The king said to Daniel, ‘May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!’

Monday, November 24, 2014

Interfaith Thanksgiving Service Meditation

Grace and Peace to you.
Thanksgiving memories conjure up a lot of memorable stories. Not all good, not all bad, but all memorable.
I want to tell you a bit about my grandfather.
I almost never talk about him, and people who know me well may never hear this story

But the man loved Thanksgiving.
My grandfather struggled with alcoholism and so we didn’t see him very much. I remember the last time I saw him, I was about 7 or 8, and it was Thanksgiving. He picked me up, told me how big I was getting, tussled my hair and gave me a kiss. His breath was terrible.
In the car my parents argued about how he had promised to be on good behavior and he broke those promises.
The next year he wasn’t there, but he bought the turkey and all the fixings so that we would have a nice meal.
Soon after that we learned that he had ruined the family business and was living off of food stamps. He called my mom, broke, alone and crying, saying that he was sorry, and that he was going to buy the turkey and have it shipped to us. We forgot about it, shrugged it off, knowing that he was full of promises that often went unfulfilled.
But three days before thanksgiving we received a package from him. It wasn’t big enough for a turkey. But inside were a month’s worth of food stamps with a note that said, “I’m thankful for you”.
I don’t know how he spent that thanksgiving, but I do know that it was his last.
Families, man. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t be thankful without them.   
I went back and forth on whether or not to share this story of my Grandfather with this room of strangers and I decided to for two reasons:
1)    Some people find holidays a difficult time and might appreciate such a story and
2)    Life is messy! And even when we’re not perfect, or even passable, we’re in it together.
I think- actually I know- that the reason he loved Thanksgiving was that for one day- one grand gesture, he could be in relationship with us, and be thankful for what was good, even if just that one day. For one day, he lived the life he always wanted for himself and us.
For one day, he could tussle our hair, hold our hands, and give thanks to his creator for a life full of blessings.
For one day, he could send the message to his family that he loved them and cared for them.
And we heard that message, and that one day reverberates in my head on the fourth Thursday of November each year.
There’s a story in the Gospel of Luke about 10 lepers who are healed by Jesus and only 1 returns to give thanks
That’s about right. Not one in 10 people, but I’d say we’re all usually 1/10th as thankful as we should be.  
For my grandfather his 1/10th was one huge gesture, but for others, it’s simply the act of regular worship. CS Lewis said that worship is the most perfect thing we could do as imperfect people and I think that’s right.
In our worship we have an order of confession and forgiveness in the beginning of the service, and a Eucharist- which means thanksgiving- at the end and it serves as a reminder that being forgiveness naturally leads us to giving thanks.
I have forgiven my grandfather as I hope others have forgiven me.
So this week, I pray that you have a memorable thanksgiving. Not good, not bad, but memorable. I pray that you do so with people you’re thankful for, and I pray that those who have gone before us continue to teach us life’s most valuable lesson:
Life is short, and yet full of thanksgiving.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reformation Day Sermon: Make room for the best part

Reformation Day 2014                                 Pastor Daniel Pugh

Grace and Peace to you- and Happy Reformation Day. The audio can be found here.

I have been in the minds of geniuses this week, and not just Pastors Rinn and Goeres. I've been studying these scripture passages, people who were reforming theology ahead of their time. 
Jeremiah- 500 years before Jesus is born, preaches that a day is coming when God will give us a new covenant that we don’t earn-
That God will write his truth on our hearts and all shall know God from the least to the greatest.
And the key of this covenant is that God will forgive our sins and remember them no more.

A few years later another Genius, whoever is the psalmist of #46 writes while being a prisoner of war, in Babylonian captivity- the psalmist writes, “God is our refuge and strength”
A message so strong that it resonates in the mind of Martin Luther who composes a hymn, #504 in our hymnal and #1 in our hearts, “A Mighty Fortress”

Then there’s Paul, a genius in his own right, who before a single gospel is written, bridges the story of the Old Testament to the recent events surrounding the resurrection. Paul writes that the law and the prophets show us that we cannot earn salvation, but that God redeems us from our sin. That we all sin and fall short of the Glory of God. But God, in the way only God can, redeems us. Paul calls it Grace.  In this way Romans is an evolved theological opinion from the Old Testament ones. 

Jeremiah is setting forth a dream of a future where people know God.
Psalm 48 suggests that however we are saved will be in the refuge of a God who protects us.
Romans 3 tells us that what we need most protecting from is ourselves; that our sin is the thing holding us most captive.

