The Crosses We Wear

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for Ash Wednesday:
Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 + Psalm 51:1-17 + 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 + Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

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Please pray with me this evening:

Holy and Almighty God,
Return us to you tonight.
Remind us that you are God,
And that we are not.
And give us hearts that ache with the same love
And life that you first breathed into the dust.
Amen.

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I have a curious relationship with Ash Wednesday. For a couple of reasons, I think.

The first is that I’m a pretty high empath. That is, I feel things quite deeply. And so I enter and walk through Lent not only with a heightened sense of my own failings as it relates to living close to the heart of God, but I’m also more aware of how, on a larger societal level, our shortcomings feel greater and more vast. I tend to get quite introspective during Lent, and usually what I uncover doesn’t bring me much joy.

Secondly, is that it’s curious to me that every year we hear these same cautionary words from Jesus about practicing our piety before others, and yet, here we are, gathered together among friends and family, to be smudged with dirt, to then file out through those doors very publicly displaying these badges of mortality.
As you walked around today, did you notice the dusty crosses on the heads of some of your co-workers or neighbors or strangers? Did you give each other a knowing look or wink or nod? There’s a collective relationship with Ash Wednesday that doesn’t feel present with almost any other liturgical day.
And it makes me wonder why.

Part of me thinks that there’s a sense of cultural expectation with Ash Wednesday. Most of us grew up going to Ash Wednesday services, but even if we didn’t, seeing all these people walk around with smudges on their forehead…well, it kind of feels like the thing to do, doesn’t it?

But there’s another part of me—the more hopeful part, I suppose—that thinks that maybe…just maybe…there’s something so undeniably compelling about being told the truth about ourselves.

That for all our complexity and brilliance, we’re nothing more than the dust of the earth traced on our brows.

That’s a hard truth to hear, I think. Because so much of our lives these days are focused on what anthropologist Ernest Becker calls “immortality projects.” We avoid death at all costs. On average, we’re living longer than ever before, but we consume ourselves with running away from death.

But what if we reframe what it means to be dust?
What if instead of running away from death, we imagined ourselves as running toward life?

Dust and dirt are precious, church. It’s out of the dust that life was brought forth. It’s out of the dirt that life springs up from the ground.
Hands Holding SoilYou’ve heard that the dust in your homes is made up mostly of skin cells, right? Not that I’m saying that we shouldn’t clean our houses, but think about that…dust contains DNA…the very foundations of life are contained within those balls of dirt.
Dust is holy. Dust is precious. Dust is life.

And you know, when we’re baptized, the pastor marks this very same cross on our very same foreheads, and declares to us, “Beloved, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Baptism—this act of joining our very selves to Christ, so that, even in death, we are united, through Christ’s resurrection, to Christ’s life.

These crosses, that are so familiar to our foreheads, are identity markers for us.
They’re touchstones for us when we feel distant from the One who crafted us from the dust.
They’re guideposts helping us find our way back to the Source of our life.
They’re hallmarks reminding us who we are and whose we are. That God is God, and we are not.

And that’s Gospel, church. That’s Good News for us who are consumed with our immortality projects.
Because it means that we don’t have to have it all together, and still God redeems us.

This cross of ash on our heads does serve as a reminder to us of how far away from the heart of God we’ve drifted.
But it also shows us the extraordinary lengths that God goes to bring us back.

And if you’re wondering, it’s about the distance from one outstretched hand to the other.

I don’t think Jesus in our Gospel for tonight is admonishing against religiosity, so much as he is explaining what a life steeped in spiritual practices looks like.
The three traditional Lenten spiritual disciplines are prayer, fasting, and acts of mercy. And I don’t think Jesus is reprimanding these practices, I think he’s resetting their direction.
See, piety had become a display. In ancient Jerusalem, the religious people were making a show of their prayer and fasting so as to be seen and noticed by others.
But Jesus says, these practices aren’t about you. The spiritual disciplines we undertake during Lent aren’t about making ourselves feel better or more holy. Their function is to make us more aware of God’s presence in our lives and to turn our focus outward, away from ourselves, and to give of ourselves, for the sake of others.

Rather than avoiding death, embrace life, church.
Plant, and grow, and give, and cultivate life where life is needed.

That’s what this mark on your forehead is.
Not a sign of death, but a reminder of the life to which you are called.

