left to turn, no forthcoming answers, when you’ve exhausted possibility and you are exhausted.

For the vision-impaired person in the Bible reading, it wasn’t just an acute health crisis but also meant a breakdown in relationships as he was excluded from social circles and then the further struggle of financial strain. We can relate to the variety of those overlapping difficulties, when relationships break apart, when the assistance we need is falling short, when we’re worried about how the bills will come together, when our bodies won’t cooperate to be what we wish, when it is just plain hard to function in life.

The blind man cried out “Have mercy on me!” I don’t know that that means he’s thinking his blindness is caused by sin, but our minds do often go there, wondering what we did to deserve our dire situations, if we’re being punished, if it could’ve been avoided.

Maybe the cry for mercy is just a yearning to be seen, to be noticed, to be included. The blind beggar—even before a question of regaining sight himself, of being able to see Jesus—is most eagerly hoping to be seen by Jesus, that when no one else cares or will help or pay attention, Jesus might. And Jesus does, indeed, see him and hear him and respond to him. Jesus declares him saved, well, reintegrated into society, no longer marginalized.

So he follows Jesus. We could picture him walking along with Jesus, from the outskirts of town back into a place among others.

But, of course, we also take the praising God and following Jesus as a necessary degree of response, another of the “shoulds” and “oughts” of faith. He had cried out in his desperation and longing, needing something different, hoping for something more. And he was heard and seen and seeing. So we presume he should be grateful, ought to respond with respective dedication, that it is indeed right—and maybe even a duty—for him to give thanks and praise, that his life should be changed, that he is supposed to recognize the change and live differently.

With that perspective or tendency, though, I want to point us to the third version, the third mode of faith. That’s Zacchaeus. And in our non-desperate moments, aside from emergencies or low times of depression, when life is just plugging along, his mode may have the most consistent fit for us.

Some versions of the Bible translate his lines to Jesus as “I will pay back” in the future tense, making it a response and change because of the love and grace Jesus has shown him. Certainly I hope that things can sometimes operate that way for us, that we are better people because we’ve been to church, that you are more loving and caring because you’ve been loved by Jesus, that your faith gives you confidence to act boldly.

But we should recognize that that’s partly a show we like to put on, wanting to seem good.

In that way, if we’re honest, we could name churches after this guy: St. Zacchaeus Lutheran Church. He’s our patron. See, when he talks about reimbursing those he has harmed, it’s actually pretty minimal, maybe some showboating PR, and not much change. It’s about like a politician saying, Well I always drive the speed limit, or a student asserting, But I never cheat on the final exam! It’s not actually a very convincing display of uprightness. In that society, any wealth he had at all would’ve been seen as an injustice, as coming by it dishonestly. It was always a zero-sum game and so if he was rich, it meant it was at the expense of others in his community, which is why they had good reason to look down on him and disparage him.

But Zacchaeus doesn’t show much remorse, doesn’t offer to liquidate his assets. They might’ve wished his encounter with Jesus could’ve even led him to renounce his career and take up a different line of work, or become a permanent follower of Jesus. He’s sure not taking on the empire or taking up his cross. Instead, our translation today highlights a show of self-justification, our claims to be trying hard even while continuing mostly in our old patterns. Zacchaeus says he was already at least minimally good, and wanted that to be enough.

We, too, cling to our claims that we’re good enough. We contribute to charitable causes. Even for a few bucks, we figure our support is saving the world in some small way. Or we watch our mouths on occasion, so that must count for something. Or we at least haven’t murdered anybody today. Or we want to be good. Pretty minimal standards.

Now, Jesus could’ve warned Zacchaeus that he was bound for hell if he didn’t do better, that he should sell all he had and give the money to the poor, could’ve said that the requirements were bigger and Zacchaeus was really supposed to live up to all of that. Instead, Jesus just says he’s hungry and coming over for supper.

We could say Zacchaeus was trying both physically and spiritually to climb up to see Jesus, but yet again what matters is that Jesus saw him. So it wasn’t what he had done right or what he promised to do right in the future. Jesus was there for him as he was, loving him as a child of God, identifying him as a member of the beloved community.

Our Savior Jesus calls it a game of hide and seek, but we insist on playing it backward. We think we need to go on the hunt for Jesus, to track him down, to see him, to do something special to be on the right path.

But he is the one who comes to find the lost, to seek you out wherever you are, whether you feel lost or wondering if you’re hidden or are far from him or imagine yourself right behind him. He sees you. He spies with his little eye. He finds you when you’re desperate. He finds you when you think you’re doing pretty well and when you should be doing better. He finds you when nobody else wants to. He finds you even by climbing up to Jerusalem and facing the fiercest powers and searching through the depths of death for you, losing himself to find you.

He’ll find you right here in this room this morning, and he’ll find you in all those rooms you’ll be in this week—bedrooms and boardrooms and bathrooms and classrooms and waiting rooms and more wherever you roam. Whether you’re looking for him or not, he has come to find you, to save you, to let you know you are not lost.

