The Tuning Note

Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2020
Zion Luthern Church, Pittsfield, MA

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God. 
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins. 
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 
Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain. 
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ 
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
   their constancy is like the flower of the field. 
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass. 
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever. 
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   ‘Here is your God!’ 
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him. 
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep. – Isaiah 40:1-11

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way; 
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight” ’, 
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ – Mark 1: 1-8

            If you’ve ever been in an orchestra or attended a live rehearsal or concert of one, you may have experienced before the concert or rehearsal starts the onstage warmup of the musicians. This might happen less in some of the most professional orchestras, but even they sometimes warm up on stage. Over the dull roar of the crowd you might hear the musicians, each doing their own warmup – some are running scales, arpeggios, or etudes to warm up their fingers and instruments. Some are chatting with neighboring musicians joining their voices to the din of the crowd. Others are flipping through music running tricky passages one more time. Even if each one is perfectly in tune, no one is playing together and it’s more a cacophonous roar than anything resembling music. But then, when the time is right, perhaps following applause or a quickly gathered silence, or perhaps less often straight from the cacophony: a single, loud, persistent concert A sounds from the oboe – piercing the room with its clarity. A call to tune. The cacophony fades. The instruments begin again, this time bringing their instruments in tune with that solitary pitch piercing the room before breaking into the overlapping harmonies and melodies that bring orchestral music alive. In the wilderness, a voice. 

            When we think of John the Baptist out in the wilderness, perhaps we picture the rocky, arid desert that surrounds the Jordan River, a land not so far from bigger cities – in John’s time and ours – but which is a challenging place to make a living – at least without irrigation, imported goods, and other external supports to live in the dry, dust, conditions. There, eating locusts and wild honey, both one with and standing out from the wilderness surrounding him. A curious crowd gathers to hear. In the wilderness, a voice. 

            But wilderness isn’t found only in dry deserts – wilderness is anywhere that is disorienting. In fact, for us, in the modern world I think our wilderness sometimes looks like so many voices competing for our attention, so much stuff demanding our time and energy that we lose our direction and even our identity. Maybe it’s just me, but I find myself doomscrolling before I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning – reading post after post, article after article trying to grasp at some kind of control or understanding of the world we are living in. Trying to find the words that will pierce me with clarity about the way forward through COVID, through the transformation of systemic racism, through the climate disaster. I find myself wandering around a wilderness of endless words – a cacophony of voices screaming for my attention. And if I get overwhelmed by words the next app over on my phone will take me to another kind of cacophony – a world of endless goods, where I can seek some thing or things which will, I falsely hope, lead me out of this wilderness of desire for consumption of goods, a wilderness in which I start to lose touch with my identity. In this wilderness, is there a singular voice? 

            Sometimes I do find clarity and take my first tentative steps toward what I think is the way I’m supposed to live out God’s baptismal call to work for justice and peace in all the earth. And I misstep. Or I fail. Or I get tired. The work is long and hard and frustrating, and I never seem to get it all right all the time. As a white person I’ve committed to being an ongoing-learner about systemic racism, as I know some of you have. I’ve committed to engaging the work of dismantling racism where I can and pushing toward deeper work. And like so many other arenas in which I have committed to personal and communal change, the work doesn’t bear fruit in all the ways I want it to, in the timely way I want it to. Besides the fact that my own ideas about the path forward are not even close to 100% right all the time, the work is hard and ongoing, no matter where you are following that baptismal call to work for justice and peace. It can be exhausting and never-ending work. Somewhere in this wilderness, is there a voice?  

            And sometimes, despite the busyness of the world around us, our internal experience is barren. Exhaustion, depression, trauma, anxiety, all of which have become more common in this strange and challenging year – they leave us sometimes without words. Without hope. Without a discernable path forward. Disorienting wilderness. Longing for the abundant life we know God wants for us and all creation, but unable to connect to the possibility of that as a reality. “Cry out? What shall I cry out?” says Isaiah. Sometimes we don’t even know how to name the pain or grief or shame within, much less how to name the hope or promise. In this wilderness, is there a voice? 

            In Advent, we are waiting, expecting, not just for Christmas but for the incarnate reality of God’s kin-dom to be real among us. In the northern hemisphere we are in the time of the least daylight and we feel the cold settling in for winter. But we also feel the deep longing and groaning of creation and the deep longing and groaning within our souls. Whether from silence or from a cacophony of voices that leave us disoriented, Advent is a time of getting in touch with our deepest longing for wholeness. In this wilderness, do you hear a voice? 

            What we get in Advent is not yet the baby in the manger. It is not yet the thing we can touch and hold and grab onto. It is not yet the reality of what it is promised. But it is the promise. It is a voice piercing our wilderness. It is a voice that begins to tune the world into harmony. Comfort, comfort my people. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Promise. Hope. In the wilderness, a voice. 

            If we return to the aural image of an orchestra moving from cacophony to tuning to polished harmony, advent is not yet the beginning of the concert. Advent is more like the moment when the dissonant sounds are still echoing in the room and the first hint of that tuning note from the oboe starts to ring. And the thing is that we hover in that tuning moment all of our lives. We live in perpetual advent, amidst the disorienting wilderness of the world. Sometimes we are the first to hear the note and quick to bring our own song in line with the tuning note. Other times we are distracted or not ready, failing to catch up in time and letting our voice fall out of tune with the center. Our Christian faith lived in that in-between advent time, always listening, waiting, learning how to bring our lives in line with the coming promised kin-dom of justice, and our advent waiting takes on the character of the one for whom we wait. Other times totally losing the voice in the midst of the noise or too tired to engage it if we do, and our advent waiting seems hopeless, even pointless. Either way it is a hard place to live. It is not the soaring harmonies of the angel chorus at Christmas. It is the single voice piercing, preparing, tuning. And sometimes I just want to get there, be there, skip ahead. But for now, in this wilderness, a voice. 

            A voice that speaks of water and words, a voice that invites and washes, a voice that calls and challenges, a voice that names you beloved. Comfort, comfort. Not a voice that makes us comfortable, no – Advent is anything but. The voice makes us recognize the dissonance and draws us in as beloved children of God, naming us, claiming us, tuning us. That’s the comfort. Because hear it or not, the concert is coming. There will be a time, there is now in God’s time outside of time, the reality of God’s reign of justice and peace singing into our longing, hoping, hurting world. In the wilderness, a voice. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Overflowing Cups

November 22, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Stamford, CT
Stewardship Sunday

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
   He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters; 
   he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
   for his name’s sake. 
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
   I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
   your rod and your staff—
   they comfort me. 
You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
   my cup overflows. 
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
   all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
   my whole life long.

            I’m so glad your pastor called in an expert to preach this week on your stewardship theme. Not that I’m a stewardship expert – though that is a passion of mine in ministry and part of my portfolio as a synod staff person. I’m not a preaching expert, though I love the task of preaching. Nor am I an expert in the psalms from which comes your theme verse – “My Cup Overflows.” No, you see I’m the parent of a preschooler: I am an expert in what happens when cups overflow. I also know what happens when tubes of toothpaste overflow, when bottles of ketchup overflow, when bathtubs overflow, and when sandboxes and rice tables overflow. 

