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God's anoying grace

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 12, 2016 at 10:10 AM

Luke 15:1-10

 

As Alex and I were getting ready for our Tuesday night dinner discussion, I asked her the question that we would ask our students later- what’s the first thing that came to mind about what Jesus did on earth. And she asked, “Is it bad that the first thing I think about is that he ate with prostitutes?”

 

It didn’t seem to be a bad thing for Jesus- he was known for hanging out with tax collectors (known for cheating people and for working with the ruling Roman powers) and sinners, which included women with a reputation. He was known for hanging out with the folks who were considered unacceptable because of who they were or what they had done. All of these folks had been hearing Jesus’ gracious words, they’d been seeing his miracles. They’d been noticing that he didn’t mind being around people like themselves and they started to come closer to hear what he had to say. And Jesus was thrilled to share a meal with them. And share life with them.

 

And of course, the religious folk weren’t happy. That’s how it tends to go in Scripture. And this evening it’s the Pharisees. These were folks who spent their lives trying to follow God’s rules. And presumably this was out of an actual holy desire to be in relationship with God. They weren’t jerks. They were good folks who were irritated that this good Jewish teacher was spending time with these folks who weren’t living right. Because one of God’s holy rules was to keep ourselves separate from outsiders and sinners. It was how God was going to protect us and our short attention spans from getting pulled away from God’s will. And there’s some truth in that- removing temptation is helpful!

 

So we often make those Pharisees out to be bad people for grumbling and complaining, but they’re just trying to make sure that their religion still matters. That doing good stuff that God tells us to is still important to others. Because following these rules are the way they know to be in relationship with God. So if this Jewish teacher throws all that out by welcoming just anyone, regardless of if they are following the rules, then what do the rules even matter anymore? Is everything suddenly ok and God’s will for us can be ignored?

 

But Jesus isn’t known to answer our grumblings directly, regardless of how justified they might be. He tends to answer by telling a story. So when Jesus hears their grumbling, Jesus looks right at the Pharisees and tells them about a sheep who is lost. And he tells the story in the presence of the tax collectors and sinners who’d been crowding in to see him.

 

And this sheep had been separated from the other 99 and was on his own without any help. The sheep was in danger of starving without someone to lead it to food and water and was in danger of being attacked by wolves. And he says that this lost sheep is so utterly important to the shepherd that he will leave behind 99- 99 sheep that are his livelihood, sheep that are known for doing stupid stuff like getting themselves stuck in streams and being led away by sheep stealers. The shepherd will leave them all behind in order to rescue the one who is lost. We’ve gotten used to hearing this parable, but I assure you that this is a rather stupid move to make. Rationality does not do something like this- only love does.

 

And not only does the shepherd go out to rescue the sheep who wandered away, then he calls all his neighbors and friends to rejoice with him over this sheep. They are expected to be as happy as the shepherd is over its return. Because there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

 

And that’s not fair. I mean, it’s plain, 100% not fair. Ok- so you like to look for lost folks, God. That’s fine. But we have to rejoice with you about finding each one while the 99 good folks who follow the rules don’t get anything? Why in the world would we do that? And why in the world don’t we get anything better for following? I had a student text me one summer after reading this passage and ask me why Jesus was being so mean to the good people. Because rejoicing even more in the folks who have messed up is terrible news for those of us who have done a decent job in following.

 

And I imagine at that point Jesus probably looked up a little and turned his eyes over to the tax collectors and sinners and tried to get the Pharisees to look at them too. Because I can’t imagine what it felt like to be a tax collector and to sit and hear that God utterly delights in what you can become. That the only way your past can define you in God’s eyes is to make you more worthy of rejoicing over. That God’s willing to leave these good folks on their own to call out to you in welcome and in rescue.

 

Because what would it be like to this said publicly to defend your right to be right where you are, right next to Jesus- even as the powerful people were complaining? What would be it like to have Jesus publicly say that you could live a future completely different than your past and not have the crap you did in the past follow you around anymore? And not only that, you are told that there is joy in heaven over you. God dances when you take hold of the love he has for you.

 

He looks square at the Pharisees and says, “Our God goes after the ones who find themselves lost. Because they need to be found. That’s what mercy does. Over and over. Look at your brothers and sisters right here at the table and know how much they need that word. And nothing- not your self-righteousness or your holiness or your jealousness- should get in the way of bringing that word and rejoicing when others hear it. Because the word about my love IS THAT GOOD! It’s ALWAYS that good. And if all this that I’m saying pisses you off, then maybe you don’t understand the love of God well enough.

 

Yes, my rules still matter, Jesus probably told them. I did just finish telling everyone that you need to give up the hold you have on your family, your life and your possessions to follow me. I’m not really watering anything down. But first things first. Some of my friends here have not heard the word of love you already know. So at this moment, at this table, the only words that need to be spoken are about mercy for those that are far from God’s love. There will be time for other words that challenge and teach us all to live differently. But when you are lost in the wilderness, the only words you really want to hear are, “Someone is looking for you and they will find you.”

 

“So let your brothers and sisters hear my word to them and listen in- because you need to hear these words, too. Know that I love you. I have so much hope for you. I refuse to be done with you, even though at times it may seem like the intelligent option. Whatever you have done in life is not stronger than what I can love into being through you. My love and mercy is better and bigger and stronger than your mistakes, your missteps and your failings.”

 

I want you to know this in your heart and I want you to celebrate that this is who I am. I want you to celebrate that this is how my love works. AND I want you to celebrate these beloved ones who you call outcasts. These ones who have now felt this love of mine and made it their home.

 

I want you to celebrate them and I want you to keep noticing them and welcoming them. You know, not like second class citizens, but as people as beloved as you are. Reflect my love and be people who rejoice in restoration and return. Who rejoice EVERY SINGLE TIME a child of God comes to find their life and their hope in God again.

 

And welcome them back into God’s love without shaming or scolding. Now, that doesn’t mean we need to lie. We can be honest about sin and evil. When others are hurting their brothers or sisters or are trapped by greed or addiction, we need to speak up. We may need to work together to restore trust or repair relationships. And we might even need some holy anger like God had in that first lesson when the people started worshipping a golden calf. But those might not be your first words. Because when someone is lost in the wilderness and in pain, “God delights in you and I welcome you” are the words we need to lead with.

 

So we are called to be people of mercy. Not because we always like it, but because our God chooses to, over and over again, be a God of senseless mercy. Overreaching love. And foolish welcome. For people who mess up. For people like us.

 

Losing your clothes for Jesus

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 6, 2016 at 10:40 AM

Luke 14:25-33

 

My campus ministry students know that I am something of an expert on all the naked people in Scripture. I don’t know why this is, but it somehow comes up a lot in Bible studies. And this is not only a fun fact, but actually has something to do with the sermon.

 

Well, last semester at UMBC, we spent one night reading stories of saints- those “official” Catholic saints and other faithful Christians who had done extraordinary things in order to follow Jesus. And that’s when I happened to come across the story of Brother Juniper who served with St. Francis of Assisi. And his story stuck with me, because, wouldn’t you know it, kept giving his clothes away to everyone in need that he met on the road. He did it so often that his superiors finally had to forbid him to do it again. So the next time Juniper saw a man in need, he told him that he couldn’t GIVE this man his tunic, but we wouldn’t prevent the man from taking it either. Brother Juniper just couldn’t imagine another way to live than to give all he had to his brothers and sisters in need.

 

Folks like Brother Juniper make us laugh at the absurdity of this way of life, but they also make us rejoice at the sheer beauty of it. What treasure of God must Juniper know to live like this? What secret joy in giving away everything for Jesus did he find? And how did he have the courage to follow Jesus like this?

 

These are the questions we have when we see someone actually be able to live like Jesus calls us to this morning. Because, today Jesus is really pulling out all the stops in telling us how hard it is to follow him. You know, the big stuff like not putting our families or our safety first and giving up all we own. Things that are pretty much antithetical to how much of our culture tells us to live. And things that are pretty terrifying and heart-breaking.

 

And Jesus starts where it hurts- with our families- those folks that both love us and shape our lives from day one. And Jesus tells the crowds around him that they need to hate their families to follow him. But he meant something more like, “don’t give first preference to.” Don’t let your family’s wants and needs dictate your decisions. Don’t let them be your first priority. That place belongs to God alone.

