kindred

dinner church - sundays @ 5:30pm

Naked and Unashamed: Intimacy

This week launches our “Naked & Unashamed” Sermon Series. Our sacred story comes from John 17:20-26 and 1 Samuel 18: 1-4, where we talk what God’s three-in-one nature, asexual folks, and the relationship between two men in the bible and what all that reveals about the sacred gift of intimacy. You can watch the sermon on our facebook page here.

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On this “Trinity Sunday” we dwell and wrestle with the sacred mystery of that which is one, being multiple, and the multiple, one.  God is three in One…what some call the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Yahweh, Jesus, and Sophia; the divine parent, liberator, and advocate; the creator, redeemer, and sustainer. God is these three identities, and yet one identity.  These three…being so deeply connected and interwoven so as to be indivisible.  I in you and you in me and us in them.  This is the nature of who God is – relational, but in a particularly intimate way – a way marked by deep connection and knowing and love.

Each of us in created in the image of God and so we are created in this intimate nature of God, reflecting this divine dance between distinction and connection, between ourselves and the other.  Jesus prays that as they and the rest of the Godhead are one (IN one another), that we might be one with God and with one another.  It’s a reciprocal rhythm and a depth of knowing.

So as we begin to think about what it means and looks like to be faithful AND sexual beings, let us first consider a biblical and sacred understanding of intimacy. Often the word “intimacy” is mistakenly reduced to a euphemism for sex.  We use phrases like “someone with whom we’ve been intimate,” but it’s so much more than that. What we see through God’s own self is a kind of intimacy that goes beyond any surface level sensation. It is this experience and expression of being connected, known, and loved – up close, in our fullness.

I wonder….when you think about this kind of intimacy, what do you picture? What comes to mind?

God’s own intimacy helps me to see intimacy as what happens when we sluff off all the extra layers at the end of the day. It’s THAT kind of knowing and sharing. It’s revealing something so true to who we are that exhibits trust and care. It’s standing next to each other at the sink and being a part of the rituals that others don’t get to see – how they shave, that little way they breathe funny right before they sneeze.   It’s in exchanging a look and knowing exactly what it means without any words. Intimacy comes in the seemingly small moments of conversation, where we share and are attentive to the ins and out of each other’s day. Certainly there is intimacy in sharing our naked bodies, but that is only part of this relational gift. It’s such an exciting part of the beginning of a relationship, to discover the raw and unpolished intricacies of a person and know it is a privilege to be honored and cherished. This privilege can be easily taken for granted after a time too, and like many treasures we must anchor ourselves to remember it is a gift. This intimacy is where we feel safe enough to be imperfect, to let loose, to be ourselves. Sometimes that means the ones we hold closest also see our roughest attributes - our impatience, our temper, our criticism, and all our vices. If intimacy has been nurtured, our partner can allow us to be human, but also hold us to and call us back to the best parts of ourselves. And isn’t this all exactly what God is for us?

All these things require and establish trust as we open up parts of ourselves we might otherwise keep only for ourselves. We bare our heart and our truth before another, and hope it will be received with love. This holy intimacy is reflected in noticing and appreciating the little things that make us what we are, that make our lives what they are. This is a divine sense of intimacy where our asexual siblings have something to teach us…that it’s not just about the bedroom…that meaningful sacred knowing and connection and love (can be a part of, but) is actually so much bigger than our physicality. 

I wonder….when you think about this kind of intimacy, what do you picture? What comes to mind?

It made me think of what we see in the bible between David and Jonathan. David is just a young shepherd boy turned warrior who will one day God will make King of Israel, replacing Saul, Jonathan’s dad. Jonathan is a prince turned prophet who God will call to walk alongside David. Their connection is so profound that is says “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David.” Jonathan loves David so deeply, that he makes a covenant commitment to be together even when it means rejection by his family. He lays down any and all artifice before David, the symbols of power and protection – his robe, his armor, and entrusts them to David’s care and makes David’s well-being as important as his own.  The intimacy shared between these two men shows us holy and soulful connection, covenant commitment, sacrifice, compassion, and concern. Their relationship will be strong enough that Jonathan will one day be able to hold David accountable to the harm he causes to Uriah and Bathsheba. Their intimacy will be the foundation that enables David to see his truth reflected back to him and be moved and changed again toward healing and life.

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We know all too well that intimacy can be violated and our trust and our bodies abused – when this knowing and connection is used against us; when someone puts their own desires ABOVE another’s  instead of alongside; when it is not marked by love but extraction. This harm can be emotional as well as physical. God’s identity of intimacy is marked by reciprocal connection, profound knowing, and especially humility in love. Therefore, the manipulative abuse of intimacy is not of God. In her recent book “Shameless: a Sexual Reformation,” Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber makes a claim that in forming a Christian ethic and practice of sexuality “we must be guided by more than just the absence of ‘no’ and the absence of harm…we must also bring concern to our consent and mutuality. Concern moves us closer to the heart of Jesus’ own ethic: love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It requires us to act on another’s behalf. It reframes the choice entirely outside of our own self-interest in a way that consent and mutuality alone do not.  Concern means taking notice of how our sexual behavior affects ourselves and each other.”

This is how God loves us. God sees me fully and still loves me and is deeply concerned about my wholeness. And yours too. God’s identity of intimacy helps me to recognize and prioritize a holy intimacy for myself – knowing myself/who I am, facing my flaws and my scars, owning my desires and gifts, and claiming my identity as good, beautiful, and beloved as God has declared me to be.  Recognizing God’s intimate nature, helps me to become aware of how God’s love is expressed and experienced in and through intimacy shared with others - in partners, families, friends, parents, and marriage.

I wonder…when have you felt seen, known, and loved for it? God is there.

I wonder…where do you see the multiple becoming one? God is in it.

May you dwell in the fullness of God’s intimate love for you. May you recognize the extension of God’s love through you to others. May you be one as God is one.  Amen.

Sin doesn’t win and doesn’t own you... and there’s no going back

This week’s sacred story comes from Romans 6:1-16, where the people of God wrestle with how to make sense of ultimate grace and freedom as well as the reality of brokenness. Read the full text here.

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I wonder…How would you live if the weight of all the broken parts of you had fallen away? If you no longer had to carry fear or shame or guilt? Can you imagine it?

If someone loved you so perfectly?  In all the ways you long to be loved?  If someone loved you so much that they gave their entire life for you? 

Receiving that kind of love and generosity….What would that change in you?  What would that change in how you interact with others? What would that change in how you move through the world?

This is the breadth and length, and height and depth of the love of God.  The apostle Paul will write of this to the Ephesians. Ephesians 3:16-19 says:

I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.  I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

We can’t quite comprehend a love this expansive, certainly not on our own, not without the Spirit of God to reveal it to us over and over again.

But I find we don’t need much help imagining or comprehending the brokenness of ourselves and the world. And without God, we will get stuck there, trapped, dwelling not in hope, but in the expansive and seemingly ultimate power of sin. It seems reasonable to buy into the illusion that is constantly before us that the world’s crap is just too powerful, too pervasive, that it’s too late, that there’s no overcoming it, no point to even try. Without God, we are slaves to sin, to this kind of outlook. We’re talking about sin that isn’t just a bad deed, an act that harms and separates …it’s our communal condition. It’s an overarching cloud throughout creation that makes everything foggy and dismal. Sin isn’t just that you took that thing from the corner store or said that nasty thing, it’s the system and the lies that make us believe that’s just the way it is, but it’s not really THAT bad. It eats at our souls.

Sin is a cruel taskmaster, keeping us bound. Telling us what we can’t do, what we can’t be, lies to make us think that that the broken bits are all there is, that there’s no other way, that we shouldn’t even bother to escape.

In the death of Christ, it is not only Jesus who dies, but the power of this condition of sin that claims to own us. Notice that Paul does not say that sin is dead but that we have died to it (Romans 6: 2). Sin still exists, but it belongs in the world from which we have been freed. And as Christ rises from death and all the ways of death into new life, so too is a new way of being given life in us. Our baptism washes us once and for all in Christ’s death and resurrection and creates a new way of being in us, a new dynamic between us and God and the world.

It’s not a divine “I saved you, now you owe me” kind of obligation. Or “you better be good, or I’ll take it all back.” But more, now that you’re free, how could you go back to living like a slave? Now that you’ve heard that sin doesn’t win, doesn’t own you...there’s no going back. It’s like once you’ve seen it, once you know…you can’t un-know or go back.

Like…once you realize Thomas Jefferson apparently always looked a little like Harriet Tubman. Or…once you’ve tasted real  butter over the imitation stuff, the former just isn’t as satisfying.

Once you know…there’s a giant floating island of plastic trash in the ocean that is now twice the size of Texas…TEXAS, y‘all!... it changes the way you consume and discard things.

Once you recognize that the group of people you thought less of and feared or kept your distance from, that they are beloved children of God…once you know their names, look into their eyes, and see that reflection of God in them…you can’t go on ignoring that divine light or stay silent about it.

Once you’ve received grace and love from God who knows you, all of you, and still says that you are worthwhile and good…your heart can’t truly accept all the voices that say you’re not good enough.

It’s always been true and always will be true, and Christ helps us to see and experience how profoundly true it is.

Where before we might feel like giving up or giving in, God causes us to rise up, breathes new life into us as from the beginning, and gives us capacity and courage to live into a new way that is defined by love over law, generosity over obligation, people over policies, connection over isolation. We are still imperfect, still human and limited, but also beloved and liberated. And that changes us in ultimate, eternal, practical ways that can’t be undone, even when I think we sometimes wish for that. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Peace, Not Perfection

This week’s sacred story comes from Paul’s letter to the Roman church where they grapple with peace, justification, suffering and hope. Same. Read the full text from Romans [3:28-30] 5:1-11 here.


I want to invite you to take a few deep breaths, place your feet on the ground, lower your shoulders, relax your face.  A few more deep breaths. Allow your mind to let go of all the things it’s trying to manage, all the “should”s, “could”s, and “have to”s. Breathe deep, breathe deep the breath of God. Linger here.

Do you feel a hint of peace? A glimpse of this peace that surpasses all understand.  If you don’t, that’s ok too. It doesn’t seem to make sense to struggle to make yourself feel peaceful. In this scripture we are reminded that God meets us wherever we’re at. We are reminded that peace already belongs to us. It is the peace that was promised and is made real in Jesus Christ.

I’ve heard people say “you need to get right with God.” The apostle Paul writes about how God has already set us aright. That’s what justified means, it means things are made right. And scripture says that it has already been accomplished. Well, my instinct is to immediately argue.  That can’t be true. How can I be declared right when I often feel so wrong? How can the world already be set aright when it also feels so terribly wrong?

The apostle Paul must have had similar thoughts.  The people and the world around him were by no means perfect, not even close. I mean, life in the ancient Roman Empire was pretty messed up, aside from what I assume is the usual people hurting each other and themselves. How could he say these things about peace, hope, and love? And then in verse 6 he says, “WHILE we were still weak (not after), Christ died for us.” He goes on… “WHILE we were still sinners…” and even further… “For if WHILE we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”

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And then it hits me, we are justified, made right with God, filled with hope and love...not by our own hustle...but by God’s love. God demonstrates God’s love for us even and especially when it seems like we don’t deserve it, or when we’re at odds with the world. That’s where God does not abandon us but doubles down on insisting just how much we are loved. It is precisely when and where I feel like everything has gone to shit, that God says “I’ve still got you. I always have and I always will.” Sometimes I don’t even realize that under the weight of all this suffering, I subconsciously assumed that God was looking at me with the same disgust I had for myself or that God had even given up on me entirely. Sometimes I don’t even realize how badly I needed to hear these words from God. “We’re alright.”

