Sermon: Sunday, July 17, 2016: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Genesis 18:1-10a  +   Psalm 15  +  Colossians 1:15-28  +  Luke 10:38-42

As a child I remember knowing that if the house was looking especially tidy, and company wasn’t expected, that something was likely bothering Mom. It’s a functional coping mechanism that pays a useful dividend, cleaning the house when the mess life hands you refuses to come under your control. Managing the chaos of emotions on the inside by imposing order on the outside. My sister and I both inherited the trait to some extent, and now it’s Kerry’s turn to notice that when I seem preoccupied with taming the piles of paper that accumulate on the dining room table or organizing the limited counter space in our kitchen it’s likely because I’m feeling slightly out-of-control in some other area of my life.

There’s a lot in life right now that seems “slightly” out-of-control, and I’ve definitely spent some time this past week cleaning and tidying, but the chaos of the world around us isn’t going to be quelled by time spent organizing the paper on my desk, or reshelving the growing towers of unread books in my office. The only way to survive the daily onslaught of the news, I suspect, is to face it head on. To sit down with the stories of the world as it is and to make space within my own spirit to ask how the world outside is also a reflection of the world inside. To be quiet and return once again to that place deep inside where the sound of the genuine resides in me, and to wait patiently for the voice of God to speak into my lack of words for all that is too much for me to bear alone.

Martha often comes off sounding petty in this age-old story of sisterly resentment, complaining that she got left with all the work as Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Countless sermons dissect the differences between the two, affirming the need for both labor and rest, and I’ve preached a few of them. This time around, however, given all that’s going on in the world around us, I’m hearing something different in the exchange between Jesus and Martha. By this point in Luke’s story, John the Baptist has already been killed by Herod for his relentless truth-telling, and Jesus has already predicted his own death twice, though the disciples don’t know what to make of it. The gospel says they were afraid to ask him what he was saying (9:45).

Fear doesn’t take care of itself. It doesn’t do its own work, unfolding its arguments before the light of reason, and leaving the body once it has answered its own anxious questions. Fear rattles around the inside of a body, taking up residence in our minds in the form of persistent, unwanted thoughts. Fear lives in our muscles, clenched so tightly that our necks and backs work themselves into knots. Fear attacks our chests with panic, roils our guts and burns holes in our stomachs. Fear haunts our dreams with apparitions, messengers we keep sending away during our waking hours, who own the hours of the night. Fear is patient. It has something to say, and it will wait for you to stop and finally listen.

I wonder what Martha’s fear was trying to tell her that kept her so busy in the kitchen, trying to cook her way out of a terrifying moment. Her friend had come to her home and she was honored by his visit, but it was plain to see that his face was set toward Jerusalem where nothing but death awaited him. He’d said so plainly, and none of his disciples seemed able to stop him from this foolishness. She’d already seen too much death in her life. Of course she had. She was a Jewish woman living under Roman rule. Crucifixion wasn’t an especially cruel and unusual punishment, it was a common occurrence. The current arrangement of power was kept in place with state-sanctioned violence, as it always is. Young men, tired of imperial oppression, were always joining the Zealots, plotting their next revolution. Young men were always being buried by their mothers. Maybe Martha knew his mother, who shared a name with her sister. Both Marys seemed so calm, so confident that God was doing something new in Jesus, but perhaps to Martha it all just looked too familiar, one more Jewish man lining up to die.

Or maybe not. Who knows what was going through her head as she kept herself busy in the kitchen. I just wonder what she might have heard, what she might have been able to hear, if she had slowed down long enough to take a seat next to her sister and the other disciples. What was her soul trying to tell her that day?