            Just in case you’ve never seen a preschooler pour juice into a cup, let me explain. The fridge is left standing open. The cup is placed dangerously close to the edge of the table, more or less at eye level of said preschooler. The cap comes off the juice before it is carried to the cup, sloshing sticky liquid onto the floor. Then reaching up over her head with the heavy bottle of juice, the pouring begins. With a combination of still-developing motor skills and a lack of concern about making a mess, the cup quickly fills but the pouring doesn’t stop until well after the juice is pouring onto the floor. Then the sloshing cup is carried off across the room. The mess…oh! the mess…but also the look of pride at having poured her own juice. 

            My cup overflows.

            You see, when I read the 23rd psalm and get to that line, I’m imagining that beautiful banquet set up, yes in the face of enemies, but somehow abundant and protected all the same. And there beside each plate is a goblet comfortably full, maybe even bottomless in the sense that it doesn’t run out. But actually that’s not what it says, is it? My cup overflows.  

            I don’t know about you, but that’s not my prayer. I want to be comfortably filled. I want to have enough to be comfortable and satisfied. I want things to be neat and tidy. I want things to be familiar and predictable. I want that in my personal life, in my financial life, in my church life. Pour me a never-ending cup, sure, but not an overflowing one. That’s a bit too disruptive for my taste – too much mess. 

            Maybe, in part, it’s because I don’t always fully trust the source – the pitcher from which this cup of blessing is filled. If my cup is full, I can pick it up and carry it off, contained, controlled – maybe even in a tightly sealed travel mug. If it’s neat and tidy I can decide how much to drink and when to make it last. I can pretend I have control over the blessings in my life. Otherwise I have to trust that God will keep pouring when I need it. I have to let go of control.

            On the other hand, I know a lot of things that are out of my control for sure: living through a global pandemic, living with persistent and systemic racism, facing a climate crisis, experiencing disease and loss, death itself. That feels never-ending, the kind of thing that is just overflowing all over the place, making a mess of everything we love and cherish. I tend not to question the overflow of that kind of stuff in our lives. That I have no trouble picturing as an overflowing cup. But blessings? Grace? Mercy? Maybe it’s just me, but I find that sometimes harder to trust. 

            What struck me in watching all the stewardship videos of people from your congregation was that each one named in some way the disruption of this time, some of the really hard stuff that has occupied our hearts and minds, AND they discovered in it, through it, or in spite of it, an abundance of blessing – for some it was time, others family, nature, awareness of gratitude for basic needs. For some it was a slow shift, for others a sudden realization. But in the competing flood of trouble and blessing, tuning in to the blessing opens our eyes to abundance in striking ways. It does not solve or negate the trouble. We are still in the midst of a terrible pandemic, still in the midst of a society full of inequity, still in a world of violence. But there is also still blessing to be found. 

            Some of the people who spoke in your congregation’s stewardship videos shared a part of their practice for recognizing that overflowing blessing in their lives – for some it was meal time together with family, others meditation, others a walk in nature. Let me share a practice that helps me open my eyes to God’s blessing, one that helps me start to trust the source that makes our cups overflow. From the time I began giving my own monetary offerings in church as a preteen confirmand, I prayed a prayer as I put the money into the plate that in doing so I might learn to recognize that all I had comes from God and that I might learn to let go, offering my money and my self, trusting that God would use it and me as needed. In these modern days when my tithe goes directly and automatically once a month to my home congregation and in these COVID days when physical offering plates aren’t passed, I’m trying to find other ways to have that moment of prayer. Something over and above what I have carefully planned to give as a percentage of my income. Because in case you haven’t picked that up already, I’m really good at planning. I’m really good at doing a budget and marking out exactly how generous I want to be, sending my pledge card on time to church. But what I still struggle with is to trust that the cup is not just full, it’s not just as I have planned it, but in fact the cup is overflowing with abundance I can’t control. 

            Let me be clear that giving money to the church or to anywhere isn’t going to literally produce an overflowing bank account. Nor does giving time to church and other worthy causes create more hours in the day. And yet. And yet we have a God who can create from nothing, who can feed thousands with a few loaves and fish, we have a God who can resurrect the dead. When we engage these practices of gratitude and generosity, we start to tune into the abundance and begin to see that overflowing cup. 

            But here’s the thing about that overflowing cup – the juice (or the blessings) gets EVERYWHERE. I mean it splashes on the table and the floor and probably soaks into the rug where you immediately try to soak it up. It splashes on your arm when you reach to avert disaster. Sticky fingers carry it to the banister. Hours later, when you’ve long forgotten about the incident you notice a splatter on the kitchen cabinet. That evening your bare foot sticks to a missed spot on the floor. 

            This is God’s cup of overflowing blessing. That’s the grace in this. Yes, we can develop practices of gratitude and generosity to tune in better. Yes, we should plan thoughtfully personally and communally for the realities we face, including planning to be generous with what we have. 

            But God pours blessings like a preschooler – pleased as punch to be spilling it all over the place. When God pours your cup, expect it to get all over you. Expect it to surprise you long after your moment of practicing gratitude when you are elbow deep in frustration or pain about something in the world. Expect it to splash and splatter onto the people around you. 

            When God pours the cup in your congregation expect it not to stay neatly contained inside your building or neatly contained inside your neighborhood. Expect it to splash onto people that challenge you and take you beyond your comfort zone. Expect it to splash into the streets and the public square. Expect it to splash into new experiments and surprising new ways to be the church together. COVID has certainly proven that it’s possible to be the church in ways we didn’t think we could. The cup overflows. 

            And trust, dear friends in Christ, that the source really is endless. The creator of the universe is pouring your cup and your neighbor’s cup and your enemy’s cup and there’s enough to just keep splashing grace and blessing til beyond the end of time. Amen. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

The Joy of the Master

27th Sunday after Pentecost
November 15, 2020

Grace Lutheran Church, Plainville, CT

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 14“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ 21His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ 23His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ ” – Matthew 25:14-30

            Collectively we have just lived through a challenging national election. I, like perhaps many of you, have struggled to understand exactly what is going on in our country and how it is that we begin to move forward from here. I do not, by any means, have all the answers to that question. But I’ll share with you one of the things that I’m thinking about as I try to make sense of it. 

            I think this election – in fact perhaps this is true of many elections here and around the world – was at least in large part about fear. Fear is a powerful emotion. It triggers not the part of our brain we share with other higher order mammals but the part we have in common with reptiles. The fight or flight, all or nothing, adrenaline-producing parts of our brain. Fear can trigger responses that help us stay alive – for that we thank God. But fear can also trigger responses that get in the way of careful problem-solving, deep cooperation, and thoughtful planning. Either way the fear is a very real, very physical thing. 

