Holy Disruption

4th Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2023
St. Peter Lutheran Church, Cornwall, CT

1As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” 10But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” 11He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” 12They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” 16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”

18The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” 20His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
24So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” 25He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
35Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” 37Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” 41Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” – John 9:1-41

            I invite you to think for a moment about all the incredible technology at our disposal in this moment in time. Probably many of you are carrying right now in your pockets a device that sends information to and from space in order to access all the knowledge of the world at the swipe of a finger. Now Imagine traveling back 100 years ago with just such a smartphone – even without the internet and cell service to connect it, people would be baffled by its capacity and at the time they would have had a hard time even imagining it as a concept much less a reality. 

Or think about 1000 years ago when many still believed the earth to be flat, despite early Greek philosophers having more or less proven that the earth was round. Today we would laugh at their notions as backward or silly because we’ve not only sailed and flown around the globe but been able to view it from space. All of which would have been merely a fanciful dream to someone in the Middle Ages. 

And that makes me wonder – what is it that I believe now that will become a relic of the past in 50 years or 100 years or 1000 years? What sort of limitations do I assume are inherent in the world that will become obsolete in the future? Where does my imagination fail in picturing what is possible? 

I think that question is at the root of today’s story of Jesus and the man born blind. Think about all the assumptions embedded in the story: 

The people assume that the blindness of this man and other physical ailments were a result of particular sins. Today we might mostly laugh at this notion, and yet we blame all sorts of misfortune, poverty, ailments, and the like on people’s bad choices whether they really were choices or not and ignoring the social context the exacerbates so much suffering. 

The particular religious leaders in this story fail to imagine a broader interpretation of the Sabbath day, even though Jewish traditions already had many ways of interpreting the gift of the day of rest. We might judge them for judging Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath as if they were backward folk. But we continue often to have a traditional view of what ought to happen on our day of religious observance and resist disruptions to that. 

The man himself probably dreamed of what it was like to see, but likely considered it nothing more than a fantasy that he could one day have sight given to his eyes. For years he navigated a world in which his blindness was an obstacle to participation in the community. Though today we have made strides in welcoming people with visual impairment, we sighted folks still often consider them in need of help or, worse, pity. I wonder that as much as we still don’t have a way to change many kinds of visual impairment, we also still need our imaginations broadened to welcome people whose bodies function differently than the prevailing cultural norm.       

            There are always assumptions that we operate within. We may look back on other times or look at other cultures and make judgments about the assumptions they make, but we, too, assume certain things that may one day be disproven. We have come to assume the existence of hunger, poverty, and inequality in our world. We have come to assume certain systems of governance and economics. We have come to assume that the world as we know it will continue more or less as it is. 

            While that can sometimes be comforting, we’ve also made peace with the reality of certain things in our lives. We carry grief, for those who have died, for hopes never realized. We carry regrets and shame. We live with bodies that are prone to diseases and traumas. And we have, in some ways, made a certain uneasy peace with all that as it is. Even when we hope and pray for things to change, we have a certain awareness that even as some situations will be relieved, in general our world is one that operates with grief, regret, and disease. Things will always be that way.  

            And in the church we have a lot of assumptions about how things will be, often that they will be very much like what we have always known. There will be church buildings with pews (an invention only of recent centuries), there will be formally trained clergy at every congregation (something that’s been inconsistent at best across the history of the Christian church), and that worship, fellowship, learning, and the like will be much as we recognize them from our own background. We assume things will be as they are. 

            But this story of Jesus and the blind man upends all the assumptions. The man’s assumption his body would always work in the way it had, the crowd’s assumption that ailments were a result of misdeeds, and the religious leader’s assumptions about what the Sabbath is really for. 

            Often we assume we can just celebrate the transformation of the man born blind and dismiss the others as somehow out of touch with the glory of the transformation. But I don’t think it’s quite that simple. The restoration of sight alleviates one major challenge for the man but suddenly makes him the center of a community controversy. And the rest expend a considerable amount of energy trying to restore the order they’re familiar with. This transformation is disruptive!

            That’s what Jesus does. Disrupts the way things are. Yes, he comforts, heals, feeds and teaches. But that’s disruptive in its own way, challenging the economics and politics of the day, challenging the institutional expressions of religion, challenging people to a new way of life that lets go of a lot of assumptions they’ve made. Ultimately, it’s what gets him killed. These are the lengths to which we will sometimes go to keep things stable even if they aren’t good. And if that were the end of the story, it would be a great commentary on how difficult it is to transform the world. 

            But even in Lent we know the story does not end there. In the end Jesus disrupts even the thing we think is absolute and final – death itself. Resurrection is a disruption to our world’s sense of order.

            We are weary of disruption. I know. COVID lingers and continues to interfere with our lives. We have collectively endured three years this week of total disruption to our lives. We live in a time of rapidly changing technology, pendulum swings in political leadership, and an economy that bounces up and down in ways the experts can’t even seem to predict. And our lives are full of their own individual disruptions and roller coasters. And so we may not always welcome Jesus inviting us in to something new. 

            That’s part of why the New England Synod is making this fundamental concept of our faith its theme for this year. Because we are in a time of upheaval as the church. What we have known is in many ways shifting and changing. Some remnant of what we have known will remain and yet, but Jesus is disrupting something. I have deep faith that God is at work in the world and faith is growing in places we don’t even imagine, but we may not always jump at the chance to have our worldview challenged and to have what is familiar threatened, even if the world as we know it isn’t what we want it to be.

            Death and resurrection is one giant disruption that is at the heart of faith, one that even after Jesus we still sometimes struggle to believe. It’s the equivalent of a renaissance poet trying to make sense of a smartphone. It’s so contrary to our expectations of the way things will be that we sometimes struggle to even imagine it. But do not be afraid, even when we aren’t ready, Jesus breaks into our lives and raises us to new life. Disrupting our brokenness, our pain, disrupting our entrenched inequality, disrupting our grief and shame, and, yes, even disrupting death itself. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco


Sacred Conversations

3rd Sunday in Lent
March 12, 2023
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Rutland, VT

John 4:5-42

5[Jesus] came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph.6Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
7A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” 8(His disciples had gone to the city to buy food.) 9The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.) 10Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11The woman said to him, “Sir, you have no bucket, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12Are you greater than our ancestor Jacob, who gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?” 13Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” 15The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
16Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come back.” 17The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” 19The woman said to him, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” 21Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” 26Jesus said to her, “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”
27Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman, but no one said, “What do you want?” or, “Why are you speaking with her?” 28Then the woman left her water jar and went back to the city. She said to the people, 29“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” 30They left the city and were on their way to him.
31Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” 33So the disciples said to one another, “Surely no one has brought him something to eat?” 34Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work. 35Do you not say, ‘Four months more, then comes the harvest’? But I tell you, look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. 36The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. 37For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ 38I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
39Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” 40So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. 41And many more believed because of his word. 42They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

            Imagine if this conversation went differently: 

            The Samaritan woman arrives at the well. Jesus says “Give me drink.” She shrugs her shoulders and draws water for a drink. They comment on the warm weather. They ask about how the local sports teams are doing. When she’s done filling her bucket, she nods. Bids him a good day. They leave, both less thirsty but otherwise unchanged. 

            There are all kinds of good reasons that might well have happened. There were customs about how and when men and women spoke to one another alone. There were clearly divisions between people of Judea and people Samaria and how they worshipped the same God differently. And when the conversation did get started, the truth-telling might well have scared the woman off without finishing the conversation. 

            Or more than all that, just the sheer inertia of our human nature. While there were different cultural trends and norms in Jesus’ place and time than in our own, I imagine it was easy to get through most days without sitting down for a deep conversation. 

