All Jesus Has Left

Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
May 1, 2022
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Nashua, NH

1After [he appeared to his followers in Jerusalem,] Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
9When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.” – John 21:1-19

This sermon is inspired by the sermon of the Rev. Dr. Frederick Niedner at the 2022 Institute of Liturgical Studies. My first formal professor of preaching and a beloved mentor, he taught us that once something is preached it goes out into the world, giving permission not to plagiarize but to borrow and build anew for your context, for that is what carries the message generation to generation. So the arc of the sermon and a few of the the phrases are his, while the sermon is my own writing.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

            Oh, Peter. The disciple we love because of not in spite of his imperfections. 

            In John’s gospel, the only one to capture this resurrection breakfast on the beach with Jesus, the disciple Peter is not the star. When Jesus calls the disciples it does not start with Peter, but rather Andrew who in turn comes to tell Peter, “We have found the messiah, come and see.” 

            Jesus has a different favorite in the gospel of John – the beloved disciple, he’s called. Never identified except that he’s not Peter, because he appears alongside Peter. Peter who has bold statements of faith and brash words. When Jesus talks of eating – chewing even – his body, crowds begin to fall away, Jesus asks if the disciples also want to leave. It is Peter who says, “To whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.” 

Peter who is too embarrassed to allow Jesus wash his feet, but then at Jesus’ insistence demands a whole bath. Peter who when Judas appears in the garden to arrest Jesus with an army of at least 200 soldiers, he boldly steps forward with a little sword ready to defend Jesus despite the absurd odds. He manages to cut off an ear before Jesus reminds him that’s not how we do this and he sheepishly sheaths his sword. 

            Peter who in all four gospels denies Jesus three times in the courtyard after Jesus’ arrest. Peter who on Easter morning at the testimony of the women come from the tomb takes off running with the beloved disciple, only to be outrun – Peter doesn’t come in first. And yet he’s the one to duck into the empty tomb. 

            Peter, who after all that has nothing left to do but to go out fishing. And when Jesus appears on the shore it’s the beloved disciple who recognizes Jesus, not Peter. Yet Peter is the one who can’t wait for the boat to row the short distance back to shore, so he puts his garment back on, leaps into the water, and splashes with abandon to the shore. 

            “Peter,” Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” 

            And maybe today you hear yourself in Peter’s journey with Jesus. Maybe you, like me, hear Jesus ask you today, “Do you love me?”

            We like Peter know the response, we practice the response. Yes, Lord. We love you. 

We practice it in words. I believe in God the Father almighty…in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son. In Jesus’ name we pray. For thine is the kingdom. 

We practice it in song. I love you Jesus, deep down in my heart… Beautiful savior… Lord, thee I love with all my heart…Worthy is Christ…

We practice it with our bodies. Making the sign of the cross, splashing in the waters of baptism, consuming the bread and wine of communion. 

We practice it in deeds. Showing up to pray in support of Ukraine. Participating with community partners to feed those who are hungry. Speaking up for policies that serve the whole of God’s people. I know you do those things here at CTK.  

And yet, whether it’s a global pandemic, or the challenges of the church as a human institution, life changes, illness and death. Whether it’s our own errors, failures, doubts. Maybe we stop short, not sure if our words really ring true. Because we are much like Peter – not always first, not always right, not always quite getting it even when we move ahead with boldness. 

When Jesus asks Peter, something about the text makes we wonder if Peter hesitates just a moment. If you’ve been around preachers long enough to hear this text preached a few times, you might know that in this text Jesus uses one Greek word for love and Peter responds with a lesser or at least different word for love. Is Peter wondering whether in this moment his journey alongside Jesus has really been enough? After all, he is not the beloved disciple. He’s the brash one, the one who sticks his foot in his mouth, the one, after all, who denied Jesus in his most difficult hour. The thing is, standing here on this beach, he knows that Jesus knows. Jesus knows the answer. Jesus knows not just Peter’s words but his wild walk, his boldness and brashness, his successes and failures. Jesus does not need to ask. Jesus knows Peter’s love and Peter’s imperfect discipleship. And yet here Peter stands, an answer expected.     

What can Peter do, but place himself again before the one he knows so well. The one who walked alongside him. The one who has returned to him even from the grave. Perhaps he remembers his own earlier words “To whom shall we go? You, Jesus, have the words of eternal life.” And despite knowing better than to think he will be a perfect disciple, he has speaks again, “Yes, Lord, I love you. Yes, Lord, I am with you.” 

To me that’s resurrection. Not just Jesus’ body standing present to the fearful and lost disciples, but the capacity of Jesus to know our every challenge and welcome us anyway. To call us again and again…and again. To come back around after our worst moments, our worst failures and say, “I need you.” Jesus is here to say to Peter, “I have given everything for our cause. I have given my very body for the sake of my love for the world. That’s it. That’s all I had left to give. Well, except you. You and the other disciples who deep down I know believe in the power of God’s love to transform the world. And now I’m calling you. Not because you’re perfect. Not because you’re the best. Not because the sacrifices I’m warning you about now will save the world. But because you’re what I have left to give for this cause, for the love of the world. Do you love me? Are you with me?” 

I don’t know about you, friends, but I’m tired. We have experienced a collective disruption to the world as we know it. It’s not just two years of viruses and distancing and learning the gifts and challenges of online everything and the uncertainty of planning anything these days and the economy roller-coastering and wars erupting. I mean – any of those things is really enough. It’s that the whole story we tell ourselves about who we are as a people, as a church, as a nation, as a world – it has fractured. We are trying to piece together a new story. It is exhausting. I don’t know, church, I don’t know what will come of it. I don’t know how we will piece together a new story. I suspect whatever your piece of the larger narrative is, you’re doing the same. Trying to piece together a new story of what things will be like going forward. And we’re tired. It may be Easter, but we, like the disciples are lost and afraid. We, like the disciples, are toiling and seemingly coming up empty-handed. We, like the disciples come with all our own baggage and failure. And yet, here we are. Jesus is alive. The table is set. And the invitation is made. “Do you love me? Are you with me?” 

You can say the words you know are expected. Or you can pause and ponder if you need to. You can even tell Jesus to hang on, that you haven’t had time to make sense of your reality again. Because, like Peter, I do know this. Jesus will keep coming back, offering nourishment and love. Jesus is resurrected and one day, in God’s way and time, the whole world will be resurrected, too. In the meantime, Jesus is here. Jesus knows you inside and out and calls you, not because of your greatness, but because that’s how God has decided to work in the world – with tired, broken, imperfect people. And that’s enough. Because that’s all God has now that God has given everything. Us. Broken and shared for the sake of God’s love for all the world. So come now, to the feast which Jesus has set for us. Recognize him here in our midst. And hear anew God’s call for you. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

-Pastor Steven Wilco

The Smell of Hope

 

5th Sunday in Lent

April 3, 2022

Ascension Lutheran, South Burlington, VT

1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” – John 12:1-8

           Hope. What does it smell like? What does hope taste like? What does hope feel like? 

            I don’t think it’s just me, but these days I’m finding it especially difficult to connect with a sense of hope. I know the world is always in chaos, plagued by violence, death, and disease. That is nothing new in this time. But the layer upon layer of crisis, our global awareness, and our fatigue from COVID have made it seem especially difficult to connect with hope. Racism, climate change, crisis in Ukraine, immigration and refugee challenges, uncertain economy, political division, new COVID variants. The list goes on and on.  

