Saturday, April 22, 2017

In the Big Cathedral

My understanding of God the Creator has been greatly enriched by studying about the spirituality of the Celts. In Celtic spirituality there is a love and amazement at creation. They refer to the world, the out-of-doors, as the Big Cathedral. An enclosed building like a church, they would call a Little Cathedral. If you travel to Celtic lands today, you will see high-standing outdoor crosses, which are a reminder of the worship they held outside where they could experience the beauty of nature. This earth that God has created is our Big Cathedral.

When you look at it like that, our lives aren’t about getting up in the morning and doing what we gotta do so we can come home and go to sleep and get up in the morning and do the whole thing all over again. We’re in the Big Cathedral here. In that context, living in the Big Cathedral, our lives are worship. But, what if you’re living in the Big Cathedral, yet fail to notice?

A reporter several years ago carried out an interesting survey on the street. People walking by were stopped and asked, without looking up, to describe the sky as it was on that day. Do you know that only a very small percentage of the people could do it with reasonable accuracy? God’s presence is all around us, but most people don’t take the time to notice or appreciate it.

I confess that I’m often among the unappreciative. Still, there are times when I can’t help myself. I have to take note of the wonder of creation in my presence. Like when I’m bowled over by:

 A gorgeous sunset.
 A big fat yellow moon.
 The misty ridges of the blue ridge mountains.
 The branches of a naked, gnarly tree against a clear blue sky.
 The first bright green buds of spring.
 The sound of seagulls and waves rolling onto the beach.
 The wagging tail of my dog when she greets me at the door.
 Rainbows that always seem to surprise me.

Perhaps the most amazing part of God’s creation is what I see looking back at me in the mirror every morning. This is a creature that has been set apart from all the others. In the Genesis creation poem we read, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” I’m never quite sure what that means. It’s puzzling. The second part of the verse is clearer to me, “…and let them have dominion over…” all creation. God created humans to be in loving partnership with him for the ongoing care of creation. (Maybe that’s what it means to be created in God’s image.)

I wonder if we’re so often oblivious to the marvels of creation all around us because, if we really saw them, we wouldn’t be able to ignore our responsibility as partners with God in the care of creation. But what if we did? What if we saw our lives as worship in the Big Cathedral?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The resurrected Body of Christ


 Preached at Ascension Towson, Easter, 2017.

“He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” That’s the message the angel told the women to proclaim to the other disciples. And they hightailed it outa there. 

They were full of fear and wanted to make some distance between them and that empty tomb. But they also were about to explode with joy. This was amazing news and they couldn’t wait to share it. They had a mission.

Suddenly, they were stopped dead in their tracks. It was Jesus himself!

They threw themselves at his feet and grabbed hold of him. And then, Jesus gave them the same instructions they had heard from the angel, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

And they did see him. The resurrected Jesus. A lot of people saw him. Like the women at the tomb, they spoke with him, and they touched him. It wasn’t just a resurrection of the soul. It was a resurrection of the body. 

We take comfort in that because at Easter Jesus defeated the power of death, not just for himself, but for us, too. And we trust that, when we die, there is a resurrection in our future as well. But what if there’s more than one way to look at this resurrection of the body stuff. What if it’s not just about something that will happen to us one day, after we die?

There’s another way Jesus’ resurrected body is revealed to us. And to get at that, let me share with you a bit of Lutheran theology, that is really just something that you can read about in the Bible. 

In Lutheran theology, being a Christian is never just about Jesus-and-me. We don’t have a personal Lord and Savior whom we carry around in our pocket. We Lutherans are really big on what we call the Priesthood of All Believers. We don’t stand before God alone, but we stand with others who receive God’s Word of grace with us. In fact, that grace comes to us through our brothers and sisters. Like the women in the Easter story, other believers bring the gospel to us and we bring it to them. 

We stand together as a community. We support one another on our faith journeys. Together, we discern what God is calling us to do in the world. And together we do it. It’s not just about Jesus and me. It’s about Jesus and us. 

