Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Seeing Jesus

         Today’s gospel reading is the start of the very long speech Jesus gives in the Gospel of John before his crucifixion--one that doesn’t stop until he’s before Pontius Pilate at the judge’s seat. The whole thing is a long interpretation of Christ’s death on the cross.

         It begins with these Greeks—righteous gentiles worshipping outside the temple—drawn to this new teacher Jesus. They try to do things in an orderly way, talk to Philip, who talks to Andrew, who talks to Jesus. Philip, who earlier had brought people to Jesus by saying “follow me.” Andrew, who earlier brought people to Jesus by saying, in such a welcoming manner that I hope the lot of you emulate when you tell people about Jesus, “Come and see.”
         But now, things seem different. I believe it is because the cross, the crucifixion, the coming solemn days of Good Friday, are already imposing themselves upon the story and upon the souls of the disciples. The shadow of the cross holds sway with its urgency—I believe its urgency changes the aim of the story—no longer are Andrew and Phillip doing the job of gathering in, an outward focus of Jesus’ ministry, but instead they are moving forward with him, forward to the conflict of Palm Sunday, to the last command and betrayal, to the Passion of Christ and his eventual victory… they are going forward with him, so these Greeks are too late to See Jesus… both I suppose too late and too early… too late to see the first half of his journey and too early to see his resurrection and ascension.
They might feel a little like the Apostle Paul, who writes that he himself is one “untimely born” because he did not meet Jesus before the resurrection. Or, even, they might feel a little like us—with our own yearnings for religious certainty, right?
At the end of the day all of us only have 2nd hand accounts and a distant connection to Christ—we keep these powerful promises in jars of clay—we are kept close to Christ only by the Spirit.

Yet Paul, and us, and these Greeks will, in time, see an image of strange glory—the cross of Christ
—Jesus enthroned as Lord of All
—inaugurated through execution
—we will see a strange glory on Good Friday.
We will see Jesus, through the cross.
The eyes of the Baptized are opened by his death,
the Christian unknowingly wears eyeglasses in the shape of the cross…
tinted with cross…
cross-tinted glasses.
We see God, most clearly, through the lens of the cross—that was one of Luther’s greatest insights into the Christian life
—that everything looks different because the Messiah died on the cross
—because our Lord has gone through death…
how does the person across from you in the pew look different knowing you both have a share in Christ’s death?
How do people in power, how do religious leaders (myself included) look knowing that when God showed up the powerful and the religious took the first shots at him?
How do those mourning, sick, weakened, despairing, despised, look—when your heart holds within it a crucified Lord?
Does it make you think of a single seed, buried, died, rising as fruitful sheaves of wheat?
Does it make you think, maybe, of caterpillars—becoming butterflies.
Mustard seeds, so small, blooming as a giant tree where all find rest?
Death itself giving way to new life…

Does it change you? Do these new eyes also produce a new step—steps more in line with the footsteps of our master and friend? Does it not make everything new, and also strange? Life itself becoming strange, because we now live it in Christ…
doesn’t it sometimes feel like the life of a butterfly in a caterpillar world?
Abundant fruit in a world that insists upon sparse seeds,
doesn’t it feel like… for lack of a better way of saying it… the life of life to a world of death?
Or to dial it back a bit, are we not citizens of a heavenly home, are we not colonists of heaven here on earth?
Yes, this is what the strange path of discipleship, following Jesus, can feels like… a rejection, hating, of a lesser type of life, a shriveled version of the world, in order to be embraced by the greater world and life found in Christ Jesus… and often embracing a deeper life looks a lot like death to those on the other side…
think of how former friends treat you when you are in recovery from addiction
—or thinking a little less extremely, I can only imagine what young Christ Halverson would think of me today—wait, you don’t stay up until 2am every night reading—you actually buy that old adage, “every hour of sleep before midnight is worth 2 after.”
Or even more dire, “wait, you live in Jersey, and like it?!?”
Right, life looks different on the other side, new life can look like death—a cocoon can look like a tomb to a caterpillar.
Faithfulness to the full life found in Christ involves cross,
not because we seek it, but because living faithfully in a world where death believes that it reigns, leads to conflict. Treading the path of Jesus in Caesar’s world—leads to cross.

