Sunday, November 23, 2014

Glimpses of the kingdom…a sermon on Matthew 25:31-46

A.Hanson, 2009
From a sermon preached at Holy Love Lutheran Church.

Gospel Text: Matthew 25:31-46

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.
Today is the last Sunday in the liturgical year. On this particular day we talk about the person of Jesus Christ and God’s ongoing work in the world. We talk about what it means to have a King who defies earthly standards for what is royal and we learn about who we are in relationship to this King. The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever. 
Which is all well and good until we get a text like today’s Gospel from Matthew 25, which doesn’t sound like something to celebrate.  Jesus has gathered on the Mount of Olives with his disciples and they have asked him to describe what the end of the age will look like.  Today’s Gospel text comes from Jesus’ final time of conversation with his disciples prior to the beginning of his trial and passion.  In typical Jesus style, he decides to tell a story.
The story features a king who has gathered “all the nations” before his throne.  This king is said to separate the people from one another as a shepherd will separate sheep from goats. The king says to those on his right hand, the sheep, that they have been blessed and will inherit the kingdom.  They provided food, water, hospitality, clothing, and companionship to others during their time of need.  This group asks, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food? We were just serving others.”  The king says to the people, “Truly I tell you, just as you did to the least of these who are members of my family, you did for me.”  Then the king turns to those on his left, the goats, and says, “You are accursed, depart from me and into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  For I was hungry and you gave me no food…” and so on. Those on the king’s left say, “Lord, we never saw you.  Therefore, we were never able to serve you.”  The king responds, “Just as you did not serve those who were in need, you did not serve me.” 
This text is a favorite among Christians everywhere, particularly those who have a bent towards social justice, because it is such a clear exhortation to be of service to one’s neighbor. Because just as Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are my family, you did it to me.” But the underlying motivation for many, if not most, Christians is not to be of service to one’s neighbor because of the Christ in them, but rather, an overwhelming desire NOT to be a goat. It is easy to read this parable and make it simply a humanitarian call for good works, which unfortunately correlates with a reading that our salvation is achieved by what we do.
We are entering into the season of good works. In just a few days we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, followed by Christmas in a few short weeks. If you have not already received the annual mailers from the Denver Rescue Mission, your time is coming. There is a pull this time of year to donate money, canned goods, toys, or warm winter clothing to one’s neighbors because “It’s what good people do” and perhaps, doing good works lets us be a bit more self-absorbed when it comes to holiday consumerism and consumption. If we toss a few dollars the way of “the least of these” it lets us buy our new electronics and clothing with a bit less guilt and feel warm and snug in our salvation by material means. I am not sure that any of us actually believe that doing holiday good works helps us rack up more points on a heavenly scorecard, but donating money for tax deductions at the end of the year or donating our cast-off household items to those who should be thankful for them is no less selfish than thinking we can coordinate our own salvation by what we do.
I am not convinced that the distinction between sheep and goats in today’s Gospel text is as clear-cut as Jesus would have us believe.  I know that I am both a sheep and a goat.  I recycle, I give to non-profit organizations, I listen to NPR, and I do my best to be a good person.  Yet while I am driving home from my chaplain job, I refuse to make eye contact with the people standing on the corner of Broadway and Sixth Ave with their signs because I am feeling fatigued from being of service to people all day long.  If we were measuring salvation by what we do, I would most certainly not measure up.  None of us would.
But in making this parable about the sheep and goats and avoiding everlasting turmoil or securing everlasting salvation, we miss a very important thing. Where is God in this parable?  God is not in the sheep.  God is in the people who are in need. Both the sheep and the goats seem to be surprised by this.  And I think it surprises us too. We want to think that we are somehow the ones bringing God to those people who desperately need God in their suffering.  We have a hard time imagining that God is already in the midst of the hungry, the imprisoned, the sick, and the lonely. There is an entire mission-trip industry built upon the desire of well-intentioned Christians to bring the “love of Christ” to people in need, but God is already there. Jesus is more likely to be found in a prison than a parsonage, or in a mental hospital instead of a mega-church.
So what’s the good news? Why read this text in a church?  And particularly, why read this text on a Sunday where we celebrate the Reign of Christ in the world?
What would happen if we view the coming Kingdom, the Reign of Christ in a new world not as something that is far off, but as something that is breaking in now? God is already here among us, making things new, stirring things up, working in, through, around and beside us. God is in us in our work as sheep, and in us when we are the broken and needy ones who are being cared for by the sheep. This is the Kingdom! The reign of Christ looks like: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a cup of cool water, I was in the hospital and you came to see me, I was in prison and you visited me, I was an immigrant and you showed me hospitality in a strange land, I was standing on the corner of 6th and Broadway and you met my eyes and smiled at me.
People of God, the kingdom of heaven is not far away, it is breaking in among us even now. Where might we see glimpses of the reign of Christ?  During his public address on Thursday night, President Obama cited this very scripture text in his call for justice and reform on immigration issues, and to welcome and make a way for our brothers and sisters from other countries, because we see the face of Christ in them.  I call this a glimpse of the kingdom! My friend Margaret is the pastor of a food truck church in St Paul, MN. She hands out calzones and the Peace of Christ on the streets.  I call this the kingdom! Yesterday during my shift in the emergency room I held an elderly woman’s hand as she was experiencing a heart attack and was terrified. I call that a glimpse of the kingdom! We see Christ in the face of our neighbors and in those people who meet us in our own time of need. The kingdom of God is now, not some far away time or place, and Christ shall reign forever and ever.  Amen!

