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The following sermon was preached at Bethel Lutheran Church, St. Louis on December 29, 2013.  This message is based on Hebrews 2:10-18 and Matthew 2:13-23.

bassinet“Do you think Jesus ever ate applesauce?”

I looked over at Sheila as she peered down at her daughter lying in the crib between us.  She was twirling a little paint brush in her hand.  We were in a New Hampshire hospital Intensive Care Nursery where I was serving as chaplain.  Sheila and her daughter Star had been in the hospital nursery for the past seven months, since they day Star was born.  We were gathered around Star’s crib as the hospital staff prepared to remove her life support.

“Applesauce?,” I asked.

“You know, when Jesus was a baby.  Do you think he had baby food, like applesauce, or squash, or sweat potatoes?”  There was a long pause.  “Star always loved applesauce,” she said.

Star was born with a genetic disorder that caused her organs to grow at different speeds.  While the rest of her body had grown to a normal size for her age, her lungs had barely developed.  As a result, Star breathed through a trachea in her neck, and for the most part was fed through a tube in her belly so that eating wouldn’t interfere with her breathing.  Star could the swallow teeny-tiniest amounts drops of food or water.  Every day, Sheila would come to the hospital and paint Star’s lips with applesauce.  Star’s eyes lit with delight as she licked the applesauce off her baby lips, experiencing the briefest pleasure from the limited food she could taste.

The memory of watching Sheila twirl that applesauce paintbrush roundmoore-lamb and round in her hands as she asked me about the baby Jesus has filled my mind this past week as I have pondered this morning’s complex and stark gospel lesson.

We know very little about the infancy of Jesus.  Our gospels contain perhaps a handful of passages about Jesus’ entire youth and childhood.  While there are other writings that appeared in the second century that speak of Jesus as a five year old and teenager, these writings are widely regarded as unauthoritative, similar to that of the Gnostic Gospels.  Even our fiction, like Christopher Moore’s novel, Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, neglects to imagine Jesus’ life as an infant.

Historically, we know that Bethlehem was a small town, and that around the time Jesus was born there were probably no more than twenty children under the age of two.  Add the scriptural passages about the naming of Jesus and his presentation in the temple to today’s passage, and in a few brief words we have summed up about all we know about the incarnate infant.

A question beckons us, “With so much left unsaid about Jesus as an infant, why is the story of Herod and the murder of innocent children one of the few stories we do tell?”

In many ways, this story is a retelling of the Passover, one that unites the life of Jesus to the vulnerability and pain of the exodus from Egypt.

When we dig deep, we can see rich parallels between Moses’ ministry and the beginning years of Jesus’ life.  Both Jesus and Moses were forced to leave their homes when they were infants – Jesus with Joseph and Mary, and Moses in the MosesBasketriver.  Both were forced to flee from Egypt and to live in exile.  Both advocated for the under privileged, the captive and the abused.  Both brought new commandments to God’s people.

Matthew works really hard to help emphasize that Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites to new life.  This morning’s message is peppered with imagery pointing to this notion; Jesus fulfilling what was spoken by the prophet, “out of Egypt I have called my son.”  An angel told Joseph twice to “get up and go into the land of Israel.”  The image of Rachael weeping, the same Rachel who was married to Jacob (whose name was changed to Israel) is another vibrant association.

Jesus is the new Moses, sent by God the Parent to bring the Israelites into new life.  But Jesus is also so much more.  Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus is more than a sequel to the Moses story.

A challenge to this passage is that there is a part of us that wants to know why God the Parent saved Jesus but not the other children.  We want to know why Jesus didn’t save the other children.  We want to know why Jesus doesn’t save us from the violence of this world.

More than a sequel to the Moses story, as God incarnate Jesus didn’t need to be a vulnerable baby born among animals, forced to flee with his mother and Joseph and live as a refugee.  He could easily have descended from a cloud as described in Daniel, or appear heroic and stoic as prophesied in Revelation.

Instead, Jesus put on our vulnerability and our humanity, calling us brothers and sisters, living as susceptible as any infant child.  Jesus humbled himself to live in the fullness of our existence in every respect, sharing in our joys and sorrows so that we will never have to question if our Triune God understands the complexities of our realities.

In the vulnerability of the incarnate infant, we can trust with a certainty that our through Jesus, God will stop through nothing and has stopped at nothing to be in deep, meaningful relationship with us.

hole-earthMany of you may have seen the Ted Talk that has been floating around social media about empathy verses sympathy.  It says that in order for a person who is in despair to feel that they are not alone, they do not need to be sympathized with, they need to be empathized with.  That when we are in our lowest moments, when we are living in a pain so deep and dark that it haunts us and terrifies us, the only way we can get out of that deep, dark hole is to have someone else come down into the hole with us.

Sympathy is when we stand above that hole, seeing someone deep inside, and offer them a rope.  Empathy is getting into the thick of it, walking step by step as the one in pain finds their way toward the light.

God throwing us a rope of sympathy is not enough to bring us to the light.  Jesus coming among us, into the deepest, darkest pit of our experience and sharing our lives step by step is empathy, and is the light that shines upon our path.