How does this way of life sound to you? This new way of walking, following Jesus. This new way of seeing the world, through lenses tinted with Christ’s crucifixion… I’d imagine it sounds different depending on how you are listening.
To those attached to the world of Caesar and Death, a status quo world that ignores or oppresses the hurting, hated, sick and dying—when we listen with those types of ears—the way of the cross is nothing but
a sounding gong,
a clash of cracked symbols,
a clap of thunder devoid of meaning…
But to those in tune with the beat of Jesus’ feet, those times when we’re in tune with that
—it sounds like the tongues of angels,
a heavenly chorus,
the very voice of Father to Son, Son to Father, all spoke through the Spirit
—the grand unity of the divine, the concert of the Trinity played out upon our ears.
These words affirming the place of the faithful, the path upon which they trod—letting them know the life they embrace even in the face of ridicule, punishment, even death, is a greater life than the life built on death which is on offer
—the false life that takes Jesus’ life, but in so doing is judged as in league with death.
Christ’s execution, being lifted up upon the cross—lifts him up for all to see, the words, “This is the King” over the cross—lifted up there,
-Lifted up too at the resurrection! Salvation promise, new life and life beyond death—ours too.
-Lifted up a third time as he ascends to the right hand of God, given power to push forward his disciples in every age: meeting us when we meet each other, as the Word meets you right now in scripture and sermon, in the blessed meal, he promises to show up, in our loving acts for all those in need when we leave this building to go out and be the Church
—his heavenly reign writ oh so large… so large that these Greeks, they eventually do see Jesus—for all are drawn to Christ as he is lifted up

—all, These Greeks, that untimely born apostle and persecutor of the church, Paul, you and I, caught up on our own uncertainties and yearnings—all of us, drawn to Jesus Christ. A

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sermon: You were dead, but now you live

You were dead, but now you live.

You were dead, but now you live.
You were a child of wrath, but through God’s grace you have been connected to Christ.
You were condemned and perishing, but God gave you Jesus that you may have eternal life.
How do you hear this good news today?
I often wonder at what point language breaks down for people—the point where you hear things without hearing things. It becomes blasé or somehow the explosive power of such statements ceases to work? These promises of God become dynamite that was soaked, the powder is wet, the charge dissipated.
I wonder at this, and wonder even more how to recharge these words, refill the powder and dry off the dynamite, that again the Gospel will move you… I wonder this even as I know there is nothing I can do—it is the Spirit’s work alone, I can simply plead to God that the words of scripture and sermon might kill you and make you alive again.

You were dead, but now you live.
For those of you here last week, remember my description of breaking and keeping the 10 commandments? I’d imagine at some point you felt convicted—I know I did, and I’m the preacher—felt that there are times when you live your life in a way that honors an idol instead of God—times you don’t love your neighbor in conscious and intentional kind of way.
It is like you are ruled by some combination of selfishness, terror, exhaustion, and boredom, that make you dishonor God and harm your neighbor. Some of it is self-rule, internal rebellion against God, some of it comes from outside yourself, from any number of powers that shape you and your actions… all of it undermining love of God and neighbor.
Well, there is good news, those forces that defy God, are overcome by Jesus Christ, we’re saved by him from them, it is a gift, this new way of life in Christ.
Yes, it still seems that all these other rulers are in control, have won the day, but subtly Christ rules—in kindness, in humility, as an ongoing gift, Christ reigns through the weak power of love—putting all others on notice as to what true power, obedience, and rule looks like, they are all overthrown by the love Jesus Christ has for us.
You were dead, but now you live.