            The church in the broad sense is undergoing deep change. I actually find some hope in that, but the church as it is and has been may not be exactly what the church will be in the near future and that shift is challenging and comes with grief and pain, anxiety and conflict. And in that sense it can be hard to connect with the hope there, too. 

            So I’m desperate for embodied hope – something I can see and touch, smell and taste. 

            From that place we get to join today at the dinner table with Mary and Martha, Lazarus and Jesus, and some of the disciples. An intimate meal of family and friends. But it is no ordinary meal. Death is in the air. Jesus has just in the last chapter of John raised Lazarus from the tomb after 4 long days of decay. We aren’t privy to the details, but there is not indication that Jesus undoes the decay when he resurrects Lazarus. His own resurrected body will still bear the wounds of his crucifixion after all. Perhaps Lazarus still physically bears the marks of death on his body. Even if he is fully restored, death must still be hanging in the air, more real to them than usual, a presence sitting with them at the table. 

            And though it’s not entirely clear how much Mary understands about what is about to happen to Jesus, how much Jesus himself understands, it is clear that something is shifting, changing. The tensions are high, the festival is near. Jesus has been circling the center of power and he’s about to enter it the following day in an oddly grand fashion, in grand challenge to the empire. It is around Lazarus’s resurrection that the plot against Jesus solidifies. The next verses remind us of the plot of the leaders to kill not only Jesus but to return Lazarus to death as well. 

            The tensions are high. They hang in the air at this dinner. It is its own kind of last supper and somehow it seems they all feel it. What does one do when so much death hangs in the air, when the tension of empire and oppression is palpable? It’s such an embodied feeling, that tension. You know how you hold your body when things get stressful, when you’re a little on edge. A bit of adrenaline racing, heart beating faster. Shoulders tense. Focus is heightened. The body is ready for fight, flight, or freeze. In Hebrew, the word for distress is actually the same root word as narrowness – things tighten and close in when we get distress. Have you been holding your body this way lately alongside Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus? Ready for the next shoe to drop? The body is designed to tune in to possible threats. 

            Somehow it seems harder to retune the body to hope. 

            But enter Mary. In an incredible act of generosity, she pours extravagantly expensive ointment on Jesus’s feet. The overpowering smell fills the room. The gentle, caring touch is both welcomed by Jesus and startling to his disciples. Suddenly they are all transfixed by this act of generosity and love, the scent of death hanging in the air has gone from their minds. Hope. They do not understand it. It’s not even clear that Mary herself understands it. It is not something they know in their heads, but something they experience in their bodies. As it might well have been used to cover up the scent of a decaying body, so now it covers up the death that hangs in the air. Hope. 

            Let us not forget Martha, too. Perhaps she is still the one to prepare the meal, the practical one who tends to details. She has prepared this meal, too, in the face of death. Perhaps the scent of roasting meat or baking bread has drifted into the space where they gathered. They paused in their conversation to enjoy the taste of the meal. She, too, has provided a sensory experience in the face of death. A simple meal for family and friends. Not enough to stave off death entirely and forever, not enough to counter the empire. But nourishment, sustenance. A promise of hope in the face of death. Despite what hangs palpable in the room she will provide a meal. 

In this story it is Mary and Martha who reveal to us who God is. For what they do is what God does, in fact, to save the world. God opens the almighty arms and compassionate heart to release God’s very self in the person of Jesus. Jesus who lives a life of open grace, free healing, gracious welcome, and who, in the end, dies in an open armed gesture of ultimate love on the cross, giving himself away in the face of violence, hatred, oppression and death. Not in theory but in God’s very body. Whereas the Hebrew word for distress means narrowness, the Hebrew word for salvation, the root of the name Jesus, also means openness. 

            I am one of those people who feels like I want to try to solve the problems of the world. Or at least one problem of the world. But saving the world is God’s job. Our call is to open our hearts to the world, to engage in acts of generosity of spirit and of resources and of relationship. In these times of distress, in all times of distress, our opportunity is to practice openness and generosity. To be present to one another. 

            That looks like a congregation in transition opening itself to new possibilities, people, gifts, and opportunities. It looks like a pastor willing to strike out on a call to care for creation with an open and generous spirit. It looks like emerging from a pandemic and finding ways to reconnect as embodied people. It looks like setting a feast at this eucharistic table, at our dinner tables, at the tables of those in need. It looks like opening our hearts to listen deeply to one another across division. It looks like finding ways to still be generous even as economic uncertainty hits home for all of us. 

            The thing is that hope is not found in solving problems but in opening our hearts to the presence of God who is always pouring out love generously. Tending to our bodies, washing us in the waters of baptism, feeding us at this rich feast of bread and wine, anointing us with oil. God is breathing the Spirit into us with every deep breath, soaking deep into the cells of our bodies with every inhale. God is drawing us together in human community where our touch and care for one another reminds us the holy gift of life in the midst of death. 

            May you, beloved of God, may all of us together, experience today and always the presence of God’s powerful scent and taste and touch of hope for us and all the world. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Counting Figs

Third Sunday in Lent, Year C

Sunday, March 20, 2022

St. John’s Lutheran Church, Stamford, CT

1Ho, everyone who thirsts,
  come to the waters;
 and you that have no money,
  come, buy and eat!
 Come, buy wine and milk
  without money and without price.
2Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
  and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
 Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
  and delight yourselves in rich food.
3Incline your ear, and come to me;
  listen, so that you may live.
 I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
  my steadfast, sure love for David.

4See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
  a leader and commander for the peoples.
5See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
  and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
 because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
  for he has glorified you.

6Seek the Lord while he may be found,
  call upon him while he is near;
7let the wicked forsake their way,
  and the unrighteous their thoughts;
 let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
  and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
  nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
  so are my ways higher than your ways
  and my thoughts than your thoughts. – Isaiah 55:1-9

1At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.2[Jesus] asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?3No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. 4Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
6Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. 7So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ 8He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. 9If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ” – Luke 13:1-9

            My question for you this morning is this: How many figs? How many figs would be enough? If the tree in Jesus’s parable produced one half-withered fig, is that enough? One really good fig – is that enough? Need it be a more reasonable amount, say at least 20 per year – the low end of average for a mature fig tree? 

            And how many years? How many one-more-years can go by with no figs before the tree is cut down and thrown into the fire? How many years is it worth the effort to keep digging and pruning and watering and whatever else a fig tree needs? How much work is it worth to eke out a fig? 

            I think Jesus tells this strange little parable because he knows we are fig-counters. That is, we’re always asking what’s enough? This many good deeds? This many acts of charity? This much money given away? This much kindness, goodness, purity? This much prayer? Am I doing it right yet, Jesus?

            Or how many one-more-years do I have left? How much time? How long should I work before I can rest? How much effort is worth the produce? Is my work worth it? Am I worth it? 

            The people speaking to Jesus want to know how much goodness will protect them from terrible fates. Those Galileans, the ones Pilate brutally killed – were they worse than the other Galileans? C’mon, Jesus, we know you know, you must have access to the heavenly accounting sheet, you can tell us. Surely it was because they did something wrong, something we haven’t done or something we can stop doing. Or the eighteen who had a tower fall on them? What did they do to deserve it? Those people surely did something! Because if they did, then surely we can worry less about something bad happening to us.

We twenty-first century mainline Christians might look down on their thinking. We may abstractly ponder why bad things happen to good people, but generally, I hope, we don’t assign blame to those who fall victim to disasters and disease. But we ask the same questions in other ways. 