We may want the quick fix of the sympathy rope.  We certainly seek it when tragedy strikes.  We wanted to know in Newtown, Connecticut why our children were slaughtered.  We want to know why some people are plagued with illness and others with senseless persecution.  We want God to in the blink of an eye fix our infertility, to cure us with our battles of addictions.  We want God to reset the clock on our crumbling relationships.

God does more than sympathize with our pain.  In humbling himself to our humanity, Jesus comes down and joins us the deepest, darkest ache of our lives.  Jesus empathizes with our vulnerability and fragility he experienced the fullness of our humanity.  It is like our lesson from Hebrews shares, just as “the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things.”

Jesus’ early life echoed the history of the Israelites so that their history became his own.  Jesus continues to share in our human experience.

When our children were senselessly murdered last December in Newton, Christ experienced the grief of their parents and our nation.  When we are plagued with illness, Jesus feels the prick of every needled and the adhesive of every bandage.  When we yearn to grow our families, Christ experiences our parental instincts.  When we long to reset the clock on our relationships, Jesus shares in our feelings of despair and hopelessness.

In the infant Jesus, God moves from sympathy to empathy, forsaking the rope and crawling down into the darkness to walk with us step by step.  But Jesus does not stop at empathy.  Just as Jesus shares the experiences of our humanity, Jesus moves past empathy so that we share in his resurrection.  Through his death and resurrection, Christ transforms the empathy of our shared human existence into the fulfilled promise of new life, a life that is available to all.

Through the miracle of resurrection, we rise from our grief like a phoenix from the bassinet_2ashes, building new relationships and holding onto hope.  In resurrection, Jesus moves past empathy and helps us discover the new possibilities that come from understanding how we are more than the limitations of our bodies.  In resurrection, we build deeper connections with our loved ones from the intimacy that comes with forgiveness.

I continue to think about Sheila and her question if Jesus ever ate applesauce.  While I will never have an answer that that question, I place my trust in the fulfilled promise that Jesus was right beside little baby Star as she was filled with joy from the taste of applesauce.  I place my trust that Jesus in his vulnerability was with Star step by step as she struggled to grow, and was the light that guided her from this life to the next.  I live in the resurrection hope that through Jesus, Sheila’s life was shaped for the better for having been Star’s mom, even for a short while.

The infant Jesus lives in the light and darkness of our lives, journeying with us step by step.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached at Divinity Lutheran Church of Parma Heights, OH on Mothers Day, May 12, 2013.  This message is centered on Acts 16:16-34  and John 17:20-26.

Last Sunday03_senior_musical, I was in a musical called “Paul and the Early Church.” The spring musical has become an annual event at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, one that provides seminarians with a creative way to express their spirituality in the midst of learning atonement theories and exegeting Hebrew passages.

The past three years, my colleague Sara Suginaka has written musicals that integrate familiar songs on the radio to the writings of great faith leaders of our church. Last year, our musical was about Martin Luther’s wife, Katherine Von Bora. This year, it was “Paul and the Early Church.”

Sara has a great knack of taking pop songs and turning them into avenues for telling a story. I never would have thought that Katie Perry’s “Hot and Cold” would be the best way to explain that both Gentiles and Jews can receive the grace of Christ. It was surprising that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” became the perfect tune to describe resurrection. I certainly wouldn’t have thought Beyoncé’s music would the best to explain how through Christ, God has changed the covenant with humanity from circumcision to baptism.  (I somehow missed that during the Superbowl halftime show this year.)

10_senior_musicalMy main number was based on our passage from Acts we read this morning. In rehearsing this scene, I realized for the first time that Paul was not so eager to be a leader of the church. He was easily frustrated, and felt conflicted both about his beliefs and why God had chosen him to spread the news of Christ. As seen with the oracle, Paul was “very much annoyed” (Acts 16:18) that people kept calling him a slave for the Most High. This word slave in Greek can also be translated as servant, but the implication that this is a servant who is without a choice.

Paul was elected to proclaim the gospel of Christ to the world, but this was not Paul’s choice. This is not a role he signed up for. He was a slave to the Most High.

This is what makes this moment in the jail cell so powerful. Here, Paul is held captive for spreading a message even though it annoys him. He is held captive by a guard who through his own social standing is also in bondage to a role he would not have chosen for himself if he had the choice. When the doors of the prison break free, the guard would rather end his own life then track down Paul and imprison him again.

In the earthquake, Paul and the guard see themselves in each others limitations. By sharing the experience of being suffering servants, they free each other. This is a turning point in Paul’s ministry, and from this point forward he can see the value in the work that he is doing. He is no longer a slave for the Most High, he is a servant by choice. Paul has been resurrected into
new life in Christ.

Paul suddenly becomes bold and tells the jailer, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”  Seeing how Christ has resurrected Paul to new life, the guard himself is able to be resurrected to new life. Not only does the guard help Paul and Silas escape, he tends to their wounds. A wounded healer, the guard is the most qualified to tend to their wounds because he carries spiritual wounds himself. These men are united in their shared experience of suffering and resurrection.

At the musical, I played an angel who brought the earthquake to the jail cell. While the angel image is really about Peter’s escape from the prison, my character helped bring to life that it was divine intervention that helped the Paul and the guard see each other as similar suffering servants.  Their shared reality is what led to a new beginning, no matter how uncertain.