Ready or not, here he comes.




sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Going on vacation doesn’t vacate you from my thoughts. I continue to think about work, to pray for your concerns, to have you on my mind nearly as much as when I’m here. Maybe somebody would say that’s wrong or not healthy, but that’s how I am and how I serve as your pastor. I can’t and don’t want to get away from that, to vacate you.

This Bible reading was also on my mind while I was away. Another time, I had been in Utah National Parks and the Badlands and got to reflect on them when I came back. That was much preferable to this, where my association on vacation was maybe most directly in a poor somber woman who appeared to be Native American, standing like so many others in Albuquerque at a stoplight with a sign. Hers said, “I hope you will have a good day.” Acacia reached out our car window and gave her one of our granola bars.

This is not a very easy reading to carry around these weeks, both hefty and risky. It indicts me. A question that feels like it matters most is: how seriously do we take this?

It could be read as a direct description: two men died and Jesus describes what happened to them.

Beyond that, it can be taken literally to be telling what it is like afterdeath, in the afterlife, the two places a person can go, or maybe be sent, for the rest of eternity, one apparently a place of tender comfort and security and community and the other of awful abandonment and pain and burning.

Though neither of these places have the familiar names but are instead called the bosom of Abraham and Hades, still we probably have already put them into our standard mental framework of heaven and hell.

There we might already have a first breakdown in how seriously we take this. I suspect we wouldn’t find this sentiment much at play here. I’d be surprised if we had many takers on judgment condemning to a hell of everlasting punishment. Some may have decided against anything beyond this life at all. The keenness, I know, isn’t for my proclamation of God’s final victory in the endtimes resurrection to life in a renewed creation in this world. I would suspect the most typical thought would be that we all go to heaven when we die.

That might begin to move us from theological topography to moral mapmaking. We want to take out of this story not a predestined, predetermined outcome of where people end up, but how you get where you want to go. If this story is not only describing the fate and locale of two men, but holds potential meaning for adjusting your trajectory, you might be eager to know what you have to do to get where you want to go.

In spite of presumptions of people going to heaven when they die, even so it winds up twisted with ethics: that you have to be a good person, right? In facing death, we seem mostly in that camp, looking back assessing a life well-lived, recounting good done. That may serve as satisfaction for passing muster and accounting well on a tally sheet.

That also shows we’re far from times where pure belief had bearing on that. Though plenty of billboards on my trip asserted the need to accept Jesus and call on his name, taking this story seriously doesn’t include that, does it? The central requirement has moved from orthodoxy to orthopraxy, from believing rightly to acting rightly, not that a person was in the right religious denomination or believed the right things or had spiritual practices to get to heaven. There’s nothing here about worship attendance or devotion to God. If you came here to prove that and score points, I guess you can set it aside.

Maybe instead you set yourself to earn it by being a good person, however you’d usually define that. A next step in taking the story seriously involves categorizing ourselves. I’d suspect many of us by comparison relate more to the rich man than poor Lazarus. So by this parable, a definition of being good might relate to sharing, that if you have more, you should give some way. Maybe we extrapolate that the rich one could’ve invited Lazarus to supper or something.

If we’re counting our good actions, I can remind you that this week we send out first quarter benevolence checks. Besides the good here, 15% of all the money you give gets redistributed to support the mission of the church and do larger good, especially for Lazaruses most in need. This does a bit to help immigrants, the homeless, those with mental illnesses, those in jail and those getting out of jail, the elderly, those facing disasters, the hungry, historically marginalized people, hurting creatures, people in desperate poverty of all sorts, and more. Besides the other ways that you try to help, to be a good person, try to remedy the plight of the poor, to do your part in working for a solution, your offering dollars strive for this good.

But this isn’t just feel-good. We must be aware we can always do more. Yet in assessing or placing ourselves, we should also realize that in our current American situation, almost none of us is the rich man. To rank our standing, it’s really easy to hear this being a story about Jeff Bezos or Donald Trump or hedge fund billionaires with private jets. We can readily point out that they’re doing it wrong, that their wealth is blinding them to the reality of the world, that they shouldn’t be so selfish. And that very accurately and honestly is the problem.* When the richest 1% own more than the lowest 80%, that is a problem. That is wrong. There is no way to call this a Christian nation when that sort of inequality grows further and further entrenched, when even the so-called middle class becomes Lazarus, when the superrich don’t just ignore Lazarus but actively and every day make life more impossible for him, for her, for us.

So we should notice this is systemic. It has to change, or it won’t matter how good we try to be. As we keep trying to stretch our incomes and as belts get tighter and tighter for almost everybody, we have less discretionary income. We end up struggling to feed ourselves, to afford our own houses, to take care of our own families, much less having anything to give away. That is a worsening truth.

We’re largely shielded from it here, but churches clearly are among those suffering. Churches are having to close their doors—not just to the good they wanted to offer communities but to shut down totally—because members couldn’t afford to pay a pastor, to keep things running. That isn’t only from declining attendance, but also about wealth inequality and available personal resources and when it’s difficult to live.