Did you notice that at least before the Delta and Omicron variants came along there was this stigma around getting COVID? Like unless you were a frontline worker maybe you just hadn’t been careful enough. I know when my family got COVID almost a year into the pandemic I was actually a little embarrassed to admit it. 

Or what about cancer? Did the person smoke? Or heart disease – we may not say it aloud but we wonder about lifestyle choices. Body doesn’t look like the magazines say it’s supposed to? Probably something they’re doing or not doing. Mental health challenges – maybe it was their environment in childhood. Maybe – hopefully – we aren’t going to say it out loud, but we think it sometimes, don’t we? Congregation membership or finances dwindling? Surely if we or they just did the right thing we’d have averted the decline? Distancing ourselves from something bad, so that maybe, just maybe, we can maintain a sense of control over our lives, control over what happens to us. We want to be able to dosomething to fend off disaster, to hold off death, to hold off ill fortune. And part of what Jesus is saying is both that no one deserves the awful fate that befalls them and also that no one escapes death in the end either. 

Ultimately it comes down to deeper questions: Are we good enough? Can we hold off the worst by doing enough? Do we have enough time? Have we born enough fruit? Enough to save us in the end from whatever demons pursue us? Enough to save us from death, from damnation, from shame? We’re fig counters. And counting figs makes us impatient with the tree. 

            And so Jesus presents us with this strange little parable and it probably unsettles us. Jesus means to unsettle us. The whole story sets us up to be outraged at the tree, ready with the landowner to throw it out, start over. That’s what I do with plants that don’t seem to be doing what they’re supposed to. Don’t you? We’re supposed to be all in with the landowner as Jesus tells the little vignette. 

            And then Jesus, as he is wont to do, drops in this twist, this strange plea from the one we expect both to obey the landowner and to know how to take care of fruitless trees. The gardener says “one more year.” There is no logical, rational reason for this. No likelihood that it will work. No reason for the extra effort involved here. It’s not the decision of a fig-counter. 

            I don’t think this parable is meant to be a one-to-one allegory. I’m hesitant to say too definitively who is God and who we are. But I will say that I too often act like the landowner ready to judge based on results, and God is generally one to say “one more year,” the one to give a bit more attention, a bit more love and care without stopping to count costs. 

            In Lent especially, but throughout our lives of faith we might be tempted to draw up an account of our own fruit-bearing. And that is absolutely part of our call to bear fruit in the world. To be doers of justice, bringers of peace, love self and neighbor, deepen our connection to God, serve others. Those are the things that bring life to us and to the world. 

            But too often we think that’s tied to God’s love for us. Too often we think God is just as much a bookkeeper of deeds, a counter of figs, as we are. The loving tender care of the farmer isn’t about producing the most fruit, earning the most money, working in the most efficient way, but about cultivating enough for everyone to live and thrive. God calls us to bear fruit not so that we can be the best trees or so that we can earn love, acceptance, or live ever after. God calls us to bear fruit so that the whole world is nourished and fed. So that the whole world together might feast and live and thrive. God’s not out to get fruitless trees, but out to set a feast for all. 

            What Lent is really about is God getting down in the dirt with us. Kneeling down, digging, watering. Jesus goes to the cross not because we don’t bear fruit but because God’s great love for us calls God into our lives, messy and sometimes without fruit though they may be. So come now, wherever you find yourself in this strange little parable. Come you who get caught up in trying to keep accounts. Come you who are quick to judge. Come you who feel barren. Come you who toil and sometimes can’t find anything to show for it. Come you who call out for mercy. Come, all, for God’s feast is waiting for you here at this table. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Loving Our Enemies

7th Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)
February 20, 2022
Good Shepherd Lutheran/St. James Episcopal, Laconia, NH

3Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
  4Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ ” 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him. -Genesis 45, selected verses

[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
  32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
  37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” – Luke 6:27-3
8

         Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 

            Father Gregory Boyle is a Jesuit priest in Los Angeles. He has spent his ministry building relationships in the neighborhood of his parish. In that neighborhood are a great many folks living on the edges of poverty. It’s a neighborhood in which gang violence is a reality – too few opportunities, too few resources, young people are sometimes caught in cycles which promote toxic masculinity, inviting kids to grow up beyond their years and seek a sense of power, control, and belonging in sometimes destructive ways. 

            Father Boyle has built relationships with all the folks in the neighborhood – the young people active in violence, the young people caught up in it unwillingly or trying to get out of it, the mothers and fathers and siblings, the business owners, the retirees. Somehow he manages to befriend them all in one way or another. He is part of some transformative community action, but more importantly he loves the people in his community. More than once that love has been challenged. 

            He tells the story of being called to the hospital to sit with a grandmother as her 12-year-old grandson dies of a bullet wound from a shooting in which the boy was an innocent bystander. Fr. Boyle knows this boy, deeply cares for and pastorally loves this boy. By morning he is gone. Days later the shooters are found and arrested. It turns out Fr. Boyle knows and loves them, too. He has relationships with them, too. How does one love their two children when one brutally hurts or kills the other? How does one find God-level compassion to hold that? 

Fr. Boyle says “I will admit that the degree of difficulty here is very high. Kids I love killing kids I love. There is nothing neat in carving space for both in our compassion.” And “If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness.” 

            Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 

            In an increasingly polarized political realm, it has become easier and easier to vilify our political opponents. Those people are wrong, misguided, even evil. But like perhaps many of you, there are members of my extended family who have very different political views than I do. Family gatherings have occasionally erupted in heated and often unproductive arguments, but more often things get said and people cringe or seethe quietly or talk about it with some behind the backs of others. You know how this goes whether it’s your family, your workplace, or your community. I’m not saying it’s healthy, but it’s what happens more often than it should. 

            I’m not one to go spewing all those thoughts at others, but I can be pretty judgey, pretty convinced I’m right and they’re wrong. But something in me clicked a couple of years ago, realizing that those family members with whom I vehemently disagree about politics and worldview, loved me pretty unconditionally. I wondered whether I was sometimes letting politics get in the way of fully loving the person in front of me. It shifted something in me, opened something in me, calling forth both deeper relationship and love but also deeper learning about them and about myself.

            I’m not suggesting we compromise on vital, deeply held beliefs. Our worldview and politics matter and have real life implications for people. I’m not suggesting we let hurtful speech continue without speaking up about it. I’m not suggesting we live in a fantasy land where whatever you think is just fine. And yet, where have we failed to love the ones we label enemies who in fact are closest to us? 

            Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 

            Joseph, of our Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, was literally left in a ditch by his brothers so that he would end up in slavery. Through a long, painful, convoluted journey Joseph ends up in a position of great power in Egypt. Decades later his brothers come to Egypt, literally starving and seeking refuge and food. They don’t recognize the brother they left behind, but he recognizes them. In a moment of superhuman capacity for reconciliation Joseph welcomes them for the sake of their family bond and offers forgiveness. He crosses the chasms created by abuse, enslavement, alienation, and oppression. It’s possible because Joseph did, eventually, and with no certainty of position, find himself in a place of power. He chooses from that place of power not to perpetuate the same ills against his brothers that they did to him. I don’t think I could have done it. 

            And the whole story makes me reflect on the question of addressing systemic racism in our day. Not because this story is about that, though it contains dynamics of power and oppression, but because I fear in reading this through our 21st century lens that it could mistakenly encourage us to expect those who have been enslaved and whose ancestors have been enslaved and who continue to experience abuse, discrimination, and oppression to welcome with open arms those responsible for their enslavement in some sort of hug-until-it-feels-better moment. 

