What’s in a Name, Good Shepherd?

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.”

This familiar line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is meant to convey that the name of a thing is irrelevant. Obviously, William Shakespeare was not Jewish. In the Hebrew language, the word ‘sheim’ (name) has the same letters as the word ‘sham’ (there). This is not a coincidence. A person’s name tells you what’s really there. It represents our identity not just because it’s a convenient way to distinguish us from one another. It is because the name defines us. According to Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in NY, names capture our essence. They are the keys to our soul.

That’s not a familiar concept to us outside of the Bible, where names are given or changed all the time to reflect the character of a person or place. In our day, names are often chosen because of their current popularity. I remember a song from the Jennifer era, when it was the No. 1 baby name for girls in America from 1970 to 1984, and in the top 10 until 1991. The song was “27 Jennifers” and the words were “I went to school with 27 Jennifers, 16 Jenns, 10 Jennies.” In my day, it was Joanne, Kathy, Linda, and Susan. Nowadays, according to the Social Security Administration, the most popular name for boys for the past five years is Liam, and for girls, Olivia, has been the reigning champ for the past three years. 

I don’t know if all Jewish parents adhere to the belief, but some sources say that parents are granted a minor degree of ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration) when they select names for their children. According to Rabbi Blech: “Names are a book. They tell a story. The story of our spiritual potential as well as our life’s mission.”

So this got me to wondering, what about church names? Does anyone know how Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd got its name? I mean, I know where the name comes from – you can see it right on the stained-glass window in the front of the church. But who decided that that image would be the one to define this congregation? I did just learn in a Facebook exchange with daughter of the congregation Janet Griffiths that the window was installed maybe between 1972-78. She says, “I remember the purple panes before this window.” So who named the church in the first place? 

I was curious, so I started Googling how churches got their names. Without going into depth, reading just what appeared in the few lines in Google, I found a Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Lethbridge, AB where the first pastor was tasked with naming the new building. He decided that if people wanted to find a Lutheran church, they’d look in the phone book (this was 1957 when we still used phone books) under Lutheran, rather than look for a specific church name. So he settled on Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. Very pragmatic. 

At Church of the Good Shepherd in Holbrooke, NY, a Roman Catholic church established in 1970, Father Ronald Barry expressed his belief that “the people are the church,” so a vote by the members named the new parish. Very democratic. Another Lutheran church organized in 1965 did a similar thing. Each member wrote the name of their choice on paper, and the most repeated entry was “Good Shepherd.” 

Sometimes names get changed. The story is told of a seminary professor who met up with an old friend who had recently became the pastor of a certain church. The professor asked his friend the name of the church and his friend told him the name. The seminary professor, who was a Hebrew linguist, said, “Did you know that your church name means ‘House of Iniquity’ in Hebrew?” The pastor did not know that, but he returned to the church, called a congregational meeting, and promptly changed the church name. Thus, “House of Iniquity Church” was replaced with something more innocuous.

Then there’s the church in Williston, ND which changed its name from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to the Shepherd’s Table: A Center 4 Community in Christ. Members of the congregation spent two and a half years asking themselves the question: “What is God asking of us?” and in January of 2020 began to transition into a new identity for the church. Pastor Nicole Martin said that while the church would still hold Sunday worship as usual, the biggest change would be in the church’s mission to create partnerships between community organizations to meet the needs of Williston. 

This story was of interest to me because it sounded like they may have gone through the same kind of process that our church council has been working on since December. We have been taking our time to be in a time of discernment, that is in Bible study, prayer, discussion, and listening for what God is calling us to be in this time and place. I’m not suggesting that we change our name; I just found it interesting that their discernment process led them to a name change. Sort of. They still obviously thought that ‘shepherd’ was still part of their identity and mission. 

Which brings us to us. Why are we Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd? How does our name define us?
How does it capture our essence and hold the key to our soul? 

I think there are two aspects of our name that define us. The first is pretty obvious: we look to Christ as our Good Shepherd, who loves us, cares for us, and keeps us gathered together. I’m reminded of the words from the end of the funeral liturgy: “Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant. Acknowledge, we beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming.” We can look up to our stained-glass window and feel secure in the sense of belonging to such a flock. 

Cyrus the Great

There are lots of places in the Bible where we find this kind of comfort. The 23rd Psalm, for one. Although not about Jesus, we can see how Jesus embodied the kind of shepherd-leader praised in ancient Israel – from Moses who saw the burning bush as he was tending his father-in-law’s flocks to the Shepherd-King David, and even to King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered the Babylonians and set the captives free. As Isaiah spoke God’s word: ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose.’

There are also plenty of examples of what a shepherd should not do. Jeremiah ranted in his day about kings and religious leaders who were supposed to leads their people according to God’s ways: “For the shepherds are stupid, and do not seek God’s counsel; therefore, they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.” 

Pastors are supposed to be good shepherds. In the ordination service, the passage from 1 Peter is read as one of the charges to the newly ordained: “Tend the flock of God that is in your charge, not under compulsion but willingly, not for sordid gain but eagerly. Don’t lord it over those in your charge but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.” And if you’ve ever wondered why our bishop carries a staff that looks like a shepherd’s crook, it’s because it’s a symbol of the role of a bishop as “shepherd of the flock of God,” particularly the community under their jurisdiction.

So this is the first aspect of our name. “We,” as Psalm 100 declares “are God’s people, the sheep of God’s pasture.” And as such, we look to Christ, both as our very real presence as guide and comforter, and as a model of servant leadership for all who minister in Christ’s name. 

The second aspect is one that asks us to consider how a church called Good Shepherd embodies the characteristics of its namesake. And if the corporate identity of an entire congregation is one of servant leadership, called to guide and to comfort, then who is the flock? 

You know, the council hasn’t finished its discernment work yet, although we are planning to present something at the annual meeting on June 12th. It won’t be the final product, which will include intentions for action in the coming year, but it will give you a snapshot of the work. In this work of discernment, we were called upon to first of all frame the issue we most want to address in the coming year. And what we agreed upon was this: 
We will continue providing meaningful worship, while also connecting in a meaningful way to our community.

In light of that statement and this Good Shepherd Sunday, it seems clear that the flock is – us. We are both sheep and shepherd. But it doesn’t stop at these doors; we are shepherd to our community. In order to get congregations thinking about this, it used to be asked: if your church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone in the community care? We could put a more positive light on it and ask: if your church closed tomorrow, what would the community miss? 

In these days of church decline and pandemic, many churches are closing their doors. It might be interesting to ask the communities around them what they would miss about these congregations. (For one story, see Lament at the Closing of a Church.)

We’d probably get a wide variety of answers. The saddest of them all, however, would be: “Nothing at all.” 

Here at Good Shepherd, we already have a presence in our neighborhood, so no doubt we would be missed. The AA groups that meet here are part of our flock. How might we interact with them even more? The Good Shepherd Chinese Christian Church that liked our name so much that they took it for themselves, too. How might we explore with them what it means to shepherd in our communities? As we come out of pandemic isolation, Vacation Bible School can return. Many more ideas have been floating about for the 2 ¼ years I’ve been here. The work of the council will be to discern which of these will best contribute to our framing statement, that will be doable by a small congregation or in partnership with others, that will hopefully capture the imagination and generate excitement among us all. At this point, all I can say is Stay Tuned. 

I’m still interested in the question of how we came to be named the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd? And I’m still curious about how you all see how our name defines us? How does it capture our essence and hold the key to the soul of this congregation? As always, I’m interested in your thoughts. So I think I’m going to stop and see if anyone would like to share a response, idea, critique, or question.

For now, I’ll just say; Amen. 

Judaism and the Power of Names

What Should I Call My Church: Best Practices for Naming Your Church

No Doubt: It’s Quasimodo Sunday

I don’t know how true this is anymore, in our confusing Zoom/hybrid worship era, but traditionally, this Sunday is called Low Sunday. Common wisdom says that it refers to the low attendance in churches usual on this day, after the big celebration on Easter Sunday. I love the story, though, of how back in the days after he retired, the beloved previous pastor of Holy Trinity Lutheran in Buffalo would come back to preach. His name was Ralph Loew (L-O-E-W). So, of course, this was Low Sunday. You can see how the confusion came about. But neither of these is the real story. 

“Low” probably refers to the Sunday following the “high” feast of Easter, and neither to the low attendance usual on this day nor to Ralph Loew. This day actually has quite a few names: Low Easterday, Close Sunday (because it’s the close of the Easter octave, in other words, the eighth day after Easter), and – my favorite – Quasimodo Sunday. You’re probably familiar with the character, Quasimodo, from the novel by Victor Hugo or the Disney movie. This day gets the name from the first words of the opening words of the service for this day from 1 Peter: “Quasi modo geniti infantes” (like newborn babies). Quasimodo got his name either because he was an infant when he was abandoned at Notre Dame Cathedral or it was the day he was found – or maybe both. In any event, on Quasimodo Sunday we are called to welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. How cool is it that we have a baptism today!

If this plethora of names for the day isn’t enough, there’s so much going on in the readings that I’ve found it hard to focus in on just one. I think they must reflect what it was like in the early days after the resurrection, when people were telling stories about what they had experienced or heard, and others were asking questions trying to make sense of it all. It had to be an exhilarating time, as they tried to figure out what this resurrection business would mean in their lives and how they would become a community centered around the risen Christ. 

In a very basic way, it’s the same for us today we take a full fifty days to celebrate Easter to soak up the stories from long ago to share our own experiences of resurrection life and to ask questions as we try to make sense of it all. Of course, we’ve had 2000-plus years of institutionalized religion, but I think most would agree that the church is undergoing major shifts in how we understand the church as community. So as we move further into the Easter season, we’ll see what we can glean from these texts that can be used be of use to us at this point in time. 

First of all, we can lighten up on Thomas instead of continuing to call him by the derogatory name of Doubting Thomas and using him as a cautionary tale against our own doubts. We really should make him the patron saint of our post-Christian era because, then as now, people were questioning the claims about who Jesus was, debating whether the resurrection was spiritual and metaphorical or physical and literal.

We’re finally learning that there’s nothing wrong with questioning matters of faith. Doubt isn’t wrong. As the poet Kahlil Gibran wrote in the early 1900s, “doubt is a pain too lonely to know that faith is his twin brother.” Theologian Paul Tillich said perhaps more clearly, “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is one element of faith.” And best of all Frederick Buechner “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith.” 

So the better conclusion about Thomas is to remember that when he sees Jesus he believes wholeheartedly and as legend has it becomes the apostle to India. You might know that there’s a Gospel of Thomas, which may have been written within a few decades after Jesus’ death, but it’s not included in the final collection of books we call the New Testament. In her book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, Elaine Pagels argues that whoever wrote the Gospel of John clearly was familiar with this Gospel of Thomas – and thoroughly detested it. She says, “What you’re seeing when you read John and Thomas together is an intense, contentious … I guess you could call it a conversation, but really, it’s more like an argument between different groups of the followers of Jesus. What they’re arguing about is the question: Who is Jesus and what is the good news about him?”