The story from Genesis this morning tells a parallel tale of hospitality, as Father Abraham greets three men (whom some later Christian interpreters have taken as an appearance of the Holy Trinity) and makes a place for them to rest with him. “Let a little water be brought,” he says, “and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” Later, after he and Sarah have fed them, Abraham stands by them in the shade as they ate, and they ask him about his wife. One of the men says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” (Gen. 18:10a)

Given the horrors of our current news cycle — which I could try to name but would surely end up leaving something out, so I will trust all of you to lift those concerns before God as we pray — it is obvious that action is required. It’s just not always clear what that action is. Is it another story posted to social media? Is it another recitation of woe shared over lunch with coworkers? Is it the next letter writing campaign, or public rally? It may well be. Or, each of those things may be a kind of busy work, to keep our fearful hearts and minds preoccupied if we can’t stop and listen to the voice of the inner teacher, who is trying to tell us something about what we already know, but are too afraid to speak into reality.


President James Nieman, Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago

In an open letter to the seminary community at LSTC published early this week, President James Nieman wrote:

From various quarters there are calls for religious communities to pray or speak or march, and of course there is a place for all these actions. I am proposing, though, that white people like me must engage the more basic, disturbing work of thinking and confessing. These practices are not at all neat and tidy, for taken seriously they are actually agonizing. But without first thinking about who we are and then confessing how we have benefitted, all of our praying and speaking and even marching become an insubstantial, self-serving charade.

The work of discipleship does require action of us, but for our action to be more than what President Nieman calls “self-serving charade,” the first action we need to take is to stop and listen. To take what in 12-step spirituality is called a “fearless moral inventory.” Before I address the “splinter in [my] brother’s eye,” I need to address the “log in [my] own.” (Mt. 7:3-5) So much of what is passing for activism right now, and I include myself in this assessment, is actually a form of posturing in which people create the illusion of action by publicly aligning themselves with ideas or ideologies. Another level of transformation, and perhaps a far more frightening one, takes place once we withdraw from the flurry of public activity that creates this illusion of action to listen for a divine word inviting us to consider what it is in each one of us that must change in order for the world to be made new.

I wonder if the reason we are so reluctant to stop and sit and listen is because, on some level, we have given up hope that anything will change. The many voices of grief, fear, and despair drown out that singular voice that says, “behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) Even Abraham and Sarah, our ancestors in faith, doubted that God could birth a new thing in them; but still they were given the gift of new life in the form of a child.

Here, I believe, is the gospel’s invitation to us today: stop with the things you are doing to keep yourself from hearing the voice of your own soul, which longs to be heard. Stop with the to-do list that makes you feel effective, even as you wonder what difference it all makes. Sit with Jesus, who knows that you are afraid. Sit with Jesus, who has seen all the very same things that haunt your thoughts and dreams. Sit with Jesus, who knows death and does not run from it. Listen to what he is really saying: that you do not need to be perfect. That you do not need to have all the answers. That you are not loved for your politics, or your education, or your achievements. That you are no better or worse than any of your neighbors, near or far. That there is life on the other side of death. There is life on the other side of death. This is not all that there is. This is not the end. The world is not falling apart, it is being reborn. So are you. In your lifetime a child will be born that will see peace and reconciliation we have only dreamed of so far. That child may be in this room.

It may seem laughable to speak of hope at a time like this, but this is how God works in the world. Always bringing new life to people and places left for dead. Let a little water be brought. Let me bring a little bread that you may refresh yourself. (Gen. 18:4-5) Come, sit down with your sisters and brothers, listen and live.



Sermon: Sunday, April 27, 2014: Second Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 2:14a,22-32  +  Psalm 16  +  1 Peter 1:3-9  +  John 20:19-31

“When it was evening on that day…” (John 20:19)

Do you remember that day? That O Happy Day? I remember that day last week.  My heart is still singing and my mind is still reeling from that day. This house was rocking and rolling to the sounds of praise and worship in celebration of the God of life, predictably showing up to do the unpredictable, to raise the dead. For many of us it was the kind of day when we felt like we could see with our own eyes, touch and taste with our own hands and mouth, the goodness of the Lord, present to us in word and water, in bread and wine. It was the day when the alleluias that had been locked up inside us for forty days were finally set free from the tombs of aching hearts and troubled minds, so that as we came to this cavernous sanctuary and found the stone rolled away and Jesus once again loose in the world, we were able to join with Mary Magdalene who left the tomb and returned to the rest of the disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18).