So as the church encountering this story at this point in history, we have to consider radical redistribution of wealth. We have to be part of working against systemic injustices. This can involve lobbying and taxes and global solidarity.

But continuing to take this story seriously isn’t just hard big picture anti-imperial finance. It’s also about Lazarus. The rich man knew Lazarus, knows him by name! This has a human face on it. It’s not only about changing systems. It’s not only about supporting organizations. As they say: this time…it’s personal.

If we take it seriously, this is about your relationships, or relationships you should have. It’s about working across divisions of economic disparities. In the smallest way, it’s handing a granola bar to the woman in New Mexico. Better would be not to drive on but to interrupt my vacation plans to get to know her. Or maybe I shouldn’t go on vacation at all, since I also have the sense of knowing right here in our midst people who need help, help I and we can offer, with whom I should be in relationship, where this story might be making demands of me.

Again, though, the story might not be. I don’t say that to let myself off the hook or avoid my shame or guilt, but to keep taking the story seriously. See, the ethical insistence seems a little lacking. It’s not so basic as a lesson in sharing or a warning. It doesn’t have the directive Jesus later gives that following him involves selling everything and giving the money to the poor.

Mostly this portrays simple reversals. One who had plenty of good is left with not good, and one who lacked almost everything is finally and forever treated to the good. We’re not either haves or have-nots, but have-nows or have-laters. That’s something, but not that great of a resolution for the meantime. It has been used as pie in the sky pathetic pious assurances for those who have been left out: life may not be great but it’ll be better later. You just need to die first! That doesn’t sound like a fun wait.

But in the story, that reversal is all there is. It says the rich won’t change, won’t listen. I don’t know exactly what to do with that, but that’s taking the story seriously. There’s no point in lecturing you to try harder, to share more, because it won’t convince you anyway. Even if one were raised from the dead and Jesus could be here now in these very words I’m speaking, it wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t make a difference. I don’t say that for resignation to let things stay the way they are. It makes me sad, even about myself. But maybe he says it that way because it’s accurate.

So in the end, all there is is to keep repeating the message. With or without your assistance, you have a God who favors those in need, who knows and calls them by name, who strives for them and embraces them, has a preferential option for the poor. This isn’t a new story, isn’t a surprise we hear today. It is the same God from the beginning of the Bible to the end, throughout history. Jesus’ first words in this Gospel declared “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because she has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” His first beatitude was “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.” His mother sang before his birthday of God who “fills the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.”

Whether you take it with the mystical vision of the bosom of Abraham today or take it with the modern economic statistical analyses of revolutions for those who got excluded and forced to eke out a living, this is the ongoing proclamation that God will leave nobody out, that all shall see salvation, that this good news cannot be hoarded, that it especially seeks out those who need it most. That’s what Jesus is up to. That’s what God’s Spirit is still doing here and now, with or without us. That’s the big picture for eternity, and the personal importance for you.

But you already knew that, so you can do with it what you want.


* This video shows some of what was on my mind with this “faceless” portion of wealth inequality.


Jesus is a Chicken

sermon on Luke 13:1-9, 31-35


It’s Lent. You asked for repentance.

Well, here you go: repent or die. That’s how Jesus seems to start today.

Those of you in House Church groups may notice I skipped these verses for your discussion, worrying it was more than you were looking to bite off for your first gatherings.

Yet I’d say it’s good news, even if it sounds like bad news, backed up by worse news.

The bad news is that there are irrational accidents. If Jesus has insight into some divine explanation, he’s not sharing it. People are killed unjustly, die by accident. If we go on the hunt for meaning in the ins and outs of life, the good and bad that strikes us, it can be inexplicable.

Sometimes we do know. Sometimes breaking the law results in suffering punishments. Sometimes we don’t exercise and end up with health effects. It’s not that there’s absolutely no cause and effect in our universe.

But neither can it explain everything. You might exercise lots and still wind up sick. You might not have done anything wrong that led to you getting into an accident. You might even be trying to show your devotion to God, like those people in the example offering their sacrifices, who still got murdered.

In that way, 39 years ago next week, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying the Words of Institution at the communion table. There’s no explaining that he was a bad person. Maybe the opposite, this past year Pope Francis officially named him a saint in the Roman Catholic Church. So we can’t write off his death by what he did wrong, unless we say that it was intentionally provoking military death squads by standing up for the poor.

But we might also be Lutheran enough to realize that’s not quite our view of saints. Oscar wasn’t really better than us. It’s not about miracle workers or extreme holiness. It’s not that God works more through some special people. In clear evidence, St. Oscar wasn’t so much better that he should’ve been spared suffering an untimely death.

That’s the worse news, maybe: you’re not better. That’s behind the question asked of Jesus. They may have wanted to alleviate their self-concern by disparaging the unfortunate, to say that they got slaughtered or smushed because they deserved it, that death may have been calamitous but it wasn’t unworthy or uncalled for.

But Jesus says they were no worse sinners than those who asked the question. You might have hoped if you tried a little harder you could get on God’s good side and avoid the sudden surprises of disaster. But that’s not how this works, Jesus says. That may be the worse news: that you can’t prevent the bad news, can’t stop all accidents by improving your moral character.