09_senior_musicalSet to the tune of “Some Nights” by the band Fun, our chorus rang, “But I still wake up, I still preach your Gospel. Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for. What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Oh God, I will go, I will go.”

After weeks of studying this passage and learning this song, I thought I had a good understanding of how God liberates us from the bondage of our fear to make us bold disciples for Christ. Thanks to this musical, freedom never looked so good.  That was how I felt on Sunday. On Monday, I learned about Amanda Berry, Gina De Jesus, and Michelle Knight.

Like I am sure many of us here this morning felt, it was if I had the wind knocked out of me. It is unfathomable to think of the deep and devastating horror these three women and their families have experienced over the past ten years.  It is hard to think about the joy of Mother’s day when we learn that a woman was forced to become a parent while in captivity.  It is even harder to imagine that such pain and devastation is in our own backyards, a few miles from where our children run free and play in the sun.

In the stark realities that continue to unfold with new findings in this case, the joy we experience in seeing Paul liberated from prison and his apprehension of his call seems a bit fleeting.  It can lead to haunting questions. Where is God in the midst of these bleak situations? How can we preach the Gospel when the reality is that there is true evil right around the corner? What do we stand for, when our belief in human kind is shaken by the heinous actions of an evil man? What do we stand for, when we face the knowledge that God freed Paul but these three young ladies are held hostage for a decade? What do we stand for when we experience the prisons of our own indebtedness, loneliness, illness, or grief?

In moments like this, we may feel like the guard and Paul, unsure of what we stand for when the earth begins to quake and fear rattles our emotions in terrifying ways. But we can find reassurance that Christ stands for us.  Jesus loves us so much that he came to live among us as human, living in our joys and in our sorrows. Walking among us, Jesus saw the evils of the world that are result of us being victims of a fallen humanity. He brought comfort to those who suffered at the hands of those who promoted ill in the world. Through the wonder of the cross, Christ put on the pain and suffering of our experience and wore it as his own.

Jesus is our suffering servant who can tend to us as a wounded healer. The humanity of Jesus is equally as powerful as his divine nature. His suffering rattled the world as powerfully as the earthquake. Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that “Christ’s glory is inseparable between the Christ’s suffering on the cross.” (David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary)

16_senior_musicalThis message is the end of an extended goodbye discourse Jesus shares with his disciples preparing them for his crucifixion. Jesus prays, reminding the disciples that they are all united with one another because they are united in Christ. He prays for love, using this word of hope no less than five times within these six verses. In the passages before this scene, Jesus gives peace, extends grace, and offers forgiveness. He does all of these things to reassure the disciples, and us, that he is united in humanity’s experience, for “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”

As this beautiful exposition comes to a close, the very next moment leads to the betrayal by Judas, sending Jesus to the cross.

Jesus shares this message of love and unity knowing the suffering that lies ahead. Jesus shares this message because it is imperative that the disciples know that he stands for them, suffers for them, dies for them, and in rising, raises all of humanity to new life.

In baptism we put on Christ and are brought into a resurrected life where we are freed from the prison of our own brokenness. But before we ever thought to put on Christ in our baptism, Christ first put on our suffering at the cross.  Wearing our suffering, Jesus is not merely observing the darkest moments of our lives, but journeying alongside them with us. Through suffering with us, Jesus enters our hearts, lighting the flicker of hope in the midst of despair.

Jesus is with us as our suffering servant, sharing our pain when we enter yet another round of chemo treatments. Jesus our wounded healer is the balm that tends to the wounds that medicine cannot touch.

Jesus is with us as our suffering servant when we are bullied at school, and carries the pain from the hurtful words on his heart.  Jesus our wounded healer is the strength that helps us hold our head high.

Jesus is with us as our suffering servant when we are oppressed because of our race, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, educational level and marital status.  Jesus our wounded healer sheds our tears through his eyes, accompanying us in the darkest hour.

Jesus our suffering servant is with people being trafficked, the person detoxing, the person trying to break free from the cycle of violence in their community. Jesus our wounded healer is the hope for the hopeless.

Jesus was the suffering servant who stayed with those women in that terrible basement, mourning in the loss of their unborn children, the loss of their freedom, and the loss of their dignity. Jesus is the wounded healer who brings the resurrection of a new beginning for these women and their families.

Jesus suffers with us because our God loves us unconditionally and without reservation. Jesus heals through our wounds because he wears our wounds. God does not abandon us when the times get tough. God does not forsaken us when the darkness has set in. God is not indifferent to our pain. Our God is like the parents we celebrate today, who would stop at nothing to shelter God’s children from the aches of this world.

We may not always know what we stand for or how to move forward when the uncertainty of the world is before us. But even when we feel imprisoned by the hardness in our lives, Christ stands for us and with us, accompanying us out of darkness into  the light of a resurrected life.

Amen.

Photos courtesy Christopher Anderson of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

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Yesterday was one of those days that years from now we will look back and ask, “Do you remember where you were when…”  The history of our lives are filled with those days.  Do you remember where you were when the Challenger exploded?  Do you remember where you were when you heard about the Oklahoma City Bombing? 9/11?  Sandy Hook?  And now, yet another – the Boston Marathon bombing.