Then John shows a conversation between the old world order, the Jewish authorities, and Jesus who is decidedly different.

Jesus offers freedom for those willing to accept the truth that he is the son of God.
The Jews in the story deny that they need to be saved.

This is the hardest thing to convince people of. We need God. We are sinners, ever digging a ditch with no way out.

When I was a kid I got chicken pox really badly. I still have scars all over from the ones I scratched. You can’t tell a kid not to scratch when they itch. My mom would tell me not to, she even taped oven mitts to my hand while I slept. But I kept scratching all night, and in the morning, I couldn’t open my eyes because they were swollen shut.
Trying to get out sin ourselves is like saying that we will forever resist the urge to scratch the itch. When our guard is down we scratch, and by morning our sin has made us blind.

We say that we can do it ourselves. That we can right the ship regardless of the storm. We want so badly to believe that we’ve got it all taken care of that we live in the lie of lies, that we don’t need God, or at least not very much.  

What’s so convoluted is when we claim that freedom is saying no to God

 Not letting God help- we say that freedom is going it alone.

My son, Thomas, was convinced that he was going to dress himself for school. He didn’t care if we were late, he was going to wear whatever he wanted to wear.

But a big problem arose when he couldn’t open his drawers to see inside. He could only reach the bottom two. So he put on shorts and a t-shirt two sizes too small. He couldn’t wear his usual shoes because he couldn’t tie it, so he put on church shoes.

I stopped him when he decided to go outside in a fuzzy pink jacket that belonged to his little sister.

It’s easy to see in this instance of a 3 year old going it alone isn’t the best path toward freedom.
But are we so different?

Do you sell yourself short in the name of self-inflicted “freedom?”

In John 8 the Jews deny needing to be freed from anything, claiming that they have no master. Like a door that locks only on the inside, they choose to remain trapped in their own prison. 

Jesus says anyone who doesn’t listen to gospel lives in sin because the Gospel offers freedom.

I wanted to find the most Lutheran thing I could do for this sermon

So I went to the Church’s library and looked up a sermon that Martin Luther Preached on this gospel.

Luther says in his sermon on John 8 that, “If you want to be free, it must be your first concern to be rid of sin. For so long as sin remains, it is impossible to be free. If I do not want to abstain from sin and become pious, I may strive to be a master, but to no avail. You must first think of being freed from that which holds you in the firmest of bonds, that is, from sin… Such a fate will also overtake us. We commit sin and are laves to sin. We want to do as we please and whatever serves the devil. We want to be free to do whatever we desire. Few devote themselves to the real problem: how to get rid of sin. The majority are content to be free from the pope; but they are not concerned about serving Christ and being delivered from sin.” (Luther’s Works, Volume 23, samples from pages 399-407)

I’ve been in the mind of a genius.

Like the metaphorical Jews that Jesus is arguing with, like Thomas faced with logic; we too love to argue with Jesus. We love to wrestle with the gospel.

We reject it. We hide from it. We lock ourselves in the prison and call it freedom

What if I told you that this passage is the only one in John that deals with the word freedom, and the word in Greek is eleuther- = "free." That's right, you can’t spell freedom without Luther!

True freedom is saying yes to God’s grace!

One more quote from ML, as it is Reformation Day, this comes from Luther’s works, Volume 48 and I bet you’ve heard it before. 

“If you are a preacher of Grace, then preach a true, and ot a fictitious grace; if grace is true, you must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more Boldly, for he is victorious over sin, death, and the world. As long as we are here [in this world] we have sin…It is enough that by the riches of God’s glory we have come to know the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. Pray boldly- you too are a mighty sinner.” (Luther’s Works Volume 48, 281-2).

The genius of Luther is his reading of Paul who is reading the signs following the resurrection. God has some power- something huge and unstoppable. God’s power trumps the largest of enemies of people- SIN- which ruins us from the inside; and DEATH- which is the fate of all sinners. If Sin and Death are powerful forces, God’s strength is mightier. Paul called God’s power to defeat sin and death Grace. Even sinning 1000 times a day- which is sinning boldly- does not make god flinch. His resolve to love us despite our insistence to go it alone is too strong. God wins in our hearts every time we let him in.

Jesus’ final words to the Jews is, “my word has no place in you”

Whenever there is a big meal, I try to have a little of everything. Turkey, cranberries, stuffing, mash potatoes with cheese, sweet potatoes. But I stop short of filling up. I always make room on my plate, in my stomach, and in my life for the best part.
We Lutherans have a rich history. Luther pointed to the greatest gift- the best part, and he called it grace.

