Wednesday, February 14, 2018


I was going to wear my good alb for Ash Wednesday worship, except that it's not my good alb any more.

I bought this one a few years ago, just before I traveled to South Dakota for one of my congregations' 100th Anniversary.  It seemed like a good occasion to splurge, to show my congregation that I had come up in the world, even just a little.  I had made do for many years with the least expensive robe I could find.  It had velcro at the top, and fastened with velcro too.  The new one had buttons!  and two pockets.  I had saved up a little money, so I bought it.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my robe to a wedding where I would be officiating.  It was an outdoor wedding, and I was undecided about whether I would wear it or not.  I decided I would not.  But when I got home, it looked wrinkled, and I thought I would put it in the wash.  And in the dryer.

When I came out, I discovered that I had left a ballpoint pen in the pocket.

This was a terrible mistake.

There were great big blotches of ink all over the robe.  I mean ALL OVER.  I sprayed and put the robe in the wash again.  I soaked it for a week, and sprayed it again.  And washed it again.  Some of the spots have become a little lighter.

But not much.

I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, on Ash Wednesday.  If you see it, you might see why.  It is a great (or terrible, depending on your point of view) visual aid of the presence and persistence of sin in our lives.  We are all marked.  And we can't get the stains out, no matter how hard we try.

I briefly considered wearing the alb anyway, but I just couldn't.  I decided that it was just too embarrassing.  I just couldn't stand up there with all those ink spots, and imagining everyone looking at me, thinking, "What HAPPENED?" or "How dumb could she BE?"

There are times when I wonder, too, about wearing the ashes, on Ash Wednesday.  I wonder about it because I always read the gospel of Matthew, which tells my not to practice my piety in front of others, so that they will say, "Good job!  You're so religious!"  And I have thought of the ashes as an act of piety.

But today I think that the ashes are more like that stained alb that I won't wear, because it's too embarrassing.  To wear the ashes is to admit my fault, my sin, my failure.  To wear the ashes is to confess my impiety.  I am in the company of those who have failed.  I am in the company of those who have done stupendously dumb things, like wash clothes with a pen in the pocket.  I am in the company of those who have done mean things, and ignorant things, who have majored in minors, and not paid attention to the most important things.

So, I will not wear the robe tonight.  I'll wear the older one.  That one has a tear in the pocket, and some other flaws you might notice if you look closely.

Most of the time we don't want people to look too closely.  But on Ash Wednesday, some of us dare to stand together, marked, and tell each other the truth about our sad and beautiful lives.  There is power in that.  God can change us then.  Into what, I only have a vague idea, except that he promised that we would be transformed from one degree of glory into another.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Sermon for Epiphany 5: "Ordinary Miracle"

based on Mark 1:29-39
            The theme for pre-school chapel this week was “Jesus' Many Miracles.”  With a theme like that, where do you begin?
             The feeding of the 5,000?  The four men who lowered their  friend through the roof so that Jesus could heal him
             The ten lepers who were cleansed?  The two blind men Jesus healed?  The one little girl he raised from the dead? 

            I started with this one – the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law. 
            Notice it happens RIGHT after Jesus leaves the synagogue – right after his teaching and casting out of the demon. 
            He goes to Simon Peter’s house and Simon’s mother-in-law is sick.  She has a fever.  And I say to all of the children, “Have you ever had a fever?” – and they all said “Yes!”

            It’s an ordinary sickness, something all of us can understand, especially in a year when there is a particularly scary variety of flu going around. 
            We have all had a fever – although it might help to remember that there was a time when a fever was a lot more worrisome than it usually is now. 
            I remember hearing a story at a funeral once – the woman who died, I was told, had a secret. 
            She had been married once, briefly, before her current marriage.  But her husband had died after they were married only a short time, maybe a year. 
            He died of an infection.  Her second husband got sick with an infection, but he got well – because in the intervening two years – they had discovered – penicillin. It must have seemed like a miracle.