            Have you ever noticed how little we actually know about some of the people we encounter every day? How much does the grocery store clerk know about his customers that he might see twice a week? How much does the engineer know about her coworkers’ faith commitments? How much does the middle school student know about the home life of their English teacher? While some professions and personalities might tend to go a little deeper, most of our daily work and conversations stay pretty surface level. And I’ve found this to be just as true at church as anywhere else. 

            I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized people sitting next to each other in the pews for decades were surprised to learn basic information about their fellow parishioners. Of course, some people do dive deeper. When crises emerge perhaps we do turn to our faith communities with a new vulnerability. But most of the time we miss some of the really important stuff. 

            But the important stuff is exactly where Jesus and the woman go with their conversation. Yes, truth-telling about her realities, more, I think, a recognition of her pain and suffering than a moral judgment as we have often read it. But more than that, they hit the core of faith, of longing. The thirst for the water that ends all thirst. The hope for the one who will come and rescue from despair. This woman, passed from husband to husband, alone in her chore in the middle of the day, she carries who knows what other pain and grief day in and day out, things that go mostly unspoken and unheard by her community, at least until Jesus cuts to the core of it in this conversation at the well. 

So I ask you, what deep pain, grief, or longing would that saving water deliver you from today? 

            No, really! If you walked up and discovered Jesus in the flesh waiting to offer you living water, what deepest longing would he already know, what deep pain or perhaps deep joy would find voice in that conversation? 

            Now what if we shared that with one another? What would happen? What could happen? Now, before you all get so anxious you run from the room, I’m not going to ask you to share your deepest pain and fears. But I am going to ask you to share something of yourself, to open yourself up to one another and to Jesus, who is here today as living water for our deepest thirst. 

            You see, we’re here today to talk about why this congregation is here and why you have chosen to be a part of it – whether you just walked in today or you’ve been here decades, something draws you to this place. 

            Our challenge, though is to get beyond the first layer. Because as important as they are, the whats are not as critical as the whys. Maybe you come because you like the music, or the preacher (not me, the one over there you usually come to hear). Maybe you like something the congregation does like support the preschool or connect with the community at the Comfort Zone. Maybe you like the people or the coffee. Those things are so deeply important. But they’re not why you come. Because if that was all there was to it, if this was transactional and programmatic, you could go to many of the churches in the community that do similar things. They all have worship and prayer. Most do social outreach of some kind. Most of them are full of other nice people and good coffee. But something unique to you and to this place draws you here. 

            So now I am going to ask you to share with each other: Why do you come to this church? We’re going to pick up this conversation over coffee after worship, but I want to invite you now into a brief 2-3 minute sacred conversation and share something about why you have come to this place… [discussion]

            Now, here’s the thing. Jesus is here. Today. Here today in bread and wine, in water and word, present here in you gathered together in this moment. And Jesus knows your story. Jesus knows your past, knows your hurts, knows your deepest longings. Jesus meets you and welcomes you just as you are to this place. 

            But this comes with a warning. When you go deep in conversation with Jesus – and, I believe, when you go deep with one another, because we are all bearers of Christ to each other – then you cannot expect to leave without being transformed. Jesus is not here to talk about the weather or the sports scores. Jesus isn’t even here to talk about church budgets, worship styles, evangelism programs, or Sunday school curriculum. Jesus is here for you. And when you encounter Jesus here, really encounter that deep conversation, Jesus sends you out without you even realizing it’s happening. 

            The encounter with the Samaritan woman ends with her becoming a prophet and evangelist to the whole village. And did you notice Jesus never even tells her to go? It wasn’t an assignment, a task to be checked off the list. It was the way his deep engagement with her filled her to bursting with living water such that she couldn’t help but run back and tell her story. She doesn’t say, come and join the Jesus movement, or come get the three point plan for better living. She says, “I’ve just had an encounter with something so beyond myself I am forever different.” And that’s something they want to know more about. 

            That’s the power of sacred conversation, of building relationship beyond the surface level with each other and with the community. And that’s the power of connecting with a deep sense of what brings you to this place. I look forward to continuing this conversation after worship, but for now, know that Jesus is here with you and for you, inviting you to sit down and share a cup of living water. Amen. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

If Only…

First Sunday in Lent (Year A)
February 26, 2023
St. Paul Lutheran, Terryville, CT & Our Savior Lutheran, Thomaston, CT

Link to Facebook recording of worship at Our Savior, Thomaston: https://fb.watch/iYHbLqAzfC/

15The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”
3:1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” 2The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ ” 4But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; 5for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” 6So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. – Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

1Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, 
 ‘One does not live by bread alone,
  but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 
 ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
  and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,
 so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ ”
7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ”
8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, 
 ‘Worship the Lord your God,
  and serve only him.’ ”
11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. – Matthew 4:1-11

            There is a very dangerous phrase that is probably part of our vocabulary, something we say without thinking and probably with some regularity. That phrase is “If only…” 

            “If only I had a 5% raise, or another $1000, or another $1 million…” 

            “If only I had an extra hour in the day.” 

            “If only I had made a different decision that fateful day.” 

            And here’s one I hear in my work all the time: “If only we had 10 new members and another $20,000 in annual offerings.” 

            If only…It seems so innocuous, right? It’s just a wish, a dream, a hope. Something perhaps to strive for. But it catches us longing for something different that we often have little control over. It comes, I think as a symptom of living in a society shaped by consumerism. It is instilled in us from the youngest of ages to want just a little more. And as soon as we get it to want a little more than that, then a little more and a little more and… One day we realize we can never be satisfied with what we have. 

            Maybe we play the lottery dreaming of what we could do with lots more money in our bank accounts. Maybe we dream of fame and success, being recognized as the best and brightest in whatever our chosen field of work or hobby. We live in a society that is so shaped by productivity that one of the first questions we ask of children is what they want to be when they grow up, as if we need to imagine more from them than simply being children in the moment. 

            Our prevailing North American culture has done an insidious job of instilling a dissatisfaction with the present, with what is – always driving us to want more, be more, do more. 

            And isn’t that what the serpent suggests to Adam and Eve – don’t you want to be more? What you have isn’t good enough. What you have isn’t enough. Just give it a try. They have everything they could ask for, a life of abundant ease and still that voice tempts: If only we had one more thing…

            And isn’t that what the the devil says to Jesus, too? Unlike the well-fed Adam and Eve, he’s been fasting in the wilderness. And the devil comes to tempt him. The suggestions seem almost innocuous, at least at first. What could be wrong with conjuring up a little bread to eat? Certainly Jesus himself will later multiply the loaves to feed those who are hungry. And what’s the harm in a little test of the angels’ power. And, honestly, what if Jesus were in charge of all the earthly kingdoms? Wouldn’t that bring us peace on earth? 

            But subtly, each time the tempter suggests dissatisfaction with what is. Wouldn’t you like things to be a little different, Jesus? If only we had a little bread. If only we could prove God’s power. If only we had a little more power. If only…

            It’s quite literally the oldest trick in the book – If only you had a little bit more. 

            But what if we attuned to what we already have here and now? I know I have to stop myself sometimes thinking about buying something I don’t really need that won’t really make me happier. I have to stop myself from “if only…” thinking about my work, my child’s school experience, my home, and so many other things. It’s so easy to slip into that thinking and miss the incredible gifts I already have.

            And it’s so very true of the life of our congregations in this time. I don’t like to make generalizations, but I think it might be true that every congregation I visit shares some form of subtle or overt “if only…” thinking. Almost every congregation would love to have more people, a bigger budget, more energy, more younger families, more outreach, more, more, more. 

