Final Sermon for St. John’s on June 11, 2017


     Whether we want it or not, the theme for this day, this year, this decade is change. Today’s young adults are not interested in organized religion. It’s become clear that if churches do not change, they will die.  This congregation has been called to the forefront of this challenge. 70 percent of the people in our neighborhood are between the ages of 18 and 30.  When I stop at the grocery store down the street on my way home from work, I am always the oldest person in the store. Usually by at least thirty years. How will these religiously reluctant young adults down the street embrace meaning, purpose, and faith? How will they address the needs of those who suffer? And what role do we play in that?  This is the matter at hand whether we want change or not, and we are in the middle of this challenge.

A second change will also require the careful attention of this congregation: the challenge that faces social services and care for those in need. Substantial changes in this area involve new ways of funding, new partnerships with emerging organizations, and new approaches to providing shelter and assistance which are both more humane and more effective than some of our current practices.  How long will we use church basements to house the homeless? How will financial assistance be assembled and distributed? How will incarceration work? And how will we welcome new people to our country and city? These changes will be happening as public resources for caring and assistance diminish. These changes already are directly affecting the mission of St. John’s and will require some precise navigation in the coming years.  As important the millennial challenge is, and as important as care and advocacy for the poor is, I suspect that the congregation’s capacity to navigate social service transformations with creative solutions will actually determine our fate.

But as we find our way in these changing times, we have the scripture to guide us. Let me say that again: we have the scripture to guide us. What a trite thing to say. Really? Seriously? In the face of overwhelming change, we just turn to the Bible as our best resource?

But a pastor is not only an agent of change and not only a servant of the people, she is also a servant of the word: dedicated to its weekly interpretation over years that turn to decades. And one of the most important changes in our spiritual lives has been change in the interpretation of the word over the last fifty years.

When I was young, the Bible was the story of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to save us from our sins, so that we could all go to heaven and live with those we love. And in some ways it still is that story.

But by the 1960’s there were some problems with this. It turns out the Bible is not a story. It is not even several stories. It is a collection of material from a variety of sources making quite a few different points about how the divine is active in the human endeavor. Forcing everything into the narrow funnel of salvation left large pieces of the Bible dangling. And after World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam, with the world trying to piece together some existential sense of what life means; the scripture became a source book for meaning and purpose. From the early sixties through eighties, the Bible became a theological book. We found in its weekly exposition meaning for our lives here and now: the possibilities for how to treat our neighbor and how to live lives of hope. I cut my teeth on this stuff.  This was the great era of biblical theology: the time when we made meaning from the pages of scripture. And in some ways the Bible is still the source of meaning and hope as we make sense of our lives.

But there were some problems with this, too. The Bible became in some ways the captive of philosophy and psychology. And with the growth of liberation theology, the Bible itself was liberated from being the source of personal meaning making, to become the story of social liberation from the forces that control and suppress. Jesus was no longer the savior who died on the cross to save us from our sins. The crucifixion became the sign of the ultimate cruelty of the empire. And the resurrection became the ultimate symbol of hope for the human struggle against the forces of oppression and darkness.  And in many ways this is still the meaning made of the Bible.

But there are some problems with this, too. In the culture wars of these recent decades, this approach became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the left. And in the meantime the old story of salvation became the foundation for the agenda of the politics of the right. While those few people remaining in the boring middle were left to knit whatever meaning they could out of biblical theology that felt old even as it was created.

But now interpretation is at another turning point. I am retiring just as a new approach to scripture is dawning. One of my real regrets is that I will miss the full force of this change in interpretation. It is not really taught yet in seminaries as far as I can tell. It does not yet have a name or a label. And maybe in our postmodern times, labels don’t work very well anyway. But it is coming.  Fueled by new capacities in archeology, anthropology, and ancient sociology, and augmented by a tremendous increase in the first century Christian manuscripts available to us, we now are just beginning to shift our interpretative lens. When I was young, 90 percent of the known Christian writing of the first century was in the Bible. Today the Bible contains less than 20 percent of those known writings. And as archeology now is able to focus on daily life rather than the lives of kings, we are moving away from interpretations based on empire or theology or salvation, into interpretation based on how first Christians lived, what they did, and how they shaped their congregations for mission.

Interpretation of the New Testament is now focusing on congregational adaptation to specific missions of healing, teaching, economic communes, funerary and other social societies, as well as monastic centers, many of which were initially led by women. And here is the thing: this focus provides us with strategic advice on how to shape church life as we face the changes swirling around us. We are discovering with deep detail the insight and practices of our ancestors in the faith as they, in their fluid first century, built Christian assemblies passionate about their specific missions.  And here is another thing: Because the average life span in the first century Roman empire was 35 years, these ancient congregational missions and ministries were developed and recorded by and for young adults. What we read in the New Testament is the activity of the first Christian millennial generation giving shape to new ways to live the faith.  And as we try to figure out how to be church in these changing times, we have the scripture to practically guide us, in startling new ways, one Sunday at a time, one text at a time. Faced with the overwhelming generational change that defines our neighborhood and the changes in caring ministry that will confront us; we will discern our path in light of the practical spirituality and community building of our ancient but very young predecessors. We have the Bible.

    I must say goodbye. But remembering those missional strategies of first  century Christians,  you still have a neighborhood to address. You have a caring ministry to carefully shape and craft.  And you have a Bible to read — in fresh new ways — to help in this important endeavor. Wow. What a future you will have.

We must part now. We all just grow old, and need to slow down a bit. Any decent reading of Psalm 90 says it’s time for me to go. I am actually looking forward to shaping a new chapter of my life. Just as you face uncertainty and change, so do I. But as God will watch over you, God will also watch over Judy and I, even as I lay down the vocation I felt called into when I was a young child just a bit older than my grandchildren.  The voice that called to me then, and has sustained me on this path, is still with me, reminding me to through a Psalm to let go, and to embrace the changes ahead.

  My heart overflows with gratitude for your good will and gracious support through these years. I am thankful to countless volunteers, lay leaders, staff, congregational members, partners in our mission here, and those on the edges of our community who are really at the center of our hearts. I am especially thankful to Judy for her  years of support and wisdom in this vocation.  Thank you.  As I have said to you countless times at the end of my correspondence: thank you for  your partnership in the gospel.     



Reflection for June 4, 2017

Numbers 11:24-30, Acts 2:1-21, John 7:37-39

This is the festival of Pentecost, or the coming of the Holy Spirit, penta or fifty days after Easter. It recalls the story we shared from Acts, when the spirit rested on the disciples, they spoke in the languages of the people, and people heard the story of Jesus with open minds. I think the three readings from Numbers, Acts, and John each describe the work of the spirit in different ways. They speak of three different human activities through which the spirit of God or God’s presence flows: there is the bureaucratic spirit in Numbers, the communicative spirit in Acts, and the flowing of the heart in John.

First, let’s turn our attention to Numbers. This is a fragment of a longer story about the struggles of the people of God as they move through the wilderness from slavery in Egypt to the founding of a new nation on the other side of the desert. This nation building is a long and difficult process, remembered in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. At this stage of the journey, the demands of leading the people have become too much for one person. The spirit of leadership is bestowed on a system. Part of Moses’ leadership responsibility is delegated to a set of elders, commissioned for the purpose of administering the responsibilities of governance. The spirit actually bestowed on a bureaucracy.  It is a limited bestowal. And it involves some certification, and perhaps an orientation. And of course not all those commissioned could attend the ceremony of installation. And there is some infighting or at least tension in the bureaucracy.  But make no mistake about it, here is the bureaucratic means by which the spirit of God is bestowed on the people. The spirit of God is expressed in administration.