It’s pertinent because it keeps happening, with almost exact parallels in headline tragedies this past week. Airplanes crash. Worshippers in a mosque are gunned down. It’s senseless and fear-inducing. And you can’t escape by thinking you’re better.

Then Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will perish as they did.” He even reiterates it, repeats it. He says we’re not worse sinners and can’t do anything to spare ourselves the loss, but nevertheless we would die the same way unless we repent. So is he just rubbing it in? Your sin isn’t worse and there’s nothing you can do to avoid death. So repentance doesn’t spare you. So what does Jesus mean?

In my relentless wrestling to find good news, here’s what I want to do with that: the word “repent” is the Greek work “metanoia.” Sara got us started in noticing it’s about turning around. So it’s not really about regretting your sin or feeling bad you’re bad. But it is about how you live now. Metanoia literally means to rethink, to change your mind. Part of it is in our verse we’re holding from Romans for this season: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). Our mind is changed from what it was, transformed in and to Jesus.

See, our mind is usually made up on how the world works. We think that it’s about trying to be good and being rewarded for it, or being punished when we’re bad. We look at effects and go on the hunt for a cause. Not only that, but our minds are made up that long life is our goal, that health is a default state not a rare privilege, that accumulation of resources and the pursuit of ease is the right way to live. Conformed to this world, we’ve got our minds pretty well set that things should work that way.

But with minds changed in Jesus, we look at and live in the world differently. We don’t need to think how we can get ahead or compete or beat others. We don’t have to equate something bad inevitably as a punishment. We don’t regard life as an entitlement instead of each moment as a gift. We don’t even think that this life is all there is of life.

Finding ourselves in that holy mindset fits Jesus’ gardening example: a fig tree is not bearing fruit. In our cost-benefit analysis, the tree is taking up space and wasting resources, failing to produce anything good, so we want to cut it down. Our landowner methods exactly match what we just had to discard as not God’s perspective. We just heard that God doesn’t cut us down, doesn’t wipe us out, doesn’t annihilate us or murder us or pull the plug because of our misbehavior.

Instead, this patience of God demands, “Give it time. I’ll keep working on it.” We may not like that, not prefer it. It wouldn’t be our mindset. And just as we can’t answer why God doesn’t punish the evildoers or selectively cause calamity to smite some, we can’t answer why God wouldn’t intervene more directly for the good. Why would God be patient? Why would God dawdle with spreading manure? Why put up with something that isn’t doing what you want? Yet here we glimpse God’s methods of cultivation, of adding some fertilizer, of gradual soil improvement, of wait and see and hope. Again, metanoia, repentance willing to set aside your own convinced perspective, instead enables you to think the way God does, with mind transformed in Jesus.

Caveat: I realize I’m pursuing one path here. There may be times Jesus would, indeed, declare that if something doesn’t change, it’s all over. It comes to mind immediately for abusive relationships. But I’d say we’re apt in lots of instances to come up with quick solutions that are drastic and antagonistic and aren’t about escaping hurt but trying to find retribution and fight fire with fire.

That worry is framed in the end of the reading. King Herod threatens Jesus, the rotten ruler is out to kill him. Our minds would say to strike back at the empire. But Jesus is chicken. God the Mother, as a hen thinks first about love. She is about putting herself in harm’s way, a sacrifice that averts the destruction on you, nonviolent retaliation. It’s power that saves life without trying to take it at the expense of other life.

To be clear, Jesus could’ve said he would attack the fox like a lion, the king of the jungle. We look for Jesus to kick some bad guy butt. Jesus the lumberjack with the clear-cutting spiritual chainsaw. Back to that God who tips towers and flicks airplanes to get at the sinners.

You know, I get really sick of how often we refer to God as “Almighty,” because we inevitably figure God’s a fierce warrior. But God is the Almighty Chicken, desiring to hold us under her protective wing, never giving up on that way of life.

“How often I’ve wished to gather you,” Jesus exclaims, “but you were not willing!” Not willing, since we’ve got our minds made up not on being vulnerable chicks but on being foxy, gnashing our teeth, wanting to bite back. We know what’s right and want to fight evil. We’re ready for the immediate answer. We want Oscar Romero to use his power as archbishop to arm the masses and lead the righteous warfare. We don’t want him to say prayers, to use his voice not for rallying but for old words in worship.

But then it might be time for some metanoia. The God of patience is working today and tomorrow, spreading manure to fertilize your work and your life, continuing to be a chicken, with compassion and seeking care and not vying violently, even overlooking wrong in service of the greater good and life. In the face of sin and fruitless trees and tragic accidents, even when it seems there’s no way to change anything, when it seems mostly hopeless, right up to death, when the fox kills the chicken and the lamb of God is slain, still Jesus is working today and tomorrow.

And on the third day? Well, on the third day he rose again. He’s going to complete his work. He’s going to Jerusalem, but Easter’s coming. It’s amazing, but if you can wrap your mind around that, that’s all the good news you need to know.