            Now, yes, Jesus gives us a great commission to share the good news to the ends of the earth. And that calls us to important work of reaching out to others. But nothing in that call mentions membership numbers or budgets, building up particular congregations or denominations. 

            How would our congregations be different if we lived into who we are now. You all at St. Paul and Our Savior are on the frontlines of an emerging church. I know it’s not easy at times. There are times the schedule and logistics are complicated. But you’re living into that great commission with what you have now. Figuring out what it means to be community together and discovering the gifts that come from partnership. They’re different gifts, I think, than the ones that come from the fewer and fewer larger congregations with bigger budgets and more people. Not better or worse, just different. I think there’s creativity and flexibility that emerge when you partner like this – things that serve the gospel well. There are gifts like the capacity to share not just a pastor but staff. There are gifts in the way each congregation’s strengths help build up and shape the other for even richer ministry?

            Because if the questions are only about more people, more money, more power, or trying to reclaim what we know from the past. Even when it seems innocuous or even for a good cause, we might pause and ask where that voice is really coming from. But if the questions are about deeper relationship, more equitable justice, increased care for neighbor, the extension of grace, that might be more the voice we want to tune into this Lent. Because that’s what Jesus is about. Jesus is about lifting up the lowly, scattering the proud, upending systems of power and oppression, even, especially about entering death in order to find life. If we are to talk about the way of the cross in Lent it’s about, in part, dying to that voice that is always suggesting what else we could do, what else we could be, what else we could get if only… 

            Instead we might ask ourselves, “Where is God in this? And what might God be doing here and now?” Because despite the voices that draw our attention elsewhere, I believe God is in it, whatever it is we’re experiencing, wherever we find ourselves. And that is the work of Lent, to tune in and notice like a scientist, a detective, an artist, a poet – take your pick – to the big and little ways God is raising up new life among what is often a narrative of loss and death. Because the voice of the tempter is often loud and persistent. It is often enticing and seductive. But the voice of God is steadfast. And even when the call is to the way of the cross, and often not what we think we want in the moment, God pursues us every step of our journey until sooner or later we do face death and meet God’s life there. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

More than Enough

Sunday, February 19, 2023
Stewardship Sunday at Concordia Lutheran Church, Worcester, MA

Worship recording available on Facebook: https://fb.watch/iRPggYQG9P/

1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near. 5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people? 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” – John 6:1-14

         How could this possibly be enough? 

            That’s the fundamental question the disciples ask today of Jesus. They look out at the need and the meager resources and say, “This is not enough. How could this possibly be enough?”  

            It’s a question I ask all the time. I look at the tremendous needs of the world – there is war in Ukraine, famine in Somalia, devastating violence in parts of Central America. There is gun violence and poverty and bullying and inequality in our own neighborhoods. There is so much need in the world what can I possibly do to make a dent in that? 

            It’s a question our churches are asking. Nearly every church I visit is smaller than it was three years ago, and whether in a wealthy or not-so-wealthy community almost everyone one is struggling with their budgets. The people of God have big dreams and a big call to go and make disciples of all nations, but they look around and think, how are we supposed to do that with so little? I think you here at Concordia have been asking that question. You have a deep sense of mission. When I hear your leaders talk about the things you do together – the work you do on Friday nights, the vibrancy of the gathering here this morning – there is a sense of the Spirit at work! And yet, there is a question lurking, how will we afford to keep all this going? How could what we have possibly be enough? 

            And I don’t know about you, but I ask the question in my own life. I try to be the best dad I can be, the best husband I can be, the best pastor I can be, the best community member I can be. And it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day, enough energy, enough capacity. How can I be enough? 

            Enter Jesus. He and the disciples have attracted a crowd of 5,000 and they are hungry. Jesus himself actually poses the first question: “Where will we buy bread for all these people?” As Jesus often does, especially in the gospel of John, he is setting them up to demonstrate his power. They recognize the problem – there could not possibly be an answer to his question. 

            At this point they and we might have one of two responses. The first would be to give up. Send the people home, walk away. Faced with not enough, sometimes we want to give up. That would be to miss the opportunity to see God’s power revealed. 

            The other option might be to double down. Work harder, dig deeper, do more. Busy ourselves with everything we can think of. Imagine the disciples running around, asking for money and bread and trying to coordinate every last piece of lunch among 5,000 people. With 12 disciples they’d each have to get lunch for 415 people! Even our best church fellowship coordinators and potluck organizers would be tested by that challenge, especially out on an open hillside. But we try sometimes, running around anxiously trying t meet the need out of our own meager resources. 

            But there is a third way, which Jesus invites us into with this story. And that is this: offer what you have and let God transform it into enough. What I love about this miracle story – most of the miracle stories, actually, is that Jesus starts with something. He starts with a boy’s lunch: 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. Could God create lunch for 5,000 out of nothing? Sure. But Jesus starts with what is offered. A young child innocently offers up what he has. Perhaps he is still too young to have a concept of quite how many people 5,000 is and just what will be required to feed them. With a child’s heart and open, unquestioning generosity he shares what little he has. That is what Jesus uses to feed the people. Jesus takes what is offered and makes it enough, even more than enough. 

            This is that third way between giving up and anxious working – to offer generously what we have and allow God to make it enough, even more than enough. 

            There are some who say that the miracle that took place in the feeding stories is that the act of sharing and Jesus’s blessing and invitation actually invited everyone to share what they had, which is how they end up with more than enough. I think that’s a beautiful image of what it means to be community – when everyone shares there is more than enough. We could all learn a lesson from that telling of the story. 

            And at the same time I’m inclined to take the text at face value and trust that God’s multiplication of the loaves and fish is beyond what humans can achieve, beyond the bounds of science and human action. Jesus really does multiply what is given. 

            But in either case, Jesus uses what is offered. We are invited to make an offering and let God transform it:        

            This is true for the big world problems that affect millions of people. We are invited to find some way to offer what we have – our prayers, certainly, our financial gifts to organizations that work to alleviate pain and shift systems toward peace and justice, advocate and tell stories that transform the thinking of our leaders and our communities. And we will not solve everything. Yet together God uses it to make an impact. 

            This is true for our own lives. We offer what love and time we can to our families, our work, our communities. And God works with it. 

            And this is true for our churches. There’s no point at which we say, oh, good, this is enough to do all the things we want to do. But there’s also a need to offer what we have and see what God will do with it. This church – every church – is made up of hungry people who have something to share. It’s in each person offering what they have that all are fed.

            You have an invitation today and every day to offer what you have to God and to one another. A congregation cannot survive, much less thrive without the generosity of all its people. It doesn’t mean every person gives the same – we all have different kinds of gifts and different capacity for different kinds of gifts. But in community together we have the responsibility to offer what we do have. We are called by Jesus to be the child in the story, offering what may not seem like enough, and then letting God do something miraculous with it. 

            So what do you have to offer this community? This congregation? To the people you will encounter this week? What gifts of money, food, time, love, care, prayers, energy, encouragement are bubbling up in you. Think about that question, because we’re going to talk about it over the potluck. What do you have to offer? 

Because we live among hungry people. We are hungry people. And Jesus is asking, “how will all be fed?” God has already planned the solution, all that is left is to offer ourselves up to the miracle. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Choosing Death

6th Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
February 12, 2023
Christ the King Epiphany Church, Wilbraham, MA

[Moses said to the people:] 15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. – Deuteronomy 30:15-20

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
31“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
33“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” – Matthew 5:21-37

There’s a lot in that gospel reading! We’re going to go there, but in order to enter into it let’s back up a minute to the first reading and join Moses on the mountain. Here is the man who has led the Hebrew people out of Egypt and through 40 years of desert living,  standing at the precipice, a turning point for the Hebrew people about to move from wandering nomads in the desert to a people settled on land comparatively rich for growing food. Moses himself will not enter the land with the people, but as their leader he is trying to prepare them. They have reviewed the guidance for living that God has handed down to them – the 10 commandments plus the many guidelines for how to live together as a people. And now Moses offers them a choice as they together stand at this turning point in the life of their people. You can choose life and prosperity or you can choose death and adversity.