 

And he says the same things about our own lives- we’re called to refuse to put our desires or even our safety first and foremost in our lives. So perhaps it then doesn’t come as a huge shock that Jesus tells that unless we give away all we own, we cannot follow him.

 

And that just sounds mean and unreasonable and a little condemning. If we can’t do what seems impossible, then we’re not allowed to be a follower? Does Jesus not love us then? That’s where we may go in our heads, but we already know Jesus’ love for us is without question. But Jesus is trying to tell the crowds and us something else this morning.

 

When Jesus says, “if you don’t do these things, you can’t be my disciple,” it’s better translated as “you will not be able to.” As in “If you don’t treat what you have as completely unimportant in comparison to following where Jesus leads, then it’s not going to work. You’re going to get a little ways on the journey and then not make it since you will be weighed down. And if you don’t make Jesus’ calling a priority far above the obligations and wants of your family, you’ll be called in many directions and get distracted. If you’re worried about safety at all costs, you won’t be able to do the courageous things that Jesus asks of your for the sake of bringing love and justice to the world.

 

You see, Jesus is being honest about a life spent with him. It’s not for the faint of heart. He was telling the crowds that he was going to keep preaching and living out the kingdom in the face of persecution. And that meant that only those who trusted his lead and put it first in their lives were going to have a chance of withstanding what was ahead. Because even though this following Jesus thing leads to joyful, purposeful God-filled life- it’s not going to easy.

 

Jesus is giving us a gift- he’s telling us the truth about what needs to be central so that we can put other things- even good things- in their place. If you don’t make this one central choice about where your focus lies and where your heart lies, then you’re not going to be able to make any of the smaller decisions you will need to make. Jesus sorts through all the things that compete for our attention and our devotion and puts them in their place.

 

And frankly, it’s a gift to have someone who knows where life and beauty and joy are found do the orienting of our lives. Because we have a tendency to not always make such good choices when left on our own! So it’s a gift to have one who loves us be the one to lead us. It is a gift to get to follow one who promises that we can join him in bringing the goodness of God into the world.

 

But it will mean change and a complete reorientation of our lives. So we need to count the cost before we sign on. Because those who follow Jesus no longer make decisions based on what is best for themselves or even what’s best for their family. They may be called to live in more dangerous neighborhoods so that they may bring a gracious and calming presence there. They may live more simply than others to devote their resources to those in more need. They may spend a lot of time away from their family for the sake of helping those who seem less deserving. Their choices may not always be supported by their family or by our society when they do what Jesus calls them to do. Just like Brother Juniper’s actions weren’t exactly celebrated, even by his religious community.

 

But Jesus calls us to follow him toward the life and beauty he brings no matter what just like Juniper. You see, Juniper got so caught up in the loveliness of following Jesus that even though he did things that were ridiculous to our eyes, they seemed perfectly normal and even necessary for him to do. Because he had different priorities. And because his eyes were looking toward a different future. As he looked toward God’s future where all people had enough, clothing those in need with whatever he had to give was the only possible way to walk this path with Jesus. So he just did it.

 

But , since all of you here at church are clothed, perhaps we’re not as gifted as Brother Juniper was at seeing and trusting this kingdom. So what do we do then? What if we’re not as foolish and courageous enough to dance into this beautiful kingdom of God like him? How then can we LEARN to be?

 

I don’t know the answer, but this is one things that my students and I have tried together. Every year a few of my Towson students and I make a promise to gather every other week to hear what God had been up to in our lives. We share about the moments when we felt like something greater than us was at work and those nagging thoughts that God keeps tapping us on the shoulder with. And we would support each other by connecting those moments and thoughts to the stories of Scripture, as best we were able. Then we would simply ask, “What is God saying? And what are you going to do about it?” We would ask the questions that are THE questions in the life of following Jesus, but they are also the questions that often don’t get asked in the course of a busy life.

 

And then we would check in with each other later in the week and the week after that and the week after that to see if we had actually done what we planned. We checked in because this is what love does- supporting each other in the things that matter, supporting each other in the things that lead to life. This life of following Jesus matters, so it was worth pushing each other a little.

 

And because we found that checking in wasn’t always enough, we promised each other that in any crazy thing Jesus called us to do, that we would find two others to walk the way with us so that we would be strong enough. And that we would be some of those people for each other. We called each other to listen to God. We held each other accountable and we walked beside each other as we did the hard work of following. We echoed the exact things that Jesus does on the way with us- he calls us, supports us and goes on the way with us.

 

Now, together we didn’t do all that Jesus calls us to. Not by a long shot. But we took some steps along the way. And we hoped that living like this together might prepare our hearts for the moment when Jesus may ask us to walk away from anything for the sake of following.

 

So I pray that I pray that you find those Christians in your lives that love you enough to ask you hard questions about following Jesus. That challenge you and cheer you on. And I pray that you will be ones who love others and enough to ask them about things that matter and walk beside them in the courageous work of following.

 

Because Jesus invites us to a life where we are free of the stresses and pulls of so many things on our time , by inviting us to make the one decision that decides all others. He loves us whether we follow well of not, but he wants us to have the freedom to leave behind all that bind us in order to follow him. Because the life of following is beautiful, just like the life the Juniper lived. And it is what Jesus wishes that each of us would grab hold of for the sake of knowing the love of God.

 

You can't keep score at my party

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on March 8, 2016 at 12:35 AM

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

 

 

This morning, we find ourselves at the table with Jesus, where he’s enjoying the company of the wrong people. The people who weren’t good enough for an invitation anywhere else. The people who were too poor or too rowdy or who were caught up in a profession that wasn’t all that good and holy. And we know Jesus didn’t just do this once- it kind of became a habit. He kept eating with these kind of people and had the audacity to treat them like actual human beings.

 

And the good people got ticked off. And they’re doing what good people too often do- grumble and complain, wondering why Jesus would waste his time and risk his reputation on these unclean ones. And I’m sure that Jesus got tired of explaining himself and getting into a debate that would never end, so he just shut them up with story. A story they had to live into and find themselves in.

 

And it’s a story that we know so well we barely hear it anymore. It’s about a family with an irresponsible son and a father who is embarrassingly good. So good that people probably ridiculed him because he was willing to welcome back his messed up son who had wasted every last scrap of what his father had given him. And he didn’t just let him come home to stay- he ran out to meet him and gave him gifts that he was too irresponsible to be trusted with. Instead of giving this son a lecture and some strict rules, he gives him love and celebration.

 

And the folks listening to the story probably thought- “This is exactly the kind of crap we’re complaining about, Jesus. Enjoying people before they do right. That’s irresponsible. It’s unfair. They deserve a lecture, not a welcome.“

 

But Jesus just smiled. Because this story wasn’t about what was good or moral or even deserved- it is about what was needed. This was a father who knew his sons. Loved his sons. And he knew a lecture wasn’t going to change a darn thing. Lectures you can tune out. But you can’t fully tune out love, even when you want to. Love breaks your heart open.

 

So at that moment, when his son was broken and hungry and ashamed, the father knew he couldn’t bear a lecture. Couldn’t bear the coldness of his father merely being polite in letting him come back. He couldn’t be welcomed back into a relationship unless his father did something so full of obvious love that it took his breath away and took him against his will back into this family that he had no business being a part of.

 

There would be time for hard words to the younger son. There would be time for him to hear what was expected of him, time to make amends. There would be time to bear fruit worthy of a son of so loving a father. But when he was hurting and broken, he needed love first. He needed someone to take complete joy in his presence and honor him for all that he would become. He needed an embrace that ran out to meet him.

 

You see, these are not the ONLY words of the father to this son, but they are the words that are needed in the moment. Because when we are broken, God gives us what we need, rather than what we deserve.

 

This is how Jesus’ love always is for the one who is falling apart, who has drifted far away, who has messed up. And this is something we rejoice in. And it’s usually the part of the story that we talk about. But I don’t think it’s the main reason Jesus told it. Because he told it to people a whole lot more like the elder brother. Those who were asking, “so what about us? “

 

What is the love for those who have stuck around? Who have tried to follow and not done a horrible job at it? What about us who have worked hard to be faithful? We’re not perfect, we’ve done some bad stuff, but like him we may not have done something so publicly bad and wasteful and sinful like this other guy. And sure, all sins are the supposed to be the same and we’ve lied and coveted and stuff, but can’t we get past being politically correct and just admit that we haven’t made as many bad choices, we may ask.