Hinge Point

* a sermon preached at New Hope Lutheran Church on February 26, 2017 *

Since sermons are primarily intended to be heard, you can listen along here.

Texts for the Transfiguration of Our Lord:
Exodus 24:12-18 + Psalm 2 + 2 Peter 1:16-21 + Matthew 17:1-9

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Please pray with me this morning:

Loving God,
You call us to live in the in-between.
Between the now and the not yet…
The is and the what could be…
Between death and life.
Open us to being transformed today,
And give us courage to live transfigured lives.
Amen.

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At one of the churches I served in Chicago, we had a program that we called Community Dinners. It was an outgrowth out of the food pantry that we housed there, but it took the concept a step further. See, instead of only giving people food, our volunteers cooked a meal, every week, and we opened our doors and fed anyone who wanted to come in for a meal.

We served the meals family-style, around big circular tables, and members of the church interspersed ourselves among members of our neighborhood. We had a prayer, and then the rest of the meal was just conversation. Seeing how things were going, checking in with each other’s families, things like that. It was truly a vision of the kingdom of heaven.

Because what made these Community Dinners unique was that the folks that were coming through our doors were predominantly homeless, nearly all were unsure of where their next meal would come from, and most were native Spanish speakers. There were immigrants from Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and a few other Central American countries. There were refugees from countries ravaged by war and economic depression. And every single one of them had a remarkable story about life in their country of origin, their attempts at a better life in Chicago, and how they were currently managing through tough times.community_dinners_12_18_13-0129-3

My eyes were opened and my heart was broken in ways that they wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t conversational in Spanish and couldn’t hear the nuances and intricacies of their stories as they told them in a language that was familiar and comfortable for them.
My experiences at Community Dinners combine to form a hinge point for me in how I understand myself in ministry and in my understanding of the complete and utter expansiveness of God’s love and God’s mercy in a world full of nuances and intricacies.

We are transformed by experiences and stories.
We are transformed when we intentionally place ourselves in situations to experience and hear God’s story of love and redemption in new and unique ways through voices that are different than how we’ve experienced and heard that story before.
This is what I mean when I say that we must be open to transformation.

Our text for today forms a hinge point in the Gospel of Matthew. From the time Jesus, Peter, James, and John come down off of this mountain, they are making their way toward Jerusalem.
Starting this Wednesday at 7pm here in this sanctuary, we’ll also be making our way toward Jerusalem with Jesus.

Transfiguration is when we see God for who God truly is. When God is viewed in all of God’s glory. In Exodus, when Moses sees the glory of the Lord, that Hebrew word for “glory” translates as a heaviness, it’s a weighty thing. God’s glory is not something filled with rainbows and bluebonnets.
The Gospel of Matthew says that Jesus’ face shone like the sun. Church, if you’ve ever stared at the sun, you know that sucker’s bright, it hurts your eyes.
The glory of God is not a thing to be beheld lightly. Of course the disciples were afraid!
Placing ourselves in situations to hear how God is at work in someone else’s life is an uncomfortable thing. It intentionally stretches us and challenges our preconceived notions about our neighbor.

Transfiguration and transformation are linked experiences, I think.
I think transfiguration is an outward reflection of an inward reality of transformation. That is, when we are transformed, when our heart starts to break open and our very being starts to fundamentally be altered, I think it has an effect on our outward appearance.
Transformation happens, incrementally, little by little, when we come down off our mountaintop experiences, and truly engage the world and the people in it.

Mountaintop experiences are important. We need to be reminded of those overwhelmingly tremendous experiences of seeing and feeling God in all of God’s glory. But we are not called to stay on the mountain. Peter wants to build dwellings, to contain and preserve this glorious moment. But just as quickly as Moses and Elijah appeared, they were gone.
We’re not called to stay on the mountain, we are called to come down from the mountain and follow Jesus.

Because notice what happens immediately before our verses for today. If you have your Bibles with you or your Bible apps on your phone, go ahead and flip to Matthew, chapter 17, to our Gospel lesson for today…
Go ahead…I’ll wait……

Got it? Ok, now look back just 5 verses to chapter 16, verse 24. Just before the Transfiguration, we hear these words from Jesus: “If anyone wants to become my disciple, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. Those who want save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

When we follow Jesus down off the mountain with Peter, James, and John, we’re following Jesus to the cross. We’re making our way, with Jesus, to certain death.
But we who live on this side of Easter know that death is not the end of the story.

