Tuesday, June 13, 2017

keep singing



keep singing
               light into darkness
               hope into hearts
               love into the world

keep singing even if you have to borrow
               somebody's words
               somebody's tune
               somebody's breath

keep singing
               until my heart becomes yours
               until your heart becomes mine
               until the world knows we all are one

               one heart
               one hope
               one humanity

               beloved

keep singing

(originally published on 6.13.16 in response to the shootings at Pulse in Orlando)

Monday, June 12, 2017

God in Relationship

   
the book read for the children's message at APLC on Holy Trinity Sunday



Holy Trinity Sunday
Matthew 28:16-20
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Genesis 1:1-2:4a
a sermon for the people
of Abiding Presence Lutheran Church

“Three in One and One for all!”  This is what my imagination comes up with as I think about explaining the Trinity, and of course, it does’t completely capture God in three persons.  In the course of my life in the church, I have seen (and used myself in my youth ministry days) a variety of imperfect, incomplete, or downright laughable “illustrations”…none of them quite hit the mark.  Let’s see, there is shell + white + yolk = egg, or peel + flesh + core = apple, or that perennial favorite, steam + liquid + ice = water.  The water analogy is another version of the “I am always only ever me.  Yet, at the same time, I am ‘mom’ to my children, ‘daughter’ to my parents, ‘sister’ to my siblings. One person, three ways of being known." But that kind of thinking is called modalism.  And it is heresy!

How are we to think of the Trinity then?  Excellent question.  And the truth is I have no idea.  Like much about God, the Trinity is a mystery…one beyond our human imagination.  Unencompassed by even the very, very clever (and completely original, I’m sure) “Three in One and One for all!”

In our lessons for today: Genesis tells of God the Spirit moving on the waters and God the Creator creating the world by speaking it into being; and since the Gospel according to St John says that God the Son is the Word of God and that “in the beginning was the WORD”, we who are self-professed Jesus-as-Son followers can find traces of the Trinity in the first creation account.

The New Testament and the Gospel readings are a little more explicit; Matthew refers to baptizing in the name of the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and 2 Corinthians refers to the grace of Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit.  There’s no “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” language here.  Rather there is a focus more on community, love, and grace than on the names or titles of the three in one.

Nowhere in scripture do we find the word “trinity” or an explanation of how God is both three and one at the same time.

So maybe rather than thinking about the “how” of the Trinity and risking a burning at the stake as heretics (just kidding.  I’m pretty sure we don’t do that anymore), but just maybe we should be thinking about and praying about the impact that the Trinity has on our lives, on our reality.

The Trinity shows us God in relationship…in God’s way of mutuality.

And that relationship is ever changing, ever growing, ever expanding to invite absolutely everyone to relationship with God and with one another.  Where each is valuable, “good”, precious, beloved by God.  Where each seeks to value, love, and call one another “good”.

I believe that we are called to God’s way of mutuality.

“Jesus' believed that God's way for human beings to live, to live with each other and the planet that is in our care was emerging and in-breaking. He taught that while the kingdom of domination was all around us and in us, that God was moving to change that. Jesus invited disciples to join him in announcing and living within God's Reign of Mutuality.
Everyone was invited: Jews, Greeks, Romans, gentiles, Samaritans, the poor, the rich, the blind, lost, the confused, those who were too certain of themselves, women, men, children and so on.

Everyone is still invited. Everyone.

In God's Reign of Mutuality we are invited to practice Baptismal Awareness: to integrate into our conscious lives the paradoxes and contradictions of human life. This means that human beings can learn to reduce the teeter-totter of dominance and submission and learn to hold one another as equals and to remember that we are beloved of God. Paul speaks to this in his beautiful imagery of the church as the body of Christ.

In domination culture the ideal human is a powerful one. In mutuality culture, the ideal human is one who embraces life-as-it-is and who seeks to hold others as equals with differing gifts. Mutuality culture can be understood as an open circle with the cross in the middle. The cross represents God's willingness to join us in the midst of our humanity and to suffer with us rather than to dominate us. Jesus whole life reminds us of God's self-giving love.”[1]

God exists in community, and God invites us into that community, too, into a family of equals who share a common mission and a common life but who exist in that community as individual members of creation uniquely beautiful but who are more brilliant together than they could ever be on their own.

