Not Fair!!

15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2022
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Torrington, CT

1Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” – Luke 16:1-13

           My five-year-old daughter loves the phrase “It’s not fair.” On the list of things that are at one point or another not fair: limits on screen time, wearing clothing outside the house, eating vegetables, taking a bath, going to school, only getting two desserts after dinner, leaving the playground after 2 hours of playing, and not getting a new toy every time we set foot in a store. 

            Now, as adults and older youth we can look at that list and say, well, that’s not exactly unfair so much as just not getting what you want in the moment. And I’m often sympathetic to my own kid and other kids whose lives are dictated by adults and by forces they don’t always understand. Sometimes by forces the adults in their lives don’t even understand. I do what I can to explain the difference between what I don’t like and what isn’t fair, but sometimes, I’ll admit, I just respond with some version of “too bad” or “well, I’m the grown up and I say so.” 

            But I thought of my daughter’s vehement insistence of unfairness when I read the parable Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading. The manager isn’t really doing a good job and is about to get fired. So he cooks the books to curry favor with the master’s debtors in order to find a soft landing. And, instead of a full-on criminal prosecution he gets commended for his shrewdness. 

            It’s not fair!!!

            It may well be that in this story there is some genuine unfairness. The manager is unfair to the master in squandering his property. The manager gives away more of the master’s property in cancelling part of all the outstanding IOUs. And fair would be making him pay it all back. 

            But then we could step back and question the fairness of a system in which some seem to hold all the wealth and all the power. A system in which some are in debt to others in ways that might be hard to get out of. The inequality in power in wealth in Jesus time and place make our own wealth inequality look mild. Was it fair to have a foreign power occupying the land? Was it fair to have a few wealthy landowners and the vast majority of people in utter poverty? 

            Maybe we even step back further and cry out to God about the unfairness of how difficult it was for people of the first century just to survive, to eke out a living, to avoid life-ending disease or escape famine in a harsh world without many of the modern conveniences we now rely on. 

            If we train our vision in the right way, we may well see genuine unfairness everywhere we look. There’s genuine unfairness in the way people are treated because of their skin color. There’s unfairness in full-time wages that don’t cover basic food and housing. There’s unfairness in the ways dominant powers affect the climate and people with less power often pay the first consequences. 

            But then, sometimes, like my daughter, we see unfairness in things that just aren’t what we want. Someone else gets a promotion we wanted. We didn’t get as big of a raise as we thought we deserved. Someone else got a lucky break and we didn’t. Maybe you’re thinking now of some of the things that feel unfair in your life right now, justified or no. 

            Either way we’ve been trained to look at the world this way. This becomes one of our primary questions from early childhood: What’s fair? Did each person get an equal slice of cake? Does everyone get a fair turn to speak? Are wages and debts paid according to the record? Does each person have what’s due to them? Somehow we’re wired to add things up and plead our case when things aren’t by the record books: “It’s not fair!”  

            This parable, however, seems instead to throw out the record-keeping books altogether. “Wrong question!” Jesus says! The point isn’t about fair. The point is about…well, wait…what is the point about? If it’s not about fair, if it’s not that fundamental question we’ve been trained to ask, we might have a hard time wrapping our minds around what question it might be instead. 

            My go-to commentator on Jesus’ parables, Robert Farrar Capon, suggests that in this story which he calls “The Hardest Parable,” the Christ figure is, in fact, this squirrelly manager, sometimes called the dishonest or shrewd manager. Not adjectives we usually apply to Jesus. But Jesus does celebrate his work as he tells this little story. Capon argues for this for three reasons: First, the manager’s life as he knows it is over – it’s as close to death as he can get while still breathing. So the whole thing is set in motion by his dying. Second, other people – the ones who owe something to the master – are given life out of this manager’s experience of dying. And third, he says this: “The unjust steward is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectability. Respectability regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death and losing – which is the only kind of grace there is.” [Kingdom, Grace, Judgment by Robert Farrar Capon, Eerdmans, 2002, p. 307]

            And before you say, “But it’s not fair to call Jesus a crook!” let’s remember that he pulled some folks up out of their graves, stole some souls right out of the depths of hell, and carried off our backs some pretty hefty wrongs. Nothing about Jesus is fair. Fair would be tit for tat, paying for what you did wrong, evening the score, weighing the scales. And Jesus just doesn’t play by those rules. 

            In the last few weeks’ worth of gospel readings he’s been hanging out with sinners and tax collectors and – gasp! – even eating with them. Not fair! He’s been searching after one lost sheep, leaving the 99 behind. Not fair! Hate father and mother and sibling to follow him? Not fair! Take up your cross? Definitely not fair! Coming up shortly in the narrative of Luke’s Gospel is a call is give up all your possessions to follow. Not fair! 

            This is where the rest of today’s gospel follows – you can’t serve both God and wealth. Wealth is measured by the numbers, by bookkeeping. Money, reputation, success. Church growth measured by attendance and finances – it’s all bookkeeping. And much as I love a good spreadsheet and believe firmly in transparency and accountability of finances, I don’t think Jesus is all that invested in the bottom line of our budgets.

            What would it look like for our world if we stopped asking what was fair and started asking what was most life-giving? Instead of calculating our due, what if we gave generously of what we had until the needs of all were met? What if we operated out of a mindset that figured out how everyone could best live in community instead of arguing over the things that ultimately will die with us when we make our way to our graves? What if our churches asked what we could give away and where we could go serve instead of who will come in to support us? How might our world be different? How might our churches be different? How might our own sense of life and freedom be different if we asked those questions instead? 

            I think in some ways the shifts in our world in terms of our awareness of racism and inequality and the changes accelerated by the pandemic, we’re being forced into these new questions. And honestly, it’s not always easy to change our mindset, beautiful as it might sound in the moment. It means the dismantling of a lot of things we have grown familiar and comfortable with. But if we keep shifting our questions, we might discover in the pain not only the death of some things but the resurrection to new life that Jesus works among us. And hopefully we aren’t so busy shouting “It’s not fair!” that we miss the new life God is bringing about, not just in a life after death kind of way but in an every-day resurrection kind of way. And, thankfully, for our broken selves and our broken world, God isn’t fair. God is grace instead. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

In the Chaos

10th Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2022
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rutland, VT

[Jesus said:] 49“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! 51Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53they will be divided: 
 father against son
  and son against father,
 mother against daughter
  and daughter against mother,
 mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
  and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
54He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. 55And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. 56You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” – Luke 12:49-56

            Where is God? 

            I think that’s the fundamental question this stormy and violent text raises for us today. Where is God?   

            God is surely in the complexities and beauty of the natural created world, but God is just as surely in the chaotic waters before creation and in the storms that wreak destruction today. God is surely in peacemaking and reconciliation, but God is just as surely present in the midst of war and disagreement. God is surely in the calm silence of holy moments, but God is just as surely in the holy chaos of joy-filled worship and impatient kids and busy work lives. God is surely in the bright, breaking light of dawn but just as surely God is in the deep darkness of night.

            Maybe you, like me, tend to forget that God is in fact in all of that. It is much easier for me to think of God in the places where I am comfortable, that is, in the style of worship I know best, on my side of the political aisle, in my desires and hopes. I know in my head that this is not the case, but deep in my gut I want it to be true. It would make things so much easier, wouldn’t it? 