Way Out

a sermon on Luke 9:28-45


Today is Transfiguration Sunday. A rather particular word, transfiguration, and one that we have zero occasion to use outside of this story.

Interestingly, the Greek word would be more familiar than this englished-up Latin version. The Greek original is metamorphosis. That one you do use other places, like for the monarch caterpillars we raise and release from church as transformed butterflies.

But just as I’m getting you familiar with the Greek word and concept in this story, I’m going to take it away. Mark and Matthew say metamorphosis, translated as transfiguration. But Luke’s version of the story, if you give a careful look, doesn’t include that word.

Instead there’s another Greek word that you’ll know plenty well in English. When Jesus is talking about his departure, which he was soon to accomplish at Jerusalem, that word for departure or way out is exodus. That’s a term you know from…? The Bible! The book of Exodus! God’s people being liberated from slavery in Egypt, release from captivity, deliverance, salvation through the parted Red Sea waves.

It may hint that this is less personal transformation in Luke’s Gospel and more communal deliverance. But for the divine discussion of this exodus, let’s wait a moment while we notice some other aspects.

This story of a dazzling glowy shiny Jesus marks the end of our season of Epiphany, a season about showing forth the identity of Jesus. We may say that this story gives his full, true identity, that when we look at Jesus, we are seeing God. That was even in our Prayer of the Day, that his face shows us God’s glory.

This vision appears to be certainly a big deal. Indeed, it may even be more stunning than Easter; at the end of the Gospel on the Emmaus Road, two disciples are walking along with resurrected Jesus who is talking about entering his glory, but he must look fairly normal then, because they sure aren’t exclaiming “Holy Moses and Great Gallopin’ Elijah, you’re all glowy and shiny and dazzling and quite a heavenly sight!” In other words, even on Easter, Jesus doesn’t look this good. Maybe it’s because he just stepped out of his grave and had been through a rough few days. Though we ought to say it’s impossible, there’s something in this story that is more marvelous than resurrection.

This is so spectacular, so majestic, so otherworldly, so overwhelming that Peter doesn’t know what to do about it. I like the line where it declares essentially “He blathered on incoherently, because he didn’t know what he was talking about.” As if to reinforce that, God kind of interrupts him with a voice coming out of the enveloping cloud.

st john transfig

illumination from the Saint John’s Bible

It makes some sense that Peter didn’t have a clue, though, because we can’t possibly either. Your bulletin picture is one representation, but really how would we begin to describe or portray what this is with Jesus? It’s more than movie magic. It’s beyond us.

The best we might say is this is a vision, maybe even like in a dream (including the stuff about being asleep or awake). It fits with our religious pursuits and hopes, for a grand revelatory vision, to be able to see God’s glory, to discuss our big questions face-to-face, to have it all bright and clear, to have a voice from heaven tell us what we need to know.

With much more we could ponder or consider, that’s the first half the story.

And I’d say the second part is another type of where we go looking for God’s glorious presence. It’s a showy story, full of dramatic action, the phenomenal power of the Holy Spirit over demonic unclean spirits, of a boy receiving a miracle and a family restored. When other options had failed, Jesus showed up and fixed the situation. There’s miraculous healing, and a sense of good triumphing over bad, that we’d cheer for, just as we’d hope. Indeed, afterward it says everybody was astounded and talking with amazement about God’s greatness.

Again, much more that could be pondered there, but to step back:
We’ve got two big aspects of where we go looking for God with high expectations and yearning, with major flamboyance and anticipation for the Creator of the universe, healer of our every ill, savior of the world, potentate of all potential. We’ve got a vision and a miracle. Both longings seem to pan out in amazing, remarkable ways, exceeding any possible desires.

But the thing is that Jesus doesn’t really seem to point to either of those things. They’re there. Maybe they tell us something about him, reveal for us a connection to God. But Jesus isn’t focused on marquee marvelous mind-blowing displays of splendor.

As the crowd is still all abuzz with hubbub about the miracle, Jesus quietly points someplace very unexpected. This is sort of as if somebody in a luxurious gown walking out on the red carpet with an Oscar trophy from the Academy Awards last Sunday had said, “Pardon me, I’m going to catch a cab for my shift volunteering at the nursing home.” Or like an athlete about to be sprayed with champagne after the championship quietly ducking out saying, “I’ve gotta go make supper for my kids.”

But Jesus is a notch more. He’s just performed wonders of two sorts, godly stuff, a big deal, front page news in the old Palestinian papers, if they’d had them, or trending on ancient Twitter.

But instead of basking in that fame, while the crowds are still roaring their approval, Jesus does a 180 and quietly mutters, “Let these words sink into your ears: [I am] going to be betrayed into human hands.” Not so much of God conquering all. Instead of acclamation and applause that celebrated God’s work in healing and restoration, this part is met with confusion, lack of understanding, with concealed meaning instead of revelation, and so little perception of what he was talking about as to leave them afraid. Betrayal?!