Put like that, obvious choice, right? Who among us would excitedly choose death and adversity over life and prosperity? Besides, in the promised land everything will be easy right?

But Moses knows that the choice is not so easy. And so do we. We sit here perhaps in church, or really at any point or place in our lives, perhaps especially at big moments of transition, and say easily that we will choose life this time – the things that will bring deep and abiding peace, wholeness, and satisfaction. This time we will live according the values we espouse, this time we will do it differently, this time… Then we go off and do just the opposite, we make a thousand little choices day in and day out that choose death instead of life, adversity instead of prosperity.

This is the brokenness in our world that Jesus is addressing in the sermon on the mount. Because, spoiler alert, God’s people didn’t always choose life in the promised land, or in exile, or in any time or place they’ve ever lived right down to today. So Jesus reminds us – again – of some of the choices we face:

The first choice is what to do with our anger. Build others up or tear them down? Mend broken relationships or let them fester. Life or death?

Anger is normal and natural. It gives us information about something that isn’t right. Jesus himself got angry. Remember that when answering the question “What would Jesus do?” that flipping over tables is a legitimate answer. But the choice with our anger is how to direct it toward building up the community.

You shall not murder. Easy enough for most of us. But put me behind a slow driver or implement a blatantly inefficient process and I’ll consider it. Not really. But phew! I’ll stew about it, shake my fist, it’ll legitimately throw off my day. It takes work to reconcile with our neighbor, to put the best construction on things, to remember their humanity while also respecting our own boundaries. It’s harder than we let on.

Or what about deep injustice? The things we need to be angry about: the economic inequality and the persistence of racism in our systems and in our hearts. Do we channel that righteous anger into actively antiracist actions or sit passively by allowing the community to continue to be weakened by the persistence of racism?

God’s hope for us is the path of life – a community that actively cares for one another, engages in transformative reconciliation, takes the hard road of long-term relationship building. And, yes, doesn’t kill people. But somehow, standing with Moses looking into the promised land of peace and wholeness, and we manage over and over again to choose death instead of life.

The second choice is what to do with the fact that God created us as beautiful and sexual beings. The life and death choice here is between honoring that gift and abusing it.

We live in a society where misuse of sexuality is rampant and sanctioned. Healthy conversation about bodies is often silenced, while inappropriate use of power over others’ bodies is allowed to continue and is even celebrated in public discourse. Despite tremendous gains through recent decades including the #metoo movement, we still too often fail to listen to those whose bodies have been misused and abused.

And while those most egregious things continue, we disregard bodies all the time with media promoting airbrushed images of supposedly ideal bodies, we discriminate based on the way people look, and we fail to honor our own bodies with healthy care and love. We choose death over life.

And you have heard it said “Whoever divorces their spouse…” Jesus offers us the life and death choice when it comes to broken relationships.

We must first acknowledge that this passage has been misused too often to allow abuse to continue or unhealthy relationships to fester. There are times when the most life-giving choice is divorce. But Jesus reminds us that how we handle broken relationships matters. Whether it’s a marriage, a romantic relationship, a friendship, or a family relationship, all of somewhere have relationships that have been broken. Do we honor the ways we have been called into community with one another? Do we honor the promises we make to one another? Do we hold that carefully and tenderly when relationships need to be ended? Do we recognize the ways even our broken relationships shape who we are?

Too often we treat others as disposable in our lives and take the path of death rather than life.

And finally, now that we’ve covered murder, adultery, and divorce all in one sermon. Jesus reminds us about swearing falsely. Do we make the choice to live and speak honestly, in ways that share truth while minimizing harm? Can we live in such a way that we don’t have to puff up our words and deeds with extra padding just to feel important or loved? Too often we don’t. Again choosing death over life. Every day we wake up and stand with Moses, looking ahead to the day. Will we choose life and prosperity or death and adversity?

So what is God to do with us when we choose death? Our broken nature clearly lands us there more often than we want to admit. And God sends all manner of little reminders and sometimes big ones. Sometimes we crash and burn and have to pick up the pieces. But more than that, God goes all in with us. Instead of throwing up the divine hands and walking away, the God of life chooses the way of death with us. All in. On the cross, in the bodies of those who are unjustly harmed and killed and enslaved and ignored, in our broken and failing bodies. God chooses with us the way of death in order to lead us once and for all into life.

We have a hundred little choices every day, and our world would be a better place if we made even an incremental shift in better choices. Sure. But we aren’t going to solve the brokenness of the world with our trying. It’s only in dying – dying to ourselves, dying to the idols we have created in our lives, actually dying – that we once and for all discover the gift of life in the way God intended it, letting go of all that seemed so important and landing in God’s open embrace of life.

Pastor Steven Wilco

Salt, Light, and the Three Sisters

5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A
February 5, 2023
Christ the King Lutheran Church, Nashua, NH

1Shout out, do not hold back!
  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
 Announce to my people their rebellion,
  to the house of Jacob their sins.
2Yet day after day they seek me
  and delight to know my ways,
 as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
  and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
 they ask of me righteous judgments,
  they delight to draw near to God.
3“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
 Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
  and oppress all your workers.
4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
  and to strike with a wicked fist.
 Such fasting as you do today
  will not make your voice heard on high.
5Is such the fast that I choose,
  a day to humble oneself?
 Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
  and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
 Will you call this a fast,
  a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
  to loose the bonds of injustice,
  to undo the thongs of the yoke,
 to let the oppressed go free,
  and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
  and bring the homeless poor into your house;
 when you see the naked, to cover them,
  and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
  and your healing shall spring up quickly;
 your vindicator shall go before you,
  the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9aThen you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
  you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.


9bIf you remove the yoke from among you,
  the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
  and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
 then your light shall rise in the darkness
  and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
  and satisfy your needs in parched places,
  and make your bones strong;
 and you shall be like a watered garden,
  like a spring of water,
  whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
  you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
 you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
  the restorer of streets to live in. – Isaiah 58:1-12

[Jesus said:] 13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:13-20

In case you aren’t already familiar, I’d like to introduce you to the Three Sisters. They are corn, squash, and beans. Long before European colonizers arrived on these shores, indigenous people throughout what is now North America, including the Abenaki in this area, had learned an incredible agricultural secret. If they planted these three crops together in one field, they were much more successful in growing food. Unlike what are usually monoculture fields in so-called modern agriculture, the three grew together in the same plots in a mutually dependent relationship. The corn stalk provided a trellis for the beans to grow on, the beans fixed nitrogen in the soil needed by the other two and strengthened the corn as it grew up the stalk, and the wide squash leaves shaded the soil holding in moisture and keeping down on weeds. Each plant did what its DNA told it to do, each was fully itself. Together they formed an incredible community that helped each one thrive. 

            In some ways I think that’s what Jesus is saying to us this morning. You are salt. You are light. The world needs you, just as you are to do your thing so that all of us are stronger together. 

Salt is a flavor enhancer. It helps bring out and strengthen the flavor of other things. Too much and its overpowering, too little and food is bland. Just right and it draws out the richness of the different flavors we love. 

Light, too. We generally don’t stare directly at light sources. For the most part we have lights so that we can see other things. Light reflects off other surfaces bringing their image to our eyes and brain. Light illuminates so that other things can shine. 

