Our Bonhoeffer moment: John the Baptist and World Refugee Day

Today, June 20th, is World Refugee Day.  That I was asked to preach on the birth narrative of John the Baptist from Luke’s gospel on this day – when his father Zechariah prophesies that he will be the herald of God’s son, who himself becomes a refugee – is ironic indeed.

John the Baptist’s birth feast day is this Sunday, June 24th.  As I prepared this sermon, I was struck how yet AGAIN the lessons in our lectionary are timely beyond anything we could invent.  John grew up to speak truth to power, while always pointing to Christ.  We are called to do likewise, for such a time as this.

This Saturday I and several other people of faith will join the Families Belong Together march in downtown San Diego.  We will bear honest and strong witness to our faith and to our belief that separating children from their families is sinful and inhumane.

In light of the executive order signed this afternoon, we will also bear witness to our belief that indefinitely imprisoning families for seeking asylum is no solution to a complex and urgent problem.

My sermon today explored all this.  I hope it gives you hope in these dark days.  Blessings.

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Feast of St John the Baptist – Mary Shaima, San Diego Conferences Gathering, 6-20-18

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Grace, and peace, and the wind of the Spirit to you from our Creator God.  Amen.

Today we are dwelling in the space of John the Baptist – specifically, the feast-day of his birth.

And so the gospel today looks not at his adult life or work, but at his birth narrative.

You will recall that when Zechariah was skeptical of the angel’s message to him about his son, the angel took away Zechariah’s ability to speak.  And later, when he confirmed the message of the angel by writing “his name is John” Zechariah’s voice was restored, and he responded in praise and prophecy.

Not in anger or righteous indignation.

No, Zechariah had experienced for himself the promises kept by God.  And so his song of praise affirms this.  His song of praise, the Benedictus, that is the Gospel Canticle in Morning Prayer.

And I find it fascinating that the verb tenses in the Benedictus are past, present, and future.  Here is the tension of living in the already – not yet.  God has kept, continues to keep, and will keep God’s promises.

As Lutherans, we are all about paradoxes.  And the already – not yet is the eschatological one.

But I want to look at another paradox, one that is not found in the text.

John’s feast-day was one of the earliest set in the Christian calendar.  It has accumulated fascinating cultural practices around the world.  And though we usually hear about John in the season of Advent, his birth feast-day is in June.  And not just any day in June, but the day in June that is 6 months prior to Christmas Eve.

If we think about the Annunciation to Mary – March 25 – and Christmas, December 25 – and Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the placement on June 24th might seem like it roughly adds up.

But the placement on June 24th coincides with an occurrence in the natural world: the summer solstice.

And the calendaring of the birth of Jesus happens right around the winter solstice.  Neither of these dates are necessarily accurate, and accuracy is not the point here.  Rather, the symbolism is the point.

John’s over-arching words about Jesus are that “he must increase, and I must decrease.”

The solstice days float roughly between the 20th and 22nd of June and December.  But John’s birth feast-day on the 24th means that the light of day has already begun to decrease.  And Christmas, Jesus’ birth feast-day starting on the 24th of December means that the light of day has already begun to INcrease.

Could this be the result of aligning with pagan festivals to either supercede or co-opt them?  Well, of course.  But it’s hard to deny the pattern and position of the sun.  No matter how you spell it – sun or son.

And still – none of this is what strikes me the MOST about this lesson today.

What gets under my skin – what keeps me up at night THESE days – is Zechariah’s language.

Specifically, verses 78 and 79:  “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

I am going to make an existential claim, and say that if we don’t think we are sitting in darkness, we are not paying attention.

If we do not think the shadow of death is hovering, we are not paying attention.

Families seeking asylum in the US are now being considered as criminals, in a policy change that has been called out internationally as inhumane.  These people are then considered illegal border crossers, so they are put in jail – and by a particular US code, their children are taken away from them.

THAT is darkness.

Referring to refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants as “animals” who might “infest” our country – is to me the shadow of death.

And oh, how we would like to respond in ways that veer off the way of peace.

How we would like to take the low road, and call all the names, and place all the blame.  (Elsewhere.)  How we would like to dash off a post and retreat.