It never ceases to amaze me how un-noteable the medium for which we learn life changing news.  Somehow it feels like the way we learn of such powerful moments in our nations history should be equally powerful, and yet isn’t.  I found out about Sandy Hook through a phone call at church.  Yesterday I learned about Boston through a story on my Facebook news feed.  An action that couldn’t seem more normal carried news that the world was tossed upside down.

There are no good words at a time like this.   There are no cute phrases or short sentences that can soothe the ache of a nation who is shocked by pain and unnecessary violence.  In years to come we will look back at this moment and still feel haunted by it’s memory and the impact it made in our world.  We will always remember where we were when.

But this is not the end of the story.  I read a beautiful article in the Huffington Post proclaiming how God has the last word in moments like this and that last word is love.  I was moved by the truth in that article, and I will be forever grateful for such a strong word of hope in a time of great uncertainty.

God’s love is what prevents this moment from being the end of the story.  There can be a hesitancy for us to want to avoid gathering together, celebrating the achievements of a our neighbors and friends when running a marathon, from gathering in historically significant tricycleplaces on historically significant days.  But that hesitancy is not the end of our story.  Instead, how we choose to move forward empowered by God’s love will lead our story on a path that we cannot imagine.

This upcoming Friday, my five-year old niece will be in a trike-a-thon to raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  I can see her in my mind’s eye riding around the gym on her tricycle, her hair blowing behind her while her little legs peddle as hard as they can.  I don’t want her to be afraid of doing a good thing for someone because of an evil person evoking terror at another marathon at another place.  I want her to remember that her actions and choice to ride in that trike-a-thon are an example of how God’s love is greater than death, greater than illness, greater than people evoking terror in what should should be a safe and joyous occasion.  Most importantly, I want her to remember that she in her actions help to show that God’s love is real, it is constant, and it is something we can embody with every action that we take.

I will never forget where I was when I learned about the Boston Marathon bombing.  I just hope I never forget where I was when my niece tells me how she showed God’s love to sick children at a trike-a-thon when she herself was just a little girl.

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All yesterday and this morning my news feed has been filled with updates from the United Methodist Church’s General Assembly where, in addition to other topics, they discussed the inclusion of LGBTQ people.  I was reminded of how similar those feeds read to updates from Presbyterian Church USA, and again within my own denomination of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America over the past few years.

These conversations are emotional, earth-shifting, and exhausting.  No matter which side of the aisle you stand on, it takes bravery and courage to represent your understanding of the gospel in order to help enlighten the decision making process of your denomination.  I am very clear on where I stand.  I believe that God is inclusive to all people, and that everything about our human nature is sinful because we are children of a fallen humanity.  I believe that it is God’s grace that turns our sinful nature into beautiful actions, and it is because of God’s grace that carnal lust can be transformed into a healthy, loving expression of how two people connect with one another.  I believe this is the case for heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, and transgendered people.  I believe that sex, or any action, without God’s grace is sin.  In light of God’s grace, sex or any action can be a gift that we give one another to express affection and our faith to God.  What determines that transition is if we approach our relationships in light of our faith.

Furthermore, I believe that I can support my position through scripture, confessional heritage, and testimonies of people I personally know.  However, I know that people who stand on the opposite side of the aisle also feel that they also have as much evidence of their convictions.  This is what makes having hard conversations so challenging.

But what is important is that we have such conversations.  It wasn’t until I began working for a United Church of Christ congregation that I ever had to put my theological principals into practice.  Being a representative of the church, when engaged in conversations about the LGBTQ communities, I was forced to be more thoughtful about explaining where I stand.  In that thoughtfulness, I was challenged by other people whose understanding of the gospel was different than mine.  In that challenge, I discovered that being born into a fallen humanity, a humanity entrenched in sin, that just about everything about my life would be sinful without the grace of God.  This includes my heterosexual sex-life, but not limited to my sex-life.  In those revelations I was able to embrace the freedom that comes from having been freed from my sin through the power of my baptism.  It is in that freedom that I now experience a richness in my relationship with God that I never had before.

That would not have happened had I not been challenged.  That would not have happened had I not been open to exploring the platform of the other side of the aisle.  I would not be as sure in my convictions if I hadn’t engaged in challenging conversations with people who think and act differently then me.

Do I wish that things would have been more peaceful for the UMC as they gathered this past week?  You bet.  I also wish for the ELCA that we can continue to find peace within the challenging adjustments of our 2009 sexuality statement.  I work for a periodical produced by three ELCA seminaries, and I am astounded by the number of people who discontinue their subscription because they can’t reconcile with the 2009 statement and are disconnecting themselves from anything that is ELCA related.  I see other Lutheran traditions ceasing their work with the ELCA to fight malaria and AIDS because of the 2009 statement.  Such actions are not peaceful but challenging.   I can wish and pray that as we continue to strive for equality and justice that those conversations will be peace-filled, or at least find a way to work together despite our differences, but I recognize the likelihood that we can’t always meet eye to eye even when we should.

That challenge shouldn’t stop us from trying.