And in that moment, my soul feels washed clean, still a bit heavy but somehow renewed, at peace. And then somehow, hope wiggles through. It’s a hope that goes beyond good vibes.  It is a hope that does not disappoint. Hope that is not diminished even in suffering. Suffering does not separate us from the love of God in Christ, despite all evidence to the contrary. In fact, it is out of the depths of suffering, that God delivers new life.  That same suffering that threatens to annihilate us can also produce fruit - the fruits of the Spirit - endurance, character, hope.

Now, this does NOT mean that we need seek out suffering NOR do we inflict suffering on others and justify it in this way.  As in “maybe God wanted awful things to happen to you so you could learn some life lesson.” No. Or “sorry I made your life miserable, maybe God is just trying to teach how to be as amazing as me.” Miss me with that. That is not at all what Paul is saying. I don’t want to pretend that all suffering is productive or that it’s all for some greater good. I think there are too many people we allow to continue suffering, in isolation. We avert our eyes, perpetuate, or rationalize. And then sometimes suffering just is what it is. We know all too well that suffering is a part of our world, it doesn’t need our help through either apathy or glorification.  

BUT the promise is that we need not live in the debilitating fear of it. God is not separate from but is present and moving in the midst of our suffering.  God does not stand at a distance, with vague shouts of “it’s gonna be ok,” but enters into the mire with us.

This is what gives me hope. It’s what how I dare to speak of hope even when I’m not feeling it, until somehow it wiggles its way into my heart again. It is God’s endurance alongside me, God’s character of faithfulness, God’s hope for humanity and for the world.  This is what strengthens me in times of trouble, to put one foot in front on the other, and to be transformed by the unending love of God through the Holy Spirit. God’s love, that has been poured into your hearts through the Holy Spirit, carries us through toward hope.

And so we boast in God’s triumph. We boast that what looked like the crucifixion of this poor Galilean guy is actually God’s epic victory, where God breaks in but we are also lifted up. We boast that this is not just some event in the past to say “oh that was nice” but still has ongoing relevance. We boast that neither ourselves nor others can say or do anything to us to contradict what God has already declared for us.  That we ARE good and we ARE loved by God, even and especially in our mess. Amen.

Good News

This week’s sacred story comes from Paul’s introduction of his letter to the church in Rome. They’re starting to build a relationship, but they also have to build some shared language and understanding. Read the full text, Romans 1:1-17, here.

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What Good News have you heard lately? I don’t intend for this to be a rhetorical question. Take a second to reflect. What was the last piece of really Good News you heard or received?

Now, I wonder…WHY is that news GOOD? Why was it good TO YOU particularly?  What about it, at its heart, is GOOD? What does it contrast?

The Apostle Paul is writing to this relatively young church in Rome, to a people living life in the heart of a big metropolitan city, to a people working to create a different kind of community, to a people who are for the first time ever…trying to figure out how Jesus and the resurrection equals Good News and what that means for them and for the world. It seems people have forever been trying to figure out what God’s love means and thousands of years later we’re still trying to understand.

As Paul nurtures this relationship with these people, he begins with trying to establish some kind of foundation about what they’re even talking about. And he talks about the Gospel, the Good News, in this way.  He writes that “it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith." That’s some pretty thick stuff. I feel like I need to stop after every other word to define those too. What does he mean by power, salvation, faith, righteousness? Power is something we’ve seen used for harm and yet here it is cast as a force for good. Salvation has to be one of the most loaded words in history and here it is the hinge of God’s purpose. Faith seems critical to this understanding, but there’s nothing in this text that says faith is a thing that comes from us. Rather, it seems to be something that comes TO us, that is a catalyst FOR us.

The Gospel is the power …of God… for salvation… through faith.  It’s beautiful and all, but what does that even mean? How is that Good News for me when my house is flooding again or when someone steals my stuff or I’m waiting on news from the doctor? I need the meat and potatoes version, down on the ground version.

One Lutheran Pastor reflects on the Gospel this way, they write: “God’s story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel of God’s strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s message, God’s action, God’s word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don’t throw a drowning person a sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn’t meet that person’s need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s actions, aimed at a particular human need.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that “I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned with the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, 'Now is that political or social?' He said,'I feed you.' Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

 What would be Good News to you? Not just happy news, but ultimate, in-your-gut and the depths of your soul Good News?

Perhaps Good News for you is…

A cold cup of water when you’ve been walking the blazing summer streets for hours.

Perhaps it is a day when you don’t have to live in fear of what might happen to your kid at school today, or at the local park, or when sirens show up.

Perhaps it is the hand that holds yours when the HIV test comes back.

Perhaps it’s being able to go to the doctor without bankrupting themselves.

Perhaps it is being able to look in the mirror and know that when God made you, she said it is very Good – thick thighs, balding pattern, melanin, speech stutter and all.

Paul renounces shame and so perhaps, for you too, the good news is freedom from shame – from stigma, the crap that too often surrounds our conversations about mental health and treatment. Beloved faithful children of God sometimes get the flu and take antibiotics, and sometimes beloved faithful children of God live with depression or anxiety or OCD or struggling marriages and then GO TO THERAPY, or take medication, or both. Perhaps the Good News for you is the reminder that this doesn’t make you a lesser person or any less loved and you’re not the only one.

Perhaps it is the resounding truth that your identity and your value does not reside in whether or not you marry up or reproduce.

Perhaps it is in the autonomy to make the best and most faithful decision you can with your doctor about whether or not to give birth.

Perhaps it is the assurance that God loves us just as much no matter what. NO. MATTER. WHAT.

 For me, the Gospel is a surprising word of hope that’s too big for me to express from my own tongue, often one that arrives without my even realizing that it’s exactly what I desperately needed to hear and experience in the depths of my being.

The gospel is deeply personal, but that doesn’t mean it’s private or proprietary.  As Paul speaks of the Gospel, he does so in conversation with community. When was say the Good News is for us, “us” is plural. It is for all of us. And as he writes, he acknowledges just how important it is to come together in the flesh, to actually occupy the same space. We can keep up relationships at a distance and those relationships can be good, but it’s never quite the same as being physically together, being able to see and sense if someone is really “fine” or just trying to not be inconvenient.

So as you sit there, I want you to take a moment, take a breath, and listen for just a couple minutes, for the Good News God wants you to hear tonight. What would be Good, ultimate, life-giving, liberating, news to your ears and your heart, your body and your soul tonight?

…..

What did you hear? I want to invite you, if you’re comfortable, to take another minute to write it down.  It doesn’t mean we’re trying to re-write the bible, but if the Gospel is revealing God’s goodness, how is that being revealed here and now? Perhaps the Good News God is revealing here is the particular Good News someone else needs to hear too.

….

To all God's beloved in Montrose, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world. For God, whom I serve with my spirit by announcing the gospel of his Son, is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers, giving thanks that by God's will I am blessed to be among you. Amen.

…..

After collecting what the people of KINDRED wrote down as Good News, here is the Gospel according to KINDRED:

It is hope in face of despair. God is making God’s home in surprising and delightful relationships with people we can’t even imagine until God puts us together. The dysfunction that plagues the nations, God will turn into function. God is at work now in the world and in individuals who are in our families and neighborhoods. Everyone will be made whole. The Good News is finding a stable job and meaningful work.  It is freedom from guilt and the generosity to share. Take a breath; there are blessings all around you. It is the freedom to stop searching for purpose and to start trusting that living whatever path we have is purpose enough. There is enough time for you to do that which is required of you. Don’t shy away from your call, it’s time. The Good News is the assurance that God loves me even when I battle depression and God is with me. I am not disqualified and it is not too late for me.

Play us out, Ben.

The Case of Mistaken Divinity

Acts 13:1-3; 14:8-18

13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the ruler, and Saul. 2While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.

14:8 In Lystra there was a man sitting who could not use his feet and had never walked, for he had been crippled from birth. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. And Paul, looking at him intently and seeing that he had faith to be healed, 10 said in a loud voice, "Stand upright on your feet." And the man sprang up and began to walk. 11 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, "The gods have come down to us in human form!" 12Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. 13The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates; he and the crowds wanted to offer sacrifice. 14 When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting, 15 "Friends, why are you doing this? We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. 16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways;17 yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy." 18 Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.

 

When have you felt powerful? Impfactful? When have other people witnessed you in your element and, “get it, gurl! Yaaas!” Maybe even if you weren’t feeling it yourself?

I have felt this way when:

  • I finished the MS150 on my bike. I felt physically and mentally strong, generous, capable – and it helps me feels strong and powerful in the rest of my life.

  • When we get our kid off to school, on time, with a lunch in her bag, AND matching socks, AND no one cried or yelled

  • when I was leading a women’s retreat, and we were talking about seeing ourselves in the image of God and the disconnect so many of these women felt because the imagery is always male. I got to be the one who said, “no, that’s not true and here’s where you can find many many examples of God as feminine in the Bible” – as mother, as one who rejoices and one who weeps, as wisdom, as persistence - all of these femme depictions in our sacred stories.  It felt soooo good introducing this room full of women to parts of scripture that had been hidden from them, knowing that it was Gospel, good news, that they desperately needed to hear and embody.

    Now, I acknowledge that this moment was the work of the Holy Spirit – in calling me to this work of teacher and of pastor – this work of tending and caring for the souls of others, and giving me the particular gospel perspective of a woman, in providing me formal and informal teachers who revealed such affirmation and liberation to me, in bringing this community of women together, and lighting the fire of curiosity and longing for God and God’s image within us.  But I also felt pretty darn smart for being able to pull those scripture references out, and felt pretty awesome about myself as one bad mamma jamma. That night, if someone called me Zeus or Hermes, sometimes I feel like….yeah, pretty close. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t feel good about ourselves, about the work God calls us to each day, and all the places of joy. Because we SHOULD celebrate and bask in those moments. But I think this text also shows us how tricky it can be to discern the direction for our worship and praise, our expectations, and our hope.

When have you felt powerful? Impfactful?

The question I'm beginning to ask myself is...When I’m feelin myself, feeling larger than life, is it because I’m living into God’s call for me, or society’s expectations for me? Do I feel this way because I’ve connected with the depths of my own soul, the Holy Spirit’s work in and for me? OR because it’s what makes sense to everyone around me as power and achievement? Because those can be two different things.

Saul (who will later be renamed Paul) and Barnabas are called by the Holy Spirit and blessed by their peers to teach and heal. Through the power of God, they do incredible things, seemingly impossible things.  They are changing lives and hearts in powerful ways but the people around them can't imagine a God who would be willing to share such power, so they use the language and symbols of divinity that they know and understand to make sense of their experience. Jesus said that his followers would do even great things than he did and it's true.  They are raising women like Tabitha from the dead and healing bodies and souls. But the story of Jesus - of his life, and promises, and resurrection...is not the only story being told.

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There are other stories - stories where there are precious few on top and the best you can hope for is to have any connection you can to them, even if it's degrading; stories where you have to constantly hustle in order to be loved or even valued, and the dominant story is of power that serves itself, not one that is given away. This is how most of the people near Paul understand God to be and so they mistakenly place the identity and expectations of God on Paul and Barnabas because of the power and impact they display. At a 2000-year distance, we are tempted to laugh these people off as primitive or superstitious, but these were also human beings just like us - longing for God, longing for God to come close, and trying their best to make sense of their world and the divine.

We too can misplace the identity and expectation of God. We can place it on ourselves, others can place it on us, and we can place it on others. It's all striving, longing for God to be near us, to be present, which is true.