So, because we know that the gospel of John is a gospel of symbols and metaphor, most of which can’t be traced back to the historical Jesus, we can understand John’s reasoning behind creating the Thomas story in order to remove doubts about the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. However, that doesn’t rob his message of its meaning. Jesus comes into the room on two separate occasions and says, “Peace be with you” and breathes on them. This is John’s Pentecost. It’s very different from the one in Acts that we’ll read on Pentecost, but the point is the same: receive the Holy Spirit; as God sent me so now I’m sending you.  

Through this gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus gave them peace. You might say that by breathing on them Jesus gave the disciples breathing space. By conferring peace upon them so that even though they were still frightened, and a way forward was still fraught with danger, they could feel the presence of Christ with them. This peace, available to us in times of crisis as well in times of calm, is the recognition that Christ is with us in all seasons of life and will provide a way to the future when we can see no way ahead. 

Just consider what we are doing when we share the peace of Christ with one another every Sunday. Granted, sharing the peace has gotten a little strange since the pandemic. Handshaking and hugging are out and we’ve had to adapt to virtual peace on Zoom. Many of us mourn this “touchless” ritual, but frankly there are a number of introverts who are just as happy to avoid the love fest. During this ‘fast’ from our usual practice it’s a good time to think about how the sharing of Christ’s peace can be comfortable, yet still meaning for all people. 

Because the sharing of Christ’s peace is not a token gesture. It is a potent recognition of God’s presence amid our pain, our doubts, our fallibilities, and our fears. It’s breathing space in a mystical experience as real as any that can be taken in by the limitations of our five senses. The risen Christ breathes in and on us, imparting new life and energy to face our own trials and challenges. The church will have new life to the extent that yet that we open ourselves to divine breath and then from our breathing space we offer grace and love to others. This peace, this breath is not only for us in times of doubt or fear. it’s what fuels our building of the beloved community allowing the walls that we and others erect around us all enabling us to see all of creation as one resting within the body of God.

But, oh, if only the world could see this unity. Then the fighting would stop in Ukraine and all sides would join in the rebuilding of their country. Community members and police forces across the United States would work together toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Republicans and Democrats would put highest priority on the well-being of all the people they represent. Every nation would put maximum effort into environmental care. 

If only I could see it all the time. I get an email every day with a thought and insight for my Enneagram type. The one I got yesterday said that I should cultivate a quiet mind and allow processing of feelings especially of frustration and resentment. I know that if I could always have a quiet mind and better process feelings, I’d be a better person. and thanks to things like my daily Enneagram thought I’m reminded of my area of growth. I try, as I am sure that you try in your ways too, to be better people and in our best moments we do see it so clearly. the line between you and me disappears; the lines between us and everyone else disappear; the lines between humans and other creatures and all of creation disappear. in our breathing space we know the peace of the risen Christ and we see Thomas – not doubting Thomas, but Thomas the Twin. Our twin reminds us that we have seen we have been breathed upon and given the Holy Spirit not just on Easter Sunday or on Pentecost Sunday but on Low Sunday and throughout the whole Easter season. we have fifty whole days to breathe in Easter air. 

And then Pentecost. It’s especially special this year because it’s Confirmation Day for four of our young people. Confirmation – also known as the Affirmation of Baptism – comes forty-three days after Quasimodo Sunday, the day we welcome the newly baptized members of the Church. And how wonderful it is to welcome Wesley and his family on his baptism day. There’s no doubt about that!

The glory of Easter continues for five more Sundays. Not that it ends then; it doesn’t. It will never stop as we look forward to the rushing wind and the fiery flames of Pentecost, as we continue to live into our understanding and our actions as a community centered around the risen and living Christ. 

Amen

Quasimodo outline” by 天曉得。 is marked with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

John 20:19-31

In the evening of that same day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked in the room where the disciples were for fear of the Temple authorities. Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Having said this, the savior showed them the marks of crucifixion. The disciples were filled with joy when they saw Jesus, who said to them again, “Peace be with you. As Abba God has sent me, so I am sending you.”

After saying this, Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, they are forgiven. If you retain anyone’s sins, they are retained.” It happened that one of the Twelve, Thomas—nicknamed Didymus, or “Twin”—was absent when Jesus came. The other disciples kept telling him, “We have seen Jesus!” Thomas’ answer was, “I’ll never believe it without putting my finger in the nail marks and my hand into the spear wound.”

On the eighth day, the disciples were once more in the room, and this time Thomas was with them. Despite the locked doors, Jesus came and stood before them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Then, to Thomas, Jesus said, “Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Don’t persist in your unbelief but believe!”

Thomas said in response, “My Savior and my God!”

Jesus then said, “You have become a believer because you saw me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs as well—signs not recorded here—in the presence of the disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Only Begotten, so that by believing you may have life in Jesus’ Name.

How Can We Celebrate Resurrection in the Midst of War?

On Easter Sunday, it’s become my tradition to read two of the four gospel accounts of the Resurrection: the original short-form version from Mark (ending at 15:8) and one of the other three gospels. This year that will be Luke. I ‘stole’ this idea from Bruce Epperly, author of The Adventurous Lectionary blog, where he says:

The gospel accounts present two different perspectives on the resurrection,
and they need not be harmonized, without glossing over their differences, much as we as we often do with the Christmas stories. In contrast to the approach of many Christians today, the early church was comfortable with diverse witnesses to Jesus’ birth and resurrection. The differing stories are not stumbling blocks to faith or veracity, but reminders that resurrection is ultimately indescribable. 

And now – my Easter sermon:

This is part of my egg collection. Many of these are pysanky from the Broadway Market in Buffalo, from the years I lived there. Pysanky are the Polish/Ukrainian painted eggs – like the ones Katerina made for today’s fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees.

The Broadway Market was started in 1888 by Eastern European immigrants wanting to preserve their traditions and heritage. Every year before Easter I would make a pilgrimage to buy another egg for my collection. I haven’t gotten one for many years now, so am delighted to have this special one from one of our Confirmation student’s service project.

So, although Easter is next week for Eastern Orthodox Christians, I couldn’t help thinking about Ukraine as I prepared for our Easter celebration today.  And I wondered: how do can we celebrate the resurrection in the midst of war? 

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t intend my question to be a downer. Today is a day of celebration. But frankly there are so many things going on in our world right now that mitigate against believing that resurrection could have anything to do with us beyond a day 2000+ years ago when something happened.

And we don’t really know what that something was. The gospels aren’t much help; they each have a different version of what happened. Author Barbara Brown Taylor has noted that “the resurrection is the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God.” So we just do not know.

Maybe it’s better that way. Years ago, when I saw the Passion Play in Oberammergau, Germany, I was unimpressed with the portrayal of the first Easter morning. What I remember was a lot of flashing lights and people raising their arms and exclaiming, but there was nothing about Jesus that you could see – obviously. 

In the ‘Living by the Word’ column in this week’s “Christian Century,” Katherine Willis Pershey described her experience:
I once watched a video marketed to churches for use in Easter worship. A man wrapped in linens lay on a table. As an orchestra played dramatically in the background, the man slowly began to stir. The music billowed to a climax as the man sat up. I hated it. It reduced a miracle to a cartoon, a holy mystery to a crude farce.

But even if the gospel stories don’t give us consistent details about just what was happening to Jesus , they are informative in what was going on with other people.  
The women are grieving; they are coming to the tomb with spices to anoint the body. They are anxious, not knowing how they would roll the heavy stone away. Then, after their encounter with the young man (in Mark) and the two (in Luke), they are frightened, bewildered, trembling, terrified.

And what of the men? In Mark, the women don’t say anything to anyone because they’re so afraid. In Luke, the women do go and tell the others, but the men choose to disbelieve their news as idle tales (obviously, this is pre-“believe women” ). Peter looks into the tomb, sees the discarded grave clothes – and leaves. Luke says he was amazed – but at what?

We love Mary Magdalene recognizing Jesus in the garden, but just one of the stories.

Frankly, today I’m strangely comforted by the ones who are bewildered, doubting, if not disbelieving (we’ll get to Thomas next week), and amazed – but at what?

With news from Ukraine with horror upon horror, political mayhem, Dr. Fauci reporting we’ll never reach herd immunity, news of a friend’s recurring cancer, and you can add your heartaches to the list – we feel frightened, bewildered, trembling, and terrified.

I had a friend in seminary whose mother died just before Easter in our senior year. I experienced her as a woman of deep faith. But on that Easter Sunday, she just could not feel it. She did not want to participate in the joy of the day. I have always remembered that incident – and the realization that just because it’s Easter Sunday, the grief we carry does not instantly disappear. And in the midst of the woes of today’s world, I found the entire Holy Week experience to be necessary.

On Maundy Thursday, we remembered the inclusivity of the Table, Jesus’ welcome, hospitality, and servanthood towards all people. And on Good Friday, we named and prayed for the woes of the world and remembered that God is with us in suffering. I even kept one of my eggs when it broke. Somehow it reminds me of the presence of God even in brokenness of the world.

We didn’t meet on Holy Saturday, but that day has always been meaningful to me. Even though I’m immersed in Easter bulletin and sermon, I recognize the importance of sitting in the darkness of the tomb – in that liminal space between death and life, between an ending and a new beginning. And I recall the wisdom of Sikh speaker and activist, Valerie Kaur (see her brilliant TED talk here):

In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth:
The future is dark.
But my faith dares me to ask:
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?

This is Resurrection hope – and it’s obviously even bigger than Christianity. So if today is going to be more than just a remembrance of what happened about 2000+ years ago, we need to embrace Revolutionary Love and relentless optimism. And this is her prayer:

In the name of the Divine within us and around us, we find everlasting optimism.
Within your will, may there be grace for all of humanity.

The new thing about to be born, the end of war, the solution to the problem – might not be today. You don’t even have to be happy today. The power of God to bring life out of death, peace out of war, hope out of despair – isn’t dependent on our acceptance of doctrines, dogmas, a specific version of the Bible, or a church holy day. It just is. It’s just how God works (or Spirit, Divine, Love with a capital L). 

So I can enjoy my pysanky eggs and celebrate Ukrainian culture, even while I lament and pray for the people of Ukraine today. We can lament all the death-dealing things of our world today. Easter doesn’t demand that we shut our eyes to reality. It does ask us to consider that there is something bigger, something better than us. 

Back in seminary, I had a professor who was known to be very difficult. It was rumored that he asked only one question on the final exam: “Who is God?”
The answer he wanted was: “the one who raised Jesus from the dead”.

I would now add “however that happened.” Because into my story, and into your story, and into our world’s stories of suffering and sorrow – we bring that Revolutionary Love and relentless optimism – that the one who raised Jesus will also raise me, you, our world into new life – however it will happen and whatever it will mean. That door is always open. Easter Sunday asks us simply to walk through.