But we stand at what I honestly think is our Bonhoeffer moment.

“Not to speak is to speak,” said Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  “Not to act is to act.”

Not only is it our Bonhoeffer moment, it is also a moment in which we are called to be church together for the sake of the world.  In the public sphere.  With one another, and with countless others, in solidarity for justice and righteousness.

And the distinction that we bring into that sphere is God fulfilling God’s promises:  “For he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.”

Dear friends, this distinction is so important.  And yet, I struggle with it.

I struggle with seeing God in ANYTHING that’s going on these days.  But if I give it some effort, my eyes might be opened.  As Leonard Cohen said, “the cracks are where the light gets in.”

The response from so many to this darkness has been a concentration of light.  Of organizing around some kind of moral compass.

And so our Bonhoeffer moment calls us not only to speak, but to speak both truth and compassion.

As Jesus did in the gospel a couple of weeks ago, we call out the work of the devil but we also offer that reminder of God’s fidelity to all people.  And that reminder is most clearly seen in the actions that we undertake, freed by grace through faith in Christ to serve the neighbor.

Admittedly, calling out the work of the devil is where we step into the riskiest territory.

The devil is NOT stupid.  That should be obvious.

When we step into the places where we are called to speak justice, where we are called to preach peace, we are taking risks.  Not necessarily calculated ones, either.

That is what John did.

That is what Jesus did.

That is what we are called to do.  Be church together for the sake of the world.  We’ve given it plenty of lip service, now is when we actually LIVE it.  Risks and all.

Mary spoke – words of revolution.  Zechariah spoke – reminders of God’s promise-keeping.

John spoke.  Jesus spoke.

And we are called to speak – speak God’s peace, and grace, and justice, and LOVE to this world that is convinced it is sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.

John’s gift to us is the call to repent of our desperation, in this and all situations.  John points us to Jesus.  And in following his direction, we are reminded that this life in Christ is not without difficulty.

I saw a t-shirt the other day that really summed up the full spectrum of the Christian life, even though it wasn’t a “Christian t-shirt:”

It said:  Life isn’t easy.  Life isn’t perfect.  Life is GOOD.

Life is good, meaning that it is rich and challenging and painful and hard and sad and joyous and, in the end, FULL.

In the Benedictus, Zechariah wisely reminds us that God keeps God’s promises, throughout time.  An incredibly important thing for us to remember.

For the light shines in the darkness of this day, of this struggle; and the darkness WILL NOT overcome the light that is Christ Jesus.

Walk and march in that light.  Amen.

 

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The Dance of the Three+ Circles

Here is the sermon I preached at Hope Lutheran Church in Temecula, California on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

The gospel lesson was John 3:1-17

 

“How can these things be?”

Nicodemus poses THE seminal question for this feast of the Holy Trinity.

He’s a man ahead of his time, really.  He sounds very contemporary, applying reason and logic and operating in a secular system that dictates behavior and policy.

And everything that Jesus is saying is shaking the foundations of all of that.

How can these things be?

Reason and logic aren’t working right now for Nicodemus.  He’s a Pharisee – specifically, a member of the inner circle, the Sanhedrin.  Basically a theological rock star of first-century Jerusalem.

“How can these things be?” he asks.

And we ask the same question, don’t we.

Confronted with St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, and the gospel according to John, what else WOULD we ask.

How can this be, that we have received a spirit of adoption?

How can this be, that we would be born from above, of Spirit?

How can this be, that God is three in one AND one in three?

How can these things be?  what does this all mean, anyway?

 

There’s a little bit of Nicodemus in all of us, if we are honest with ourselves.

We all exist in THIS world.

We operate, for the most part, within the structures and the systems that this world has created.

(I discovered the extent of that last week when I lost my debit card and let me tell you, operating in this world without a debit card is quite the challenge!)

We can find ourselves at the point where we are not at all comfortable with the idea of giving up those structures and systems.  We’ve put a lot of trust in them.

That’s usually the point where the structures and systems start down the road to idolatry.

But maybe we’ve heard or experienced a shift that makes us stop and say “this Jesus seems to be onto something.”