It’s not a huge jump between feeling close to God and reflective of God’s image and power, to believing the critical voice in the back of our heads, the crowds and culture that wants us to believe we ARE God, or we CAN be God…if we can just keep this up. And then, seemingly all of a sudden, our longing switches between longing for God and longing to maintain the exhausting façade of divinity, to be constantly at the top of our game. OR, we place our ultimate hope in another human being to fulfill us, make us whole, and love us in ways that only God can and so we end up frustrated and broken-hearted when we are reminded that they are indeed mortal and imperfect.

It's hard to untangle all these stories to reveal one that is true. But that true story endures.

Jesus is alive, God is present and active, the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, through us, and sending us. Sometimes we don’t know what to call her, sometimes we call her by the names we are most familiar with, but aren’t quite right. But we keep searching for God and are surprised to find God already and always within us - the source of our power and calling, always and already among our people - speaking from the Holy Spirit as they bless and encourage us, already and always at work in the world - bringing Christ’s resurrection healing and love to all of creation in the ways it is most needed.  

For the ways that God has called and empowered you to be one bad mamma jamma, I give so much thanks. For the communities God gives us to speak a divine word of blessing and encouragement over us, even and especially when we feel like we don't deserve it, I give thanks.  For the blows to my ego and confrontation of my limitations that remind me that I'm not God, I...reluctantly but inevitably...give thanks. For the nurturing, wise, raw, and persistent Spirit of God, that wraps me in this enduring true story of Good News of love above all else, I give thanks.  Amen.



The Conversion of Peter

Acts 10:1-17, 34-35

1 In Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian Cohort, as it was called. 2 He was a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God. 3 One afternoon at about three o'clock he had a vision in which he clearly saw an angel of God coming in and saying to him, "Cornelius." 4 He stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" He answered, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God. 5 Now send men to Joppa for a certain Simon who is called Peter; 6 he is lodging with Simon, a tanner, whose house is by the seaside." 7 When the angel who spoke to him had left, he called two of his slaves and a devout soldier from the ranks of those who served him, 8 and after telling them everything, he sent them to Joppa. 9 About noon the next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. 10 He became hungry and wanted something to eat; and while it was being prepared, he fell into a trance. 11 He saw the heaven opened and something like a large sheet coming down, being lowered to the ground by its four corners. 12 In it were all kinds of four-footed creatures and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 Then he heard a voice saying, "Get up, Peter; kill and eat." 14 But Peter said, "By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean." 15The voice said to him again, a second time, "What God has made clean, you must not call profane." 16 This happened three times, and the thing was suddenly taken up to heaven. 17 Now while Peter was greatly puzzled about what to make of the vision that he had seen, suddenly the men sent by Cornelius appeared. They were asking for Simon's house and were standing by the gate.
34 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

I was a pretty awkward teenager.  I suppose all teenagers are somewhat awkward as we wrestle with our identity and community, our brains trying desperately to catch up to our growing bodies. But I was looking through old yearbooks recently and was came face to face with this part of my story. I feel like it took me a particularly long time to figure it all out. And I don’t know about yours, but my middle school and high school seemed liked ones where everybody else had already figured out the right way to be. So I tried to wear the “right” clothes, say the “right” things, be a part of the “right” clubs, but I wasn’t particularly convincing and I lived constantly in fear that the people around me didn’t really want me to be there, or especially to be a part of them.

I talk about teenage years as if these insecurities and struggles have completely passed.  But even now, I’m tempted to subscribe to some socially accepted version of what’s right, instead of the holy integrity already within me. Trying to be another person’s version of ourselves, of who God created you to be, not only frustrates our own souls, it actively rejects God’s beautiful and holy creation in us.  

Cornelius does so many of the “right” things, but people like him will never quite be “in” as Peter understands it.  And in this story it seems, the issue is not so much about Cornelius’ feeling of being left out as the establishment’s preoccupation that they are excluded, at least from the fullness of this Christian life.

Cornelius is a centurion which means he is Roman, which means he is not a Jew. Since Jesus was Jewish, and so most of his followers were Jewish, it follows that the church being born after his Resurrection primarily had a Jewish identity. And this early church is trying to figure out who they are, what life looks like in light of the resurrection, and Peter and his followers still think that Jewish and non-Jewish is an important distinction this identity. And I’m not saying that’s inherently wrong because as a religious and ethnic minority, this cultural and identity distinction is rather important. The effect is that the status quo has become that non-Jews (aka Gentiles) are welcome, but always a little less than, second-class. They simply don’t share that same background, history, know the same songs and movements and rituals in the same ingrained way...

So the writer of Acts wants us to know that Cornelius - is definitely one who would fall outside that understanding of the “right” Christian community. But then they also throw some wrenches in there - this “outsider” sure does look a lot like a follower of Jesus in practice. Devout, prayerful, generous, trusting of God enough to send his best people to follow God’s mystery. And the scripture tell us through the angel that God sees and hears, and receives all these things.

So that’s who is coming down the road, or represented by who’s coming toward the house of Peter, the rock, the head of the church.

Meanwhile, at Peter’s house, as he settles down for pre-meal nap - it’s visions of food, animals specifically.  The animals he sees are animals that are outside what had been good and sacred practice for generations and generations. These are ritually unclean creatures and the understanding was that consuming them would make him unclean too. And yet, the voice of God is saying to eat them.  It seems Peter is always thinking God’s words are a test of his passion, but it turns out God actually means what God says. He awakes, still confused about what God would have him do, what it all means. And then....Cornelius’ crew shows up, strangers, unclean, asking for him by name. And that’s when Peter goes “oh God, we weren’t just talking about food before were we?”

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From parables and visions, and those mystical experiences where we know we’ve been close to God, I find that God often teaches us sideways. If God had told Peter flat out that he should welcome these people, he would have done so...eventually, but his heart probably not have changed so significantly.  Perhaps Peter would have tolerated them and given welcome lip service but without God’s work, he would not have come to this point of full embrace. God talks to Peter about food, but teaches him about people. Often this takes repetition and hindsight before we can see where God was a part of guiding us and shaping us.

Sometimes this story is called the conversion of Cornelius, but while it IS a shift for him to name claim the Christian Community and the explicit Yahweh, he was already practicing an Easter way of life - worship, prayer and generosity - public, personal, and outward. Just as significantly, Peter is changed, converted to a new way of thinking about God and God’s people, an Easter way that reminds us and activates us by God’s work of revealing connection and integration, reconciliation between things we thought were separate or far off.

When Peter stands by the tradition and the rules of religion and refuses to come into contact with things unclean, Peter’s not technically wrong. But Jesus shows us time and time again that being right isn’t as important as being human - created good and in love and for one another. The rules and the law aren’t the most important thing, people are. Jesus is always breaking the religious law - healing on the sabbath, touching the unclean people, building relationships with foreigners...for the sake of love. This Easter way reveals that this new creation is one where the law is love. Jesus says the greatest commandments are to Love God and Love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus doesn’t say to love your religiosity, your brand of people, or or even just yourself - but to extend all that love to the ends of the earth. Because that’s what Christ does, and as followers of Christ, that’s what God is guiding us and shaping us for, often in unexpected ways.

We all get stuck trying to be right all on our own, or at least more right than THEM. We sink into tribalism, thinking that “our people” are the right people. But tribalism leads to dehumanization of those outside the tribe.  And anything not human can be hated, and hatred leads us to violence, even when that violence is ultimately against ourselves.. We have had too many case studies lately - murderous attacks against muslims, jews, then retaliation towards christians, ongoing oppression and violence toward women, people of color, and the poor.

Yesterday morning we lost a young woman named Rachel Held Evans - at just 37 years old, she wasn’t an ordained pastor but she was a passionate preacher, a transformatively honest writer and speaker, and her radical conviction for the wide welcome of Christ often got her in trouble with the religious institution.  Her books were pulled from store shelves and she was essentially marked unclean by the gatekeepers of religious rightness. And yet, this devout, prayerful, generous woman was bold enough to write about the church like this. She writes: “this is what God’s kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there’s always room for more.”

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Inclusion and diversity are easily reduced to hollow buzzwords. We perform welcome, but our hearts keep their distance from one another. But I find hope in how God keeps at us, nudging us together, opening us up to on another so that we might know the fullness of God and God’s redemption through one another, precisely through the ones we’d like to keep at a distance, those we would rather not embrace. After all, it wasn’t Petere’s amazing preach that attracted Cornelius, but God’s call. It isn’t Peter’s amazing wisdom and enlightenment that reveal a new way, but God’s vision. In this way, resurrection occurs not just in how others are changed by God’s grace and welcome, but how we are changed and made more aware and connected to God through diversity - through God’s wide welcome, even when it confuses us. Amen.




Resurrection is Here

Matthew 28:1-10 - The Resurrection of Jesus

28After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 5But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. 6He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ 8So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.9Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. 10Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’

I wonder what Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were expecting that morning when they left the house. I wonder what you expected out of this day. Perhaps, like the Mary’s, we cling to tradition and ritual because they have offered us comfort or helped us make sense of things before, or because we’re not sure what to do, but this seemed as good an option as any. Or perhaps we even dare to hope in the back of our hearts that what Jesus said about returning on the third day was true, that the words of hope were real, that things can be as God promises.  Perhaps we, like the guards, stand ready to keep death in its place, but we just can’t do it.

I was standing in the church office when someone told me that Notre Dame was burning. I remember shaking my head confused. It seemed like the words they said were never meant to go together - an impossible and incomprehensible sentence. I guess my mind had established this thing as some untouchable monolith. Pictures starting coming in of a steeple reduced to a haunting skeleton until even it collapsed completely into ash. It surprised me to feel heartbroken over a thing that I’ve never seen in person, or acknowledged any kind of connection to. But among other things, it grieved me to see the world lose something so beautiful. The night settled in and there was nothing to do but wait and see what was left in the morning. As the dawn of a new day revealed what had been lost, it also showed what the fires did not consume - the iconic rose window, the bees that were housed on the roof, and the gilded cross still above the altar even while surrounded by charred fragments. Light comes out of the ashes.  We see as much in the cathedrals of Paris as the black churches of Louisiana and the mosques of Jerusalem. Perhaps we expect only to find death or disappointment, but we are surprised and to encounter life.

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As Easter dawns, the very earth shakes, is disrupted, is shifted. We are moved and I’m shook. Even the earth itself echoes the seismic upheaval that comes with the resurrection.  Angels appear like lightning, there’s an electric energy in the air as even the fundamental elements of creation cry out in glory. The tomb is split open and I think I’ve been split open with it as well.

The disruption extends from the elements of creation to the ordering of society. On this first Easter morning, like always, God makes a point to show up through the ones that others counted out. It seems the resurrection isn’t just about defying the grave, but creating a new way, one that makes room for and lifts up those who have been overlooked or excluded. On this first Easter Sunday, God disrupts the status quo, the social order, indeed the patriarchy by showing up first among women, commissioning them to be the ones to share the story first, to be the first lady preachers.

Taking it all in, they are filled with fear and joy. Not one or the other, but both together. Perhaps they fear they won’t be believed, that they and their story will be rejected.  Perhaps they fear they WILL be believed and they know that upsetting the status quo is dangerous work. But they have joy in the knowledge that clearly none of those things can stop God and God’s insistence on life and life abundant.

The angel and the risen Christ tell the women to go and tell the others.  This story is too good to be contained. Go and tell them that God’s love can’t be stopped, the death doesn’t get the final word, that oppressive empires can try their tired old tactics, but it won’t last. This Easter Day and this Easter story  is for sharing. Sharing! Not explaining or theorizing, just being with one another as we together bask in this new dawn. This is not a day for doctrine, but dancing. It’s scary and exciting.