Grace is the dessert- the sweetest part and the final word.

Having grace at the centerpiece of our theology is like having dessert every day of the week.

Learning to live in grace is to not be fixated on doing things our own way, but to pray that God’s will be done. You’ll be amazed at how much doing God’s will looks like true freedom.

Learning to live in grace is not just to be in the minds of genius, but to live in the heart of God”


Monday, October 27, 2014

Five Prophetic Dreams for Augsburg's Future

Below is a speech written for the Past, Present, and Future of Augsburg Event sponsored by the WELCA on Saturday October 25th, 2014. As the Keynote, I was asked to envision the church of the Future and share some ideas for Augsburg.
Below is a transcript

Asking a Pastor to discuss the future of the church is dangerous business.
If I say too little, there would be good reason to question my vision and spiritual leadership. But if I say too much, people may become fearful that their church of the future may become unrecognizable. For this reason, prophets are rarely acclaimed in their own time. So then, we can say that inspirational speaking has a ‘sweet spot’ to push a little but not too far.
I’m going to go out on a limb today, if you promise not to cut the branch while I’m on it. Deal? Good.
I have been Lutheran all my life. My parents were that perfect mix of catholic and Baptist, which inevitable leads to Lutheranism.
We loved the Lutheran church because they were just like us- mild mannered but not dull; kind-hearted but not unreasonable, intelligent but not snobbish, moved to justice work but not at the risk of losing sight of worship.
I am confident that the future of the church will be full of mild-mannered, intelligent, reasonable, kind-hearted, worshipful disciples working for justice.
We are a stable church. Steadfast in worship, generous with our time, strong in our assets. We have had stability for a very long time and have come to own considerable amount of property and are currently debt free. These strengths are due to faithful people for 125 years, and as we project the next 125 years, we can honor the past by remaining faithful to Jesus’ mission to worship God and serve the needs of our community.
It goes without saying that following Jesus mission for us will require change over time.
Pastor Rinn once told me that people did not want to change- then he showed me a list of changes that had been made during his tenure.
Change is a part of life. The church did not achieve perfection in 1517. Nor has it in 2014.
With that in mind, I have five prophetic dreams for the church, much like my namesake, Daniel had in the court of the king of Babylon.

Prophetic dream #1: Environmental Concern
When Pastor Goeres was vicar Goeres, he was given a piece of paper where Augsburg checked boxes about the type of ministry he was to encounter here.
Inter-generational ministry? Yes.
Urban ministry? Definitely.
There was only one box left unchecked on the list of 20 or so. The box left unchecked was environmental ministry. My dream for our future is that we engage this discussion whole-heartidly, in order to be consistent to the biblical tradition of being good stewards of the earth.
The most common noun in the entire bible is tree. We are the caretakers of God’s creation and we are simply failing at it as a global society, as a nation, and as a church.
Environmentalists use the saying “reduce reuse and recycle” and we typically don’t realize the hierarchy in that order. Environmental care is best taken when we reduce- reduce the amount of paper and Styrofoam we use, reduce electricity usage, reduce waste. The second best environmental tool is to reuse. Once we already have something on hand, be it a cup or a sheet of paper, we ought to reuse what we have. If that does not work then and only then should we utilize recycling. Simply looking toward recycling is to doing “C+” environmental work at best. Yet our building, as vast as it is, has only one standing recycling bin. There is one recycling bin in the entire church. Of the other churches in our city that are the size of ours that I have visited, we are dead last in environmental care or concern. Of the other Lutheran churches in our synod, again I would say we are dead last. My vision for the future is that we take creation care seriously. This is a calling from God, the first calling he gave humanity, in fact. The status quo is not up to this task: we can dream a better dream.

Prophetic Dream # 2: More Arts at Augsburg.
I think you’re going to like this one:
More music! More theatre! More art! Some of us have a dream of Augsburg opening a music school. Dr. Olsen is a professor of Organ. Mr. Tippette is a up-and-coming composer who teaches several different instruments. Emily has taught guitar lessons and Suzie Perkins taught violin to half of our youth. Jan Wall named her vineyard and winery after a musical expression even! Our cup overflows in the music department and expansion seems like a bright vision for the future. But why stop there?
Cary Stevens and Joanna Britt are amazing artists, among many. We have a group of photographers, poets, and writers.
As you know, I write plays in my spare time. I have a degree in theatre and believe that walking in someone else’s shoes is the key to seeing another’s point of view. Wouldn't it be great if they knew we were Christian by our Art?!? We can dream a better dream.