But not all who had known Jesus experienced what Mary and Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved experienced when they came to the grave that Easter morning. Not everyone who loved Jesus had come to see his empty tomb, so when the word first arrived that Mary had seen the Lord, they sounded like empty words. So, I want to ask you all if there’s ever been a time when all the things that we religious people say, when all the things that Christians say, have sounded like empty words. Has there ever been a time in your life when the things that people say, people who genuinely seem to have faith, didn’t generate any faith in you? If so, would you raise your hand?

If you gave me pen and paper, I could fill it in just a few minutes with the things “people of faith” have said to me that didn’t bring me one inch closer to faith myself. “When God closes a door, he opens a window.” “Let go and let God.” “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” But not just the easy targets, not just the stock phrases that somewhere, way back, come from some real, felt experience of faith; but the personal testimonies as well. In fact, at times in my life when my own faith has been at its weakest, when I have been filled with doubt in the reality and the presence of a loving God, hearing someone else say “I have seen the Lord” in some truly genuine way has been almost painful. “Why,” I might think, “is that person so certain when I am so uncertain?” I won’t ask you to raise your hands, but I will ask you to examine your hearts this morning, and see if you don’t hear a voice like that, your own true voice, asking that kind of question.

So, when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, the day Mary had returned from an empty grave with the news that she had seen the Lord, had seen Jesus — not dead, but alive — that day found the followers of Jesus in the house where they had grown accustomed to meeting. Despite Mary’s testimony, they had not left the building, they were not out looking for their friend, they were not conducting a door-to-door search for the teacher they had loved. They were hiding out of fear of the religious authorities that had engineered Jesus’ death.

What kind of fear is that? What kind of fear would it take to keep you committed to your doubts rather than open to your hopes? Because, surely when Mary came back to the house with her incredible story, some part of each of the disciples had to have said, “she’s lost her mind!” Maybe out of grief, maybe out of shock, but this simply can’t be true. But, some other part of each of the disciples knew that it could be true. That the one who had changed water into wine, who had healed the sick, and restored sight to the blind, and fed the multitudes, and walked on the waves, and brought Lazarus back to life, that if there was anyone who might have emancipated himself from the slavery of the grave, it would be Jesus. But they stayed in the house out of fear, because they saw what people with power had done to the leader they loved.

And I wonder if you have known that kind of fear. The kind of fear that follows the death of parent who showed you how to walk bravely in the world, leaving you to wonder if you could ever be as strong as you were when your mother or your father was still there to call you, to coach you, to cheer you on. Or the kind of fear that follows the firing of a co-worker or a supervisor who spoke out in a workplace dominated by silence, who told the truth about what was happening to customers, to clients, to the neighborhood, to the environment, leaving you to wonder if anyone else would ever find the courage to speak out again. The kind of fear that looks like hopelessness when the truth-tellers in our schools, and churches, and City Halls, and congressional hearings get outmaneuvered over and over again by big money and the anonymous machine of politics and power to the detriment of us all, leaving you to wonder if there’s any point to hope at all. The kind of fear that kept the disciples locked away in the house where they’d always met to tell their stories quietly to one another.

If you have, if you’ve known that kind of fear, the fear of failure, of disappointment, of defeat, then imagine how you might feel if the parent, or the coach, or the teacher, or the leader that you loved and admired came and found you, locked away, hiding the gifts they’d nurtured in you, squashing the hopes they’d invested in you, giving up.