Resurrection is here, resurrection is happening now, can you not feel it in your bones? A fear and joy in your own heart? Haven’t you noticed light shining in the darkness, the places of death and destruction transformed into life? The places that were closed off are now opened.  Jesus is risen, and you too arise. You are resurrected from all the powers of sin and death that have hurt you and that resulted in your hurting others . Jesus couldn’t stay dead, didn’t stay dead, and God does not leave you for dead either. God loves you so much, they will go to the grave and back for you.  Alleluia. Amen.

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Jesus for President

This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 19:28-40, where Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. He is greeted with a kind of royal fanfare, but with whatever the people have on hand - a donkey and worn coats as opposed to a chariot and red carpet.

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What a rollercoaster! What a whirlwind within a week! It feels like we’re sitting in the eye of a hurricane -the outer bands of the storm have already thrashed us about, and we know there’s more to come - perhaps even the “dirty” side of the storm. But before that, and before we reach blue skies on the other side, there’s a pause.

In the eye of the hurricane there is quiet. For just a moment. A yellow sky.

In this suspended moment, we might notice that what’s happening is bigger than us, bigger than the church, bigger than what we can fathom or understand.
In this moment, we might also be drawn deeply into our skin, into the tangible, the world immediately at hand - and we might recognize familiar faces between God’s story and our own - how we are both impacted by friends, politicians, and society or crowds.
In this moment, as we look around, we might become keenly aware that we’re in this together, connected.

We’ve been calling this season a journey which we know is metaphorical and yet it also has been experiential, with real grit and gristle.

Sometimes I wonder why we tell this story, year after year. It’s not like we don’t know the ending For me, it’s beautiful and hopeful to hear that God is with us in the form of a newborn baby on a still and starlit night in December...but what I really need to know is if God is still with me in the hustle and the heartbreak and the hurt. This is the week where the rubber meets the road to Jerusalem, where we see God in the mix of triumph, tragedy, and politics.

The word “politics” comes from the word “polis” which is Latin for “cities” and so politics is anything having to do with civil affairs, basically how we organize our public life together. It’s a necessary and part of society.

And sometimes I would really like Jesus to stay tucked away in a convenient compartment of life, someone I can visit on the weekends or in my proverbial free time but God is apparently hell-bent on not just redeeming some small portion of my being but all of it and not just mine, but the whole world, the whole of society which...inherently includes politics - how we live together.

God with us in the world - through, with, and under all things inherently makes a political (although not necessarily partisan) claim. When Caesar Augustus was born it was announced to the people as good news, evangelion, the same word we translate as “gospel.” These words were etched in the stone, erected as monuments. So when we say that the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the Gospel, it’s not only religious but treasonous.

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,”

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,”

When the crowds throw a royal parade and cry out to call Jesus king of kings, it means Herod is not the ultimate king. When it is written that Jesus is Llord, the implication is that Caesar is not. When we say Jesus is the leader of the free world, it means the president of the United States is not.
Philippians 3:20 tells us that we are Citizens of heaven. That doesn’t mean where we live doesn’t matter but it does mean our allegiance is first to God and not a country or a flag. This week reminds us that Jesus is ultimately executed by the state not for blasphemy but for treason.

So while politics and world affairs often feels like the last place we would experience God’s presence, it is also where that good news seems particularly powerful - in the intersection of self and society, local and global.

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The gospel, god with us in body, in place and time, god who is and creates life, death, and resurrection makes a claim about our whole selves, and our whole world. It is both political and so much bigger than politics and partisanship. It shows us that God has something to say about how we govern ourselves and the systems that organize our public life together. It has something to say to each of us.

Sacred Mysteries

This week’s sacred story comes from John 12:1-8 where Jesus is hanging out with friends over dinner when things get a little intimate. Read the full story here.

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I wonder…When have you felt closest to God? What was around you? Who was around you? What do you see, feel, taste, smell, hear? I wonder. ..Have you ever felt so close to God that you felt a part of God- one with your Creator? Your Liberator? Your Sustainer? What was that like?

I bet it wasn’t in a zero-gravity chamber of silence by yourself. I bet there was something around you that played a part – the scent of something soothing or stringent that filled your nostrils - carried on a soft breeze or a powerful wind, the touch of a hand on your shoulder holding you steady or pushing you forward, in the ache of your side – sore from laughing, or in the sting of tears that burn hot on your cheeks, in the sound of a song or a voice that reaches into your soul or the splash of water at bath time, the sight of something beautiful and/or broken – wildflowers along the bayou or a haunting yet holy hospital bed, the taste of something delightful, earthy, shared.

Perhaps you have known the closeness of God in the mystical birth of a new baby, flush, crying, and raw. Perhaps you have felt God nearest standing next to a loved one preparing to die or already gone.

Jesus doesn’t exist in a zero-gravity vacuum either. God is not kept in a pristine museum within a protective glass shield.

Here, with the crucifixion on the horizon, God has gathered with friends - people who have seen each other at their highs and lows. They have shared the mundane task of washing dishes together, the depths of grief, and the miracle of life restored.  Here they sit around the dinner table together, talking about that crazy thing they overheard at the market today and the way their knee has really been hurting them lately. Jesus is in there - in the midst of people and moments that share the intimacy of the nitty gritty of life, the details, the nooks and crannies of what we really are when we’re not putting on a show.

As the evening winds down and the plates are emptied, they linger together. Mary of Bethany places herself at the feet of Jesus, at the feet of her Rabbi, the place of a disciple. She pulls out this really fancy perfumed oil…like Gucci level stuff, worth more than a day laborer would make in an entire year. She doesn’t hold back on the good stuff, but pours it out, filling the whole room with its sweetness. She dips her hand into the oil and rubs it into the calloused feet of a savior, a mark of blessing but also a ritual for burial.  She pulls her dark coarse hair over her shoulder and pats Jesus’s feet dry. This act is both deeply human and humble-using what it at hand and her very body, and divinely luxurious-extending beyond the typical. This is a rare and precious thing.

The juxtaposition of the moment got me thinking about what is luxury? What is truly liberating and what is performative justice – what do we, like Judas, want to appear as saying the righteous thing, but have prioritized our own  benefit whether financial or social over actual impact? Often we associate luxury with expensive, something’s enormous cash value. This week I was introduce to a wonderful little Instagram account called PreachersNSneakers that posts pictures of celebrity preachers and then where you can by the sneakers they're seen wearing on stage for $500-$5000 a pair. And those pastors aren't putting those fancy sneaks on the feet of Christ headed to the cross. Designer labels are one kind of luxury. And it's this understanding of luxury and wealth that is what Judas gets stuck son as he tries to mansplain to Mary why she's doing it wrong.  Um, actually….

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But Mary and Jesus model a different kind of extravagance, one that recognizes the elevation of everyday moments as they transcend the typical. It’s rare, special, set apart...and rare doesn't necessarily mean expensive. To me, sitting still with a cup of coffee and finally reading the magazines that have been sitting on my end table seems like luxury...because it doesn't happen that often. Standing at the kitchen counter while everyone in the family's works together to peel potatoes, snap beans, and carefully measure ingredients for dinner feels extravagant because somehow time seems to flatten and there's somehow beauty in things that are really just mechanical.

I have always been frustrated by the false dichotomy of the world, the lie that we always hear that things are either this or that. Someone is either good or bad. Something is either secular or religious. Something is either holy or profane, human or divine. In Jesus, and as we see in this text, the dividing wall is dissolved.

Judas says that the perfume should have been sold and the money should have been given to the poor….after he skimmed what I'm sure is what he considered a fair portion for himself off the top.  But Jesus says no, that marking this rare moment with rare substance is holy. This is not a license to dismiss the poor or ignore poverty altogether. That would put us right back into the false dichotomy that Care for the poor and care for the spiritual are mutually exclusive, you can either do one or the other, that you have physicality over here and spirituality over there. God brings them together in a hands-on way, in the flesh, in bodies, in everyday transcendent rarities.

Healing and wholeness, experiences of the divine come to us not just in word but when those words connection with action, where they break through the plane of abstract ideas to tangible reality - touch, taste, smell, sound, the sight of something rich and delightful. God gives us these sense not only for our survival, but for our delight, our healing, for our connection to a God who must also be a sensual God.  

In the Lutheran tradition we use the word sacrament to talking about things that are a combination of divine promise, earthly elements and Christ’s command. This officially points us to two rarefied gifts in particular, communion and baptism, as they embody God’s promise for new life with everyday items of food, drink. Jesus explicitly told us to do these things, to notice how God is at work particularly in these things, and how God is re-membered/put together and is made known in full when we do them.

So with those parameters, the Lutheran church officially recognizes these two things as sacraments - communion and baptism.  But the word sacrament literally means sacred mystery. When you think about those moments when you've felt close to God, doesn't it feel like sacred mystery best describes that experience? So our lives are filled with things that remain sacramental, holy and mysteriously so. These things reveal/create a thin space where the divine and the daily come so close to each other that we know there's something more to this thing.  I think back to the moment Mary, the mother of Jesus and Elizabeth got together while pregnant and Elizabeth noticed the movement of her body as a reaction to God’s activity in that moment, that her growing womb was dancing around in joy. Isn't that a holy mystery? Likewise I find it to be sacramental when we are crying with a friend in grief, in a comforting and safe embrace when we've felt raw and vulnerable, in the sweet taste of birthday cake shared with friends and family.

Naming these thing as holy may seem decadent, indulgent, a bit of a stretch...but that's what God seems to be all about.

The impact of these sacramental gifts doesn't remain in only that moment, but prepares us for things to come.  As this anointing of Jesus prepares him for the trial, crucifixion, and burial to come. So may our anointing strengthen us for the work or justice, soften us to see beauty in the midst of struggle, and fill us with hope for what is possible in Christ. Amen.  

The Prodigal

This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 where Jesus tells a parable of dysfunctional family and the love of God that overflows, even there. Read the full story here.

Guest preaching this week is our own Community Coordinator, Shannon Schaefer.

“The Prodigal Son” by He Qi

“The Prodigal Son” by He Qi

"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."

When our sacred story begins tonight, Jesus is teaching, and the tax collectors and sinners - the scoundrels, the up-to-no-goods, the scandalous, the shameful, the worthless on-the-margins spectacles with unseemly reputations - these are the ones who come to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and Scribes - the pious, the law-abiding, the privileged socially and religious elite, the ones who are the gate-keepers for who is 'in' and who is 'out' - they grumble against Jesus.

"He welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Some have suggested that the reason Jesus is so often the target of the religious elites' grumbling is that Jesus himself is a Pharisee. Jesus knows the law and prophets. He speaks in the synagogues and has access to the temple. As a religious elite himself, he's constantly in conversation with the Jewish tradition, and yet also constantly clarifying and redefining the heart of that tradition. In other words, the Pharisees are conservatives who want the time-honored traditions of Judaism to be upheld, and to stick very close to the status quo.

And Jesus is sort of a Pharisee gone rogue, gone progressive. He's reinterpreting the core tenets of the Jewish faith. We hear this in the gospels where Jesus says, "You have heard it said... but I say..." For instance, in Matthew 5, Jesus says, "You have heard it said 'you shall not commit murder and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment. But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgement." 

He's reinterpreting his tradition and clarifying what's most important. And he does it even in his practices, his actions in the world with others. Pharisees didn't associate with sinners, and definitely didn't eat with them.

But Jesus does.

His teaching is not simply to other elites, but Jesus goes to the masses, the everyday trying-to-make-it folks, and spends his energy there. The tax collectors and sinners come to listen. "He welcomes them and eats with them," the Pharisees grumble.

“The Prodigal Son” - Jesus Mafa

“The Prodigal Son” - Jesus Mafa

So Jesus turns to them with a story: "There was a man who had two sons."