            So a fever – it’s a common sickness – an ordinary sickness – and maybe we can even imagine being healed from a fever – more than we can imagine some Jesus’ other miracles. 
            Peter’s mother in law was sick in bed with aches and pains and she couldn’t do the things that she was used to doing – and Jesus came right up to her – not worried about germs or anything – and he took her by the hand and healed her

            And she got up and served them.
             And I have thought of this scene in somewhat humorous ways, I’ll admit
            – I’ve pictured her as a sort of first century version of Raymond’s mother on Everybody Loves Raymond, getting up and putting on a big pot of stew, because that’s what Jesus and his disciples needed right now.
            “You hungry?  Sit down.  I’m better now.”

            Women’s work is never done, am I right?
            There’s something about this scene that I love – and – I’ll confess – something about it that bothers me. 
            I love it because it shows that Peter’s mother-in-law is fully healed.  And you know, I’ve had a fever, and even when it leaves, getting up and cooking –that’s not the first thing I want to do. 
            Well, actually, though I love cooking “a little” – it’s not always my favorite thing, so maybe part of what bothers me is the idea that she’s the one who has to do it.   
            I know that she’s doing it with love – and I know that she’s doing it as well out of gratitude and love --- she’s serving for the same reason all of us do ANYTHING – to show our gratitude and thanksgiving.   
            So I love that this scene shows this woman getting up with energy – and giving back with gratitude – and not in some big and dramatic way, but in an ordinary way.
             Really, it’s an example of living generously.  She is a giver – and when she is healed, what is the first thing she does? 
            She gives.  She serves.  She cooks and makes her guests feel at home.

            So this is a great example of how healing is not an end point – it’s a beginning point. 
            Or maybe it’s both an end – and a beginning. 
            When we are healed by Jesus, when we are set free by Jesus, when we are given life and forgiveness and hope by Jesus – it’s the end of one thing – but it’s the beginning of another. 
            It’s the beginning of a new purpose in life, the beginning of hands and  hearts and lives more open – the beginning of living with generosity. 

            But here’s what else I think about – when I think about Peter’s mother-in-law – I just hate to have her gifts restricted to cooking and cleaning. 
            Those are good gifts.  But they are not the only gifts – and not the only gifts for women. 
            Recently I read somewhere that the word here for service – it’s the greek word “diakonia” by the way, is used in scripture two different ways.  If the subject is a woman, diakonia is translated “serve” or “wait on”. 
            But if the subject is a man, or men, the word is translated as “served as a deacon”, “did a deacon’s job.” 
             And what was a deacon’s job?  In the early church, deacons were servants, that’s for sure.
             But what they did was organize in the church to make sure that those who were needy got their needs met by the resources of the community. 
            They operated the food bank, for example.  Made sure the money collected went to the people who needed it.    As one commentator put it – they connected “the need with the resource.”

            And this perspective answers a question that I have about this scripture reading.  How did all of those people – the needy people – find out about Jesus, and where he was staying?  Was it just the mysterious Holy Spirit? 
            Maybe.  OR maybe Peter’s mother-in-law was doing a deacon’s job – not just making the stew and cleaning the house – but going out and telling people where the resource could be found – the healer for all of their hearts, and bodies and souls. 

            Need – and resource.  That’s what it means to be a deacon.  That’s what it means to be a servant.  
             I recently read a story about a priest In Bolivia, Father Pedro Arrupe. 
            One day Father Arrupe was invited to the home of a poor member of his congregation. 
            “The man had a gift for the padre, he explained.  So Arrupe accompanied the man and was led to a shack, where the man lived with his wife and children.  It was so rough, small, and spare, it took Arrupe’s breath away.  He was moved so deeply, his eyes brimmed with tears.  Then The man led him to a huge opening  in the wall.  Not a window but just a hole, and he pointed.  It was a sunset.   That was his gift.  *

            Need – and resource.   He brought the priest to the Sunset – and it was an ordinary miracle.

            Because we all need healing – of some kind or another – and we all have gifts to share – holes through which we show and share the glory of God.  
            And there is more kind of healing – and what do we do – when we leave here?   And when we share – when we serve – we become ordinary miracles. 
            Because despite everything about us that is marred and flawed and wounded and broken, we show forth the glory of God. 
            We connect our children to the one who made sunsets, and beauty, and them. 
            We connect homeless families with food and shelter and the love of God.  We connect sinners with the source of healing and hope.
            Need – and resource.
            Come to the table and open your hands to receive the life and healing you need. 
            And then go – as an ordinary miracle – to share that healing with others. 