We live in a world shaped by racism, in a country founded on centuries of racialized slavery with well over a century more of racialized oppression which continues in our own time. The chasms created by that are far wider, far deeper than what Joseph crossed. They are not so easily bridged when every one of us, not unlike Joseph, is caught up in the systems that oppress and divide. The enemy is not even so much one another, as the systems that create oppression. In this case loving our enemies isn’t about making up and moving on but about naming the racism and the systems that perpetuate it as our enemy. Not to embrace racism, certainly not to love racism, but to tell the truth about it in order to dismantle it. Love isn’t just nice and caring, but transformative and just. 

            Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 

            Every last one of us has something within us that keeps us from thriving at our best. Addiction, fear of failure, anxiety, pride, perfectionism…we are never perfect, and often we are our own worst enemies. Literally. And sometimes we ignore those less than helpful parts of ourselves, sometimes we hate them and try to scrub them from our lives, sometimes we give in and let them run things for a while. How might we love ourselves fully, warts and all. Our bodies, our spirits, our pasts, presents, and futures. Without naive ideas of being all good or debilitating ideas about being all bad, how can we honor who we are right now, in this moment? How can we love the enemy within? How can we honor that baptism has claimed all of us, promised God’s love over all of who we are? 

            Jesus says, “Love your enemies.”

Beloved of God, I don’t know how to love my enemies in the ways in which we are called to do that. I try. I do. I have Thich Nhat Hanh’s 6 mantras of loving speech posted next to my desk to remind me of our shared humanity when I’m struggling with an interpersonal conflict. I practice deep breaths and conflict mediation and crucial conversations. But I have a long way to go before I can really love my enemies fully. 

            But I do know that God has that figured out. God loves Ukranians and Russians, Israelis and Palestinians. God loves Republicans and Democrats. God loves shooters and victims. God loves pro-lifers and pro-choicers. God loves climate change activists and climate change deniers. God loves across border walls of every kind. God loves you and me and your enemies and mine. God is love. 

            Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” 

I know I can never find within myself the expansive love of God. But maybe I can learn to live in God’s expansive love for me, for you. And maybe there will be a chance to open my heart to someone new today. And another tomorrow. Until all the world reflects that expansive, transformative love that is already real and true for every living thing. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Fr. Gregory Boyle’s story and quotations from Tattoos on the Heart by Gregory Boyle (Free Press: New York, 2010).

Mary’s Song: The Musical

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year C
December 19, 21

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Newington, NH

39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
 46And Mary said, 
 “My soul magnifies the Lord,
  47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
  and holy is his name.

50His mercy is for those who fear him
  from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
  he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
  in remembrance of his mercy,
55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
  to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” – Luke 1:39-55

            If you’ve ever seen musical theater – live or on screen – you have probably thought at least once, even if just for a fleeting moment, “This is soooo unrealistic! People don’t just break into song and dance every time something happens!” Some musicals are better than others at this, but you realize when you listen to the soundtrack that very little of the plot is actually contained in the songs. 

            I have a pastor friend [thanks, Pr. Stephanie Pope!] who is also a trained opera singer. She reminded some of us at a recent text study that in opera, the star moments of the show are the big solos, but almost never do they advance the plot. They aren’t there to do that. In order to advance the plot they use a recitative – an often almost chant-like way to get a good bit of text in without tons of melody in the way. No, the big solos, the arias perhaps especially, are there to express a universal truth or a deep emotion that we can connect to. 

            No, most of us don’t break into song and dance in the midst of a conversation, although…I have known a few who did…but we do have big and profound emotions that need voicing. We are impacted by and long for deep universal truths. 

            In this Advent, in the third of our three-year lectionary cycle, we read Luke’s Gospel in which the characters act as if in musical theater – they pause in the action and they sing. Mary runs to Elizabeth and Mary responds to Elizabeth’s greeting in song. When John the Baptist is born and Zechariah’s tongue is finally freed from his months of silence he sings. It is in Luke that we hear the detail of the heavenly host breaking into song for the shepherds. When Jesus is presented in the temple Simeon breaks into song. Cue the soundtrack, the dance numbers, the quizzical expressions of onlookers – the birth narrative of Jesus is a full-on musical production. 

            On the one hand that might make it seem like pie-in-the-sky, fanciful nonsense or a quaint historical narrative. Only in a musical…right?…would a teenage girl bear the son of God and sing to her cousin about the toppling of empire and the poor being fed. Here in the real world we know poverty is a problem in every country in every generation. We know people use power to oppress others based on money, skin color, gender, or just because. In this view, which even we people of faith sometime ascribe to implicitly, the Jesus narrative is a nice story that gives us a break from our troubled world. 

            On the other hand, if we remember that we come to a production not just to hear a story but to resonate with deep truths about ourselves and our world, to connect with something larger…and that the hit numbers, the big arias – those are the points that express the most universal truths and connect us to the deepest parts of ourselves…then maybe this burst of song could be at the heart of our faith and life. 

            Mary sings of things already accomplished despite the fact that Jesus is but a fetus in her womb. This is both because God has already done this. The empire toppling care for the poor and lowly, the choosing of the younger, less expected one – that’s all embedded in the history of Mary’s people. God liberated the Hebrews from the Egyptian pharaoh. King David was chosen despite being the youngest, least likely of his brothers. Queen Esther emerged as a hero to save her people through an unusual series of events. These things have already happened. And yet she sings this clearly also to indicate the meaning of the child within her. What he will do. But more than that, she sings in the past tense to indicate the completeness, the completedness of God’s rule and reign in opposition to the earthly powers and the forces of oppression that plague us still. This is a song that gives hope to the hopeless in every time and place. It is a song that is true then, now, and always. How might we sing it in our time and place? 

            Christians who pray the daily offices have literally sung these exact songs for centuries – punctuated their everyday lives with these songs. Monastics especially in the daily rhythm of simple daily chores, care for the poor, care for the land, they burst into song – Zechariah’s song every morning at Matins, Mary’s song every evening at Vespers, Simeon’s song every night at Compline, and the psalms scattered healthily throughout. It’s what we do in our worship. We’re so used to the rhythm, those of us familiar with liturgical patterns, that we often fail to realize how radical it is that we pause throughout our worship to connect in that deep way, to sing, to embody the universal truths that demand the power of song to be expressed. 

            I certainly commend to you the singing of these and other sacred songs not just in worship but in your daily life. There are times I have lived in communities that had regular opportunity to pray the daily offices and it is a beautiful thing. I sing my daughter to bed several nights a week with Compline including Simeon’s song, and it has a way of working its universal meaning into one’s soul with that regularity. But what I want us to ponder this morning is how we might sing these songs, sing the song of our faith in ways that are bold and passionate, to break out in metaphorical song in ways that make people who are watching pause and wonder if maybe we’ve lost our minds. 

            What would it mean for us to be so bursting with the message of good news for the world, with hope, with love, with grace, with justice, that we simply could not contain ourselves? Would it push us to bold and beautiful welcome as you have done in thoughtfully engaging the Reconciling in Christ process? You sing to the world Mary’s Song with your commitment to welcome. Would it push us to roll out welcome to refugees with thoughtful planning but without regard to cost? Might our song look like speaking the truth the racism embedded in our communities and our churches and committing to pushing back against the entrenched systems that keep people with lighter skin in power? Might our song look like radical feeding of our neighbor? Might our song look like providing services for young people emerging from foster care at 18 with no one to care for them? I don’t know what your part is in this bigger number we’re all trying to sing and dance to together. But I do know that you have a part, that God is doing something in you, that God has given you and me the kind of grace that God gave to Mary to bear God’s word into this world despite our being not fully up to the task. 