 

But Jesus just keeps telling the story. The story of the elder brother, the one who is supposed to know better and behave better. The one who has hung around the father long enough that he should have known his heart by now.

 

And instead of celebrating that his dad was doing the thing his dad did best- welcoming and celebrating and loving without limit- the elder brother can only see his father wasting his inheritance on a kid who was immature and irresponsible. Wasting his goodness on someone that wasn’t worth it. Instead of this brother understanding that HE is also loved by a father whose love is good enough and wide enough to love even his idiot brother, the elder brother just sees unfairness.

 

But thankfully, even though this brother wants to live by what s fair and wants to pout outside the party, this loving father doesn’t treat the older brother like he deserves, either. He deserves to be ignored and left outside because of his questioning of his father. But the father knows he needs his dad to come to him again. To assure him of the love that he’s questioning.

 

It may be a quieter assurance, not as much of a celebration as he was hoping for, but his father reminds him, “I delight in you.  I delight when you follow me and live wth me.  I love you so much that even in the midst of a party for your brother, I am standing here with you, loving you and inviting you to celebrate with me. But right now we need to rejoice.  Because we have family that you thought was gone forever. You have a brother to share your life with.  I dearly want you to be family to each other and to know how much I love each of you.  Sitting down to the table with me isn't about deserving it.  It's about enjoying the love I give you.  And enjoying me.  And you don't get to do that when you're keeping score!  So get over yourself and let me love how I will love. Enjoy this love instead of trying to control it. And get yourself inside to this feast!”

 

They seem like harsh words, not extravagantly loving ones, for a son who had done all the responsible things. But they are the only words to break through this brother’s pride and open his heart to the father’s love. The point is not to focus on following all the rules so perfectly, the father says. The point is to love who I love and to be family together. That’s what I want more than anything. So quit your being responsible and just love your brother!

 

And just as the older brother is left with his mouth wide open in surprise, I’m sure the good religious people were left speechless. Because Jesus says what simply does not make sense. Jesus tells all the rule-abiding folk that their relationship to these ones he’s eating with is what really matters. God is the father who loves both his sons so desperately that their relationship to each other and to him is more important than their virtue.

 

So all these folks I’m eating with are your family, Jesus says, whether you like it or not. They are your nutty, inconvenient, irresponsible family. And you may do all sorts of good things in the world, live by all sorts of good rules, but if you don’t recognize these as your brothers and sisters and know the love I have for them, you don’t really know who I am. And then you don’t get to enjoy how good my love is. So get to know your brothers and sisters, they can tell you about how good my love is. They can tell you how extravagantly good it is to be welcomed when you don’t deserve it or don’t ever think you will be welcomed. Learn about my love from them. And then celebrate with them. Because then you can celebrate with me.

 

Because there’s a party. It’s happening whether you like it or not. I’m going to keep loving your brother and you like this even if you think it’s a bad idea. So come and eat and enjoy the love that you get to live in and come meet the rest of your family who gets to live in this love with you.

 

Transformation is coming!

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 8, 2013 at 2:45 PM

You brood of vipers! You sinful people!  Look at you- you’re a mess!  You haven’t been living right.  You haven’t been putting God first.  You’re full of hatred and greed.  And just because you’re God’s chosen people doesn’t mean you’re not going to be judged.  God is ready to get rid of those of you who don’t shape up!  And happy Advent to you!  Every single Advent, John brings his wilderness yelling into our churches to disturb our happy Christmas preparations.  

 

So John’s out there yelling at us this morning and I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of people yelling at me and telling me to clean up my act.  I don’t like being told that I’m doing things wrong.  Anyone with me on that?  And why is that?  It’s certainly not because we’re perfect and never mess up.  I mean, who here honestly raise their hands and say that they are 100% happy with who they are?  With how they treat others? And who here can say that they don’t have any habits that they wish they could change?  We probably know our own faults better than anyone else.  I think we just don’t particularly like to be told about all we’re doing wrong since it reminds us of what we already know is true.  

 

We know that we are not fully who God has created us to be.  We know that we get angry too quickly and aren’t patient enough with those that need our attention.  We know that we haven’t always put in an honest day’s work.  We know that we have taken our loved ones for granted at times.  We know that we have not been generous enough with those who live in poverty.  And we know that too often we have gotten our priorities out of line.  Sometimes we’re so aware of all the things that aren’t right, that we just can’t bear to hear John the Baptist point it out.  

 

But every year, John cries out to us in Advent anyway, reminding us of all our failings.  He doesn’t do it to bust our happy Christmas bubble, though.  He doesn’t do it so that we can add shame to our list of holiday stresses.  He calls out to us so that we can be changed.  He’s telling us the truth about our lives so that we don’t have to stay that way.  He’s calling us to repent, which literally means, “to turn around.”  To start living in a new way.  To be changed.  

 

Isn’t that what we really want at Christmas?  To know that after the presents are opened and the decorations put away, that we will somehow be different.  That Jesus’ coming will change us, will change our world for the better.  That we will be kinder and more loving to those around us.  That we will be able to let go of anger and guilt and all those things that keep us from bearing God’s image more clearly.

 

And we hope that peace will break into our neighborhoods and homes and across our world.  That corporations and governments will be less corrupt.  That more people will have jobs and homes. The season of Advent is always one of hope, hope that this year, Christ’s coming will change us and change the world around us. That we will be transformed.  

 

And what does that transformation look like?  Well, it’s a bit of long story, but stay with me here.  One year in particular, I was charged with helping set the nativity scene up for a church I worked at.  I had heard so many stories of the life-size crèche, which the congregation had been setting up for over 20 years, right in the middle of downtown Philadelphia, a few blocks from the Liberty Bell.  So, when the men of the church set the stable of wood and chicken wire up right after Thanksgiving, I looked forward to the day when I would help to set the scene.  

 

And about 2 weeks later, the day finally came and we ventured down to the “closet of the mannequins.”  I imagined them dressed in fine robes sewed by the women of the church and just waiting in the closet to greet me.  But instead of shepherds and wise men, I came face to face with a big mess of legs and torsos, shoved in wherever they fit.  This wasn’t exactly how I imagined it.  It was our job to grab as many arms and legs as possible and head upstairs to put them together, with plaster falling off fingers and faces as we did.  All the mannequins had numbers on each of their parts so that each person could be reunited with their correct body parts.  Our challenge was to fit them back together without putting the hands or the feet on backwards and to make sure they stayed together amidst the duct tape.  

 

Then we dressed them with a random collection of old blankets and leftover fabric.  Their robes didn’t look any better than the used clothing we gave weekly in that room to men and women who lived on the streets.  A Rainbow Brite doll stood in for Jesus after he’d been stolen years before and we wrapped her with of swaddling clothes to hide her true identity.  Mary’s head had to be covered very carefully to hide the fact that all her hair had fallen off.  

 

After we dragged the shepherds and the wise men out to the stable, I was in charge of strategic straw placement to hide the toes the goats had gnawed off last year.  We had to tie some of the shepherds to the wooden slats since we couldn’t manage to get them to stand up on their own.  And two wise men had to stand very close so that no one could tell that we never did find one of their arms that year.

 

Now, I’d like to say that when we got it all done, it looked a lot better than it sounds, but the truth is that it didn’t.  It looked a little ridiculous.  It wasn’t exactly that idyllic scene portrayed on Christmas cards. I just hoped that people looked at it from far away or got distracted by the live animals in front of it so they wouldn’t notice what a mess it was.  

 

But that year, I also had the privilege of living next door to this nativity and watching people as they passed.  They stopped on their way to work or lunch.  People stared from their cars.  People drove out of their way to see it.  And every night, the men of our church’s homeless shelter would go out to the stable before going to sleep for the night.  These folks didn’t see it like I did, with every imperfection showing. They saw it transformed.  Instead of a bunch of mannequins missing limbs, they saw it as a story of God’s love and a message of hope in the middle of the city.  

 

Those mannequins may have been imperfect, they may have been falling apart, they may have been a mess, but God could transform them.  They became more than what they were- they became a part of the story of God’s promise for a messy world.   A part of the story of our God that took on our flesh.  The story of a God who came to transform us by sharing our human life with us.

 

And that is the gift that is coming, the gift that John promises this morning.  “One who is more powerful than I is coming. And he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  He will come to change you and transform you.  You, ordinary, messy, imperfect people.  Your God is coming to you.  And you will not be the same.  