Monday, November 10, 2014

God sits with us in our excruciating expectation…a sermon on Psalm 70

A.Hanson, 2009. The Netherlands.
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, November 9, 2014. 
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

I love the psalms. I love that I can borrow their words when I am too tired or too broken to come up with words on my own. Like Psalm 70,
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
 O Lord, make haste to help me! 
Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me. 
Let those who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’ turn back because of their shame. Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, ‘God is great!’ 
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
 O Lord, do not delay!
Academically speaking, the form of this psalm is called something ridiculous like “a prayer of an individual for divine assistance” but I prefer to call it the kind of prayer that I usually end up praying.  Short bursts of pleading, begging, and asking God to show up because I feel alone, frightened, mad, or otherwise confused and in need of guidance. This is the gift of the psalms to us. They are not the flowery sayings of Jesus in the parables and they are not the rhetorical works of Paul in his many letters to various Christian communities. They are real prayers from real people who know what it is like to be stuck in the trenches of a terrible day.
Today’s psalm is from someone who is waiting impatiently for God to bring justice after feeling abused, persecuted, and alone. It could be the words of the queer kid who has been disowned by their parents.  It could be the words of the addict who is trying to stay sober.  It could be the words of the middle-aged child who is trying to navigate a bureaucracy of healthcare and benefits for their aging and ailing parents. It is a very real expression of lament and grief while waiting for God to show up and make this injustice right.
Somewhere Christianity started perpetuating the idea that we are supposed to be gentle and pious and patient in our prayers. The sort of Precious Moments or Hallmark brand of faith where we sit quietly and offer our prayers in a hushed and appropriately reverent tone of voice.  Then according to this model of faith, we wait for God to answer and we accept that answer and settle peacefully into whatever happens because it is God’s Plan with a capital “P” and it is wrong to argue with God.  Or something. Because if we don’t act the way we are supposed to, and wait patiently and act appropriately, we risk angering God or driving God away from us.
But I need a stronger God than that.  I need a God that doesn’t risk getting offended or wounded.  I need a God that can take my biggest questions and loudest laments.  And I suspect that you do too.  In my work as an ICU chaplain, I have lots of “What the hell are you thinking?!” kinds of questions for God.  Like “Why does someone dying of cancer anyway get hit by a car and die in the ICU instead of at home?” or “Why does someone’s family leave her alone to die?”  Where is the justice? We need a God that can take our laments and our pleading and our impatient waiting. And in the psalms we hear people just like us asking God these same tough questions and demanding that God make Godself known in a broken world. This is Gospel to our aching hearts.
The psalmist obliterates that Hallmark brand of religion by crying out in the midst of this excruciating waiting. “Hasten to me O, God!”  “O, Lord do not delay!”  We need to have a God who sits with us while we are waiting for the promise of everything being made new. This psalm is an earnest plea for help, and is rooted in in the psalmist’s trust in God’s listening and redemptive power. I think we get self-conscious sometimes about not wanting our prayers to seem too desperate, because that makes us vulnerable.  If we pray for something broad like “happiness” or “greater understanding” or “peace” we can find some way to make whatever happens fit into our experience. I do this too in the prayers that I pray with my patients. And I have been thinking about it a lot lately and wondering if I am protecting God and my idea of God what God does. What would happen if we all prayed with the same urgent cries of the person in today’s psalm?  Our prayers don’t need to be logical, beautiful or presentable, but simply the honest, messy and ugly cries of our deepest selves.
Woven into our experience as people of faith is that damn platitude, “Good things come to those who wait,” which is entirely non-biblical by the way, and implies that if we wait patiently enough, we will get what we want. But sometimes our prayers are not answered in the way we want or think they should be. Sometimes no matter how earnestly we pray for healing or happiness or wholeness for ourselves or others, our waiting doesn’t necessarily bring about what we want or think we deserve.
But I wonder if that is actually the reason we pray.  What if prayer is less about persuading God to answer our prayers, and instead changes us, makes us new? This is a huge paradigm shift, and it seems to say more about God than it does about us. A lot of the time I am not able to make sense of what God is doing on a “micro” level in the world around me.  I see a lot of the absolute worst that the world can offer, and I need to cling to something bigger. I need to cling to the hope that God is making all things new and that life WILL win out and death DOES NOT have the final word. I am slowly learning to trust that prayer is not about making my world make sense, but making me a part of God’s unfolding world.