Amen.

Mark 16:1-8

When the Sabbath was over, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought perfumed oils so that they could anoint Jesus. Very early, just after sunrise on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. 
They were saying to one another“Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked, they found that the huge stone had been rolled back. On entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, dressed in a white robe. They were very frightened, but he reassured them: “Do not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, the one who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. Now go and tell the disciples and Peter, ‘Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee, where you will see him just as he told you.’” 
They made their way out and fled from the tomb bewildered and trembling; but they said nothing to anyone, because they were so afraid. 

Luke 24:1-12

On the first day of the week, at the first sign of dawn, the women came to the tomb bringing the spices they had prepared. They found the stone rolled back from the tomb, but when they entered the tomb, they did not find the body of Jesus. While they were still at a loss over what to think of this, two figures in dazzling garments stood beside them. Terrified, the women bowed to the ground. The two said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here but has risen. Remember what Jesus said to you while still in Galilee, that he must be delivered into the hands of sinners and be crucified, and on the third day would rise again.” With this reminder, the words of Jesus came back to them. When they had returned from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and the others. The women were Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. The other women with them also told the apostles, but the story seemed to them an idle tale and they refused to believe them. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. He stooped down, and looking in, saw nothing but the linen cloths. So he went away, full of amazement at what had happened.

Startle Us, O God!

Startle us, O God, with the story of what happened this day:
a king coming in humility and vulnerability and with peace that passes our understanding. Startle us with the audacity of a faith based on that peace. Startle us with a love that comes all the way down to our city, our lives, our world, and bids us to embrace it and to follow the Prince of Peace, in whose name we pray. Amen.1

I was intrigued by that prayer because I don’t think we’re often startled in church. Maybe, hopefully, once in a while somebody has an ‘aha’ moment, a sudden flash of insight or new understanding. But ‘startled’ has a connotation of being surprised and frightened.

At the church where I did my internship year, we had an Easter vigil. Not like the Easter Vigil service you might be familiar with. A group of us stayed up all night and took turns going into the sanctuary to pray for a time (an hour, I think). Picture a big downtown cathedral church, with stained glass Tiffany windows, choir loft. A beautiful space, but that night it was completely dark except for a few candles. About 1:00 AM, the woman who was taking her turn came back down to the parish hall. Breathlessly, she said that there was a man in the church. He’d come out of the dark sanctuary, and she was so startled, all she could do was run. It turned out that the man, who was homeless had hidden out in one of the nooks and crannies in the building until everyone (he thought) had left for the day. I’d bet he was just as startled by a woman kneeling at the altar in the candlelight. 

That’s how I think of being startled. But other synonyms broaden the meaning: amazed, astonished, dumbfounded, flabbergasted, marveling, openmouthed. and my favorite: electrified. So again, I don’t think we’re often startled (or electrified) in church. And if I’m wrong about that, I would love to hear your story. 

In any event, in our prayer we ask God to startle us by the story of what happened this day, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem. Palm Sunday begins Holy Week, our remembrance of the betrayal, arrest, trial, torture, and death of Jesus. It might not feel like a day when such suffering is at the center of it. It’s more of a festive day. Some even consider it a kind of dress rehearsal for Easter, equating “Hosanna!” with “Hallelujah!” and skipping the hard parts of the story that come in between. 

Or as the writer Anne Lamott said, “I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb: everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking.”

My usual admiration for Anne Lamott aside, the story – our sacred story – the whole sacred story – demands our attention. And today our attention is on the parade into Jerusalem. An old, familiar one to be sure. But maybe today something will leap out at you and leave you flabbergasted. 

The Palm Sunday story is in all four gospels, and what Jesus did that day is still a hot topic of discussion. When the book The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem was released in 2007, it was rather startling. It stirred up both interest and controversy – and a new excitement about this day beyond waving palm branches and quickly moving on to Easter: do not pass crucifixion; do not collect 40 lashes. From this telling of the story, many have concluded that Jesus had carefully planned his entry into Jerusalem; the parade was a bit of street theater that mocked the Roman Empire.

Fred Craddock, who was Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, expanded this focus on the parade. He asked – and answered:

What is this: a parade, a protest march, or a funeral procession?
It is all three. Without a doubt, it is all three.

The parade was not just any old parade. It was a royal parade. The Palm Sunday procession was the triumphant entry of a king. The messiah who would be like the great King David, who would defeat the despised Romans. “Hosanna! Save us!” they cried, as they laid branches and even their clothing on the ground before him. 

Of course, Jesus offered a different way of being a king. This king rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. This wasn’t a last-minute decision, as if he decided to ride a donkey because he was tired or wanted people to be able to see him better. 

He chose a donkey because he was intentionally enacting the passage from the prophet Zechariah: “Look! Your ruler comes to you; triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. This ruler will cut off the chariots from Ephraim and the warhorses from Jerusalem; and the battle-bow shall be banished. This ruler shall command peace to the nations; stretching from sea to sea, from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Jesus came defenseless and weaponless. But he clearly understands the role of power. Riding in on a donkey has all of a sudden become very political, as he all but cried aloud the bottom-line truth that his rule would have nothing to recommend it but love, humility, and sacrifice. These priorities would have political implications. 

Now we know how the story will go. Jesus will not take on the mantle of a ruler who will lead an insurrection against Rome. The way of Jesus was not one of military might, violence, or hierarchical power. Rather the way of Jesus is a way of peace, a way that involves self-emptying and setting aside of ego, and willingness to be “all in” for the cause of righteousness, justice, and liberation. And that will get him killed. Don’t think for a minute the Roman authorities missed that gesture. They were always on the lookout for people who might be a threat to their power and they played hardball when they found them. Crucifixion was a vile part of their occupation toolbox. The fact that we know what happens next does serve to rain on our parade. And even though we know that Easter will follow Good Friday, today we’re still in Palm Sunday time, where we join in a celebratory parade, full of hope and joyful expectation. 

At the same time, this parade was a protest march. Jesus knew that on the other side of the city another parade was getting ready to march. A Roman imperial procession was also entering Jerusalem. It happened every year at Passover time: the Roman governor of Judea, whose residence was in Caesarea down on the coast, rode up to Jerusalem in order to be in the city in case there were riots. Passover was the most politically volatile of all the Jewish festivals. With the governor came troops and war horses to reinforce the imperial garrison in Jerusalem.

Why would a lovely religious holiday like Passover be an occasion for riots? Think about it. Passover celebrates the release of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt, their escape long ago from lives of oppression under Pharaoh and his army. And now where did they find themselves? Occupied by the Roman empire and living under the boot heel of Caesar’s army. Passover was a bittersweet day indeed. And it could enflame protests and rebellions against this current situation of bondage.

“Cleansing of the Temple
Alexander Smirnov (Russian, 1947–

Into this scenario comes Jesus, riding on a donkey, blatantly proclaiming himself as a ruler – albeit a ruler of peace. It’s no wonder that the crowds lined the street and cheered him on. And where did Jesus go and what did he do after he dismounted that colt? He went to the temple and drove out the money changers. Talk about being startled! He confronted the religious leaders who were exploiting the poor and powerless and cleansed the temple of corruption, at least for a few hours. Authorities, both political and religious would not have been happy with Jesus. and they were already plotting to arrest him and get rid of him. In the words of Dr. Craddock, “You could hear the groan of God each step along the way. He was not marching into a welcoming city, but to his own grave.”

It’s no wonder we want to skip over that part. In one of our Confirmation classes, the question came up of why – if Jesus defeated the cross – is it the central symbol of our faith. Great question. And as we enter into a week in which suffering will take center stage, it’s the best question. We talk about the cross, not  because Jesus suffered to keep us from suffering. He suffered because we already suffer. His suffering shows us God’s vulnerability, God’s identification with us. We don’t go seeking the cross. The cross already stands in the midst of life. We’re reading When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Harold Kushner in our book discission group. And early on, the author makes one important point. He says that people often refer to the book as Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People. He tells them – and us – it’s not about why suffering happens, but when. 

The theology of the cross – a term coined by Martin Luther – reveals to us a God who doesn’t stand aloof, a God who doesn’t wag a finger at us, but who empties God’s self for us, who is with us when we hurt, and even suffers along with us. 

Fred Craddock, who I mentioned earlier, explains it like this: a child falls down and skins a knee or elbow and comes running to mama. The mother picks him up and says, “Let me kiss it and make it well.”  She kisses the skinned place, holds him in her lap, and all is well. Did her kiss make it well? No. It was that ten minutes in her lap. That does more good than all the bandages and medicine in the world.

Then he sees his mother crying. “Mama, why are you crying? I’m the one who hurt my elbow.” 
“Because you hurt,” the mother says, “I hurt.” 

The story of Jesus coming to dwell among us begins on Christmas and ends on Good Friday. It is the story of God stooping to pick us up. We thought if there were to be business between us and God, we must somehow get up to God. Then God came down to the level of the cross, all the way down to the gates of hell. And God still stoops, in your life and mine. Craddock asks:

What is the cross? Can I say it this way?
It is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.

I can’t think of a better story to lead us into Holy Week. Today’s triumphant royal parade, edgy protest march, and grim funeral procession – all rolled into one – has many treasures for us to unpack. Maybe there’s something new in there that has been amazing, astonishing, or at least interesting. But if you take nothing else away from this day, I hope that you will remember that in this week between Palm Sunday and Easter is the heart of our sacred story. When we partake of the events of Holy Week, we enter into that story – not only as a remembrance of what happened long ago, but what happens in the lives of you and me. 

In our times of doubt, of pain, of fear, of suffering – God is there. And the greatest gift we could ever receive is to sit for a few minutes in the lap of God, who hurts because you hurt.

Amen. 

Luke 19: 28-40

After this teaching, Jesus went ahead to Jerusalem. Nearing Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of the disciples with these instructions: 
“Go into the village ahead of you. Upon entering, you will find a tethered colt that no one has yet ridden. Untie it and lead it back. If anyone should ask you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Rabbi needs it.’” 
They departed on their errand and found things just as Jesus had said.

As they untied the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you doing that?” 
They explained that the Rabbi needed it. Then the disciples led the animal to Jesus and, laying their cloaks on it, helped him mount. 

People spread their cloaks on the roadway as Jesus rode along. As they reached the descent from the Mount of Olives, the entire crowd of disciples joined them and began to rejoice and praise God loudly for the display of power they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of God! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” 
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 
Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they were to keep silent, the very stones would cry out!”

1 Sermon, “A God Who Stoops,” Joseph S. Harvard
https://firstpres-durham.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/04.17.pdf
2 Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead Books, 2005, p. 140.
3 Fred Craddock, (Cherry Log Sermons: Why the Cross)

“Be Like Joseph” – Jesus of Nazareth

There have been at least eight times when the Ten Commandments have been at the center of debates about the separation of church and state. Most of these controversies have been over monuments in public spaces and judges have rightly ordered them to be removed. I don’t have anything against the Ten Commandments, but it seems like those who want to erect these monuments are more interested in telling others how to believe and behave than in examining how they themselves are doing in keeping the commandments.