 

John came telling us what to do to be right.  He told the truth about our failings and told us to turn around.  But we all know that’s not enough.  If knowing the right thing to do was enough, all of us would stop eating Big Macs, get 30 minutes of exercise a day and pray every morning and evening.   Even though we know what is right, we still fail.  We’re still imperfect.  We need someone who will come to wrap us in the Holy Spirit and transform us.  

 

We need someone who will love us even when we’re falling apart, even when we mess up.  We need someone who will love us enough to take on our flesh and walk this life with us.  We need someone whose love is so sure, so overpowering, so undeserved and unexplained that it can change who we are.  That it can transform how we live.  

 

And that is the gift that John is proclaiming, that the church is proclaiming, that the whole season of Advent is proclaiming.  Our God is coming to us.  Christ has come to take on our flesh, to live with us, so that we can be more than we know we are.  So that we can be more than the missing toes and the duct tape.  So that we can be more than the imperfections that we try so desperately to cover up.  Our God has come to us, to live with us, to be closer than our own skin, so that we can walk with God and be changed.    

 

And that is not all.  Christ has come to make us new not only for ourselves.  For we are transformed, like those mannequins, into people who play a part in telling the story of God’s love for the world.  We have been transformed from messy, imperfect people, into people that bear God’s promise into the world.  Who bear that love to a hurting world.  Who proclaim the story of God’s love in who we are, in the words we speak, and in how we live.  We have been transformed so that we can tell the story of God’s love to a world is waiting to hear it.  

 

So as we get ready to celebrate the miracle of God coming to us, be ready to be transformed.  Let Christ’s presence turn you around and change those things that keep you from God. Be ready to be changed by his coming. 

 

The revolutionary table of Jesus

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on September 2, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Luke 14:1, 7-14

 

This Tuesday, we officially begin our new adventure called “The Table”- a joint Lutheran-Episcopal ministry at Towson.  And the name “The Table” came out of our life together as a ministry- sitting around a table together to eat and discuss.  And it came from reading about what Jesus did at tables in the gospel of Luke.  And this morning’s gospel lesson was one of the central texts we discussed.  So it seems pretty fitting that God has worked out to have us read this lesson this morning.  

 

Jesus sits down to dinner in the home of a leader of the Pharisees, one of the area’s most important religious leaders.  And rather than make small talk, Jesus tells his host, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”  

 

He sits down to a nice dinner that he’s been invited to and tells the host that everyone around the table shouldn’t be there.  Instead, when you invite people over to dinner, don’t invite your friends or your family or the people you want to impress or the people that can help you get a job or the people you admire.  Instead, invite those with little money, those who are hungry, those who have physical challenges. Go find those people who don’t usually get invited to dinner and bring them over to your house.  Welcome those people who you try not to notice, all those people that are different enough from you that they make you uncomfortable.  Invite all the people that can’t do anything for you.  And then you will be blessed.  

 

We’re used to hearing stuff like this from Jesus.  Hard stuff.  He tells us to give up what we own.  To be prepared to cause division in our families and suffer physically for following him.  And then we get to today’s text, where Jesus just tells us to change who we invite for dinner.  And I’ve got to tell you, for some reason these words seem almost as hard to live out as all that big stuff.  

 

Because who we eat with is a pretty personal thing.  We eat with people we like and who make us comfortable.  Who make us feel like we belong.  And when we stretch beyond just eating with those folks we like, it’s usually for a good reason- like having lunch with your boss or a client at work to get ahead.  Or hosting a party to impress some folks or to introduce people to each other.  Most of us don’t do a whole lot of eating with random strangers if we can avoid it.  

 

So why is Jesus messing with that?  Why is he being so insistent about who we should invite to dinner?  I mean, we all know that he wants the poor to be fed, but can’t we just give them their own meal?  We know he wants those who face physical challenges to be helped, but can’t we do that some other way?  Would all these folks really want to come into our homes, anyway?  Wouldn’t that be just as strange for them as it would be for us?  Why does Jesus care who we eat dinner with, as long as we care about others and make sure they have what they need?  

 

That’s what I say in my mind when I read this passage, but in my heart I think I know the reason already.  I think that Jesus is so insistent about who we invite to our meals precisely because they are so personal.  And they are so ordinary and central to our lives.  Gathering around tables together is how we get to know each other.  Sharing a meal with someone is a way show that we value them.  And a way we show the world who we are willing to be seen with and connected to. And often they are also about social standing- who we are equal to, who we are better than.  They’re often ways that we show where we stand and who we are willing to stand with.  They are central to understanding who we are in the world.  

 

But Jesus comes to show us a new way that doesn’t look like the rest of the world.  That has different values and different ways of life.  It is one where peace is more powerful than violence, love is more powerful than death and where justice is more important than power or wealth or status.  It simply doesn’t look like the rest of the world.   And one of the ways that we’re going to learn about and live out that kingdom is in one of the most ordinary and personal ways we can imagine- changing who is around our dinner tables.

 

Jesus tells the Pharisees and us that meals in the kingdom aren’t about status or the people you like- they are about a crazy community that would only be called together by me- a community whose only connection is that they are people that I am absolutely crazy about.  And at these kingdom meals, all the folks who don’t get much love out in the rest of the world get an extra special seat at my table.  And they get that seat simply because they need it.  So when you set the table for a feast, Jesus says, remember these folks that I shower my love on- the ones who need to feel that love the most.  And make sure they have a place at all your celebrations.

 

Because, he told the Pharisees, all those good law-abiding folk who loved God, you already know you are God’s children.   You know that God thinks you are an utter delight.  But there are some folks who don’t get that.  And the truth is, you’re going to be the person through which they learn.  So your meals are meant to be about the ones who never get an invitation.  And if you’re ever in that category- if you are someone who is struggling and in pain, someone who gets left out, someone who can’t understand my love, then I’m going to bug your brothers and sisters to invite you because I adore you. And I want you to know that.  And perhaps, when they invite you in to their party- invite you by name and out of love- you might learn what it means to be loved by me.

 

So go invite your brothers and sisters in here at my meal.  Make my welcome of them real- in flesh and blood.  And then take your place among them.  Get to know the ones I love.  Get to see what I love about them- even if you have to look hard.  And see how I love them even when it’s difficult.  And then maybe you’ll get how I love you, too.  Even when you make it plenty hard for me.  

 

Make your meals a reflection of the kingdom I’ve been preaching about and maybe you’ll start to learn how amazing that kingdom is.  That place where the only status you have is “child of God” and that is all the status you need.  Where you don’t need to figure out who is more important and who is less important or worry about what group you fit in.  You fit in simply because you are loved by God and you invite others in because God loves them, too.  Start living that way in your meals and maybe you’ll start understanding that this how things already are in God’s kingdom.  And maybe you’ll start to fall in love with the kingdom and with me again.    

 

 

Jesus is saying that to love the kingdom, we have to start living it.  That’s what his followers do.  

Jesus keeps telling us that to be his follower is to be known and defined by the strange things we do in order to live out the message of Jesus.  It is to be so in love with the kingdom that Jesus is bringing that we risk living it out on earth.  And perhaps that starts with one of the most personal and ordinary things we do- inviting everyone into our meals.  Inviting all those who get left out and might make you a little uncomfortable.   All those who need an invitation more than anyone else.  Inviting them simply to eat with us and be a part of our lives for awhile.   

 

This is what I know Jesus calls us to- as individuals and most especially as a Christian community.  Because this is what he lives out- eating with public sinners, tax collectors, important people and those of no account. And I know that Jesus wants our communities to actively embrace everyone.  To go out into the streets and invite folks into our homes and our communities.  To invite them in for dinner.  But I’ve got to admit- I don’t do this most of the time.  This is not how I live and not how most Christians live.  Inviting everyone- especially those who have more challenges and more needs than most- is hard.  It’s inconvenient.  It takes up a lot of time and energy. We don’t have the resources to do it.  And worse than that, I have to admit that I don’t really want to do this most days.  I don’t want to make my meals like Jesus says.

 

But just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean that Jesus doesn’t keep inviting us to this work..  So perhaps we need to admit how hard Jesus’ words are.  To admit that they are not always easy or a whole lot of fun. And as a community of people who are trying to follow Jesus, continue to challenge each other to live out Jesus’ words.  To try it out as a community together so we might have the strength to do it.  Perhaps once a year, then a few times and then once a month.  To try inviting folks to a meal- at this congregation or at a restaurant or in someone’s home.  Not to convert them.  Not to get them to join the church.  Not to do anything but simply share life with them.  Hear their stories.  Learn who they are.  And for an hour or two, simply to be willing to share our lives with those that Jesus desperately loves.   