If we think about God this way:  God in relationship, then it makes our reality more understandable…we are made in the image of God and God needs community…of course we need community, too!  A community centered around our God…who created us, loves us, and calls us into life with God…living in God’s way of mutuality in which no one person or group of persons is more valuable or beloved than another…but in which we are called to love and to serve and to invite the whole world.

as my Goddaddy says,

“Our calling today, on this Holy Trinity Sunday, is neither figuring out the Trinity nor explaining it.

Our calling is living the Trinity in our lives and in the holy and loving community we call the church. (and inviting others into God’s Reign of Mutuality)

Our calling is to join with one another in caring for creation.

Our calling is to take up our cross and follow the Christ in the work of spreading God’s love in the world.

Our calling is to pray together and to be open to the leading of God’s Spirit on our lives, come what may.”[2]

Amen.

Monday, June 5, 2017

skyward bound

Related image

fireflies rising from their sleep
under the weeping willow

each drop of sorrow
was buried

and resurrected
to joy and light and life

on this summer evening
skyward bound
              +agm

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Remember Whose You Are

"Three Months" oil painting by the author

I had the pleasure and privilege of attending a portion of Festival of Homiletics here in San Antonio last week.  While there, I was reminded of the rule number 1 in sermon preaching:  “don’t write yourself into it, pastor.”  

Oops.  and here we go…

I used to get up every morning, make a cup of coffee, and read the news before I roused my kiddos from their slumber.  You know, in the early quiet hours, I felt like I could get a handle on what was going on in the world.  Make a plan of action and a plan for prayer…figure out which way I needed to drive into work or to school to avoid traffic.

But over the last couple of years or so, I had a harder and harder time with that practice.  I found that if I read the news first, my days began in anxiety.  A dark cloud of worry or frustration or even anger would build with that first headline and continue to color my day.  I was rushing my kids and sometimes snapping at them as the pressure I felt to connect and to deal with the external world kept me from being present with them.  And even after they left for school, I would be left cranky and anxious and feeling like the world might implode at any moment.

And truthfully, it wasn’t just the news.  I was coming to terms with the slow destruction of my marriage and the fact that I couldn’t “fix it” on my own.  And that I had run out of ways to ask for help in its restoration.  I was worried for my children if I stayed.  I was worried for my children if I left.  I was worried for myself if I stayed.  I was worried for James, my former spouse, if I left.  

Beyond that even, I was wrestling with the church…how I could be affirmed by the ELCA as a candidate for the roster of Word and Sacrament and how I genuinely felt called to be a pastor and for the first time was willing to answer that call and how other pastors and deacons and people to whom I had ministered expressed their joy at my approval and assured me of my call to this role but how there seemed to be no place for me in a congregation…therefore no place for me as a rostered leader in this church body.

The anxiety and the worry were killing me.  I was becoming physically ill.  I even developed a medical condition which will never be cured…to be sure, I was genetically predisposed but it was triggered by the stress of it all. 

It was a time of high anxiety for me.  

Although many of those worries have evolved or resolved, in some ways, it still is a bit of an anxious time.  The headlines haven’t gotten any better.  (But I no longer read them before my children leave for school.)  Although our marriage is over, there are other relational things to worry about:  do the kids talk to their dad enough?  How is James doing really?  He has been my best friend since I was 15, and I love him deeply…is he really doing alright?  How do I manage the deep loneliness that creeps in each night around 10pm?  And when will that go away?  Did I actually remember to pay the electric bill?  And although I mean it more deeply than I can express when I say “saying ‘yes!’ to this call is the best thing I’ve ever done,” every time I think I know which end is up around here, life tosses us another curve ball. 

You see, somewhere along the way, I came to believe that I am in control of everything.  That I am responsible for everyone.  That these things are “no big deal” and that “I’ve got this.  I can do it.  I don’t need any help, thank you very much for asking.”