When I read the gospel passage for today, another section from the ‘Sermon on the Plain,’ I wondered what they would think about a monument listing these commandments that Jesus lays on us:
*love your enemies
*do good to those who hate you
*bless those who curse you
*pray for those who abuse you
*turn the other cheek
*if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt, as well
*give to everyone who begs from you
*if someone takes your property, don’t ask for it back it
*don’t judge
*don’t condemn
*be forgiving

You know the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I would call this passage Who Wants to Be a Disciple? And I wouldn’t be surprised if not many people would come forward to be contestants. This stuff is hard! And I would add that it can also be harmful. One reason it makes me uneasy is that these commandments have often been weaponized, especially by the church. Too often Christians have told people to be silent about their pain, swallow their suffering, using the Bible as justification. It’s have been used to silence the victimized, so others won’t be disturbed or inconvenienced by their stories. It was preached to slaves to keep them in their place. It’s been used to send victims of domestic violence back to their abusers. “If you are silent about your pain,” said writer Zora Neale Hurston, “they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Another reason for my uneasiness is that, in the wisdom of those who put together the lectionary – the cycle of readings for each Sunday – this passage has been paired with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Today we read just a short piece of the story, Joseph’s emotional reunion with his family. But that happy ending comes after a long story of the brothers’ hatred of their younger brother, their intention to kill him, their decision to instead to sell him into slavery and fake his death to their father. 

Joseph ends up in Egypt and manages to go from slavery to relative privilege in the house of a captain of Pharaoh’s army but is sent to prison after being falsely accused of rape. He was there for years until Pharaoh needed help interpreting a dream and someone remembered that Joseph had interpreted dreams for his fellow prisoners. He ends up becoming second in command to Pharaoh, a position of power and privilege. When his brothers come to Egypt desperately searching for food, he interprets it as divine providence. He reunites with his father and brothers, saves them all from starvation, and brings them all to Goshen to live in security. All’s well that ends well, right? Jesus appears to think so. Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; don’t condemn; be forgiving. In other words, be like Joseph. 

So I’m uneasy with both of these stories because what they ask of us is so darn hard, if not impossible. I guess we can be thankful these texts come around in our lectionary only once every three years and only when Lent starts late and we get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. But this year, Lent does begin late and we do get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. So here we are. 

We’re almost to the end of Epiphany – the season of revelation of who Jesus is. No longer the babe of Bethlehem, but the teacher of wisdom and of the ethics of the realm of God. In just two weeks, we’ll be in Lent – and we know where that leads. The way of discipleship leads to a cross. And Jesus lays it out plainly in this sermon, that his way will be counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and for all the benefits of being in relationship with him – a big challenge. If this is the job description who would want to be a disciple? Well, evidently, we do, because here we are. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we must confess that the challenge is often too much. 

In our individual lives, in our families, even in our churches, there are conflicts, often long-standing, unresolved rifts. Siblings who don’t speak to one another, children estranged from parents. Forgiveness and reconciliation is always hard to achieve, but especially when someone has taken away something that can never be given back. The life of a young person with a promising future snuffed out by a drunk driver or a random act of violence. Children whose innocence is forever taken away by abuse. Churches split apart by grievances they can’t seem to get beyond. I was just reading about the Lutheran church in Columbine, Colorado which found itself unable to minister both to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre and to the parents of one of the attackers. Real life on the ground is a lot messier than the resolution of Joseph’s story might have us believe – even for those of us who do try our best to be faithful disciples. 

So, as one who struggles with these texts, I have two insights that might be helpful for us today. First, I’m reminded of our Confirmation class when we were looking at the Ten Commandments. We read through each one and talked about what each one meant. We also read Martin Luther’s explanations of each commandment and saw that for each of the “thou shalt nots,” he adds a “thou shalt” (although we use more contemporary language), for example #8: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Sounds simple, don’t lie. But Luther asks: “What does this mean?” And answers: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, slander, or hurt their reputations – but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way.”

And #5: “You shall not murder.” Again, simple; don’t kill anyone. But Luther takes it further: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbors – but help and support them in every physical need.” And so on through #10.

What we realized was that Luther made the commandments even harder, impossible really. If just the bare commandments serve to hold up a mirror to let us see our failings, his additional explanations bring the mirror in even closer, exposing every wrinkle, pore, and blemish – every sin, both individual and corporate. For surely we are part of a system in which some of our neighbors are betrayed and slandered and some of our neighbors do not have all their physical needs met, like food, clean water, and shelter. 

The good news in all this is that, even as we take sin seriously, we take confession and forgiveness just as seriously. We look in the mirror. We see the truth of our failures and own them – no denial, no sugar coating. And we accept the graciousness of God who also sees us in the mirror but can see past the sin into the beloved hearts within us. God forgives and God gives the encouragement, the heart to go back and continue to live into the vision God has for all of us. This is grace. 

I don’t think those Ten Commandments monuments they want to put in front of courthouses can adequately convey the depth of meaning inherent in these so-called laws. These laws are about relationships – with God and with one another. They are not a black and white moral code. We are meant to wrestle with them, and continually examine ourselves, confess our failings, and receive God’s grace.  

And speaking of wrestling, we have to talk about forgiveness, that is how we forgive others. Jesus says, “Be like Joseph.” But we know that oftentimes, forgiveness can be very, very difficult. As author Sue Monk Kidd wrote: “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.” 

And in our Covid-weary culture and our divisiveness amidst rage and meanness, it’s gotten even harder. The New York Times ran an essay with the title: “Rudeness Is on the Rise. You Got a Problem with That?” The author asked, “how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?  The evidence of that stress is everywhere.  In airports and in the skies, airline passengers are angry about wearing masks, angry about inspection of firearms in their carry-ons, seemingly angry about, well, everything. Close to home, things aren’t much better, and it comes from both sides of our ideologically divided society.”

In the midst of all this, how do we live into God’s vision and Jesus’ call to discipleship?  We have to begin by stating what forgiveness is not (with thanks to Debi Thomas in Journey with Jesus). First, forgiveness is not denial. It isn’t pretending that an offense doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt. Forgiveness isn’t acting as if things don’t have to change. It isn’t allowing ourselves to be abused and mistreated, or assuming that God has no interest in justice. And forgiveness isn’t synonymous with healing or reconciliation. Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. In fact, sometimes our lives depend on us severing ties with our offenders, even if we’ve forgiven them.  In other words, forgiveness is not cheap.

Secondly, forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut. Yes, we’re commanded to forgive. But the process of forgiveness calls us first to mourn, to lament, to feel anger, to hunger and thirst for justice. Forgiveness isn’t a palliative to simply numb the pain; it goes hand-in-hand with the work of repentance and transformation. 

Thirdly, forgiveness is not instantaneous.  It is a messy, non-linear process that might leave us feeling healed and liberated one minute and bleeding out of every pore the next. Forgiveness isn’t an escalator; it’s a spiral staircase. We circle, circle, and circle again, trying to create distance between the pain we’ve suffered and the new life we seek. Sometimes we can’t tell if we’ve ascended at all; we keep seeing the same, broken landscape below us. But ever so slowly, our perspective changes. Ever so slowly, the ground of our pain falls away.

I always wonder about the process that Joseph must have gone through in order to be able to forgive his brothers. What went on between the lines of the story? He was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he became prime minister to Pharaoh. We know that forgiveness is often, maybe usually, a process. Even those who immediately grant forgiveness have to still do the hard work that will come. 

Consider that before Joseph forgives his brothers, he wrestles with a strong desire to scare and shame them.  In fact, he does scare and shame them. Forgiveness is something Joseph has to arrive at, slowly and painfully. 

I may have used this example before but it’s an excellent example of this painful process. In 2006, a gunman stormed into a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five and then killing himself. People around the world were astonished that the Amish immediately expressed forgiveness toward the killer and his family. There was also the perception (totally mistaken) that granting forgiveness meant they were then able to quickly get over the tragedy. 

But a year after the shootings, Jonas Beiler, of the Family Resource and Counseling Center, reported that members of the community suffered from nightmares, some were still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Survivors, including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer, wondered if somehow they could have stopped the massacre. Some of the schoolchildren suffered from emotional instabilities, which therapists working in the community expected to go on for several years. But Beiler said, that because the Amish could express forgiveness, they were better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

And right there, I believe, is the key to these teachings. They’re not meant to be easy. We are meant to be challenged by them. We are meant to wrestle with them. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shootings, Aaron Esh Jr. reported that he still struggles with the memories. He says that despite the Amish’s legendary powers of forgiveness, it’s a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. Another mother of one of the girls killed that day said, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”

So, how do we work on our own processes, especially in those places where bitter thoughts reside? How does forgiveness happen?  First of all, it’s not something that anyone else can make you do, either by quoting Jesus to you or trying to make you feel guilty. To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. It’s your process. Nor can anyone else tell someone who has suffered evil at the hands of others that God is bringing something good out of it.  No one else could say to Joseph, “God has brought you here.” He had to discover it for himself. If it is going to happen at all, victims have to discover for themselves that God has somehow created something new out of their suffering, that out of their survival God’s grace can even provide something that someone else will need.

We can learn from Joseph that his decision to not keep score against his brothers created the possibility of a new future for himself and his family. Otherwise, they would all still be controlled by and captive to the past. Can we begin to, at the very least, be open to the possibility of giving up the scorecard? Is there anything good that has come out of a situation of suffering at the hands of another? 

I was asked once whether, if given the chance, I’d go back and change my life so that times of suffering did not occur. I thought really hard about it. What a blessing that would be. No painful memories, no residual fears or hang-ups. But I finally decided that, no, I wouldn’t change my past in any way. Distressful as it may have been, it’s part of who I am, has contributed to my resilience, and has enabled me to have more empathy for others going through similar situations. So I can agree with commentator Barbara Brown Taylor: “When Joseph looked at his life, he didn’t see himself as a victim. He did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path.” 

I doubt very much that Joseph saw that lighted path when his brothers threw him into a pit. Perhaps we can remember his outcome and hold out hope when our process is still in the pit, so to speak. 

Perhaps we can hear these hard teachings of Jesus, not as imperatives, but as a promise that God will be with us in the process of forgiveness, all along the way – from a faint acknowledgement of a possibility that forgiveness could happen, to openness to the spirit of healing working within us, to the desire to let go of the person or persons who hurt us (for our sake, not theirs), and maybe (but not necessarily) to reconciliation. 

This is what Jesus reveals to us, late in the season of Epiphany revelations and on the cusp of the Lenten journey: that all through our processes of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation we can breathe in the “deep, joyous generosity of God,” and allow our lives be transformed – opening our hearts and minds and lives to the healing purposes at work in each beloved child of God.