            But Jesus reminds us today that he comes not for peace but for division. Surely not violence and domination. Not violent takeovers of other peoples and nations. Jesus unequivocally refuses to take up the sword. Not division for the sake of division. Jesus isn’t there to stir the pot and then sit back and watch with amusement. But if Jesus is to do what he says he is there to do, that is, in the words of Mary’s song, to raise up the lowly and scatter the proud-hearted, to fill the hungry and send the rich away empty. Or in the words he quotes from Isaiah at the beginning of Luke’s gospel: to bring good news to the poor, set free the oppressed and liberate the captive. To do that Jesus will need more than just comforting words and acts of kindness and healing. This will require a serious upending of our human tendency toward what comfortable over what is just. 

            I spent all of the last week at our denomination’s churchwide assembly, an every-three-years gathering, the highest legislative body of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. There was the usual parliamentary procedure, the receiving of reports, some Spirit-filled and some mundane. But undergirding it all was a deep sense of division and tension. We are a church that is in crisis. We have too long aligned ourselves with a comfortable status quo of racism and sexism. We have too long prioritized procedure over people. We have too long siloed ourselves from others whether out of theological differences, independent spirit, or just failure to do the hard work of partnership. 

            At that assembly we committed ourselves again to the hard work of dismantling racism in many forms. And I’ll tell you that that work brings division. If we are going to embody racial reconciliation in our communities, churches, and denominations, we’re going to have to get uncomfortable. I’m going to have to get uncomfortable. I’m going to have to let go of some of the ways in which my own actions contribute to the problem, the ways my own commitments support exclusion in ways I do not intend but which nevertheless do violence to people of color. 

            I will say that it was the hardest churchwide assembly I have been a part of because of that wrestling and also the best. Our work is not done, but sweeping it under the rug was killing us. And I think Jesus is stirring us up for the sake of justice and new life. 

            I know that your life as a congregation here at Good Shepherd has had some particular challenges in this last year. Some of that is what all of us are experiencing – a shifting culture that often doesn’t support faith communities in the way it used to; emerging from the most isolated part of a global pandemic and figuring out who we are as a communal people in the midst of that; learning to live together as our world becomes increasingly polarized in so many ways. And some of it is that you were thrown into a pastoral transition and had to find your feet again in the midst of all that. I know it hasn’t been without serious challenges and disagreement. You have more discernment work ahead to figure out what is next. I think sometimes we are afraid to lean into these hard conversations, consciously or unconsciously believing afraid that church isn’t supposed to unsettle us or that maybe God won’t go there with us. 

            I don’t think Jesus comes to cause division for its own sake. Jesus is not stirring you up just to watch what happens. I’m not suggesting that God initiated any of this – the global challenges or the local challenges – but I do trust that God is at work in the holy chaos, even in the very real divisions and disagreements in our faith communities. God is not averse to challenge or even conflict. Jesus himself flipped over tables, challenged authority, and told some pretty brutal truths that didn’t sit well with a lot of people. 

            I would love to tell you that if you just practiced niceness and took the easy path forward that things would be fine. But they won’t. God will be there either way, yes, but the call in today’s gospel, our baptismal call, is to follow Jesus into the messiness of conflict and division, to enter with heart and soul into the hard conversations. Because it is there in that difficult and uncomfortable space, that God also brings forth new life. If we allow our fear to hold us back from going with Jesus into that uncomfortable space it will only drive the divisions deeper. 

            Going there – to the pain, challenge, even chaos – that’s the core of our faith, isn’t it? That resurrection only follows death. We do not land in that place of comfort, full reconciliation, peace, and justice without first going the way of the cross. Some things will have to die for our denomination to move forward. Some difficult things will need to be addressed for our congregations to thrive.

            It may not seem like it at first, but for me, at least, this is good news. I know in my head that God is with us always. But for a long time and still some now, I have this fear that I have to get to that place where everything is neatly tied up in a bow before I really meet God. That I have to have it all together personally and professionally, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, in order to really live in God’s presence. But this and many other scriptures remind us that Jesus dives in deep with us in the midst of the questions, the wrestling, even the division that comes. God is at work here, now in me, in you, in your imperfect congregation, and our imperfect denomination. In fact, God is bringing about something new with us, in us through those things that sometimes make us fearful and uncomfortable. 

            We began with the question, “where is God?” The answer is “everywhere.” There is nowhere God is not, nowhere God is afraid to go with us. God is in the calm and peace. But God is also in the division and conflict, the uncertainty and fear, the chaos and confusion. God is in things falling apart and God is in the midst death itself. We cannot work our way to a place where God is more present to us – God is fully in our midst now in our imperfection and failings. Much as I long for everything to work out comfortably, this is much more real, much more present, and the actual promise God makes to us, to be with us in the turmoil -even unto death – while all things are being restored and resurrected. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

A Watershed Moment

7th Sunday after Pentecost with Rite of Baptism
July 24, 2022
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Brookfield, CT

1[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”2He said to them, “When you pray, say: 
 Father, hallowed be your name.
  Your kingdom come.
  3Give us each day our daily bread.
  4And forgive us our sins,

   for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” – Luke 11:1-13

We’re starting this morning with a quick pop quiz. This is very low stakes – no prizes or anything: Quick show of hands: how many folks here this morning know what a watershed is? 

And how many know what watershed we’re in right now? 

            (Still River – Housatonic River)

            So just a quick refresher for all of us – a watershed is all the land and streams that flow into a given river, lake or stream. If a raindrop falls onto the parking lot here, short of human intervention, makes its way into the Still River then the Housatonic and eventually out into Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. 

            The thing about a watershed is that it ends up uniting everything in that region, connecting them by the flow of water. If you build a dam here it affects everyone upstream. If someone dumps some chemicals out in Pittsfield, MA they flow into the water supply, or fields, or reservoirs downstream right through Brookfield. It flows through us, through our bodies. We use it to cook and wash and play. Here the name connects us to the people who stewarded the land before us, Housatonic being derived from a Mohican name for the river meaning “beyond the mountain place.” The water connects us to what has come before and what comes after. 

            And in a big sense that water flows in a giant cycle. Eventually that raindrop evaporates back into the atmosphere and falls again as rain somewhere else. And along the way it sustains all life, reshapes geologic formations, and impacts the environment in complex ways. 

            In a few moments we will baptize Roderick Richard. We will confess our faith, his parents will make promises, you, people of God, will make promises. There will be anointing with oil and the light of Christ represented in the form of a candle. But at the heart is water. Water from the Housatonic River watershed. Water that connects us not just to the land and the people in this watershed, but water whose accompanying words connect Roderick to us and us to him. This water connects Christian community past and future, present here and gathered for worship on the other side of the world. Among all the things we believe happen at baptism, this is one of my favorites. The connection which God washes into us and over us and through us with this essential element. 

            What we do here impacts the body of Christ elsewhere and vice versa. What Roderick does with his life will find its own way of expressing the love and light of Christ. It will impact the community and the world. And as we promise this morning on behalf of the whole body of Christ, our actions impact him, and one another, and the community as God flows in and through and over us, connecting us all. 

            Which brings me around to the text we just read from Luke’s gospel. In it the disciples ask a question that seems simple. Lord, teach us to pray, you know, like John did…like…um…all the teachers do, Jesus? 

            Jesus obliges, sharing a prayer that we still say today in languages all over the world. Father, hallowed by your name… This prayer is rich and deep and volume upon volume has been written to plumb its depth. We say it perhaps in ways that allow it to wash over us without taking it in at times. At other times some part jumps out at us and calls our attention anew to its profound language. But Jesus’ teaching the disciples to pray is not merely an exercise in recitation, no matter how profound the language. 