I suspect we’ve all done it at one time or another, given up, in ways both big and small. We start early and keep practicing as we get older. We give up on the instrument or the sport we loved as children, giving up on playfulness altogether as we get older. We give up on our friendships with the odd child in school, giving up on all sorts of outsiders as we enter adulthood. We give up on math, or science, or writing, or whatever subject most challenged us as children, only to find ourselves giving up on all sorts of dreams for our careers later in life. We give up on love, on our first love, on the idea of love, and we spend our lives wondering if we will ever find love, ever keep love, ever trust love. We know what it’s like to give up, to hide from the lives we once dreamed of having.

And when someone finally comes and finds us hiding from ourselves, what do we expect will happen? I expect to be scolded or shamed or blamed. I expect to feel embarrassed, even humiliated. I expect to be fired, or dumped, or abandoned. And the fear of each of these outcomes pushes me further and further into that locked room, until I’m somewhere in the back, under the desk, under the covers, hiding, hoping that no one will see what a disappointment I’ve turned into.

You don’t have to raise your hand. We’ve all been there.

The doors were locked that day, but Jesus had told them “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (John 10:9). The one who couldn’t be kept in a grave, certainly couldn’t be kept out of the homes and the hearts of those God loved. So, disregarding every stone blocking the tomb, every lock blocking the home, Jesus came back — not to blame them, or shame them, or fire them, but to free them.

shalom-linda-woods“Shalom,” he says. “Peace be with you.” It means “peace” and “be well” and “greetings” all at the same time. It means, we have come into one another’s presence and my desire for you is that you be whole, and well, and that there be peace between us. It is the reign of God come near. With that word they are set free and they see that the Lord is still with them. So, a second time Jesus says, “Shalom. As [God] has sent me, so I send you.” Because, in addition to meaning “hello,” shalom also means goodbye. It is a word that both receives and sends the one being addressed. The act of being set free is one and the same with the act of being sent out to free and liberate those still trapped behind locked doors. For this reason, Jesus says to them “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

Far from endowing the disciples with special powers, what Jesus is doing here is describing a basic spiritual principle; the very one, in fact, that they have just experienced. By announcing peace to people trapped by their own fears, Jesus has set them free.  Now Jesus tells them that they have been called and commissioned to do the same, to announce peace to all who still live lives of desperation turned inward as self-loathing, turned outward as violence in thoughts, words and deeds.

Remember that in the gospel of John, “sin” isn’t so much a moral transgression, its a lack of relationship. All throughout John’s gospel, Jesus has been bringing people to belief: the woman at the well, the man born blind, the sisters at the grave. Even after his own death and resurrection, Jesus is still working to bring people to belief — belief that there is no power that can bind the power of God welling up on God’s own people, no power that can keep locked the doors of our hearts, or our minds, or our futures which are all secured in God. So, when Jesus sent the disciples out with the power to forgive or to retain, he is pointing to the reality he has just demonstrated for them. If they will forgive people’s fear-driven behavior, if they will announce shalom, peace, well-being, as they greet and send one another, then sin will be cease to hold any power in the world. But if they refuse to announce shalom, peace, well-being; if they come with blame and shame and dismissal, then the world will continue to cower behind locked doors and fear one another.

We are still learning this lesson. We are still coming out from under the desk, under the covers. We are still waiting for Jesus to open the door. It happened for Mary early that day, it happened for the disciples later that day, it happened for Thomas a week later, in that same place where they were accustomed to gathering.  So maybe it happened for you last week, early in the morning, when you heard Peggy singing “O happy day, when Jesus comes” and Kerry singing, “clap your hands if you know that happiness is the truth.” But maybe it came for you later that day, as you looked back and realized that something had broken loose in you, a joy, a hope that you thought was dead, but you sensed coming back to life. Or maybe it took an extra week, and you had to come back to the scene of the miracle to see if it would happen again for you.

The point of the story isn’t about how quickly you experience God’s appearance in your life. The point is how consistently God will keep showing up, week after week, person after person, announcing peace to people trained for war, announcing well-being to people committed to misery, so that we may come to trust God, and in that trust find new life beyond every door.