Too often, I believe that I am in control.

I wonder if any of you are suffering from that mistake, too.

Life in relationship is difficult.  Families can be as challenging as they are joyful.  Jobs can be stressful.  Relationships with neighbors can be tricky especially when those neighbors don’t look like, act like, think like us…or for heaven’s sake…why don’t they bring their barking dog in at night?  The world appears to be fracturing around us.  Political and ideological infighting in Washington, DC.  Terror attacks in Britain.  Anti-Muslim violence here in the United States.  And here in Texas, we are looking at state legislation that is as hateful as it is in violation of the Civil Rights Act as it seeks to deny the humanity of our transgender siblings.  I could go on…but I suspect I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

Being human is hard.

And we want to “fix it” all.

But we just can’t.

And that idea of control…that we are ultimately in charge, that we are God…well, we’ve known since the book of Genesis that that idea comes from Satan…sometimes as a snake, sometimes as a roaring lion…but from Satan all the same.  It is an ultimately evil idea.  And that idea of “us in control” will devour and destroy us.  It will destroy us individually…one by one…and corporately…all at once…as we seek to control everything in our reach…even one another.

The apostle Peter says, “resist.”  Stop.  We have to stop.

All that is ours to control is our own behavior and our reactions to rest of the world.  We must give our anxieties and our worries to God.  They are simply too big for us to handle on our own.    Peter invites the people of the house churches in Asia Minor and, I believe, also us, to cast all our anxieties upon our powerful and loving God who will provide all the care they, and we, need.

But giving our anxieties to God doesn’t mean we cease to do the work.  It doesn’t mean we “check out”, right?  We are bound up in the Trinity, after all, being members of the Body of Christ.  So we are called through our baptisms to respond to the world in love and in word and in deed…not because we have to in order to be saved but because it is the good and joyful response to the Good News that through Christ, we are freed, forgiven, and loved beyond measure.

We are called to serve.  We are called to walk together, as Sue is promising to do in here life of Stephens Ministry.  We are called to bear one another’s burdens and to share our own…to ultimately lighten the load.  We seek God knowing that God is ever present, and we serve others understanding that our God lives right there…in the lives of our neighbors…but in our lives, too.  God who is so intimately involved in our very breath and being that God is continually creating us and calling us to remain authentically who God intends us to be.

I served my internship in part in a joint Episcopal and ELCA mission start congregation Catacomb Churches which was a congregation of house churches.  One of the foundational understandings of that congregation is that Jesus practiced and taught three major disciplines:  spiritual practices, critique of worldview through theology and Bible study, and the active practice of LOVE.  

And here, I would like to talk a little about the first one.  Jesus took time to pray individually, to fast, to pray with his disciples, and to participate in the worship life as a faithful member of the People of Israel - to remember who he was as God’s beloved child. And Jesus invites us to do the same.

One of the easiest and most helpful to use during times of high-anxiety has been (for me at least) the practice of the Examen.  It is based on the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius and it’s intent is to help us recognize what gives us deep joy and deep meaning, as my internship supervisor would say, “it’s the best clue to the kind of person God is creating in us.”  But it also can help us identify what exactly is bothering us.  It can help us to name our dragons, or our snakes, or our lions.  It can help us identify our anxieties and what, exactly, we should be handing over to God.  It can help us give up our illusion of control and to rest in the knowledge that we don’t have to have it all together, that God is God and we don’t have to be.

We’re going to practice that for a moment now.  (don’t worry.  you don’t need to share with your neighbor this time…although, I bet if you did, your neighbor would hold those stories of yours as sacred.  I just bet they would.)

But for now, let’s go through the Examen together.

EXAMEN
1. Remember your baptismal identity, your authentic self, making the sign of the cross and saying, “God accepts all of me”
2. Take some long, slow breaths 
3. Ask yourself:
• When did I feel fully alive today?
• When did I feel life draining away?
4. Notice over time what gives you life and do
more of that.
5. Pray the Lord’s Prayer
6. Remember your baptismal identity, making
the sign of the cross and saying, “God is creating me”

Alright, folks.  Come on back.  