Save by giving up….
Gain by losing…
It’s upside-down and backwards logic to a world that tells you to build bigger barns and store up as much as you can, to wall yourself off from others, to build bigger fences rather than longer tables.
A world that champions hyper-individuality over radical hospitality and inclusivity.
One thing I learned at Community Dinners was that my own story is richer and more full now that I have Angél’s, and José’s, and Pedro’s, and Amalia’s stories to carry around with my own.

I was transformed by those Community Dinners, and as a result of that transformation, I was transfigured. Where once I was blind to the crushing realities of homelessness and food insecurity, I began to truly see people as God sees them. As so incredibly precious and so deserving of love and dignity and care.

As we make our way to Lent, church, you might be considering giving something up. Lent is a time for practicing and cultivating spiritual disciplines. I want to suggest to us a communal Lenten spiritual discipline of serving.

New Hope Lutheran Church has started and sustained 2 incredible social agencies in our area. The East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry and Fort Bend Family Promise both have deep ties to our faith community. Over the past few months, as I’ve had the opportunity to meet with both organizations, I’m both extremely proud of the work they’re doing and convicted by what I think we can do better.

I want to challenge you this Lent, church. During these 6 weeks of spiritual housecleaning and spiritual growth, gather a group of people together. Get a group of 5-10 people; it can be the commission that you serve on, your bible study group…it could even be a group of your friends. However you choose to get people together, coordinate with Mark Perin, or Don Fought, or Jim Uschkrat and go and serve people at either the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry or Family Promise.
Please do this at least once, ideally twice in the next 2 months.

Put yourself in a position to be changed by the experiences and stories of someone you’ve never met before. And then come and tell me about it. I want to hear your stories of transformation.
Be transformed.
I guarantee you that it will happen.

It just might be a hinge point in your own life of faith.
It will change how you view the world and God’s people in it.
Be transformed. And live transfigured.

 

Keeping Promises

* a sermon preached at Wicker Park Lutheran Church on February 28, 2016 *

Text: Luke 13:1-9

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Trust is crucial in any relationship. One of the ways that we establish trust in relationships is consistency. We do what we say we’re going to do.

We make promises. And by keeping those promises, we build trust in our relationships.

I’m a big fan promises. More specifically, I like to make promises. I’m great at verbalizing the things that I want to do or that I’m going to do.

But, my track record of keeping those promises…? Ehhh……it could be better…

 

Maybe you’re like me.
So, I want you to think about if you made a resolution or multiple resolutions this new year. Think about what you said you were going to do or not do.
Now, 2 months in, how are you doing with keeping on track with those resolutions…?
Is there a noticeable difference?

I’m the same way. I’m really great at making resolutions. I can imagine all the ways I want to better myself and all the things I’d like to do differently this year. I’m less great at following through with those resolutions. Whether I get bored, or lose motivation, or my goals are too lofty…like I said, my track record is…not so great.

And so I rationalize it. “Well, I just couldn’t do it this year. I was too busy. School got in the way. I couldn’t afford it. But next year…next year will be different. Yeah, just one more year…”

One more year…

 

And just like making resolutions at the start of a new year, a lot of us also resolve to do or not do certain things during the season of Lent. We make promises about how we are going to live differently during this season. Whether giving something up or adopting something new, maintaining spiritual disciplines is one of the defining characteristics of the season of Lent.

But disciplines aren’t necessarily natural for us. That’s the very nature of disciplines, they’re not easy for us to adopt. The traditional disciplines of Lent—earnest prayer, fasting, and sacrificial giving—don’t fit neatly into our already established patterns of life.

In fact, these practices are meant to disrupt the well-worn routines and ways that we find ourselves in. By their nature of being disruptive to our routines and not coming naturally to us, we have to engage in these practices with a certain degree of purpose.
Said another way, practices have to be practiced.

The season of Lent has a way of providing an interlude in our lives that makes us analyze our well-worn patterns and determine to what extent our lives are or are not reflective of the life of discipleship we are called to as Christians.

And when those well-worn patterns and habits are not in line with the kind of life that God intends for us, God calls us to repentance. Repentance is the connective thread running through all our readings for today. The prophet Isaiah calls us to turn back to God. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul cautions us not to fall while we think we are standing. Jesus very explicitly warns us, “Repent, or perish.” But repentance is more than being sorry for having done something wrong.