            He goes on to talk about persistence and boldness and confidence. He talks about beating down God’s door with our need and about being willing to ask for what is really in the depth of our being. 

            In a few minutes, as part of the baptismal promises, Roderick’s parents will promise to teach him the Lord’s prayer and to nurture him in faith and prayer. Then you will promise to support them in that endeavor. So, people of God, I put to all of us the question the disciples ask: how will you teach prayer? 

            There are times for pre-written prayers, there are times to rely on the depth of language in the prayer that Jesus teaches us, times for simple formulas as we learn and grow. But at the heart of it, if I could teach one thing I believe about prayer, even as I struggle to embody it in my own prayer practice, it’s this: prayer is like a watershed. It connects us – one to another and running through all of us the Spirit of God, cycling through, endlessly refreshing us and all the world.   

            Because at the heart I believe prayer is a conversation. And not the casual chit-chat of acquaintances, not the transactional chit-chat of a Starbucks order, but really deep conversation between the deepest need in our hearts, the deepest need in the world, and the deepest depth of God’s compassion, flowing together in a constant flow of give and take. My prayer for the world changes my relationship to it, to you, to all things. It even, the Bible assures us, has the capacity to change God. Not so much changing God’s mind and opening God to deeper and more holy relationship with us as we grow and change. 

            At the heart of it that’s what the Lord’s Prayer is about. Our Holy Parent, not mine or yours, but ours. God’s will, God’s reign for the world, not mine, not yours. Daily bread, which to be enough for all means taking what I need but also making sure that others have what they need. Forgive us, not because we are so contrite, though we ought to be, but because of the mutual forgiveness required for relationship and connections. Connect us, O God, one to another and more deeply to you. 

             The water in the font just comes from the tap. From groundwater fed by the Housatonic watershed and whatever other underground connections exist. It’s the same water we drink and bathe in. The same water we cook with and water our gardens with. And for all that it is already plenty holy. The source of life that unites us one to another upstream and down, feeding us, cleansing us, giving us life. 

            And today it is doubly so, because it is today the very special reminder for Roderick of God’s infinite grace washing down on us, through us, and over us. Today it joins with the words of God’s love to remind us of those deep, broad connections of water beyond our own towns and watersheds. It reminds us of the never-ending, ever-flowing love of God in him, in us, in all things. 

            In turn that drives us out again into the world. Into the world to be stewards of the water, perhaps remembering our baptism and the holiness of the water in all those other seemingly more mundane moments. It drives us out again into the world to steward resources in ways that make daily bread possible for all. It drive us out again into the world live prayerful lives of connectedness to our human, animal, plant, and mineral neighbors, all while God’s never-ending grace rains down. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Learn more about watersheds, what they mean to us, and how your faith community can engage them here: http://www.vtcleanwaternetwork.org/communities-of-faith – written by colleague Pr. Nancy Wright along with Richard Butz.

A Mary Heart in a Martha World

6th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 16C)
July 17, 2022
Our Saviour Lutheran Church, Fairfield, CT

38Now as [Jesus and his disciples] went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” -Luke 10:38-42

            People of God, here you are, a year into a pastoral transition as a congregation. A long time to hold it together, figure things out, live in uncertainty, factor in COVID and that one year probably seems at times like at least 5 years doesn’t it? And though through much of this year I’ve given you and your transition pastors the time and space to do the hard, deep discernment work through your transition, I don’t have to have been on the ground every week to know that you and your leaders are tired. You’ve been working hard, figuring out who you are as a congregation, asking yourselves hard questions, taking care of some of the week-to-week tasks, discovering, I hope, new awareness of your gifts and the possibilities of ministry in this place. But it’s hard work, really hard work. 

            Like the infamous Martha banging her pots in a flurry of flour to make a meal for Jesus or the bold Sarah who masterfully manages the preparation of a truly epic-sized meal for three mysterious guests by the Oaks of Mamre, you have been busy. I’m sure at times it seemed like more than you wanted, maybe more than you could handle. This isn’t an easy time to be church. It requires not just hard work, but creativity, openness, and deep-relationship building. And you’ve been hard at work in that, with the hope not just of welcoming your next pastor but with the hope that you will discover new and deeper ways to welcome Jesus in your neighbor and in yourselves.      

            I easily identify with Martha. I have a natural inclination toward details. It makes me good at certain kinds of jobs, and managing certain kinds of projects. It’s something that gives me joy, though, like Martha, there are moments of resentment for those who can more easily rest in the present moment, the ones who can turn off their awareness of the tasks that need to be done and just be.

            So I take it to heart, and maybe you do, too, when Jesus defends Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. Who will take care of dinner if everyone just sits and listens? It’s a powerful moment we experience together when we take communion – present at the feet of Jesus – but if no one sets out bread and wine, it can’t happen. If God comes to visit in the form of friend or stranger, who will tend to their needs? If we all sit quietly and take in a spiritual experience, who will tend to the call for justice and peace so desperately needed in our world? 

            But of course, Jesus isn’t suggesting that no one ever tend to details or that the only way to a spiritual experience is to sit still. Though in our modern culture dominated by western-European enlightenment thought, we could probably all use some practice in quiet contemplation. I wonder that Jesus is inviting us to remember the presence of the holy in everything we do. 

            I wonder that Martha wasn’t tuned into the ways her work was holy. I wonder that she was busy trying to finish everything in order to get to the holy moment later. Would Jesus’s response been different had she been mindfully aware of the holiness of baking bread, the gift of serving in that way, the ways in which her work mirrors that of God – creating and crafting and serving? 

            Maybe. At least I think that’s Jesus intention for us. I suppose in the short time they had with the earthly Jesus, it would have been wise to pause and listen. But today, where we celebrate the presence of Jesus in a lot of places and a lot of ways, I wonder that the call is not just to stillness and churchiness, but to awareness. Could we approach every task, every moment with an awareness of being in God’s presence? 

            You have been busy in the discernment process. I know at first it seemed overwhelming – it always does in a transition. But I also hear that you have found ways to settle into the work, to discover new things about what God is doing. I pray that will continue as you soon enter the call process phase. Not a busy time of marking checklists to find the perfect pastor but a time of listening for the movement of the Spirit, noticing what God might be up to both in the things that are easy to identify as spiritual as well as the things that at first don’t seem to have something to do with God. 

            You do that work in a time when the church as an institution is experiencing a radical shift. For many decades that those of us alive today can remember, the church was a primary gathering place, a place that the culture around us supported, and it was the go-to place to encounter God. I’ve met many a person who considered the church building itself as holier ground than other places. For a whole host of reasons, the culture is shifting. People are more comfortable today finding God in other places, more comfortable with mindfulness as they go to work and school and out for fun. The church is still catching up from understanding itself as a place where people come to access God to a place that equips us to notice God in our lives and out in the world. And of course, both are true. We haven’t stopped encountering God here in church and we’ve hopefully never denied the presence of God elsewhere. But the focus is shifting. You’ve heard, I suspect, the proposal that our role as church members is not so much to bring “them” in “here” but for us to go out “there.” How might your partnership with your next called pastor lead you further in that direction? 