And yet this is also the same thing that started the story up on the mountain top in the first part. Before Peter wakes up and begins babbling on in excitement about the dazzling light show, actually the conversation was less glorious than we’d expect. The heavenly messengers, Moses and Elijah, not only the epitome characters of the Hebrew scriptures but two people in Jewish belief who were said not to have died, these two who came directly with God’s authority, were talking with Jesus about his departure, his exodus, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

That sounds like it could be a grand finale, a last big performance. But this conversation is about putting God’s stamp on Jesus heading toward betrayal, arrest, conviction, execution, death. His departure is the cross. He is set on going to Jerusalem to die.

Both the first and second part of this reading today point us to that. There may be voices that speak to us from the clouds and visionary moments and the so-called mountain-top experiences, but they are not the clearest place to look for God. There may be miracles, healing from injury and the deepest longings of a family for restoration, more amazing than the community could expect, and those may be our clearest yearnings and places we want God to be working. That is what we think of power and might. But those rare phenomena are not the clearest place to look for God.

To look for God, we look to the vulnerability of the cross. We look to Jesus’ death in Jerusalem. That is the central revelation. And we may not like it. It may not follow our expectations. It may leave us babbling or confused or afraid. It may even leave us dejected that we didn’t get more, didn’t get our money’s worth. We may have wanted bigger and better and the typical glitz and eminent reputation. We may think of Lent as a sullen sidestory from the main show. But instead, even now and always, we look to the cross.

And that brings us back to the word exodus. Jesus discusses the exodus in Jerusalem. On a cross, departing from life in this world, is how God chooses to release us from captivity, to free us from bondage, to proclaim liberty, to deliver us from all that would enslave us. That is the way out. That is what brings salvation, from all evil forces, from the power of empire, from what would threaten community, from our own false hopes as well as from our failings and fear and desperation. A way out.

We aren’t only waiting for the flashy or fabulous moments for God to show up. It’s not only with things seem hunky dory, but through our confusion and captivity, through our struggles and sorrows. That is also where God’s saving work in Jesus is present, leading through death to glorious new life. That his death conquers death is what makes it glorious. And so in every moment we can shout, sing, praise God unending with our Alleluias, now and forever.


Your sin is forgiven

sermon on Luke 7:36-50


This poor story.

It suffers bad imagination. Throughout history this woman gets made into a repentant prostitute.

Notice the only description (if it can be called that) is that she’s a sinner. It is plain old disgusting voyeuristic sexism to say that if this woman is a known sinner, she must be a prostitute. Most images of her make her into a temptress for men to gawk at.

We don’t know her sin. It could be that she was embezzling from her business. It could be that she had decided to go out with friends instead of making dinner and picking up her kids from piano lessons and taking them to basketball practice and chairing their cookie sales. It could be that she was an 80-year-old looking back at her life and just not feeling very faithful or close to God. We don’t know her sin.

But we do know it’s easy to get labeled as a sinner, portrayed as somebody who is lacking, who doesn’t have it all together, as somebody who is doing something wrong or even being something wrong.

It may even be that this woman gets identified by the men at that ancient dinner and still too often by our chauvinistic culture now as a sinner even without being guilty, being labeled as a perpetrator even while being a victim. Maybe there is a sexual element in this, but it could be that this this woman was pressured into it, was not a willing participant, had suffered doubly, in abuse and then from the perceptions of her, maybe even in herself.

We know that women and girls (and also vulnerable males) wind up in situations where afterward they’re told it’s their fault, that they asked for it, that they should put up with it, that it’s because of how they dressed or looked or reacted. Or just for being weaker. We may not call such person a sinner, but instead name her a slut or a floozie. Or we categorize her as a welfare queen, with a different set of imagined presumptions and prejudices. However it is, she becomes a woman of ill-repute, with a burden of shame, suffering a reputation—with or without cause, still suffering either way.

But Jesus won’t perpetuate those labels. Whoever this woman was, whatever she had done, however she had been treated, whatever had happened to her, Jesus won’t see her through the confining, restricted vision.

Even referring to the woman as a sinner at the end of the story means we are the ones in bondage to sin, who won’t let those bonds be released, who refuse the word of freedom and restoration of relationship. What’s more, if we simply presume this woman was alluring and sexually provocative, we’re like those Pharisees, still captive to our chauvinistic culture. Those religious insiders were failing to see a place for hurt and to welcome somebody who needed love and a fresh start. In not receiving people with needed care, we also make church an unsafe place, obstructing the way instead of clearing a path, precisely perpetuating the wrong, with a detriment for ourselves that means we won’t receive the love or find the wholeness we also need to be part of. “Do you see this woman?” is also a question for us.

To reiterate, the story said the woman was known in town as a sinner, but it doesn’t say what her sin was.

Again I say it’s likely as not that it matched your sin. In the workplace or family or doubting faithfulness sorts. In the lurid details you imagine of her or live through yourself. In things you count as big regrets that make you lose sleep or the ongoing pile of mistakes. We’ve recognized it could be the things that aren’t your fault at all but are shames dealt that someone else placed on you.

Or another variety is what you’re not willing to name as faults, seeing yourself pristinely while looking down your nose at others and casting wild aspersions. In these ways, you can find yourself in this story. You are the blameful shortsighted Pharisee, sure. You are also the woman, encumbered by sin, longing to be set free. What that is for you matters.