That is where Nicodemus is in our story.  This narrative occurs right after Jesus has turned over the tables in the temple, and I wonder if among the Pharisees, Nicodemus has a more properly calibrated moral compass – so that in the wake of upended tables he has been moved to come and talk with this Jesus.  Perhaps he has wanted – but never dared – to do something similarly radical for a long time.

He can’t have a discussion with Jesus in broad daylight, or he’ll likely be out of a job.  So he comes at night.  But he is still taking a chance.

And that chance is worth taking for Nicodemus.  Something has stirred him to seek after the truth which he senses in the person of Jesus.  Something in his heart of hearts tells him that all the people and places he’s thought have the answers – might not.

The truth that Jesus proclaims to him in the shadows of night is that his hope and salvation Will. Not. Be. Found. in the things of this world.  Nicodemus is challenged to be rooted not in any earthly system or belief – but rooted in God.

How can these things be?  asks Nicodemus.  And he thinks, because Rome’s not gonna be down with this.

How can these things be? asks Nicodemus.  What about all the things that I’ve worked and saved for?

How can these things be? asks Nicodemus.  

And Jesus’ answer gets at the gut-level reality of what it means to follow him in this world: The wind blows where it will, and you do not know where it comes from.

In other words:   if you want a neat and tidy agenda, Jesus ain’t your man.

If you want to know what’s gonna happen tomorrow – don’t follow Jesus.

If you’ve got OCD, Jesus is gonna mess with that for sure.

The wind blows where it will, and you do not know where it comes from.

And Nicodemus is stunned.  He has heard Jesus speak of a relational and experiential God who moves way beyond the limitations of the Sanhedrin, but his way of understanding up to this point has now been COMPLETELY deconstructed.

This is why “understanding the Trinity” is, I think, an exercise in futility.  Not because God is some kind of capricious jerk, changing things up on us, but because God is beyond our words, our definitions, our understanding.

But God is not beyond our experience.

Just when we think we’ve got it all nailed down, our experience of the living God pulls out every nail.  Our whole concept of God becomes more vast with every story shared between us.  And so I wonder if it’s not so much that the Trinity is a way of knowing who God is, so much as it’s a way of discovering those things to which God is committed.

And we seem to discover those things by experience – not by God posting a Facebook event, or sending us an email, but by us being open in our daily lives to the infinite scale and scope of the divine.  When we begin to notice the divine present and at work around us, we are drawn into life with God, and we realize that God, in some aspect of the Trinity, is all around us.

The Cappodocian Fathers of the 4th century, who really fine-tuned the theology around the Trinity, used the Greek word perichoresis to describe such a life.  Peri means “around” and choresis means “to give way” or “to make room.”  It might also be translated “rotation” or “a going-around.”  Imagine a Venn diagram – the diagram with intersecting circles – where you have three circles in a perfect multidimensional intersection.  Now imagine that same diagram in movement, where the perfection of the intersection points is maintained.

At the center of these three circles is a fourth, unseen circle, which is the divine center of love.  That center is the center of all divine action in the world: love.  As Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his sermon at the Royal Wedding last week, “there’s power in love. …We were made by a power of love.  And our lives were meant and are meant to be lived in that love.”

And yet.  And yet.  We might still find ourselves saying “how can these things be?”

How can these things be in this world where sometimes just getting up in the morning causes me to lose hope?

Well, I was reminded of how these things can be in the words of our Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, who was the commencement speaker at my seminary’s graduation last week.  She began her sermon like this:

In the name of God, the Creator, who fashioned us beautiful;

in the name of Jesus, the Redeemer, who calls us lovable;

and in the name of the Spirit, the Sustainer, who makes us capable.  Amen.

 

Beautiful.  Worthy of the dance.

Lovable.  Welcomed to the dance.

And capable.  Able to join the dance.

 

The ONLY way that these things can be is in the mystery that is God.  We waste valuable time trying to figure out HOW these things can be, instead of simply leaning into the truth that they CAN be and they ARE.

 

Who you are called and created to be, intersects with a deep need in the world.  And that is where you and God will dance.  Because choresis, you see, comes from the same root word as choreography – the creation of a dance.