Sermon: Wednesday, December 19, 2012: “Fear Not! Advent Worship Nearing the Longest Night”

Texts:  Isaiah 12:2-6  +  Luke 1:5-25  +  Luke 1:26-38  +  Matthew 1:18-25  +  Isaiah 43:1-7,15-21


What might you do if you weren’t afraid?


Would you quit your job?

Would you ask him out?

Would you insist, “Stop. No more!”

Would you tell the truth?

Would you finally say, “I love you.”


What might we do if we weren’t afraid?


Would we ask how she ended up on the corner begging for change?

Would we share more and keep less?

Would we interrupt the joke told at his expense?

Would we listen more than we speak?

Would we give up our guns?


What might happen if the nations weren’t afraid?


Would they distribute their resources more freely?

Would they find new exports that cannot kill?

Would they dismantle the drones and the tanks and the missiles?

Would they tear down the walls and open the roads?

Would they send their children to school instead of to war?


Fear is the enemy of change.  Change requires us to take a risk, to imagine a future different from our present and to act as though that future was already on the way.  Fear cannot dare to risk, and will endure a tortuous present rather than chance an even more disastrous future.

Fear is real, but it makes for a poor reality.  It is impossible to live in this world, awake, without seeing true cause for real fear.  All around us we find evidence to make the case for fearful living.  The career employee laid off just years before retirement.  The friend or relative diagnosed in the prime of life.  The marriage shattered by an inconceivable infidelity.  The son or daughter lost to war.  The empty schoolyard and the grieving nation.  The case for fear makes itself.  It needs no help from us.

The case for hope requires angels, messengers of a new reality working to be born, laboring to become real.  The angel appeared to old Zechariah as he offered his prayers in the Temple, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to young Mary as she awaited the day of her marriage, “do not be afraid.”  The angel appeared to righteous Joseph as he prepared to take a wife, “do not be afraid.”  God’s message came to the nation of Israel, occupied and dispossessed, “do not fear.”

Before anything else can be said — before God can assure an old man that his dreams of parenthood are within his grasp, before God can explain the scandal taking root in the young woman’s womb, before God can convince the man to set aside conventions and laws, before God can promise the people that their children will all be called home — before anything else can be said, God’s messengers must first say, “do not be afraid.”

What might happen if fear was set aside?

The refusal to let fear rule our lives is the first step along the path that leads to a new life.  It is the decision to take a new road, to commit to a new future.  It is not easy, and it does not come without its own costs.  Of this open road, the poet Walt Whitman writes,

“Listen! I will be honest with you,

I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,

These are the days the must happen to you:

You shall not heap up what is call’d riches,

You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,

You but arrive to the city to which you were destin’d,

you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you

are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,

You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and

mockings of those who remain behind you,

What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer

with passionate kisses of parting,

You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their

reach’d out hands toward you.”

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road,” stanza 11

Zechariah and Elizabeth conceive, and their son is the herald of a new future.  He is executed in prison.  Mary and Joseph provide a home for God’s own Beloved child, Israel’s long awaited savior.  He dies on a cross… but not before the world is forever changed.

How might your world change if fear did not hold the last word?

Long before God’s messengers appeared to Zechariah, or Joseph, or Mary, God spoke to God’s people Israel, as they longed for a home most of them had never in their lifetimes seen.  To a people dispossessed by empire and despairing that the future could ever be different from the past, God declared,

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isa. 43:18-19)

Into a world filled with violence, into a manger because the small business owners said there was no room, into a people occupied by a foreign empire, into a family touched by scandal, God puts on flesh and becomes vulnerable to the human condition.  To all the conditions you and I face each day.  With a fearlessness that can only be born of love, God does a new thing and the world is made new.

Tonight, as we approach the longest night, as we wait for the coming of the Lord, God’s messengers arrive under the cover of darkness to speak to us those ancient words, bearing the promise of a new future:

Do not be afraid.