I have intentionally used the word bureaucracy here, to highlight what this means in our own time. For us, bureaucracy has become a bad thing. Civil servants have become in the common mind nothing more than bureaucrats whose presence actually witnesses to what is viewed as unnecessary regulation and government waste. In our growing disregard for the legitimate function of government to sustain the common good, we’ve almost created a black hole which sucks into it all those people who have dedicated their lives to public service: not only government officials, but also teachers, administrators of all sort, public health workers, inspectors, police and safety officials, and even sanitation workers and librarians.  This is not a political issue for us. It is a public issue. And we have gotten to the point that we can’t tell the difference between the two, and as a result we have lost our capacity to care for our civil servants rather than malign them; and in so doing have lost large pieces of the good life together.

I know there is such a thing as government waste. Thousands of voices scream that at us each day. But on this Pentecost, one pastor, reading the book of Numbers, is simply saying that the spirit of God is often expressed in, with, and through the well run society, by people caring for the common good. The Spirit, as unlikely as it sounds, comes through the administrative, the institutional, and the bureaucratic organization.

Second, even though we know the second reading better than the first, we may need to be reminded that in this reading the spirit of God is expressed through human speech and language. This passage does not refer to speaking in tongues, but to meaning that is conveyed through the languages of all people. The spirit comes through the act of communication.  What we say, and how we say it is important. It is important to say things as well as we can, even if we need to slow things down so that we get it right before we speak. Human words in any language are actually a miracle by which meaning, affection, intention, hope, sorrow, forgiveness, reconciliation, and vision can all be expressed.  Human language is the foundation for all we are in community. And although our native tongues may differ, we all use language to communicate and create the good.

Reflection for May 28, 2017

Acts 1:6-14, I Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11, John 17:1-11

       These readings today are from a time when that fabric of church life was being woven for the first time. First Christians were wondering as they faced life without Jesus, who were they going to be? As they faced persecution and trial, how would they make it through?

As they wove the tapestry of their faith and their congregational life, one thread found in I Peter is fortitude in the face of adversity. We people of God do not escape hard times. Like everyone, we face struggles, pain, sorrow, and death. Jesus died on a cross. But we are uniquely equipped to face adversity; as God restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes us. (As Peter says at the close of this reading.)  Through personal prayer, our sense of confidence builds. We know the outcome. Through our conversation with others, through time spent in the Word, we recall the history of God’s work in the lives of others and ourselves. God restores, supports, strengthens, and establishes.

As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants together is waiting on the spirit. In Acts, the disciples are gathered and are called to be open to the coming Holy Spirit. They are waiting. Waiting on the spirit, rather than our own hopes and dreams, quiets our restless hearts. And it unites Christians who are also waiting for the same spirit. We all may have different values, priorities, and ideas, but Christians from many perspectives set those aside when we wait on the spirit. And in that yearning for a deeper truth, we sense how an as-yet-undreamed mission unfolds.

Fortitude and waiting. As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants is an upper room mentality. In the books of Luke and Acts, fellowship emerges in upper rooms. The upper room can actually be a lower room or even a basement. Sometimes the church basement with a hall and kitchen is the room of fellowship. But the important thing is that the room of the faithful lifts up the opportunity for community sharing and mutual support. This fellowship breeds conversation and courage out of which mission flows.

As the tapestry of church life is woven, another thread that binds the church and its servants is intimacy of Christ as found in of John. The gospel of John is too wordy for me to really like it. I like my Jesus more direct, as in the gospel of Mark. But in the twisting of these words about God and Jesus and their unity with the disciples, this early philosophical mystic reminds us that we are woven together, with God, in congregations, through life, in Christ, in the word, in the name of Jesus, until we do not know but feel the intertwining of God and Jesus in our in the fabric of our personal life and in our life together.  It is this feeling of intimacy or closeness with God, the feeling of being knit together with the divine in community that is the sense of this intricate language of John. Intimacy. Getting close to God.

So with the intimacy of Christ, with an upper room mentality, waiting on the spirit, showing fortitude, the ancient church wove its way into the hearts of faithful servants not only for decades but centuries: into our time and place and into these upper rooms where we feel close to God and each other, as we find courage to wait, as we look past our suffering into something greater.

Reflection for May 14, 2017

Acts 7:55-60, 1 Peter 2:2-10, John 14:1-14


     The first reading continues our Easter season series from the book of Acts. Oh, the ghosts of those first Christians still haunt our lives. Here we have the story of the stoning of Stephen. Last week we learned of the communal living of the earliest Christians, including common meals. Stephen was one of the table waiters or deacons who helped with the distribution to those in need following these meals. Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr stoned to death for his faith in Jesus.

The figure of Saul is lurking in the background of this story. Saul is one of the Jews who organize the persecution of the Christians, and he plots the death of Stephen. Later in the book of Acts, Saul becomes a Christian. With a new name, Paul, he becomes a missionary to the Gentiles. He ends up writing half of the New Testament. But at this point in the story he is zealous in his efforts to kill Christianity and what it stands for.

Whenever I encounter this Saul or Paul, in this chapter of his life, I realize again how wrong we all can be, me especially. Here Paul believes so strongly in what he is doing that he kills others who disagree with him. And yet, in the end, he embraces the faith he once persecuted, as he regrets his past.

We who are of strong opinion and will, despite all of our certitude and certainty that we know what’s best: well, we can be so wrong. How is that possible? Sometimes we just miss the point. Sometimes we press our case too strongly. Sometimes things change and we do not go with the flow. Sometimes we stubbornly disregard the emerging obvious. Sometimes we go with the flow when we should have held firm. Sometimes disasters shape things differently. Sometimes the facts we are working with are wrong. Sometimes we forget something. Sometimes we lose our focus. Sometimes we become selfish or greedy or narrow minded. It really doesn’t matter. All of us can be so wrong even when we think we are so right. And the ghost of Paul in this chapter of his life, reminds us all of how fallible we humans are, and how it is best to practice humility and gentleness in our opinions so that we hurt others as little as possible in the inevitable error of our ways.

And then there is the ghost of Stephen. So much could be said about Stephen, but what I’d like to point out this morning, is that his apostleship is very brief. He’s appointed and perhaps a couple of months later he dies. Stephen reminds us that God works not only in the gradual movement of the organized church through the ages and not only through the destiny of creation through the eons; but also sometimes in the quickly burning bright light of compassion and forgiveness found briefly in the human heart. Even if we don’t have years to develop projects and ministries, even if we do not devote our entire lives to compassion and charity, sometimes just a moment is enough, just a flash of grace, that single act of courage or amazing forgiveness may be far more important than we think. Stephen’s short term reminds us that those who come later and do not last long may still have a profound impact and legacy. You may not have a life time to dedicate to compassion, but you do have this day. What small thing is God calling you to do, now?


     Now the second reading continues our series from I Peter. I’ve never been a real fan of I Peter. The style is rather grandiose. Written during a time of persecution, it calls people to stand firm. That’s good when we are being eaten by lions. But we live in the age of practical and diminishing Christianity, and the grandiose language is not helpful. And admonitions to stand firm in persecution have been appropriated in our time to buttress attitudes and practices that actually hurt other people. We’re not being persecuted. But we can hurt others when we stubbornly insist on our own way.

And then in I Peter there are the long lists of should’s and don’ts that fill out the book. Did you notice that the lectionary committee omitted the first verse of this chapter? That’s because the first verse packs five sinful things to avoid into less than 140 characters, even when that’s not the main point of the passage. Peter just can’t help himself. He just exudes ethical admonition even when he’s trying to be comforting or inspiring. And then on top of all that, the passage is a mixed metaphor. It starts out talking about the nursing of children and then shifts completely to stones and rocks. Ufdah! What is a thoughtful Christian to do?

Well, for one thing, the reading reminds us that the odd stone, the one too big to fit into the wall, can be the cornerstone. We like things to go smoothly and have people fit into our vision of things. We like the building blocks of life to be assembled evenly. But it’s the awkward stone or person that becomes the corner.