 

It’s not going to change our lives overnight.  It’ll still be strange and awkward.  But Jesus calls us to this so that we might learn what the kingdom is like.  So that we might learn what the love of God is like.  How wide and abundant and overwhelming it is.  How it embraces us no matter how challenging we are, and whether others like us or we like ourselves.  We’re invited to invite others in so that we might learn how God keeps inviting us to the table because he adores us.  And then, we get the privilege of inviting others to the table so that we might get to show someone else how much they are loved by our God.  

 

 

Sabbath is a day of setting free

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on August 29, 2013 at 1:40 PM

Luke 13:10-17

 

Imagine being painfully bent over for 18 years and never being able to look people in the eye.  Imagine praying for 18 years that things would change.  And then, when you had even given up hope, imagine that this man Jesus heals you and your back can straighten and stretch again.  Imagine your joy and your relief.  

 

And then imagine looking at a man in the synagogue who is objecting.  Who is yelling at Jesus for letting you stand up. Not because it was bad, but because it was at the wrong time.  It wasn’t in good order.  It didn’t follow the rules and wasn’t the way things were supposed to happen.

 

I’ve got to say, I tend not to have a lot of patience for folks like that.  Folks who feel that they always need to enforce the rules.  Who complain when things are out of place.  Well, I don’t have patience for them except when they’re me.  Unless it’s a rule that I’ve decided really does matter.  So, in the interest of being as kind to this man in the synagogue as I would want someone to be toward me, perhaps it’s worth hearing his side of the story.  

 

This man objected to Jesus’ healing because it was done on the Sabbath.  And that was a day reserved for rest, for worship.  It was a day that God had commanded the people of Israel to treat differently.  And the synagogue leader was in charge of making sure that the people remembered this.  It was his job to call people back to the good gift of Sabbath, to uphold the regulations that said that no work could be done, so that people would rest.  Even today, we know that sometimes we just have to be forced to rest, forced to take time for God in our weeks.  The synagogue leader was just trying to do that for the people, to uphold God’s commandment and to make space for the people of Israel to love and honor God.  

 

So the synagogue leader is angry that Jesus would blatantly disobey a law that is good and valuable.  Why did Jesus insist on healing on the Sabbath?  This woman had suffered for 18 years.  A few hours couldn’t have made that much of a difference in the great scheme of things.  In a few hours, Jesus could have healed this woman and everyone would have rejoiced.

 

So what was Jesus up to?  It wasn’t like Jesus to be contrary for no reason.  When he breaks the rules, it’s usually to teach us something important.  And this morning, he’s trying to teach us what the Sabbath is meant to be.  Sabbath was originally a gift to the people of Israel.  It was a blessing of rest from their hard labor.  It was a reminder that with the help of God, 6 days of work would be enough to provide all they needed.  And the Sabbath was a time for the Israelites to look up from their work and simply delight in the goodness of God.  

 

But then the leaders of Israel wanted to protect God’s good gift.  They held God’s commandments in such esteem that they wanted to make sure that they interpreted them right.  So they started to make laws about what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath.  Just the same way we do in the rest of our lives.  

 

When neighborhoods are planned and laid out, we want to make sure that they stay places that are good to live in.  We want to make sure they are safe and beautiful places for ourselves and our families.  So, we start making rules about what we can be in our front yard and how early we can start mowing the lawn.  We make up Property Owners Associations that are so full of rules that can cause so much frustration that sometimes we’re sorry we moved to that neighborhood in the first place.  

 

And our governments have plenty of rules, too.  When we give out assistance, we have rules about who is eligible and piles of paperwork applicants have to fill out.  And sometimes the rules get so complicated that the very people the assistance is supposed to help are kept from getting what they need because of all the rules.  

 

Rules and laws are good.  They are supposed to help us live together.   They are meant to give us boundaries to live within.  Like the 10 Commandments, our laws are made to help us know the things that make for peace and to keep evil at bay.  But they are never meant to be an end in themselves.  God’s rules for us are made to be life-GIVING, not things to hold us in bondage.  So when enforcing the laws get in the way of God’s healing and justice, then they have overstepped their bounds.  If our laws don’t leave room for the freeing grace of God to surprise us, then they are missing the point.  

 

And that’s what was happening in the synagogue. Jesus heals the woman on the Sabbath to announce that all the rules about the Sabbath have gotten in the way of the freeing power of God.  Jesus is reminding the synagogue leaders that the Sabbath is not about rules, it’s not about making sure that no one lifts a finger.  The Sabbath is about setting us free from our worry so that we can trust God to sustain us.   It is what frees us to look up from our work so that we can simply delight in our God.  So setting this woman free from her bondage is definitely Sabbath work.  Setting people free is what Sabbath has always been about.  And setting people free has always been what God has been about.  

 

God set the people of Israel free when they were slaves in Egypt.  God set them free from hunger by bringing them manna in the wilderness.  And, time and time again, God set them free by forgiving them and blessing them when they returned to their God in repentance.  Our God is a God who delights in setting people free.  Even from the ways that we enslave ourselves.

 

So when laws, even God’s laws, become more about keeping people in bondage, rather than setting them free to praise God, then they’re not doing the work God intended of them.  When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, he’s not just setting the woman free from 18 years of suffering.  He’s also setting the leader of the synagogue free.  He’s setting him free from his bondage to the rules so that he could see the grace of God break in.  Jesus set him free to delight in God again, to  enjoy God’s work of setting free.

 

And we still need this.  So every week, we come to this place to celebrate the God who sets us free.  Now, as Christians, we don’t celebrate the Sabbath.  We don’t stop our all work like our Jewish brothers and sisters do to remember the day that God rested.  But we still celebrate the God’s work of setting us free.  

 

Instead, we come to worship on the first day of the week, the day of resurrection, to celebrate the greatest of all “setting frees.”  Every Sunday we come to celebrate the open tomb, Jesus’ triumph over death.  We come to tell the story of God’s great setting free so that we can try again to believe it - that violence and sickness and even death are not stronger than God’s power to bring life.  We come so that we can remember again this unbelievable word, so that we can lay down our worry and fear and shame and sadness and simply delight in the goodness of God.  

 

 

And we come here because we need to remember and we need to be set free- over and over again, from all that tries to own us and take us over during the week.  So we come to be set free from our busyness for a moment and let God be enough to sustain us.  We come to this community to be set free from those sins and failures that plague us by hearing those words of forgiveness at the beginning of our service.  Child of God, your sins are forgiven so that you may live your life standing up straight and praising God.   

 

We come to hear the stories of God so we can learn who God is and what God intends for all creation.  We come to hear about God setting free- from hunger.  From fear.  From grief.  From violence.  And from all those things that keep us from being who God has meant us to be.  And we hear God’s promise to keep doing those things again for us and for our world.  

 

And every Sunday, we come here to be set free from our worrying about if there will be enough by gathering around this table with our brothers and sisters.  By opening our hands, feeling that bread and wine on our lips and seeing again how no one ever goes away hungry.  By seeing a vision for how God intends our world will be and learning to trust that vision.   And then, as we leave, we get to be set free from our selfishness by being sent out to do God’s work in the world, not our own.  

 

Jesus comes to set us free from all that keeps us from loving and following God.  He comes to heal us of those things that have bent us over, those things that hurt us and made us less than we are meant to be.  He breaks through anything that keeps us bound, in any way he needs to, so that we can stand straight up with the healed woman.  This is what Sabbath is about.  And this is what our worship is about.   Because this is what God is about- setting free.  Freeing us to be a brilliant reflection of the God who loves us.  Freeing us to delight in the goodness of God.  Freeing us to follow God in the work of setting others free. 

 

Ditch the rules and fall in love. . .

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on June 17, 2013 at 11:45 AM

Luke 7:36-8:3

 

They stopped using her name around town.  She was only known as “that woman.”  Parents told their kids to stay away from her.  She wasn’t invited into people’s homes.  People didn’t speak to her if they could avoid it.   She was an example not to follow, not a woman to be spoken to.  No one saw her face anymore, they only saw her sin. Her whole life was defined by what she had done wrong.  And people expected her to just keep messing up.  