You were dead, but now you live.
It is as if you have went on a long journey—to a new and strange land, where you don’t speak the language, where the culture is foreign, where everyone is a stranger…
And yet, through some alchemy you’ve been given a great gift. Those who were strangers, become neighbors. The land and language and culture, become part of you—a joyful part of you, part of your journey, part of your story. Yes, you left home, but this new place is your home too.
What was this great gift, this magical mystical thing that transformed everything for you? It is the wideness of God’s love—God loves the whole cosmos, the whole world, everyone—and that love sparkles just the same on distant shores, just the same where you are. You were a stranger in a strange land, that land too is loved by God, and that fact transforms all the strangeness—sanctifies it, stirs it up into new life.
You were dead, but now you live.

You were dead, but now you live.
You are like the majority of people in this country—you experience the epidemic of loneliness, of disconnection, even as our technological world as connected us 24/7.
You feel scattered, from yourself and from those you know and love, from even the center of what it means to be alive. You cynically throw off any big question you might have, because you no longer trust that big questions matter.
You’ve been led to believe radical individualism, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps or fail forever, me me me is a correct creed, even as some small Jiminy Cricket conscious inside you shouts in an easily downed out voice, “This doesn’t feel right!”
Well, just know you are not alone, not on your own, your seemingly scattered soul, it is held by God. You are connected to Jesus—Together alive, together raised, together enthroned. Co-living, co-elevated, co-seated—at the table with him, invited and attending the great banquet of God—the feast that Jesus continually tells us about in his stories of the Kingdom of God commonly called parables.
You were dead, but now you live.

You were dead, but now you live.
Like frauds or spies we hide our deeds deep down, because we fear they fall short. And they do.
But be not afraid, for through Jesus Christ our deeds rise up and are revealed, a scary prospect, except that they can be transformed, made into a good and new way of life lived to love God and love neighbor—no longer hidden, but instead shown forth as done in God.
You were dead, but now you live.

How do you hear this good news today?
You were condemned and perishing, but God gave you Jesus that you may have eternal life.
You were a child of wrath, but through God’s grace you have been connected to Christ.
You were dead, but now you live.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Some thoughts on ULS

Trigger warning—Conversion Therapy, Gaslighting, and Rape.
So, first off, here is some background from wiser and more informed people than I about what is currently happening at ULS, a new seminary built out of LTSP, where I attended, and LTSG.
Here are the closest thing to official notes we have.
Here are some really good unofficial notes from Pastor Lura Groen.
Here are Pastor Groen’s follow up reflections.
Here, as well, is ELM’s statement.
Finally, here is where a bunch of letters in support of Dr. Latini from the board and bishops were, but have since been taken down.

A History of This
            In my first year at LTSP the non-first year students would occasionally mention a rape that was “covered up” on campus. It was my first year and there was so much going on that I never dug any deeper.
            Then a well-known and beloved campus security officer was fired, and the students were not told what that was all about. He may or may not have taken petty cash. I distinctly remember some students fighting against the administration’s silence by setting up a camera hovering over a 20-dollar bill in the quad.
            Then there was a passive aggressive fight between faculty and students in favor of “Black Church and Multi-cultural” Worship and those who favored “Orthodox Lutheran” (read European) Worship. The whole thing felt like it was done in whispers and shadows and was really dysfunctional. This conflagration eventually heated up to the point that the administration let it be known that there are things students just don’t need to be aware of, the seminary isn’t our home, it is only a place we’re at for a while, so students should just stick to their studies.
            Then a campus group hid a rat infestation in the compost, the administration cleared it out without telling anyone—and somehow this open secret and lack of communication led to a completely unnecessary blow up on campus.
            Still later, there were rumors that the Seminary had no money and none of us would get a degree because Philly was going to lose its accreditation on account of this lack of funds.
            Then there was all the semi-secrets that floated around about the creation of ULS—I was gone by then, but hear tell it fit the pattern above.
            All that to say, LTSP had an ongoing transparency and communications issue. It seemed to be fused into its DNA. So, one of my deepest hopes for the dissolution of LTSP and LTSG and the forming of ULS was that that part of LTSP’s DNA would be left behind.

