Sermon: Potlucks of Epic Proportions

Sunday, June 9, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Day of Pentecost

Before I went to seminary, I lived in Lincoln for a few years.  I had just gotten back from the Peace Corps, and I was trying to readjust to life back in the US.  Because of my experience teaching English as a foreign language, I quickly got a job with an organization called Lincoln Literacy.  At Lincoln Lit, we worked with refugees and asylum-seekers and other immigrants – with and without documents – we taught them English and helped them find jobs and adjust to their new life in the US.  I loved working there.  Almost everyone I worked with – students and staff alike – seemed to feel in some way like fish out of water, just like I did.

We had students from all over the world: from Mexico and Guatemala and Venezuela, from Iraq and Afghanistan, from Bosnia, Sudan, Congo, China, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam, all over.  In our classes, you would see people of every color, people dressed in hijabs and blue jeans and saris and intricately woven fabric. During one particularly hot summer, one of my colleagues even showed up to work a few times wearing his wife’s skirts to keep cool – and no one so much as batted an eye.  Everyone belonged, just as they were.

Continue reading “Sermon: Potlucks of Epic Proportions”

Sermon: Us and Us

Sunday, May 19, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifth Sunday of Easter

During my first few months in the Dominican Republic, I lived with a host family.  They were very nice people and I got along great with them for the most part.  But my host mom, Doña Nicia, never thought I ate enough – she was always trying to get me to eat more.  The trouble was that, after a while, I had gotten really tired of eating rice and beans all the time.  It was always the same thing every day: rice and beans, stewed meat, mashed plantains, and a big mug of fresh milk in the morning and in the evening – the milk part sounds really nice until you find yourself actually having to peel your milk twice a day (I never thought I’d appreciate the word “homogenized” so much).

One day, Doña Nicia’s daughter-in-law, Moraima, made a great big pot of a rice dish called chofán and brought a bowl over for me.  It was basically fried rice with a mix of vegetables and some chicken – and I completely devoured it.  Seeing this, my host mom was like, “Aha!  She likes chofán!”  So the very next day at lunch, Doña Nicia proudly set before me a big, heaping bowl of “chofán”; except, instead of rice and a mix of different vegetables, this was rice with a mix of different meats: chicken, pork, goat, and – I swear to you this is true – hot dogs, all chopped up into little pieces.  I knew she was so excited to make it for me, so I ate as much of it as I could stomach.  But to be honest, I felt a lot like I imagine Peter did in our reading from Acts.  In Peter’s case, he has a vision of some kind of bizarre picnic descending down out of the clouds – and a voice tells him, “Get up, Peter; kill and eat!” and Peter takes one look at that picnic and is just like, “Uhhh… pass.”

Continue reading “Sermon: Us and Us”

Sermon: Unfinished Business

Sunday, April 1, 2018
Peace Lutheran Church, Las Cruces, NM
Easter Sunday

Alleluia, Christ is risen! At least… I think he is?  Our gospel reading for today leaves things a little… open-ended.

This is such a weird reading from the end of Mark.  In Matthew, Luke, and John, we get these lovely post-resurrection appearances from Jesus – dramatically appearing in the midst of his disciples, tenderly calling Mary by name in the garden, forgiving Peter for his denials over brunch by the sea, and my personal favorite, walking with two clueless disciples on the road to Emmaus and vanishing the instant they finally realize who he is — hilarious.  But in Mark, this is all the closer we get to the resurrection.*  We’re never really given a big “alleluia!” moment.  And for Pete’s sake, Jesus doesn’t even show up!  It’s an ending that almost seems designed to leave us feeling unsettled and uncomfortable. Continue reading “Sermon: Unfinished Business”

Wit and witness

I’ve been reading the book “Christianity After Religion” by Diana Butler-Bass — a book I highly recommend to anyone interested in religion or religious trends — and among the many things that have struck me so far is the following quote: “…some Christians are very comfortable defining themselves as adherents to a way of life modeled by Jesus rather than adherents to a particular doctrine or creed.”

It brings to my mind something I’ve alluded to previously but never really written about: my time with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I think it’s something I’m finally ready to start writing about. Despite the many, many issues I take with their theology, I think that there are many things about their religious community — and, more to the point, their way of life — really worth contemplating.