Struggling with having the hard conversations is a part of what makes us human.  It is only when we accept that our nature leads us to struggle that we can see that God’s grace is patiently with us, equipping us with tools to keep moving forward.

Today, I am praying for the UMC, the PCUSA, the UCC, and the ELCA as Christians within our country move forward from the experiences of challenging conversations.  I am not going to condemn or cast blame on what hasn’t happened, or continue to tell the negative tales of what has.  I am going to keep my focus on God’s grace, and ask for guidance on knowing how to faithfully engage in eliminating the aisle.

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The following sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 6, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church Parma Heights, OH, based on the passage Matthew 27: 45-49.

Forsaken.

That is a word I have been hearing a great deal within my community lately.

I attend seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.  Located in the famous Southside of the city, my community is known for many things – the White Sox, the DuSable Museum, Lake Michigan, jazz.

The Southside also has a name for its relationship with violence.  This relationship makes the odds that you will be connected to gangs and/or homelessness to over 60%, and is why in this city over 17,000 children are labeled as “food insecure”.  These statistics are easily overlooked when glamorizing the “Windy City” with memories of a river turned green or shopping on the Magnificent Mile.  When people speak of the great city of Chicago, Southsiders often feel forsaken by the sensationalized impact of our Downtown and Northside counterparts.  There is a division among the city, and is much broader then the Cubs fans verses Sox fans.

In the wake of the death of Trayvon Martin, a young African American male who was profiled and murdered in Florida a month ago, people within my community have been vocalizing racial injustice issues found in our own backyard.  Three weeks ago, the Chicago Tribune reported that in one week in the Southside, 49 children under the age of 18 were shot, ten of which died.  These ten lives that were lost too young were a fraction of over 300 children who were killed since 2008 from gun related incidents in the Southside of Chicago alone.  Over 300 children in four years, and we aren’t even halfway through this year yet.

There is a division in my community.  Right now, on any given Sunday at any given church in the Southside, the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” are not strange to voices raised in prayer.  I am sure our survivors and families grieving from the Chardon School shooting last month are also feeling the weight of those words, also feeling a division between their experience and the experience of their neighbor.  As we read this passage of Jesus’ words on this most holy of days, we know all too intimately what it means to feel forsaken.

For some of us, we feel forsaken by our communities in a time of violence and racial injustice.  For others, we feel forsaken by our friends who fade into the background as we wade through the murky waters of divorce.   We feel forsaken as we spend hour after hour interviewing for jobs that never quite pan out.  We may say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” as we see the red in our check books, or as we sit in through yet another round of chemotherapy.  We may feel that we are forsaken every time we risk our sobriety and are tempted to resort back to our favorite drug of choice.

There is division among us, and its anthem cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know about you, but I am made incredibly uncomfortable by this passage from Matthew, specifically with the word “forsaken.”  I was so uncomfortable, in fact, I double checked to make sure this wasn’t some faulty literary translation.  I double checked the Greek source of this passage because I hoped that this was one of those times, maybe providing us some sort of theological wiggle room where “forsaken” perhaps could mean something else.

I peered over the text, digging into the Greek word καταλείπω (kat-al-i’-po), and what I found was not much better.  Kαταλείπω can also mean to leave behind, to desert, to abandon.

I even went so far as to check the corresponding passage in the Gospel of Mark.  There it was again – καταλείπω.  Forsaken.  Just as there is no avoiding the moments when our lives are filled with pain, when we feel that we are utterly alone, we cannot avoid that Jesus on the cross cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This moment on the cross puts a bad taste in our mouths, equally as bitter as the vinegar that was given to Jesus upon the sponge.  We can get lost in our feelings of division, and when we hear Jesus cry out those words, it is easy to miss the good news in this message.

The good news of this message is that while these words are Christ’s, they were first ours.  Jesus does not create this anthem on the cross, but echoes this anthem from our ancestors.  He is repeating the words of the psalmist, the songs of his community.

The psalms were written after the Exodus, after the Israelites had left Egypt and had settled into what they thought would be the end of their problems, their promised land.  These were people like the many who thought they were finding refuge in the great city of Chicago only to discover the poverty and violence of the Southside.  These were people like the many who now doubt if their hometown of Chardon is as safe as they once thought.  The psalmist wrote the turmoil of the people who thought they had found safety but instead found division and despair.

Voicing the people’s pain and doubt, the psalms served as anthems voicing the troubling thoughts of the community.  When Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” he is voicing the anthem of the people who felt forsaken and ignored.  Jesus does not shy away from sharing words that are as familiar to the ears of his community as the hymns we are singing together today in our community.

The lyrics from one song, Psalm 22, go like this:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

There is a division among us, and when Jesus cries out our anthem, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,”  we should stand fast in recognizing that it is a cry of solidarity.  The psalmist tells us to commit our cause to the Lord, and upon the cross Christ is telling us that his commitment is to our cause.

Jesus cries out not because he is forsaken but because he knows that we feel forsaken.  Jesus cries out not in recognition of his own pain but in relationship with ours.  Even in the midst of extreme agony and torture, he is crying out for for our worries, placing our needs before his own.  He is reassuring us that we will not be abandoned, left behind or deserted.

Through Christ, the word “forsaken” is transformed from a symbol of despair to radical good news.  It is such good news that it is hard to grasp, one that is easier for us to taint with the vinegar that is our skepticism.