Over time, I imagine you will discover what it is that makes you feel anxious and that you will be able to hand that over to God.  Over time, you will be able to take notice of what gives you life.  Once you do, do more of that stuff.

In times of anxiety or crisis, remember who you are.  Remember whose you are.  You are a freed and forgiven child of our Heavenly Mother.  A member of the Body of Christ.  And you are loved beyond measure.  Just as you are.  Just as you are being created to be.




Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

God Is Calling You Home


young people share in communion together at Affirm 2016 in the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA

John 14:1-14

I know that I must have heard this text a dozen times in my life just by following the lectionary.  But I imagine it’s actually more than that because this text is often read at funerals.  And rightly so, it is a source of tremendous comfort to know that our God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth has walked this world, endured our sufferings, and according to this and other biblical translations, has gone on before us to “prepare a place”.  

We've even written songs inspired by it.  Think about "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" (and I always hear the version popularized by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band).  "by and by, Lord, by and by.  There's a better home awaiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky."

The danger in relying only on that kind of interpretation, I think, is that it allows us to believe that since God’s grace is free, we don’t need to do anything else in this world.  We don’t have to worry about our actions or feel too bad about the times we hurt others, because, well, grace is free, and we're already saved, and there’s nothing we can do about that. 

On the other hand, we can be tempted to look at others who are suffering and say, “well, poor lamb.  Things will be better when you are living with Jesus.” And then we choose to look away, to leave those folks to their fate, trusting that things will be better for them when they are dead and that that’s okay.  That it’s all part of God’s plan.

We can become lazy Christians.

But being a Christian is about following and emulating Jesus, and if there is anything we know for sure about Jesus, it is that he was certainly not lazy.  If anyone was free from the risk of eternal hellfire and damnation, if anyone was entitled to sit back and watch the world turn around him, it was that guy.  (God made flesh does not need to work for God’s own grace, for forgiveness, for life eternal with God.). 

Yet Jesus showed up time and again to accompany those the world cast out:  the broken, the wounded, the unclean…those living on the margins of society.  and, it turns out, there are lots of margins.  Jesus gave of himself, his time, his food, his energy, his absolute unconditional love, to soften the lives of those whose lives were hard and to open the hearts of those whose hearts were hard.  Jesus who gave and who gives his life that we might be healed…back into relationship with God and with one another.

Wednesday evening, I attended (rather than led…Becca and I let Pastor Steve be in charge this time.  haha!) Bible Study here.  This group meets each Wednesday during the school year at 7pm, and you are all welcome and encouraged to attend…after all, the more voices in the room, the more complete an understanding we have of how the Word continues to live among us and to speak to us.

Anyway, as we studied the gospel lesson for today, we focused on what kind of place Jesus is preparing and the concept of home.  Our group was a pretty small one all things considered, but we had a wide variety of answers to the question “what does home mean to you?”

Some of us named a particular place.  Some of us named particular people.  One of us even named a dog from college days.  (if you’d like to know who that crazy person was, come to my office after worship.  I’ll show you a picture of Elliot and tell you all about him.). Some of us didn't really have words to express home.  Some of us have never really felt "home".

But as I participated in the conversation and listened to the wide variety of experiences in that small group, I reflected on still more experiences being lived by others in my circle.  I have been saying for years that FaceBook is the Prayers of the People.  As I scrolled through my feed this week, I observed the joy and the pain that comes from being human and from the struggle of living in relationship with one another.  I observed brokenness and healing.  I observed building and destruction and restructure.  

Some of us have intact families of origin.  Some of us experienced the divorce (or even plural…divorces) of our parents.  Some of us are desperately in love with our spouses.  Some of us are desperately in love with our children.  Some of us have lost a parent or a child.  Some of us are in the process of ending relationship…with a parent, with a sibling, with a member of our family by choice…with a spouse.  Some of us are queer and struggle with if or how we can have children.  Some of us are not queer and struggle with the same thing.  Some of us really miss our moms this time of year. Some of us don’t yet have the words to talk about what our hearts are feeling.  Many of us are living life on the margins.