 

Everyone but Jesus.  Jesus sees this woman’s need to be forgiven and set free from her past.  He forgives this one because shame and sin had robbed her of love and life.  Her sin had cut her off from the community and had taken away who she was.  So Jesus set her free and loved her back into life.

 

And that all happened in a moment we don’t even see- it happened before we meet her this morning. We don’t know what Jesus said to this woman.  How he was able to let her know that she was set free.  We don’t know what he did to tell her the good news that we all long to hear- the things that trap us and keep us walled from others are done away with, that the shame and the fear and the unworthiness that we live with are destroyed.  Jesus had done something to let this woman know that she was loved and she was no longer defined by her past.  That she was delighted in, she was believed in and God trusted and knew that she could be changed.  

 

I don’t know what those words of Jesus were, but maybe it’s not ours to know.  Those words that set us free are so personal, so unique, that Jesus’ words to this woman may mean nothing to us.  But they meant a new life for this woman.  

 

And we know they meant new life for her because this morning, we see the new life that had been broken open inside her.  She shows up in the middle of a respectable dinner party to do the unthinkable- to cry tears of joy on Jesus and care for him in ways that were, frankly, awkward and out of place.  In ways that made others whisper and stare.  As ridiculous as it is, she comes to pour out the love that Jesus has given to her.  It simply flows out since she has been given a new life.

 

But Jesus simply smiles.  Instead of whispering about her, he honors her.  Loudly and publicly.  Honor the beauty of her repentance and joy.  And Jesus lets her gift, however awkward and strange it is to those around her, be celebrated and rejoiced in.  Jesus delights in the fact that this woman knows the truth he brings for all people- that she is treasured and she can live in that love to be all that God created her to be.

 

And from now on, in her community she will no longer be the one called sinner, but the one who loves Jesus well.   She will now be the one known for how well she loved and welcomed Jesus and she will be one who is an example of love for all of us. Her story has changed into God’s story for her.

 

And this story in Scripture would be great if it stopped there.  But it would have been a story that many of us could ignore.  Because although we’ve all messed up, many of us in this room haven’t done things that are so sinful that they define us publicly.  Many of us have followed the rules well enough that we still have the luxury of covering up our sins.  We have the luxury of feeling that we’re doing well enough.  Like Simon the Pharisee, the man who invited Jesus to dinner that day.  

 

But Jesus doesn’t leave well enough alone even with those of us who look like we have it together.  He has an annoying way of knowing what’s going on in our minds and he knows that Simon is looking down on this woman, even if he doesn’t mean to.  Jesus knows that Simon sees himself as different than her, as more deserving of Jesus’ attention and maybe his love.  So Jesus does what he does best to teach us- he tells Simon a story.  Suppose someone owes $500 and another owes $5 million.  And they both are forgiven.  Who will love the one who forgives their debt more?  Whose life will be changed more?  Who will know the reality of being set free more?  

 

And if someone who has written a bad check and another has gambled away his life savings and both are forgiven, who will understand the joy of forgiveness more?  And if someone had said something mean to their spouse and another had completely destroyed their relationship and both are forgiven and given another chance at love, who will feel the reality of that love more?  Who will know better the reality of a love they have no right to deserve?  Who will be able to get caught up in the utter joy of forgiveness?  Who will understand what it means to have life given back to them, life in my name?  

 

Jesus tells Simon- someone who has been forgiven a great debt knows what it means to be set free.  Knows what abundant life is because it’s something they didn’t think they’d ever have.  They know what forgiveness can do, how it can change their lives. They have felt love and forgiveness and life at the depth of their soul.  

 

I want you to feel like that, too.  I want you to be set free, set on fire, to live life out of a love so remarkable that it gives you your life back.  Because that is the love that I am.

 

Yes, you’ve done well in following God’s law, Simon.  I’m not disputing that.  I take joy in that.  But when you haven’t fallen into such a desperate place, you also haven’t been in a place where you can understand the love I have for you that changes all that is possible for you in the future.  I’m not saying that you need to sin in order to get to a desperate place, but stop and rejoice with this one who was there.  Learn from her how good and freeing my love is.

 

So Jesus tells Simon and many of us, “I know the good you have done.  I know you’re pretty decent at following the rules and that you’re doing pretty well not getting into big trouble.  But the thing is, I’m not keeping score of that.   I just want you to fall in love with me.  So that you can live out of that love.

 

The rules you are working hard to live by are important, but only because they point to how to live out love.  So, ditch the rules and surrender yourself to the love I have for you.   Not a sentimental love- but one that allows you to do anything for the life of another.   A death-defying, life-giving, extravagant love.  It is beautiful and strange and world-changing.  

 

This kind of love is terrifying and makes you leave behind all that you hold onto to keep you safe.  It makes you do things that will make people stare and makes you do more wondrous things that you can imagine.  It breaks you open and frees you and changes your life.  

 

Jesus tells Simon and all of us, I want to call you to a love that you do not know yet.  I am calling you to be passionately in love with the world and with me.  And the only way you’re going to do that is to be in the presence of someone who knows what that love feels like.  

 

So when you don’t have a clue how to surrender to that love, then watch your sister.  She’s met this love and she’s been set free.   This love has become her story and her life.  So listen to her and watch her and learn from her.  

 

Jesus tells us the surprising truth that we need our brothers and sisters- all those who have traveled more painful paths than we might have and messed up more than we have.  We need this beloved woman who we don’t want to be near and who interrupts our comfortable dinner.  Jesus tells us that we cannot be whole without her.  

 

We don’t need her so that we can do good things for her.  We don’t need her so that we can save her.  We need her to teach us what love looks like.  To break us open.  To make us long for the same kind of love that she has felt.  

 

So perhaps instead of praying that God would keep us safe, we should pray that God would make us love like this woman.  Perhaps we should be praying that God would surround us with people who have been broken and then healed.  Take us to those places where we can meet our brothers and sisters who have been transformed by your love.  Perhaps we should pray to be broken open with the reality of God’s love for us.  And when we are in love with you, God, make it consume us so that we can let it overflow in ridiculous ways.  

 

Make us fall so in love with you that we welcome those who are left out.  That we rejoice in those who no one loves.  That we speak joy to those who have no hope left.  That we step into violent places believing there can be peace.  And that we delight in those who have no clue how much God already delights in them.  

 

So let us pray, take us to broken places, Lord, so that we may learn what your love is.  So that we may see your love at work.  So that we may learn from our brothers and sisters.  So that we might fall in love with you and lose ourselves in your love for us. 

 

Follow first- then keep listening

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on April 22, 2013 at 5:40 PM

John 10:22-30

 

You know what cicadas are, right?  They’re that EXTREMELY loud bug that chirps so loud it’s had to sleep at night, that comes in swarms and appears every 17 years.  One of those creatures that makes you go “what in the heck was God thinking with THIS one?”  There are apparently yearly cicadas and 17 year cicadas, but the 17 year one come in swarms and you don’t forget it.  Anyway, this is the year the swarms are set to appear around us.  And a few days ago on NPR, I hear a story about them by a professor who’d been studying them for the past few years and had just discovered that that really loud buzzing sound they make is really composed of several distinct songs.  They have one song for when they’re searching for a mate, another for when they’re trying to impress the mate they selected and they even make their own music as they are making little cicadas.  

 

This whole interview wasn’t all that thrilling to me, but the guy talking about them was so excited about this discovery that he kept me listening. He was talking like this was news that would turn the world upside down. He imitated each of the different cicada songs for us.  And he was so excited by the cicada songs that he had recorded a CD of them with him playing the melody line along with them on his clarinet. Now he knew what the cicadas were saying and could pick out their different songs whenever he listened to them and it sounded like this was the best news of his life.  

 

So, as you can guess, they played a whole lot of clips of cicadas singing during this interview and, even after listening to this professor describe the different songs, all I could hear was one big, annoying buzzing, like static on the radio.  I couldn’t hear their voices because I hadn’t spent the past 2 years learning their songs.  

 

And Jesus told the religious leaders, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”  My sheep, he says, hear my voice and know it’s my voice.  They recognize my voice in the midst of a bunch of voices calling out to them.  They can hear it and come running back to me.   It sounds easy when Jesus says it, but I have a lot harder time hearing Jesus’ voice and recognizing it.  But the cicada man made me think a little harder about that.  