The other time that this particular psalm appears in the appointed readings for the liturgical year is during Holy Week.  A time where even Jesus cries out in lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  God WANTS to hear our prayers. God PROMISES to sit with us in our anguish. How liberating it is to know that God can take our anger, our laments, the deepest cries of our broken hearts.  God participates in all of this. And just as the psalmist declares “God is great!” and “You are my help and my deliverer!” even while waiting for justice, we too know that God sits with us in our most excruciating times of expectation.

Monday, October 27, 2014


Haarlem, Netherlands.  A. Hanson, 2009.
Yesterday was Reformation Sunday in the ELCA.  If you want a quick and dirty primer on what the Reformation is, click here. Reformation Day is celebrated among Lutherans with a particular sort of affinity that some of my clergy friends call "Lutheran pridefulness day."  It's where Lutherans get to pat themselves on the back and be thankful that they are different than OTHER kinds of Christians.

When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenburg church in 1517, he was responding to a overruling church hierarchy that was out of touch with the people and with what God was already doing in their midst.

 But it is with care and deliberation that I raise the following question, with this radical reforming history in our tradition, are we really willing to be re-formed now?  

I am not convinced that the ELCA is open to reformation in this day and age.  I raise for your consideration this article that appeared in the most recent edition of the Lutheran magazine, "Get set for clergy retirement wave: Age, perspectives to change the face of the ELCA" by Charles M. Austin.  Austin's article is primarily making the observation that there is an anticipated wave of clergy retirements in the near future, and these retirements will change the face of leadership in the ELCA.  This is an absolutely valid observation.  He also argues that this can be a good thing, with young clergy bringing energy to their work and perhaps building bridges between younger members who are new to the ELCA, with which I also agree.

But the overall tone of the article is one of unwarranted mourning.  Austin, along with many others quoted in the article, lament that with the retirement of many of these older pastors is the loss of "skill and wisdom gained in decades of ministry", "'residual memory' of predecessor church bodies", and perhaps most grating, these retired leaders' "commitment to ministry."  (Which seems to imply that younger clergy do not have the same commitment to their work.)  To all of this lament, I raise our own theology for consideration.

At the core of our Lutheran theology is the cross.  A symbol of death.  That in order to have new life, the old self must be crucified. When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to that door in 1517, it probably felt a little bit like death. He was standing up against a giant behemoth of an institutional church, and he had no way of knowing that his bold act would lead to anything but excommunication. But as Marty himself said, "Here I stand, I can do no other."  This is not to say that older pastors are dragging down the ELCA, but rather the attitude that the good days have already passed in our church.  It is fully possible to be a pastor in a call for decades and be continually open to what God is creating new every day. In fact, I feel fortunate to know and be mentored by several of these older pastors.

I have been working on my ELCA assignment paperwork, and in my Rostered Leader Profile, one of the questions is, "What are your hopes for the ELCA?"  which I answered with the following response:

It is my hope that the ELCA will be open to what God is already doing in the world in surprising places, and be willing to let some things die in order that new things might be born.  It is my hope that we believe what we confess in our own theology about death and resurrection.

Here I stand, I can do no other.

The ELCA is in decline.  This is not a special distinction.  We share this dubious distinction with all other denominations. There are fewer people coming to church.  There can be no assumed Christian culture. Being a member of a church is the exception, not the rule.  We are more likely to be eating brunch than attending church on Sundays. The understanding of "church" that pervaded American culture for so long is dead.  It hurts to hear and hurts to say, but it is true.  Healthy congregations still exist, and will continue to do so, but the sort of church that we hold up as overwhelmingly normative in the ELCA (or any other denomination, for that matter) just doesn't exist any longer.