            And what might it change to look for God in other unexpected places? In my experience it is often the case that people deeply committed to work for justice in the world are those who are deeply attentive to quiet contemplation and awareness of God’s presence. Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Fannie Lou Hamer, Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton – all famous contemplatives whose contemplation moved them to world-changing justice work. If we train ourselves to sit at the feet of Jesus not just here in worship or at home in prayer and Bible Study, but also in the bodies of those oppressed, excluded, marginalized or forgotten – we might discover that there is work to be done. Not busy work, not work on behalf of others, not to busy ourselves in the kitchen to feed “them” but to find ways to create a meal where the table is open to everyone and we both serve and eat together. The call is not just to do service but to enter into deep relationship building work that might just call us to live differently, work differently, serve differently all in ways that bring us closer to the feet of Jesus. 

            Come, sit at the feet of Jesus today. Here where you hear scripture and share a holy meal. Here where friend and stranger bear the image of God to you. Here where water washes our souls into loving community. But also, dear ones when you go home to make dinner and wash the dishes, when you check your work email and commute to your job. When you sit down to do your homework or play soccer. When you pay the bills and fix the plumbing in the bathroom. Because done with awareness, we can be contemplatives anywhere – pausing to recognize the blessing of Jesus’ presence with us in every moment. What might we discover about what God is up to in us and what God is up to in the world when we turn our attention there even in the midst of busy lives and weighed down hearts? Perhaps it will reveal holiness in abundance and the presence of God deep within us every moment. Amen. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

The Scrap Pile

3rd Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 13C)
June 26, 2022
St. James Episcopal and Good Shepherd Lutheran Churches, Laconia, NH

51When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” – Luke 9:51-62

This sermon is inspired by the commentary on this text by my friend and gospel-filled colleague Pr. Liv Larson Andrews: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/june-26-ordinary-13c-luke-951-62

            I am a reluctant gardener and caretaker of our yard. I do not have a green thumb, and while I don’t mind hard work, my allergies lead me to find that elsewhere when I can. But there is one small thing that gives me immense satisfaction in yard work: we have continued what the previous owners of our house started – a yard waste pile in our backyard. We toss our grass clippings, weeds, fallen branches, and even a few small ornamental trees that the previous owner planted poorly and left dead in the ground. I don’t know why I find it so satisfying to watch the pile transform from waste back into soil. And now that we finally have a place to do some composting of food scraps, it’s a great source of browns to balance out the greens in our composter. It’s a home for little critters and a source of twigs for birds to build nests. What has been cut off turns into nourishment for new life. 

            But generally, we’d rather not be the ones cut. The ones cut from the team, the ones cut off from a family member, the ones fired from a job, the ones told we’re out for one reason or another. Our culture seems increasingly divided, a place where the answer to disagreements is to cut off the other person. We make judgment calls about who is right and forget about being in relationship. At the same time, some of our disagreements stem from basic rights about our bodies, our relationships, and our safety, and I don’t have an answer about how to stay in relationship with people who deny essential rights to other human beings. Our culture has left us broken apart, scraps cut off one from another. 

Often, perhaps especially when political and social divisions are so sharp, we think the church should be a place where no one ever gets cut out. And yet the church for centuries has echoed Jesus’ words “You’re not fit for the kingdom of God.” We’ve put people out on the basis of race, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity, class, political beliefs, and just plain dislike. We’ve emphasized differences over commonalities, even between denominations as close as Episcopalian and Lutheran. Sometimes we’ve even labeled each other heretics or worse. And yet at the same time we’ve failed sometimes as the church to put up healthy boundaries in order to keep our focus on a deep and transformative message of grace, failed to say “We have set our eyes toward the cross and that will guide our living.” It’s left the church at times in a heap of cut-off scraps. 

I know that right now in the context of changing culture and an evolving change in the way that church happens, it can feel to a lot of congregations like they’re the ones being cut, marked irrelevant, left in the scrap pile in favor of trendier or different ways of doing things.

            On the one hand I’d like to say that what Jesus is doing here is setting healthy boundaries to keep the focus on his transformative journey to Jerusalem, to the cross. But honestly, the text is pretty harsh. Some things are going to be trimmed in this process. Somethings will be cut out. I don’t like it. I’m clear that Jesus isn’t saying we should never pause to care for loved ones or hold grace-filled, resurrection-proclaiming funerals for those who have died. Those are clearly places we encounter God and grace. But some things we hold dear are going to get trimmed in the process. Some things we think are vital will fall by the wayside. Sometimes it will feel as if we are the ones being cut off, told we are not fit for the kingdom. 

            Dear friends, we’re not fit for the kingdom. Look around the world, at any news cycle, at our own hearts. Every last one of us has something standing in the way preventing all of us from getting to the place that God has in mind for us. If we point fingers at others, it’s only to deflect from our own failures to live up to the gospel that Jesus proclaims. We might want to join Jesus on this holy walk toward Jerusalem, but we have all fallen short. 

            The walk for Jesus is a lonely one, without a place to rest his head. He has no real home on this journey. Not only do the strangers turn a hand back to the plow or stop to bury their dead, but his own disciples who walk most of the journey with them trying to keep up – they fall away too. At the very end it is only the faithful women who stand by him, helpless against an empire bent on squashing out unconditional love. It is Jesus, the authorities say, who is not fit for their kingdom. It is Jesus who is cut out and cut off, thrown to the place of the skull outside the city walls. And so it is that our God knows what it means to be deemed not fit for the kingdom. 

             But then, we have a God who creates out of the strangest stuff. Like birds of the air who find all manner of left over twigs, strings, hairs, and other material to build their nests, Jesus comes along and picks up the scraps, the things that have been cut off and cut out. Like the pile of yard waste that becomes home for critters and source of rich soil to grow new life, Jesus comes along and picks up all those who have been lost and rejected, even those of us who couldn’t quite follow along on the journey. Because in the end that’s all God’s got to work with – a bunch of sinner-saints to build a home with. People not quite up to the task.            

            That’s the home God builds, the place God chooses to dwell. The place Jesus finally finds to rest his head. Among us. The ones not fit for the journey. The ones whose best attempts falter and fail. That’s the church. It’s not yet the reign of God, but it’s what’s working with now. 

            Sometimes the church doesn’t look the way we want or the way we think it should – too young, too old, too traditional, too contemporary, too Lutheran, too Episcopalian. Sometimes we’re right on God’s track and just disagree with God about what’s best. And other times that dissatisfaction might be a call to think more deeply about the core of who we are or who we strive to be as followers of Jesus – to reorient our faces toward the cross. And too often we get all mixed up about which of those is going on. 

            And usually the world doesn’t look the way we want it to. Not in the big sense anyway. Not a world of justice and peace. Sometimes following Jesus means going right to the heart of the empires that oppress and being willing to lay down our lives so that others can live. Other times it means recognizing that God is bringing new life out of scraps and cuttings – a home for something new that we can’t yet see, maybe even a home for something we haven’t been prepared to welcome. And often we get that all mixed up, too. 

            So here we are, people of God, the ones not yet fit for following Jesus, and God among us anyway. God among us in simple bread and wine. God among us in each other. God among us in word and song. God among us in the broken pieces of our lives, the tearing fabric of our communities, the violence and oppression that plagues our lives and our world. When we get distracted from our core sense of mission, when we fail to hold up our end of the baptismal promises, when things seem to be falling apart – that’s where Jesus makes a bee-line, setting his face toward us to meet us there, in the lost and broken places. In the scrap pile, where the reign of God begins to grow anew, where we are swept into the new thing God is doing. Amen.         

-Pastor Steven Wilco

What’s in a name?