            What I felt and what I saw from others – those who voted the same way I did and those who didn’t – was fear. Fear for safety. Fear of losing what we have. Fear of losing power, money, status, dignity. Fear, for many, of losing their very lives. Those with wealth fear losing what they have. Those with nothing fear for their survival. People of color fear ongoing oppression. Fear of the effects of climate change. Fear of loss of freedom. Fear of the coronavirus. Fear of change. Fear of not changing. Fear. When I listen to myself and when I try to listen to others, I’m hearing tremendous fear. I am afraid for the future of our divided country. The person who is elected to the top leadership position in our country matters. It matters deeply. And yet whoever is elected does not alone save us from any of these things. 

            Which brings us to the parable of the talents. The master is going on a journey. He entrusts his wealth to three servants. Vast sums. These are not just a few coins, but true riches. 5 talents to one, 2 talents to another, and 1 talent to yet another. Even the last, the single talent, is more than an average laborer might hope to see in years of work. As the parable opens, generosity and joy abound. We don’t know what the first two did with the riches to double them in the time the master was away. We don’t know if it enriched the world or exploited others. We don’t know if they cooked the books or toiled alongside others to develop their share of the wealth, but they went and lived. Enter into the joy of the master. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter how they earned their wealth – surely I hope it was honest and life-giving to themselves, to others, and to creation. But that’s not what this particular parable is about. 

            This parable, I think, is really about the third who buried his talent in the ground. He was afraid – that’s how he defends his actions to his master. He lived in fear. The thought of loss, the thought of risk, the worry over how to use it – he couldn’t move past those questions. He lived from a place of fear. So he dug down into the soil, tucked the master’s treasure away, and sat down to wait. For all intents and purposes he buried himself with the talent. Whether he sat nearby in constant worry or went off to mind his own business, what he doesn’t do is enjoy the gift, share the gift, or multiply the gift. Maybe he even looked to be living a normal life to those around him, not making waves and not taking chances. Yet his fear keeps him from the joy of the master both while the master is gone and when the master returns. 

            It’s like he can’t even see the possibilities, he can’t find abundance, he can’t find joy. He’s already been cast out to the weeping and gnashing of teeth  because of fear. The master gave him something to use, something to celebrate, something to risk, something to share – and he buried it. He’s missed out. 

            When the master returns, we modern readers get very uncomfortable. Rightly so – I don’t like being thrown out into weeping and gnashing of teeth any more than you do. But I think the point of the parable is that the master can’t seem to do any more to help the one who can’t seem to recognize a good party when he sees one. It’s as if he says to the third, “Fine! If you don’t like generous gifts and abundant life, take a hike.” And, this is not in the parable, but I’d like to think it comes with another line that reads something like, “But do come back when you finally come to your senses.”  

            You see, I think all of us live with fear to one degree or another. Fear of failure, fear of the other, fear of change, fear of success, fear of loss. Whether the fear is of something reality based or not, the feeling of fear is very, very real. It causes us, yes sometimes to fight, but more often to freeze or flee like the third servant in the parable. Fear closes us up and closes us in and closes us off. 

And some people– people in our own communities, perhaps some of you listening right now –  live in fear for their very lives from hunger, from violence in our homes or in our neighborhoods, from systemic racism, sexism, and homophobia. This is fear from real threats that are driving some people in our communities underground, burying them. We as a community are burying some of our best assets, our best neighbors in the ground and going on as if everything is fine, afraid, perhaps of what will happen if we speak up or speak out.     

What this parable says to us this day, in this time of very real fear for the future of our country, the future of our world, our own always-tenuous futures, is that God’s kingdom is one of joy and abundance and not one of fear and suppression. God’s hope for us is not that we bury what we have and most certainly not that we let others be buried under the fear that comes from systemic oppression. God’s hope is that we might see the abundance of the gift of life we are given and the incredible gift of life in each one of our neighbors so that we might enter now into the joy of the master.  

            What would it look like to let go of all our fear? Would it look like doing that thing you always wanted to do? Would it look like having bold conversations about race, even though we don’t have all the answers and will probably mess up at some point? Would it look like letting go of some part of our personal finances for the sake of the abundant life of others in our communities? Would it look like trusting a bold future for your congregation even in the midst of a global pandemic on the rise? Would it look like getting more deeply engaged in civic life no matter how we feel about the election so that we really put some skin in the game when it comes to living and voting our values? The alternative is to bury it behind us and try to move on as if everything is fine. The alternative is to let fear take hold of us and squelch our joy of living. 

            I wonder what gifts God has given you to help you live in that place of joy and abundance. I want to be clear that sometimes, in this world that is not yet as God calls it to be, there are very real things that stand in the way of expressing that joy and living in that abundance. But even so, even if fear of very real concerns has you in hiding, God has still given you you, given you gifts, given you breath, given you the promise of love and resurrection and invited you to let that flourish in the world. God’s desire for you is freedom to flourish in the world with boldness and abundance.

            And if you find yourself unable to get free of your fear – or I should say when you find yourself unable to get free of your fear, for it happens to all of us sooner or later – when you find yourself cast out into a weeping and gnashing world of fear, it’s there that Jesus finds you anyway. For shortly after the telling of this parable, Jesus goes to the cross – cast out of the city, cast out of the land of the living. And there, where everything has been stripped from you, when you have absolutely nothing left to fear, not even fear itself, that’s when Jesus scoops you up and brings you to life again with him. That’s when Jesus hands you back the gift of life beyond all imagination and you get another chance to live in the joy the master had planned for you all along. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Unraveled to Grace

October 4, 2020
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Bristol, CT

Gloria Dei is in the middle of a sermon series called “Unraveled” – Biblical stories that show the ways God’s people are often unraveled into something new.

A video of worship can be found here:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” – Luke 19:1-10

           I am a volunteer facilitator for my county’s restorative justice probation program. It’s our role to meet in a circle of trained community members with people who have been charged with a crime and referred to the program. We meet monthly for several months to figure out together what harm has been done, who is responsible for that harm, and how to begin to repair relationships broken by that harm. 

            When people come to the program, in addition to any harm they may have caused, often their own lives have unraveled. An aspiring lawyer is facing a charge that could put his career plans in jeopardy, someone with a substance addiction has hit rock bottom, someone has lost their housing as a result of one thing or another related to the charge. Often they can’t stop thinking about the harm they’ve done. They regret their actions, but haven’t been able to put them right or find a way to stop beating themselves up over it. What we know and tease out in the conversations is that the person before us is often also the receiver of harm, often in some way disconnected from the community, and we have a chance as the community to begin to repair that disconnection. One of our tasks is almost always to help the person move from “I am a bad person because I did this thing,” to “I am worthy and gifted human being who has done something wrong.” It’s a surprisingly difficult shift to facilitate. It’s a shift I find hard to make in myself when I realize I’ve done things wrong. But the unraveling that happens when we recognize our brokenness, painful though it is, can be a tremendous opportunity to discover the love of God and the support of our neighbor, whatever boundaries and consequences must still come as a result. It’s an unraveling that leads to something new.

            Which brings us to the unraveling of Zaccheus. The old Sunday school song makes an easy hero out of the short man who climbs a tree to see Jesus. But the text reminds us that Zaccheus is not exactly an easy hero. He’s a tax collector. Which makes him, in the eyes of most folks, a collaborator of empire, an extortionist, a cheat. Tax collecting in Jesus’ day wasn’t exactly an exact science, and whether they were more or less honest or not, they represented the oppressive force that hang over the heads of Judeans in Jesus’ time. And Zaccheus had made himself a small fortune in that work. For all the crowd was concerned, he was a bad guy and persona non grata at their dinner tables. 