For the Pharisees, who have spent the better part of their lives reading and studying the Hebrew scriptures, a number of old stories should come to mind as Jesus tells this tale. In Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, which includes Israel, the typical way of things is that the oldest son of a father would inherit the biggest portion of the father's property and receive the birthright blessing. In a patriarchal society, it's how things "should go."

But one very interesting detail is that the Hebrew scriptures continually upend this patriarchal paradigm.  Abraham is a father with two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael is the older brother, but Isaac, the younger one, is the one through whom God's promises are enacted. Isaac has two sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau is the older brother, but Jacob tricks his father and steals the birthright. He's the one who gets the blessing, though he's the younger. Jacob has many sons, but it's his youngest two, Joseph and Benjamin, he loves most. When Joseph brings his own sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, to the bedside of his dying father, Jacob blesses the younger son more. Joseph corrects his father, putting Jacob's right hand on the older, but Jacob switches his hands back to bless the younger grandson with the better blessing, saying, "the younger brother shall be greater than the older." Jesse has many sons, but it is his youngest, David, who becomes 'the' David, King David, the one after God's heart. All of these stories are in the cultural memory of the pharisees as Jesus tells this story.


"A man had two sons and the younger one came asking for his inheritance."

I imagine those hearing might be poised and ready for the younger son to get what's coming to him. After all, he has some serious audacity: "Why don't you just go die already so I can have your stuff?" In effect, that's what he says to his father. So when the younger son returns, the hearers are ready for some justice. What a punk kid! Pardon, but what an ass! Maybe the father won't even let him return as a servant!

But it's the father who has the audacity.

That father, he's at the edge of his property. He's been watching, waiting, scanning the horizon, ready to run, to embrace. He has a calf ready for the celebrating, with robes and ring prepared, and the younger son doesn't get justice, but utter and unbelievable mercy.

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"Un-freaking-real," the pharisees must be thinking. It's what the older brother thinks.

He's kept the law. He's played by the rules. He's played it safe, set aside his wants and desires to stay in the father's house, poised for that blessing. And when the younger son is celebrated, he's utterly resentful. He tried so hard to earn the love that was his all along. The Pharisees are the older brother in the story. As the religious elite, they've kept close to the law, earning their upstanding status and favor with God and society.

Who is Jesus then? If the Pharisees are the older brother...

Here we get into the intricacies of the Trinity, this idea that the One God is also a Three-ness. We can't explain it - it's a mystery. But Jesus, as the one who is both fully God and fully human being, is both the father and the prodigal son - the younger son - in the parable. Jesus as the father figure is the option that I think instinctively makes the most immediate sense to us. He welcomes and eats with tax collectors and sinners. It's this, his mercy and disregard for social convention, that gets the Pharisees grumbling. He celebrates the far-off ones who come to listen to him. Here the divinity, the God-ness, of Jesus is on full display.

But Jesus is also, I would argue, the younger son in this story.

From the Pharisees' perspective, his progressive reinterpretation of the Jewish tradition and welcoming of the non-elite as disciples and friends is akin to taking a rich inheritance, squandering it, and feeding the swine. They stayed close to God, they think, while Jesus in their view strays. But more than the Pharisees' view of Jesus's faith and practice, it is the incarnation that allows Jesus to be the prodigal younger son. The idea of the incarnation is that in Jesus, God takes on a human body, and in so doing makes it possible for human beings to return to fellowship and communion with God. Jesus, then, is God in our body, and on the cross, he walks the path of the prodigal son, taking his divine inheritance from the Father God and spending it lavishly on the tax collectors and sinners - on us.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that the work God does in Jesus is the work of reconciliation, the work of bringing human beings back home to God. He says in verse 21, "For our sake," - for yours and mine - "For our sake, God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God." So this story of the prodigal son, it points to the cross. It points to the mercy and embrace we are being offered.

Did you hear what the father in the parable says to the older son? He says this:

"But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and was found."This brother of yours was dead. And he has come to life. He was lost and now is found. Dead and come to life. This is the cross, and this is resurrection. Lost and now is found. This is the journey of God in our human flesh, coming into our midst, into our bodies, the move from divinity toward humanity and then the return home to the love of God.

St. Athanasius, who lived in the 4th century, says that Jesus is God becoming human, so that human beings can become God. In other words, Jesus is the path of our restoration to the divine image. We are made to look like God, be like God, but we fall short because of sin. But Jesus makes it possible again. And in the story, the robes and the ring are perhaps our return to that divine image. This coming home to God is a journey, a path we travel. And the reality of our lives - of my life - is that we are often going out from God and coming back to God.

The good news is that God is always waiting, fatted calf, rings, robe, embrace, ready for me - for you - to come home, and to know mercy. Our return to the table of communion each week is a metaphor for the road back to God. Every week, we leave this place and go back out in to the wild of the world, like prodigals, taking the riches of the table with us. And every week, we come back to this place where we can be a kind of home for one another - looked for, known, embraced, and the table is set for celebration. We enact the welcome of God together. We have been dead and are moving toward life. We have been lost and are being found. And we find one another. Paul says that Jesus is God reconciling with us. But then he goes on to say that that work of reconciling others to God is also our work, our ministry.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” - Rembrandt

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” - Rembrandt

I wonder, who in your life do you to need to return to?

Who have you judged like the older brother and where are you trying to earn love?

And who can you be home for? In other words, how can you embody the mercy and embrace of God for someone else?

For more reading on this story and how it subverts and shapes our understanding of God, check out:
”The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming” - by Henri Nouwen

What's the Word?

This week’s sacred story comes from Genesis 18:20-33 where Abraham goes back and forth with God to see how few people would prevent God from destroying the city of Sodom and Luke 13:1-9 where Jesus tells a parable about a fruitless fig tree.

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Sometimes I just don’t know what to do with parts of the bible that are like this one. It seems so dark and violent, even heartless.  

When I feel stumped or frustrated like this, and sometimes even when I’m overly excited about a text, running away with it…far far down a rabbit hole that may or may not be God’s leading but possibly my own, that’s when I lean on the Lutheran tradition of how we read the bible. Not only how to read scripture, but how do we view it, what is its purpose, how do we understand it, engage it.  Martin Luther, in his writings, wrote that the bible is the “cradle where Christ is laid.” That is, the Bible holds Christ. It becomes the frame that helps us to see Christ, so whenever we approach this sacred text, we should be looking for how Christ is revealed in it. Where is the Good News, the Gospel in each line? But the important distinction here is that the Bible is NOT Christ; scripture is NOT God.  So even as we cherish this library, we acknowledge its boundaries. The Bible is not sacred not because it is worthy or worship in itself, but because it points us to God. So I would say that yes, I’m a bible-believing Christian. But before and above that I am a Christ-believing Christian. CHRIST is the Word of God made flesh. The Greek word used for word is “logos.” It points to an understanding that the Word is more than text on a page. Here is an understanding of “word” that I living, moving, affecting.  Which rings so true as we know that the words people say impact us, shape us, the words we say and names we use matter in a formative way. And so while the Bible is most certainly the Word of God, it is obviously not the only Word God ever spoke or speaks.

When Shannon (our Community Coordinator) and I read this text, she noticed that there was something that sounded familiar…

It reminded her of the Story of Abraham pleading for Sodom as the gardener pleads for the fig tree.  This particular moment of judgement on the city also seems dark and violent, even heartless. But it is also deeply misunderstood. This story is one where culture has made damning connections between this sacred text and rather than connecting it within the larger frame of scripture, it becomes connected to fears outside of the Bible.  

After the verses we read from Genesis, the story continues to fill in the backstory of why God is considering destruction of the city. Two angels were walking by and Isaac spot them, not really knowing who or what they are, only that they are strangers in town and so his faith compels him to welcome them into his home. Meanwhile, word gets out across town and soon a mob of men surrounds the house and insists that the strangers be thrown out into the street so that they can be “known”…in the biblical sense.  Isaac refuses to let his guests become victims, and they narrowly get away to safety within the house. Now some take this backstory to mean that same-gender desire was the reason for God’s wrath on Sodom, but this isn’t really accurate and misses the bigger picture that God is about throughout scripture. First of all, the mob isn’t lusting after the angels, but seeking to assault them. Such violence is never about sexuality, it is always about power. There is no love in their hearts but a desire to demean and exploit. The people have come to see strangers not as angels to be welcomed and cared for, but objects they’re entitled to and have possession over. In the Kingdom of God, that is simply not the way it’s going to work.  In the Kingdom of God, the dignity of all people is affirmed, and bodies are not abused but elevated, we know God in body and blood. In the Kingdom of God, creation is not objectified and exploited, valued only for how it might be used by those in power, seen only for what it can produce.

Now this, this reminds me of the Gospel - Jesus’s parable about the fruitless fig tree. The gardener sees life where the planter only sees opportunity costs, what he might be missing out on. The gardener does not measure the worth of the tree by how it can be immediately exploited, but nurtures and cares for the tree so that it might grow in the future.  In an ancient Roman world where the power of empire is pressed down onto and people are only as good as their usefulness, Jesus says this system is a lie.

The people ask about the slain Galileans and wonder what their fate will be or how they can be different. Jesus says, repent or perish. Well, here’s a spoiler, we’re all going to perish. That’s what the ashes of Ash Wednesday remind us of. Death, in and of itself is a neutral thing, neither good nor bad. But if we’re only looking at death, only ever worried about how to avoid it, we’ll miss everything else. Repentance means change. The Greek word there is metanoia, literally…think bigger. Jesus invites us to see the big picture, the connections between old and new and the way in which they together point to a whole other thing – resurrection. Unless we think bigger, all we’ll see is death and a story that ends there.  But Jesus is telling a story that goes on and on and on. Word without end.

Just as Shannon drew a connection between the gospel word the word of Genesis, God has been revealed in such connections for generations. Martin Luther talked about using scripture to interpret scripture.  So no one piece stands alone, but we look for how the larger witness of the scripture and what God is and is about, to help us understand this particular piece. Any Jewish person of Jesus’ time would know the stories of the Torah well.  Not just the rabbis, but everyone. So when one writer or text used a phrase of image that connected to another writing or story, they would easily be able to make that connection and find new meaning in the two being drawn together. The Word held riches not just what in was said before, or what was being said now, but in how they together create something new, something bigger. The Word of God draws us backward – to our history, to God’s persistence with us throughout time, to our grounding; and yet it also pulls us forward – pointing toward possibility and promise.

God’s word is still being spoken, still being heard, still creating.

I want to invite you to use today’s gospel reading to create a new Word, a poem, through a method called Blackout poetry.  Blackout poetry is when a page of text is completely blacked out (colored over so that it is no longer visible) except for a select few words. When only these words are visible, a brand new Word is created from the existing text.

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If you have a printer, print out the reading from the Gospel of Luke and use this as your source page. If not, find a newspaper of other text. God can be revealed there too.

So yes, you have permission to write on this page, to mark it up. You’re not being sacrilegious, you’re not literally blotting out scripture, and you’re not trying to recreate scripture, but you’re engaging it, responding to it, wrestling with it as Abraham’s grandson Jacob wrestled with God and seeing what new Word God may be revealing to you, through you. Using a pen or pencil, you’re going to follow the guide below to select a few key words and phrases, then a few more, and then finally to shade out the rest of the page so that only the words you highlighted remain visible to create a kind of poem.

1.      Scan over the page and put boxes around the key words or phrases that for whatever reason, really strike you. They may hold particular meaning or significance, or just stand out to you.

2.      Look over and read the whole page again. This time, use a pencil to lightly circle any words that connect to the word(s) you put boxes around. Resonant words might be expressive or evocative, but for whatever reason, these are the words on the page that stick with you. Avoid circling more than three words in a row.