            Part of your transition work will be to identify what part of the song your congregation carries now in this time and place. Yes, to listen to who you are as a congregation, to think about what kind of pastoral leadership can best serve with you at this moment in your life as a congregation. But more than anything to visit again the question we must always ask, which is “What is it that brings you full to bursting with God’s love? And how is it that you are being called to blurt that out to the world?” 

            Mary’s song is so powerful that it has been banned by governments for the ways it has inspired challenge to those in power – British-ruled India, Guatemala, and Argentina all at some point literally banned people from singing this song lest it inspire people to rise up for justice. How can you as God’s people at Holy Trinity sing so boldly that people sit up and take notice? How can we reclaim the profoundly countercultural movement that Mary sings? Maybe it isn’t standing up to government, though there is a place there for the church. But maybe it’s being so generous that people in your community can’t help but wonder what kind of God inspired that! Or being so absolutely accepting of others that people start to think this God of ours might just be worth checking out. Whatever it is, Mary invites us now to join the song (and maybe even the dance!) of this God who loves this world literally to death. Mary invites us to burst forth in song at the God who comes to us and all the world. Mary invites us be join her in being God-bearers, chosen ones, holy messengers for the sake of the world. May it be so! Amen!

-Pastor Steven Wilco

God Hasn’t Given Up on You

 7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
  10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
  15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff
he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
  18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

– Luke 3:7-18

           Pastor Austin Shelley, a presbyterian minister, tells a story about growing up with her frugal grandparents. They were people who made do with very little. They were generous with what they had, particularly to their church; they lived simply; and her grandfather in particular watched every last dollar. The one place, she says, that her grandfather didn’t scrutinize finances was with grocery shopping, which her grandmother did. 

            Austin would tag along with her grandmother and as they went along, two of every item went into the cart – two boxes of cereal, two jars of peanut butter, two bags of flour – til, as she describes it, it looked like “an abstract rendering of Noah’s Ark with its produce and non-perishable food items arranged two-by-two.” They would check out using lots of coupons, pack the groceries in the car and stop at the town food bank on their way home to drop off exactly half of their groceries. Every week the grandmother would buy her granddaughter’s silence about the extra food with a candy bar, which was not immune to the rule of two – one went every week to the food bank. 

            When one day 8 or 9 year-old Austin asked for name-brand cereal, which the grandmother said they couldn’t afford. Austin predictably responded “We can if we don’t buy two of them!” Her grandmother paused, looked her in the eye and spoke calmly and clearly, “If we can’t afford two, we can’t afford one.” 

            When in response to his fire and brimstone preaching the crowds ask John the Baptist, “What then should we do?” he responds, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 

            Pastor Shelley’s story convicts me. Because honestly, I tend to breeze right over John’s fiery words and his call to action that isn’t just a flowery speech or a metaphor but an actual call to do something. Yes, yes, the ax is at the root of the tree, burning the chaff with unquenchable fire, something about being generous… But it’s ok! Baby Jesus is coming!! Nevermind the fact that Jesus is also a fully grown adult by the time John speaks these words, we always read them in Advent and Christmas is just around the corner. Angels sing, we sing. Silent Night, all is calm, all is bright. 

            But we return year after year to John’s words in the wilderness not because they announce something good and wonderful, but because they convict us. They remind us that God’s call to us is not something gentle and calming, but something that does actually invite us to do something. Something that reminds us that all is not right in our world, that all is not right in us. 

            I don’t know about you, but my list of things I’ve done and left undone, the things we confess when we gather for worship – it’s longer than it should be. I know there are things I do that are self-destructive, things that hurt others, things that fail to bring about the peace and justice I say I want. I believe whole-heartedly in grace. God’s love is steadfast. I do not worry that my list or yours will keep me from God’s love or from the reign of heaven. But the world is hurting and in need. We are hurting and in need. And much as God’s love for us is steadfast, God’s love for every last ounce of creation means God is also terribly persistent in agitating us to action. 

            To jump too quickly past John’s harsh and challenging words is to risk slipping into an overly sweet idea of God’s love. It’s to risk putting my own experience of God, of faith at the expense of the whole community. It’s to say, “Come on, let’s just buy the good cereal and skip the second box this time.”  

            I don’t want to suggest we beat ourselves up over our failures or start shaming one another with name calling – you brood of vipers, you! But I do want to suggest that this call, this sometimes harsh-sounding fire and brimstone, this demand for difficult and sacrificial action – this is God’s way of saying to us, despite the ways we fail to live up to the call over and over again, I’m not done with you. I’m not giving up on you. 

            That’s God’s message in John the Baptist for his hearers and for us today – you may have messed up a lot of stuff along the way, but I’m not done with you yet. I still believe you have something in you that can serve the world. We may sometimes lose faith in the idea that maybe we still have something to offer the world, but God has faith in us that we still have something to give, some way to bring the gifts and skills and energy we have to make a difference. God’s not done with you yet. 

            When I think about Pastor Shelley’s grandmother, I know she didn’t end hunger, not even in their small rural town. She didn’t change the world, but week-in and week-out she did a difficult and sacrificial thing. And maybe my call or yours isn’t double groceries every week, though there is hunger and need in every community. Maybe it’s accompanying a refugee family, maybe it’s giving our time for transformative community work on justice issues, maybe its, caring for kids or seniors. Some days for some of us, it’s work enough just to honor that we ourselves are beloved of God and deserving of care. But I know that God is not done with you and has a call to bring your passions, gifts, and skills to the world. 

            And God is not done with this congregation either. I know you’ve had some good questions about what this shift of pastoral leadership means for you. We’ll talk together in more detail after worship about your questions. But I want you to hear that I know that God is not done with you yet! I’ll be honest that what church looks like going forward may very well not be what many of us have known in previous decades. The pandemic has accelerated cultural shifts that were well on their way already, and the church is shifting and changing faster than any of us quite know what to do with. But God is not done with us yet – not Grace Lutheran in Plainville, not Lutherans in New England, not the beautifully diverse body of Christ spread through all the earth. 

            But it won’t all be sunshine and roses. It won’t all be silent nights and angel songs. It won’t always be comfortable or easy. John the Baptist warns us of that. Even Mary warns us of that in her song that we’ll read or sing next Sunday – Jesus brings the toppling of kingdoms and the upending of what we have known for the sake of everyone having enough. 

            And maybe instead of dwelling on what we’ve gotten wrong or messed up in the past, instead of wracking our brains trying to make sense of and plan for the future of the church, maybe we can wonder with God is up to with us. What mission might God have just around the corner? What way might we have a sneaky mission to discover? Maybe it’s something as simple and powerful as giving away everything we have two of. Maybe it will give us more joy than we thought possible. And maybe, probably even, that’s how Christ will be born among us. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

With thanks to Pr. Austin Shelley who shared this story in The Christian Century in 2018. If you missed the link in the text above, here it is again: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/december-16-advent-3c-luke-37-18

The World is Always Ending (and Beginning)

First Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2021
St. Paul Lutheran Church, East Longmeadow, MA

[Jesus said:] 25“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. 28Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
  29Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
  34“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” – Luke 21:25-36

The world is always ending somewhere. 