And here’s the really big thing about the Priesthood of All Believers. The Bible describes this unity we share with the metaphor of a body. We are the Body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila wrote so eloquently back in the 16th century:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are the resurrected Body of Christ. 

Of course, the Body of Christ doesn’t just gather in this place as an end in itself. We gather to be strengthened through the love we share with one another, through the hearing of the Word, the Meal we receive, through the music that sends our spirits soaring, through the gratitude we express to God with our words and our hearts. During this time when we meet in this place, we are nourished as Christ’s Body so that we can be Christ for the world around us. 
  • When we’re welcoming the stranger at worship, or advocating for the stranger in our community, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re providing lunches for the homeless, or tutoring students in an underserved school, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re welcoming neighborhood children into our nursery school or supporting Lutheran Campus Ministry, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re sending quilts to provide a loving embrace for those who feel abandoned, or praying for brothers and sisters in Nicaragua, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re caring for aging parents, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re exercising justice and compassion in our place of business, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re speaking out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re offering a word of compassion to the forgotten, the brokenhearted and the lonely, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re acting in love for the least among us, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
Whenever we’re doing the work of Christ in the world, we are his hands and his feet, and his eyes, and his mouth. We are the resurrected Body of Christ.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson. There they will see me.”

Friday, April 14, 2017

Honoring the one who hung on a cross

Can there be any doubt that Jesus was all about love? We know that he took the humble form of a servant when he walked this earth. He got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples, including the one who would betray him. He taught us to pray, not just for our friends, but for our enemies as well. But the most telling act of love he gave us was his death on the cross. It was love that put him there, and even while he was dying, he remained true to who he was, offering a prayer of forgiveness for the very people who were crucifying him.

How different the story of salvation would be if Jesus had cursed those who nailed him to a cross where he would slowly bleed and die. But, of course, that’s not what he did. Knowing that those who had crucified him were, in a sense, damning themselves by their actions, he spoke on their behalf. He asked God not to hold their sin against them. He responded to their hatred with love.

One of the amazing things about Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness is that he offered it without anyone requesting it. So often we think that forgiveness is offered only after the person who has wronged us comes to us and asks to be forgiven. But no one asks Jesus for forgiveness in this scenario. Instead, he offers it with no self-acknowledgement of their guilt whatsoever. He forgives them when they might not even realize they have anything to be forgiven for.

Is there someone in your life you have had trouble forgiving? Have they done something that has hurt you so deeply you can’t find it in your heart to forgive them? Have you been waiting for them to come to you and apologize first?

Forgiveness isn’t only for the one who is forgiven; it also benefits the one who does the forgiving. Why not honor the one who hung on a cross and offered forgiveness in an act of pure love by praying the same prayer for those who have wronged you? Carrying a grudge is a terrible burden to bear. It’s time to set yourself free.

Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.

In the night in which he was betrayed...


Maundy Thursday, 2017.

In the night in which he was betrayed…

Those are the words we use when we consecrate the bread and wine for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Have you ever thought about why the Words of Institution begin like this? 

In the night in which he was betrayed
The betrayal Jesus experienced in the context of his last supper cuts right to the heart of what this meal means for us whenever we receive it. If Jesus had instituted this sacrament at any other time, it wouldn’t mean what it does for us. It had to happen in the night in which he was betrayed.

Have you ever been betrayed by one of your closest friends? After opening yourself up and becoming vulnerable to another person, to have them abuse the trust you placed in them and stab you in the back can cause more pain than if that person had beaten you to a pulp. 

If a person claims to love you and turns around and hurts you deeply, you probably want to do what most of us want to do in that situation – you want to hurt them back. You wouldn’t choose to spend your last night alive with that person. Especially if you knew it was his betrayal that was going to lead to your death, a death you didn’t deserve.

You wouldn’t include him on your guest list as you gather your loved ones for one last meal together. You wouldn’t treat him with all the love and compassion that you show to all the other guests at your table. You wouldn’t get down on your hands and knees and wash his feet. You wouldn’t break bread with him and offer him the same blessing you give to all the others who have left everything to be with you. Certainly, you wouldn’t give yourself, your very body and blood, to this one who betrayed you. But that’s what Jesus does, isn’t it?