3.      Then, just shade out all the other words on the page, so that only your boxed and circled words remain visible. For doodlers, you can create art that connects back to your new poem on top of the “blackout” words.

For more blackout bible poetry, and our divine subversive inspiration, check out this insta account:
https://www.instagram.com/blackoutbiblepoetry/

To share your creation with our community, post a pic and use the hashtag #kindredlent

Comfort, Conflict, and the Cross

This week’s sacred story comes from Luke 13:31-35 where Jesus laments over Jerusalem, but also makes a bold and sassy declaration of his work, even in the face of power. Read the full story here.

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Guest Preaching this week is one of +KINDRED’s own, Kinnon Falk.

We often use the Bible as a source of hope and relief. We highlight positive little verses that give us strength in the time of trial. Platitudes that act as spiritual comfort food (kind of like the soup we share in worship). And while these things are in scripture, the reality is that much of the Bible’s contents are Discomfort Food. The gospel does not always bring reassurance or ease of mind; it’s usually high conflict.

There is high conflict in this passage. Jesus is threatened with death, and yet, he persisted. He knows that the path he is on is going to be uncomfortable and (spoiler alert!) ultimately lead to his death.

His dogged persistence in the face of resistance is admirable. Nobody likes discomfort, least of all, me. I’m the kind of guy who takes the max dosage of Advil as soon as I feel a headache coming on. I’ll get up in the middle of the night and fix the sheets if they’re messed up and tickling my toes in a weird way. I will go way out of my way to avoid the slightest physical discomfort. And if I do experience discomfort, you’re probably going to know about it. I gave up carbs for lent, and most of you probably know that already. If you know me well you might understand that I live by the adage of “I can survive pretty much anything, as long as I get to bitch and moan about it constantly.”

But Jesus wasn’t intimidated by the difficulties he saw ahead. He said, “I must be on my way.” He wasn’t a whiner like me. Not about his own suffering anyway. He does make some complaints about how he wants to gather the children of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but they just won’t cooperate. Like any parent, Jesus knew what it was like to herd cats.

Lots of prophets have had this issue. Think of Moses trying to gather the scattered tribes of Israel. Moses is the prophet who suffered for the sins of his people and stepped into the breach between them and God. This is a scriptural trope: God’s people mess up; God has to send someone to save them.

Now it’s probably not a coincidence that Jesus uses this chicken metaphor here after just calling Herod (who is the embodiment of the Roman Empire) a fox. The Romans were pretty tolerant of local religions. They only demanded that people’s first allegiance be to the emperor. Then, they could do whatever they wanted.

But Jesus had a different, contradictory message. He taught that only God was worthy of praise. And that, right there, was a threat to Rome. As a prophet, Jesus knew this threat that Christians posed would lead to much pain for his followers. And so he was offering to be like that divine feminine image of a mother hen, willing to die to protect her offspring from the fox.

Jesus wasn’t scared of Herod or the discomfort that the Empire would ultimately cause him. His journey in this passage is not about his encounter with authority, but about his ongoing ministry of liberation from demons and disease that demonstrate the presence of a different empire, the Empire of God.

Jesus was on a journey of love, but he knew the road would not be easy. And he sees the need to protect his followers from this. To experience Jesus’ ministry and his compassion one would have to operate contrary to the prevailing domination system that was guided by coercion and control.

The question for his followers was “is that what we want? Do we want this transformative life if it is going to cause us suffering and pain? Do we want to follow the example of Christ, even though it might lead us into uncomfortable situations? Do we want to do God’s work, even if it doesn’t give us clear rewards? Do we want to swallow that discomfort food, or would we rather just have the mashed potatoes and gravy?”

And so now I have some questions for you. I want you to take a few minutes and answer these questions:

Who am I?

What do I LOVE to do ?

Who do I do it for ???

What do they need ??

How will they change or be transformed- when I do what I love to do ?

These are the types of discussions that Jesus’ early followers had as they struggled to live in their tumultuous world… A world that Jesus knew all too well.

As Jesus went about his daily work of healing and deliverance, he was also keenly aware of his destination. He knew he was headed to Jerusalem and to his death. While Herod wants to kill Jesus, it is clear that Jesus is in charge of his own timetable. Today and tomorrow Jesus will continue his daily work, and Jesus is the one who will complete that work on the third day. (sound familiar?) Throughout Lent, we are preparing ourselves to experience Jesus’ cross. This passage calls us to do so by considering whether our lives lead appropriately to that cross. But Jesus’ work of healing and deliverance does not end with his crucifixion. No. It is made perfect and complete by his resurrection.
Amen

Give it away, give it away, give it away, give it away now

This week’s sacred story comes after Jesus gets some disturbing news and tries to find the time and space to get away from it all…and still…crazy wondrous life-giving things still happen. Read the full story of Matthew 14:13-33 here.

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Now when Jesus heard this…

Jesus has just heard that John, known by many as the Baptist, but known to Christ as his friend and cousin, and companion in preaching good news...

Jesus heard that John whom he knew and loved was violently martyred by the King he criticized. And so Jesus, as God and as human being….grieves and mourns, and wants to get away from it all for a bit.  He seeks to escape into the wilderness, the dessert, a deserted place. I find so much solace and solidarity in knowing that even God experiences trauma and emotional, physical, spiritual exhaustion. It reminds me that I am not weak or lesser or lazy for having experiencing those things too.

This story of violent and oppressive power is nothing new, and yet neither has it withered in time.   The ancient Pharaohs of Egypt sought to destroy the Hebrew people through the annihilation of its first born sons, then by increasingly cruel slavery that would have the people work themselves to death. Empire and kings are always doing this, convincing or compelling us to sacrifice ourselves in the name of some greater good – a good that never seems to reach anyone beyond the top of the pyramid. But in these ancient times of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion, God led the people away from it all, into the wilderness.  And there, when the hour was late and there was little to no food to be found, God fed the masses with blessed bread from heaven and they were satisfied, and there was extra to go around. There, in the midst of the storm of military might bearing down on them, pinning them against the wall of water that was the Red Sea until all hope seemed to be lost and they thought God has gone from them and had left them to die…God reveals God’s control over the waters, makes a way through the storm and saves those crying out for help. God assures the disciples in the boat in the same way that God reveals Godself to Moses: it is I, the great I am.

The story of an invested, compassionate, and saving God is nothing new, and yet has not withered with time.  Just as Moses led the people to a promised land, flowing with milk and honey, so Jesus reveals a new kingdom, a new way that is marked by compassion, abundance, and a different kind of power than that which is typical of empire and rulers. Even while God grieves and seeks to tend to God’s own need for space, care, and healing, God can also see the needs of others, sees their humanity alongside its own. Jesus views this with compassion instead of inconvenience. In this world, I think we fear practices of compassion because we know that our energy and capacity are limited and to extend it to others would sometimes mean withdrawing it from ourselves.  And in this world, recognizing our limits and caring for ourselves through rest and retreat is good and holy and healthy. But in the new promised land, the new kingdom that Jesus is bring about, the limitations fall away and there is enough compassion to go around. Like the disciples, we worry that there simply is not enough food or resources to meet everyone’s basic needs; we worry that we are not enough to do or be what God says we are and can do. And yet, in the new way that God is creating, there is not only enough, but more than enough, and people are satisfied, full, whole. Like Peter, we find ourselves in rickety boats far from the safety of land and surrounded by threatening water and wind, we wish for God to draw near and to give us the power to defy . But when that divine presence and power arrives, all the times we’ve stumbled and struggled before won’t let us believe it’s really possible. And yet, in this world of greater possibilities than we can even imagine, God is still committed to lifting us up and out of death.

These stories of feeding 5,000 people (not including women and children, cuz…you know…patriarchy is nothing new either) and the story of walking on water, these are often described as miracles.  To our modern, cynical, educated ears the claim of a miracle may seem a little extreme, and even cause us to dismiss them thinking that well, sure, that’s easy for JESUS to say and do, the whole God thing and all. But in this new kingdom and in this new kind of king, power is not hoarded, but is extended.  God isn’t worried that giving power away will diminish it. God knows there is more than enough to go around, and so Jesus tell the disciples that THEY will be the ones doing the feeding, walking on water, and even greater things than this. Jesus blesses the bread, but then tells the disciples to be the ones who give the people something to eat.   Jesus shows up amidst and above the crashing waves, but then invites Peter to get out there and join him. Jesus shows us what is not only possible, not only probable, but PROMISED through God. It is a way of life-giving life that we don’t just witness or inherit, but one in which we are empowered to be partners in the creation and cultivation. God reveals a world in which care and compassion are not opposed to power, but intertwined with it. This is a gospel, a message of good news, that meets me where I’m at but does not leave me there. And that scares the crap out me, but it also gives me so much hope that my heart could burst.  And for all of that, I give thanks. Amen.

The kingdom is heaven is like...

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches through a series of three vivid stories, three parables of everyday life where the hearer is invited to draw conclusions for themselves. The parable of wheat and weeds, the mustard seed, and yeast. Read the full story here.

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This time last year my mom and I went out to raised garden beds outside our farmhouse. The beds are made from old railroad ties for the borders and fertile dirt from the edges of our pond.  We began to work to clear away old things that had been growing there and prepare the soil for something new. Then we started planting zinnia seeds and other wildflowers for harvest at my brothers wedding which would be that summer. We could envision the beautiful bouquets we would have in June. As weeks went on we’d go out and check on their progress and see how these little seedlings were emerging. Bright green shoots and leaves unfolded from the dark rich earth. And I remember furiously googling images of what zinnias seedlings look like so we could discern which seedlings we had intended and which others may have gotten into the mix, intending to remove whatever was taking up room we intended for something else. But it was nearly impossible to tell which leaves were which and so we just had to let them all grow up together.  We set a sprinkler that cast water over all the beds and we cared for each plant the same. When June came, we had a garden full of flowers, more than enough for . We had plenty of zinnias, and even a few surprise flowers that added a beautiful diversity that we hadn’t planned for. Even the long grasses that had no flowers at all, added something to the arrangements. And as all these filled the garden, I’ll tell you, the bees and the butterflies didn’t care which was which, but enjoyed the nectar of all the flowers.

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Jesus taught through stories which portray rich images and invite us the hearers to paint the picture. They invites us to imagine where we find ourselves in the story, to wonder together about what the parables reveal about God and ourselves? These parables draw on the everyday life of people working in fields, going to the market, and cooking in their homes. Jesus reveals truth through stories, where the meaning is made somewhere in between the word spoken and how we experience them, where the answers aren’t always clear, and there’s room left for mystery.  

So here are a few things that the original hearers would have known and understood, that might impact the way you hear the stories, these parables:

The weeds or tares, the mustard and the yeast would all be considered at the least....inconvenient, contaminants, undesirables, pollutants, invasive, an onslaught, ruinous.

First, let’s look at wheat and tares….the seedlings actually look so much alike you literally can’t tell the difference. Even adolescent plants look exactly the same. It isn’t until they mature that the wheat reveals its fruit, a full and lush head of grain, bowing under the weight of its produce, while the tare remains a light and hollow imitation with no real nutritional value. And fire, throughout the bible and Jewish tradition is not a means of destruction but of purification. It is always a refiners fire, skimming away the part which surrounds on the surface to reveal the central nature and value of a thing. And yet, in this parable, both wheat and tare are nurtured together side by side. Such is the kingdom of heaven.