 

So take a minute and think about a time when you have heard God’s voice.  Or thought you heard it.  Or hoped that it was God’s voice you heard.  Where were you then?  What were you doing?  Who were you with?  (Does anyone want to share?)

 

It could have happened anywhere because God will do what God will do, but I have found in my own life that I tend to not hear God’s voice all that well when I’m really busy and thinking about all I have to do and running in a million directions.  

 

For me, God has a way of speaking up after I’ve read Scripture or have been praying or have been on retreat.  God tends to speak up after I’ve been serving others or been talking with fellow believers or out taking a quiet walk.  Not always right then, but sometimes soon after.  Or even quiet a while after.  God can and does speak whenever, but we tend to know his voice after we’ve been listening awhile.  After we’ve been studying and listening and following so that we can start to recognize what the voice of Jesus sounds like.

 

And maybe it’s a little bit like training.  When you have a professor for a bunch of classes, you start to recognize his or her voice, even when it’s in writing.  You know their phrases and the things they like to talk about.  If you listen to enough of your favorite band’s songs, you might even recognize their new stuff even before you hear their voices on the track because you know their sound. We learn someone’s voice, their sound by being with them.  By following them.  

 

So, Jesus says, “my sheep know my voice and they follow me,” but maybe the following needs to come first.  Maybe the studying and the serving others needs to come first.  The worship and the prayer and the loving and forgiving and healing need to come first.  Before we’re sure we believe. Even before we hear God’s voice.  That doesn’t sound right, it even sounds inauthentic, but maybe it’s how we hear we’re Jesus’ sheep in the first place.  By following.  By tagging along behind him in his flock until we finally realize that he thinks of us as his own. Until we finally recognize his voice as it calls our name.  

 

And when we know his voice, we also recognize it when it tells us, over and over, what we often can’t believe- that we are loved.  Absolutely delighted in.  And treasured.  And not in some “everybody on the team gets a trophy so they won’t feel let out” kind of way.  But treasured because we are of such value that to not love us would simply ache the heart of God.  I don’t believe it a good chunk of the time- but when I hear that voice, when I recognize it, it makes me giggle.  Makes tears well up in my eyes.  Makes the frustration at myself and the world fade because I am loved.  My shepherd says so.   

 

And not only are we treasured, but we are promised that we will not be snatched away from Jesus’ hand.  We will forever be his.  Forever be delighted in.  Even when we doubt that God loves us or that God exists.  Even when we think this whole Jesus thing is just a fairy tale, we are promised we won’t lose our place in the flock.  And when we get so deep in our own pain that we can’t hear any other voices, we are promised that Jesus has a grip on us and will fight to pull us through so we can hear his voice again. When we’re terrified and all we can hear is our anxiety, Jesus will not let the terror overcome us and will speak peace.  And when we’re just bored and wandering, Jesus promises that he has one of those kid leashes on us so that we can’t get lost in the crowd.  We can’t be snatched out of his hand.

 

And so, we learn his voice when it tells us the deepest truth- that we are loved and held onto by a power stronger than we can imagine.  And we learn to hear the voice of Jesus when it calls us to go to uncomfortable places.  To speak the truth when it will get us hated.  When it will call us to give away what does not make sense for the sake of another’s life.  And all the while, that voice will continue to say- you are treasured and I am holding onto you- now go where I send you to those who need to hear my voice through you.  

 

In a confusing world where most of us are far too busy and distracted, be willing to take time to learn what the voice of Jesus sounds like.  Take moments of quiet, take time to read the stories of Scripture.  Take time to care for the needs of others and to talk about God with your fellow Christians.  Learn what the voice of Jesus sounds like.  Learn to recognize

 

Learn to hear it, so that in the midst of a world that sounds like the static of a thousand cicadas, you will learn to hear God’s song humming through in the midst and be able to follow where it leads. 

 

Waiting for Jesus while the world falls apart

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on December 3, 2012 at 2:30 PM

Luke 21:25-36

 

Welcome to Advent.  The world is falling apart and coming to an end.  There are wars and famines.  Stars are falling out of the sky and the seas are raging and foaming.  And that’s how the church year begins every single year in Advent.  It never seems to fit with the happiness of the Christmas season around us.  

 

And it doesn’t seem to fit us as Lutherans.  I mean, we know there’s end times stuff in the Bible, but we tend to pretty much ignore it and leave that for those conservative religious types.  We’d rather focus on doing good Jesus-y stuff in the world.  

 

But even though it seems weird and kind of a downer, all this end times talk is an essential part of our faith.  We need to know the end to know where we are headed.

 

You see, Advent isn’t just a season of waiting for Christmas like a kid counting down to their birthday.  It’s not just a time to remember the story of Jesus being born in a manger.   It’s a time of waiting for Jesus to come into our world AGAIN.  To clean up all that is a mess.  To heal all that is broken.  To make this world into what God intends it to be.  That’s why it is a time of such deep hope and expectation.  So, every church year we begin by looking to the end of history.  To see what we are waiting for.   

 

And that’s what Jesus is busy telling his disciples in the chapter of Luke we read.  By the time we get to the words we hear in the gospel lesson, Jesus has already been talking to the disciples for a couple of paragraphs.  He’s been telling them that the time is coming when there will be famines and earthquakes and that his followers would be persecuted and thrown in prison.  And that the city of Jerusalem would be surrounded and conquered. Pretty much their world is going to look like it’s falling apart.

 

You’d think that much doom was enough for one day, but Jesus wants to get it all out there, so he just keeps going with the words that we hear this evening.  So he tells them that after all this other crappy stuff, the sun and moon and seas will be in chaos. The sun, moon, and stars, which are just always supposed to be up in the sky doing their thing, will be changed and out of order.  And the seas will be crazily stormy and the tides will be out of sync.  All of nature will be in disarray.  

 

And not surprisingly, people are going to be freaking out.  Whole countries will be in chaos because they’re not going to know how to handle a world that’s gone crazy. No one else will know what to do, he says, but I have told you what will happen so that you’ll be able to be strong and courageous in the face of the mess that’s coming.  

In fact, when all this stuff starts happening, that’s when you need to stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

 

You’ll see the signs and know that I am in them. You’ll know how raise up your head and look the chaos right in the face. So when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  The time when I will come again in glory is right around the corner. It may look like the world is falling apart, but it’s simply getting ready for me to come again and set it right.

 

So pay attention to what’s happening in the world.  “Be on guard,” Jesus says.  “Be alert at all times.”  Read the papers.  Watch the weather. Listen to what is happening among the nations. And when it’s frightening and makes no sense, remember my words.    That’s when the kingdom of God is near.

 

Face the terror with courage. Pray that you will be ready for whatever happens.  Pray that you will have the strength to be who God needs you to be in the midst of all that is going on around you.   And don’t be overcome by it.   Because I am in it.  I will bring this world to perfection.

 

When the world is falling apart- when wars and violence seem endless, when hurricanes strike where they never did before, where drought and global warming and hunger and illness make our world seem like it can’t survive any longer, Jesus calls us to have hope against hope. And to work in the direction of that hope.  

 

And as ones who are confident instead of terrified, we are called to be the ones that care for our brothers and sisters.  We’re called to act in love and compassion when others are paralyzed by fear.  To bind up the wounds of those around us when others don’t think it’s worth bothering.  As ones who can trust that Jesus is coming to set this world right, and not destroy it, we can speak peace to those who are terrified and are tempted to react with violence and selfishness.  We are ones that can testify to the hope that Jesus gives us, the hope that keeps us alert and joyful in the craziest of times.  

 

In fact, we are to be people “infected by hope”- to be signposts of hope for those who are locked in fear or are doing their best to avoid looking reality straight in the eye.  We are people who can see the world for what it is- a mess in need of God’s fixing.  And we don’t have to be afraid of its messiness and its brokenness, because we know that at the end of time, God will fix all that we cannot.  God will restore all that has been destroyed.  God will bring peace to all the places where peace seems impossible right now- in Syria and Israel and in the streets of Baltimore.  

 

To walk confidently toward the future that Jesus promises, even if the world seems to be falling apart around us. We don’t know when that redeemed future will come- just as Jesus did not- only that we are absolutely assured that it will come.  Simply because God has promised it.  

 

But until then, we wait.  We wait for the brokenness to be healed in our world.  And that is why we so deeply need the gift of Advent.  Because waiting is hard and we don’t know how to do it all that well.