And then notice that Peter is into living stones. Stones are not alive. They are dead. Or are they? The contradiction built into the phrase living stones is a reminder that even when it all seems dead, there is still the possibility of life, that even the most dead congregation filled with the most unlikely and un-spirited Lutherans can still be enlivened for joy and new life and new vision.

Oh, let’s really mix the metaphors and talk about living stones, dry bones, deliverance from fiery furnaces, the dawn of springtime in Wisconsin, and the resurrection of even the dead. God can work wonders of life in the desert of our fallible sin. And God will use us regardless of how mistaken and misshapen we are to accomplish some good, sometimes in the twinkling of an eye.



     Until it is time to take us home. The third reading continues our series from the gospel of John in these Sundays of the Easter season. It’s a common passage for funerals because it reminds us that when it’s all said and done, it’s time to go home to be with Jesus forever. We’ve heard this passage a lot. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had almost 200 funerals.

But today, no one has died; so let’s notice something in the background of John 14. In the household of God are many rooms. The Middle Eastern vision behind this image is a large compound with different buildings and rooms. Many people from different perspectives and traditions are gathered at the end of time in one of those large community meals we found in the book of Acts, now a heavenly feast. It’s a big complex set of buildings, and all sorts are there: the mistaken, misshapen, and short lived of every age, in this heavenly space. All coming together, not because they are right in their views, or even because they can agree, or because they were perfectly and smoothly formed, but because they have heard the voice of Jesus calling them out of their empty headedness, out of their awkwardness, into compassionate living: out of the deadness of shallow apathetic meaninglessness into new life.

So today, we just continue reading from the Bible in light of the new life we have received in Jesus Christ, once dead but now alive. And today our stories were found in Acts, I Peter, and John. Amen.


Reflection for May 7, 2017

Acts 2:42-47, I Peter 2:11-25, John 10:1-10

For several weeks now the first readings in the season for Easter have been from the book of Acts. Acts of the Apostles is the second in a two volume work on Christian beginnings by the person we know as Luke. Volume I is the gospel of Luke and is focused on the life of Jesus. This second volume begins with Jesus ascending into heaven and Pentecost, and then describes the activities of the first Christian communities. Volume II, or Acts of the Apostles, may be divided into two sections. The very first chapters describe the beginnings of what was known as The Way. A second section tells the story of Paul and other missionaries in the expansion of the faith by establishing additional communities to the north and west in Greece and Asia Minor.

At first one might look at Acts as a history book, and in some ways it is an historical record. But as one looks closely at it, one senses that the history has been highly massaged to reflect a particular point of view. For example, in the struggle between traditional Jewish Christians and acceptance of new Gentile members, the author seems to be on the side of the new Gentile converts. And the document emphasizes the growth to the north and west and does not really address the similar growth taking place at the same time south and west into Africa.

All that said, this morning we have a fairly short passage which summarizes Luke’s interpretation of how the very first Christian communities organized themselves. The work may be highly idealized as it lifts ups the values of Luke. Luke is writing about sixty years after the events took place. Just as we writing today may have an idealized memory of church life in the fifties when everyone came to church all the time after drinking their fill of martinis in turquoise living rooms, Luke may be writing with longing memories for something that he felt was a golden age.

So we are looking at the values of Luke’s Christian community as much as a history. Those values are inserted into this historical account with more than a bit of nostalgia.

With that in mind, we see Luke lifting up four basic values for Christian communities. And in some ways, regardless of the history, these values have become somewhat timeless. Christian gatherings and congregations (1) devote themselves to teaching and learning ministry. (2) They engage in fellowship. (3) They break bread together. (4)They worship and pray. (5) And finally they share things in common. We also see in this passage that they both gather together in public meeting space, usually a synagogue or a public square, and that they also meet and eat in homes.

There are two outcomes of these practices in these places. One is mighty acts of healing. The earliest Christian communities were focused on healing. Some of them may have resembled medical clinics more than our contemporary churches. When one thinks of an early Christian congregation, it would be a place where the sick would gather and where healing and recovery would take place. We might reject the ancient concept of miracle healing, but we all know that the body and mind are connected in many ways, that our attitude makes a difference in our health, that people who are prayed for recover more quickly than those who are not, that our blood pressure drops when we think about God, and that people who are cared for recover more quickly and with more certainty than people who are not cared for regardless of what that care is.

Besides healing, the second outcome of these practices in these places was that people flocked to The Way. The church grew. And it grew exponentially. Growth because of the desire for health care is still a powerful force in society. These days it accounts for the growth of hospitals and clinics, and such things as Medicare and Obama Care. This week we were all focused on the future of health care in the events in Washington. Today, we do not turn to the church for health care.  We use science, research, money, secular institutions and structures to provide that care. But first century Greeks and Romans did not have these resources. The early congregational gathering provided mighty acts of care, and so of course they grew.

As we think about congregational life, we would still do well to focus on these principles outlined by Luke. Teaching, worship, fellowship, and caring ministry are the four cornerstones of congregational well being. If a congregation is engaged in these four things, it will do well. For us, this is the reminder that our Sunday Assembly in which we sing, think, and pray is the center of our life together. It is important for us to break bread together symbolically each and every Sunday. Adult forums, sermons that reflect current complexities, Sunday Learning Place, and confirmation ministry all still speak to the importance of learning and teaching. Coffee fellowship after worship is a critical expression of our mutual care. Table and pew discussions on Sunday morning and on Wednesday evenings in Lent nourish one another. And that fellowship often extends into friendships that are nourished throughout weeks, years and lifetimes. Caring ministry takes place as we suffer together, grieve together, and as we face the needs of those around us who need shelter or assistance or support. Caring ministry takes place through our Senior Care Team and the visiting they do on our behalf. Let us continue to rededicate ourselves to these efforts at being a well rounded, well founded congregation in the tradition of The Way of Jesus.

But for just a few moments I would like to focus on one of these four principles: the teaching ministry of the apostles, and to explore three of those ancient teachings and what they might mean for us now. In the three readings together, we sense three different ancient teaching themes which still instruct us.

From Acts we should consider the principle of sharing things in common. From I Peter we have the teachings regarding undeserved suffering. And from John we have the teaching of gate keeping or thresholding.

Communal Life: One of the ancient teachings of the church was about economics. It is simply stated here. Life, possessions, and things were held in common. This is actually a form of primitive communism, probably best described as communal living. Actually urban Christian communities in the cities of the Roman Empire probably practiced a hybrid economy. Within the group, things were shared and individual property was discouraged. However the group itself probably sold things like fish or tents or food or medicine to the larger society for profit in order to support the community. Within the German and Scandinavian Protestant and Lutheran traditions, this approach to communal living was expressed by Mennonite, Finnish, Amish, and Shaker traditions.

On the one hand, we all recognize that we generally cannot be communal in this ancient way. Our economy is vastly different. But this ancient teaching regarding economics reminds us that capitalism without some sort of sharing mechanism may not lead to the ultimate economic good. An economy is only as good as it provides for the common good. And capitalism according to this ancient teaching should always be tempered so that it limits human greed and provides for those who are in need.  An economy exists not to only to enhance wealth, but also to enhance the well being of all. Ancient Christian communal life calls us to strive for the economic good of everyone, and to modify our economic systems and behavior gradually and continually so that through the biblical miracle of sharing we experience exponential growth.

Undeserved Suffering: A second ancient teaching is found in I Peter. This document, written even later than Acts, indicates that Christians who are facing suffering, persecution, and struggle are wondering why these bad things are happening to those who are leading good lives. This is still a matter that faces us. What are we to say about undeserved suffering?