He offered the wine, his blood, to all of them, including the one who had already betrayed him to the chief priests. Judas had gone to them and asked, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” And they paid him off with thirty pieces of silver. From then on, he was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. 

No doubt, that’s what Judas was thinking about as he sat down to eat that night with Jesus and his friends. He felt the weight of the silver coins in one hand while he received the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus in the other. Judas was wondering if this might be a good time to betray the one who was handing him his very life.

It’s hard to believe that Judas could have turned on Jesus like this and gone through the charade of participating in Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. What’s even more unbelievable is that Jesus himself knew exactly what was going on, and he still gave himself to the one who already had been paid to have him arrested and killed. 

As the story unfolds, we watch Jesus making a point of letting Judas know that he knows. “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me,” Jesus tells his disciples. When they want to know who it is, he says, “It’s the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So he dips the bread in the dish and gives it to Judas.

Now, only one of the disciples understood what was really going on at that moment. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” So Judas got up from the table and left.

I’ve often wondered why Jesus didn’t dismiss Judas at the beginning of the meal. Why did he wait until after he had shared such an intimate time with his closest friends? I imagine it might be like having your family gathered around your deathbed and seeing your arch-enemy standing there in the midst of them. A deeply personal last time to be with the ones you love the most would be ruined. In the same way, Judas had defiled this holy moment. If Jesus knew what was going on, it would have made more sense for him to ask Judas to leave earlier, so he could have been excluded from this loving encounter with his followers. But Jesus intentionally chose to include Judas. 

As the story unfolds, we learn that Judas isn’t the only person present at the meal who will betray Jesus. One by one, they will all fall away. When Jesus is arrested, three times Peter denies even knowing him. After Jesus is crucified, they all hide out for fear of being recognized as his followers. Not only did Jesus share his last supper with the one who would betray him, he shared his last supper with all who would betray him. And yet, he loved every one of them enough to give them his very self, his body and blood. 

This same Jesus loves us enough to give us his body and blood, too. Just as he didn’t turn any away at the table on the night when he was betrayed, he doesn’t turn any away at his table ever. Even for the one who may be holding thirty pieces of silver in one hand, Jesus still gives his body and blood to be taken in the other.

Lest any of us think ourselves unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Christ, we need to go back to the night when Jesus gave us this holy meal. From the very beginning, it was shared with people who were unworthy of the gift. And that’s what makes it a sacrament, because it is all about God’s grace poured out for the undeserving.

No matter how strong or weak your faith may be, no matter how much or how little you read your Bible or pray, no matter how well you’ve done at following Jesus or how miserably you’ve failed, no matter who you are or what you’ve done – Jesus offers you his body and blood. And the more unworthy you may feel about receiving it, the more it has been given for you because it is given for the forgiveness of sins.

The forgiveness of sins isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people like Judas, who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. It’s for people like Peter who promised he would never leave Jesus and then turned around and flatly denied even knowing him. It’s for people like the disciples who cowered in fear as soon as Jesus was taken from them.

It’s a meal given for the unworthy, and no one is excluded. It’s a meal where all are loved and forgiven. It’s a meal where all are offered the gift of Jesus himself. 

And lest there be any doubt about it, we’re reminded of this fact as we gather around the table to receive Christ’s body and blood and we hear again the words that recall for us how this meal came to us from the beginning. In the night in which he was betrayed…





Friday, March 24, 2017

...We also ought to love ourselves.

"God help me to accept the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is." When I saw that little printed poster in the bookstore at a women's retreat center, I knew I had to have it. It's framed and hanging in my office at the church. 

I know I'm too hard on myself. It's been a lifelong struggle. Some would call it a self-esteem issue. I've come to the conclusion that it's deeper than that. It's a spiritual issue that affects all the relationships in my life, including the relationship I have with God.

A few months after I was divorced, my brother asked me to officiate at his daughter’s wedding. I was happy to do it, but then on the day of the wedding I almost had a melt down. 