When we repent for our sin—when we repent for the ways in which we have not lived as God has called us to live…the ways in which we don’t recognize one another’s full humanity…the ways in which our ways of life further oppress and marginalize others—we ask for forgiveness, yes, but we also declare—we make promises—to God and to one another, that we recognize how these old patterns of living are not life-giving and commit ourselves to living differently.

It’s a change in posture for how we encounter—how we live—in this world.

 

Repentance, then, is a physical word. Martin Luther used the Latin phrase incurvatus in se to talk about sin. Literally, being turned in on oneself. It follows then, that to repent from one’s sin would be to be turned outward; for Luther, a literal change in curvature of the spine.

A change in posture for how we live in this world.

fig tree

Returning to the Lord, as the prophet in Isaiah says, means a reorientation, a physical movement, a visceral change in posture to align ourselves with God’s hopes and desires for us…and for the world.
And, as the prophet says, “God will have mercy…God will abundantly pardon. For God’s thoughts are not our thoughts…nor are God’s ways our ways.”
In that radical reorientation away from ourselves and back toward God, God in God’s mercy offers us abundance beyond compare. God promises that abundance to us.

By radically reorienting ourselves toward God’s vision and hope for the world, God promises that we will encounter a world where the hungry are filled with good things, the thirsty are quenched, and the richness of God’s bounty are given to all without cost. And God keeps God’s promises.

That’s our hope, friends, that God is faithful and keeps God’s promises. Even when—especially when—we don’t keep ours.

 

The gardener in our gospel lesson today asks the vineyard owner to let the fig tree alone for “one more year,” to give him time to dig around it and put fertilizer on it. But why would a fruit tree that hasn’t been kept or cultivated would bear fruit anyway? I think that a tree that has been left to its own devices would simply do what trees do, take root and grow, but maybe not necessarily bear the ripe, tasty fruit that the vineyard owner is expecting.

It’s interesting, a version of this story appears in both Matthew and Mark, but in those versions, it’s Jesus who is the one looking for fruit, and in both cases he finds none, but instead curses and condemns the fig tree to never bear fruit again. And at once the tree withers away and dies. In the case of Mark, the writer makes it clear that it wasn’t even the season for figs.

So, why would Jesus, who comes looking for fruit out of season, get so upset by this that he commands the tree to wither and die? And I think it’s an appropriate question for us, do we expect to simply bear fruit? Without having done the difficult work of cultivation and fertilization? Do we expect that our Lenten spiritual disciplines will produce good fruit in us for the life of the world without first having done the difficult work practicing those disciplines?

 

And in case we’re tempted to think that all of this is squarely on us, that we’re the ones toiling in the hot sun tending our own individual little fig trees of spirituality, friends, in what ways are we the fig tree? How much more are we in need of being tended and fertilized, watered and fed?

Dear people, God is the very best gardener. Lovingly digging and tilling the soil of our lives. Cultivating in us hearts that yearn to return to God. Soaking us in the waters of baptism and nourishing us with gifts of bread and wine, spiritual food, so that the seeds of love might grow in us and produce in us fruits of grace and mercy for the life and abundance of all God’s creation.

God always keeps God’s promises. So even if the fig tree dies. Even if the tilling and fertilizing and watering don’t take and the tree is good for nothing more than scrap lumber. Remember that on those branches, on those scraps, on those beams, on that rocky, barren hill where nothing could ever possibly take root, our sin was crucified with Christ. And after laying dormant for three days, life sprung out of the dead ground.

Our God brings resurrection from things that are dead. God’s promises of salvation and life everlasting are for us—us who have dead in sin—and yet are made alive together with Christ.

 

And God always keeps God’s promises.

Advent Devotional: Tuesday, January 6: Epiphany!

Ignatius of Antioch, from the 2nd Century, penned this:

A star burned in the sky more brightly than all the others; its light was indescribable, its newness marvelous, and all the other stars, along with the sun and the moon, formed a chorus around this star, the light of which reached father than that of any other…Then all the magic was destroyed, and every bond wrought by wickedness was broken, and the ancient kingdom was razed. When God appeared in human form to bring the newness of eternal life, his counsel began to be fulfilled.

It’s a lovely picture painted with lovely words and has some lovely bits to chew on, too.