            In the story he wants to see Jesus and no one is likely to help the not-so-poor guy out by making room in the crowd. He wants to seeJesus, but what happens instead is that he is seenbyJesus. He’s seen not as tax collector, not as sinner, not as bad guy. He’s not defined by the bad things he’s done. Or by any good things he’s done for that matter! Jesus sees him solely as Zaccheus, child of God, and Jesus, unlike the man’s neighbors, wants to eat at his table. Jesus knows exactly what he’s doing. The crowd can’t believe it – because they can’t see past Zaccheus’s profession to his humanity. At the risk of psychoanalyzing, that’s probably because they too often can’t see past their own faults and failures to the child of God they are. Which I say because I know that’s true for me. Maybe it’s true for you, too, that sometimes we define ourselves by our worst moments. 

            All this and we haven’t even quite gotten to Zaccheus’s unraveling. This being seen, this encounter with Jesus, this recognition that he, too, is a child of God – it unravels his life. He gives up his profession and half his wealth. He has participated in some way in the subjugation and oppression of his neighbors and he makes financial reparations to them when he realizes the way in which his lifestyle, his privilege, his power has stripped others of theirs. His personal conversion, his personal realization has very real public implications for economic and political justice. Jesus’ seeing him, him seeing himself as a valued human being, as an integral part of the community, that’s the prerequisite for a change of life – a change that reconnects him to his community. 

            But wow! Is it hard! Imagine giving up your profession and half your wealth tonight at the dinner table. How would that feel? What would you do? What radical changes would come to your life? The life of your family? This is hard work, risky work, and yet somehow I think we sense that in Zaccheus’s sake it’s done with joy and with a recognition of deeper connections in the community going forward. His hope, our hope, is that despite his past he’s now going to live more fully himself and more fully connected to others. But it doesn’t just happen at the snap of a finger. It takes work, relationship building, real change. 

            Where do you see yourself in this story today? Are you Zaccheus – longing to see and be seen for who you are? Longing to claim that identity as beloved child of God? Afraid of the changes that might be required of you, afraid of the unraveling that might occur but open to the overwhelming transformation of relationship with Jesus? In a lot of ways we are people complicit in empire, complicit in systemic racism, complicit in a changing global climate, complicit in the dysfunction in our political system. Our part may seem small, but what would it look like to stand in our identity as children of God and not first in our citizenship, our power, our political affiliation? What would unravel for us into something more life giving? 

            Or maybe you see yourself in the crowd, wondering whether “those” people – whoever “those” people are for you – can be in relationship with Jesus. What unraveling would it take for us see not only ourselves but every single other human being, no exceptions, as first and foremost beloved children of God? What unraveling will happen in us when suddenly we see that Jesus is already sitting down to eat with the people we despise the most?  

            All of us are somewhere on that journey of recognizing our belovedness and living out the radical call to reorient our lives for the sake of our beloved neighbor, our beloved communities, and our beloved world. Maybe we’ve had that encounter like Zaccheus and we have been overcome by grace to the point of radical generosity. Maybe we’re still climbing the tree looking and searching. Maybe we’ve made a promise in a moment of conversion but have fallen short of the promise we sincerely made. Maybe we are one of those people who can’t let go of wrong things we’ve done, or who can’t see past the wrong actions of others. But wherever you are, wherever your neighbor is on that journey, Jesus sees you! It may unravel your life into something new, but Jesus sees you, beloved child of God. And nothing in all the earth can strip that away. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

More than “Sorry”

Lectionary 25A
September 20, 2020
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Oxford, CT

Jonah 3:10-4:11
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD and said, “O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the LORD said, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city. The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.” But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

Matthew 20:1-16
“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, ‘Why are you standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard.’ When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

I am the parent of an almost-four-year-old. Now, if you’ve ever parented, taught, cared for or been a preschooler, you may remember that at this age sharing is hard, emotions run high, and their brains, developmentally, understand that the world revolves entirely around them. This is a daily challenge in our household.

And while we try to parent with a lot of communication, we try to talk things out, sometimes that doesn’t always quite work as well as we want it to – well because we’re human and so is our child. I found myself again last week mediating a playground dispute in which my child threw mulch at another. There was a language barrier between us and the other family, all of us were tired, and I was trying not to scream. Instead I said something I have tried not to say, “Now, just say you’re sorry!” As if that magic word will make it all better. She managed a pretty convincing. “Uh…sorry…” And we wrapped things up and soon headed home. Maybe she was sorry, maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she understood something of what happened, maybe not. Maybe it made the other kid feel like something had been done about the injustice, maybe not. I certainly wish I had done more because “sorry” just doesn’t always cut it.

Which is why I think we need to give Jonah a break. Many of you might be more familiar with the part of the story where Jonah tries to run away from God’s call and gets swallowed by a big fish before he finally goes to preach to the city of Ninevah, pouting all the way. But what happens, much to everyone’s surprise except maybe God’s, the not-so-well-liked people of Ninevah say they’re sorry. To be sure they say it really, really thoroughly. I mean, even the animals put on sackcloth. But that’s not exactly enough is it?

So Jonah sits down to wait for God’s judgment. When God relents, Jonah gets angry. “I knew you were going to have mercy! That’s just like you! What right do you have?!” You’re like…you’re like…you’re like some landowner that pays everybody what they need to live no matter how much they worked!

But look at it from Jonah’s perspective. Ninevah is the seat of empire. Maybe most of the people in the city just go about their daily life and benefit from the exploits of the leaders and the army, but as an empire they have used violence and intimidation, exploitation and coercion to oppress other peoples for their own gain. Jonah’s own people have been recipients of that oppression. This and previous empires had upended their lives, taken them from their homes, forced to live for generations in a foreign land, enslaved them and killed them. Their response? I’m sorry. Maybe they meant it, maybe they just got scared and said what they needed to in order to get out of punishment. Either way it doesn’t undo what’s been done.  

            This is the fundamental challenge of being broken people, people who hurt one another, people who collectively can manifest evil in surprisingly creative ways. We cannot undo what we have done with simple words. Don’t get me wrong, when we confessed sins and I announced to you God’s forgiveness – that’s real. I believe that. God’s love cuts through whatever we’ve done. But the consequences of your sin and mine – both the little things we’ve done this week and the big ways we participate in the collective sins of the empire in which we live – the consequences of that have not been eliminated.  

            We live in a society built by enslaved people on land stolen from those who tended it better than we have. “I’m sorry” just doesn’t cut it. We are living through a pandemic that has made worse and been made worse by the inequities in our society and the lack of strong social bonds across our communities. The virus is no one’s fault, but our response says something about our communal failures. “I’m sorry” just doesn’t cut it. Despite a blessed, if brief and partial, reprieve with recent rain, the west is on fire, and our carelessness and failure to confront climate change isn’t solved by saying “I’m sorry.” The divisions in our political life that have prevented productive governance aren’t fixed by a quick “I’m sorry” across the aisle. 