It was such radical good news that even the bystanders gathering at the cross couldn’t process it.  It was easier for them upon hearing those words to sneer, “This man is calling for his Elijah.” It was easier for them to mock then to accept that they could be supported so intimately.  It was easier for them to assume that Jesus was thinking of himself then to accept that his love for us is above his own needs and transformative.  It was easier because radical solidarity is not of this world.  When Jesus makes our anthem his own, we are forced to have faith that we will never be forsaken again, and that faith is a holy thing that is given to us as a gift from the Holy Spirit.

Christ is with the family of Trayvon Martin and the parent grieving around the world as they cope with the loss of their children. He will not forsake them.

Christ is with the students of Chardon every day as they courageously return to their studies.  He will not forsake them.

Christ is with us interview after interview, helping us reassess our budgets so we can turn our red balances into black.  We are not forsaken.

Christ is with us as our bodies are ravaged apart by chemotherapy, as we struggle with our addictions, as we suffer from food insecurity, as we search to find affordable healthcare, as we mourn the loss of our marriage, or even when we just feel blue.  We are not forsaken.

Christ is in solidarity with us, has been to the point of suffering on the cross for our sin.  This is radical good news!  This solidarity comes from a love that is beyond our understanding, and completely despite of ourselves.  Just as Christ made our anthem his, we too can make his solidarity ours.

As Christ’s representatives in this world, we need to stand strong with those who feel forsaken and build bridges in places of division.

We show solidarity with prayer, by gathering at the font, communing together with bread and with wine. We show solidarity by not shying away from telling the hard stories of our community but by uplifting the poor, whether they are poor financially or poor in spirit. We show the solidarity of Christ every time we ask someone how they are feeling when we see pain etched in their faces.  We show the solidarity of Christ when we go to Redeemer Crisis Center or help out at the Cleveland Food Bank to fill the stomach and cupboards of people labeled as being “food insecure.”

When in despair our neighbors cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” we help them remember that Christ reframed that anthem as he died upon the cross.  And in helping them remember that the bridge of our division is found in Jesus, we allow ourselves the space to remember that the word “forsaken” has a new meaning now.  In Christ, “forsaken” is radical good news.

Amen.

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The following sermon was preached on Maundy Thursday, April 5, 2012 at Divinity Lutheran Church Parma Heights, OH, on the passage 1 Corinthians 11:23-32.

On January 26, I was standing on the beach at Pacific Ocean in El Salvador.  I had come to Central America on an academic delegation, and after spending a week meeting various political and religious leaders, conversing with families who had survived a horrific civil war of genocide, and learning about the roles the US government and spiritual leaders played to both perpetuate and prevent the armed conflict, I was now at the farewell worship service.

On my right stood my Salvadorian guide, Ceasar, whose father, a priest, had been assassinated because he was preaching a message of Christian non-violence during a violent time.  On my left stood a fellow seminarian, Dominic, who left the battlegrounds of Liberia to study theology in the United States.  One day Dominic will return to his wife, daughter, and mother in Africa and share the good news of Jesus Christ to a war-torn people.

I was sandwiched between two brave men who had seen the blood of their loved ones shed upon the ground, and now we were about to accept the means of grace that is the blood of Jesus Christ through Holy Communion.

I was reminded of my friend Stephanie, who when working with ELCA Young Adult in Global Mission spent a year in South Africa where she worked with people who have AIDS.  She told me that it was really powerful sharing Christ’s blood while standing beside AIDS patients, knowing that while the blood coursing through their bodies will eventually kill them, the blood that they drink together will save them.  She said that each and every time she shared the cup in South Africa she was scared because there was no escaping the sin of her humanity or the love that sets us free.

There are few times in my life where coming to the table has been a scary step.  I couldn’t help but in that moment in El Salvador to remember my first communion, here in this very sanctuary.  Like our brothers and sisters who are about to celebrate their first communion tonight, I had the loving support of my family and church behind me.  That support system watched as I took into my own hands the promises my parents made at my baptism.

I have lots of safe memories communing at the table.  I can scarcely kneel at a rail without feeling the phantom of my father, Dale, at my back.  My family always sat in the same pew, and my father always sat at the end of the isle.  Week after week, my dad would wait until my siblings, mother and I would exit the pew before he would get in line himself, so that he was the last of our family to come to the table.  I have many memories of my dad rubbing my shoulders in in a supportive way as we approached the rail, lovingly encouraging my faith each time we communed as a family.

In January, standing underneath the night sky, hearing the ocean roar as water lapped at my feet, remembering all that I had learned about the Salvadorian people, Holy Communion seemed different to me than it ever had been before.  I didn’t have my dad behind me, or the comfort of a familiar hymn ringing in the air.  Even the bread was different – a tortilla – honoring our Lutheran tradition of the body being found in the staple food of the culture.  This was a table unlike any I had ever seen, and I was really nervous.

Then my professor, a pastor, said the words found in today’s reading from Paul, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

I may be going out on a limb here, but I’d be willing to bet there are some of us here today who are nervous about coming to the table and participating in this means of grace.  I’m not even thinking only about our first communion students who have dutifully studied what makes communion a sacrament and the differences between common cup and individual cups.