I looked out over the congregation that had assembled, and I saw both of my older brothers with their wives; each of them had married his childhood sweetheart. I remember going to their weddings when I was just a kid. After all these years, they were still married in solid relationships. I also saw my younger sister sitting beside her husband; the two of them had an extraordinary relationship that I had always envied. And there I was, standing before them, giving a wedding homily about how to have a happy marriage. I felt like they were looking at me naked, with everything exposed that I tried so hard to hide.  

From the wedding ceremony we went on to the reception, where all the couples were dancing and I wanted to disappear. I can’t recall ever feeling like such a failure in all my life. That moment seemed to reinforce every negative thing I had carried around about myself for as long as I could remember. Particularly, that I wasn't worthy of the love another.

The irony was that, as much as I was feeling judged in that moment, none of my siblings had judged me. They were kind and loving and did everything they could to help me through the day. My judgment had come from within.

If you’re anything like me, the most difficult person to forgive may be yourself. I have a hard time letting go of my past mistakes, particularly those times when I may have hurt someone I care about. In fact, I'm able to accept the forgiveness of God more easily than I can forgive myself. 

Do you know how arrogant it is to refuse to forgive yourself? It’s like saying, God doesn’t really know much, because I know best and I know who is and isn’t worth forgiving. So it’s my pride that keeps me from forgiving myself. And, come to think of it, it's my pride that keeps me from forgiving other people who have wronged me as well. If God forgives, who am I to think I know better than God? 

Over the past decade or so, I've tried to make it a daily practice to forgive myself. I know that it's traditional for Christians to confess their sins and seek God's forgiveness, and that's cool. But I never have a problem with that--the God forgiving me part. My difficulty is in forgiving myself.

When I'm all caught up in my crankiness...when I find fault with pretty much everyone around me...when I'm resentful or wallowing in self-pity, underneath it all is the problem I'm having with forgiving myself. That's why the practice of self-forgiveness has become so important for me.

I suspect I'm not alone. For many of us, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. The good news is that although it may feel like this self-destructive viewpoint is holding us captive, by the grace of God, we are free. It's a matter of seeing ourselves through the eyes of the God who loves us. And here's the real kicker. In those times when it's all too much, and we fail miserably at loving ourselves, God forgives us even for that.

1 John 4:11 says, "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another." For myself and other people like me, consider a bit of a twist on the text. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love ourselves.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thank you for praying

I can’t speak for all pastors, only this one. But I want to tell you that I love it when people don’t ask me to pray.

You know how it so often goes. You’re at a church event, it’s time to eat, and suddenly, all eyes are on the pastor, waiting for her to pray over the casseroles and the jello salad. Or a family in the congregation invites the pastor to their place for dinner. They all sit down at a table covered with piping hot food, they place their napkins on their laps, and then someone says, “Pastor, will you pray for us?”

Now, I know that for a lot of people this is a way of honoring their pastor, and I can appreciate that. But I have to tell you that whenever laypeople pray in a public setting, my heart soars. And when they don’t automatically turn to me and expect me to be the pray-er, I always notice. Hallelujah! They're not looking to me as the professional holy person in our community. They realize that I’m no more holy than anyone else, and God doesn’t hear my prayers above others.

The other night I went to dinner at the home of some Ascension folks, that moment came, and I cringed inside. But no one looked to me. Our host offered a table prayer, and I immediately felt a rush of relief and joy. In fact, I was so overjoyed that I wanted to jump up and kiss him, but he is a married man, so I restrained myself. I'm sure no one sitting at the table realized how much his prayer meant to me.

Occasionally, I’m praying with someone who is homebound or ill, and after I’m done praying for them, they continue with a prayer for me. This has only happened with a handful of people I’ve known in 40 years of ministry, but when I hear them praying for me, it brings me to tears. I’m grateful to them for their prayers, but I’m also grateful to them for recognizing that they, too, can offer prayers of healing for their pastor. Yes, we're all in this together.

I do appreciate it when people show respect for me as their pastor, and I realize that I hold a unique place of honor within our faith community. But it’s not all about me. Other people can pray. Other people can visit the sick. Other people can teach. Other people can preach. Other people can make important decisions. Other people can lead. And if we’re going to faithfully go where God is leading us, the more we share this ministry we’ve been given, the further we’ll go.