            Too often we hear this passage to be salt and light and come away feeling as if we need to be something more, bigger, different. As if it is this call to work harder at some moralistic version of Christianity. Be better and teach others to be better, too. At least, that’s how I often heard it proclaimed growing up. 

            But Jesus doesn’t ask us to become salt or become light. He tells us we already are. You, just as you are, exist in the world. And by being you, you bring out the beautiful flavors of the whole community. By being you, you shine light that brings out others. And so in turn they, you. Like each of the three sisters, salt and light just are. They just do their thing, which in turn supports other things. In doing so the world is better for it. 

            With individualism so prevalent in our modern North American culture so deeply supports, we might be tempted to think of being salt and light as something we can do in isolation, forgetting that being who we are comes also with a deep call to remember the interdependent nature of that. A call, in the words of Isaiah, to loose the bonds of injustice, let the oppressed go free, share our bread with the hungry, and bring the houseless into your home. Jesus, too, in this calls us to bring forth righteousness. But the ways we have to engage that work are myriad. 

            As we begin Black History Month – a month created and continued because so much of the history taught the other 11 months leaves out their stories – I think about all the people that made possible the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century in the United States. We think readily of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the great orator and coalition builder who became a primary face of the movement. We forget all the ways he was influenced by others, like Ghandi, whose march for salt was the inspiration for MLK’s own nonviolent resistance. Perhaps we remember Rosa Parks and her steadfast resolve to claim her seat on the bus, forgetting all the people who trained her for that moment and the thousands who made the following bus boycott possible with their ride-sharing and communal support. 

            We often fail to celebrate Malcom X to the same extent, but his role was integral to the whole movement. James Baldwin wrote with incredible eloquence about the experience of being black in America, with words that still resonate deeply today. There were students on freedom rides and at lunch counters. There were everyday people talking with co-workers and family members. There were people who made sure the leaders had what they needed to do their work. There were contemplatives who held the movement in prayer. Each being salt and light in their own way. 

            That movement, like any, was filled with people of all types, bringing their gifts and their own unique presence that made the whole thing shine brightly. Without one part of the puzzle the movement would have been weaker, like a bean plant trying to grow without a trellis to hold it up. 

            What is your gift? What do you bring to the world? What do you bring the work of justice that Isaiah calls us back to this morning? 

            You have been created to give this world flavor and light. God has instilled you with gifts. Have you paused to celebrate what those are? Have you paused to ask recently where those gifts might be needed that they haven’t yet been offered? And, conversely, where are you trying to be someone you aren’t? Where is it time to let go of something that isn’t yours so that your gifts can shine where they really are needed? 

            We ask this same thing of our churches. Over and over congregations ask me and other synod staff to tell them about what’s “working” in “successful” churches. Often it’s the sense that we are holding some secret to church growth. As if we had the recipe for the secret sauce for growing churches and might just share it if prompted in the right way. But the truth is, the churches that are growing – in faith, in vitality, and sometimes also in attendance and finances – are the ones trying to be who they are in an interdependent way. Some of our strongest ministries are ecumenical partnerships – not just because two smaller congregations came together as one, but in each bringing their gifts to the other, the whole was more than the sum of the parts. It’s in being salt and light out in the world that we find our life and vitality. 

            What is your gift here at CTK? What do you bring to the world as a congregation? I know one thing you’ve been doing is really leaning into your radical inclusivity, figuring out what it looks like to live that out. I know you’ve found ways to partner with ecumenical friends. I’m sure there’s much more that I haven’t heard about. Who are you? Where can leaning into that respond to God’s call to be salt and light in ways that loose the bonds of injustice and set the oppressed free? 

            This is what Isaiah goes on to describe as a well-watered garden. When this kind of ministry thrives, when each person lives their own salt and light, when that together sets everyone free, we flourish like a well-watered garden, continuing to grow in ways that support and feed one another. That is Jesus’ call to us today, to live as the salt and light we are, supporting one another and in doing so set everyone free. Go forth and grow! 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

Hooked By Jesus

Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
January 22, 2023
Advent Lutheran Church, Rindge, NH

12Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
  on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
16the people who sat in darkness
  have seen a great light,
 and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
  light has dawned.”
17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. – Matthew 4:12-23

            People love to ask pastors about their call story. What would make someone choose a path of religious leadership? What drew you? How does God do something like that? 

            My own call story in some ways isn’t that unusual. I grew up in the church, despite challenges from time to time, it was a place of safety and welcome, a place I felt alive and loved. It’s a place I learned to serve and share my gifts. Pastors seemed pretty distant when I was little, but when I was in Jr. High and in confirmation at church, we got a new pastor. He pulled me aside after having not been there that long and said, “you know, you should think about being a pastor.” I tried not to laugh. It wasn’t really something I had considered, though my vague career interests were in the direction of psychotherapy or education, so it wasn’t in some ways that far off. But the thing is, that comment was like a hook that would not let me go. 

            It nagged me in the back of my mind. Over the next few years I talked it over with trusted people, I prayed about it a lot, and that small spark became a steady flame. To skip over a lot more years of school and a lot more layers of discernment, here I am. I got hooked. 

            And, yet, I read the story today of Jesus coming alongside the Sea of Galilee and calling the fishermen up out of their boat and wonder how such a thing could be possible. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Oh, ok, yep, ready, let’s go! To us who maybe have read the story many times over and used the language of fishing for people, maybe it’s lost its strangeness. But what?! They just drop everything? To do what now??

            Even having experienced being hooked by just such a call, I marvel at their ability to say yes so quickly. But this isn’t a story about how wonderful these now disciples are. It’s not a story in which they muster up the best of their bravery and gumption to do the noble task. It’s not a story about their incredible gifts or their willingness. I think this is a miracle story. 

            We know Jesus performs miracles. This passage itself mentions at the end that he goes around curing people of disease. We know he stills the storm, walks on water, feeds the thousands, turns water into wine, drives out the demons, and even raises the dead. But we forget to include in that list that he makes disciples.

            I don’t think this story is about a transaction that takes place. As if Jesus asks, the disciples-to-be consider, then they say yes. I think this is much more like the story from John’s gospel of turning water into wine. Making one thing into another. Jesus comes along and works the miracle of making fishermen into disciples. 

            That’s the thing about discipleship. The life of a disciple is hard work, no doubt. It takes energy and commitment. It takes study and action. It takes sacrifice. But that’s not what makes a disciple. It’s the Holy Spirit that does that. Because all that work without the spark of life that God instills is just a long slog. It’s the Spirit’s hook that will not let us go that spurs us on to do all that, not the other way around. 

            We know the kind of people Jesus calls to share the good news – fishermen, tax collectors, people who are pushed to the margins, the Samaritan woman at the well with her questionable history, people whose bodies don’t work the way others do, children. They all have tremendous gifts just like anyone else, but the point is that these are not the world’s best and brightest, the most committed, or the most popular. These are ordinary, run-of-the-mill people God gathers up and turns into disciples. God uses what is there and works miracles with it. Turning it from one thing into another. 

            Just like what God does every Sunday when we gather to share bread and wine. God transforms ordinary food and drink into Christ’s body for us. And I’ll let you in on one of my favorite things about my call that includes presiding at the table with that bread and wine. When I preside, I love holding the bread and cup up. In part it is to show you, to give you that clear visual reminder of what it is we’re talking about, what it is we’re about to share. But what I see is all of you out in the assembly bread, wine, and people, all together in my line of sight. And there I remember that God is not only making bread and wine into Christ’s body, but making you and I, too, into Christ’s body. In some places the invitation to the table is “Receive what you are, become what you receive: the body of Christ.” In this meal, Christ makes you his body. While that will inevitably call you to work for justice, to share the good news, to deepen your faith, it is God’s work in you making that a reality. 