Amen 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15 

Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I, Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The brothers couldn’t answer, so dumbfounded were they. Then Joseph said, “Come closer to me.” When they had come closer, he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me here ahead of you so that I could save your lives. There has been a famine in the land for two years, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and no harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors. 
So it was not you who sent me here, but God! God has made me Pharaoh’s chief counselor, the head of his household and governor of all Egypt. Hurry back to our father and give him this message from Joseph: ‘God has made me governor of all of Egypt. Come to me here at once! Do not delay. ‘ 

You will live here near me in the territory of Goshen: you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and all your possessions. I will provide for you here – for the next five years will be years of famine – so that you and your children and all you own will be spared from destitution.” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

Luke 6: 27-38

Jesus said, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, as your loving God is merciful. 

“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged; don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the amount you measure out is the amount you’ll be given back.”

 

Nothing But Net

Nothing but net.

We’re probably much more familiar with a basketball net than a fishing net, especially the kind they used back in Jesus’ day. Fishing nets play a big part in today’s gospel story. Can you imagine Simon and James and John there by Lake Gennesaret (which Luke calls the Sea of Galilee), glumly cleaning up after their unsuccessful night of fishing? Even though they hadn’t caught anything, there would have been a lot of debris in the nets: dead fish, mud, pebbles, and seaweed from dragging the net through the deep water, the nets had to be kept clean; otherwise, they’d start to stink and attract rats, which would chew big holes in them. So, avoiding this hard work was not an option. Fishing wasn’t a leisure sport; it was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee.

If you can imagine this scene of dejection, consider the extraordinariness of what happens next. I don’t mean Jesus telling them to go back and try again. I mean the extraordinary moment in between Simon wearily answering, “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”

That moment is a space that most of us have occupied at one time or another – in the gap between weariness and hope, defeat and faith, resignation and obedience – in the doldrums of the same old same old. Even the most faithful, hardworking among us “can land up on shore some mornings with empty, stinking fishing nets tangled in our fingers, wondering what the heck went wrong.” (Debi Thomas in journeywithjesus.net)  

The leap of faith Simon makes in that millisecond is the same one we make when we choose to try again, choose to go deep instead of staying in the shallows, choose to cast our empty nets into the water and trust that the presence of Christ with us in the boat is more precious than any guarantee of success. And what do we need for this leap of faith? Nothing but net. 

But back to Lake Gennesaret, where Jesus tells the astonished disciples-to-be, “From now on you’ll be catching people.” That sentence is often read as the call to evangelism. But I want to pause here too. Because the moment in between “from now on you’ll be catching people” and “they left everything and followed Jesus” had to be another moment in time filled with swirling reactions. 

As I said, fishing was part of the fundamental economic system of 1st century Galilee. However, it was controlled – and exploited – by the Roman Empire. Caesar owned every body of water, and all fishing was state regulated for the benefit of the urban elite. Fishermen couldn’t obtain licenses to fish without joining a syndicate, most of what they caught was exported — leaving local communities impoverished and hungry — and the Romans collected exorbitant taxes, levies, and tolls each time fish were sold.  To catch even one fish outside of this exploitative system was considered illegal. This exploitation may have intensified during the reign of Herod, due to his increased commercialization of fishing and his own luxurious living. Laborers sought ways to resist exploitation by hiding goods, lying about the size of their families in order to pay fewer poll taxes, and other covert strategies.

But here in this ginormous catch was abundance beyond their wildest dreams. And somehow they knew that these fish, these miraculous life-sustaining, family-feeding fish were not subject to the laws of Herod or Caesar. It must have been tempting to think that this Jesus could transform their weary labors into a new, independent fishing industry. 

It must have felt really good in that moment, sticking a finger into the eye of the empire. But Jesus calls them out from that daydream: “From now on you’ll be catching people.” And they got it. This Jesus was about something bigger than fishing. 

In the bounty of the catch, Jesus showed Simon the extravagant nature of God. In God’s realm, there’s enough food for everyone – there are no empty nets, there’s no economic exploitation. The Good News is for everyone. Meaning that if what we profess as Christians isn’t good news for everyone — it’s not good news.  

Which brings us back to catching people. I have to admit to some discomfort with that phrase. Even though I’m certain Jesus never meant that we’re supposed to go around nabbing people in order to save their sinful souls. Indeed, metaphors like this one have succeeded in forceful coercion and conversion; justification for forcing belief systems on the unsuspecting and insisting that those without a relationship with Jesus are most definitely not in the net of Jesus’ community. Catching implies a one-way action, and often a coercive one at that.

Even using the language of other translations, like “From now on you’ll be fishing for people” is problematic to my ears. In the dictionary, the meaning of ‘fish for’ is to try to get something in an indirect, and sometimes a deceptive, way. Like fishing for compliments or fishing for answers. 

This reminded me of a conversation I had with a young man who had become active in my church’s outreach to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ in our area. I think that in having that conversation, he began to trust me. He asked me why the church was doing this and I explained the idea behind it – and that it was not a ‘bait and switch’ situation where we would, at some point, reel unsuspecting people into church membership. His obvious relief at my answer told me that ‘catching’ him had been a concern and we would need to be clear about our mission, motives, and expectations.

The other incident that comes to mind happened just last week. I was the presenter for the Diversity Circle run by my friend Sridevi Ramanathan. When Sridevi introduced me to the group, she told the story of how we’d met. Both of us are included in the book Birthing God: Women’s Experience of the Divine. When my congregation wanted to invite a practitioner of Hinduism to be part of our Pluralism Summer program, I asked the author if it would be OK to give me Sridevi’s contact information. Which she did and Sridevi was a presenter at least twice in the four years we did the program. 

What I didn’t know until last week, though, is the hesitancy she felt before actually showing up that first time. As she said, she didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a set-up, a come-on that would end up as an attempt at conversion, something that she had experienced in the past. Of course, it wasn’t, but I can understand the fear. So I am wary of fishing, catching, reeling in anybody. 

But that doesn’t mean I disregard what Jesus is really saying. This story is about how we become disciples – by having a profound experience of Divine abundance and possibility. And it’s about hearing then the words that define the church’s mission: go and tell others.

I can already see some of you backing up a little and thinking, “Uh, oh. Here comes the sign-up sheet for knocking on doors in my neighborhood.” But come on back, I’m not going there. 

A lot of the ways we learned to fish in the past just don’t work any longer. The story of Simon and the other fishermen working all night and catching nothing is more like the experience of the church today than letting down the nets and catching so many fish that our nets – or our buildings – can’t hold them all. 

Now, I am aware that I’m already on page 3 of this sermon –which is supposed to be bringing you good news – and all I’ve probably done so far is make you realize how much we’re still in that space between “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing” and “But if you say so, we’ll go.”

So it’s time to get moving. Bruce Epperly, a United Church of Christ pastor and blogger wrote a surprisingly positive post about this week’s readings. Although it shouldn’t be surprising; it is the season of Epiphany after all. He wrote: 
Get ready for a wild ride! Strap on your seat belts and put on your helmet! We’re entering the amazing realm of the Twilight Zone, Narnia, and Hogwarts, an enchanted world, wild and wonderful, with mysticism and miracle, signs and wonders, where God shows up and turns our world upside down. Where God asks, and then empowers us to be more than we can imagine!

Wow! Is he reading the same story? But knowing Epperly’s writing, I’d expect him to find a deeper spirituality here and not simply a how-to manual of church growth. Listen to what he says about Isaiah:

Isaiah’s mystical experience in the Temple awakens us to the possibility that there may be “thin places” everywhere, as the Celtic Christians say. Places where the veil between heaven and earth is pierced and we see life as it is – Infinite. Where God’s grandeur abounds, and angels guide our paths. Out of nowhere, God shows up – a theophany that rocks Isaiah’s world. The doors of his perception open and he experiences the majesty and wildness of the world – the mysterious, fascinating, and tremendous. Isaiah receives God’s transforming and healing touch and a blessing beyond belief. He is anointed by fire, and then given a task.

Then he asks: When we hear these words, “Whom shall I send” what will our response be? Surely God calls us each moment of the day with nudges, intuitions, insights, and encounters. 

Then he goes on to I Corinthians, saying: 
Like Isaiah, Paul’s mystical encounter with the Living Christ turned his world upside down and gave him the vocation of ministry with the Gentiles. This passage gives us confidence in God’s power in the world and invites us to consider our own calling. No one is bereft of God’s grace or power to embody God’s vision and be God’s representatives in the word.

And then to the gospel:
Not expecting anything, and disappointed over an unsuccessful night’s fishing, Peter is welcomed into a world of wonders. Jesus calls him to go further and despite his doubts, Peter follows Jesus’ advice and receives “more than he can ask or imagine.” 

Peter’s experience mirrors the experience of many . . . congregations. We have worked hard and sought to be faithful and yet our congregation shrinks in size, budgets are tight, and the demographics are against us. We have tried all the latest church growth programs and the downward trend continues. And yet, God offers one more thing – launch out into the deep, go toward the horizon, awaken to new possibilities. Don’t give up, be faithful and join your imagination with faithful action that goes beyond church survival to healing the world.

Nothing but net.

Now we see that – as we’ve known all along – God is in charge here. And there are epiphanies still to come. The possibility is always there for you, for me to have God show up and rock our world – and our church. And while an epiphany can happen any time and quite unexpectedly, it certainly does not hurt for us to open up space in our souls, to develop our spiritual muscles, to be ready for when a ‘thin place’ opens up and gives us a glimpse into Infinity.  

And this isn’t just about a personal encounter with Divine Presence. This is also about re-creating, re-forming the Church with Holy Imagination and Creativity. It’s about launching out into the deep, awakening to new possibilities. No store-bought, cookie-cutter program will do it. It will take creativity and imagination, along with faithful action that will lead us out of despair or survival mode to renewing the Church and healing the world.

I want to tell you a little bit about what your church council has been up to. You might remember at our annual meeting last year, we decided to restructure the council – at least for a year – and try some new ways of leadership. We had a half-day retreat back in December where I introduced the idea of discernment as a way of leading the church. Discernment is different from a decision-making process in that it begins with different assumptions. In decision-making (and this is not a bad process and is appropriate in many situations) we believe that problems are solvable if approached carefully and logically. We have the capacity to understand and solve our problems by gathering and interpreting data, brainstorming options, establishing decision criteria, and selecting an optimal solution.

In discernment, we believe God is not neutral about our mission or our choices and is self-disclosing. We recognize that the Holy Spirit is our indwelling and ongoing guide. Openness of spirit and attitude is required and God’s will is best discerned within community. In this process, we listen for the promptings of the Spirit and explore through imagination, prayer, silence, and scripture. 