The Present Situation
            And along comes the revelation that Dr. Latini, ULS’s first president, was the CEO and poster child of a gay conversion organization. She did not disclose this on her resume, because she didn’t include anything about herself before she was ordained. She later told Rev. Dr. Elise Brown, the chair of ULS’s board, about her past. Rev. Dr. Brown made some inquires on her own and then did not pass this information on to the board. Then, either in November or December, she did so, maybe after a board member was informed of Dr. Latini’s history. Fast forward to February, somehow this information got out, and everyone feels betrayed or worse. 

A few thoughts:
-Reparative Therapy is unconscionable.
-In the 1990’s, living in Wyoming, I was at a very different place in my understanding of sexual orientation and gender issues writ large and might have bought Reparative Therapy as a humane way to help gay folk. Moving out of Wyoming, the enormous cultural shifts in our country during that time, and frankly exposure to LGBT+ people (especially at LTSP) has made such a position seem disgusting to me today.
-I feel for Dr. Latini. Reading between the lines I’d imagine part of the reason she applied to work for an ELCA seminary was because folk from all sides of her own denomination (PCUSA) had used her “conversion” and then her repudiation of conversion therapy as a bludgeon against one another. I can imagine just wanting to start fresh, let the Lutherans take me as I am now without using my person and past in polarizing ways.
-Having gone through the candidacy and call process of the ELCA—I was under a microscope for 6 years just to get interviewed for a call. Then before the “job interview” they googled my name, they read multiple pages of search results, and read basically every one of my blog entries (poor call committee, I’m freakin’ tedious). I wish ULS’s board had done at least that in this situation regarding Dr. Latini’s online footprint.
-Within that process, at my call vote, the congregation I serve asked me about my sexual orientation (which I refused to reveal). I’m a straight white cis-guy and that line of questioning made me feel uncomfortable and angry. I wonder how Dr. Latini is feeling as East Coast Lutherandom scrutinizes that aspect of her life.
-I wonder too how LGBT+folk at ULS are holding up? What would they like folk connected but outside the institution to be doing?
-Reading the notes from the Q and A session, the ULS board seems out of touch with a world where Google exists and LGBT+folk ought to be respected like everyone else. I’m especially surprised by Dr. Brown’s part in all of this. As a board member of ELM I wouldn’t expect that she would hide information about gay conversion therapy or be part of a group who would write off such a thing as “no big deal.”
-I’m astonished the board and bishops who wrote letters defending Dr. Latini would take them down—this isn’t 1984, there are no memory holes.
-There needs to be a non-board group that establishes a clear timeline of what happened and who knew what when, because the official one has holes in it and feels like something is being hidden.
-I pray for ULS.

My question:

The way in which Dr. Latini was hired seems to fit LTSP’s pattern of miscommunication and resistance to transparency. ULS is still a very young institution, how will ULS use this particular blow-up as a place from which to brake this pattern you’ve inherited from one of your parent institutions?

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon: Hope Against Hope

Hope against hope

        My absolute favorite worship service is Maundy Thursday. Even as it is about Christ’s firm and unbreakable command to love one another, there is such a vulnerability to it, it’s amazing! There are, as well, the powerful actions that take place, 
foot washing—what can be more vulnerable than exposing your feet to other people, 
communion—sometimes for the first time, 
and the stripping of the altar while Psalm 22 is wailed out!
        Psalm 22, packed with verses that let us stay in that vulnerability
—verses that bottom out, embracing failure, holding us by the very last thread, scraping bottom just to get by… and only at the ending, these verses we read today, 
only there is anything that appears to be praise
—even here a subdued praise, “The LORD has acted!”
Psalm 22, with its cries from the depths and dangers and sufferings of life and threats and experiences of death. This psalm points powerfully to that phrase Paul uses today, “Hope against hope.”
This English phrase pressurizes the longer Greek, which expands out more fully as something like “Beyond Hope and Upon Hope.” Two separate experiences compressed together
—Beyond Hope
—Upon Hope.
      Beyond Hope, Upon Hope. The first a Hope that we cannot reach, that has passed us by,
the second the ground and center of gravity for our being
 Beyond Hope—Look you Abram and Sarai—names themselves barren and sterile. The first and last of a new nation, a branch upshot and withered, an inheritance passed on to nameless servants.
Beyond Hope—You Psalmists struck with awe and fear, despised, crying out, put down by your poverty, ate by your hunger, you who seek and do not find, you who sleep in the earth, who are dust and to dust you have returned, for you are dead.
Beyond Hope—Paul with the promise appearing null and void, Law made lawless, non-existence and death threatening every corner of our life.
Beyond Hope—Peter petrified, his Savior suffering, rejected and killed. Offering crosses as footsteps to follow.