So much could be said here, but it is clear from this reading, that the ancient church wondered about unmerited suffering, especially in times of persecution. The teaching in I Peter is that undeserved suffering is sacred. It is a sacred path, experienced by Jesus in the story of his execution. It is the sacred way walked by Jesus. In undeserved suffering we find ourselves walking with Jesus or rather Jesus walking with us. And as Jesus is walking with us in the suffering, he is leading us through it, into a new ending, a new hope, and a new possibility. Sometimes that suffering leads us into a new mission for this life, as people who recover from cancer or alcoholism or whatever help those coming after them. Sometimes that suffering leads to new life in Jesus Christ through death. Either way, whether we live, or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. We are made sacred through the suffering we share with Christ.

Gate keeping and Thresholding: This ancient teaching is not from the tradition of Peter, nor from the tradition of Luke, but from the tradition of John. This tradition came to fruition later than the other two in the area of Asia Minor. John’s language is complicated, filled with metaphors, and difficult to understand at times. Johns is a mystic writing for a monastic community. Mystics are always hard to understand. This teaching is that Jesus, the risen Christ, is a gateway, or a threshold. One way to understand this involves exclusion. One could say I suppose that in the mystic mysteries of John, Jesus is the only way, the only gate, the only threshold which one might use to draw close to God.

But I’m not thinking about that. What gate keeping and thresholding involves is not certifying the number of gates, their position, and width as if we were some sort of theological auditors, making sure everyone has punched their Christian tickets in order to get to heaven. Those days may be over.

John teaches that Jesus is the gateway, a threshold into something: something deeper, richer, fuller, broader, and greater. This something transcends suffering, struggle, hopelessness and sorrow. It transcends even death. Jesus is a gateway into new life, life in this world and beyond it. For example, in light of the teaching on communal living, as we cross this threshold into a new way of thinking, it might no longer be said that I own a particular piece of land. We might no longer be able to even say, humans own any land. What we would say as we cross through the gateway into a new life is that we belong to this land, this sacred space in this wonderful world, in this vast universe sustained and cradled by a God of compassion who loves us still.

Gate keeping, passing into the mysteries of new life; the mystery of undeserved suffering; and holding things in common are three ancient teachings that still speak to us. One time, a long time ago, these earliest Christians dedicated themselves to the teachings, to prayer and worship, to fellowship. They healed. And people saw what they did and came. Their faith brought them into a new world, a new life. And we still shape ourselves on these principles of healing and hope.


Reflection for April 29, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-41, 1 Peter 1:17-23, Luke 24:13-35


After the resurrection, Jesus appears to two followers. They are returning home after celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and witnessing the brutal crucifixion. These two are among the followers of Jesus, not part of the inner circle. They live about a half day’s walk from the city, about seven miles, in a village named Emmaus. As Jesus joins them on their walk home, they do not recognize who Jesus is. Only later in the fellowship of a shared meal, do they see who their traveling companion has been. They discover it was God walking with them along the path home.

Discernment of God is the theme in Luke today. And it is one of the religious themes of our times. Sometimes we wonder if God is really there. Sometimes we feel that God is not walking with us, but is absent. Sometimes life seems so complicated that it is hard to tell what God would want. Sometimes it feels like evil is winning. Sometimes we seem to be the only ones left thinking about God in a world that is taking a walk in the other direction. How do we discover the presence and the will of God in our lives? For contemporary Christians, discernment of the presence and will of God is important.

This story is constructed in such a way that it gives us clues to how discernment happens, how God is revealed as we walk along life’s path. Discernment here (1) takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. (2) Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. (3)They wonder about the strange tales of women. (4)They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. (5)They invite Jesus to dinner. (6) They break the bread of communion.

The end of the day: Sometimes it is in the close of a session, after things are over, in the debriefing, that what has happened and who all was really involved come to the surface. We might not discern God at work until after we’ve had a chance to process what has been going on, at the close of a great event.

The stranger and the other: We sometimes discern Jesus, the presence and will of God, in the face of those in need, the stranger, the one who is different. God’s will is revealed as we walk with the poor, or as we are joined by others who at first seem strange along life’s journey.

The tales of women: In this story, God is not discerned during the great events of the day or age, not even in the discourse of men, but in the tales of women. The resurrection in all of the gospels begins with the experience of women. That is a reminder that we discern God when we listen to the intuitive voices of women around us. It is also a reminder of how important women were in the formation of the early church. We sometimes find the will of God by asking what is right for women or children.

These followers seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight: We sense that the two followers were part of the Jesus movement because he may have been the Messiah, the one who would liberate them from Roman rule. They now have decided they were wrong, because of the crucifixion. Rome has won. But in dialog Jesus disagrees. Messiah-ship is not about winning a military victory, he argues. It is about the power of love and compassion to overcome all evil. Sometimes we discern God as we follow our thoughts more deeply, refining our opinion along the way, and as we focus not on victory but on compassion.

The invitation to fellowship: They invite Jesus to stay with them, to tarry, to have something to eat and to rest. Sometimes we discern God’s will as we extend an invitation to someone, or when we are willing to entertain a new idea, or when we practice hospitality. Sometimes we discern the will of God when we decide to ask God to spend time with us in prayer, to tarry with us.

The Eucharist: They suddenly see Jesus when he uses words of thanksgiving with the breaking of the bread in their fellowship meal. Luke here refers to Holy Communion, the Christian way we sense God present with us: in, with, and under the bread and wine, in the gathered fellowship of the people.

     Discernment in the story takes place at the end of the day after things have passed. Jesus first appears as a stranger or fellow traveler. They wonder about the tales of the women. They seem pretty sure of themselves, but have a new insight. They invite Jesus to dinner. They break the bread of communion. The details of the story indicate how we still discern the presence of God. But if we stay in the details of the story, we may be missing the point of God’s revelation. In this story, we may miss the forest when we concentrate so much on the trees.

For the details of discernment shape the story. But the story is a story of human disaster. This is a story about people who have survived something awful and are now returning home to regroup. This is not the story about people meeting in church in small groups discussing their prayer life, and how they can pray better, and feel closer to God. That’s a good thing. But that’s not this story.

This is a story about people whose lives have fallen apart, whose hopes are dashed by a public execution, and who are potential victims of a growing and pervasive evil. This is a story about humans trying to pull things together again after the disaster of the crucifixion. This is a story about how God becomes real when we are overwhelmed as our hopes are dashed by the destruction of what we hold dear. The road to Emmaus is not some abstract theological conversation. Nor is it really the foundation for some sort of group process or the seven steps to knowing more about God. It is the road of despair for followers of a cause that has been destroyed. It is the road that leads to giving up and going home. It is about the loss of what we dreamed of.

So the story reminds us that God is revealed, God becomes real in such times, walking with us on such roads. And God will become real to you and to me, in the details. But the reality of God is especially deep when we have been overwhelmed with disaster, and everything seems broken, and our hopes are demolished. There are a few of those times in each of our lives: when health or fortune or family or friends or vocation are lost. And we are on this road wondering about what we believed and held dear, wondering where God is, wondering what we should do now.

Sometimes these are personal disasters. Often this road speaks to the destruction of justice or fairness or honesty or the capacity of us all to dream as we become mired down in a society that has lost all of those things, as less and less attention is paid to the common good. And in that despair for the common good, we also encounter a risen Jesus. Communities also walk this road as they find again the commonweal, discern the presence of God in their neighborhoods, cities, and world. At the close of the old day, a new day dawns. Strangers come together to talk and to act. The stories of women and children and those on the margin become more important in the reconstruction of common hope. Preconceived ways of thinking are revised. People invite new ideas and new people into their lives. And Holy Communion becomes not only the meal of a church, but also the festival of a community on its way to a new future. And in all of that, in the face of deep darkness, both personal and societal, God becomes deep and real, and we discern God active in this world again. For we, who have lost our dreams, now sense in, with, and under the details of this story that something new is possible.