A good portion of the council’s time together is now being spent in this kind of process, and at some point you will be invited to participate in some way, too. Remember back in Advent, I kept asking the question: what is waiting to be born in our congregation? The question is much the same now: what is God calling Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to be – today?

Discouragement may be tempting, but in light of the gospel, it isn’t a realistic option. Remember how impossible Peter thought another fishing expedition would be that night: “We’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing.”  

Yet he knew enough about Jesus to say, “OK, if you say so, I’ll lower the nets.” Maybe he didn’t have any expectations; maybe he couldn’t even imagine what might happen. But he did it; he lowered the nets. Like Isaiah, he said, in effect, “Here am I. Send me!”

Here we are, in our boat – the church. We might think we don’t have much to offer, not enough resources, not enough people, not enough time. But as we get our fishing nets cleaned and ready to go, we would do well to remember this prayer from ELW Evening Prayer:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Savior. 

Nothing but net.

Amen

Luke 5:1-11

One day, Jesus was standing by Lake Gennesaret, and the crowd pressed in on him to hear the word of God. He saw two boats moored by the side of the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Jesus stepped into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a short distance from the shore; then, remaining seated, he continued to teach the crowds from the boat. When Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Pull out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.”

Simon answered, “Rabbi, we’ve been working hard all night long and have caught nothing. But if you say so, I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught such a great number of fish that their nets were beginning to break. They signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and together they filled the two boats until they both nearly sank. After Simon saw what happened, he was filled with awe and fell down before Jesus, saying, “Leave me, Rabbi, for I am a sinner!” For Simon and his shipmates were astonished at the size of the catch they had made, as were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s partners. 

Jesus said to Simon, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed Jesus.

Teleidoscopic Jesus

You probably know what a kaleidoscope is, right? The most familiar kind is a tube with mirrors inside and bits of colored glass or paper. When you turn the tube, you can create intricate symmetrical patterns. But have you ever heard of a teleidoscope? It’s similar to a kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t have any colored objects inside. It does have mirrors inside, but it has an open view, so you can form kaleidoscopic images of whatever you’re looking at outside of the tube. So I could look at you and see a multitude of psychedelic images that change each time I turn the tube. An interesting side note is that, while the kaleidoscope has been around since the 1800s, the teleidoscope was invented in 1970 by John Burnside, an inventor and gay rights activist who lived in San Francisco. 

So why am I telling you this? I’ve been thinking that looking at Jesus is kind of like looking into a teleidoscope. Depending on what picture you look at or what story you read or who you ask, you can get a different image of who Jesus was. Even when you read the gospels. When you turn from Matthew to Mark to Luke and to John, you see the same person, but the picture is a little different. 

I realized this while I was reading the story of Jesus from the gospel according to Luke, where Jesus is reading from the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue. This scene, as we’re looking at it through our teleidoscope, is the inaugural speech of Jesus, the opening (at least through Luke’s eyes) of Jesus’ public ministry. This is a different scene from his first public act in John’s gospel, which was turning water into wine. There, the setting was a wedding. Today when we turn the teleidoscope, we see him in the synagogue. And, just as many of you do, he had volunteered to be the reader that day. But after he read from the book of Isaiah, he added a little commentary of his own. He said, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture passage is fulfilled.” 

By presenting Jesus in this way, the writer of the gospel of Luke shows us his image of Jesus. Same person as the one John described at the wedding in Cana, but with a twist of the teleidoscope. In a way, John Burnside’s little invention is perfect for Epiphany, the season of revelation, in which we look to see how Christ was revealed then and how Christ is being revealed today.  

Here in Luke, he says,
God has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor,
to proclaim liberty to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison –
to proclaim the year of God’s favor.

Can you hear the echo of the song of Mary in the Magnificat, from back in Advent?You have shown strength with your arm; you have scattered the proud in their conceit; you have deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places. You have filled the hungry with good things, while you have sent the rich away empty.

The story of turning water into wine revealed Jesus as one who could show us the abundance of the kindom of God. This story in the synagogue shows us Jesus as the one who brings God’s justice. Same Jesus, with just a turn of the teleidoscope. Two ways that two different gospel writers presented Jesus to the world. And that was just the beginning. 

I was thinking about all the different ways we do look at Jesus. One way to find these is to look at church names: Christ the King, Church of the Redeemer, Christ the Liberator, Christ the Healer Church, Church of Our Savior, Christ the Servant, Christ the Way Church, Christ the Word Church, Church of Christ the Worker. And of course, Church of the Good Shepherd. 

If we were sitting in our sanctuary today, we would be looking right at the stained-glass window depicting Jesus as the Good Shepherd. Imagine if our beautiful window was also magically a teleidoscope and could cycle through all these other images – and more – of who and what Jesus was revealed to be.

But now we turn to the challenge that this multi-faceted Jesus presents to us today. Many people don’t know any of these faces of Jesus. Unfortunately, Jesus’ reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of many – he’s just part of an antiquated, irrelevant religious institution. 

Those of us still in the Church would do well to take seriously these questions that are asked by Gregory Jenks, editor of the book, The Once and Future Scriptures: 
* How do we represent Jesus to our world?
* Can the Jesus of hymnal and creed still capture the imagination of the 21st century person?
* Do we need latter day Luke’s to fashion fresh representations of Jesus for the 3rd millennium?
* Will they be found inside the churches or only beyond their boundaries?

In other words, does Jesus need an Extreme Makeover? And who’s going to do it? Well, guess what. I think each one of us is qualified to be a latter-day Luke. We are part of the revelation of Jesus to our world. But the question still looms: how can we capture the imagination of the 21st century person – especially in a place like the Bay Area, with our religious diversity, secularism, and spiritual independence?

So, here we are, a small group of people, most of who have been around the church for a long time. Surely, we have each developed a picture of Jesus in our minds. I’m assuming it’s a positive one, otherwise why would we be here? And when we put all these pictures together, we have a repertoire of stories, images, and experiences that comprise a beautiful teleidoscopic panorama. The challenge is how to tell our stories, images, and experiences. We don’t want to be identified as “that kind of Christian,” wearing our religion like battle armor and offending religious and non-religious alike. 

How can we be followers of Jesus without lurking at either extreme of the spectrum – neither a street corner evangelist, like a John the Baptist nor a silent disciple, like Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under cover of night? With the decline of the institutional church, Christianity’s engagement with other religions, and now a pandemic – we are forced to do what we never really had to do before: answer the question that Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” And decide how we’re going to convey that answer to our community. 

Some years ago, I was part of a Muslim/Christian dialogue group. We read a book together called Islam’s Jesus. I wrote a blog post that December with the title Christmas in the Qur’an. I was surprised to see a quote from that post appear in the Bay Are Interfaith Connect. I had written, “As we listened to our Muslim friends tell of their devotion to both Mary and Jesus, we were challenged to rethink our own understandings of who and what Jesus was and is.”

That question also arises in our encounters with those who identify as spiritual-but-not-religious or spiritually independent, as well as those who have been wounded by the church in some way. So I think having to wrestle with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. Because the more secure we can be in our identity as followers of Jesus, the more articulate we can be in telling our stories, the better we will be at representing Jesus to our world and capturing the imagination of the 21st century person. 

We do not want simply to claim that we’re not like “those other Christians” with whom we disagree. We do want to be able to say what we do believe about this Jesus we profess to love and follow. And just like the naming of our churches and the turning of the teleidoscope, we’ll each have different things to say and different ways of saying it. 

The logical place to begin, it would seem, is to flesh out what our congregation’s name means to us. Thankfully, we’re not Third Lutheran Church of Burlingame. We actually have an image of Jesus right there on our sign and in our window. So my first question is: what does it mean to you that Jesus is the Good Shepherd? The second is: how do we convey that to those who walk and drive past our church? And of course, the third is: how do we do that even when we’re gathering only online? 

I was thinking about it this week when I happened to see an ad for Ashes to Go for Ash Wednesday. Lent is, after all, less than six weeks away. Ashes to Go has been around for a number of years. The idea is to take the church out of the building and into the places where people go every day. Some have gone out to commuter train stations, some to public parks, some have had drive-through stations in their church parking lot to distribute ashes along with a blessing. I’ve never done Ashes to Go before, but it seems to me it could be a way we might embody Christ the Good Shepherd in our community. These COVID days are challenging us to get creative – and while COVID is not a good thing, the call for creativity is. 

Remember, though, that’s just one turn of the teleidoscope. Other images of Jesus can show forth, too. When we hear again the mission statement that Jesus proclaimed in Luke and we affirm that as followers of Jesus his mission is also ours, we ask ourselves: how are we bringing good news to those who are poor, proclaiming liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison; how are we proclaiming God’s favor? 

Our Epiphany blessing bag project is one way. Yes, we’ve been delayed, but it just gives us more time to collect toiletries and other supplies for our neighbors who are homeless. And there are so many more opportunities. As we turn our teleidoscope and contemplate each image of Jesus we see in our private devotions and in our corporate worship, we should also be mindful of how we are presenting that image in the witness of our lives and of our congregation. If we are going to accept the challenge to be latter day Luke’s, and if we commit ourselves to presenting fresh representations of Jesus for the spiritual-but-not-religious, those wounded by the church, those who never followed us onto Zoom and might never come back, then wrestling with the question “Who do you say that I am” is a good exercise for all of us. 

Jesus himself had to go out into the desert after his baptism to wrestle with the question of who he would be. But when he came back – as Luke tells us – in the power of the Spirit, he was as clear as clear could be about who he was and what he would be about. The wrestling we do over our Jesus stories will yield the same results – in beautiful teleidoscopic images that will continually re-capture our imaginations. 

And this is how we will represent Jesus to our world.  

Amen. 

Luke 4: 14-21
Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and his reputation spread throughout the region. He was teaching in the Galilean synagogues, and all were loud in their praise. Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. Entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his habit, Jesus stood up to do the reading. When the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed him, he unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:

“The spirit of our God is upon me:
Because the most high has anointed me
to bring Good news to those who are poor.
God has sent me to proclaim liberty 
to those held captive,
recovery of sight to those who are blind,
and release to those in prison—
to proclaim the year of our God’s favor.”

Rolling up the scroll, Jesus gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he said to them, “Today, in your hearing,
this scripture passage is fulfilled.”

                                                                                                

Baptized into Beloved Community

Did anyone bring your baptism certificate with you this morning? Do you want to share anything about it: when was it; where was it; how old were you; who were your sponsors/ godparents; who was the pastor that baptized you? Here’s mine. I was baptized on November 4, 1951; I was just over a year old. This was at Grace Lutheran Church in Pottstown, PA and my sponsors were my grandmother and my Aunt Helen. Edgar Brown, Jr. was the pastor, but he retired in 1955, so I really don’t have any memory of him. My baptism certificate is actually a little booklet with the whole baptism liturgy, but I’ve framed just the part about me. It doesn’t say what time the baptism was, but I know that back in the day baptisms were not usually held during the worship service the way they are today. And the baptism font was in a separate little room, called the baptistry. 