*the story about Father Aruppe I found in “Barking tothe Choir,” Father Gregory Boyle

For the insight about the work of the deacons in the early church, I am indebted to Richard Swanson, and his essay from "Provoking the Gospel"

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Talking Points

I watch the news on TV sometimes, and listen to the political pundits, which, I know, is not really the same as being informed.  Sometimes I think it would be better for my health not to listen at all.  It is not that I prefer to be ignorant.  But what I realize, after listening for awhile, is that I actually learn very little.  What I hear is "Talking Points."

Talking points have become very predictable.  I know almost exactly what everyone is going to say.  It is as if someone gave the commentator a piece of paper, and told them what to say.   And I am not sure what I dislike most about the talking points.  I'll admit, sometimes it is just the fact that I disagree.  I think they are not taking something into consideration.  Sometimes it is the utter partisan predictability.  But sometimes it is the fact that they don't really feel real.  They don't acknowledge how messy life is, how complicated real solutions to our political issues really are.

They are talking points, not a real conversation.

So I am thinking about talking points, and wondering if perhaps we don't have talking points in the church sometimes too.  I was thinking about this on Sunday, when I preached about Jesus casting out a demon.  It's a really rich piece of scripture, and there are a lot of theological points to be made, the authority Jesus has, the power of evil, how Jesus won't let the evil spirit speak.  And I love all these points, and I'm really good at talking about them.  I learned a lot in seminary, and I have been in the church for a long time.  And I have been praying and talking to Jesus for a long time too.

But while writing down and thinking about all of the relevant points, sometimes other thoughts creep in, wreaking some havoc on the talking points I am so good at.  I think, Jesus, I have known you for long time, and I believe that you can cast out demons, and that you have more power than evil.  But I have to say that sometimes, terrorists blow up more people in Kabul, a young woman in despair completes suicide, a baby is stillborn, a drunk driver kills a family of four -- and it's hard to talk about Jesus casting out the evil, because there is so much evil still here, and I don't know what to say about it.

The talking points are fine, but they aren't enough.  They don't acknowledge how complicated life is, how messy faith is, how you can have trust in God and be floundering at the same time, how you can be trusting and rebelling, a sinner and a really good person, and how God is sometimes really hard to believe in, if you live in the world.

I remember a confirmation class a long time ago.  A junior high student was having a hard time with a particular aspect of faith that evening.  "You can't tell me what to believe!" he said.

My colleague sort of chuckled and said, "It's my job to tell you what to believe."

What he meant, of course, was it was his job to tell us what our faith's answers are to the great questions of life, what kind of God we have, what we believe about sin and evil, that God is the Trinity and Jesus is completely God and human, what it means when we pour the water over someone's head, where to find hope.

Those are the talking points.  But underneath the talking points, there is something else.  There is testifying to God's voice and God's silence in our life, why we believe when it doesn't make sense, what we do when everything falls apart.  And sometimes it does.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

When the Children's Message Becomes the Sermon

I asked someone to bring in a fishing pole for the children's message last Sunday.  I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with it.  I know that Jesus didn't fish with a fishing pole.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time so I took the fishing pole with me when I sat down with the children.

I asked them if they had ever gone fishing.  A few of them were enthusiastic that they had.  I asked them if they knew what would be good to put at the end of a fishing pole if they wanted to catch fish.

"Worms!" shouted one little boy.

I said that Jesus told that his disciples that instead of catching fish, they were going to be catching people!  And what would you use at the end of a fishing pole if you wanted to catch people?

Okay, it was a silly question.  And I got some silly answers.

But in Jesus time, people didn't fish with fishing poles.  They used nets to catch fish.  And the disciples would use a kind of net to catch people.

It was the net of God's love.

I got some of the children to make a circle, so that they could be like a net.  Then we caught a few of the other children in the net.  The children in the middle of the circle didn't know how they felt about being inside the net, though.  "How do we get out of here?" they said.

They became a part of the circle.  Pretty soon all of the children were a part of the circle, and there was no one left in the middle.  I said to the congregation, who wants to be inside of God's love?

A few people jumped up, and they got inside the circle.