And

Some of us are joyful and dwelling in hope for the future.

Some of us are devastated and grieving the past or the right now.  

Most of us are both.

All of us are searching.

As Maya Angelou said, "the ache for home lives in all of us."

___________________________________________________________

So, I’m wondering, what does home mean to you?  If Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us, what does that mean to you given your current understanding of home?

We’re going to get a little vulnerable with one another, my people.  If you feel safe, you may share where you are emotionally.  But you certainly don't have to share more than that with which you feel comfortable.  And, as always, if you’d like to talk with a pastor afterward, I am absolutely available, and I know that Pastor Steve is, too.

Take a minute and turn to your neighbor.  In groups of two or three, talk about what home means to you and what you think Jesus means when he says “I go to prepare a place for you”. 
___________________________________________________________

Did you learn something new about your neighbor?  Did you learn something new about yourself?  Did you learn something new about God?

Here’s what I am thinking about those questions today (show up on Sunday and you may get a whole ‘nother answer…but for today…)  

I think when Jesus says he will prepare a place for us, he doesn't mean some gilded mansion in the clouds or something to happen only when we die.  I think Jesus means that we are and that we will be with him and live in relationship with him and with Creator and with Spirit.  I think this idea of creating a place for us in the Father’s house is about being bound up into the Trinity here and now rather than simply something that will happen to us one day.

I think the idea of “home” is more about relationship…between humans and  between humanity and Creation and also between humans and our God.

And how do we find home?  The disciples ask for directions, but Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”.  Which is a promise that for we who are disciples, Jesus is all we need to find our way home.  Not that we need to "fix" or covert those who believe differently or that we have the only answer, but that Jesus is all we Christians need to be in relationship with our neighbors and our God. 

Jesus who is in our suffering.  Who is in the lives of our neighbors.  Who loves and beloves each and every one of us.  In this congregation and out in the world. Who gave and who gives his very life that we might live.  Who says, “this is my body and my blood given for you”. 

Hear the Good News.  You are freed, forgiven, and loved beyond measure.  God is calling you home…into relationship with the One who made you.  From that place of home, we invite others, we invite everyone, home, to the Table, and into relationship with God.  A place has been prepared.  We are invited.  Y’all come.

Amen.


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Have You Heard the Good News?



Matthew 28:1-10
A Sermon for the people
Of Abiding Presence
April 16, 2017

In the early 90’s, I was fortunate enough to attend an ELCA Global Mission Event.  Several thousand Lutherans gathered in Atlanta for a few days to hear about the kinds of work our denomination was doing to participate in God’s mission across the globe.  The keynote speaker that year was a woman named Mudzunga Farisani.  She was beautiful.  The kind of woman who could walk into a room and command it with only her presence.  She was from South Africa and had escaped, just barely, with her life.  She and her family had been detained and tortured more than once by the government because of her (and her husband’s) refusal to accept the evil of Apartheid.  As she spoke, we heard the pain and suffering of that time in her life.  It was palpable.  We could see the rooms she described.  We could feel some of the suffering she felt in her body as she hid from the police. She was so good at her descriptions, we could almost hear the voices of those who came for her and for her family with the intent to harm.  We were so wrapped up in her story that some folks were weeping as they imagined the scenes that Mrs. Farisani described.  Others of us were terrified, but all of us were riveted to what she was saying.  We were absorbed in her story.  We were feeling her sorrow.  We were feeling her fear.  And she told us how her absolute belief that God was with her in those rooms kept her from despair.  Kept her from grief.  How her understanding that God would keep God's promise to use evil for good kept her alive.  Kept her from giving up and giving in.

At some point, she stopped abruptly and asked us, “have you heard the Good News?”  The room murmured, most folks nodding in agreement.  So, she asked us again.  “Have you heard the Good News?”  The room answered a little more audibly.  Instead of a murmur, the response was more of a buzzing and more folks began to answer “yes” and to nod their heads a little more vehemently.  At this point, Farisani drew herself up to her full height and shouted in a loud voice, “I said, ‘Have you heard the Good News?’”  By now, the room full of Lutherans got it, and we shouted back “Yes!”  And she said the only thing that I have ever inscribed in my Bible:  “if the Good News of Jesus Christ has reached your heart, please inform your face.”