Prophetic dream #3 : Tolerance gives way to Acceptance.
 We have a lot of different people in our church who have to hide their true selves to feel safe. Tolerance is when we put up with people and allow them to be around. Acceptance is when we embrace them no matter what. I don’t think I have to tell you which one Jesus would have us do. We have mothers afraid that their children are not fit for worship; men who are sneered at for wearing shorts; grown adults who have to hide their private life, who they love from the church; youth who no longer feel welcome at Young Life, which operates on our property. Tolerance is not good enough when we can dream a better dream.  

Prophetic Dream #4: Adult Education
The average person walks around with a fourth grade biblical education.
My bible study on Wednesdays averages anywhere from 5 people to 40, and Pastor Rinn’s have similar numbers. But when you think about a nearly 900 member church, this is not a good number. We Lutherans believe in reformation of the church. That cannot happen (better: should not happen) without an educated populous. Delving into God’s inspiration and understanding how centuries of faithful people followed God is the foundation of moving forward into the future God has given us. We can dream a better dream.

Prophetic Dream #5: Welcome the Stranger
We have a very welcoming church, and on Sunday mornings we have visitors each and every week, often between 10-20. Regularly new members will say that the extension of friendship in the sanctuary was the key to making them feel at home.  But Christ rarely spoke to people in the synagogue, preferring the marketplaces and the roads to encounter people. We already do this with our various outreach ministries , including our homeless shelter, which operates every night in our family life center for four months out of the year.
In the Spring of 2015 we will work on two houses for Habitat, as we partner with the down-town churches to build community.
I have a dream of another ministry of one that has lain dormant for many years:  a refugee ministry.
Refugees are different from immigrants. Refugees are people who come from a part of the world that leaving their homes was the only option to survive. Refugees never get deported. They live here until they gain permanent citizenship, which usually takes 5 years.
This dream involves a piece of property. There is a property on 5th street, an old house from the civil war era, that was part of millionaires row. Joyce Holton and I went in it a few weeks ago and saw all the beauty of a 1860s Victorian mansion, covered by decades of dust and neglect. The church council has agreed to get an appraisal of this property to see what it would cost. It’s a dream, sure. But all good things start there.
There was a Lutheran minister in the 1890s who wanted to start a different kind off church downtown, a mission start for people unlike any Moravian church around.
Pastor Lutz, knocked on doors and started a church plant for a Lutheran church. And he called it Augsburg.
During the 1920s our church relocated to this spot and built our Sanctuary. But in the economic downtown of the great depression, the Moravian church gave us an interest-free loan. We owe our survival in part to the dreams of those who came before us, who were willing to try something new, who saw a vision of something that did not exist, and who remained steadfast in the vision that Christ has put in their hearts.
I see an Augsburg that has a bright future to be sure. Where kind-hearted Lutheran tackle deficiencies in the church and build on long-standing strengths. Where we embrace change with full knowledge that the future is never the same as the past.
There is a saying in the waiting room at my children’s pediatricians’ office. It’s from India and it says, “We do not inherit this land from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.”
Children are full of dreams. They are also the ones whose faith Jesus tells us to exemplify. It is our job to help this faith and these dreams be realized.

Let us pray.
God of the Future, draw us to you. Lead us on your paths to learn your ways. Enable us to be leaders that believe in things unseen, with the guidance of our forebears, let us be workers for the new Kingdom of God. Amen.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"Ye of Little Faith"