April 16, 2017, Easter

Thank you for coming today. Thank you for your presence not only today, but also in our shared life through these years that I have been with you. On days like this, I am especially thankful for your presence and good will, the effort of many volunteers, congregational leaders, and staff as, for sixteen Easters, we have shared together the ministry of this congregation in the heart of the city. Thank you for coming today and for our life together.


   The Lord is risen. It is Easter. Easter is the festival of new life, of renewal, of recovery after a cold winter, of resurrection of our spirits, of resuscitation of the hope in the human heart, of revival of our depleted strength, of regeneration after disintegration. Renewal, recovery, resurrection, resuscitation, revival, and regeneration: these are the themes of this day.

And each of us can recall a time when we have made that recovery, or turned that corner, picked ourselves up, resuscitated and revived our strength, and recharged and renewed our lives again: often in the face of difficult challenges and obstacles. Easter is about all of that renewal. And I hope in your life’s journey many times you experience this pattern of life through death, hope through despair.

And Easter is also the renewal of our earth, the growing warmth and light, the recovery from the winter’s cold, the recharging of the natural order as the northern hemisphere springs to life. It is springtime. The bunnies are active, the grass is growing, the browns are fading as the greens emerge, the warm rains water the earth, and soon the flowers of Pentecost will burst forth. This natural renewal regenerates our spirits and is an important part of this festival. And I hope in your life’s journey you have a full measure of nature’s spring time joys.


     But as important as recovery is, and as important as springtime is, there is something else about this day: something actually rather ragged and awkward, unsettling, and disturbing. For there is something to this Easter thing that is wild, chaotic, beyond our reasonable explanations, homogenized experience, and easily understood natural metaphors. Easter is not only about butterflies. It is also about earthquakes. Easter recalls the breaking of the bonds of death, a shattering of the forms that limit life, the sudden not gradual movement of God, just beyond our capacity to understand, into a fear inspiring new vision beyond the horizons we usually use to figure out where and who we are.

Easter is not only about the recoveries we make as we get back to a normal life and the wonderful Wisconsin spring. It speaks of a risen Christ, battered and broken, now standing before us and challenging us to rise up from that death dealing prepackaged existence we construct for ourselves out of the anxieties that define everyday life. Easter may start with recovery programs that pull life together and springtime flowers, but it never ends there. It moves into an awesome vision of the risen Christ calling us to a way of life beyond what we now know. Easter is a living corpse challenging any smug solutions to what we consider to be the important challenges built around our current preoccupations. Easter is a living corpse, standing before us, whispering in a voice at first so hard to hear, but clearly saying: there is something more to this whole God thing.

For us American Christians, who are so skilled at making our faith into the handmaiden who serves the bride we have made of our own viewpoints and lifestyles, this side of Easter is ragged and awkward and disturbing. But in the New Testament, the first reaction to Easter is fear. There is something more to this whole God thing. Sure, enjoy the sun. Solve your problems. But there is something more to life than making it through.


     We are most aware of this more when we, like Jesus and those first followers, are broken and battered; standing at the fresh graveside of someone we love. There the walls that confine our awareness are thinned by the sorrow that penetrates the usual layers of varnish we use to preserve our self understandings. When life’s boundaries are thinned by sorrow, the vision of the risen one seeps through to our souls. And we hear that whisper: there is something more. Of course we will suffer. Of course we will die. And then there is something more, something beyond our knowing or explaining or domesticating into convenient conceptions of heaven which are really only the extensions of our own desires. No, there is something more to this God thing.

Encountering this wild mystery, ragged and awkward, unsettling and disturbing, we are jolted into a new way to think and live. We are propelled by the strength of the quake into the delight of compassion, the excitement of promise, the wonder of hope, and the fullness of song. Enjoy the sun and solve your problems. But there is a disturbing more to Easter. In its whispering voice it shares its secret: that death and life are not two different things, but two different dimensions of a deeper thing we do not yet understand.

This deeper thing about life and death propels us into the current of a mighty stream, the great movement of all things in creation into their ultimate reunion with God. And we, with all our hopes and fears, are only a very small piece of that grand movement as life and death are revealed to be only different dimensions of the divine design of God. There is something more. And today, at this empty tomb, with the stones that keep things in their place all rolled back, we stand in the presence of the wild awe and mystery of the day. May God be with us as we encounter now this transforming Christ.


Reflection for Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017

Luke 19:28-40 or Matthew 21:1-11

Today we remember Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. In this procession we begin the last week of the life of Jesus. It is in some ways a strange story. The details raise some questions about what might have actually happened.      The procession begins on the outskirts of the city and moves to the center of Jerusalem. One wonders if Bethany or Bethphage is a gathering place or center for Jesus’ mission. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live there. It is a place where Jesus goes with some frequency. Bethany perhaps was a base for the work of Jesus and his disciples. Today, a rather large crowd of followers gathers and moves with Jesus in this parade from the suburb to the center of the city.      We sense a mixture of humility and exaltation. The colt is a humble animal, in contrast to the great war horses of the day. The colt reminds us that Jesus comes to us still in humble ways. The humility of Jesus is echoed in the first reading, about a noble king riding on a donkey.

Still, for all the humility there is also exaltation in this demonstration. This is what the Messiah looks like! Palms are waived with hosannas. We have the songs and shouts of joy, the noisy rejoicing as in a royal procession, and coats laid down on the path. This is an attention-drawing parade. A festival of the street.      There is a conscripted offering. The colt is more or less borrowed from its owner. One wonders how the owner felt about this entire thing, but perhaps he or she is a willing supporter of Jesus from the Bethany village.      The position of this story is ominous. The intense hostility between Jesus and the religious leaders intensifies. Jesus has become more critical of the organized religious apparatus and its attendants, the priests and scribes. In these chapters he tells pointed parables calling into question the values and motives of religious leaders. As he shifts from his earlier work in the north in Galilee to the south, near Jerusalem, the argument and hostility with the authorities sharpens.      With this processional, the hostility boils over. The parade itself ends in the temple court yard where Jesus violently overturns the tables of the money changers and challenges the authority of the sacrificial system controlled by the priests.    This demonstration highlights the conflict that often comes with calls to renew the faith of people, to deepen it, to transform it, to change it so that it becomes more in line with the will of God and less in line with the will of the current religious establishment, whatever that establishment is. That call to change will always be resisted by the forces invested in the past and the present. Futures do not come easily. Jesus proceeds to challenge the religious authorities of his people, and those authorities respond with condemnation and death.    All of this Palm Sunday material should give us cause to reflect on how our lives are proceeding or processing.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what is our base of operation: our source of strength, our Bethany, from which we are able to launch the greater projects, processionals and projections of our lives? Some of us need to find our Bethany. Others need to return to our source of strength, recognizing it and valuing it. Still others need to get the parade going by moving out of our comfort zone into new areas of faith and life.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what humble things around us need to be lifted up and exalted? It could be a simple piece of bread or a tiny cup of wine, the touch of a friend, the small word of encouragement, a humble act of service that needs to be lifted up. There may be a humble person or event or detail or an often overlooked piece of our lives that needs our special hosannas on this day.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what humble offerings does God seek from us? Some of us hear in this story that the Lord has need of our colts and coats as well as our time for the processional of praise. There is a stewardship challenge here.      Palm Sunday gives us the question: how might we praise God? What is the cloth, the fabric of our lives which is offered to God for the pathway of praise? What are the emotional threads of our lives woven into the fabric pathway over which the divine passes? How do the treads of our personal and community history tie us to the praise of God?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what song of praise is in throats? Are our hearts filled more with the grumbling of a reluctant faith? Are we ready to sing?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what shall we wave in the air for all to see? When people look at our lives, what is waving in the wind for all to witness? Are the fronds of our faith moving at all? How might we waive our witness more effectively in a suspicious society that has substituted celebrity for greatness and positive spin for joyful praise?      Palm Sunday gives us the question: what about the conflicts in our lives? Are our struggles worthy of the effort? Do we struggle for the things that matter? Do we try to refine our faith, to grow, to become more deeply involved with God’s will for us? Do we live in such a way that we have a least a few good adversaries, friends with whom we differ about important things? Do we stand with the forces of the past or are we willing to embrace the future?      On Palm Sunday the story seems to raise some questions about what might have actually happened. It raises still more questions about our lives: about our source of strength, the humble things around us, the important conflicts facing us, the offerings God seeks from us, the fabric of our lives, how we praise God, and our willingness to stand for something greater.