See, we notice church isn’t about our blanket presumptions, but is always the localized, direct particularities, for you. It can be true and important to proclaim that God loves everyone. Maybe for the Pharisee, that’s necessary, in order not to be restricted to a version exclusive for pious insiders. But there are also times you very directly need the word for yourself, not that God loves all, but: God loves you.

It’s well and good generally and generically to say we have a God of forgiveness. But that’s like a lesson to be learned. You may need the gift, the grace, the word that comes to release. Not that sins are forgiven, but that Jesus forgives you. Not that captives are released, but that he sets you free. Not that debts are remitted, but that he has cancelled your negative balance. Not just that all are welcome, but that Jesus has restored your place. Yes, you. Not that salvation is for all the earth, but that Jesus has come to save you.

This faith has a balance of the broad categories and very direct specificity. The Gospel says Jesus comes as a light for all nations, that all flesh may know the salvation of God. But that takes on flesh in each of us, as each encounters the light through our own eyes.

When we gather here, we live this story all over again. So it isn’t just an ancient example. It certainly isn’t a history lesson about what Jesus did one day. This story is for now, for us, for you, taking on flesh here. We gather mostly as religious insiders, Pharisees, those comfortable enough even to call this home. And Jesus has the hard work of trying to get through to us, to help us see our obstructive shortsightedness and still forgive sin to enable us to love, to call forth an appropriate response.

Still, you may arrive as the woman, weeping in repentance or weeping in joy, full of emotional devotion at the proclamation that your sin—whatever it is or was or continues to be, or even if it was no sin at all but only the reputation rottenly assigned to you—is forgiven. You are restored from shame. Your identity is not in the wrong, but as a child of God and valued member of the community. Always and no matter what. Jesus is here again to proclaim release to you. To send you on your way, filled with love that can spread out to the community around you.

That’s how this ends. Made well, the woman is told “go in peace.” That is to go with shalom, or wholeness, her proper full place in the community.* In Palestine’s Arabic greetings, this salaam is  a declaration from hello onward that things are right in the relationship. Here, finally at the end of the story, things are right, and the woman will be known rightly. That is how you are welcomed here, as beloved and right and part of this body. That is what God’s salvation, Jesus’ forgiveness, the Spirit filling you with love means, too, in yourself, with God, with others. You are set right. That is how you are sent from here. Go in peace. Salaam in all your relationships. Whole. Shalom.

* Jennifer English, “Which Woman? Reimagining the Woman Who Anoints Jesus,” Currents in Theology and Mission. 39:6, p437.


I say to you, rise

sermon on Luke 7:1-17

A Narrative Lectionary bonus! Two stories for the price of one! Not really much connected, but piled together. Maybe they both have healing and Jesus saving somebody, sort of like last week we had two different reflections about sabbath.

The second part seems like a bigger deal, but let’s not ignore the first part and so pause for a couple introductory observances.

One: I’m not sure of the centurion’s sense of how it works. I like his line for not troubling Jesus, which is repeated in Catholic churches before communion (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and your servant shall be healed”). But I’m not exactly sure what the centurion is comparing the business of his bossiness to.

Mostly when Luke uses the word “authority,” it is about having power over demons and unclean spirits. Jesus can share authority as he sends out the apostles with the same task. Very clearly it’s telling us that in Jesus, we are seeing God’s work. Jesus is powerful because God’s Spirit rests on him.

But it’s odd to me that the centurion would say that Jesus’ authority is in giving commands from afar, as if that’s the main point. Maybe he’s commanding the illness to go away, giving orders for some uncleanness to release the servant. If it’s not that, I’m not sure whom the centurion figures Jesus is in charge of. At any rate, it’s impressive that he recognizes Jesus’ authority from God, especially since he wouldn’t be obvious to compliment Jesus.

That leads to observance two about this first story: These should be opponents. Jesus shouldn’t want to help these guys. A slave would be written off as lower class, or not even quite human in some eyes, property instead of a person. But Jesus isn’t going to be held back by that negative or shameful view of humanity.

More surprising is the centurion. That title means he’s a commander of 100 soldiers. He’s living in Capernaum, next to the lake, where Jesus lived, a town of maybe 1500 residents, which would mean that for every 15 peasants, there was one soldier, all under this officer, there enforcing the empire’s intimidating order, collecting taxes, confining what was possible in worship and everything else. Maybe this centurion was a decent guy who tried to get along with his neighbors, but his role was still the office of an enemy and big enough that he was well-compensated for doing it.

We don’t have much way to envision this. We don’t have experience of being watched and restricted as we simply try to proceed with life. It’s some of what Palestinians have to deal with now, in the occupation under the Israeli surveillance state. We might make rough estimates of these weeks in Venezuela or the #BlackLivesMatter sense of police oppression, though those are both domestic forces and not a foreign occupier.

The point is, Jesus here is helping the empire, the opponent, the bad guy. He’s giving a gift to the commander of the powers that were violently against his own people and their way of life. If it’s about sides, Jesus is on the wrong side.