Lectionary 12C

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Immanuel Lutheran Church, Oxford, CT

26Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. 27As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. 28When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—29for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) 30Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. 31They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss.
32Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. 33Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
34When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. 35Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. 36Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. 37Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. 38The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, 39“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him. – Luke 8:26-39

            What’s your name? 

            Simple enough question, one we answer on official forms, in casual conversation – something so natural we don’t even think about the question and the idea that a few syllables identify us and begin to define us. 

            And it goes beyond just our given and family names. We have names, of a sort, that define our relationships – I’m single or I’m a parent; that define our citizenship – I’m American or I’m Haitian; that define our religious affiliation – I’m Lutheran or I’m Muslim; that define our work – I’m a construction worker or I’m a teacher. The identifiers go on and on. We name ourselves in all manner of ways. 

            And so when Jesus arrives on the shore in the country of the Gerasenes and is met with a man identified by his demons, he asks this fundamental question: What is your name? Who are you? And the man replies “Legion,” for his demons were many. 

            Sometimes I feel that way, too. Our demons are many. I think that writer and theologian Debie Thomas names some of them particularly well she says: “Some of us suffer from depression or anxiety.  Some of us are addicted to sex, alcohol, wealth, or thinness.  Some of us experience the world at a deafening volume, in colors too lurid for our sensitive eyes.  Some of us are slaves to the internet, or prone to bitterness, or caught up in cycles of dishonesty, or in lust with our own rightness.  Some of us can’t shake traumatic memories.  Some of us were abused as children.  Some of us are seething with jealousy.  Some of us are imprisoned within systems of injustice that stretch back so many centuries, we can’t imagine liberation. Some of us experience our skin colors, our accents, our genders, or our sexualities as magnets for other people’s hatred.  Some of us suffer illnesses that criss-cross the boundaries of medicine and culture, nature and nurture.  Some of us know exactly what St. Paul is talking about when he says, ‘What I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’” (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/2259-legion )

            What she names is the complex mix of demons that trap us from within and confine us from without. The ways our legion of names and identities interplay in ways that leave us unable to save ourselves much less anyone else. 

            Today, especially, we name the demons of racism which grip us all too tightly. Today is Juneteenth, a long-standing day of celebration if only recently made an official national holiday, commemorating the moment the decree of the emancipation of enslaved peoples was proclaimed in Galveston, Texas, one of the farthest parts of the Confederate south at the end of the US Civil War. Today is a day of celebration for freedom and liberation in all its forms, especially for the descendants of those enslaved peoples in the United States. And for those of us who identify as white and who participate in predominately white institutions, it should also be a day of learning, of listening, of taking action, and remembering the demons of slavery and racism which have not yet been fully exorcised from our national story. 

            Jesus steps into this world of demons and asks, “What is your name?” Perhaps today we pause and recognize as we do every time we confess our brokenness before God that our name, too, is legion. That our names bear with them the burdens and brokenness of our lives. But of course the story doesn’t stop there. Jesus engages the man and his demons. And in a characteristic act of liberation sets the man free from his legion. 

            If only Jesus would set us free that quickly from our legions. From our deeply embedded brokenness, from our deep systemic injustice, from all the chains that bind us. If only the liberation we remember today on Juneteenth had been as swift and complete as that. If only Jesus would do his work that way for us, now – for our lives, our congregations, our whole church, our whole world. 

            But then, I’m not sure we’d actually welcome it if Jesus did. The community in this story certainly didn’t. It disrupted the status quo. It had economic implications, after all. The man’s healing resulted in a herd of swine being driven into the lake. Someone’s livelihood gone. 

            In fact, I wonder that the presence of the man, disheveled and alone allowed the village to settle into a status quo. If the problems are over there, then maybe I’m doing ok and I can just keep going on with my life. They would rather economic stability and comfort than the healing of the man. And I know I sometimes find myself identifying at least as much with the villagers in this story. Sometimes I want things to be comfortable. If someone else is doing worse than I am, I can feel better about where I am. I want healing for everyone without any disruption to my own existence. But that’s not how healing works. Not how Jesus works. 

            When we think about the liberation that we celebrate today on Juneteenth, one of the major lines of resistance to the end of slavery was an economic argument on the part of those in power. That desperately needed liberation had to happen for the sake of everyone to thrive, but it disrupted what was, disrupted the status quo, unequal and evil as it was. And as people of color continue to experience daily oppression in our communities, sometimes I let my comfort with the status quo outweigh the urgent and necessary work of liberation.

            So here we are: both filled with our own demons and resistant to healing – where does that leave us? It comes back to the question with which we started, with which Jesus started: What’s your name? 

            Jesus has stepped onto the shores of our baptismal water and called us by name. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. That is one of your many names. And it is a name that not only identifies but heals. One that not only heals but challenges. It is a lifelong journey to live into that name. That name bestowed at baptism – that name really bestowed at creation – is one that declares power over all the demons. The ones within and the ones without. 

            But that name also comes with tremendous responsibility. When the man is healed, Jesus commissions him to go forth and tell the story of what God has done. This, too, is our calling. And perhaps even more so, to listen. For it is those God has liberated, those in desperate need of liberation, who are commissioned to proclaim the good news, whether we who are sometimes status quo villagers want to hear it or not. 

            To be named by Jesus, to be set free by Jesus is to have a story of what God has done that needs to be shared. But it is also to listen to the voices of the oppressed and the marginalized. The voices of those who experience continued daily racism in our world. The voices of those who have a different perspective, wherever it is we sit in the world. This, too, is good news, because it is part of the work God is doing to set us all free from the systems and demons that bind us. May it be so. May it be swift. May it be more beautiful than we can even imagine.            

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Dialogue of the Spirit

Pentecost
June 5, 2022
St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, New Canaan, CT

1When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
17‘In the last days it will be, God declares,
 that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
  and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
 and your young men shall see visions,
  and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
  in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
   and they shall prophesy.
19And I will show portents in the heaven above
  and signs on the earth below,
   blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
20The sun shall be turned to darkness
  and the moon to blood,
   before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ ” – Acts 2:1-21

8Philip said to [Jesus,] “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.
15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. [
25“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. 26But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”] – John 14:8-27

            It may be Pentecost today, but our gospel reading takes us back to the hours before Jesus heads to the cross. Imagine the disciples. They feel things closing in. Jesus is talking about leaving them. They understand the gravity if not the specifics of what is about to happen. They are losing their friend and teacher. They are potentially in danger of dying themselves. Lost, alone, afraid. 

            Actually, dear siblings in Christ, you probably don’t have to imagine the way they are feeling. If you pay attention at all to the news you know the pain of death that touches our world. Gun violence, always prevalent in our nation, is once again in the forefront of our daily thoughts. You know the crisis of climate change threatening lives. You know the racism that persists in our communities and institutions. You know the ways in which our division enflames problems rather than solving them. You know your own personal griefs, and perhaps, like many of us haven’t had the time and space to fully own the loss of the last two years of pandemic life. And if all that weren’t enough, now your pastor is retiring, and though I’m sure you wish him well, it means transition and uncertainty for you. How are you feeling? Is it at least in part lost, alone, and afraid. 

            So Jesus is speaking to you today in the words he speaks to the disciples: “God will send you the Spirit of Truth – an advocate, one called to walk alongside – You already know that one, because that Spirit of God, your advocate, abide in you, dwells in you, breathes in you, and will remain with you.”