            When we’re the one who’s done wrong we want to move quickly to resolution. We really do want to change, we really do want to do better – at least most of the time. We want to be relieved of the tension created within us from having done wrong. Or maybe we don’t think we have done anything wrong and want to maintain our image of ourselves as nice people who do good things. And so we want a quick resolution to move on. 

            And yet, when we have been wronged, most of us, I think, want some real change. We want effort to make things whole again equal to the level of harm that was done. We want someone to dig in and do the hard work of reconciliation. Not just an honest naming of what’s been done, though that’s a first step. But some tangible repair to what has been done. 

Take someone like Jonah. Sure he’s done his share of regrettable things, but he’s been shaped by his experience in the world as part of an oppressed people, a community that lives in fear, that has lost life and property and freedom at times as a result of these other people. Not only did he have to go tell them, but now he has to sit and watch them receive mercy. I wonder that he sits on the hill long enough to see whether this change of heart in Ninevah leads to a change in their way of life. Maybe he does have every right to be angry enough to die.

            The Ninevites have work to do. God’s mercy does not excuse them from living into their call to love and serve their neighbor with radical mercy. But God’s mercy is theirs. They are beloved children of God. I don’t think it’s fair, really. Just like the workers in the parable. Sure we all do things that are wrong, but big injustices need righting. And they do. But God does that by loving everyone into a new reality, a new reality the reorients our lives toward working for justice and peace in all the earth. 

            Which is a great blessing, because whether I realize it or not, I’m part of the problem. Someway or another all of us are part of those big problems. All of us are caught up in this crazy web of broken lives and a broken world. We have hard work to do. We cannot just say “I’m sorry” and move on. But sorry or not, God’s going to get us there by loving us into that new reality. Loving Jonah, loving Ninevah, loving people of every nation, every political party, loving every last creature, right down to loving you and loving me. 

            It’s kind of offensive when you really think about it. But it might just be the only way to find a just and lasting peace. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Stepping Out in the Storm

10th Sunday after Pentecost
Sunday, August 9, 2020

Sermon for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Bristol, CT

View the service, including the sermon, here:

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land,[d] for the wind was against them. 25 And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

28 Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29 He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he noticed the strong wind,[e] he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32 When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” – Matthew 14:22-33

           Here in the ELCA New England Synod we like to say that we are a synod of experimentation. It sounds really good, doesn’t it? We could put it on a bumper sticker and pride ourselves on how innovative and cutting edge we are. We do new things! We reach new people! We are willing to take our rich traditions and reimagine them in a new way. 

            But when the synod rolled this out a few years ago, Bishop Hazelwood and others wisely made it a point not to talk about how great we are when we experiment. What we talked about, perhaps especially among pastors and lay leaders, was that doing lots of experimenting means experiencing a lot of failure. I read a column recently by medical researcher Eileen Parkes, who said, “Failure is something that all scientists experience – but its hard to tell, looking at our shiny conferences, polished presentations and glossy journals. Comfortable science is an oxymoron. If we want to make new discoveries, that means taking a leap in the dark – a leap we might not take if we are afraid to fail.”  I wonder that the same could be said of theology, specifically the lived theology of being church in the world – failure is something all people of faith experience; comfortable church is an oxymoron; if we want to make new discoveries, that means taking a leap and not fearing failure.

            Take the disciples in the boat in today’s gospel reading. Jesus sent them out across the Sea of Galilee – really more of a big lake than a sea, but one prone to sudden shifts of weather and hazardous storms. There are experienced fishermen among them, but typically they wouldn’t have been out in the dead of night as it appears they were when the storm begins to toss the boat. I imagine some of the disciples are trying to keep the boat steering into the waves so as not to get overwhelmed by the storm, some are awake with fear, others perhaps trying to rest before their turn on watch. 

            I imagine none of them want to be in the storm. They just want to be warm and dry and on land again. Can you relate? I feel in the midst of this pandemic that we’re stuck in a boat in the midst of a storm. We may have gotten in the boat, so to speak, quite willingly. Theoretically, we know that any journey has its risks whether it’s a trip down the block in our cars or a lifelong baptismal journey from font to grave. But when the storm does come, and surely this isn’t our first storm, it is overwhelming. Some of the time we’re just trying to sail the boat so that we don’t all suffer – balancing personal and public health with real needs for connection and engagement. Some of the time, just to get through, we’re going to take a rest so that we can get up again and keep going.

Then…there’s Peter. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m not sympathetic to Peter who wants to try a new experiment in the midst of it. I feel too much responsibility to keep the boat going, too much juggling to stop and even notice Jesus coming, much less test out a cool party trick on the water.

            But it’s Peter who gets lifted up in this story. It’s Peter we remember. Most of us remember when we hear this story, both that Peter did actually take a few steps on the stormy water. And we remember that he began to question, fear, doubt and, as a result, he fell into that stormy water. Peter tried an experiment. People might say he stepped out in faith. I’d say more accurately he stepped out in doubt. And his experiment failed, at least in the ways we tend to measure success. I think we’d have called it a success if he’d walked all the way to Jesus, if he’d walked all the way to shore, if he’d done a little jig and gotten back on the boat. In short, we’d have called it a success if Peter were Jesus. 

            But Peter isn’t Jesus, and neither are we. Success for us is not in reaching God, in completing the task, or even in proving our faith in Jesus. Success, if we want to call it that, is stepping out in doubt, not fully trusting ourselves or our ever-trustworthy God. Being church, living the baptismal call, walking as disciples – sure there are some legitimate moments for keeping the boat going. God calls us to times of rest. But the heart of it, at least in this story, is the risky experiment that however long it succeeds or doesn’t succeed gives us the chance to see what Jesus can do in us and through us. 

            What does that look like for you? I wish I could tell you a five point plan to help your congregation step out of the boat. But a five-point-plan does not an experiment make. I can tell you about things that I’m seeing happening elsewhere as inspiration: 

            -Congregations across the synod are starting or adapting ministries for those facing economic hardship, poverty, and hunger – food pantries, community meals, meeting folks on the streets, supporting those who have lost jobs.  

            -Congregations have found creative ways to use their buildings – some even in COVID times – welcoming some groups that typically use church basements, but also art, music, theater, community organizing and more. Some – and this isn’t everyone’s call – have sold or are selling their buildings to follow their mission in a different way. That’s all stepping out of the boat. 

            -congregations, yours included, are adapting to online worship formats, figuring out how to connect across distance, and in doing so discovering newfound relationships, trying new ways of being and doing church. I know it came suddenly, it came by necessity, but it’s been steps out of the boat for many of us who hadn’t imagined so much online worship. 

            -you and several other congregations have done online at-home VBS – converting a decades-old event into on online tool to support faith formation at home – it’s a step out of the boat

            -I’m sure each of you has had to make shifts in how you live your life as a result of this pandemic and as a result of any number of other storms that have come your way.

            I’m wondering, what have you learned in those moments? Have you been surprised by your capacity for something you didn’t think possible? Have you been disappointed with results that sank in the storm? Have you been so filled with fear that you hoped you’d never have to do it again? Was it terrifying, exhilarating, tenuous, hopeful? 