But when it’s your world ending, your loved one dying, your community torn by violence, your divorce, your job lost, your church facing hard decisions about its future – it’s different. We know in the abstract that these things happen hundreds of thousand of times over in the world every day. But when it hits us, we feel it. We feel the power of it. We feel the loss of control. We feel the devastation. We feel it ripping us apart. Or maybe, too, at times, the relief, the letting go, the acceptance.

And the world is always beginning somewhere, too. 

But when it’s your new beginning, your new child or grandchild born, your new job, your wedding, your fresh start after a life change, your move to a new place – it’s different. We know in the abstract that these things, too, happen hundreds of thousands of times over in the world every day. But when it’s us, we feel the joy and excitement, the fear and anxiety, the hope and possibility, the challenges and hardships. 

These endings and beginnings often exist side-by-side. Hospitals are places that bring new life into the world and where life ends for others. As we in the northern hemisphere approach the darkest time of the year the southern hemisphere is coming into the fullness of bright summer days. But we know that, too, in our own lives. Both the side-by-side when endings and beginnings happen in the same short span of time – a birth in the family the same week as a death. But also we know the way in which endings can be beginnings and beginning their own kind of endings. A graduation is both a culmination and a launching – a transition that brings both grief and hope. A move can be both an exciting new start and a great loss of what has been. 

Look to the fig tree, Jesus says, when the leaves sprout you know that summer is near, and just so you will know the kingdom of God is near. But trees exist because other trees bore fruit that fell to the ground and rotted open or got chewed up by animals or torn apart by human hands. That allowed seeds to be planted and grow. Every year here in New England we are keenly aware of the leaves that come in spring and go out in a blaze of glory in the fall, with the long weary barren span of winter before they sprout again. We may welcome or grieve the change, but we understand inherently that it is part of an ongoing cycle, year to year, generation to generation. 

Today, too, we observe the start of a new church year. The last weeks have brought us apocalyptic texts warning of the ending, but here we are at a new beginning, eagerly anticipating a very particular newborn baby in a manger, and the texts have us back at the end. That is, of course, intentional. We are not starting Advent just to wait for Christmas, not to pretend Jesus hasn’t been born yet, but because we are always waiting to be saved from one calamity or another. Jesus was born into a world of chaos and violence, and we pray that Jesus would come again – and again, and again – to our world of chaos and violence. We are not on a linear journey but one that cycles around and around with all its ups and downs. 

On the one hand, that feels devastating. I, for one, would really appreciate moving toward something better every day. Every day a little effort, a little progress. Personal progress, a better community, a better world. Every day the past behind us and hope ahead. That would be nice, but it’s not our reality. 

On the other hand there’s comfort in that. It doesn’t take away the pain of the endings we experience. It doesn’t make new beginnings for us any easier. But it does somehow relieve the push always to make everything better, the idea that perhaps we’ve failed if tomorrow isn’t better than today. 

            Look, Jesus says. To the signs in the world, but also in nature. Look at the rythyms. Things come and go. Endings and beginnings tied up together. Be alert that when the day comes, when the devastation or the radical shift hits your life, that you may be ready to stand firm. Not to prevent the world from ending, not to alter the course of what is in motion. But simply to stand before God. 

            To stand, not for judgment perhaps, at least not only for judgment, but to be aware and alert, too, for God’s presence in every pulse of that cycle, every ending and beginning. To look at the barren trees around us and remember that spring will come. To look at trees in summer and know they will again be barren. And to know that God is in it all. 

            To stand in the midst of big, terrifying world events and know that they will end and others will take their place. To know that pain and challenge will come to others and eventually to us. And to know, in every breath that God is there, sharing our fear and pain and grief. 

            To stand in the midst of joyful new beginnings and recognize the endings that have made them possible and to stand with the knowledge that they, too, will have their endings. And to know that God is there, holding it all. Holding us always. 

            Here at St. Paul you’re at a point in the life of your congregation when you are asking some questions about where to go from here. To some all the choices might feel like endings. I’d like to think there’s some new beginning down each road, too. I wonder how it is for you to stand alert to the presence of God here in the midst of that – not as one who necessarily will reverse the course of the congregation but as one who will be fully present at every step along the way into whatever future you discern together with the help of the Holy Spirit. 

And as we cycle through the years, one after another, returning again and again to the biblical texts that speak of apocalyptic signs and to the texts that reveal to us God born into our midst, in this lectionary year in particular we are moving these next few weeks to the culmination of Advent in Mary’s Song. Perhaps you remember the one – where empires fall and the lowly are raised, justice reigns, and the hungry are fed while the rich go away empty. And there we will remember that somehow God is, too, part of all the turmoil we experience, upending our lives so that in the end justice is proclaimed and the final empire of death is also thrown over. 

And that is at the heart of our faith – that in the end God will turn the world as it is upside down in ways that begin to grow in our midst long before we realize them. We wait, we hope this Advent season, not as if we don’t know Christ is coming, but as ones who are called to be alert to the signs for surely Christ is already born among us, growing in our time and our community as he once did in Bethlehem, Egypt, and Nazareth. Perhaps as near and familiar as the trees that mark the seasons, already righting wrongs and bringing us to life even as some things crash down around us. New life beginning in the midst of it all. Amen.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

A Subtle God

25th Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 33B)
November 14, 2021
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Proctor, VT

1As [Jesus] came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
  3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” – Mark 13:1-8

There’s a song refrain from a few years ago that goes like this: 

How long can a world go on under such a subtle God?
How long can a world go on with no new word from God?
See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God
Trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God*

            I heard these lyrics this week from the presenter at the New England Synod Convocation. He shared them as we talked together about what it means to live as people of faith in our current cultural reality. It is a reality in which organized religion no longer holds prominent place in most of our communities. It is a reality in which scientific and rational explanations are primary over mystical ones. But honestly, it’s a heartfelt cry of every age. It’s the cry of the psalmists who often both acknowledge the presence and faithfulness of God while crying out to be heard, to be held, to be saved by that God they know is there.

            Maybe we don’t look for signs from God in quite the same way as our ancestors might have. Most of us don’t look to astronomical events, natural disasters, and patterns in tea leaves to get a sign from the divine. Yet most of us would still probably like to have something a little more concrete, a little more defined as a sign from God. 

            A sign, perhaps of how to organize church in this time when it’s harder and harder to maintain an institutional church in the ways we did in the last few generations. People ask me all the time for an easy answer, a program, the one thing they can do to grow their church. They want a sign. There isn’t one. The work is hard and even if you engage it the growth may not look numerical. 

            A sign, perhaps of God’s presence despite the incredible challenges we face. I looked back in my folder and when this text came up 6 years ago, it was followed just a day after terrible terrorist attacks in Paris consumed global attention and concern. But it could come up any Sunday and somewhere in the world people have experienced tragic violence. Wars and rumors of wars, Jesus says. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom. Earthquakes. Famine. He might as well have mentioned global pandemics, cancer, and all manner of other terrible pain, illness, injustice, and tragedy. And that is just the beginning, he says.

            A sign, perhaps of what I’m supposed to do in this crazy world. Jesus is strangely cryptic at times in giving direction to the disciples and to us. And each of us faces moments of critical decisions in our lives and aren’t always sure how to proceed. What our faith has to say about decisions in our lives is never as simple as opening the Bible and reading a customized life plan. If only Jesus would be a little more obvious, and require a little less interpretation. 

            Because here’s the thing – Jesus is saying in the gospel reading, and our experience verifies this – the signs in the world are awfully bold. All those terrible disasters, all the voices we hear from the media telling us how and what to think about everything from the shape and look of our bodies to our political affiliation to who is powerful and successful. Those signs? They speak pretty clearly. 