The Sunday after Epiphany is the day we remember the baptism of Jesus, which signaled the beginning of his public ministry. Baptism is one of the two sacraments of the Lutheran Church, but through the ages there have been different ways that baptism has been understood – rightly and wrongly. 

Story #1: In my first congregation long ago, I was visiting with a couple who wanted to have their baby baptized. Being the sort of person who likes to ask people what they think before I start in on the pastor spiel, I asked them why they wanted their child to be baptized, what it meant to them. The mother’s answer was: “You have to be baptized so you can go to heaven.” 
I call this the “getting your admission ticket to heaven punched” view of baptism. 

Story #2: In the same congregation, a couple tragically experienced the death of their infant son. The next Sunday in church, a member of the congregation made the unbelievably insensitive remark that “it’s too bad you didn’t have him baptized before he died,” implying that either he had not gone to heaven or was lingering in some kind of limbo. This is on the same order as #1, except baptism is seen as a ‘get out of limbo free’ card. 

Story #3: At the second meeting with a new mom about having her son baptized, she informed me that after being pressured by her grandmother who was Catholic, she had agreed to have the baby baptized at grandmom’s church, but she also wanted him to be (as she said) baptized Lutheran. My explanation that the baptism at the Catholic church was valid, totally recognized by the Lutheran Church and there was no need for a re-baptism fell on deaf ears. As was an offer to have a ceremony of Affirmation of Baptism. 

Story #4: On the other hand, there’s the story of my brother and sister-in-law who were re-baptized. That was because the church they had joined was in the Anabaptist tradition, which does not baptize infants and. Instead, believers’ baptism happens when a person is old enough to make a commitment of faith – which, of course an infant cannot do. 

Story #5: A student from Japan, studying at the University of San Francisco, had been raised in a very conservative Christian church back home. She began attending church here and liked our more open way of looking at scripture and beliefs. At one point, she began to cautiously approach the subject of baptism. She had not wanted to be baptized in her home church, but now wondered if there was a different way of thinking about what baptism is and what it means to be a baptized Christian. 

Story #6: And finally, from the father of a three-year-old, who says, “I was sitting in church one day, watching a baptism from the front pew with my three kids. The pastor was pouring water on the head of a tiny baby. My son was quite taken by this, and I could see that something profound was brewing. With a puzzled look on his face, he turned to me and asked: “Daddy, why is he brainwashing that baby?”

With all of these understandings and misunderstandings about baptism, how do we think about this sacred ritual that is so central to who we are as Christians? Certainly, as we’ve been more exposed to other religious traditions and have accepted their belovedness in God’s eyes, it’s hard to see baptism as a necessity.   
In the book we’re reading in our book group, Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans writes from the perspective of evangelical Christianity, but her questions should resonate with us. She wrote:

“After high school, I attended a conservative Christian college that was supposed to answer all my lingering questions about Christian doctrine but instead propagated them. Chief among those questions was how a good and loving God could condemn to hell the majority of human beings who live on this planet, most for the misfortune of being born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. If only evangelical Christians went to heaven, I reasoned, this left out millions, even billions, of people who had never even heard the name Jesus. It left out whole continents and generations of men, women, and children raised in other faiths. It left out Anne Frank. We read Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl in middle school, and Mrs. Kelly told us that Anne and her sister had succumbed to Hitler via typhus. I prayed for weeks afterward that God might somehow work a posthumous miracle and pluck her from the eternal fire in which I was sure she was being unfairly tormented. I couldn’t accept that a good, loving, and gracious God would burn Anne Frank forever.”

So, what does it mean to be a baptized? And why do it? Many parents today, having given up belief in a punishing God who sends unbaptized infants to hell, don’t even pursue it – unless grandma and grandpa pressure them and they do it out of obligation. Which is not the best reason. 

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Martin Luther King, Jr. We celebrate his birthday tomorrow, but as the Senate prepares to begin debate on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act, how can we not recall the 1963 March on Washington, DC for civil rights? On the 20th anniversary of that historic march in 1983, a crowd of 200,000-400,000 people came back to Washington. I was one of them. I wish I could say that I remember the speakers and musicians. I read that Pete Seeger was there. Stevie Wonder led the crowd in singing happy birthday, in an appeal that the birthday of the late Dr. King be made a national holiday. 

John Lewis was there, as he was in 1963. This is what he said, “We have a mandate from the martyrs who have given their lives in the struggle for human rights. We have a mandate from the masses who have worked together, prayed together, stood up together, sat in together, were beaten together and went to jail together. We have a mission to create a new agenda for America, to create a better world, to create the beloved community.”

The Beloved Community. MLK talked about it often. He wasn’t the first or only, but it was the essence of his dream: “Let us live together in peace and love in the Beloved Community.” So when we read in the gospel, “When Jesus was baptized, a voice from heaven said, “You are my own, my Beloved,” how can we not take notice? At this point in the story, there’s nothing about sin or death or judgement; it’s about being named Beloved. So it is at our baptism. We are named Beloved and incorporated into the Beloved Community. This way of thinking of baptism isn’t about creating an in group of the saved, those with a one-way ticket to heaven. No, the Beloved Community is now. 

Not that the dream has been completely realized. In the way that Martin Luther talked about the kingdom of God as being both “now and not yet,” so it is with the Beloved Community. Here’s a little bit from a resource called Becoming Beloved Community Where You Are: A Resource for Individuals, Congregations, and Communities Seeking Racial Healing, Reconciliation and Justice:

“Walking the road toward Beloved Community is an adventure, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no Christian should ever expect to arrive at the destination. This is a spiritual practice, after all, and no one ever finishes with spiritual formation. We are always praying. We are always reading scripture. We are always seeking to love and serve our neighbors. And we are always learning and practicing Jesus’ way of love, especially as he calls us to cross racial, cultural and ethnic lines, to examine structures of oppression and their impact on our own and others’ lives, and ultimately to nurture Beloved Community.”

The juxtaposition of the Sunday we remember the baptism of Jesus and the birthday of MLK, helps us see the two-directional nature of baptism. As we affirm our own baptisms, we acknowledge that we have heard – and taken to heart – the fact that the God of all the universe loves us. This is an inward adventure, because there are many voices, including our own that try to convince us that we’re not good enough, not worthy, not lovable. Living into our baptismal covenant involves leaning into the vision that God has of us, believing it, and living out of it – which means that we live into the vision of the Beloved Community. 

Because it’s not only a personal and inner endeavor. Baptism brings us into community. Not an exclusive community that keeps others out, but a community of people committed to living out the love of God. Church is meant to be that kind of community. And often is. In these days of COVID, though, it’s harder to define what our little corner of the Beloved Community looks like. How do we maintain our connections to one another? How do we maintain our connections with those we haven’t seen for almost two years? How do we envision our connections with our neighbors? 

I don’t know if you’ve seen the article about the housing developments being planned for Burlingame. Part of Rollins Road is being rezoned to allow single-story warehouses to be replaced with six-story apartment buildings. I’m not sure about this, but I think we might be the closest church to these new homes. And I wonder, if we want to reach out to new residents with an invitation the Good Shepherd, how will describe the community we’re inviting them to? 

In Wholehearted Faith, Rachel Held Evans says this: “Most of the openhearted wanderers I’ve encountered are looking not for a bulletproof belief system but for a community of friends, not for a spiritual encyclopedia that contains every answer but for a gathering of loved ones in which they can ask the hard questions.” 

A community of friends, a gathering of loved ones, a beloved community . . . hmm, seems to be a theme here. How do we tend the precious kinship we already have here? And how do we extend it to others? Of course, there is risk in doing that. Rachel Held Evans also wrote: “I have come to believe that wholehearted faith, like all wholehearted living, requires taking risks, cultivating vulnerability, and embracing uncertainty – both in our individual lives and in our communal life together. It demands that we admit all that we cannot know, and it encourages us to pursue it nonetheless.”

In other words, the baptismal covenant is also outwardly directed – to our neighbors, to the earth, to the work of dismantling racism, patriarchy, and other systems of oppression. As Howard Thurman, one of MLK’s mentors, co-founder of The Church for The Fellowship of All Peoples in San Francisco in 1944, wrote in his poem The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

We are going to remember and reaffirm our baptisms in just a few minutes. If you have your baptism certificate, keep it nearby. Have some water ready. you will be invited to dip into it and anoint your forehead or your wrist – with a cross, if you wish – as a sign of remembrance. As you do, pay attention; listen closely. You just might hear the rustle of the wings of a dove as the Holy Spirit hovers over you and a voice from the heavens whispers in your ear, “You are my Own, my Beloved. And I love you!”

Amen


O God, we long to co-create with you the Beloved Community, which looks to the common good; privileges all equally and creates societal systems which celebrate the humanity and the gifts of all.

Help us to listen to your voice, to hear your call to be drum majors for justice, peace and righteousness.

When the work of peace and justice overwhelms us and building the Beloved Community seems impossible, renew our strength and resolve – and our awareness that we are bound together in an inescapable network of mutuality and tied to a single garment of destiny. Amen. 

Creating the Beloved Community: Service Prayers for Martin Luther King, Jr., Weekend was written by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, Founder and Director of the Center for Spiritual Light, New York City.

Copyright 2014 Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ, 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH  44115-1100.  Permission granted to reproduce or adapt this material for use in services of worship or church education.  All publishing rights reserved.  

Zooming into Pentecost – Again

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John Stuart, used with permission

I’m glad to see that so many of you remembered to wear red today. I know it’s not as easy to remember as wearing green for St. Patrick’s Day or red and green for Christmas. Pentecost isn’t one of the big cultural holidays. But it wasn’t always so. In fact, from early times Christians have come up with some pretty wild ways to celebrate Pentecost and remind folks of the fiery tongues and mighty wind that we read about in Acts.

Most of these customs come from medieval Europe when church festivals were the dominant force in daily life. And Pentecost was one of the biggest days on the church’s calendar. So for instance, in some churches when the priest said, “Come, Holy Spirit,” the choir would make whooshing noises in imitation of the wind. Although, in some countries, like France, the effect was achieved by sounding trumpets. In Italy they scattered red rose petals from the ceiling of the church. In Finland there’s a saying that if you don’t have a sweetheart by Pentecost, you won’t have one during the whole summer. In England, there is the charming custom of cheese rolling associated with Pentecost. It’s not clear what the origin of that is, probably originally a Pagan rite, but since the 15th century cheese has been rolled down hills, and people have competed to catch it.