Some think that the Magi, in offering their gifts, laid down the implements of their trades at Jesus’ feet. For one, a trader in goods, it was gold. For one, a magician and fortune teller, it was mystical incense meant to induce trances. For the last it was the myrrh, that ancient oil used in burial rites. They gave up their ways in seeing the wisdom of God found in Christ.

I don’t know if I trust that story, but I do know that there are many things that the world calls “wise” that I have given up in searching after God’s wisdom. Ways that no longer rely on gold, on trickery, or that react against fear and especially the fear of death.

In this way wickedness is broken bit by bit. In this way magic, and I don’t mean literal magic, but that magical thinking that we all tend to fall into (if I do this, then this will happen) is broken because, as Luther says, “Only trust God and all is already done.” And in this way the ancient kingdom of death, a kingdom that has plagued (and continues to plague) the world in fear, causing war upon war, selfish greed, and anxiety, is razed to the ground.

There is wisdom here. The Magi story is the precursor to Jesus’ own advice that those who seek will find, those who knock will be welcomed.

So, this Epiphany, this final day of these readings, in these final moments of our time together, in what ways has this season, this seeking, these times we’ve spent together helped you to give up fear and anxiety? How has it taught you to set aside time from being productive (from gold) to seek another kind of wisdom? How have you given up the magical thinking that tells you that if you take time out like this you’ll never get it back, and every moment is precious for production?

Blessed Epiphany, the time of awe, the time of “ah-hah!” The time where wisdom sets in.

 

Question for reflection: In what ways can I make this practice of taking time out to seek wisdom a regular part of my life? 

Advent Devotional: Monday, December 15: The Ember Days

In these mid-December days, we hurtle closer and closer to the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. I have to confess that although I love the ‘feeling’ of the winter season, the shortness of the days and the length of the nights is not my most favorite thing in the world. I much prefer the long days of spring and summer.

As we get deeper into Advent and closer to Christmas, we find that our expectation is more expectant, our waiting is less patient, and our patience is thin. The fullness of Advent is starting to wear on us. Today, less than ten days to go until the arrival of the Christ, we mark the Ember Days—that time when what once might have been a roaring fire of excitement with the arrival of a new season has been reduced to smoldering coals of impatience and uncertainty. It feels like the fire…the warmth…the light…could be extinguished at any moment. It is in these moments that doubts begin to creep in. It feels like we’ve been waiting forever. Will Advent ever end? Will Christ ever arrive?

The Ember Days have been marked the church for as long as anyone can remember. In the mid-5th century, Pope Leo the Great speculated that the apostles themselves instituted the marking of the Ember Days. They were likely a Roman pagan harvest practice that was adopted by the church to ease the conversion from paganism to Christianity. The Romans were a society built on agriculture; and at the beginning of the time for seeding and harvesting, religious ceremonies were performed to implore the help of their gods. The practice adopted by the church was to mark the transitions between seasons; to spend time in prayer and fasting in anticipation of the coming church season.

While fasting is no longer part of our normal church practices, I think there’s something to this idea of purposeful prayer as we draw closer to Christmas and start to feel the full weight of the season of Advent. In the 5th and 6th centuries, people’s lives were marked by the church seasons; people’s day-to-day activities were intimately connected to the movements of the church calendar. That’s not so much the case anymore. We have lives apart from church; we have jobs, kids, partners, houses, friends…the list of things that compete for our time and attention are endless. And yet, if you’ve been following along with this devotional, you’ve been marking time in your life with intentional reflection and prayer. We carve out time in our over-scheduled days to sit…and read…and contemplate…and be quiet…and listen…and pray…

And as one piece of Desert Wisdom suggests, fasting isn’t everything:

Once two brothers went to visit an old man. It was not the old man’s habit, however, to eat every day. When he saw the brothers, he welcomed them with joy, and said: “Fasting has its own reward, but if you eat for the sake of love you satisfy two commandments for you give up your own will and also fulfill the commandment to refresh others.”

While what we do as personal spiritual practices certainly matter and are certainly important, we must not divorce these practices from the world we inhabit everyday. My hope is that these devotionals give you strength and courage for the long journey through Advent, but also cultivate a sense of self that is aware of those around you who may need strength and courage also.

 

Questions for reflection: What worries or concerns or troubles are weighing on you that you are carrying through this season? How might you hold these while still being mindful of the needs and worries and concerns of those you encounter this season?