            Which makes me sad that we don’t do a better job of asking everyone their call story. What caused you to go into parenting or accounting, into engineering or painting, into starting your own business or dedicating your life to the kind of clerical, janitorial, or other behind-the-scenes support work helping others bring forward a product or service. We do sometimes ask, especially with other helping professions, but not in the same way I hear people ask me and my clergy colleagues. 

            What would you say? What is your story? How has God hooked you and stoked a deep passion within you? How has the Spirit moved you to bring life and energy to the world? Really. Consider those questions… 

            Jesus isn’t bringing these fishermen into a higher calling. If anything, the language he uses is a deep affirmation of the vocation they have already been engaged in. I think the miracle Jesus works among them and among us is to bring forth a spark, a flame, a drive within them. And I believe Jesus very much does the same among us. God comes along to your everyday life, at work, at home, at school, in the grocery store and the hair salon to turn you into a disciple. 

            That call takes a billion different forms and God’s call to you is your own unique call. But whatever it looks like it’s holy and awesome and I pray that even on the hardest days, the days you feel like quitting, like nothing you do matters that you feel the hook that Jesus has sunk into you needling you forward to see the riches prepared for you and the God-given gifts you have to share with others. 

            For that’s the call in today’s story. To go forth as disciples to make more disciples, not by coercion or force, not by explanations that convince or threats of what will happen if people fail to follow, but by letting Christ transform you and your life such that others catch the spark. Not to question Jesus’ fishing image, but I like the image he uses just a bit later in the gospel of a light to be shared. When you really get hooked, when God transforms you into a disciple, your light shines in a way that spreads like one candle lighting another, multiplying the light rather than dividing it. 

            This is what created the church, what still today creates the church – that spark, that hook of Christ bringing us together and inspiring us to share the news of God’s transforming love. So come again to the table today. Receive what you are, become what you receive, the body of Christ. Then go. Be Christ to the world.

-Pastor Steven Wilco

What are you looking for?

Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year A)
January 15, 2023
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Jericho, VT

29[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!30This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ 31I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”
35The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, 36and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” 37The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. 40One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. 41He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). 42He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). – John 1:29-42

What are you looking for? 

These are the first words that Andrew and John hear from the mouth of the Messiah. A piercing question that cuts to the core of their deepest longing and the core of Jesus mission. 

What are you looking for? 

I was struck by just that question in a story shared by a Lutheran bishop from another part of the country in a recent issue of The Christian Century. It is not my story, but it definitely resonated with me. Bishop Mike Rinehart reflected back to an earlier time in his life when he was required to take a safe driving course after three speeding tickets in a single year. True confession: though I have only had two speeding tickets in my life, I have been known to push the speed limit. I walk fast, talk fast, eat fast, drive fast – I have trouble slowing down. As I said, his story resonates with me. But here was this pastor taking a safe driving course at the insistence of the courts. And here I’ll quote his telling of his experience: 

“At the end of the second class, the instructor pulled me aside, apparently for one-on-one tutoring. ‘Why are you here?’ he asked.

“’Because I got three speeding tickets.’

“’No, really, why are you here?’ It was an existential question. I wasn’t sure how to answer. ‘Where are you going in such a hurry?’

“’Well, the first time I was going to . . .’

“’No, where are you going in such a hurry?’ Ah, he meant in life. Another existential question. Again, I had no words. ‘Life is short. Take your time and enjoy it,’ he said. Now he was preaching. ‘There is just a grave waiting for you down that road.’ Ouch. Now you’re going to bring up my mortality?

“Then he pastored me: ‘What are you looking for?’” – Bishop Rinehart

Maybe you’ve figured this out better in northern Vermont, than some of us who live farther south in New England, but I suspect even here the pace of life in 21st century North America has caught up with you. Even if you aren’t a lead-footed driver, you probably somewhere know the press of time. The looming of deadlines, the desire for more hours in the day, the pace at which our children seem to grow up before our eyes, the desire for more wealth, success, happiness, or whatever it is that drives you toward what is next. Where are you going in such a hurry? There’s only a grave waiting for you at the end of the road.

Mortality in mind, we might ask, “What are you looking for?” What is it that drives your deepest fears? Asked in the right way it’s like hitting a brick wall at 90 miles an hour. For me, like many, slowing down means confronting the deepest longings of my heart. Whether it’s a sense of inadequacy. Regrets from long ago. Fear of not being enough. Perhaps it’s the burden of feeling responsible for things beyond our control. The weight of the deep suffering and pain experienced daily by billions of people around the world from injustice, violence, and greed. Maybe it’s your own deep grief over people and opportunities long since dead. What are you looking for?   

The realities of Jesus’ first century world were different in terms of pace of life, but the deep pain of loss, the injustice and violence, the deep human longings – they were all there. What Andrew and John are looking for we do not hear. They reply with a question of their own, perhaps to deflect that deeper question. Their true response, if it was ever voiced at all, was not recorded for us to know. I don’t know which of those deep longings caused them to be hanging around John the Baptist in the wilderness or caused them to be ready to follow Jesus having only just seen him walk by and heard John’s description. But something, clearly, drew them. Something in them needed what Jesus had to offer. 

I suspect if they did manage a response it was something like a desire for sound teaching – they do call him “Rabbi” after all. Perhaps a longing to know more about God. Perhaps a spark of something they can’t identify. But somewhere, underneath that is a longing that sits deep in their soul. It’s the thing that makes them speed after Jesus, the thing that makes them ready to follow with surprising swiftness. 

What draws you here this morning? For many of you it is likely in part a well-practiced habit to gather in Christian community on Sunday morning. For many perhaps it is the community fellowship or communal expression of faith, the spiritual nourishment from word and sacraments. All true and rich reasons to be here this morning. But what are you looking for? What deep need is in your heart? Where is your soul aching for something? What is it that, if you found it, you would drop everything to follow? 

            That’s what’s happening in this dynamic call of the disciples. I’m often struck by the immediacy of their following, wondering if I’d have the wisdom and courage to do the same. It’s not a head decision they make, but rather a heart decision. Something deep in their bones draws them in a way they cannot help. They race forward into something because the Spirit moving within them points them to the source of hope and life. 

            And Jesus, in his wisdom, does not preach at them or even to them. Not in this moment. He does not use many words at all. This is not about convincing or even about learning and understanding. It’s about the power of God to connect with the deepest parts of our souls and welcome us as we are. “Come and see,” Jesus says. Come and experience. Come and be.  

            Then, as Simon is invited through the energy and power pulsing through the first two, Jesus does something else. He looks at Simon. This is isn’t a casual glance or a skeptical once-over. It’s not sizing him up to see what he’s worth. I imagine it’s a deep soul-piercing gaze. He sees Simon. Not just sees his physical body standing before him, but really sees and knows him. The First Nations translation says that Jesus, Creator-sets-free, looked deep into his eyes. The liberating one sees, knows, and sets free. And Jesus renames him. Cephas, Peter, Rock. Simone, the One-who-hears, becomes Peter, the one who stands on the rock. And this naming, the kind of naming God still does today in baptism, that’s the gift that withstand the grave at the end of the road. And perhaps that allows us to slow down and savor life here and now, just as it is.