            I wish that you all were here in front of me so that I could hear your responses. But we’ll all have to imagine some combination of the above and more. 

            But what I don’t have to imagine is the presence of Jesus. Because that’s the key to this whole story. It’s not possible for Peter to take the step at all without Jesus. It’s Jesus who scoops him up when his faith gives way to fear. It’s Jesus who comes out in the midst of the storm to meet all of us – not just Peter – right where we are, whatever we’re feeling, however we’re responding to the storm around us. It’s Jesus who transcends the internet platforms that are allowing us to worship safely together across space and time. It’s Jesus who walks with us in the hardest moments, the hardest choices, the daily challenges. It’s Jesus who makes it ok to risk, ok to fail. It’s Jesus who makes stepping out in doubt a possibility, who scoops us up in our failures to put us back in the boat and try again. 

            Jesus is here, with us now, walking to us in the storm. Inviting us to step out in doubt. And the community is here to step with you, together. We will not do it perfectly. Sometimes we’ll fail miserably. We will surely doubt. And no matter what, Jesus will be there, and that’s what it’s all about.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

I don’t know, and that’s ok

8th Sunday after Pentecost
July 26, 2020

A sermon at Cross of Christ Lutheran Church in Waterbury, CT, a church in pastoral transition.

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” 6And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.”

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

26The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose. 29For those whom God foreknew God also predestined to be conformed to the image of the Son of God, in order that the Son might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom God predestined God also called; and those whom God called God also justified; and those whom God justified God also glorified.
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32The very Son of God was not withheld, but was given up for all of us, will God not along with the Son also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, 
 “For your sake we are being killed all day long;
  we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through the one who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

31Jesus put before the crowd another parable: “The dominion of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
33Jesus told them another parable: “The dominion of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
44“The dominion of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45“Again, the dominion of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47“Again, the dominion of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the dominion of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the household treasure what is new and what is old.”

           I think maybe I’ve said the words “I don’t know” more in the last four months than I have in any previous period of simila7r length. 

When can we reopen? I don’t know. How should we reopen? I don’t know. How can we be the church in a pandemic? I have some ideas, but I don’t know all the answers. Will there be a supply pastor to cover our transition? We have a lot of transitions happening right now, I don’t know. Will there be a candidate for our congregation? I don’t know. When will this pandemic be over? I don’t know. How will we extricate ourselves from systemic racism? I’m committing to work at it daily, but I don’t know all the answers.

            I imagine some of you can relate. I know your dedicated council president has heard me say “I don’t know” to her probably more times than she’d like to have heard in your transition here at Cross of Christ. 

            So I was slightly surprised and very much comforted to read today’s scripture readings and hear those holy words: “I don’t know!” 

            Solomon, just a boy, faced with a troubled kingdom struggling with what it meant to be a faithful people. God invites him to ask for anything. And he stands there looking around, and despite his precocious words, one senses that he feels his own inadequacy for the task ahead. He makes his already wise ask for greater wisdom, but first he admits “I don’t know.” If it’s good enough for Solomon, well, maybe it’s good enough for us, too. 

            Centuries later Paul writes to the community in Rome, reminding them that all of us face moments when we cannot identify the thing that we most need to pray for. Our words fail, we question our own deep longings expressed as prayers, we are uncertain how to dream big and ask boldly, our pain takes our breath and our words away. “We do not knowhow to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” It’s ok to say “We don’t know… 

            And we circle back to Jesus, sharing his wisdom with the disciples in the form of short but potent parables of mystery. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast hidden in dough, like a treasure hidden in a field, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, like a net thrown into the sea…do you understand all this?!” Jesus asks the attentive disciples.

            I have to imagine that the recorded response of the disciples is either a miraculous gift of the Spirit for wisdom or an editorialization on the part of the gospel writer who didn’t want to admit what they really said or what they all were thinking, which seems to me might very well have been “I don’t know.” Or maybe they answered not with a confident “yes!” but with a confused and hesitant “yeesss??”

            The truth is, that “I don’t know” is one of the most faithful responses there is. Besides its having integrity, more so than masking our doubt with confidence or than making up answers that sound good or make people feel better, saying “I don’t know” is a kind of recognition that we are not God. We are not the ones who have it all figured out. We are not the ones who carry the burden of saving each other, of saving the institution of the church, of saving the world of its many deeply rooted problems. 

            I’m here today in part because it’s a chance for me to get to know you a little bit as your new associate to the bishop – as much as we can with masks on staying six or more feet apart. But also more specifically to be with you as you think about what your congregation needs in its next pastor. What kind of leader will best help you to welcome all into safe, sacred relationship, as the Spirit works through [you] to embody God’s love and grace in the world? And, you can guess by this point that my response is “I don’t know.” 

            But what we’re going to do today after worship is to be in conversation together about that question. Idon’t know. And you, individually, don’t know. But in conversation I believe the Holy Spirit is at work and will be leading and guiding the conversation toward the next leader. You and I will hold that in prayer today and in the months ahead. We’ll keep our ears open. We’ll keep our minds open. I’ll be scouring the possibilities of leaders open or willing to consider a call. You’ll trust your call committee to do some of the nitty-gritty discernment work. But already buried in the field, already planted in the ground, already kneaded into the dough is the treasure of your new leader. We may not know, but God knows, and that’s always better than it being totally in our hands. 

            But…spoiler alert! That person doesn’t know all the answers either. But that person will be a partner with you in this adventure. In this pandemic messiness. In the hard work of figuring out what it means in practical next steps to welcome all into safe, sacred relationship, as the Spirit works through [you] to embody God’s love and grace in the world– I’m not going to let you forget your new WHY statement!

            I think Jesus tells so many parables that start with “The kingdom of God is like…” because even he can’t easily sum it up in human language. There is something about the world that God longs for, the world marked by surprise, by resurrection, by God revealed in the unexpected places, that we can’t yet imagine. It’s just beyond our capacity to grasp it. Even to start to glimpse it, we need to explore all the ways Jesus and others present us with snippets of that world without inequality, without viruses, without discord and conflict. A world with abundance and deep, abiding peace, and joy beyond our imaginations. 

            But here’s the thing. It’s not a kingdom that’s waiting for us in some distant future. It’s not a kingdom that appears only when every last piece of the puzzle is put together. It’s definitely not a kingdom that we have to know all the answers in order to find. It’s a kingdom that sneaks up on us around every corner, hidden in unexpected places, hidden in the midst even of suffering and loss. Not just in your next pastoral leader, but hidden all over, hidden often right there in plain sight, hidden, my dear friends, in you.

            So let’s take the next steps on that adventure of discovery. Let’s see what God has left in our path to surprise us with grace today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Let’s see where God is leading us, what God is doing for us, what God is doing with us. Because I don’t know all the answers, but I do trust the God who does. And when I can let go and accept the not knowing, it’s then I find myself most often surprised to see God’s grace already sprouting up in front of my eyes. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Yesterday I Took a Walk

Sunday, June 7, 2020

The following is intended for others who identify as white or whose lived experience is primarily of white privilege. POC do not need to be present to my wrestling with issues of race. They need my and our support and genuine allyship. 