Pretty soon, though, they were holding hands, and a few more people from the congregation were "caught."

And after they were caught, they became a part of the circle, catching others.

Later on, I preached a "real" sermon, but it wasn't until later in the afternoon that I realized that the circle of God's love was a pretty good image of what it means to be a disciple.  You get caught by God's love, but a little while later you are a part of the circle who shows tells other people about God's love.  You are never meant to just be inside.  You are always meant to be a part of the circle.

And we don't do any of this work alone.

Maybe I should have just kept adding people to the circle and forgotten about the "real" sermon that day.

Sometimes you don't need words.  Sometimes you just need actions.  Sometimes you just need to keep expanding the circle.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Sermon for 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany


based on Mark 1:14-20

            Sometimes it’s the small things you notice.    
            On Tuesday I woke up expecting to see a lot of snow on the ground – I ended up looking for the small pieces of sleet and snow that signaled danger
            Or those small pieces of ice – that can trip you up if you aren’t careful.  
            Or small signs of life --  when I used to visit the desert in Arizona, it would look pretty barren – but if I looked closely I could tell it was really alive.
            Sometimes it’s the small things you notice – that I notice – here – on Sunday morning – when we’re sharing the peace, or sharing communion, or visiting after the service.
            A smile.  A word.  A Gesture.

            Or in this passage of scripture from Mark – the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. 
            I’ve always focused on the obvious – the men were fishermen, and Jesus calls them by telling them that they will be “fishing for people” now.   
            And in using those words and that image – Jesus hooks them right away. 
            But today you know what I am noticing?  The word “immediately.”   
            Did you notice that word?  Jesus is at the very beginning of his ministry. 
            He has just been baptized and driven out to the wilderness.  (And by the way, the Spirit drove him out – immediately.)  
            And  afterwards he sees two fishermen and he calls them – and they follow him – immediately. 

            That’s sort of incredible. 
            I mean, you can chalk it up to Jesus being the voice of authority.  If he calls you, you just have to go. 
            When I went to do a church service at the Denver City and County Jail once, the inmates all told said that it was no surprise – that they followed “immediately.” 
            Because – Jesus. 
            You can’t trust anyone else, but you can trust Jesus. 
            So -- It’s a sign – a revelation – that when Jesus calls disciples, they follow “immediately.”  They can’t resist. 

            In the church, this season is called “Epiphany” – which is a word that means “Revelation.” 
            The word “epiphany” with a small “e” actually means a moment when the truth is revealed to you without you having to study or figure it out.
            You just suddenly (for example) knew, just KNEW that 2 plus 2 really does equal four, or that that key in the middle of the piano is middle C, or that the thing that you touch with your hands and drink and wash with – that’s called water. 
            The disciples heard Jesus call their name and suddenly they just KNEW, without having to study it, that he was the one.  It was a revelation.

            But what does it reveal? 
            The disciples know that Jesus is the one, they know he is the Messiah, but they don’t know much about him.  Yet. 
            They will learn more, and more will be revealed to them, but for now they have just heard him calling. 
            And they followed.  Immediately.
            And for me this reveals three things.  It reveals something about the disciples – that they were waiting. 
            They were waiting for someone, for something, for the kingdom of God, the Messiah, someone they could follow. 
            They were waiting for someone who would teach them, and heal them, – but they were also waiting for someone who would make them teachers and healers. 
            They were waiting for something that God had promised to Israel – that God had promised to the world. 
            So they followed immediately.          
            But  “immediately” also reveals a sense of urgency – that this is not the time for delays. 
            This is a time for action. 
            This is a time for repentance, by which I mean, a time to turn around, go in a different direction, actually follow Jesus. 
            And as much as we might say, OF COURSE the disciples followed immediately, it’s not that easy, is it? 
            So the other thing that this reveals is our – my – hesitation. 
            I want to ask, “Wait a minute?  Is it that really God calling?  I have a couple of things I have to do first that are important.”   
            Most of the time, following Jesus may not seem that urgent to us.  In fact, most of the time, the decisions we make may not seem that urgent – until the flood waters come up and you have to leave your home – or stay –
             or until someone is in trouble and you have to help – or not
             – or someone asks you (for example), “will you marry me?” and you have to answer yes – or not.   
            The Kingdom of God has drawn near – and do you want to be a part of it?   -- Don’t take your time.