            And it can seem like God – our God – is sometimes far too subtle. It can feel some days as if we haven’t heard anything new from God. Sure we read the old stories and find new meaning. Sure we come to know the presence of the Spirit working in our lives at times. Sure we find grace here in worship each and every week. But it’s rarely as big and bold as some of the challenges we face. 

            The disciples seem to be ready and willing to face the challenges Jesus implies are on their way. But they want to know when. When will it be? How can we be prepared? How will we know that it’s the sign we’re supposed to look for an not just one more disaster? 

            These are people whose history includes enslavement, desert wandering, previous destruction of the their home and temple, occupation by multiple empires. These are people who for the most part are not people of power or privilege. They can handle some more if only they know it’s the sign of what is to come. If they are going to face one more tragedy, one more terrible sign, they want to know it will usher in a change in their fortunes once and for all. 

            And Jesus says these things – wars, famine, earthquakes and the like – are but the beginning. The beginning of birth pangs, the beginning of something new. And, yet, not the end of the signs that might very well terrify us. 

            I know you here at St. Paul’s have faced what all of us have in terms of managing through a global pandemic, the challenges we all face in terms of illness and grief over the course of our lives. And I don’t yet know you well enough to know all the details of your challenges. But I do know you have struggled to figure out what it means to be a visible, tangible sign of God’s love here in your little corner of the world. It’s not an easy task. It can seem like our work and our lives are too subtle, too quiet, that we are the flawed individuals from the song, plodding along, looking for a nod from God, trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God. 

            Dear friends, it’s true that there is much in the world more powerful than we are, much that is out of our control, much that we might wish was different. But I think exactly what that world needs, what we need. Is a subtle God who reminds us again of the hiddenness of grace. 

            Jesus speaks the words of today’s readings to the disciples as he is about to go to the cross. It is there that God throw’s in God’s lot with us, with our suffering, our violence, our cruelty, our grief, our distress. It is there that divine love shows its true power, not in conquering, for that would violate the depth of the love God has for all things, but its power in persisting through anything, even death itself. It is there on a cross, in a death as a criminal mostly unnoticed by the powers of the world, that God’s crowning moment is hidden. 

            So I think exactly what we need is a subtle God who reminds us gently week after week in water, word, bread, and wine, of that never-dying love even unto death. A God who doesn’t always do the newest, latest thing but persists in that same steady word of love for us day after day, year after year, generation after generation. It’s in that steadiness that God brings something new to birth among us. Sometimes, but certainly not always, some sign that wows us, redirects us, re-invigorates our faith. But much more often taking each subtle step with us through long and difficult days. 

            So let us return again to those lyrics, which I think the singer-songwriter thought to be a sign for despair, but I wonder if they might instead speak to us of a profound God who walks each step with us. 

How long can a world go on under such a subtle God?
How long can a world go on with no new word from God?
See the plod of the flawed individual looking for a nod from God
Trodding the sod of the visible with no new word from God

            Perhaps God is subtle and says very little walking the way with us, except to whisper every step of the way that we are loved beyond measure now and forever. Amen. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

*Lyrics from “Margaritas at the Mall” by David Berman; thanks to Dr. Andrew Root for sharing them with us at the New England Synod Convocation.

Not Just Any Saint

All Saints Sunday
November 7, 2021
Trinity Lutheran Church, Shelton, CT
On the day of their congregational vote to pursue a merger or closure of their ministry

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

  38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” – John 11:32-44

            Who was Lazarus? 

            We know just the tiniest details – less than you’d get in a short obituary in modern times. Friend of Jesus, brother of Mary and Martha. Hospitable host. Otherwise we know him as the one who died and the one Jesus subsequently raised. 

            But like your loved ones and mine who have died, Lazarus is not just a statistic on a list of souls, not just any person who died, not just another person in the great host of resurrected human beings. He’s a person with a story, with a history, with a hundred daily interactions that were missed when he died, with friends and family whose hearts would break forever at his loss. 

            That’s what All Saints Day is really about. We often talk on this day about the whole heavenly host. We will read a list of names, which will bring tears of renewed grief to some while others may not even know a piece of their story. Maybe it’s a way of protecting our hearts, every one of which bears grief of one kind or another that we so rarely delve into their stories on this day. 

On this day I remember those closest to me who are no longer here. Those whose deaths felt especially tragic at the time because of age or circumstance. I long to tell their stories, to make sure they are remembered. Scott who died since last All Saints. From years past Bill, Peter, Nicole, Catherine, a host of those whose funerals I presided over in my nine years of parish ministry who were not only dear to their loved ones but to me as their pastor. You have your own names, I know, people whose stories I don’t know but you do. People who were imperfect, surely, but part of our lives in beautiful and complex ways. People whose life and death have shaped our own.

Their stories, their past, their relationships have shaped who we are today. And we stand today as if outside their tombs. Perhaps we even still want to cry out with Mary, “Lord, if you had been here! If you had been here, my dear ones would not have died.” Jesus has, of course, healed many diseases, brought people back from the brink of death. He has even, in the other gospel accounts, raised a few back to life. But when you are standing at the grave of a loved one, none of that matters. What matters is this loved one, in this tomb, in this moment. And though some experience the closeness of God in grief, most of us know, too, the sense of divine abandonment at least in moments if not for long stretches of time. 

Despite his healing power, Jesus doesn’t generally stop death from happening. Out of the billions who have lived, even the tens of thousands he must have encountered in person in his life, only a few are healed back from the brink of death and even they live only to die another day. Jesus doesn’t even stop his own death from happening. That’s not what Jesus does. 

But Jesus does two other really important things. First, he grieves. He stands with the other grieving loved ones at the tomb and he weeps. Lazarus is not just a statistic to Jesus. Jesus knows his story, his life, the ways he touched others’ lives. Jesus recognizes the fullness of this loss – what it means to the world. Jesus’ grief is not lessened by any faith, hope, or promise of resurrection. He utters no platitudes, no “there, there, everything will be alright.” He stands at the tomb and weeps.  

We may want him to fix it, to stop death before it happens, but I can’t underestimate the power of this weeping, this being present. I hope that every one of us has experienced a friend or family member who sits beside us in a time when there are no words needed and cried alongside us. Held us or kept their distance depending on what we needed. Said what little needed to be said and nothing else. At least for me that is worth more than a hundred heartfelt, well-meaning but abstract and wordy offers of prayers and comfort. And, like a dear friend, Jesus knows the story of the one we lost. Not maybe in the way we know it, but in a deep and abiding way. Jesus’ tears are real, both for our loss and his loss when death comes into our lives. 

It’s here that I want to pause and say, too, that in addition to the death of loved ones we mark this All Saints Sunday, that we are here together today bearing another kind of grief. Through difficult conversation, you here at Trinity have come to understand that your congregation cannot continue forward in the way that it has. It is a kind of death and it comes with deep grief. 

But let me remind you that Jesus knows you and your story and every one of the 122 years of history of this congregation. Not just as one of millions of churches out there, just one more place where scriptures are read and bread is broken, where newcomers are washed in baptism and beloved saints are sung to the graves. No, Jesus knows the deep grief of loss for all the little particulars that have made the gospel message of this place something special and unique. God loves it dearly and weeps with you today and in the days to come. 