I think of her often, but I especially remember her on Easter.

Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)
Christ is Risen!  (He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!)

The trouble with hearing a story too often is that it can lose some of its emotional power as we become overly familiar with it.  We already know the rest of the story, but let’s think about it for a minute, the Gospel this morning is a frightening one.  And for those who haven’t heard the rest of the story who are living it out, this whole scene would be terrifying.  Jesus has been crucified, lain in a tomb, and sealed with a stone.  The women, Mary Magdalene and Mary, head to the tomb that first Easter morning Matthew tells us “to see the tomb”.  These were the women who stayed with Jesus as he died.  We don’t know for sure what they were trying to do there (maybe they were simply there to watch and to wait?), but we do know that they were afraid for their lives.  Jesus was dead, and you could be sure that the Romans were planning to round of any of Jesus’s followers who did not get the message from the empire “stop spreading hope.  Stop calling for resistance…or you’ll be next.”  The women were on their way to the tomb and risking their lives to do so, but the men were in hiding.

They arrive at the tomb to find it attended by a squadron of guards there by Pilate’s order.  And as they approach, an earthquake hits as an angel, a messenger of God, rolls away the stone.  The guards “become like dead men” (in a bit of literary irony).  They faint and fall over.  But, really, can we blame them?  I imagine the women to be good and frightened by now, but the angel says to them “Don’t be afraid”.  If you study the Greek, you’ll see that it could perhaps more accurately be translated as “Don’t YOU be afraid.”  As in, come on, gals, don’t be like those scaredy-cat guards.  I’ve got some great news… “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.”

And as Wartburg professor Judith Jones says, "The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in."[1]

So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the rest of his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, "Greetings!" And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me."

Do not be afraid.  Go and tell the story that death, the last enemy, has been defeated.  God, love, has won. 

Have you heard the Good News? 

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!
Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

Alleluia!  Amen.




[1] Workingpreacher.com

Saturday, April 15, 2017

This Is the Night!




John 20:1-18
A (short) sermon
for the people of APLC
April 15, 2017

This is the night!  This is our Passover with Christ from bondage to freedom, 
from death to life!  Tonight is the heart of our celebration of the Three Days 
and the highpoint of the church year.  Without tonight, Lent, Advent, Epiphany, 
even Christmas…without tonight, none of the rest of it matters. Without 
tonight, our preaching is worthless, and our faith is in vain.

Tonight is the night when we listen to the stories of our ancestors in faith.  Tonight we have heard the main milestones of salvation.  We have heard how God creates life from chaos, how God saves God’s people time and again…and those stories are told in very different ways, but we see through them all that God is at work accomplishing the impossible for those who would believe.  In all of the stories, just when things look most bleak, most dire, most hopeless, God acts.  And God reveals Godself to us again…showing us that God’s true nature is that of liberator and chain-breaker and bondage-shaker and lover and friend.  God does the salvific thing, the healing thing, the liberating thing over and over in our stories of faith because God loves ALL of God’s people, and ALL people are God’s people.

Tonight is the night we arrive at the tomb to mourn the death of our teacher and friend, Jesus of Nazareth, but we find that he is not here.  He is risen.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

God forever bringing life from death.  God forever bringing healing to the world.  God forever making all things new.  God forever creating resurrection stories.  And even the Gospel lesson takes place in a garden…the story of the resurrection where death, the last enemy, is destroyed, takes place in a garden where God is inviting us to imagine an new Creation on the 8th day…and inviting us into the creating, into the resurrection, into healing and hope for a world where all are free, forgiven, loved, and brought from death into life.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!   

with enormous gratitude for the authors of Sundays and Seasons as well as the Sermon Brainwave podcasters and especially for the pastors and bishop of the Southwestern Texas Synod who have listened and talked with me during these last three months about healing, death, and resurrection.  these thoughts are a collection from all those places.  thank you.