I bet there are those of us here today who are nervous about remembering the sin of our own humanity.  As we begin the three days which contain the death and resurrection of Christ, we cannot avoid the fact that Jesus died because we are sinners.

I believe further still that there are times when we come to the table hoping for an answer to some sort of question, only to return to our seats feeling as if nothing has changed.

While I felt grateful for the support of my family when I celebrated my first communion, it did not quite live up the hype I had in my head.  I thought I would have one of those cloud-opening moments where as soon as I swallowed the last drop of wine I would feel different and changed forever.

I can’t speak for others but for me, on my first communion, that did not happen.  Those moments have happened since, like on the beach in El Salvador, but there have been plenty of Sundays where I when I have ate, drank, and returned to my seat while the pressures that came from sinning still felt like pressure.  On those days, I recognize that something big just happened here, but I can’t quite figure it out.

I wonder if those many nights ago, as they broke bread together and Jesus washed their feet, if the disciples really understood what was happening.  I’m sure some of them knew something big just happened, but did they experience that cloud-opening moment of clarity?

I didn’t feel the cloud-opening moment at my first communion, but there have been many times since when the memory of that day has come back and enhanced things for me.  In the middle of my confirmation, right when I was reciting the Apostles Creed, I remember thinking about two other big days of faith: the day I received my first Bible and the day I first came to the table.

I remembered my first communion the day my nephew was baptized.  As I stood holding him at the font, I realized for the first time that at Divinity we keep our baptismal font at the foot of our communion rail, symbolizing how the grace of baptism and grace of communion anchor one another in our salvation.

I remembered my first communion again the first time I preached, realizing that I had to both pass a symbol of my baptism – the font – and a symbol of communion – the rail – to even make it up to the pulpit.

Memories are a powerful thing.  Memories can transform a moment that meant one thing when you experienced it to mean something totally different when you remember it.  Memories help us tell our story, and today we remember the story of the Last Supper.

But when Paul (and later Luke) tells us that Jesus says, “This cup is a new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me,” he is not just speaking to a memory.  How could we remember the Last Supper when we weren’t there?  None of us were there when the bread was initially broken, so what part of that memory is ours?

Spending some time with this passage, I discovered that there is more to the word “remember” then meets the eye.  We sometimes use the word “remember” in place of honor, as if Jesus was saying, “Do this to honor me.”  Other times the word “remember” means to think back upon a memory, or to repeat an action.  While it is important to repeat these steps and honor Christ and remember his sacrifice, we are also being called to do something much greater.

In Greek, the word “remember” comes from the root word ἀναμιμνήσκω (anamimnéskó).  This translates as going through a process of recollection, to be intentional about gathering together again, to literally re-member.

We are Christ’s body in the world.  When Jesus says “do this,” in remembrance of him, he is instructing us celebrate Holy Communion in order to re-member his body.

Presbyterians take this command to re-member the body of Christ quite literally, and as such will not celebrate communion without an assembly of people.  For them, you cannot re-member a body with only one piece of the body.  This means that when Presbyterians celebrate homebound communion, both the distributer and the homebound person take communion together, so that they are doing the work of re-membering Christ’s body.

As Lutherans, we recognize our calling to re-member Christ’s body, and whenever able we come to the table together.  This re-membering is so important to our understanding of the gospel that we open our table to anyone who wishes to be re-membered to Christ.

We also recognize a deeper layer then just assembling persons together to re-member Jesus.  We recognize that when we are joined together as one body, we share in each others stories and histories.  It is not possible for my arm to be in El Salvador while my legs remained in Parma.  All of my essence shared my experience on the beach.  All of my essence has had faith milestones in this sanctuary.  All of my essence listened to my friend Stephanie share about her time in South Africa.

So when we join together and re-member Christ’s body at the table, we are also merging together our essences and our experiences.  My story becomes your story, and your story becomes mine.  When we re-member as the body of Christ through the means of Holy Communion, my story of El Salvador becomes our story of El Salvador, and Stephanie’s memories of South Africa become our memories of South Africa.  We also reconnect to those who have gone before us, and by remembering the histories of the foot washing, the betrayal of Jesus, the death on the cross and the resurrection from the tomb, we join together so that those stories become our stories too.

So it’s okay if there are times when we come to the table praying for some sort of spiritual awakening that doesn’t quite happen, because there are others who are creating life changing memories that will affect the our body of our church.  Think of how our lives are transformed by re-membering with the disciples who ate with Jesus at the Last Supper.  Their experience at that meal continues to shape our faith every time we taste the bread and the wine.

We have been transformed by the disciples’ experience, just as we will go forth and transform another person’s experience.  There will be times when we come to the table and what we encounter will be so powerful that we will feel we have no choice but to share that memory with someone else so that they can encounter the joy of being re-membered as Christ’s body.

We describe Holy Communion as a means of grace because it is a sacred thing to be connected to each other through the sacrifice of Jesus.  It is only because of the grace of God’s love for us that despite our sin we are granted this magnificent blessing.