            As usual, no magic wand to solve our problems, no heavenly revelation. Just the presence of God in you, with you, closer than you know, already part of you before you even recognize it. God. In you. Always. That is the promise. God is with you in fear and pain and loss. God is with you in shame and guilt. God is with you in questions and doubts. God is with you in death. Forever. 

            I don’t always know how to make that come alive in words – at least not with the same vibrancy I can call to mind our grief and pain. For me it’s a feeling I experience in my body. It’s tied to moments of memory and moments I cannot explain. Do you remember the last time you felt the Spirit in your body? Maybe you can even call that to mind. I wonder if you would pause with me for a moment. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable. Take a few deep breaths. And remember that God, the Holy Comforter, is in you, deep within you. Where do you feel it? How do you feel it? Rest there for a moment. 

            You may open your eyes again if they were closed. Maybe you could feel it in this moment and maybe not, but at the very least you got a quiet moment to check in with your body and your breath and ponder the question of where God might be for you right now in the midst of whatever weighs most heavily on your mind. Because feel it or not, it’s true. Jesus promised. And that’s the gift of this day. 

            And much as I would love to dwell there, as amazing and wonderful as it is, that’s also not the whole story. Here’s the thing, it’s not just you and the Holy Spirit. It’s you, the Holy Spirit, and everyone else on the planet with the Holy Spirit. 

            When the disciples gathered on the Jewish festival of Pentecost, they were still, by the way, lost, alone, and afraid. Waiting for guidance. Uncertain where to go in the future. Asking, “what now?” and “What’s next?” And this magnificent event takes place that we now celebrate as the Christian festival of Pentecost. Wind, flames, the arrival of the Spirit. And, what often captivates me most about the story, everyone hears the message of what God has done in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia. Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, visitors from Rome, Cretans and Arabs. Like simultaneous translation at a meeting of the United Nations, each hears in their own language. They each hear what is needed for them to understand, for them to connect, for them to know the Holy Spirit calling to them. 

            But if you’ve ever translated anything or tried to learn another language, you know that translating from one language to another is never a straightforward task. Every language has its own idiosyncracies. Each word its own nuance. Much can be learned but the most intricate nuances are known only by the native speaker or the most fluent of translators. Even within the same language we have a phrase when miscommunication happens: “something got lost in translation.” One translator, Carmen Avecedo Butcher, says that translation is “embodied mysticism.” What better word for Pentecost and the presence of the Holy Spirit in each one of us than that? 

            And these people – the ones who speak different languages, the ones who have different experiences, the ones who hear different nuances on God’s central message? They are all the church. And so, too, each one of you. If each of you has the presence of the Spirit, then there are at least as many understandings in this room right now as there are people. And yet, you are called into community together. The particular community of St. Michael’s, but also this larger community of greater New Canaan. And beyond that a member of the global society and the great communion of saints across time and space. That’s a lot of individual experiences of the Spirit, a lot of different – and valid! – ways of understanding the Spirit. Which sounds really lovely until you try to do something together and you realize that to be in relationship, to be in community, is to give and take, to bring your whole self while also finding a way for others to bring their whole self. It’s not easy. It’s better, and we have God to thank for that! But it’s not easy.

            One thing Pentecost demonstrates for us is that God cannot be contained in one way of being. Not one language, not one way of worshipping, not one visual image, not one way of serving. God is bigger than Lutheran, bigger than Christian. If our worship is always calm and reserved and never dancing, then we have missed a part of God. If our worship is always song and never silence, we have missed something. If our worship is always any particular way and never another, we have missed something.                         

            I’m here today in part to get to know you better here at St. Michael’s. I don’t yet know all the particular ways you as a community live out your faith. I’m here today in part to talk about the transition ahead – the ways in which you will be invited to talk together 

            But I’m also here today to speak to the bigger picture of moving forward as a church. And there is no one way. The way forward is through partnership and collaboration. The way forward is in trying new things – not so that we lose what was and become something different but so that we learn lots of ways to experience church. The way forward is through deeper conversation with each other – one challenge of any church’s pastoral transition is for people to talk and share and make space for each other, learning who you are together in this moment. It’s in that dialogue between the Spirit in me and the Spirit in you that the church comes alive.

            Friends, Pentecost is messy. And if we take it seriously we should approach it with a bit of trepidation. It will inspire us to do hard things. It will ask us to open up to one another in vulnerable ways. It will call us to a place of deep listening as we engage the experience of the Spirit in the world and in our neighbor. And yet, I think, that, too is a deep comfort – to know that God isn’t just comforting us but doing something with us, calling us – together – into the life of the church, assured of God coming alongside every step of the way.  

-Pastor Steven Wilco

God is There

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, New Britain, CT

[Jesus prayed:] 20“I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.
25“Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” – John 17:20-26

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

            It’s always been my practice to say that all through this long Easter season, but I feel I need it even more today. It’s been a hard week. Though gun violence has become commonplace in our country, and school shootings don’t even always make national news, the one this week in Uvalde, Texas, was particularly brutal, particularly deadly. Children and adults were killed and injured. A whole community experienced trauma. Parents across the nation wept as they dropped their children off at school the next morning, asking the question, “What if my child is next?” 

            It comes on the heels of a racially motivated shooting in Buffalo, New York. Black and brown folks working and shopping in a supermarket, gunned down by a white supremacist. Racism is pervasive and it costs lives. Some violently like in Buffalo and many more with slow, painful discrimination and oppression. 

            It comes as a war continues in Ukraine, famine continues in East Africa, refugees continue to seek homes from the Congo, migrants are pleading for life at our borders. This weekend we pause to remember those who have given lives in violent war. We live in a world in which we have knowledge of tremendous hurt and pain, so much of it inflicted by one human against another. I think it wears on our souls. 

            I don’t know how it is that you are holding all this in your mind. I find myself often numb or in denial, perhaps out of self-protection as a parent of a school-aged child. But also at times angry and deeply sad. I am frustrated at what is beyond my ability to influence or control. These nationally recognized tragedies and traumas tap into some of our greatest fears. Fear of death, fear of pain, fear of not having control over our lives and our surroundings. They remind us of the transience and fragility of life. 

            Perhaps we are asking, “Where is God in all this?” The Christian church observed this past Thursday, in the midst of all this tragedy, the festival of the Ascension. This is the day we remember the resurrected Jesus returning to heaven. Having walked the earth in a resurrection body 40 days, Jesus floats to the clouds. The disciples are left staring heavenward and wondering, “What now?” “Where is God now?”

            And today’s gospel reading, for all of John’s complex language is trying to answer that question: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” 

            It’s tempting to read that quickly, the repetitive and circular words that make our heads hurt trying to understand the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between the first and second persons of the Trinity. But at the core is God’s deep desire for oneness. Not sameness, but oneness. That the persons of the Trinity are one. And, importantly, that we and God are one. 

            Let that sink in for a moment. God desires that we are folded into God’s very being – that we are invited into oneness with God. That’s where God is. With Jesus’ body ascended, we are invited again to recognize God’s presence in us. God’s being one with us in our bodies. 

            Where is God in all this tragedy? God is in those children in Uvalde, Texas. God is in those shoppers in Buffalo, those hungry people in East Africa, those destroyed in Ukraine. That is God’s body hurt, dying, crying out. That is God’s body hungry, afraid, and without a place to call home. That is God’s body feeling our despair, our fear, our anger, our longing. 

            If we take Jesus’s words in John’s gospel seriously, it is Good Friday again, even in this Easter season. It is the cross all over again in our day, in our time. 