            So, it’s a small thing, but the word immediately sticks out to me.    As being a part of the epiphany – a part of the revelation.
             And you know what – it happens TWICE. 
            Twice that word “immediately” – when Jesus calls the second set of brothers, James and John – he calls them immediately.
            Peter and Andrew didn’t hesitate. 
            But when Jesus gets to James and John, he doesn’t hesitate either.             He doesn’t ask for resumes.  He doesn’t have them do a personality test. 
            He doesn’t have a conversation with them first, so that he can find out if they are right for the job. 
            He calls them  -- immediately. 

            If you ask me, this is even more incredible. 
            That Jesus does not hesitate – to call Peter and Andrew, James and John – and us. 
            And this – this reveals something too, something about Jesus, and something about us.

            But what does it reveal? 

            What do you think? 

            God is not hesitating to call you – right where you are. 
            And not just (or even immediately) here, in church. 
            I just get to remind you about it on Sunday. 
            NO – he’s calling you while you are casting your nets into the sea, which is to say, he is calling to you while you are doing your daily work, while you are going to the grocery store with your kids,
            while you are at the office, in the truck, meeting your neighbors, playing with children. 
            God is not hesitating to call you – immediately -- to be a part of God’s reign of mercy and love and compassion

            And what does it reveal? 

            Today Jesus is calling you  -- and suddenly – suddenly – you know – without studying or having to figure it out – you just know – that despite everything – you are beloved and valuable –and worthy to bear the good news. You are God’s beloved child, and he is calling you without hesitation.          

            “Follow me,” he says to you – every single day. 
            And you know – sometimes it’s the small things that you notice.     The child who needs encouragement to follow her dream
            The stranger who needs hope.  The family who needs a home. 
            The refugee who needs shelter.   
            Every person who needs – the kingdom of God.  Right now.

            Immediately he calls you.  Because he loves you.  Because he sees you.

            Don’t take your time.  AMEN

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord

Acts 19:1-7/Mark 1:4-11

“Life Survival Kit”

            All of the reports of the cold weather all over the country are bringing me back to my days as a pastor in rural South Dakota – and the Sunday morning one winter day that one of my parish members handed me a box. 
            It was a gift, she said, and this particular gift was useful – it was a winter survival kit.  I’m from the Midwest, you know, but I had never had a winter survival kit. 
            So I looked inside to see what was in it.
            The box had a flashlight, candles, a bar of Hershey chocolate, matches, a coffee can, and a roll of toilet paper.  I thought it was very interesting.  I put it in the trunk of my car. 
            Truthfully, I did not now what any of it was for, or how it might help me if I was stranded on the road on a winter day. 

            For the next few years that winter survival kit stayed in the trunk of my car.  I never used it. 
            I didn’t know what it was for.  Well, that’s not exactly true.  I had a couple of ideas. 
            I had for example, an idea about the chocolate bar, and I was pretty sure about what the matches were for.  I also thought I knew what the toilet paper was for – but I was wrong….. 
            What I didn’t know was that I really had everything I needed in that box, everything I needed to survive in a blizzard.
             But I didn’t know how to use it.

            Everything I needed – maybe we don’t think of it this way, but when we are baptized we receive everything we need for the life of faith.  We receive the Holy Spirit.   
            It goes all the way back to John the Baptist in the wilderness.
             He was pretty clear when he was baptizing people…. “I have baptized you with water… but the one who is coming after me?  HE will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  
            Not that the water is unimportant – but there is something more going on when we are baptized – the point is the water AND the Spirit.     And, you may not remember it, but when we are baptized, no matter what age that is – whether we are 2 months or 2 years or 20 or 80 – when we are baptized – we also receive the Holy Spirit.
            “Pour out your Holy Spirit on Tori  -- or Dennis – or Henry – or Yvonne --we pray….  The spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence…”  
            Everything we need.   For the life of faith.