            That’s what Jesus does. Whatever draws you here, Jesus meets you. Meets you in water, word, bread and wine, human community. And he pastors you. Invites you to savor life. Invites you to acknowledge mortality. Looks deeply at you and meets your deepest need with compassion. And, welcoming you just as you are, names you beloved. I know that some days, some weeks, even some years, it becomes easy to lose touch with that, where our solid rock feels more like shifting sand. There are many times in our walk of faith that feel as though we are going through the motions or that we aren’t seen and welcomed as we are. And yet, Jesus’ promise remains steadfast and he again and again walks into our lives to meet us and ask us “What are you looking for?”

            As you as a congregation enter into a year of transition and discernment, I invite you to slow down. There will be many tasks to complete, but the most important thing is to slow down and connect with that deep question – “what are you looking for?” Not a task list for your next pastor, but a deep sense of what compels you to follow the one who sets us all free. Slow down enough to allow Jesus’ piercing gaze to meet you there. 

            And keep gathering. Sunday after Sunday, to meet Jesus. To be touched. To be seen. To be invited. And then, go. Go with that burning transformation within you, to proclaim it to the world. Amen. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco

The Place Where God Reigns

Reign of Christ Sunday
November 20, 2022
St. James Lutheran Church, Southbury, CT

33When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34⟦Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”⟧ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” 36The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” 38There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”
39One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” 40But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” – Luke 23:33-43

“There is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there is still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you.” 

            These are the words of poet John O’Donahue, riffing on 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart. [Quote from an interview with Krista Tippett on On Being, Original air date Feb. 28, 2008].

            There is a place in you where you have never been wounded. 

            Can you feel it? Perhaps you are aware in the moment of a place you feel that in your body. I’ve heard others describe it as a tether to the holy, the divine, like an umbilical cord to God. 

            This is the part of you that never questions your belovedness, the part of you that gently rides waves of emotions at every turn of life, the part of you, perhaps that draws you here to this table, to this community, to these scriptures, week after week. 

            This, I believe is the kingdom of God. Today as we bring this church year to a close, we talk about Christ as a different kind of ruler, the way in which God reigns as sovereign over all things, the way in which the reign of Christ makes a home in our world. And I wonder, perhaps if that never-wounded place in us is what we are really talking about when we say that, when we pray “your kingdom come,” when we ask God to rule our hearts and our lives.  

            It is the place from which Jesus lives his whole earthly life. What else but a deep connection to that belovedness allows him to speak with grace and wisdom, with healthy boundaries yet boundless love? What else allows him, at the end, deeply wounded in his human body, beginning to gasp for air on the cross, to speak words of grace and welcome to the ones who share his fate? 

            The soldiers and religious leaders are mocking him. They are casting lots for his clothing. His followers have mostly abandoned him. One of the others being crucified is also taunting him. But Jesus and the other criminal beside him speak out of that unwounded place. Despite the tremendous pain they are experiencing – physical, emotional, spiritual – they speak to one another of grace, of wholeness, of belonging. They are able to tap into that incredible well, that incredible gift from God, despite all that is going on around them. 

            I don’t know about you, but I all too often fail to respond out of that place. Much of this week I was away for a spiritual and professional renewal retreat and it is the longest I have been that grounded and at peace personally and professionally in a long time. But it took one minor hassle at the rental car return on my way home to take me right back to cranky and edgy. Not all is lost of course, I regained composure, tuned back into my body, remembered that beloved place, and it didn’t go away but it bothered me less. 

            There is so much on our hearts and minds at this particular cultural moment. We have the capacity to bring awareness to global disaster and war with the flick of television or radio switch. A gift in one way to bring our attention to places that deserve our awareness, but also with a global scale more than we were built to handle and process. 

            Divisive politics rule the day not only in our own country but in many others around the world, where polarization leads to stalemates in governing and pendulum swings in leadership. 

            COVID has not gone away, and we have not collectively grieved all that took place for us in that time, though I know you have done some intentional work around that here at St. James. Still, its effects linger. Its losses continue to mount. 

            The economy is uncertain again, with effects for people at all ends of the economic spectrum. Anxiety rules the day at the moment for many, worried about investments, worried about child care and grocery bills, worried about making rent or where they will sleep tonight. 

            What else weighs on your hearts? What other wounds are you carrying? Where else have you experienced disconnection, grief, pain, and loss? Where else does it feel difficult to connect with God? What burdens weigh you down and strain your body as well as your mind? I invite us just for a moment – 30 seconds of silence, which for some can feel long – to ponder that question and sit with it in your body – what else weighs on your hearts? [30-second pause]

            Dear ones, our burdens are many and our woundedness deep, but there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, a place where there is tranquility and confidence. God is within you. Despite all of the other things that weigh us down, God has promised to love us and never let us go. That tether is strong. The waters of baptism, the cross of Christ marked on our foreheads – those are forever. 

            And it is from that place that God invites us to live in the world. I know you have been thinking about stewardship and generosity this season. Like anything else there are all manner of financial realities – our own and the church’s – and often those become one more source of anxiety for us. But what would it mean for us to respond from that place of belovedness? What capacity for generosity might we discover when we regularly tap into that place? How might we discover new gifts in ourselves and our neighbors when we approach from that belovedness within? What new ways of being with one another could we discover? What new things would be possible in our homes, our workplaces and schools, our church? The thing about this place of belovedness, this place where God reigns sovereign, is that what is given away is not lost but shared. It is much more like the lighting of one candle from another in which the light is doubled rather than halved as it is shared. Whether it is generosity of time or money or spirit, giving from that deep place of connection has a multiplying rather than diminishing effect. 

            Yet to do that requires honesty about all else that gets in the way. Where God reigns the wounds are acknowledged. I think it’s hard to tap into that inner tether when we try to hide all that gives us pain or grief. Somehow trying to hide it and put on a supposedly brave face or make everything look neat and easy, just adds layers on top that we have to dig through to remember who we are at our core.

            God’s throne, as our reading today suggests, is the cross. It is a place where we cannot avoid woundedness and pain. But it is also a place from which life abundant flows out to others. This is the dominion we name and honor this last day of the church year. It is this holy tension of naming that we are broken and burdened yet also whole and healed that is the life of faith. 

            And so for all of us who struggle at times in this tension, I invite us now into a closing meditation with the words of our psalm today. You can read along if that is helpful to you or if you’re comfortable you can close your eyes and take the words in. There will be another brief silence at the end:

1God is our ref- | uge and strength,
  a very present | help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the | earth be moved,
  and though the mountains shake in the depths | of the sea;
3though its waters | rage and foam,
  and though the mountains tremble | with its tumult.
4There is a river whose streams make glad the cit- | y of God,
  the holy habitation of | the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall | not be shaken;
  God shall help it at the | break of day.
6The nations rage, and the | kingdoms shake;
  God speaks, and the earth | melts away. 
7The Lord of | hosts is with us;
  the God of Jacob | is our stronghold.
8Come now, regard the works | of the Lord,
  what desolations God has brought up- | on the earth;
9behold the one who makes war to cease in | all the world;
  who breaks the bow, and shatters the spear, and burns the | shields with fire.
10“Be still, then, and know that | I am God;

Be still, then, and know that | I am

Be still, then, and know

Be still, then, 

Be still


[30-second pause]


-Pastor Steven Wilco

Right to Be Angry

New England Synod Convocation
November 9, 2022

The following sermon is written for ministers (Pastors, Deacons, Licensed Lay Ministers and others) attending the New England Synod Convocation.

When God saw what the Ninevites did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.’ And the Lord said, ‘Is it right for you to be angry?’ Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The Lord God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, ‘It is better for me to die than to live.’

But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labour and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ – Jonah 3:10-4:11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. – Mark 1:9-13

Oh, Jonah. Jonah, Jonah, Jonah…

Is it right for you to be angry? 

Yes. Angry enough to die. 