            If we take seriously Jesus’s words in John’s gospel, then we, too, are one with those who have experienced these terrible atrocities. God is deeply present in us, just in a nice sitting next to us kind of way, but deep in our bones, feeling our full experience and connecting us body and soul to all of the places God’s body is deeply hurting or afraid. Resurrection, too, then is part of the story, but we live still in that in-between moment, waiting for the fullness of that to come alive in our world. And so, never alone, we sit in the pain and lament. 

            Beloved at St. John’s, there are big and terrible things we are tending to in the world, but we each have our own griefs, too. Our own illnesses and griefs, our own stresses and pain. God feels that deeply, too. God walks it with you, not just as a companion but as one who knows the fullness of your experience from within. 

            And I want to speak for a moment to the decisions you are facing as a congregation. Like so many of our faith communities, things are different than they once were. You are not alone. We are living into a new time of being church that in many ways will look different from what we have known. This is not all bad, but it is hard. You have faced some hard realities together. You have some finances, but they are dropping slowly – you will vote to make necessary repairs to your roof today. You have steady supply coverage and a pastoral coach, but you are not served by a full-time pastoral leader. You have carried the burdens of church leadership among a small and shrinking group for too many years. You are asking the hard questions. It coincides will all kinds of other losses and grief. What’s next? 

            I’m not here to provide the answers to you, though I can tell you more later about where things are across the church and what the trajectory of the church in a broad sense looks like right now. No path forward is without struggle, pain, grief, and change. God feels that, too. God grieves that with you. God feels the pain of losing what has been and the struggle of the path forward. God is with you in the pain, the lament, the fear, the questions, and the struggle. You are never alone. 

            Today, I’ll be honest, that’s where I feel things sit. We lament. We grieve. We feel pain. We know death. And we are not alone. Dear ones, there is resurrection hope. We are a people who believe that death, whether it’s the death of people, the death of institutions, the death of what we have known to be true, that death is not the last or worst thing. We believe that new life is possible after the world is turned upside down. We are an Easter people who know the story of God’s body, killed in horrific violence. It’s the story of oppression, of the failure of institutions, the refusal to resort to violence. It’s the story of a God who takes on a body, a broken, vulnerable body to know pain, hunger, loss, and death. It’s the story of God going to hell and back for the sake of the world. It’s the story of the once-and-for-all defeat of death, not by eliminating it but by being willing to enter through it into a new resurrection reality. 

            There are hopeful signs, certainly, but in the large sense it is difficult to see resurrection from the deep wounds that have been made through these terrible tragedies. It is difficult sometimes to figure out what resurrection will look like in our lives from our own losses. I wish I knew how to paint that picture with the same clarity that I can of our loss. But our story tells us the way is forward, through it. Through death, through grief, through pain into new life. We say again, trusting it even when it is hard to see: 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Springs and Shoots

6th Sunday of Easter
May 22, 2022
Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Manchester, NH

10And in the spirit [one of the angels] carried me away to a great, high mountain and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
22I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
22:1Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

            As the book of Revelation draws to a close, after all the imagery of heavenly battles, holy warfare, and the like, these images emerge, literally from the heavens, of a beautiful city. A new city. A holy city. A place where all peoples from every tribe and nation can live at peace with one another. A city whose light comes directly from God’s presence. A city with a clear and bright river to bring the waters of life. A tree bearing fruit year-round whose leaves bring healing to the nations. It’s as if finally after all the trials and tribulation, the pain and grief, the waiting and yearning, peace descends whole and complete. I’ve always pictured this as some kind of final fix to all that is wrong in the world, all that is wrong in us. If we just wait long enough, God will finally drop in the fix and all will be well. 

            And God will somehow bring this to the kind of completion that we can only begin to imagine. But as I read this passage from Revelation again this week I started thinking about the natural imagery in the vision of the holy city. We do believe in a God who can create from nothing, but we also believe in a God who works in and among us. And I wondered: 

How did this river come to flow in this city? Did it just start rushing or did it begin from little springs here and there until they all began to run together into this clear, life-giving flood? 

When did this tree start to grow from a seed into a sapling, year after year, until it becomes this massive tree of healing and nourishment? Did it just appear, or has God perhaps been planting seeds, nourishing roots among us? 

            These questions cut to the heart of how we live as Easter people in the world – are we stuck in the trial and tribulation waiting for everything to shift all at once at God’s command, or is God nurturing this holy city among us now? If we were to look around us, open our hearts and minds, might we find ourselves already by the springs of water that will form that river? Already nurturing the saplings that will grow into this massive tree of life? 

            The imagery here is certainly a city coming down out of heaven. But let us remember what else has already come down out of heaven onto earth. The voice of God to call Abram and Sarai to a new life to bless the nations. The manna and quail which appeared to sustain the Hebrew people wandering in the desert. The miraculous sustenance Elijah finds in the desert and shares with the widow. The Christ child, God made flesh. The spirit of God descending at Jesus’ baptism. The flame of the Spirit at Pentecost. God is always coming down out of heaven to us in these intensely embodied ways. Are these the seeds, the roots, the springs, that begin to shape this holy city among us now? What else might we be missing about the tree of life taking root in our midst? 

            I know, in fact, that the tree of life has roots here at Gethsemane. God is raising up shoots of new life, watering seeds of good news here in your midst. You committed together to feed your neighbors. In some ways it is only a beginning. It does not solve hunger in your community – not yet. But it is an extension of the eucharistic feast into the neighborhood, a place where over food you are beginning to meet people where they are and build a renewed sense of community.

            You have affirmed the Reconciling in Christ process – naming boldly and proudly your welcome for LGBTQIA+ folx as well as a commitment to anti-racism. In that God is beginning to raise up shoots of new life that speak of the day when there really will be a tree to feed and nourish all peoples, celebrating their differences in holy community. 

            There is so much more – though those are two things you all have lifted up to me over and over again as we’ve worked together this last year. And I know you have a lot more work to do ahead. But there are seeds planted already that God is still raising up. You haven’t ever had a perfect pastor here at Gethsemane because there isn’t such a thing. You haven’t ever had perfect leadership here because there isn’t such a thing. And yet, each phase of ministry, each leader among you lay or ordained has been a part of planting seeds for what is to come. A community that is committed to ministry in Manchester, a community committed to working together toward what is next. 

            Ministry now and in the coming years doesn’t look at all like it did three years ago, 10 years ago, and definitely not what it looked like 50 years ago. That’s true for every congregation. And it’s hard to change and shift and discover new models. But somehow this, too, is part of the growth of that holy city, the tree of life growing in new directions in order to bring that vision of true peace into being. 

            There is so much going on in our world and in our communities that it feels like this holy city is far away, the distant dream that if we’re lucky we’ll see in some distant resurrection future. Inequality continues. Economic instability looms across the world. The war in Ukraine continues, with civilians and soldiers dying, lives and cities being destroyed. I am particularly worried for our black and brown siblings who were again targeted last week in Buffalo, where white supremacist ideology took more lives. Check on your neighbors, your fellow faith communities who are predominantly of color along with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. Many of them are frightened – their lives are at risk. There is much to make us worry. There is much to face in a troubled world. 

            And yet, I see God over and over again coming down into the midst of that, not with sword and flame to vanquish but with seeds to sow of new life. That is the story of Jesus – God come down in the midst of empire and oppression, racism and xenophobia, poverty and disease to live and grow and help God’s love take root more deeply in us. That Jesus goes to the cross over choosing to fight is a promise of this tree taking root in the midst of our trouble and growing into the vision of the holy city. 