 

That’s what we talked about last Wednesday at UMBC.  We talked about how we’re into the whole instant gratification thing.  And we tend to get overwhelmed by what may happen and freak ourselves out.  And, since half the folks in the room didn’t come from a Christian tradition and very few of the rest came from a church that celebrated Advent, I was trying to talk about this great season of waiting that we have.  One that helps us learn to wait well in all our life.  And they asked, “so, what do you DO in Advent?  What makes it so helpful?”  

 

And although I love Advent, I felt a little silly telling them that the big thing we do it light candles on a wreath, one each Sunday, watching the light get brighter.  And we put a deep blue cloth on the altar, the color of the sky just before morning, as a way of having hope.  And we read the stories about the end of the world and about the prophecies about Jesus and the stories of John the Baptist.  And we pray.  In the midst of a big, fancy Christmas season, our candles and readings and prayers seemed ridiculous.  They didn’t seem like enough. Just like Jesus’ promise to come again to redeem the world doesn’t seem like enough if the world is falling apart.  And yet it is.   Advent is enough and Jesus’ promises are enough only because the one for whom we wait is faithful.

 

So welcome to a holy Advent- welcome to a time in the midst of the crunch of exams, when it might seem like the world is falling apart.  Lift up your heads and know that Jesus is in the midst of this trying time and in all that is chaotic and a mess in your life and in your world.  

 

And I invite you to live this Advent in this community and ones back home, even when you think you don’t have any time.  Take 5 minutes each day to read the stories of hope.  To visit an Advent calendar on-line.  To light a Residence Life approved candle welcome the light of Christ into the world.  And join with us on Sundays and Tuesdays and Thursdays as we light candles and sings songs of expectation and call each other to hope in Jesus.  As we welcome God’s presence into our world and wait with joy and expectation for God to bring this world to perfection.  

 

For, people of God, Jesus truly is coming again.  So “stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Training our eyes to see the kingdom

Posted by Baltimore Lutheran Campus Ministry on November 13, 2012 at 12:35 AM

 Mark 12:38-44

 

 

My daughter, Hannah, is 7 months old.  And that means that I have all the things that come with a 7-month old, which means toys all over the place.  She’s got some great stuffed animals, like an owl with crinkly wings and a duck that quacks.  Pretty impressive stuff.  And I’m always trying to get her to see the neat little things the animals do- showing her how she can see herself in the mirror on the owl’s wing or she can make the little owl squeak if she presses it. But no matter how many times I try to get her to notice the neat little things, she ignores what I show her to concentrate on the little tag on the back of the animal.  The thing that wasn’t meant to matter.  The thing that wasn’t meant to be noticed.  

 

And I kind of imagine that is what is going on in our gospel lesson today.  You see, when you read the chapter before our passage, you find that Jesus was outside the temple with the disciples. And since he was known to be a wise teacher, the crowds were asking Jesus every questions they could think of: “If a woman marries 7 brothers, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” they ask him and “is paying taxes against our religious beliefs?” They were dreaming up harder and more impressive questions for Jesus, trying to find something he can’t answer.  Kind of a “stump the Son of God” contest.  

 

And while Jesus is doing this, his disciples are busy looking around the temple courtyard.  Because the temple was a busy place- kind of like Grand Central Station.  There were people coming and going constantly, buying animals to sacrifice.  Religious leaders were praying and teaching, all dressed in their finery.  People were coming to pay their temple tax and some were dropping huge amounts in the treasury.  And the temple itself was beautiful and kept them in awe.  It was pretty hard not to get distracted by all that was going on and hard not to be impressed with all that was happening.    

 

And yet, Jesus is busy looking a widow coming to put money in the temple treasury.  Like my daughter, he has his eyes fixed on one that wasn’t meant to matter much.  He was busy looking as one who is often ignored and told she is of no account.  He ignores all that is going on around him in order to see this woman.  Jesus simply notices her. Notices her gift.  Notices how sacrificial it is.  And he says- in my kingdom, this is what I notice.

 

And because I notice this one, he says, I also notice those who do not care for her.  Like the scribes. And at that, the disciples probably sat up straight.  Because they had been busy watching them in their fancy robes.  They’d been listening to their impressive prayers.  And they might have been thinking- we’d like to be like them some day, spending our time serving God here in the temple.  

 

But Jesus tells the disciples, “watch out for them, and for those who show their religion too obviously.  Those who think they deserve special treatment because they are religious.  These are ones who have missed the point.  They don’t care for the stranger, the orphans and the widows- something God has been telling them since day one.  And then they pray about those in need so that everyone will think well of them for remembering those who are poor.  They are hiding behind religion.  They are neglecting the people God told them to care for.”   

 

You see, the prophets had been crying about stuff like this for 600 years.  They had been reminding the people of their duty to care for orphans and widows and warning them that it wasn’t ok to do all the right things religiously, but all the wrong things in loving your neighbor.  The prophets remind us all that it is a crime against God to be comfortable and unaffected when your brothers and sisters go without.

 

And 600 years later, the scribes still weren’t listening.  And 2,000 years later we’re not listening!  We’re still doing the same ridiculous things that Jesus says to stop!  We’re still ignoring the ones deepest in need too often.  And we’re still guilty of covering up our neglect of justice with a lot of religious talk and prayers. Not always, but Jesus still reminds us- “beware when you do this!”  For I notice those you neglect.  

 

Because my eye is still on the ones who go without.  The widows in need and those without homes.  The young adults who have aged-out of foster care and don’t have family to depend on.  The spouses who suffer abuse.  The ones who cannot seem to make ends meet.  He keeps noticing those who we don’t.  And he keeps redirecting our gaze from the famous people, the shiny temple, and the religious leaders.  He keeps calling us to look again at the ones we often ignore.  

 

S Jesus calls his disciples to look at the widow offering her gift at the treasury.  To see her.  To see her gift.   We often assume that’s because this widow is a model of virtue.  A perfectly sweet and humble woman.  Our Scripture never says that.  She could have been a crabby person, she could have been someone that was annoying and plenty hard to love.  But she was one who the people of God were called to care for.  And that meant she was one who should be noticed.  And seen.  And loved.  

 

And if you’ve ever heard this story before, we imagine that this is where Jesus commends her as a model of giving and tells her that her faith is honored.  It’s where we think Jesus says we should all give like her.  Ad where he tells her she is blessed and would have all her needs cared for.  That’s usually how we think the story goes.  But the truth is, even though that would make for a good story, a Jesus-like story, none of that happens.  Jesus simply says, “This poor widow has put in more than all the others.  She has put in everything she had.”

 

We don’t know whether he is calling us to give like her or to cry with her since she is being taken advantage of by the temple.  We only know that Jesus notices her.  And calls the disciples to notice her, too.  For Jesus doesn’t much notice all the flashy and important people in the world.  He notices the gift of one usually unnoticed.  Sees it for the sacrifice that it is.  As  more sacrificial than those who put in piles of money.  And more deserving of attention.  

 

 

So perhaps this story is less about the widow herself and more about training the disciples to see differently.  He’s trying to redirect their eyes from the fancy leaders and the beautiful temple to the ones who need to be seen.  To retrain their eyes to see the people who God takes special notice of.   Those who are lonely, sick or in need.  Not because they are so virtuous, but simply because God chooses to love them in their need.   So Jesus calls the disciples and us to see the people who are considered great in the kingdom of God.  He’s trying to train all our eyes to see the kingdom that is breaking into the world.  The kingdom that our eyes just can’t get used to seeing.  

 

Because the kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom where the big, celebrated things are unimportant and the insignificant things are precious.  Where trust is valued more than money.  Where a widow is noticed more than a celebrity.

 

It is a kingdom where the hungry are filled with good things and rich sent away empty.  Where the mighty are toppled and the lowly lifted up.  It’s a kingdom that makes no sense to the powerful, but can be imagined and seen by those who have nothing.

 

And yet, it is also a kingdom where the Son of God is killed and the sinners forgiven.  A kingdom where death is defeated by walking through it.  A kingdom where we are celebrated before we are good and loved when there is not a single reason for us to deserve it.  It is a kingdom that makes no sense, but it is the kingdom of God.

 

And to see the kingdom, to see with Jesus’ eyes, is to see God.  To know who God is.  To know the love of God for those in need and for us in our own need.  The kingdom of God is among us.  And we are simply invited to take notice of it and train our eyes to see it in our midst.