Yesterday, I carried my 3-year-old daughter in a Black Lives Matter march in our hometown. I had already participated in a community organizing rally in Hartford, where my work has me more rooted, and I have plans to do so again. Those are targeted actions designed to force specific movement forward. They are also largely driven by people of color. But I still wanted to participate locally where I live. In a lot of ways I’m over marches as a means for social change. I’m tired of peacefully holding signs, sending support into an echo chamber and then going home to the rest of my life. And also it felt like we needed to show up to support people of color in our own neighborhood, in a town that is nice enough on the surface and full of baked-in inequities and injustice.

The most poignant moment was part-way through the one-mile march to the local police station. We, the crowd, were following the invitation of the leaders (all people of color) to chant “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” While we did that we held both hands in the air. This is the posture one is told to assume to show compliance with police. It’s the posture in which too many black and brown people have died. My three-year-old, despite my best efforts, didn’t really grasp the fullness of what we were doing there. But like any good three-year-old she copies the adults around her. She, too, put her hands up and joined in the chant.

As a parent I wanted to run, to get my child out of that moment, to protect her from the reality of the world a little longer. But I also knew in the moment that it’s the reality parents of black and brown children can’t turn off, can’t run away from. Though my daughter is Latinx, she presents as white and we, her adoptive parents, are both of European descent. She will experience the world largely as a white person (cue side-lecture about the arbitrariness of racial categories). She, like me, will be able to turn on and off her attention to race in the world. I pray (and work toward) the hope that she will work toward anti-racism as a way of life. To that end, she and I both needed to experience that moment.

She doesn’t understand the reality of death yet. She doesn’t understand what it means that George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmuad Aubery had their breath taken away from them forever. But she’s learning already that the world is unfair. And now, not yet understanding it fully, has chanted “Hands up! Don’t Shoot!” with her hands in the air.

I wrestled with whether to go – could I manage my particularly squirmy kid on a hot afternoon, walking a mile down and back? With all the instigators of violence showing up to peaceful protests, with all the absolutely righteous and justifiable violence that people of color have used in response to their lives being cut down by the state, was it even safe to take my child, to take myself to the protest? Again, all questions I get to engage by choice, questions I can choose to ask or not ask, because I am white. But we needed to go. I know that too many in our community do not support the kind of radical anti-racist work our community and country need right now.

We walked past the police officers who were stoically blocking off the street for us. We stood and chanted in front of stoic officers peacefully and non-violently guarding the police station. I was grateful. I know they risk their lives in their work. I know that most of them want to do good in the world as people in the community and in their work. And at the heart of our protest, which they were enabling in some ways to take place, we were calling them out.

We were calling them out not as individuals – this is not about good cops and bad cops. We were calling out a system of policing that has failed to address the actual problems of our society. We have trained them in particular ways – yes even with de-escalation training, etc. – that view the world as a particular kind of problem with particular kinds of solutions – among them arrest, violence, incarceration, and even state-sponsored death. Of course there are good cops. Probably even most of them are “good cops.” But the system of policing in America is bad.

I know personally through my work as a pastor and my husband’s work in mental health care, that we drastically underfund mental health resources and evidence-based addiction treatment programs. I know from my 8 years of experience trying desperately to expand the tiny Restorative Justice Probation program in Hampshire County that many of the people who come through the program need addiction treatment, social supports, employment counseling, better medical care, and whole host of other services. What they mostly get is either slap on the wrist (these are mostly the white, educated, and/or wealthier folks) or a record that has landed or is likely to land them in prison, where we as a society will pay exorbitantly for them to be treated less than humanely with little support to rebuild their lives and often access to wider and more intense criminal network than they knew before. NONE of these social support programs are even close to adequately funded. And those who work in these programs often make very little money and receive few accolades and community support.

But do you know what gets more money every year in almost every community? The police department. Do you know who gets paraded out as heroes at every turn? The police. Yes. Let’s celebrate these folks who put their lives on their line for our communities. But let’s not pretend that the system is working.

Tonight, the Minneapolis City Council has announced a commitment to “Defund the Police.” A movement that is new to me, but makes a great deal of sense. This is not to underfund police departments, to leave them without safety gear, or to slash jobs of police officers, though, yes, some people will lose jobs in the process. It’s also not an announcement that tomorrow we’re going to try a grand social experiment where there are no police and we all just try to be nice. People are in their natures curved in on themselves, and even if we fixed all inequality there would still be those who cannot control impulses to harm. BUT, it does mean that we start taking a hard look at shifting some of that funding to other, more effective ways of combatting crime.

All this comes in the midst of the Christian celebration of Pentecost, where the Spirit of God – the breath of God – comes anew to the followers of Jesus. It’s also one in which flames and rushing wind appear in the midst of a bunch of people gathered in the street. When the officers took away George Floyd’s breath, they took away the breath of God. And that breath blew into the streets and started stirring things up, the way the Spirit of God in her awesome self often does.

I’ve thought about some of my favorite Bible passages in the midst of this, including Jesus’ reading of the scroll of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Yes. And what that sometimes looks like is Jesus throwing over the tables in the temple. It’s not a time to be nice. It’s not a time to ask for gradual changes one at a time, one community at a time, while black and brown lives hang in the balance. It’s time to throw over the tables and demand new life. Time to put away the old and resurrect something new.

I’m making a commitment to engage my local community – the community where I live and the community where my work keeps me engaged in organizing – in efforts to transform the system of policing and educate myself and others about ongoing systemic racism.

If you, too, want to read more, check out just this tiny sample of places to discover more:

Specifically about policing:

-Pastor Steven Wilco

What’s Your Name?

Trinity Sunday 
June 7, 2020

This week I prepared an audio sermon for “Radio Church” at St. James Lutheran Church in Southbury, CT. You can listen to worship here:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:16-20

See also the first and second readings: Genesis 1:1-2:4a & 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

What’s your name?

A simple question, really. Often the very first thing we ask of someone we are meeting for the first time. And yet it’s a very intimate kind of question. Though we rarely ask one another about it, our names also frequently come with a story. Perhaps the story is nothing more than a name that sounded good to our parents. Often, though it’s a connection to a family member, a resonance with a Biblical character or other famous role model, or maybe a name that communicates a feeling or value – like Hope or Destiny. My own name echoes both my paternal grandfather and the biblical character known as the first martyr. Though my life has been very different from either of those, knowing that keeps me grounded, rooted in some small way, even when my path might be very different from theirs.

What’s your name?

Knowing someone’s name gives us some measure of control – to summon that person, to get that person’s attention in a crowd. A name allows us to connect and build relationships. Some married folk change their last names or modify them to demonstrate the new relationships. For folks striking out in a new identity, a name change allows them to live more fully into that new reality. The particular way in which we write our names becomes a way to enter into legal contracts.

What’s your name?