A Sermon on Small faith in Moments of Crisis

The audio version of this sermon can be found here.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
“Ye of Little Faith”
The words of Jesus, more than any others, would bring tears to the eyes of his disciples.
The 12 have good reason to have lessened in faith. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, they have accused of having no faith at all.
But it is clear that fear has gripped them. What started as small worries have grown in their minds to full-blown fear.
I asked my son Jacob this week what he thought fear was.
He said, “It’s like being in a store and you don’t know where your parents are.”
Fear is not only a sense of loss, but also the feeling that things are going to get worse.
With this, most basic definition, we could say that fear is the antithesis if hope- which is a good feeling about the future.
It is amazing about fear- that a small amount of it, if unchecked, can grow into something big even when there is little evidence that things are actually getting worse.
The disciples have been running the gamut of fear and hope all day long. They woke up this morning with the news that Jon the Baptist has been executed on a whim, and Jesus is in mourning. If John was killed, they have good reason to fear for their lives. Then, the number of followers doubled over night as the followers of John flocked to a new Shepherd in Jesus. Fear returns for the disciples. There are too many people to take care of, and they beg Jesus to send the people into the towns to eat. But Jesus being Jesus makes the food last, and the disciples faith and hope are restored. But it fades again.
Case and point: So after the feeding of the 5k Jesus sends the disciples to get started on the journey across the lake. By midnight Peter and the other disciples are in a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. It’s nighttime- not a great time for sailing. All they have as they bail out water is the dim light of their lamp. And they cannot see the shore. The winds pick up, and the sea churns. The disciples are fearful of their lives. They have been in this situation before.
In Mt 8 the disciples are again at sea and the story starts terrorizing the boat. But this time Jesus is there, asleep. They wake him up and he says, “Ye of Little faith” to them, and then calms the sea. And the disciples ask each other- who is this guy- who even the seas and the wind obey him? Remember that question- we’ll come back to it.
That was then- and this is now. And where is Jesus? 
Jesus has been trying to get some alone time for 3 chapters. His mentor John is dead, and he goes to the mountain top to pray and be alone.
We all know that feeling of finally getting some peace and quiet. For me it was sitting on the couch after the kids go down and before the first one of them wakes up, Ashley and I listening to the crickets.
Jesus’ time on the mountain doesn’t last long. He probably feels the wind whipping up. He thinks of his followers who are probably feeling abandoned and scared.
So he descends the mountain in search of them.
The disciples are losing hope and replacing it with fear. They feared for their lives this morning in the abstract, but now it seems likely. If the Mountain is where you go to get close to heaven, the sea is where you are closest to hell. They are reminded of the superstitions of their day. Many believed that the sea was the refuge of the damned. That all those lost souls that died at sea and were not given a proper burial were haunting the place. They believed that the sea below led straight to Sheol or Hades. And the waves would take your life in a storm and remain indifferent to whether you live or die.
So when they see a figure in the dim light reflecting from their lamp on the water, they assume there is only one thing it could be: A ghost there to take them down through the depths of the water, and down to the land of the dead.
Jesus approaches and says, “It is I, do not be afraid” but really the greek tells us that he says, “I am” not ‘It is I’” which the Hebrew word for God.
But while he’s still a way off, Peter asks to join him walking on the water.
Peter, who is the curious George of the New Testament, says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you.”  
What is Peter thinking? A second ago he was convinced that he was going to his watery grave, but he sees Jesus and now wants to get out of the boat?
Whatever the reason he starts out of the boat. But then the fear comes back. Notice that the wind does not increase, but rather he notices the wind more.
He says, “Lord, save me”
Jesus reaches out his hand and grabs his friend and they make it back to the boat. He calls the wind and says those words, “ye of little faith” did you know that Jesus says this 6 times in all of the gospels and 5 of them are here in Matthew. And all six are directed to Jesus’ disciples. Not tax collectors or Pharisees, but to the very people who should know better, having seen all the miracles.
Little faith seems like a good qualifier for it, when the bonfire of their faith has been reduced to a flame the size of a pilot light.
It reminds me of a story of a young monk who was supposed to be a lawyer but for some reason decided to become a monk and get that terrible haircut. In the solitude of his room at night- the fear of life and death overcame him. Feeling that he was unworthy- that the sea of his sin was going to drown him. Any noise he heard made his fear worse- any shadow became the devil. Since he was keeping others awake at night his mentor, a man by the name of Staupitz.  
Staupitz came into the monk’s room and said, “Martin, why are you shouting?”
Luther, exhausted by his own fearful imagination turned to his mentor and explained that he was nearly out of hope and full of fear. He told him that the sins were too many, that his errors to great, and that God could not and should not save him.
Staupitz looked at his student and uttered these words, “Say to God, I’m yours; save me.”
In deed arguably Luther’s entire catalogue can be reduced to these five words, uttered from the depths of self-inflicted darkness.
So, is a little faith enough? I think so. The kids sing this song, This Little Light of Mine, and our faith is often as small as that. We sing, don’t let Satan blow it out!
Like a kid lost in a store, like grown men shaking at the indifference of the sea, Luther repeated these words over and over.
Sometimes that thing that looks like a Ghost is really Jesus walking on water. And even when our fear gets the best of us, a little faith can put us in the same boat with our messiah.
I’m yours. Save me. 