Reflection for April 2, 2017

Ezekiel 37:1-14, Romans 8:6-11, and John 11:1-45 

What enlivens the community of faith? After a difficult struggle that has resulted in defeat, how does a group of people pick itself up, dust itself off and go on? What gives us the energy to continue when the wind has been knocked out of our sails?

This is the question underneath Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. What enlivens the community of faith after difficult struggle and bitter defeat?

At first, one might think that Ezekiel 37 is about resurrection of the dead. That is a good possible interpretation of the story used by many in the Christian tradition. As we are approaching Easter, the festival of the resurrection; Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones is paired with the resurrection of Lazarus by his friend Jesus in the book of John. And the second lesson today, which continues our series of readings from Romans, speaks to the resurrection of the spirit through Jesus Christ.

But I am not sure that Ezekiel originally had in mind the resurrection of dead individuals through their faith in Jesus when he wrote this poetic material. Ezekiel is facing the defeat and destruction of his nation. I don’t think he is saying that things will be all right because we all go to heaven when we die. I think he is saying that God, or better the spirit of God, will revive us, renew us, and enliven us, when we are defeated and discouraged.

Soon enough we will get to the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting. Easter is just two weeks away. But to press Ezekiel into the service of that theme may be to miss what the prophet is saying to the community of faith in this life.

These are his words of renewal to a defeated nation. The enlivening in Ezekiel speaks to the nation’s resurgence. Renewal is about the community and the gathering, not the individual in Ezekiel. In this passage an army is raised up: a great host.

How does the renewal of the community of faith begin? The prophet calls the people to listen no longer to the despair in their hearts delivered in the cynical sound bites of social commentators, but to the word of the Lord. The prophet begins by calling the people to renewal in the word of God.

This is a change in the operating principle of the community passing from discouragement into possibility. We shift from our script of cynical woe and defeat to the word of hope. God does this through poets like Ezekiel. Poet leaders accomplish their work by grounding the community on its foundation: the word and spirit of God.

Then in verses seven through ten, the process by which a group is enlivened and moves beyond defeat and failure is described in three simple steps.

First, there is a rattling and gathering of the bones. As individuals and groups come together, there is a rattling. Sometimes the noise is very great. But this is the first step for renewal and enlivening: coming together. Rattling and gathering is the first step in a group moving from despair to hope. God gives leaders to guide us through this rattling and gathering.

Then in verse eight there is enfleshment. Flesh grows on the bones. Ideas, thoughts, resources, opinion and energy converge. Things are not only outlined but fleshed out, as the gathered people of God converge and incarnate or enflesh the renewal. You can see this in congregations as discouraging issues are addressed and solutions emerge when people gather and bring resources and insight to bear on the difficulties at hand. God does this through leaders as they bring resources to bear on the matters at hand.

The third step in the enlivening is an enthusing, a breathing of the spirit into the body of work, a sense of God’s spirit and presence that lifts us up as we enflesh things together. We sense God’s presence as God’s spirit blows in our sails, moving us, sustaining us in the recovery. Leaders don’t do this. Enthusing is the hand of God giving spirit to the group.

The gathering and rattling, the enfleshing, and the infusion of the spirit are the steps by which God enlivens the community of faith in the valley of dry bones wherever those valleys exist.

In Ezekiel this morning, the prophet is talking about the resuscitation of a people, the people of God, a nation, our community and society. God moves people through defeat into new life together.

Until, as Ezekiel says, this movement opens the graves of the dead. For, as you know, Easter is only two weeks away.





Reflection for March 26, 2017, The Annunciation

Isaiah 7:10-14, Hebrews 10:4-10, Luke 1:26-38

We are almost to the time of newness, when the earth explodes in warmth and beauty. Something new is about to happen. But it’s not quite here yet. It could be that something new is about to happen in your life. We sometimes sense that something is on the horizon, or that things are about to change. In each of these readings something new, almost but not yet happening, is coming.

In the Hebrew Scripture this morning, the prophet Isaiah is a court prophet in the established religion of the temple. The new thing that is about to happen is an invasion. In chapter seven, all of the enemies of Israel have formed an alliance and are now plotting an invasion which will destroy the country. All of the people, faced with this impending new thing, the prospect of upcoming disaster, are filled with dread. Even king Ahaz is paralyzed with fear. And Isaiah, the political prophet, realizes that he must call his timid king to courage. He asks the king to ask God for a sign or vision upon which to build that courage or confidence. But Ahaz is too afraid to ask God to do anything. To the king, it is all hopeless. What is the point?

So Isaiah points the king and the court to the most basic sign of human hope: to a woman with child. And he points to the coming of a child as a sign that birth comes through travail. The children of the community point us all in the direction of hope. Children remind us that before too long, as we watch them grow, what we dreaded will pass, and we will be facing joys and challenges beyond those upon which our anxieties are now focused. The child is a sign of hope, of God’s presence, of moving beyond the dread of our current horizon, of taking the longer view. The child will grow, and so will we. God is with us, and will see us through. When an invasion is that new thing on the horizon, remember our children, and do what is best for them.

The new thing in the second reading is the birth of a new religion, a new way to practice religion in the first century of the Roman Empire. Rather suddenly in the first century the idea of sacrifice to gods to appease divine anger or gain divine favor has lost its appeal. In the pagan temples of Greece and Rome, as well as the temple in Jerusalem, the idea of killing animals on sacred altars run by priests was on the wane. People just were not sacrificing as they used to. And the new thing that was being born was a new way to be religious that was not focused on the temple institutions but on individual faith and experience, living and sharing with people of the same perspective, leading life in a moral way. And this new religion, propelled by many different mythic stories, was catching on fast.

In this light the book of Hebrews makes sense. The writer says that Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Jesus is God’s sacrifice on behalf of the world. So we can stop sacrificing all those animals, and focus on our faith and experience, living together and sharing, and finding our moral way. While honoring the old concept of sacrifice, the book shapes Christianity to move with the coming religious sensibilities. A new faith is being born. And maybe we live in that kind of newness now. But whenever a new religious perspective is being born, there is always a lot of anxiety and fear.

The new thing in the third reading, of course, is a pregnancy. This is the Sunday of the Annunciation, always about nine months out from Christmas. An angel tells Mary that she is pregnant. Since this is Luke, and Luke is a musical; Mary, of course, sings a song. But in all this wonderful news there are some issues and more than a bit of anxiety.

Think of Mary as a junior in high school. How would most high school students react to all this. I’m pregnant? Is that good? How did it happen? You mean there is this thing called virgin birth? Yea, right, who is going to believe that? I was planning on getting married. How is that going to work out? What will my parents say? What will people think of me? And you’re an angel? And my child is going to be the savior of the world? It’s all a little much.