It’s a question we sometimes ask of God. It was Moses who asked it most clearly and directly, and God’s answer was a mysterious one. One that sounds in Hebrew a little bit like the breath of the Spirit we all celebrated last week and which hovers over the void at Creation’s beginning in today’s first reading. A name we often translate as “I am who I am.” Jesus echoes that “I am,” at least in John’s gospel. And it’s the name of God that brings to a conclusion the gospel of Matthew, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…”

What’s your name?

At least one answer is – child of God. In the waters of baptism we receive the name of God. The words, like the water, are poured over our bodies whether newborn, child, youth, or adult. The name added to our own given names. We are called and claimed with that name. We receive the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. And more than even that, the name of God pours over us rooting us in the complex and beautiful creation which emerged and continues to emerge from the creating, redeeming, sustaining God. We are not so much set apart but called more deeply into the beings we have been created to be along with all the human family and the fullness of creation.

What’s your name?

Sometimes I think we forget. Sometimes we forget because we’ve mistaken the institution of the church, the particular congregation we love, or a particular way of doing things as the core of our identity. It’s easy to do, and I know I’ve been guilty of exactly that – trusting something imperfect for my sense of identity, mistaking the church for the faith. But now all of us are in the midst of a pandemic that has largely stripped away the typical way we’ve done things. I don’t know how everyone at St. James is feeling about it, but across the church at least some folks are struggling with who they are when they can’t gather as they always have. On top of that you’re in a pastoral transition at St. James, and even though you’re in the hands of Pr. Sinnott, one of the most knowledgeable pastors when it comes to transitions, transitions are still hard – times when identity needs to be redefined and reassessed. But pandemic, transition, whatever shifts and changes come next, remember that your identity is rooted in the power of the one who created the earth, who redeems creation, and who breathes new life into the cosmos.

What’s your name?

Our name is not based in nationalism or white supremacy. Our name is not one that can be co-opted to legitimize violence and injustice. We bear the name of the fountain of living water, the rock who gave us birth, our light and our salvation. It’s a name rooted in the liberating journey from slavery to freedom, a name rooted in justice for the oppressed, a name rooted in upending death itself. It’s a name that continually calls us out of ourselves and into the world. It’s a name that calls us to “Go!” even in this time when we mostly can’t actually goanywhere. As humans we have always lived in communities where oppression and injustice exist, and our own age is no different. At the forefront of our news cycle these days is our country’s systemic racism, something totally antithetical to our identity as people washed in the name of the Trinity, yet something that consciously and unconsciously plays out in our communities, our nation, and even in our churches. Now, as always, our identity as people who bear the name of the resurrected one insists that we listen to the cries of those whose lives are at risk for the color of their skin. Our name demands that we engage the work of anti-racism in ourselves and our communities. It’s hard work, and we don’t do it alone. I know that already at St. James you have a strong partnership with the Naugatuck Valley Project, which among its many other important justice issues is also thinking about this one. And I’m sure there are many other ways that you are individually and together living out the calling of the one in whom you are baptized.

What’s your name?

A simple question, really, but one that can take a lifetime to come to terms with. Who are we and what is our story? What does it mean to be human in the midst of God’s wondrous creation? What does it mean to come to terms with our steadfast belovedness? What does it mean to live out God’s liberating life in the world? What does this identity mean for you at St. James as you engage this year in deep discernment around what is next for you? How do we do that as church – communities of broken people gathered around grace – in any time and place? God’s name is love, poured out for you, poured out over you, pouring out through you. And that makes it your name, too.

What’s your name?

Most of you I haven’t yet had the chance to meet, but if you’re reading or listening to this, I know your name. I know your name because it’s the name embedded in you by the one who created you. Your name is Beloved, a Child of God.

-Pastor Steven Wilco





Life and Death Together

May 13, 2020
Week of Easter 5

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to preach these days. But I recorded a brief reflection for Camp Calumet’s virtual Holden Evening Prayer which was shared online tonight. You can check out the whole service here. The text is shared below.

A reading from 2 Corinthians (4:6-12):

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.

Word of God, Word of Life.


It’s become cliché, but it’s true. These are strange times.

I don’t know how you’re doing, but every day just seems really hard right now.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot that’s good – my family and I are healthy and safe and reasonably secure, a privilege I know many don’t have on a good day, and even less so in this crisis.

Even though I’m not always very good at it, I really do try to pause and be grateful for all the good things – my daughter has the most joyful laugh and I have loved watching her learn to ride a scooter and a bike with training wheels in these last weeks. We’ve had some beautiful weather for walks and exercise outside.

There’s all the good being done by people on the front lines – nurses, doctors, patient care assistants, EMTs. And all the people we should have been celebrating all along…the grocery store workers and delivery people, pharmacy clerks and gas station attendants, food pantry volunteers and social workers. Thanks be to God for them all!

And maybe there are a few silver linings – some people are spending more time with their family or getting creative about connecting across distance. We’re learning to appreciate some things we previously took for granted.

People in congregations are learning new ways of being church together – I wish I had time to share all the stories of our congregations in New England finding new ways to serve their neighbor – making sure people have food and shelter and community and other essentials in this pandemic.

As true as ALL of those things are that I just named, as important as gratitude and joy and celebration all are, also…things are still really hard right now.

Looking on the bright side without acknowledging the pain and struggle that stand beside it would be false. It’s a struggle to get through these days, sheltered in place, grieving things we cannot do, longing for people we cannot see and hug. It’s especially hard for kids to understand, and I wish they didn’t have to understand.

We miss church. We miss singing together! We miss the community!

And as hard as all that is, people are dying. Not just from COVID, but from all manner of other things, now with the added burden of dying alone and the grieving unable to gather with their communities of support. And like almost every other crisis or disaster, it’s hitting our black and brown siblings even harder. It’s hitting people experiencing homelessness even harder. Domestic violence is on the rise.

The economic downturn hurts older folk and low-wage workers and immigrants harder. And the “normal” we are so eager to return to is a normal that has been built on the back of people we failed to treat with basic dignity.

All of this is true – that which is good and beautiful and that which is bad and even worse.

That’s why I come back again and again to this passage from 2ndCorinthians. Because it doesn’t demand we live in one place or the other – in the joy orthe pain. It reminds me that the joy andthe pain are both very real. Both always stand together all the time in our world and in our lives.

We have this treasure in clay jars…the light of God in fragile and seemingly ordinary vessels. We carry in our bodies the life andthe death of Jesus. Each of us is easily broken; each of us bumps up against our limits; each of us some days just can’t hold it together. And always the light of God within us.

That’s what every Easter season, but maybe especially this year’s Easter season is about: telling the truth about life that stands alongside death. Like the resurrected Christ who still bears the wounds of crucifixion, we live as resurrection people even though our clay jar selves are breaking and dying. We live as resurrection people even though our lives have suddenly come crashing down around us. We live as resurrection people even though the world and its systems are terribly broken. We are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed.

I want it to be one or the other. When I’m focused on the hard stuff, I easily get bogged down in all-or-nothing thinking, unable to celebrate the good. I lose sight of what God has done and is doing.

And the moments when the joy is in focus, I want to ignore the hard stuff. I want Easter without the wounds.

But always both together in us, both together in our world, both together held in God’s eternal loving embrace. Amen.

-Pastor Steven Wilco