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Kingdom of Weeds: A sermon about the Mustard Seed

This sermon is from the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, from Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
‘Have you understood all these things?” Jesus asks his disciples. Too overwhelmed to process any more parables they answered simply, “Yes.” But I doubt they understood any of these five parables with much depth.
We all know the Sunday School version of the Mustard seed. This idea that there is something small, it is the smallest of all seeds. And when it grows up it becomes a shrub and then a tree, and it’s this message that big things come in small packages and how small things can yield to become big things.
That’s the Sunday school answer. But let’s push it a little bit.
Imagine that you’re in High School and you’re going to write a paper on it. And you do a little bit of research- not a lot- to get by. Is the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds? No. Does it grow up to be a tree? Never! A shrub never grows into a tree. Never.
And then you get to college and your dust off that old paper and you’re going to write it again. And you dig a little bit deeper and you realize that there are all of these laws. There are 613 laws in the Torah- the law- which are the first five books of the Old Testament. And those laws suggest that mustard is actually a weed not a plant. Which means that you would never ever plant it in a field because it is considered unclean. The laws of Leviticus 19:19 say that you would never plant more than one crop in your field at a time, and you would never plant a weed as your one crop. So why- oh why- would Jesus tell his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a weed?
In your college research you go to the next parable. And hear a story about a woman who takes yeast that when added to three measures of flour, and makes leaven, which makes bread.
But you dig deeper and you realize that that yeast is really mold. And it too is ritually unclean. It is something that you would stay away from in the Hebrew world because it would make you unclean. And if you touched it you would not be able to do anything for the whole rest of the day until sundown because you were unclean.
Why- oh why-would Jesus of Nazareth speak about the kingdom of heaven like it was weeds and mold?
And then you would go to seminary. And you would take that same paper that you wrote in college and now you can dig even deeper. Now you know Greek, now you know biblical criticism, and you can really study it.
And you realize that Jesus isn’t really just talking about weeds and mold. He’s talking about subverting the power structures that be.  He’s talking about looking at those 613 laws and say, ‘something has gone wrong here’ See the Hebrew people started these laws for good reason- they were all very practical when you kill a calf you needed to eat the meat within three days. Why? Because if you didn’t, you would get sick. If you’re plowing a field, you can sow crops for six years but on the seventh year you need to let it lay fallow- why? Because it cannot yield year after year. These are the laws- these are the things that made sense to them. If you have two different types of clothing don’t sew them together into one garment because it will pull apart. If you have mold on the side of your house you need to clean it for seven days- all of these were practical rules to live by. The problem arose when they made these laws. And once they made them laws, they became Judge, jury and executioner over anyone who broke them. Insert into that a revolutionary, a counter-cultural crazy rabbi who breaks every one of these laws- virtually. Who heals people on the Sabbath, who tells parables about how a man is lying in a ditch and two priests pass by on the other side and one man defiles himself to help him. This rabbi heals a woman who has been bleeding which was definitely unclean, a man who goes around eating with tax-collectors and sinners; a man who is so counter-cultural that everything he says makes them want to kill him.
My wife Ashley and I were working in our yard yesterday to sort of try to keep up with the neighbors just a little bit. And we were working to pull weeds and she asked me to pull up a weed near me. I looked around but didn’t see one. “I don’t see it” I said. She told me to look again and finally came over and pulled on one of the sprouts of the weed and said, “this, this is the weed” I said, “you mean this huge plant here?” “Yes,” she said, “that’s a weed.” To which I said, “who gets to decide what is a weed and what is a plant?” So I looked it up, and apparently there is no difference. A weed is simply an unwanted plant. In fact, one person’s weed could be another person’s plant.  We are arbitrators over what makes a plant and what makes a weed. We judge for ourselves what is clean and good and what is unclean and bad. And when we give ourselves too much authority to decide not just about plants and things, but when some people are clean and some people are unclean, we go against the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus is talking about when he compares the kingdom of heaven to weeds and mold.
We have lived in our house for a little over a year now, and before we moved in, we noticed that the house had beautiful- looking ivy growing up the side of it. Now we realize that we kind of hate ivy. Because every time we met a neighbor at an adjoining yard they would tell us that Mrs. Barbara who had the house before us planted that ivy and that it had spread to their yard. And every time we met someone we were the people in the house that brought ivy to the neighborhood. And we thought this ivy that looks beautiful doesn’t just stay there. Ivy grows everywhere and you can’t fight it. One day I was out in the back yard, cursing under my breath, hacking at the ivy with my axe for chopping firewood, and my neighbor came out and said to me, “you fighting that ivy?” “Yeah” I said. “He said you want to know how to beat the ivy? “Yes, please, I asked.” “You move” he said.
You know the thing about weeds is, even when you try to keep them down, they come back. And that’s a good lesson for us to hear that we are simply not in control of our lives. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we embrace the fact that we are not in control of our own garden of our lives, the better and happier we will be. As a parent I find myself constantly trying to “stay on top of things” whatever that means. Trying to make sure that my kids are perfect, that everything goes right, that they are not lacking in any school subject, that they are riding their bike on time, that they never wear the same socks two days in a row, that they go to bed on time, get up early, have brain food and vitamins, and that everything would be perfect. But by the time our third child came along we realized that this was not a good plan for success. So we have decided to admit that we are not always in control and we could give our lives up to God. And it is so much better. Rather than trying to control all the weeds in the garden why don’t we spend time enjoying the fruits that we have? Rather than trying to be in control of everything why don’t we let go and let God?
The reading from Romans 8 flows perfectly from the Gospel. Paul reminds us that we are convinced that neither death nor life, nor angles nor rulers, no height nor depth, nor things present nor things to come- NOTHING can ever separate us from the love of God. You want to know why the kingdom of God is like weeds? It’s because nothing stops it, nothing gets in the way of it, and nobody else can tell God how to rule God’s garden.
We are not in control. We have not been tasked with judging who is in and who is out. Paul continues, “It is God who Justifies. Who is to condemn?”  It is not our job to judge others, period.
The power afforded those who were judging who was clean and who was unclean came to a head when this man who was walking around talking against their laws- and they looked at him and it didn’t take long for them to say, ‘that’s a weed and he needs to be plucked up.’ So they took him, put him on a cross, and killed him.
     three days later, 
 that ‘weed’ came back.                                                         Amen.   