And yet out of this new thing and all of the anxiety and fear it produces, comes the recognition that even in this difficult thing for this young woman, comes a new possibility. And the possibilities are greater than we can imagine, greater than our children can imagine, greater than all the temples and all their priests, greater than all the kings struggling with their own demons. For something new is on the horizon. It’s spring, something new is about to happen. What is the new thing dawning for you? Oh, I know you may be more worried than hopeful. But something new is coming. It will be more than we expect. And it will gradually unfold, just as a child grows into wisdom.


Reflection for March 19, 2017

Exodus 17:1-7, Romans 5:1-11, John 4:5-42

Let’s begin with the first reading from Exodus. The opening words set the stage. They speak of the wilderness wandering of the people of Israel. After their liberation from bondage in Egypt before they come to the Promised Land, they wander in a wilderness of “sin,” the writer says, as we all do when we move from where we were to where we need to be. The writer says they moved through the wilderness in stages. So it is with us. We move through the wilderness of sorrow, anger, sin and brokenness in stages, sometimes with painful steps and slow.

But there is more in this reading. I must admit that sometimes in my pastoral past, I took some comfort in Exodus 17, because it describes the tensions and challenges of religious leadership. Like most leaders and Moses, pastors sometimes feel the pressures of things going wrong as groups go through the challenges of the wilderness. That’s not really where I have been in these years with you. Actually, as a congregation, you have been gracious and understanding of my challenges and shortcomings, and I thank you for that.

But there is more in this reading than the stages of recovery or the challenges of leadership. Something primitive.

Exodus 17 contains a primitive memory regarding a large crack in a rock near a place called Horeb from which a spring of water flowed, probably in abundance. And according to the last verses of the reading, this story is told not to help us through the stages of life, nor to address problems of leadership, but to explain the name of a particular ancient spring flowing abundantly from a crack in a rock. To the primitive mind, such cracks witnessed to a powerful struggle in which the natural spirit forces challenged each other with massive violence. The spring flowing from the cracked rock would witness to the conflict and struggle of the natural spirits, perhaps the struggle between the spirit of rock and the spirit of water. And so the place was called Massah and/or Meribah. Massah means trial, test or challenge. Meribah means conflict or struggle or unrelenting unhappiness that can erupt with power.

The most primitive memories of this rock cut spring may also involve conflict and challenges among tribes for rights to this water. And it may have become a place for some tribes where strength was tested in rites of passage.

The writer of Exodus is preserving and explaining these primitive names of the rock cut spring: Massah and Meribah. But the writer of Exodus does not want anyone to believe anymore in nature spirits, water and rock sprites or that sort of thing. For by this telling, the people of Israel have entered the land and hold a new religion based not on the worship of nature, but the worship of an elusive desert God.

So Exodus 17 weaves a new story around the place named for struggle, challenge, and violent collision of spirits. Yes, this spring flowing from the fissure in the rock is a place of testing, challenge and conflict; but in Exodus the struggle between God and the people of God replaces the natural violence of water and rock. In the Exodus rendition, the power of the desert God breaks open the stone. And the struggle between Moses, God and the people becomes the new reasoning behind the name of the spring. Exodus 17 is an example of ancient “spin” placed on even older name and tradition. It is an example of one religion re-working the sacred space of an earlier religion for its own purposes.

Then later Exodus 17 itself gets reworked or re-spun: this time in the Book of Numbers. In Numbers chapter 20, the conflict, testing and struggle are between Moses and God. Moses gets angry with God. Moses gets so angry that he disobeys God and strikes the stone in anger, breaking it open. For this angry challenge and testing, Moses will die. But not before he completes his mission of moving the people through the wilderness. The book of Numbers wants to limit the reader’s respect for Moses. Why? Because it is written by priests whose patriarch is Aaron rather than Moses. By the time this version is written there is tension between these two priestly casts; and in their telling of the story, Aaron is lifted up. Moses is portrayed as less than perfect.

So what we have here is story of challenge, trial, struggle, and conflict at an ancient spring, told and retold so that the memories of the conflict are changed with each telling. What we have is the story of the new people shaping the memory to fit new perspectives and realities. What we have is a primitive example of the spin we still put on our stories as we go through our lives and talk about our well springs, rocks and conflicts.

I would like to pause here for a moment and think a bit about ourselves and this story. We shape and reshape the stories of our conflicts. We revise things as we try to face new perspectives and realities. We still spin the stories of struggle that shape us. And sometimes we are so caught up in the spin, we become trapped in the web we have woven, unable to go more deeply into what really happened. We think we have the truth, but what we have is our telling of it.

Lent is a time of self examination: a time when we seriously and honestly admit to God and ourselves, what we have done and what we have left undone. Lent is a time when we realize that we have glossed over or revised our stories so that they are more in keeping with our perspectives and self interests. Lent is a time for re-thinking our own history of challenge, struggle, and conflict and what we have made of it. Lent is a time of moving through the layers of rationalizations we have created until we encounter the God beyond all our reasons. Lent is a time when we stop arguing about what to call the spring of love flowing in our lives and instead bathe together in its waters together.

For beyond all the layers of naming, in the desert of sin, is this remarkable place where water flows, giving us the strength we need to make it through the stages of recovery and renewal. It’s not the name of the spring that matters. What matters is the spring itself, surging through the violence of life, the water beyond naming, the powerful, angry grace of solid rock split open by the waters of life.

Until we sense, as Teilard de Chardin says in The Divine Milieu almost sixty years ago (written in 1957, translated into English, 1960, Harper and Row, the beginning of Part III):

   All around us, we have only to go a little beyond the frontier of sensible appearances in order to see the divine welling up and bursting through. But it is not only close to us, near us, that the divine presence has revealed itself. It has sprung up so universally, and we find ourselves so surrounded and transfixed by it, that there is no room left to adore it, even within ourselves.

   By means of all created things, without exception, the divine confronts us, changes us, and shapes us. We think of it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its layers.

And with that we come to another story of another spring or well, this time in the gospel of John. This is the well of Jacob. This well also has a history, but I’ve already spent too much time on the history of springs. The people remember it as the well Jacob gave to Joseph, his son. By the time of Jesus, the well has become the watering source for the Samaritan branch of the people. Although the Jews and the Samaritans intensely dislike each other, Jesus and the disciples have taken a trip to Samaria. Jesus is tired and stops by the well. He is thirsty, but has no bucket. So he asks the woman at the well for assistance. They strike up a conversation. This woman gossips about the encounter, and as a result, the gospel is shared in this village.

Now this well also drips with conflict, struggle, challenge, and testing. There is more conflict in the story of Jacob than we can name here. The same is true for the story of his son Joseph There is conflict between Jews and Samaritans. There is tension between men and women as lifted up in the story. And the story speaks to the conflict between what is proper behavior and openness to those who do not meet the standards of propriety.

And no one spins a story anywhere in the Bible better than the writer of John, who puts endless theological twists on the life of Jesus. Here John makes a point he often does: that to find Jesus we must dip more deeply. Jesus is about the spiritual. He is focused not on eating, but the bread of life. He is focused not on drink, but the water of life. He is focused on something called eternal life breaking into this life.

And it is this water of life, this bread of life, this new life of the spirit, to which John points Jesus and us, again and again. We are reminded to draw more deeply from the wellspring of our souls, from the well of God’s grace, from the cracks in the solid rock of everyday life, so that the water flows more fully, quenching our thirst for the truth about who we are, and washing us fully in springs of living water and hope.

But more than that. In the deeper reservoir of grace, love, and hope, we are able to renew ourselves, and find new ways to face the challenges, the struggles, the testing, the conflict that still seem to be part of the human experience. In the deep reservoir of grace and love, like the woman in the story, we encounter Jesus whose life and death speaks to the mystery of God’s love that flows forth from the violence of the cross. In the end, perhaps, it is time to name our lives, our places, and our events not after conflicts, nor our ancestors nor heroes or great men and women of faith, but after our ancient and present yearnings for truth, and justice, peace and love, hope and beauty in the midst of struggle.