I don’t know about you, but I’m with Jonah, I’m angry. 

            Sometimes I’m angry about silly stuff I have no right to be angry about. I’m an impatient driver angry at people who aren’t going fast enough for me. I’m angry about having to wait for things, for not getting what I want when I want it. I’m angry about the way my husband loads the dishwasher. I mean – I’m not losing my mind about this stuff – and don’t worry I do have a therapist and a spiritual director, but it affects me more than I’d like to admit. And some days I wouldn’t mind pouting for a while under the shade of a tree.         

And sometimes my anger is really Jonah-like, because I’m mad that God hasn’t smitten my enemies, yet. The people I choose not to vote for, the people who trample on others, the people responsible for war and violence, at least a few of the cranky people in congregations. I know you, God, to be gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, but I mean couldn’t we get a little lightning bolt from time to time? Shouldn’t ministers get one or two a year to use at our discretion?

But sometimes my anger really is justified. I’m angry about the way the world is compared to what it could be. I’m angry about people who don’t seem to care about human rights, voting rights, civil rights, health care and bodily autonomy rights. I’m angry about elections that have the potential to destabilize the world and result in terrible loss of human life in hunger and warfare. I’m angry about centuries of enslavement for people of color that continues into this moment and the genocide and land theft that resulted in the nation we now live in. I’m angry about not knowing what to do about climate change. I’m angry about the church too often failing to live up to its calling to serve all people following the example of Jesus and strive for justice and peace in all the earth. Sometimes it’s right to be angry. And I wonder that poor, tired, cranky Jonah, alone his own little wilderness is bearing the weight of that kind of anger. He’s an exhausted preacher, already weary of his calling. He sees an unjust world and a God who seems to act too little to rectify life-destroying injustice.

            That is why Jonah is sitting under that shurb. If he is going to be God’s prophet, the least God could do is take some decisive action, bring down a little fire and brimstone. But instead, like so many other prophets right down to Jesus himself, Jonah is called and then spit out into one wilderness after another to wonder just what God might be up to. 

To review where we are in Jonah’s story, God called him to go to Ninevah to cry out against their incredible wickedness. The story of Jonah is short on details of said wickedness, but based on the themes of the other prophets and the fact that Ninevah was perhaps one of the most powerful, most wealthy cities in the world at the time, they were at least guilty of the things powerful nations and empires are always are guilty of – oppressing people to reinforce and enrich the powerful. Not to mention whatever else they managed to get up to along the way. 

Jonah is not interested in this mission to the powerful, wealthy, empire-building Ninevites, and so he runs away to the wilderness of the sea. The whole swallowed-by-a-fish thing ensues. Three days of wilderness in the belly of the fish. Then, spit up on shore, he reluctantly goes, at last, to the wilderness of the wicked city of Ninevah. And then we find him in our reading today in a personal wilderness of his own making, just beyond the city walls where he sits mad about life. 

 If God is merciful anyway, why bother with this prophetic call? If God isn’t going to transform the world into something clearly better as a result, is it worth the energy? What’s the point of preaching if nothing ever really changes? What on earth could possibly spring to life in all these wilderness places to which we prophets get called? 

            Maybe you see some parallels. We’ve been talking this week, this year, this century about pervasive and toxic racism, the way in which a whole system of empire that created the nation we now live in has and does enslave and oppress people of color. Surely we give thanks for liberating moments along the way, but they have been too few and too late and not enough. And God has, for some reason I cannot explain, not yet struck down the whole thing in 400 years and counting of its oppressive, colonizing history. We, then, perhaps, just maybe, wonder what good one lone preacher’s voice can do in the midst of it. 

So too for all the other deep challenges facing our world and our communities. Voices and votes that feel powerless against the forces of evil and empire, voices and votes that are outright silenced by evil and empire. 

            Even in our own small communities, we’ve been preaching grace and justice and action and love and all the things we believe God has called us to preach about, and still…still the church scurries around worried about buildings and reminiscing about supposed good old days and trying to will people back into pews they themselves aren’t even always so sure they want to be in. Is anyone listening when preachers give voice to the things God has given us to speak? What power does our voice have in the wilderness?

            But lo and behold back in Ninevah, little ol’ Jonah’s singular voice has created a wave of repentance. So deep a repentance, apparently, that even the animals are dressing in sackcloth. Nevertheless, this is not reparations, reconciliation, or even yet any real, serious action to account for the wrongs that have been perpetuated for centuries. So far, it’s just wailing and tearing of clothing. So far it’s just statements against oppression and book studies about racism, land acknowledgments without relationship to native peoples in our communities, welcome statements that fail to find embodied actions of hospitality, soup kitchens that would rather not address the root causes of hunger. So far, at least, the supposedly repentant Ninevites have done nothing to transform the wrong that has been done. So far, in my humble opinion, not enough for God to spare the city. Jonah’s anger is, partly at least, righteous, even if his condemnation almost certainly must include himself. With Jonah we cry out in anguish, “Where, O God, is your decisive action for justice?!”

            Like me, and maybe like some of you, Jonah is done with Ninevah. Ready to watch God’s wrath come down on it all. It is, after all, what they deserve, what we deserve. God, however, is not done with Ninevah. God is with Jonah that their sackcloth and ashes are not enough. God never suggests that Ninevah can just stop there. Only that God’s going to keep ministering to those lost and wounded people. Keep sending prophets there. Keep being present there, with them in the wilderness of it all. 

            While Jonah sits under the shrub for which he did not labor, God is still at work. God is back in Ninevah, stirring something up in the hearts of those lamenting people. God is using the words of the reluctant prophet, the words that maybe weren’t even spoken with much enthusiasm, maybe words spoken out of resentment or pain – God is using those preacher’s words to do something there in Ninevah. Jonah’s voice did not save the world, but it was not for nothing. 

So maybe this is a turning point. Maybe something will come of this. Maybe it will happen tomorrow or the next day or 10 years from now or 100 years from now. Maybe they…we… will live one day into beloved community, discover the power of righting wrongs and setting free the captives. And…maybe…probably?… like us, they will somehow manage to oppress and harm countless others while they keep trying to get it together. And God will grieve that with us. 

It would be easy to sit under our little tree and give up on it all. But God, unlike me and Jonah, is gracious and merciful, and slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is not done with them yet. 

            And God is not done with Jonah, either. God does not abandon Jonah to his self-pity party. While God is stirring something up in Ninevah, God is also checkin’ in with Jonah. How’s it going there? How’s that anger sitting? Just fine. Ok. Here’s a shade tree, hang out for a bit. Yes… God gives Jonah an object lesson with the bush. God invites Jonah back into a reexamination of his power and the opportunity to reenter the gospel cycle of living, to give up his power and find the way of the cross. To the one who is angry enough to die, God invites him to do exactly as he says – to go the way of the cross and die to himself, to his ideas about how things should be, to his own inward focus, and there meet Christ in his glory. But God also lets Jonah sit there mad for a while. God ministers to the tired, weary preacher in the midst of the anger, all while continuing to pour out grace in abundance – in the wilderness of Ninevah and the wilderness of anger and disillusionment, in the wilderness of ministry. 

            Fellow prophets, there’s a lot of wilderness out there right now. And that is where God meets us. In shade trees. In gentle companionship. In bold messages that well up within us. In wild animals sent to tend to our needs. In wicked cities and reluctant preachers. In the powerful and powerless. In bread and wine. Hear again God’s call to you: Go forth and proclaim. Do the hard work. Say the words even when it feels hard, even when it feels like it will not change a thing. And trust that God is doing something with you in this wild wilderness where only God’s power will transform us and all things. 

-Pastor Steven Wilco