But this is bigger. This remarkable statement about the spread of salvation is God’s mission leaves nobody out, so all flesh and people of every nation may know it. Slaves won’t be disregarded. As much as we’d want to say the villainous deserve vengeance against them, to be burned by God’s wrath, this won’t exclude even them from blessing. This isn’t for Jesus’ siblings or compatriots alone, not even for his race and clan first. This is for all. And for his part, the centurion recognized that in Jesus.

This passage is one of the small turning points in Luke’s Gospel. In chapter four, Jesus had launched his public ministry with a declaration that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (4:18-19). For three chapters, Jesus had been doing more and more of that, healing and releasing from illness and for those trapped in cultural obstructions, offering life. And it keeps spreading.

His fellow citizens probably wanted him to proclaim release from captivity of the empire, a revolution to kick out the occupying powers, but instead Jesus is working something even bigger than that, so is liberating the captor, releasing the oppressor, helping the centurion.

That may not get our vote, and just how wide this spreads still continues to surprise us. We want to restrict it, to say it must be earned, to make it reciprocal, to qualify it with qualifiers or qualifications, to rule out some and maybe to question whether it could even be too good to be true in our own lives.

The book by kind of the premier Old Testament professor these days Walter Brueggemann that GEMS were reading has a good line: “It is as though Jesus starts every meeting by asking, ‘Are there any here with withered hands, any widows, any orphans, any aliens, any lepers, any blind, any poor, any homeless? Come forward and be the focus of healing attention.’”* Those we would be most likely to leave out, Jesus is most insistent on. Those we would reject, he includes. Those who seem beyond help are his first choice.

And then comes the grand capper, the top story, the ultimate surprise of this section of the Gospel. It includes not only a widow, but a widow whose son has died, a woman who would’ve been at risk anyway and now is entirely without assistance, as good as dead herself. Yet Jesus is intent on this spread of life and release from what would confine or destroy it. So he finds himself in the middle of the funeral procession.

Now, it’s one thing to bring good news to the poor. It may even be impressive to heal lepers or to offer restoration to untouchables. It may stretch our imaginations and risk our self-preservation to break protocols of decency in reaching out to those deemed socially unacceptable and outside the limits of typical concern. These are things Jesus has been up to, and it’s already been a lot.

But this will blow all that out of the water. The most we might think is to offer condolences to the mother, to set up some aid program to meet her needs, to create some new social bonds and structure now that her son is gone. But those still operate within the limits of death, and Jesus won’t be so confined.

Young man, I say to you, rise.

And he gave him back to his mother.

There is none who is beyond the help of Jesus. Ever. There is no physical way to be outside the bounds of his saving work. There is nothing that can shut up his word of life.

This is so phenomenal that words can’t quite express or capture it. I’m amused by the term here that seems to effect the miracle. Jesus says, “Rise.” On the one hand, it’s the word that applies for Easter morning, for the resurrection, for that lifesaving event that turns all expectations of existence on their head: Alleluia! Christ is risen!

But it’s also extremely ordinary. Rise is the word for standing up when you’ve been sitting. It’s a word for parents telling you to get out of bed. Even death is only like sleep to Jesus, as he gently rouses you saying, “hey, it’s time to get up.” Awake, O sleeper, rise from death, and Christ will give you life! (ELW 452)

While proclaiming the unstoppable goodness of God’s blessing and work of life, I would mostly like to let fly with the promise and let it echo as broadly and resoundingly as it should.

But I also want to make sure the qualities or qualifications of your life don’t let you feel removed from this release, beyond the reach, somehow left out. There are illnesses that don’t go away, diseases that never feel eased. There is suffering that just keeps going and going. There are struggles and sorrows we can’t get past. There are reverberating Why questions never answered. There are times when being told “Do not weep” would seem cruelly uncaring rather than reassuring. There is captivity much too long confining. There generally feels like more bad news piling up than good, not only for the poor but for many of our lives.

And especially when this isn’t ultimately our own story of a son brought back to life. We face death. We don’t want it to be the end. We want the funeral procession interrupted. We want Jesus to reach out with his miraculous and powerful word, with his full authority, to drive away the demonic enemy of death.

For you who have had to encounter the intimacy of death, who know its sting, who have asked why, who have wished it would be kept at bay, who haven’t gotten relief and have had to continue with the diminished dimmed life of your own but without a loved one, this story may bear the feeling of loss, of being ignored. Why did Jesus see that widow and call to this young man, but not to you?

But this story doesn’t stand as an isolated incident, a peculiar exception. This story is the assurance that salvation in Jesus spreads for all, that his gift of life will not be stopped. Just as much as infirmities and germs can’t stop this blessing, just as political boundaries can never wall it off, just as societal standards crumble by comparison, so not even death will be its undoing. The word of eternal life is already today for you to rise up. Get up. Go on your way. Your faith has made you well. Jesus saves. Awake and stay woke. As I say to all, I say to you, Rise.

* A Gospel of Hope, p63