Reflection for March 12, 2017

Genesis 12:1-4a, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17 


     Faith seems to be a theme in the three readings today. The first reading describes Abraham: a person of faith who trusts the future that God assembles for his family.

The collected stories of Abraham are found in Genesis, chapters twelve through twenty-five. He is presented as the founding father of the Hebrew people. He is a somewhat mysterious figure and we are not sure whether he actually existed. His story was the legend or mythic memory of one of the confederating tribes which came together to form the tribal alliance that became the nation. The tribe of Abraham probably was the most significant group in the merger, since he is seen as the founding father, and his story is the longest of all the stories gathered into one national history. The myths of the other tribes were shaped into the stories of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Let us recognize that as important as any one group’s story is, it yearns to be woven with the stories of others as the fabric of human life is constructed, and as people come together.

And if we too quickly mold Abraham into an illustration of faithfulness, we miss most of his story. Abraham’s God was active in the details of human life, even those which do not make sense, or in those small events we easily overlook or forget.

Abraham’s full remembrance would recall the great shift in his life when he decided at the “young” age of seventy-five to leave his home town of Haran, in Mesopotamia, in Ur, and to follow the Fertile Crescent trade route north and west, along the northern edge of the great desert and west toward the land known as Canaan near the sea. He may have farmed along the way, but he is mostly on the move, following herds, grazing his animals in the foothills. And he is buying, selling, and transporting merchandise along what was one of the most important trade routes of the ancient world.

His was a family business. The household, if you could call it that, probably numbered around 100 people. There were several relatives including Lot and his wife involved in this venture based on raising livestock both for themselves and others along the trade route as they traded with merchants moving goods through the corridor. Eventually they settle more permanently on the western end of the route, near the sea. At one point, because of drought and famine, the business almost collapsed, but they move temporarily to Egypt where there is food and pasture. Then they regroup before returning to their western grazing areas.

Land is important to Abraham’s storyteller, and in the area by the sea, in Canaan, Abraham buys or acquires control over several large fields, or base camps, or we might say ranches. After his death, his children and grandchildren expand on these holdings so that an actual territory emerges.

Once, when Lot was in trouble, Abraham formed a small army, or we might say Special Forces Unit, to rescue Lot who had been captured and probably held for ransom by a warlord. But by and large what marks the dealings of Abraham is that he had few enemies. He was gifted at getting along. He had a great capacity to work well with the economic, military, and political powers in the region. Abraham is a strong negotiator, who could be shrewd and at times even deceitful.

And there was one way of doing business that worked very well for Abraham. This was what we know as making covenants. A covenant was an agreement between two parties. It may be that the origin of covenants, or mutually binding contracts between parties, is a new invention for doing business in the Bronze Age as trade flourished. And Abraham made effective and long lasting agreements with all who crossed his path. You might say he was especially good at contract law, and made sure that the covenants made benefited all the parties involved: so good in fact, that even God and Abraham make covenants together.

Essentially he was a man of means who learned to trade well and prospered by not seeking conflict with those around him. In these stories he is remembered for this capacity to shrewdly negotiate with a sense of good will in order to strike a good agreement. Eventually the idea of covenants is used to shape our understanding of the relationship between God and humanity. God offers us a covenant with very gracious terms.

In his relationships, business dealings, and interactions with others, Abraham often showed two character traits that contributed to his success. He was highly adaptive, adjusting his perspective and understanding according to the circumstances. Even his vision of God involved several adjustments or changes along the way. Sometimes his moral agility got him into trouble, but by and large his capacity to adapt gave him the capacity to succeed.

The second character trait was a sense of hospitality and magnanimity. In dealing with war lords, petty kings, various emperors, family, servants, and business partners, his dealings were marked by a full measure of that desert hospitality that was so important to life in the ancient Middle East. Hospitality is often a theme in the stories of Abraham. And as we reflect on Abraham today, we could do no better than to simply understand that throughout life we will need to always build good agreements with those around us. Let us carefully attend to the details of the agreements we make with our neighbors, friends, and family, at work and at school, in our communities, nation, and world. As we do that we also will need to be adaptable and gracious. And let us do what we can to engage more and more people in the broader social contracts or covenants needed to make our own fertile crescent or these days we might say our blue marble safe and productive for all.

One of the most important things to Abraham was what we would call legacy. The question of his legacy comes up again and again in this story. What will he leave behind after his death? Because he and Sarah are childless so late in life, legacy becomes especially important. When most of us think of our legacy we think of family. But in these stories, legacy becomes more than having an heir. There is something about legacy that expands as we grow older. It involves more than our children. We want to leave something behind that makes a difference. We want to be remembered. We hope that what we stood for and what we did will grow and prosper. We want to see the good things of life continue beyond our frame. Eventually, Abraham’s and Sarah’s legacy is the founding of a nation, this new tribal confederation that blends the patriarchal stories of several tribes into one family story. But then this national legacy is broadened to include all people who seek a relationship or covenant with God. When we think of Abraham’s life we think about our own legacy and what we will leave behind. And that is a good thing.

And then finally, as we recall Abraham, this great negotiator and deal maker, high adaptable and gracious, focused on legacy, we also discover in these chapters that Abraham had a rather strange Bronze Age religion. Somewhere in his desert wandering, he gave up on the worship of the many Mesopotamian gods, and began to hear the voice of one god, one spirit in the wind of the desert blowing over the sand. There was one god, one spirit, one voice that spoke to Abraham as he listened. This voice called to Abraham. There was an intimate relationship between Abraham and the god of the desert wind. The voice became the source of his strength and courage. It helped him adapt. It helped him be gracious. And this faith became part of his legacy. This faith was not a static thing but is molded and then reshaped several times along the way: moving Abraham beyond malice to enemies, beyond the commonly practiced sacrifice of children, beyond family feuding, and beyond superstition. And each time God deepened Abraham’s faith, a new agreement or covenant was forged between this desert trader and his God. 


     Today we also read about Jesus and Nicodemus who comes in the middle of the night, uncertain about where his life of faith is going. Sometimes these journeys into the unknown are not happening in the outer lives we lead, but in our inner lives and spirit. The act of faith is not always a physical transition, but a spiritual change. The gospel of John expresses this inner journey into the depths of the spirit in the words of Jesus. He introduces Nicodemus to uncharted territories of the spirit’s unfolding, along the trade routes of the spirit not yet fully explored. The journey in this third lesson, into the new unknown, is the spiritual quickening that we experience in the lives we lead. Sometimes the door opens to new ways of thinking about God and being the people of God.

Jesus’ words call to mind how our faith gives us the courage to journey more deeply into the unknown life of the spirit. Over the course of decades our spiritual selves are refined and renewed, over and over again. Our views change as our hearts grow. We become more capable of loving and being loved. We reflect more wisely as we encounter more suffering. We draw more deeply upon the wells of compassion that have always been there. We drink more deeply from the font of wisdom we experience in the presence of God. We change our minds about matters of faith as we mature, as individuals and in community.

Lent is a season of spiritual journey, of the deepening of the life of the spirit, of walking more boldly into new spiritual practices and realities, leaving behind older more familiar forms which may provide order and comfort, but may also limit our vision of the broadening rivers of God’s love. Each Lent is not so much a call to give something up, but to take something on as we boldly and with courage face deeper issues in our souls’ formation and reformation, until we feel the birth of something new in the festival of Easter.

This week, a new door may open in your life as well. A new possibility may emerge, either physically or spiritually or both. Or a new reality may need to be dealt with. Or a difference will make itself known in some part of your life. Or you may discover yourself like Nicodemus, probing more deeply the spiritual mysteries of God’s abundant love. Springtime is full of such changes. Through it all, recall Abraham and Nicodemus, who moved into their future, trusting God to be with them.