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

My encounters with the Woman at the Well: A personal sermon on John 4

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

Grace and Peace-

These women are seeking microloans from We will get back to these two women in a moment.

For the last 2.5 years, I have served on the Justice for Women Consulting Committee of the ELCA. Twice a year I go to Chicago where we strategize and prayerfully consider how women are treated in our church and in the world.
A little over a year ago I was approached to write a study guide about a Documentary called Missrepresentation, a film that catalogs the various ways that women are mistreated in the media. That study guide will is going through final editing and will be published and distributed to every synod office in the country in the next few months.
Now if you’re asking, “Why is he, a white male, writing for Justice for women” you’re not alone- I ask that question frequently...

Most pastors have something of a “call” story.
If I had to pick one text, it would be this one.
The woman at the well story has been the single most influential text in my life.
As many of you know, my Mother is a Pastor. When I was a young teenager, my mother was thinking about going to seminary and I was trying to deal with the biblical texts against women being preachers.
And even though women not being allowed to be preachers didn’t affect me because I’m not a woman, I can tell you that my conscience would not have allowed me to go to seminary if my mother wasn’t allowed in.

So, in the context of that story, I want to show you how my reading about the woman at the well has changed.
I love the woman at the well story because of the surprising nature of God.

It sounds bad- the text tells us that she has been married 5 times- and the man she is with now is not her husband. Women weren’t allowed to divorce their husbands. A man could divorce his wife for two reasons:

If she were barren
If she were unfaithful

In both cases she would go back to her father’s house (or maybe be killed), but in neither of those cases she would never be married again.
The most likely reason that she had been married five times is because her previous four husbands had died. It was customary that if the oldest brother died that she would remarry the second brother. And if he died, she’d marry the third, etc.
And the man she’s with now won’t marry her because he is superstitious about what happened to the other five.
And yet, perhaps none of us were taught that kind of information about this woman.
The day that I was confirmed at Good Shepherd Lutheran church, I was dealing with all of these issues surrounding my future call and my mother’s call as well.
And on that day I was given this verse, “The water that I give will become in you a fountain, welling up to eternal life”
But I don’t understand why he would give me a scripture verse of something Jesus said to such a deplorable woman. 
The pastor told me that he thought that when was older that people were going to listen to me, that I would be a leader, and that I would have to be careful what I say because others would be listening.
At the same time, my confirmation was our last Sunday at GSLC, as Mom had taken a position as a Deaconess at an LCMS church in Cary.
The next week, my family and I were standing in front of our new congregation, in a beautiful new church building, with a beautiful marble baptismal font.
And as I was leaning on the font I noticed a verse etched into the front of it.
It was from John 4:14
 “The water that I give will become in you a fountain, welling up to eternal life”
This verse is following me! I thought to myself.
I went home and prayed. I prayed that God would give me some clarity not only for this verse, but in my life.
That sense of self-discovery took more than 10 years. Several years later I found myself in a wooden chair of an ELCA seminary classroom a little after sunrise. My eyes were tired. We were learning Greek and our professor called on me to translate a verse. I looked down were reading this passage of John chapter 4, and the story of the woman at the well.
Finally I came to terms with this verse. For the water that I shall give will become in you a spring of water, welling up to eternal life.
Jesus isn’t condemning her, he’s identifying with her. When we read the text, we can plainly see that the woman is excited by Jesus revealing her intimate story. Twice after meeting Jesus she goes to people and says the English words, “He told me everything I had ever done” but in greek, it would read more like, “He told me my life’s story” “or, he told me everything I had ever gone through.
This woman isn’t a harlot, she’s just a poor, sad, woman who was previously invisible. She was lost, and now she’s been found.  
John 3- Nicodemus coming to Jesus as night. For God so loved the world- those who believe
Renowned John scholar- and Dean of Wake Forest Divinity- Gail O’Day says that this woman is the world’s first Christian theologian!
She believes. And she goes to tell everyone about it.
Compare that to Nick in Chapter 3
Nicodemous, whose actions are forgettable, has a name- but the woman at the well- she remained anonymous.
I called my mom to share with her what I had learned that day. We vowed to teach the woman at the well story, not as a woman shamed or even forgiven- but as a woman with a brain who had value and purpose! We also vowed to look out for when women were being marginalized.
When I was a vicar I was in the same city as my mother. We saw each other once a month at our conference meetings. And I was amazed at how often my mother would go overlooked- one time every person in the room was asked their opinion except her. Forgotten, marginalized. Invisible. As a vicar and a son, I didn’t know my place. But now, as a theologically trained ordained pastor and feminist advocate, things have changed.
The woman at the well story reminds us that Jesus sets us free.
Before she met Jesus, every day she traveled to this well to get water to survive. Her life was as stagnant as the water at the bottom of the well. But the well they met at was steeped in the tradition of Jacob and patriarchy. The rules of that patriarchal system said that this woman was destined to lose. Never getting to choose whom she married, forever dealing with the trauma of losing five husbands and not being able to be seen during the daytime for ridicule that she was now living with someone who wouldn’t marry her.
The she met the Son of Man who just HAD to go through Samaria.
That’s like saying in driving from Boone to Winston that he HAD to go through Charlotte
He had to go through Samaria because he knew she would be there and he needed to talk with her.
The well is deep, she tells Jesus- and you don’t have anything to get a drink from. And you’re not supposed to be talking to me.
Again Jesus refuses to play be the rules.
Then the verse that changed her life.
For the water that I shall give shall become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.
If you’ve ever been to a poorly circulated pond you know that stagnant water is no good. It can make you sick.
The ancients knew that moving water- or living water- they called it- was clean and you didn’t have to go to it- it came to you!
When Jesus starts a conversation with a woman and tells her about a life of purpose she leaves her pitcher of stagnant water behind and goes to town.
My mom and I share this verse as our favorite part of scripture, and not just because of what it does for women in ministry. But this text, above all others, shows us that Jesus knows our story, and in spite of how bad it seems, he calls us to something greater than our story

He calls us to mission. 

God gives us the purpose to spread the story even when we are anonymous.
Over time this story made me wonder- who else in our world have been overlooked, judged wrongly and stuck with stagnant water.
 These pictures are of women seeking microloans.
I put up a link on our facebook page to
Microloans they have been growing in popularity in large part because ¾ of them are given to women with small businesses all over the world to the tune of about $38 billion annually. 
Given to women for lots of reasons? Women were found more deserving of investment.
Men have been found more likely to ask for a loan bigger than they need, to work independently, to invest in riskier endeavors, more likely to lie and cheat, more likely to default, and more likely to act violently when the bank comes to collect.
In every measurable category- paying on time, the size of the loan, working collaboratively, default rate, return on investment- every category women outshine men.
My mom and I starting lending money through kiva, in large part, because of the woman at the well.
Jesus didn’t have kiva in his day, but somehow still knew that  this woman were more deserving of his investment than Nicodemus.
I pray for you today is that you may be inspired to action because of Jesus’ encounter with the world's first anonymous Christian theologian.