It was grace that allowed me to be re-membered with Ceasar and Dominic, having their brave histories become a part of my memory.  It was grace that allowed Stephanie to see her own salvation while drinking Christ’s blood with brothers and sisters who are dying from the poison of their own blood.  It is grace that re-members our homebound members to those able to assemble together at Divinity each Sunday.  It is grace that will re-member us with a future generation as our young people celebrate communion for the first time today.  We are not worthy of this gift of re-membering, but God’s love for us is so strong that we are given this gift.

This gift is not something that should be taken lightly.  Paul tells us,

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.  Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”

Paul urges us to recognize the importance of this re-membering.  He asks us to hold this gift with respect, examining our intentions of why we come to the table.  Are we coming seeking forgiveness?  Are we coming to connect as the body of Christ?  Are we coming, in hopes that this will meal will help enhance our faith?  Or are we coming to the table because we this is just what we do on Maundy Thursday, that this is just an expectation of being a part of the church?

All are invited to the table to experience this grace, and grace will be given to anyone who seeks it.  It is a miraculous thing, and Paul is right to encourage us to recognize the blessing of what Holy Communion means.

Amen.

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This afternoon I and four other friends from seminary attended an event called Occupy Palm Sunday.  This event, sponsored by four congregations in Logan Square, talked about housing, immigration, healthcare, and food justice from a Christian community perspective.  United together, we sang songs, broke bread, and learned about different ways we can be involved in creating equality within our home.

I’ll be honest, in general I’m not someone who totally get’s the whole “Occupy” movement.  I admire the goal to help bring awareness to the difference between the 99% and the 1%, and my heart simmers with joy at knowing that people are trying to find away to work together.  However, the deepest recesses of my identity recognizes I am a planner.  When I look at the overall “Occupy” movement, I get overwhelmed with knowing how to move from information sharing to the next steps of problem solving.  I see the people camped in tents and want to know their plan, even as I recognize that for some “Occupiers” their main plan is to inform.

This past January when I was in El Salvador, I was granted access into the cathedral in San Salvador which was at the time occupied by a para-military group.  This cathedral is the Catholic Church’s Salvadoran epicenter, the place where the Archbishop of El Salvador resides and works.  This space is also important because the mausoleum of Archbishop Romero is found inside its basement.

The January occupation occurred by people who fought in the civil war.  The war had ended with the signing of the Peace Accords.  20 years later aspects of that agreement had not been upheld by the current government, resulting in ex-soldiers and their families starving to death.  They tried to negotiate change peacefully, but 20 years later were still starving.  So in January, with firepower, they forced the Archbishop out of the space and closed the cathedral off from the community.  The occupation prevented anyone from the community to enter to worship.  The occupation caused pilgrimages hoping to visit Romero to cease.  Yet I, a privileged US citizen, someone whose income would place me in the 1% if I was a Salvadoran, was invited into the cathedral where native citizens could not go.  Granted, there were shotguns pointed at me the entire time I took pictures in of the tomb, and I was unable to leave until I heard the para-military groups demands.  But the fact remains that because I came from a place of privilege I was safe in God’s house when people of the community were not.

Since that day, I look at the word “occupy” quite differently.  I now recognize that at any moment I could slide between the barriers between the 99% and the 1%.  At any moment I could be the oppressed or I could be the oppressor.  I could be the person who needs to be uplifted or I could be the person who steps on others as I rise the top.  That experience also showed me that sometimes the separation between church and state also have barriers that slide back and forth.  It was a para-military group that stopped the Salvadorans from worshiping in their Cathedral, and in the United States the limitations of our laws at times are what stop us from being able to provide care to all who need it.

This afternoon, a speaker mentioned that to live in Chicago, the average person would either need to work 81 hours a week at a minimum-wage job or get paid over $18 an hour at a 40-hour-a-week job to be able to afford housing.  I know I don’t get paid anywhere near $18 an hour at either of my jobs or even work close to 81 hours a week, and I consider myself secure in my middle class status.  Then again, I am fortunate enough to be in school and receiving scholarships, and my home parish helps to cover some of my tuition.  Where would I be if this was three years down the line and I was still at the same jobs at the same rate?  I know where I would be — homeless.

Knowing that the barrier between safety and insecurity can so easily slide back and forth for any of us, noticing that the separation between church and state is not as stable as I once thought, I need to have a plan.  I need to know that there is something secure to set my sights on, something that will stand the test of time and the roller-coaster of our economic system.

That something is the love of Christ, and my plan is never to forget that love.  It is through the love of Christ that I have people helping to support me while I am in seminary.  It is through the love of Christ that my income comes from my employment in serving a Christian parish and serving a Christian periodical.  It is through the love of Christ that I was able to car-pool with fellow students to worship in the square with four very different congregations. It is through the love of Christ that today each person who was able brought a few snacks to share and we not only fed the large crowd but had leftovers.

I “occupy” because the message of the good news of God’s love for us transcends the limitations of our barriers.  This message and sacred love is what gives us the fuel to keep striving for justice, learning how we can work with one another so that we all can feel as fortunate as the 1% of the community. I “occupy” because my God loves me so much that even in my darkest hours I am never alone, and this is a message too good to keep to myself.

This Palm Sunday, my occupation is one of praise and thanksgiving to the one who rode into our midst to transform our lives.

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