            That is what we get when we receive the Holy Spirit.  And we receive the Holy Spirit when we are baptized.  
             That’s the way it is supposed to be. 
            That’s behind this story from Acts 19 that we read today.  Paul comes across some believers and asks them if they received the Holy Spirit when they believed. 
            And they said – they haven’t even heard of the Holy Spirit.  They had only received John’s baptism. 
            So he baptizes them and they do receive the Holy Spirit.  And they receive gifts – strange gifts it might seem to us, but gifts. 
            Everything they need for the life of faith. 

            I can’t help thinking though that even though we have heard of the Holy Spirit,
             that the Spirit’s gifts to us are sort of like that “Winter Survival Kit” I received – they are sitting in the equivalent in the trunks of our cars. 
            Because maybe we don’t have any idea what they are for.  How does the Holy Spirit help us in the life of faith? 
             What do we receive and how do we use it?  Maybe we should ask.  Maybe we should be curious, and take a look and….

            Wait a minute… what do I have here?  There’s a box here, and it says, “Life survival kit.”  Do you think I should open it?   Let’s see what is inside.

            1.  The first thing I’m seeing is a slingshot. 
            You know what this slingshot reminds me of?  It reminds me of that story in the old Testament about David and Goliath. 
            And how Goliath was someone to be afraid of, a bully, and how David was young, and everyone thought it was foolish of him to stand up to the giant, but he did. 
            And all he had was this slingshot.  He didn’t have a sword, and he didn’t have any TNT and he didn’t have any nuclear weapons. 
            All he had was a slingshot.  But that’s what the strength of God is like. 
            We’re promised the might of God, but it’s not like the might of the world.
             We’re not promised that God will make us into giants, but that God will give us what we need.   A different kind of strength.
              Remember also that David used the slingshot against Goliath, but he also used it to protect the sheep. 
            The strength we get from God is to help those who need protection – the poor and the vulnerable and the weak.

            2.  What’s this?  Here are some ear buds.
            One of the things that the Holy Spirit helps us do is hear God’s voice. 
            There are a lot of voices in the world, and not all of them belong to God. 
            Some of them are telling us to be afraid, and some of us are telling us to be selfish and some of us are telling us that God is not around. 
            But the Holy Spirit helps us to hear and recognize God’s voice, God’s word, in the Scripture, and in our lives. 
            The Holy Spirit helps us to hear that God is with us, and helps us to know what God wants us to do and who wants us to be in the world right now. 
            Sometimes God shouts and sometimes God whispers, but God is always speaking to us….

            3.  Here’s something else  (big glasses!)  The Holy Spirit gives us a way to see what God is doing in the world – that God really is active in the world.  And in our lives.
             Sometimes the Holy Spirit helps us know where to look – because it’s not often we see what God is doing when we look in the obvious places – the places where the powerful people are – and where important things happen
            – but God is working in small ways and through ordinary people and we need these new eyes to see it.  Through us! 
            Through family Promise!  Through the pre-school – and the children –

            4.  And here’s something else we receive (a microphone).  This reminds me that one of the things that God gives us is a voice. 
            God wants us to speak up. 
            And that can be scary.  But God gives us a voice and will give us courage when we need it – to speak up –
             to speak up with words of love for our enemies – to speak up with words of mercy for those who are down
            – to speak up for words of truth for the powerful –   oh, and I see that there are some bandaids here too
            – because it’s not just about words, right?  But actions are important too…

            5.  There’s one more thing in here – and it’s a passport.  Huh. 
            It has my name on it.  I can carry it with me anywhere, so that if anyone asks me who I am – I can tell them that I am a child of God.           When Jesus was baptized, that’s what the Holy Spirit told him, and that’s the most important thing – because there were plenty of people who did not believe him. 
            But he kept on his mission:  loving people and forgiving people and healing people – anyway. 
            And that is so important for us as well – to remember who we are.  To remember our mission. 
            Because there will be plenty of people who will encourage us to doubt it. 
            And there will be times when we will doubt it, because of things that happen to us. 
            Martin Luther said that when he felt beset by adversity, he would say to himself, ‘I am baptized!”  A passport reminding us of who we are – and what our mission is. 

            The Holy Spirit.  Everything we need. 
            For the life of faith. 
            Everything we need to – not to survive – but to live.  Wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, fear of the Lord,  joy in your presence.  Joy.