            Every baptism, yours and mine and every one around the world is God come down to cause a spring to well up with water, to well up with expansive love and justice. It is small, each individual spring, but important. For that, dear ones is what flows eventually into this holy river in God’s grand vision. Each of us is part of that water flowing even now into the river of eternal life. 

            It’s my challenge to us this week – and honestly I desperately need to see this more clearly, too – my challenge to us is to look around in the midst of the trouble and despair and ask the question of where God’s tree of life is taking root. We don’t yet need to see the healing of the nations, the fruit in every season, the gushing river of life. Just to ask, where are the shoots coming up? Where is something new taking root? Where is God using me to bring that vision to life?   

            Because I really believe we do not have to wait for the end of all time to see the resurrection city among us. God is bringing it here, now in ways we can taste and touch and live. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen! 

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Something New

Easter 5C
May 15, 2022
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Kensington, CT

1Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. 2So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, 3saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” 4Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, 5“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. 6As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. 7I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ 8But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ 9But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ 10This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. 11At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. 12The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. 13He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; 14he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ 15And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” 18When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:1-18

31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. 33Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ 34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” – John 13:31-35

            Heavenly visions would be nice, don’t you think? I don’t really know – I can’t say I’ve ever had one. A gut sense of call, a community of fellow people of faith to discern with, a retrospective sense of God having led me through life – yes. But no grand heavenly visions which open up the church of Jesus in new and profound ways. At least sometimes I’d like the kind of clarity that Peter gets with the vision from God in today’s first reading: Here. Do this. You’ve been wrong, and that’s ok, but going forward do this instead. This and not that. I just long for that clarity sometimes. 

            Peter has been faithfully following Jewish practices of the time – keeping kosher, attending festivals, reading the scriptures. At this point in the story there isn’t really yet something we’d call Christianity, at least in any modern sense – it’s still a Jesus movement emerging in the midst of first century Judaism. And there is this persistent question, despite all of Jesus’s boundary pushing and openness, about whether people have to become Jewish and follow Jewish custom in order to follow Jesus. This is not some sort of legalism as if Judaism has strict rules and what emerges as Christianity doesn’t, but rather it’s a matter of how people practice their faith. Those Jewish food customs and other ritual ways they oriented their life are as dear to these folks as our favorite hymns and liturgies, our potluck suppers and candlelit Christmas Eves – these are the ways they have practiced their faith. With this new thing emerging, will what has been still be part of where we are going? Will what has been continue to be part of who we are going forward? 

            It’s a question we ask a lot these days as our church both in the big, broad sense of church, and in our individual congregations. Things are shifting, changing. But if nothing else the story of Peter’s vision about how the Jesus movement will go forward should remind us that people of faith are always asking this questions. Faith is embodied – embodied in people, embodied in living institutions which by nature change, evolve, move, and, yes, even die. But what will remain and what will change? What new things will emerge? What old things will be lost.

            For Peter it’s about what foods are lawful to eat – though, really, as I’ve already hinted, it’s bigger than that. It’s about who gets to be in and who gets to be out. This vision – the blanket with the food and God’s pronouncement – it’s toward greater openness. If God’s said it once God’s said it a hundred times – all are welcome. So, Peter, here’s your vision – go forth and live it out. Leave this behind. Do this instead. If only God helped us sort out our deep questions about our lives of faith and the life of our church in such straightforward terms. 

            You have a decision before you here today at Prince of Peace. That decision is about whether you are ready, after much discernment, to officially vote to pursue Holy Closure. You’ve talked about the options available to you and you’ve come to some consensus already about where you are leaning. And though your anxiety about this decision may have made it into your dreams, I’m guessing at least most of you haven’t gotten the kind of clarity that Peter got, no grand visions of God saying this way and not that way. 

            Here’s the thing, though, these grand pronouncements from God, these visions that provide clarity of direction and unambiguous theological dicta – they are actually pretty challenging. I can’t think of a single bold vision from God that doesn’t result in upending life changes for the recipient. Abram is called to wander to a new land. Moses to upend the society where he was raised. Hannah to give over her child to God’s service. Esther to defy authority and advocate for her people. Every prophet ever to go do and say hard things to people in power. Mary to birth the Christ child. God’s visions don’t ever result in just keeping things the way they are, sailing along comfortably along doing what you’ve always been doing. 

            It may seem trivial to us looking back after 20 centuries, but God’s vision to Peter is a setting of a new direction for the emerging church. And it means loosening his grip on his own traditions and customs. It means being willing to stand and face the opposition of those who think otherwise. 

            I want to pause here and give a disclaimer – God does not interrupt people’s lives with visions that say “What you did before was wrong. Now you’re going to do what’s right.” God simply says, we’re doing a new thing together, come join me. It does not invalidate the beautiful traditions – in Peter’s case the beautiful tradition of keeping kosher which carries forward in beautiful and ever-evolving ways in our sibling religion, rabbinic Judaism. But this vision and God’s other visions don’t shame anyone for what has been or imply that something wasn’t right. It’s that something else is happening now, too. 

            And that’s how I hope you think of your decision today. Prince of Peace has lived out its mission. It has been a place for God’s people to gather, experience grace, serve neighbors, deepen faith, and be God’s hands in the world. It has come to a time to make critical decisions about what that mission looks like now. And in some form or fashion God is going to do something new. It will be hard, no matter what choices you make, but then, so is every call from God. 

            So perhaps we ought to be careful what we wish for, what we pray for, because a clear vision from God is both gift and challenge. It is a transformation that often means losing something of what you have known as new things emerge. It means, as we continue here in the Easter season, death and resurrection. 

            And, in fact, we do, my siblings in Christ, have a clear call, a clear vision from God in our gospel reading today. No, it will not tell you what to do about the life of your congregation – not in the sense of congregational votes and legal decisions. Jesus gives a new commandment as he prepares for his glory – for his death that destroys death – and that commandment, that clarity of vision is this: Love one another. It is as simple and complicated as that. 

            This is the definition of the Christian church, the definition of discipleship, the way in which we are known: by our love for others – all others. 

            I know and cherish the ways in which our individual faith communities shape us and form our identities. We are embodied people and it means something to gather week after week in a particular space like this one. It means something to go through life events alongside others in your community of faith – particular people who stand beside us in joy and grief and everything in between. It means something to identify with a congregation, a denomination, a way of worship, a particular pathway of service. Those are all deep identities. And when they change, when congregations close or rethink their mission, there is deep pain and grief. 

            And yet those identities are not primary for Jesus. Not primary for our life of faith. The call to love one another is not defined by church buildings, congregational identities, denominational affiliation. It isn’t even defined by baptism – that call supersedes even the most fundamental of our welcome rites as Christians. Your call here at Prince of Peace has been to love one another. Your call in the coming months at Prince of Peace, whatever decisions you make today, is to love one another. Your call wherever you go, wherever you worship, wherever you find community is to love one another. 

            Because love is stronger than death. More than anything, I think that’s what Easter is really about. That God is willing to put God’s very body on the line for the sake of love. That love defeats the grave. That love simply can’t be held back – not by our failures to love in individual moments, not by institutions that change or close, not by the power of death to rip our beloved ones away from us. Love will prevail. 

            That is God’s vision for you this day, every day. Love prevails. God’s love for you. God’s love for your neighbor. God’s love for your enemy. God’s love for all creation to the end of all things. God’s love prevails. 

Pastor Steven Wilco