It might look like building a Habitat Home – stocking food pantry shelves – or teaching Sunday School – but that’s where the divine music is playing.  It’s as if we’ve met God, Jesus, and Spirit at a Greek festival, and we all yell “OPA!” while throwing back some ouzo, and we all join the circle dance, arms around each other’s shoulders and probably falling over our feet.

But filled with joy.  In the dance of Trinity.

 

When we end this story today, we don’t know where Nicodemus goes.  But we do hear about him again in John’s gospel: when he speaks up for Jesus with the Sanhedrin, and again when he secretly joins Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus with an extravagant offering of balm and spices.

It takes Nicodemus a while to move into the dance, but he eventually does.  He has heard the words of love on this night, and he has realized they are for HIM.

What have you heard in the stories of Jesus that moves you to the dance?

In what ways have you experienced God that make you want to dance?

Maybe you have not heard or experienced either of these yet.  Maybe you are asking “how can these things be?”  That’s ok.  I have many days like that.

I urge you to join the dance anyway.  Because God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, Spirit the Sustainer – they will meet you there.  And together, God will show you the steps.

Beautiful.  Lovable.  Capable.  Gifts from the Trinity, with love.  Use them, and live in that love.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Itinerant Preacher

The last few weeks, I’ve been preaching at different sites around the western US.  What an interesting experience this is, both as a preacher and as a visitor!

As a preacher, I look not only at the texts for each week, but at the congregation to whom I will preach.  Who are they?  Where are they located?  What are their challenges?  What gives them joy?

The first congregation, to whom I preached the “Doubting Thomas” text, had just moved into a brand-new building and was figuring out how they would live in this new space.  The Thomas narrative concerns how the disciples are encountering the risen Christ, both in rumor and in actual encounter – a new space for them too.

The second congregation heard another story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, one in which the essentials of hospitality are emphasized.  This congregation is working on “mission redevelopment” which means they are undertaking specific tasks to determine their mission in the community – and hospitality to the community is one of those tasks.

The third congregation is the smallest of the three, in a mountain resort community, and they heard the text of Good Shepherd.  As luck would have it, the regional Lutheran camp was in attendance too and brought goats from their farm!  I was able to use the story of how their farm dog almost sacrificed her life for the herd last year, fending off a rattlesnake – and remind the congregation that while following Jesus (i.e., their outreach work) is not without risk, it is also not without the reward of abundant life.

With each visit, I expanded my own list of questions to keep on hand for when I am in a call.  Some of those questions:

*Is it easy to find the entryway?

*Are there folks present as greeters/ushers who can help someone find the restroom?

*Are there pavement issues that could be difficult for people with mobility issues?

*Does the whole congregation see welcoming the stranger as their job (not just that of who’s on duty that day)?

These Sunday visits have been GREAT.  They have also been super helpful for me, who has been with the same congregation my whole life!  Now I have some experience of what it feels like to walk into a new space – and my future ministry will benefit from that.

How about you?  Have you worshiped somewhere other than your home church, and found that the experience helped you see things “at home” in a new way?  I would love to hear about it!

New Year’s Resolutions

Wishing you all a very happy new year!

My faith community worshiped together on Sunday, December 31st and as part of worship, we wrote things from 2017 we wanted to leave behind on slips of paper and then, right before wishing one another peace, we shredded them – yes, in a shredder.  It was a great moment.  But we also made space for writing our hopes and dreams for 2018 in simple one- or two-word phrases on strips of cloth, and then tying those to pieces of framed chicken wire.  It’s an idea I saw at the ELCA Worship Jubilee in Atlanta in 2015.

This morning, the blog from Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago entitled “We Talk, We Listen” features a wonderful reflection by their Pastor to the Community and Director of Worship, Rev. Erik Christensen.  He puts forward the idea that while resolutions can be a good thing, what is usually missing from them is accountability – which can also be thought of as relationship.

For today’s blog post, I am linking to his, because he has solid things to say about how this also reflects our worship pattern as Lutherans.  I am in the middle of moving and am very short on time (pro tip: don’t do this at the holidays if you can avoid it!) and I am so grateful to lift up the good work of a respected colleague.

We Talk, We Listen: Rev. Erik Christensen

Enjoy!