To give a brief bit of background, I encountered a group of JW missionaries during my years in the Dominican Republic. The small pueblo where I spent the first two years of my time there was home to a fledgling JW congregation being developed by a number of missionaries, mainly from the US and Canada, also England, Denmark, and perhaps another European country or two I’m forgetting now. Right off the bat, we found lots of common ground in our respective experience and worldviews and quickly became friends. I was already immersed in a personal study of the Bible and grew particularly close to two young women — one from Canada and another from England — who graciously offered to open their studies to me.

I was fascinated by the things they had to say and by the new perspectives they brought to the study of scripture. They encouraged me to consider scriptural passages and many of the basic ideas of faith I’d absorbed over the years in a very different light. The result was enlightening, unsettling, and even disturbing, and the questions the experience raised have taken me a long while to digest, but ultimately, I think that this sort of uprooting of my faith was beneficial to me, as it freed me to re-pot myself in much more fertile soil.

What most drew me to their community is something for which I still hold them in deep respect; namely, that they embodied precisely what Butler-Bass describes in the quote above: adherence to a way of life modeled by Jesus. (They are, of course, also adherents of a very strict set of doctrines and creeds, to a degree that becomes un-Jesus-like in its implementation. I wish to make clear that I am decidedly not a proponent of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness.) What I mean by this is that they take the Gospel very seriously. The message it contains of a new kingdom of love and salvation is one that — if allowed — must necessarily change the way we live and the way we see our place in the world. Continue reading “Wit and witness”

Why should I go to church?

I was sitting in the park knitting yesterday evening and having an imaginary conversation with a friend of mine.  I do this a lot, actually.  I’m not crazy or anything, but the conversations help me to sort of process my thoughts, and this conversation in particular is one I’ve more or less had — in reality — with a number of different people.

Anyhoo, this conversation was with a certain friend of mine — let’s call her… Cordelia?  Cordelia.  Like many of my friends and acquaintances, Cordelia isn’t a very religious person.  She may believe in something beyond the tangible world, but doesn’t necessarily buy into the organized religious aspect of spirituality.  In our conversation, she was a little uncomfortable and even semi-apologetic to me for this, knowing that I am very religious and somehow expecting that I would judge her or think less of her for not being “churched.”  I assured her that nothing could be further from the truth, and went on to observe that, in his letters, Paul lists faith among the different gifts of the Spirit, leaving open the suggestion that some (or many) people won’t have faith.  But we all have gifts and we are all moved by the same Spirit and I told Cordelia that I knew she had wonderful gifts, gifts I have personally seen her share with others to teach and nurture them and help them grow.  I told her that I believed that God created all of us and loves all of us no matter what we believe, and that nothing could be more pleasing to God than that God’s gifts be used for the good of others.  Then she asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer.  “Why should I go to church, then?”  Well… why should she go to church? Continue reading “Why should I go to church?”

Fear? Not!

Alleluia!  Sing to Jesus; his the scepter, his the throne; Alleluia!  his the triumph, his the victory alone. Hark!  The songs of peaceful Zion thunder like a mighty flood: “Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood.”

This is the first and last verse of hymn #392 in the ELW (Evangelical Lutheran Worship), which we sang last night at the observation of Christ’s ascension into heaven.  I like hymns that use this convention of repetition; the text strikes you a certain way when you sing it the first time, then the two or three verses in between expand and explore the theme and give the text a greater depth when you repeat it in the final verse.  More than anything, though, with this particular hymn, I was captivated by the last line:  “Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood.”  What a beautifully inclusive vision!  It speaks of grace that transcends the artificial boundaries of nations, politics, denominations, etc.  We are all one to Christ.  We are all one in Christ.  This is our calling as a church. Even our Gospel reading for this Sunday, John 17:20-26, reflects this call to universal oneness and love:

“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…”

Following worship last night, I hung around in the atrium for a little while and found myself reading the bios of our 11 new members, posted on the bulletin board.  I was gratified and a little taken by surprise to see that over half of them specifically mentioned our refugee resettlement project as something they wanted to be involved with.  In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised at all, since I’ve been working with these folks on the refugee resettlement committee, but it had never dawned on me that the committee is made up of new members, attracted to Grace by our sense of mission. This, to me, is an example of the very best kind of evangelism — in truth, the only kind of evangelism — the spreading of good news about something you truly believe in.  It goes much deeper than just trying to convince people that they should come to your church.  It’s inviting people to be a part of something that really matters, inviting them into works that reflect Christ’s glory and victory, like in the words of the hymn.   Continue reading “Fear? Not!”

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