This idea is actually one of the pillars of Lutheranism. We call it the “Priesthood of all Believers.” It’s a part of our understanding of Baptism, which is when we all become ministers. The Lutheran Church has taught this for hundreds of years. My experience has been that most Lutherans ignore it.

For Lent this year, during our Wednesday evening services, people from the congregation have planned the worship experiences, and they're leading them. I’m sitting in the pews with the congregation. Yes!

Prior to worship, we get together for a soup supper. On the first Wednesday, before we ate, someone asked me to pray. I started to do it, and then I thought, no, if I pray tonight, they’re going to ask me to pray every night and I don’t want to become the official pray-er. “No, I changed my mind,” I said. “I think someone else should pray.” I expected there to be an awkward silence, or a lot of hemming and hawing around as we cajoled someone else into praying, but that didn’t happen. Immediately, someone stood up and prayed. It felt to me like she was waiting for the opportunity.

And I was a very happy pastor. It’s not just about me being relieved from saying a prayer. It’s about being part of a faith community that understands what it means to be a part of the priesthood of all believers. Thank you for praying!




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dealing with the Divide - courage, caring and Christian community


We did it. This morning at Ascension, about 30 of us pulled our chairs into a circle and we listened to one another. It wasn’t easy. For some, it took every ounce of courage they could muster just to be there. And I’m thankful that our Christian community meant so much to them that they felt called to show up.

Last Sunday I challenged the congregation in a sermon to put Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciling with one another into action. I talked about the elephant in the room since early November when our President was elected. Despite strong feelings, we have avoided talking about it. We have been polite, but we have avoided looking one another in the eye, and that is not what the life of reconciliation looks like.

And so, this morning we gathered to listen to one another, for the purpose of understanding. We didn’t gather to argue, or to convince one another that we’re right and they’re wrong. As we shared with one another, we were reminded of all that we have in common as God’s people. And because of that, we were able to listen to our differences and acknowledged them, forbearing with one another in love.

The morning was not without discomfort. We began with prayer and a reading of Ephesians 4:1-6. Then we went over some basic ground rules for our time together before splitting into two groups. This was the most difficult part of the morning. For some, it meant “outing” themselves among those who had no idea how they had voted in the presidential election. I had been concerned that there might have been only a few who had voted for DJT at our meeting. It turns out that was not the case. The group was close to evenly divided.

The two groups separated. Each was assigned the task of compiling a list of 5-10 things they wanted the other group to understand about them. As I floated back and forth between the two, I was taken aback by the raw emotion within both groups. Had this really been such a good idea, after all? I had to keep reminding myself that, without openness and honesty, there is no genuine community. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s the only way to go.

After they compiled their lists of things they wanted the other group to understand about them, I asked them to get inside the heads of the people in the other room and come up with what they imagined the other group would say about themselves on their list. That seemed to be easier for them, although I could see that this process could have taken all day. They had plenty to say among themselves, where they felt safe.

Then came the scary part. We got back together and we compared lists. Those who didn’t vote for President Trump had a list of things they wanted those who did vote for President Trump to understand about them, and vice versa. The telling part of the exercise was the second part where each group had done a pretty good job of guessing what the other group would be saying.

At the top of both their lists, there was a clear statement about how much it means to them to be people of faith. And that, of course, was the point. We’re all people of faith.

This is what it looks like to be in Christian community. Ascension gathers under a wide, wide tent. Our diversity isn’t obvious to the naked eye, but we are certainly diverse. No one is denied a place under that tent. This isn’t easy to accomplish in our divided society, but by the grace of God, we do it. I hope the people of Ascension can appreciate how extraordinary they are.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to end the morning. I thought of praying, or going back to the text from Ephesians. But when the time came, I knew exactly how we needed to conclude our time together. We gathered about the altar and communed one another with the bread and wine. And then we offered God’s peace to one another. When we said, “Peace be with you” we looked one another in the eye, and we meant it.