As for mustard - it can either be considered a crop or an invasive species. When grown on purpose by farmers, it is brought to market either for its greens or for grinding down the seeds for seasoning. Either way, it would never be allowed to grow to the point where it becomes a full blown tree. And yet, as it is allowed to grow wild, the plant finds value not for what it can be sold for, not what it can produce, but for simply for being what it is. One plants a mustard seed because one would like to grow some mustard. Such an farmer would view birds as pests. And yet, in this parable, the greatest thing about the mustard seed is that it provides refuge for the very pests the planter wants to keep away. Such is the kingdom of heaven.

Yeast is an agent of growth, the leaven, the expansive force that transforms flour into what we enjoy as bread. It is also something foreign, something from outside the oil and water intentionally included in bread.  It’s essentially like a contaminant. Yeast didn’t come in yeast packets from the store, but from the air and environment and time. This yeast was a wild force of fermentation which cannot be contained to a carefully controlled portion of the flour, but changes all of it. Every household in the ancient world would have made bread every day. It was a staple food. But yeast is also an element forbidden from the Passover.  Faithful Jews were to remove every trace of it from their homes in preparation for rest. In this parable, yeast is uncontainable against traditions of holiness, hidden out of view and yet the kingdom of heaven is like it.

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So, knowing these things, how then do we hear these stories and make meaning from them? What do they tell us about God?  about ourselves? How would you tell a story that points toward that kind of meaning? What does this remind you of? What picture comes to mind?

Perhaps we are the wheat, waiting for the day when, even as we are cut down, we bear fruit that nourishes the world.  Perhaps we are the field, growing both that which nourishes and that which is hollow inside of us at the same time. Perhaps we are the slaves, clumsily suggesting what we think is helpful without fulling understanding what the master knows and yet still commissioned to care for the field so that all might flourish and grow, to bring life to all, to bring life without preconceptions of who deserves it or what such a life should look like. Perhaps we are the mustard trees, that grow beyond the boundaries the world would try to set for us, offering something of value just by being what we are. Perhaps we are the birds find a home in the wide branches, who finally allow ourselves to  find our home and our rest, and to nurture that space for a while. Perhaps we are the flour or the yeast, considered a staple to society or something to be hidden and yet both are joined together to rise and grow and create something new altogether, something delicious and nourishing. Perhaps we are the baker that, even in our attempts to control or appear perfect or put together, unknowingly contributes to something vivacious and expansive.

Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is like a family table, where homeless and housed, privileged and poor break bread together and aren’t always sure how to do that, how to trust one another, how to be generous with one another but also respect the dignity and boundaries of each, and yet...we are mixed together as flour and yeast, becoming intertwined so that we all are changed into a new thing altogether, bread that rises and grows and feeds. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away.

If the kingdom of heaven is like a mixed bag of things we don’t always understand or agree on and yet somehow bears life, provides a nest, expands  and nourishes….then perhaps the kingdom of heaven is not so far away. Amen.

The Gospel according to Ice Cube

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 7:1-14, 24-29 where Jesus continues to preach on the intersection of faith and life. Read the full text here.

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Sometimes faith and life are thought of as opposing forces, like magnets pushing away from each other. Faith is over here, life is over there and we just hope that maybe, one day, with all our spiritual strength we can pull these two opposing forces together. But if that’s the way it is, then I’d give up on God and religion too, because that seems hopeless. I might be able to pull it off once or twice or for a little while, but I can’t sustain that kinda union with my own two hands. Jesus says something different.  Jesus says faith and life are already tied together, one reflects and informs the other. Jesus says you actually can’t separate the two, even if you wanted to. The Good News of Jesus isn’t just about heady ideals, but shapes our very being and thus our actions. The Gospel refuses to let us compartmentalize, it invites us to engage. If God really is over, with, and in all things, if every one of us is truly created in the image of God, declared blessed, and if nothing can take that away from us, if that Good News is true...then what does that mean for the way we live? How does that shape our our habits, our choices, our relationships, our understanding and practice of justice?

Jesus teaches, guides us in this way. So here we go, Jesus proclaims...“Judge not”….well, I can go ahead and sit down because I’ve already failed. Let’s be honest, I make some judgments. And while I do relish the gossipy self-righteous moments of judgment a little too much, that’s not actually what Jesus is talking about. Here, the word we read as judgment would actually be better translated as condemnation. Jesus cautions us…not to be so bold as to speak on behalf of God and make ULTIMATE judgments that declare people in or out of God’s love and mercy, and that doing so says more about us than those we cast judgement on. And thus says the Lord your God - “you better check yourself before you wreck yourself.”

Judgement is healthy and necessary; condemnation and condescension is where we get into trouble. I remember when I first took a Myers-Briggs personality test, I was so glad I didn’t have a strong J in my character. That J for judging held a negative connotation for me. “Judgement” was for sticks in the mud and people who need everything to be black and white. For me, judging was that thing that super-pompous jerks do to make themselves feel superior or reveals some narrow-minded worldview. But we make judgments every day - which car seat is best for my family, whether it is better for me to spend my time going on a walk or catching up on messages, whether I should continue a relationship that isn’t life-giving, whether I should get a hamburger or chicken nuggets for lunch. Judgement is healthy and necessary, so let’s not throw judgement out with the bathwater. BUT, in the kingdom of God that Jesus is preaching, CONDEMNATION is not a tool we get to use to edge others out of the God-market.

This past week, I was so disturbed. After the State of the Union address, I saw a relative post to Facebook “I can’t believe all of them so-called women allowing late term abortions. May they burn in hell.” See that’s not just judgement, that’s condemnation and it has no place among our life together as God’s people. And that is equally true of similar posts that mock a more conservative view and dismisses people as worthless and irredeemable. God has declared each one of us as precious and beloved, and no one has the authority to take that away from us, no matter what. And when we participate in condemning others, it doesn’t just hurt them, it eats away at our own souls as well. THAT’s why Jesus tells us, “do not condemn others, and you won’t end up condemning yourself in the process.”

But let’s talk about what this way of life ISN’T.  This isn’t a command to roll over in the name of nice, or getting along, or pretending not to care about the things God has given us a passion for.  

The church and the people of God have struggled in to find their place in the modern world not because we aren’t hip enough, or make enough Ice Cube references in our sermons, but because we lack clarity in what we’re about and why, or we don’t exhibit that clearly. Being wishy-washy is no way to live either. That doesn’t mean we can’t be open to multiple perspectives, but avoiding clarity on the pretense that it makes us more compassionate or enlightened...doesn’t pan out either. I think people leave the church and religion just as much as when we dance around subjects and wind up saying nothing of substance at all. Because people can smell the BS from a mile away and don’t need church for more of that as if we can’t readily find THAT gospel just about everywhere else.

Here’s what I think Jesus IS trying to say. If we hope to call ourselves followers of this Christ, we are called to the work of self-awareness, which brings us to humility, which leads us to mutuality. When we can look at ourselves honestly, without the fear of having to be justified on our own and so somehow perfect, we can see ourselves as God sees us - imperfect and flawed and yet beautiful and blessed. When we don’t have to spend so much energy hiding the log in our own eye because we think it will condemn us, we can actually go about the work of removing it as best as we can, usually with a community to help us.

This is where what is often called “The Golden Rule” can be problematic. “Do to others what you would have them do to you” is only good news if we would have others extend us grace, encouragement, and forgiveness. Unfortunately, we often would have others do shame and condemnation to us instead. How can we hope for others to treat us with kindnesses that we don’t offer ourselves? How can we treat others with kindnesses we don’t expect for ourselves? Yes, we should do to others what we would hope others would do for us in light of grace. But perhaps the Golden rule should also go on to clarify - do unto yourself what you would do for others - extend grace, encourage, forgive.

We all have logs in our eyes, things that make us blind or indifferent to the ways we hurt others - both individually and as a culture. When we recognize that we’re imperfect and yet still valuable to God and others, we have the humility to acknowledge God’s grace toward others who are also imperfect. We recognize that, in the eyes of God, we’re on the same playing field. We can work together to bear witness to God’s kingdom of mutuality, or reciprocal care and grace.

But mutuality and grace doesn’t mean I’m going to do your work for you. Part of doing the work of self-awareness is recognizing your boundaries and your limits. It is not your job to save the whole world. You can not single-handedly remove the log from someone else eye when they’ve got a death grip on that sucker. You can let that go. Don’t keep throwing good energy at something that will trample your spirit or maul your soul. That doesn’t mean you’re giving up or giving up hope, but you can take a break or let others take up that work for a while. It’s not up to you to save the whole world, that’s already been done.

Do you not know that every gate belongs to god, every place where walls are opened, whether narrow or wide? There is nowhere you or anyone else can go, that God is not also there alongside you, loving you, even when you follow destruction. So do not be discouraged or forlorn if you find yourself somewhere other than where you hoped you would be, God is still with you. It’s true, God make judgments over us and all of creation...and on our own merits, we fall short. But God does not condemn us because God sees us for more than our merits.  God sees us as her own beloved child, imperfectly flawed and yet perfectly loved. God lets the system of merits, of score-keeping, and all those systems of superiority go. On the cross, God shows that they would rather die than participate in our power games. In the resurrection. God proclaims that nothing can stop God’s love for us, not even death. God is the only one with the power to make ultimate judgments, to bless or condemn, and God chooses blessing for all of us, even with that giant log still stuck in our eyeballs. And if God doesn’t condemn, how could we dare? Let us go from here, knowing that we we have work to do, holy work. But also that God is with us in that work, blessing us in ways we don’t always know how to receive or echo, even while we’re still in the mess and glory of it all. Amen.

Letting Go of Performance Anxiety

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 6:7-21 where Jesus preaches about a bold and simple faith where we can rid of all the extra BS we layer on in order to put on a good performance for God, ourselves, and others . Read the full text here.

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Yesterday my daughter was at a birthday party for a friend. The invitation was decorated with balloons and a piñata, confetti and color. And there was a note from the girl’s parents requesting that we don’t bring a gift. I’m noticing this trend more in circles where children already have plenty, and I’m starting to see the appeal myself. Over the years, our kiddo has amassed no small amount of figurines and baubles, legos and craft supplies. She enjoys them…for a while…until the next new treasure comes along. Somehow we’ve allowed it to get to a place where she has so many toys, that nearly none of them actually hold value to her anymore.  She tires of them quickly and seeks novelty over something she might truly hold dear in any enduring way. And I can’t really point the finger. I do the same thing with my thrift store finds. And we all live in the same single-use society addicted to the disposable.

In this part of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, in his preaching and teaching to a wide community of all different kinds of listeners with all different kinds of religious backgrounds...the words of “consuming, heaping, and hoarding,” turns to “broken, rusted, and ruined.” Ironically, treating things in a preservationist way, trying to keep them perfect and private, actually destroys them and makes them disfigured/distorted. Things of beauty and joy are turned to obligation and pride.

This isn’t a “woe to you who have stuff” sermon, because excess comes in many forms. Our treasures take on many shapes. We treasure not just our money but our energy. We value our public persona and how we are thought of by others. We put our trust in ourselves above all else. And maybe you don’t expect a preacher to say this, but I think we should. We should care about and tend to all these treasures. But we should also be mindful of how much weight we give them to dictate our lives and our identity. Jesus stops the car so we can get out for a second and look around and wonder what those treasures are really about, wonder why we have the habits we do, and evaluate if they really embody what we hope.

I want to invite you to take a moment, take a few deep breaths, and reflect to yourself: What do you spend our time on? Look back at today or yesterday, and moment by moment, hour by hour, what did you spend your time doing? What do you invest your energy in? Not just what we ideally spend our time and energy and treasure on, but actually in reality.