Hope Beyond hope… Reading scripture through that lens, it’s all rather heavy… 
-and for some we are struck dead—“Wait?!? I have to die for resurrection to occur? For new life to take root?
This is terrifying, this reality of our life as Christians and simply as human beings… we do all we can to avoid the gloom and depths of our being and our world, but here’s the thing, it is still there, even if you look away.
-but for others, we who are perishing, this is a powerful promise… yes, when you realize, “The Word of God meets me even here? Even in the depths of my depression, at the bedside of a dying friend, at the psych unit, in the midst of shootings at school, in the grave yard and dementia unit”… God’s Word surrounds and encompasses, and speaks to that—to all of it!
Beyond hope…

Upon Hope too…
Upon Hope—Abraham, Sarah—those are your names, for ancestors, multitudes. A new nation
—laugh if you want to, that which is withered will be fruitful!
Upon Hope—You Psalmists, your awe and fear spreads out in praise and the glorification of God. 
Be Satisfied. 
Arise in the riches of holiness, see now the whole world seeks you out, that you might help them bow down to God! 
You who were once dead, now you live—those who have passed, arise and kneel before God, and their descendants proclaim God’s goodness in every age, and will continue to do so forevermore
—for God has acted!
Upon Hope—Paul those promises held in faith and that wrath you fear, dissolves and disappears! God is the one who gives life to the dead and calls something out of nothing!
Upon Hope—Peter did you not hear—after three days rise again… your life is more precious than the whole world! 
Living your life in authentic holiness will bring cross, yes, but it is real, and sacred, and good!
Upon hope.

Beyond hope, upon hope… 
Beyond hope—17 dead in Florida, students from around the country yet again traumatized and told they are not safe where they spend the majority of their time—in their schools. 17 dead, those kids escaping and those kids who didn’t escape… Lord have mercy!
Upon hope—did you see them… I know some of you disagree with them politically
—but did you see them! 
Standing before state legislators and governors and even the president
—transforming death into action
transforming an impossibly bad situation,
transforming their helplessness, into advocacy, into “Never Again,” opening up a debate about guns
and schools, 
and mental health, 
A debate that had been closed since we adults allowed the death of elementary school children to have the last word after Sandy Hook.
Beyond hope—have you seen a forest of pine on a mountain burnt? The whole edifice blackened, like an angry lava flow, a sheet spread over barren rock, the end of life itself, a moonscape.
Upon hope—pinecones popped open only in extreme heat, strengthened and nourished by rich black earth, new growth where there was none, a whole new forest forming before your eyes.
Beyond hope—apartments burnt in Elizabeth, over a dozen folk with disabilities displaced after a lifetime of living there…
Upon hope—a groundswell response from people of good will across central Jersey, homes found, clothing and food restored—all in the blink of an eye.
Beyond hope—the beginning of Psalm 22 and Jesus’ final cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Upon hope—the ending, that isn’t an end, but instead the gospel for us, “The LORD has acted.”

         Beyond hope… upon hope… rightly facing the reality of sin, death, and the devil—wailing while the world is stripped bare and so are we
—vulnerable there, bottomed out, held by the last thread, yet upheld by the truth that, “The LORD has acted!”
Beyond hope upon hope… hope against hope.