And, Jesus does something else. Returning to our gospel again, in this moment a foreshadowing of what is to come not only for himself but for all people. He resurrects Lazarus. He calls him forth from the tomb where his physical body has already begun to decompose. He calls him forth from lifelessness and invites him to stand again, to draw breath again. It is often noted that from what we know, Lazarus did later die a second time, in the hope of resurrection but not in quite the same way, on quite the same timetable as his first resurrection. And in that way, Lazarus is like all the rest of us, waiting for the resurrection of all things in God’s future. 

God does not stop death from happening. But God will resurrect the saints we remember today. God will resurrect us when we, too, go down to the dust. 

And God has a plan to bring new life out of the death of Trinity Lutheran Church as we have known it. Today you will make some decisions about that. You get to be partners with God in this resurrection endeavor. It will not look like a return to what was. That’s not was resurrection is. But whether through a new intimate partnership with another congregation or whether through a process of gifting this congregation’s legacy to ministry in the community and the wider church, the ministry here at Trinity will not be consigned to death or forgotten. It will be resurrected in a new way to live on in service of God’s love and grace poured out for the world. 

Today we honor the saints who have gone before us today. We honor our own loved ones. We honor the saints who have shaped and loved this congregation. We honor the saints whose lives are unknown to us but who nonetheless shaped our lives and our world, whose lives are nonetheless held in God’s deep and abiding love. We honor them not be clinging to attempts to relive their stories, and not be fearing death. But rather by seeking to carry forth their light and energy, their values and faith in new ways in new places. We honor them by our grief and by our living into something new. We honor them by proclaiming God’s deep grief alongside ours and the power of God’s resurrection for them, for us, for this congregation, for all the world.     

-Pastor Steven Wilco

A Painted Promise

Reformation Sunday, Lectionary 31B
October 31, 2021
St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Ridgefield, CT

[Moses said to the people,] 1Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the ordinances—that the Lord your God charged me to teach you to observe in the land that you are about to cross into and occupy, 2so that you and your children and your children’s children may fear the Lord your God all the days of your life, and keep all his decrees and his commandments that I am commanding you, so that your days may be long. 3Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe them diligently, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may multiply greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you.
  4Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. – Deuteronomy 6:1-9

28One of the scribes came near and heard [Jesus and the Sadducees] disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” 32Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. – Mark 12:28-34

         Some years ago there was a congregation struggling because neighborhood people would come and graffiti the outside walls of their church building – not targeting the church, just making use of their wall as they might any other building. The church members would regularly paint over it, only to have more artists return with their spray paint. Motivated no doubt by a deep love for the church and a particular sense of how the church of God should look, they painted over it again and again, hoping their deep love for their church would show and people would stop spray painting it. 

At some point, though, they made a shift in their perspective. Instead of painting over it, they decided to embrace it. They invited it. They made the wall of their church an intentional space for people to express themselves in art – not in a carefully planned mural but in a regular invitation to ongoing graffiti art from local neighborhood folks. It was bold, and I’m sure controversial within and beyond the congregation. Some surely argued that the wall should be protected and remain painted a solid color. But others saw an opportunity. They weren’t just throwing up their hands because they couldn’t compete. They were shifting their understanding of what was happening and inviting relationship with the people making art on the church’s walls. They began to realize that people were looking for a place to express themselves, many of whom had been marginalized by the community and the world. The move so startled local neighborhood youth that they started inquiring what was going on inside. And church members began hanging out outside. It was the start of a transformation – a reformation – of the ministry and the neighborhood. Instead of enforcing the existing social rules, they started living from a different rule. One that started first from curiosity and then love of neighbor. 

            I read about this some years ago, and I admit that I can’t track down the details now or find anything about how things are going now, though I know other churches have explored similar projects since. But the story has stayed with me. Maybe it’s because I personally am too easily caught up in the supposed rules and forget to make room for people, for love. Maybe it’s because I know how easily the church can do the same – opting for neat, orderly, and predictable over beautiful and maybe a little more chaotic and spontaneous.

            As the Hebrew people are about to enter the land promised to them after a generation-long desert journey, they hear this command: “Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” 

            Some beautiful Jewish traditions still today include physically wearing scripture on one’s body and literally posting scripture to their doorposts, and they do that as a way to bring that reality of God’s love and call to love others constantly to their mind. But many a Christian has tried to live this out by hanging bible verses on their walls, tattooing verses on their bodies, holding up John 3:16 signs at sporting events. If that’s your thing, go for it. But the command is much deeper than that. I wonder that the graffiti wall is actually a better image for what it means to write God’s way on our doorposts – because it wasn’t just words but the symbol of a deep relationship with neighbor that was ultimately painted on their doorposts. 

            And it seems like a good metaphor for what God does for us. In baptism, God graffities a promise on our hearts. An artfully, passionately painted promise to love unconditionally, a promise to accompany always, a promise to carry us through life and death. A cross is graffitied with oil on our foreheads, a sign that we can return to again and again to remember that promise. Which we need to do. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes that promise of God is hard and messy. It asks me to step out of my comfort zone, to love without boundaries, to let go of my own ideas of right and wrong and live into the messiness of community with other broken and beloved people of God. And I want to paint over it with something much more tame. And other times it just seems too powerful, too awesome, too wonderful and I try my best to paint it over with something much less bold. 

            Like that church as it kept painting over the graffiti on its wall, I find myself intentionally and unintentionally trying to cover up God’s artistry on me. Trying to tame it, water it down, make it something nice and neat and within my control. But God will have none of that. God will keep coming back to write that promise on us until one day, one way or another we embrace the power and challenge of that unfailing love. 

            Until then, we keep coming back to this place – to our local communities of faith – to remember and renew. It’s what we celebrate today in welcoming Emma and Thomas to God’s table, that place where we come again week after week to receive into our bodies the rewriting of that promise of God. For all the moments we forget and resist that promise, the communion table is a place where we have a fresh start with the promise, letting it work on us as we grow into God’s beautiful and life-changing promise and baptismal call.

That return again to the promises of God is what we celebrate today in AJ’s affirmation of baptism – confirmation. God painted that promise on his heart in creating him. God painted that promise on his heart at baptism. God paints that promise anew every morning. Today is one of many markers on a lifelong journey of faith in which we can surround and support AJ, and join, too, in affirming that promise God makes to all of us. 

This is the ongoing reformation – re-formation – of the church. Not just the passing of faith from one generation to another, but the daily renewal of God’s promise to us and the daily opportunity for us to live into it in new ways. When we stop trying to paint our own ideas about church over God’s marking of us, that’s when a beautiful thing begins to emerge. When we stop trying to paint over the beautiful ways God has created us, that’s when our inherent beauty begins to transform others. When we stop trying to paint over God’s abundant and life-giving liberation with our own rules and practices, we risk missing out on the real reformation God is doing among us. 

That’s what today is about – reformation, first communion, confirmation. That’s what every Sunday is about. God’s breaking open something new not to create something neatly wrapped up with a bow, but something that will liberate us for love in the world. And it’s about a God who just keeps coming back to paint that beautiful love over us when forget. Then…then we then get to carry it forward to the world as AJ will promise to do today, as we promise to do every day:

to live among God’s faithful people, to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper, to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed, to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth? 

And, phew! That is a lot. And they aren’t things that can be done with simple checklists or even in a nice, neat orderly fashion. It’s hard, messy, beautiful work to write love all over our neighborhood, to bind justice and peace to the doorposts of our neighborhood, to re-form our communities in ways that honor one another and honor God. Like the wall of that church, it’s not something we can do alone and not something we can even really plan for. It’s something that will emerge as God continues to write that powerful love on our hearts. Amen.

-Pastor Steven Wilco