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“St. Stephen’s Cathedral – ‘Holy Ghost’ Hole” by pennhoosier is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The one I like best, though, is the Holy Ghost hole. It seems that many of the great cathedrals were actually built with Pentecost in mind. Hidden in the domed and vaulted ceilings were trap doors that were used just on Pentecost. During worship, some brave parishioners would climb up onto the roof and at the appropriate moment during the service, they would release live doves through the trap doors, through the painted skies and clouds of the cathedral ceiling. The doves would come swooping down on the congregation as living symbols of the presence of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, the choir would make whooshing and drumming sounds, like a holy windstorm. Then, finally, as the doves were swooping and the wind blowing, the trap doors would open again, and bushels of rose petals showered down upon the congregation, symbolizing tongues of flame.

Even smaller churches had these holes in their roofs. But instead of live doves, a large painted disk portraying a white dove surrounded by golden rays on a blue background was lowered by rope from the Holy Ghost hole as the choir hissed or whooshed or drummed. Then, as the disk hovered over the congregation, rose petals would rain down upon them. In some places lighted straw was tossed down instead of flowers. But, as you can imagine, the danger of setting the congregation on fire led to the eventual demise of this custom.

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Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it? That tricky Holy Spirit, so difficult to define and explain, inspired those medieval folks to come up with some pretty creative ways to do it. Today, many churches try to keep up the holy chaos by filling their sanctuaries with red balloons or red geraniums, using red paraments and vestments, and inviting members to wear red. If we were able to meet in person and share food together, we might have a Pentecost cake to celebrate the birthday of the church This church festival encourages us to break out of the usual routines, engage our creativity, push the boundaries and sail on the wind of an uncontained Spirit.

Pentecost on Zoom – again?
But here we are in our second Pentecost on Zoom (although Zoom does sound a little rushing-wind-like, doesn’t it?). Still, no balloons, no cake, no red flowers on the altar again this year. It might be hard to enter into the spirit of Pentecost. Although last year was more challenging. Pentecost Sunday came just six days after the murder of George Floyd. And we had the idea of the breath of the Spirit juxtaposed with a man gasping, “I can’t breathe.” This year, while many of our societal ills are as pressing as ever, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the long tunnel of our pandemic isolation. As restrictions are loosened, we might feel as if a fresh breath of air is blowing through our windows.

But we must admit that emerging from isolation is not completely anxiety-free. Even though the CDC announced that we could take off our masks if we’re fully vaccinated, there’s been a lot of confusion and hesitation among some. As we do move toward greater freedom, we must also acknowledge the traumatic time that the past fourteen months has been. And we need to be gentle with ourselves and with others as we all try to navigate the “new normal,” which could be different from one day to the next – at least for a while. 

And what about church?
Last week I was part of a video seminar on planning for doing church post-pandemic. One of the best words of advice I heard was: make a plan, have a roadmap for going forward, but be ready at any time to change that plan. Being able to pivot quickly will be crucial. I thought about that advice as I re-read the letter that was supposed to go out to the congregation about our plans for reopening in September. Then the CDC announcement came and there was a flurry of excitement and confusion about what this could mean. Gov. Newsome has said that California will be fully open on June 15. But what does that mean for doing church? The letter we wrote needs to be updated; the plan to send it out was put on hold until we can get better clarification on what guidelines will still have to be followed. 

I’ll be honest, it’s been frustrating. Promised updates have not come through. Some protocols are buried in long memos about other venues, businesses, schools, etc. Most of the guidelines are still from the time before most people have been vaccinated. I did get an email last week from the San Francisco Interfaith Council with an update from the SF Department of Public Health. Finally on page four, there was information for church’s about creating fully vaccinated sections. But still not much information about what this means in terms of singing, passing the peace, and receiving Holy Communion. All this is to say that we’re watching closely as the protocols develop. The health and safety of every person is the bottom line, so there will be no rush to return until we’re clear on how to best ensure that. 

Hybrid Church???
In the meantime, other plans for our return to the church building are going forward. One of the things that I would say a majority of congregations have learned is that some form of online presence is here to stay. And just as we scrambled to learn how to do Zoom Church last year, our new challenge is to learn how to do hybrid church, that is a combination of both in-person and online opportunities for worship – and other church activities. At our book discussion group last week, I asked two questions (we’re reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together and the first section is all about the church community): how has Zoom Church made being in community better; how has Zoom Church made being in community more difficult? The answers weren’t really surprising, but I think that it will be good for us all to answer those questions for ourselves as we think about returning. 

But returning to what? I have been realizing more and more how we are about to enter into a time of unknowing in the church such as we have never experienced. I don’t mean unknowing the beliefs of our faith. One of the speakers in the seminar told the story of talking once about the future of the church and changing the church and a man spoke up to say that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And she said, “Yes, but not the church, you know, or maybe yours is, and maybe that’s why you’re losing members.” That is to say that indeed Jesus Christ is the same, but how we communicate that through the church must adapt. 

Our dilemma right now is that we’re not yet completely clear on how we will need to adapt. So we’ll keep making a plan, and we’ll hold it lightly enough to modify or change it as needs arise. Michael and I will be attending a three-part seminar on “How to Do Hybrid Church” starting this week. The sessions (out of Luther Seminary, St. Paul) are at 7:00 am our time, so your prayers are definitely welcome. Thankfully we’ll have access to the recordings so we can go back over what I may have dozed off through. 

The benefit of being there live is that we’ll meet and talk and share with other worship leaders who are working on these same issues. If there’s one big lesson I’ve learned from this past year it’s that none of us can go it alone, especially these days. So, hopefully we’ll gain a good support network of hybrid church developers. 

I’ve learned a lot already. Two things, in particular. One: whenever we do go back into the church building, doing church will not be the same as it was before. It may never be the same as it was before. And two: hybrid worship is not simply setting up a laptop on the altar and logging into Zoom. There is a bigger concern. And that is: how will we be a community in the “new normal”? What will we need to do to maintain and nurture our congregation as a community of faith? How will we invite others into being part of this community? 

Become disillusioned
In the Bonhoeffer book he talks about the need for us to become ‘disillusioned’ about what we think church is. That is, we have to let go of things that are not necessary for being a spiritual community. These might be things we treasure, that have had great meaning for us. But as we adapt and change, our treasures may have to be examined and maybe even relinquished. I can imagine how disconcerting this could be, especially if we have disagreements about what is needful and what is not. 

I’ll give you an example of one of my disillusionments. When we first went into lockdown, I had a vision for when we would return to our building. We would have a big ‘Welcome Home’ celebration and invite members, former members, neighbors, community dignitaries to come. Maybe we’d even have my installation. It would be a grand way to begin getting back to normal. But now I’ve come to realize that that vision is not realistic. Our return will be different. I have had to relinquish my idea of what that day should be and be ready to plan accordingly when we know better what will be. 

And I’ve come to realize that focusing on the protocols and guidelines is really not the most important thing before us. “When will we return to the building?” – even “How will we return to the building?” are the wrong questions. “Who are we going to be when we return?” is the overriding question. 

That might sound intimidating. After all, it’s easier to make decisions about nuts and bolts issues, especially when we finally get good information. The existential questions are not so easy to nail down. But isn’t this just what Pentecost is about? 

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Matthew L. Skinner, who is a professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, wrote this for Pentecost 2011. His words made sense then, but even more so today. He said: “Pentecost observances are more than a celebration of the past. They are not merely an end to Easter or a chance to launch summer programming. They are not opportunities for stoking nostalgia about the church’s supposed glory days. Who needs those? Pentecost is an invitation to dream. For when a community of faith quits dreaming dreams, it has little to offer either its members or the wider world. Like any good dream, these dreams involve adopting a new perspective on what’s possible, rousing our creativity to free us from conventional expectations. They help us see that maybe what we thought was outlandish actually lies within reach.” 

There are those who say that the pandemic has forced the church to change in ways that it should have been doing all along. We were already in the midst of a decline. And while some saw that as an opportunity to try new things, others dug in their heels. Now we don’t have a choice. There’s no going back to normal. Now we really do have to rely on the Holy Spirit. And we have to rely on each other. In baptism we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own. We are the community of saints – sinners, too. We’ll need to remember that as we work together to create the new presence of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd on the corner of Burlingame and Channing. Will we always agree? Nope. Will we always love and respect one another as beloved children of God. Oh, yes.  

The Age of the Spirit
In 2014 the late Phyllis Tickle, who was a leading author and speaker in the progressive Christian movement, wrote a book entitled The Age of the Spirit. Her hypothesis was that we have had the Age of the Father, which was the Old Testament with its teachings, its ways of understanding God, and God’s ways of interacting with Creation. Then came the Age of the Son, marked by the birth of God in human form and the growth of the church. Emerging after that would be the Age of the Spirit, when humankind would relate primarily to the third member of the Trinity. This time would be marked by a decreased importance in church structures, sacraments, creeds, and clergy, when all people would begin to relate more directly to the Divine.

That doesn’t mean we just forget about God the Creator and Christ the Redeemer. But it may be time for the oft-neglected Spirit to come into her own. 

Pentecost

We just might be there. Which means every day could be Pentecost.  Every day could be an experience of the lively Spirit of God, blowing freely and wherever God wills, God’s gentle and occasionally wild presence, that transforms lives and communities, breaks down barriers, and gives life to weary and uncertain persons and communities. revives the dry bones.

Are we ready for a holy adventure? If so, strap on your seat belt, put on your helmet, and get ready. We just might be in for a wild and exciting ride. Happy Birthday, Church!

Amen 

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Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost arrived, the disciples all met in one room. Suddenly they heard what sounded like a violent, rushing wind from heaven; the noise filled the entire house in which they were sitting. Something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each one. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as she enabled them.

Now there were devout people living in Jerusalem from every nation under heaven, and at this sound they all assembled. But they were bewildered to hear their native languages being spoken. They were amazed and astonished: “Surely all of these people speaking are Galileans! How does it happen that each of us hears these words in our native tongue? We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, people from Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya around Cyrene, as well as visitors from Rome – all Jews or converts to Judaism – Cretans and Arabs, too; we hear them preaching, each in our own language, about the marvels of God!” All were amazed and disturbed. They asked each other, “What does this mean?” But others said mockingly, “They’ve drunk too much new wine.” 

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven and addressed the crowd: “People of Judea, and all you who live in Jerusalem! Listen to what I have to say! These people are not drunk as you think—it’s only nine o’clock in the morning! No, it is what the prophet Joel spoke of: 

‘In the days to come – it is our God who speaks – I will pour out my spirit on all humankind. Your daughters and sons will prophesy, your young people will see visions, and your elders will dream dreams. Even on the most insignificant of my people, both women and men, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. And I will display wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below: blood, fire and billowing smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon will become blood before the coming of the great and sublime day of our God. And all who call upon the name of our God will be saved.’”

Pre-COVID Zoom Church, Part2

Screen Shot 2020-10-05 at 4.51.03 PMThis blog post is from September, 2017. As you can see, we had thought out the theological implications back then. So when we went into lockdown this year, we were ready.

I’m still indebted to Dr. Gregory S. Neal for his 2003 document “Online Holy Communion: Theological Reflections Regarding The Internet and The Means of Grace”.

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