I am a Lutheran. I love our tradition.  I love our theology.  I also hurt for a church that seems to be stuck in the past.  I hurt for all the vibrant, excited young leaders who have their vision squashed by people like Charles M. Austin and others who view us as second-string replacements for the "all-star" pastors who are retiring.

I do not think it is timely or appropriate to throw out all of our tradition.  But I ask that we consider why we do the things that we do. And be willing to let certain things go to make room for the new life in our denomination.  I know that the word "death" used in this post is going to make some people uncomfortable and angry. So how about re-formation?

Are we as the ELCA actually willing to be re-formed?

Are we willing to let go of "cultural Lutheranism" (tired jokes about jello salad and lutefisk and Scandinavians) and be willing to see what Lutheranism looks like today?  Are we willing to find places for people of color in our overwhelmingly white churches? Places for other languages and cultures in our expression of liturgy and worship?  To be influenced and changed by those people that we label as "Other" to "Our" tradition?

Are we willing to dare to be different in the way that we "do" church? Are we willing to provide space for our people to co-create worship alongside the seminary-educated professionals? Are we willing to let go of control?  Are we willing to explore alternative ways of educating and forming pastors?

Are we willing to dare to believe that the church does not actually exist within four walls?  That it might have nothing to do with buildings at all?  To believe that God is already at work in the world and instead of creating a place where people can come and encounter God, we will walk alongside people in the world where God is already with them?

Are we willing to stop lamenting what has been and turn with joyous expectation to that which is to come?  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

I DO believe in mystery

A.Hanson, Denver 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote this post, in which I state that I do not believe in miracles. After quite a bit of conversation with friends and other clergy types, I think what I was trying to say is that while I don't believe in miracles, I DO believe in mystery.

I believe that there is a power bigger than us at work in the world.  I believe that there are things that we cannot explain. I believe that God works in ways that do not always make sense to us.

About week ago I attended a very traumatic death in which a woman essentially suffocated on the secretions in her own lungs. This is respiratory failure.  She was alone, and had no family present.  They had left the hospital because they just couldn't deal with what they were seeing.  I don't fault them that. I stayed with this woman until she breathed her last rattly breath. And it was awful. As soon as I stepped away from the room to help the nurse with the death paperwork, a wonderful, beautiful yellow lab was present in the hallway. We have therapy animals sometimes at the hospital, but rarely do I see them on the ICU units. This gentle yellow lab let me hug him and cry into his neck. I think this dog was an angel.  This is mystery.  I think that God knew that I was extremely raw and unable to talk to people at this point, but the gentle love and care of an animal was exactly what I needed.

And I see mystery all the time. I see people arriving at the hospital at just the right moment to be with their loved ones.  I see trauma teams working together in perfect harmony to save someone's life.  I see people being discharged from the hospital after impossible poly-traumas.

I absolutely believe God is capable of mystery, and sometimes that comes in the form of miracles.  But sometimes its just a little bit more mysterious than that.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

I don't believe in miracles

Confession: I don't believe in miracles.

This is something that I have been wrestling with lately in my work at the trauma center.

I have seen enough tough reality to recognize that miracles don't happen just because you might want them.  I have sat with people who DESERVE a miracle.  Who pray unceasingly for a miracle.  Who don't get that miracle.

I think culturally we buy into some sort of mythology around miracles that implies that if we "believe" hard enough or pray hard enough we will get what we want. I have seen too many people die and too many families hurting.

It's not the job of the chaplain to believe in miracles.  I think its damaging. I have no doubt that God is capable of miracles, and I am not so cynical that I wouldn't shout from the rooftops if I happened to witness one, but its not my job to hold out hope for the impossible.  Or worse yet, tell patients that.  I don't believe in miracles.  At least not the kind where you want something and pray for it and get exactly what you want.

Because sometimes, miracles are not healing or curing.  Sometimes a miracle is a peaceful death. Or what seems like an impossible reconciliation between family members.  Or sitting with a hurting person whose spouse is suffering cardiac arrest in the ICU and feeling the power of the Holy Spirit flooding over the room in a flickering moment of calm amidst chaos.

I believe in a God who shows up.  I believe in a God of accompaniment, not a God who dispenses good or bad things according to a quantifiable amount of belief.