Are you putting more stock in appearances or substance?  Appearances and our public expression matter, but is maintaining that side of the equation so consuming that it forces you to sacrifice substance? Do you worry more about crafting a pleasing personality or the illusion that everything is fine… OR the kind of relationship with yourself and others that can handle both the joy and the grit of life? Do you dwell in drama or in depth?  This isn’t a “woe to you who do frivolous things” sermon, because frivolity is needed on occasion. But it is an invitation to think about what we do and why, even the things that seem positive from the outside. Is it from the heart or what we think we SHOULD do?

Jesus seems to point out that what we think we SHOULD spend our time one can be just as distracting as anything else.  As religious folk, we can get caught up thinking we don’t pray as well as others or we’re not as good at faith as we should be, but God does not desire long-winded prayers or eloquent fluffy speech or ritual of any kind for their own sake. In Jesus’ time, the thinking was that a good prayer should go on and on or a good person should spend extensive amounts of time in prayer.  I think we still kinda think that But when it’s not from the heart, it’s still just fluff. It reminds me of when I had to write papers for school and I was still several hundred words short of what the teacher told us we had to write, so I’d just start adding adjectives in random places, or repeating the same ideas in ever-so-slightly different ways. But doing so didn’t add any real content to anything, because it came from a place where it was something I was told I HAD to do.

Jesus shows how being in relationship with God can be simple, without all the trappings of performance.  There are so many places in our lives where we feel like we have to perform, being this or that in order to be accepted or valued.  God knows, that I’m constantly burdened by the voices in my head, question, “am I doing this mom thing right? Am I juggling all of life with the grace an poise expected of me by culture?” And Jesus says, that’s not the way it is with God. God invites us to simplicity not because “less is more” is a pleasing design aesthetic, but because God doesn’t need all the extra fluff from us in order to love us. We don’t have to turn simplicity into one more obligation or idol (which happens), but we are freed from all SHOULD’s that someone told us we had to be and do in order to be loved. If God’s love and grace becomes one more thing to do or perform or hoard, then our heart gets hardened toward what is offered as a gift. But when we live into that simple truth of God’s unconditional love for us, we also see greater health in our heart and our souls. Jesus tells us we don’t need all the clutter and it’s not good for us anyway.

Science has shown that clutter causes stress, being surrounded by an excess of things makes us anxious. But I think we can follow the same reasoning to extend beyond our things and into our whole lives. They are often cluttered with the constant need to perform or put on a good face, or the right face, filling up our schedules until we frantically fear the loss of time or that our time will be stolen from us, even a few minutes. But God loves us and cares for us without the fuss we put on, without our having secured it and locked it away  for safe-keeping.

Jesus gives us a tool to remind us, to find our center when we get distracted, to bring us back to basics. Jesus gives us a prayer that reflects God’s intimate care and astounding glory. The prayer Jesus gives doesn’t need to be a script, but a model.  Bold and simple. It’s bold in the way we are empowered to claim intimacy and familiarity with the creator of the cosmos by relating to them as family. It is simple in that it doesn’t try to capture everything at once – it is simply a petition for God’s will to be done, for basic needs like food, for relationship through forgiveness, and for safety. This is one way for our hearts to be nurtured and for us to find healing and hope with God alongside us. But it’s not the only way to pray nor even the best way to pray, but it is a good way.

Perhaps when we find ourselves in need of grounding, when we’re overrun with stimuli or too many options or we’re fatigued from fussing, or we discover we’re losing a bit of ourselves in the performance of life or faith...this prayer or another practice of simplicity and boldness, can provide us with a place where we can clear away all the extra BS, bear our true selves and our true heart before God, and know that we are deeply loved just as we are. And knowing that, experiencing that...deep in our bones...changes that way we relate to ourselves and to others and to our stuff. It shows us a fullness of life that all the fluff could never deliver. May this moment of worship be a time and space where you can put down the facades and the defenses and experience the liberating truth of Christ, which is this: God hears you, God knows you, God sees you, God wants you, God loves you...right here, right now, just as you are.  Amen.

The Wilderness in Humanity

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 4:1-17 where, after being baptized, Jesus is drawn into wilderness and joins in the deeply human experience of temptation . Read the full text here.

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The wilderness is a dangerous place. There, you don't have the things that normally protect you. People can get lost there. The wilderness can also be a beautiful place, if you can learn to appreciate it for what it is, instead of resenting it for what it's not.  

The wild and isolated places in nature are a fair reflection of the vulnerable and solitary places in our own lives. When by choice or by circumstance, we find ourselves standing alone, in the midst of a world we cannot ultimately control.  But that does not mean we are doomed or helpless. Standing alone can also be brave and necessary. I saw an article this past week that talked about Mary Oliver as the poet who saw the wilderness in humanity. It reminded me that we are created in harmony with wildness. God has made us with the same resilience as the cedars that takes root on windy mountain tops, yet stand for 100s of years.  It's who we are. This is the nature of humanity. It's is a humanity that Jesus shares.

Immediately following his baptism, after it’s made public and clear that his identity is as one who is good and beloved in the eyes of God, immediately life gets hard. Jesus is alone in the wilderness and is brought face to face with a competing voice that wants to undermine those proclamations and promises.  

A life in God doesn't mean that everything will now magically be easy or that you'll be prosperous and perfect. And I know that I've personally heard that message a few times before, but I don't hear it's translation very often. Because if life with God doesn't mean that life will be easy, if even Jesus has a hard time...that also means that when my life is hard, it's not just because I'm just a crap person.


The Devil tries to reduce the comprehensive Word of God into sound bytes, which in turn, reduces the divine promises of life and love to a transactional God, a tit for tat system of redemption, and a formulaic faith.  This casts the contradictions of the Bible (which starts with Genesis 1 and 2), as a problem to distract us and a weapon to be wielded, rather than a testament to the wide range of God throughout time. The devil is all about tricking us into believing that things are smaller or less than than the fullness of what they really are. Jesus points to a bigger picture.

The temptations presented boil down to our most basic needs, and twisted to prey on our most elemental fears: our physical need twisted into a fear of scarcity, our need for safety twisted into a question of Gods fidelity, our desire for power and control twisted into a desire for acquisition and dominance.  The Devil tries to make claims about who Jesus is, who Gods is and how God is, that utilize half-truths (also known as lies) and then twists them to undermine the full truth of who we are created to be.

What are the claims you hear and experience that make you question and wrestle with who God has declared you to be as beloved? What is around you that contradicts God’s promise that you will be cared for, that God will never forsake you, and that you are already powerful?

What gives you strength/courage to stand up to and defy those claims? Those forces?

God isn't above temptation, watching from afar in order to test us. God, in Jesus, through the Spirit, is drawn right into the thick of the wilderness too. God knows what it is to question and be questioned in the ways that matter most, to feel utterly alone.

Temptation isn’t a test of faith where we have to prove ourselves good enough for God, or suffer in order to be loved. It is what it is. God loves us at our best and our worst, and bids us to remember that even in the wilderness...Love is the way, and the truth, and the life.

Jesus doesn't overcome this temptation by being so divine that he is immune, because at the same time he is just as deeply human as we are. He answers these half-truths of the Devil by sinking his hips deep into the full truth of who he is. And God says that this is who we are, too. We are beloved, we belong, and we are already powerful.  This was a guiding light for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we remember this weekend, that we are indeed already powerful, that all people have dignity and agency and can make a powerful difference, but through nonviolence, through building bridge where there was division.

This is what Jesus is steeped in and comes to embrace as he begins the part of his life which we call public ministry, which changes the world. Imagine how the world will be changed as we sink into and embrace our identity as beloved and powerful? It is nothing particularly fancy or magical, but it is simple and true...which is both more difficult and more liberating.

Hear a final Word from Mary Oliver, through her poem, “Wild Geese”

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—

over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.


Amen.




Perfectionists and Weirdos, Welcome

This week’s sacred story comes from Matthew 3:1-17 where John the Baptist is (surprise) baptizing people of every kind, including Jesus. Read the full story here.

Art by He Qi

Art by He Qi

I’m a pretty cynical, skeptical person in general. But I'm especially skeptical of any guy covered in animal pelts, snacking on bugs, and hollering, “repent! The end is near!” And the reason I'm so skeptical isn't just the weird factor, but because often those same people claim some kind of direct and exclusive connection to God - that they know some divine secret that they’re lording over others. Either that or they manipulate people with fear - they twist the message to say “repent...or else.” But I can't just write this one off because:

  1. Something seems just a little bit different about this one, and

  2. Jesus shows up. So that seems kinda important.

What’s different about what John is saying is that he isn’t preaching ”repent...or else.” John proclaims “the kingdom of God is near.” Perhaps the Kingdom of God is a kind of end, as it promises the world be set aright, and we are all too familiar with the ways it is currently wonky and broken. The good news that John preaches, that has attracted this large group of people to follow him and come down to the river, is a message and a world of hope and possibility and inclusion and healing.  The baptism he invites people into is one of cleansing and new life. THAT’s something people want to be a part of.

Meanwhile, The Pharisees and Sadducees - the religious leaders who are certain they have it all figured out and that they’re doing it all right (or at least they know all the right things to do and are getting better and better at doing them all the time) - are watching from the sidelines, making sure John doesn’t go off script or say anything that conflicts with the rules of the church. Yet, even as they stand guard in the name of all that’s “right,” they too draw near to the water to join in this baptismal promise. It has been my experience that those who cling most to the doing things right are most in need of freedom from those heavy expectations.

John is skeptical of their intentions and he doesn’t even try to hide it. “You brood of vipers!” he hurls at them. At the heart of this baptism isn’t just a superficial ritual that gets you “in” or functions as an insurance policy for an afterlife and John wants to make sure they and everyone in earshot, gets that. This baptism is about life-giving change.  Repentance doesn’t just mean being ashamed of how bad we are, it literally means to turn. It is a turn from the habits of heart and mind that lead to death, isolation, and fear. It is a turn toward a way of life that begets life - bearing fruit. It points to a fuller life that is on the way - one where we, the wheat, are no longer need of all our self-protective measures, the extra chaf we create around us. We are freed from all the extra things we do to try and be good and valuable on our own, and revealed to be something of value anyway.

This is the distinction John wants to emphasize. The distinction between the appearance of life in God, and the depth of life with God. It’s like the practice of tidying up - you can purge your things and get rid of all that clutters your space, but the real cleansing comes as we address why we accumulate, consume, cling to and hoard.  Or we can do okay at staying sober, for awhile, but it’s not the same as diving into why we self-medicate, dull or distract ourselves, reaching for fuller answers about what we are trying to cover up or fill? I’m not sure if the Pharisees or Sadducees understood or were ready for that kind of baptism. I’m not sure anyone else is either. And we don’t read anything in scripture that says that disqualifies them or prevents us from experiencing it anyway.  

Baptism is about being changed, not just on the outside, but entirely. And that’s not the same as being perfect. Jesus shows up and wants to be baptized too. Jesus has no need of an initiation ritual, of being made perfect, or a heavenly insurance policy. But we need Jesus to wade into the waters of life with us - to come over here with us - where its murky and swirling or stagnant. We need Jesus to transform our misplaced expectations and failed attempts at fixing everything ourselves. We need Jesus to turn us from our ways of death toward life-giving life.

Jesus enters the depths with us, and emerges to show us what it’s like when righteousness is fulfilled, when we and the whole world is set aright. It looks like the fullness of God on display- Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.  It sounds like being publicly named and claimed by God as beloved - when all the fluff is washed away and what remains is still declared as valuable and beautiful in the eyes of God. It feels like being a part of a community where there’s a place for everyone - an endless fabric woven together through water - where the perfectionists and the weirdos all are welcome.  It’s not just not just one moment or a single day, but an ongoing reality of being cleansed and embraced by God which defines and shapes us every day, turning us again and again and again toward life. THAT’S something that draws me in, or rather...that draws near to me. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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