Sunday, April 24, 2016

They will know we are disciples by who loves us...a sermon on John 13:31-35

A sermon preached as guest preacher at Diamond Lake Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis on April 24, 2016.  

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Risen Christ. Amen.

It is a joy to be among you, and I am thankful for the invitation to preach today as part of the In A Different Voice series. I am a former preaching student of Dr. Karoline Lewis and currently serve as a chaplain for Regions Hospital and HealthPartners Hospice. Thank you for welcoming me into your midst on this Fifth Sunday of Easter.

My sermonating this week has been accompanied by the ever-present song running through my head of “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, they will know we are Christians by our love.”  But I find this to be particularly irritating, because quite often Christians are not known by their love for others. Christians are more easily identified not by their love, but by whom they seem to hate the most. This song has been running through my head this week as I observe religious liberty legislation take on a fever pitch in the news. We see people of faith perpetuating hate towards those who identify as members of the LGBTQ community, and calling that hate “religious devotion”. Many Christians perpetuate xenophobia, fear of the other, as they express hatred towards our Muslim brothers and sisters. And progressive Christians often exhibit the same hatred and disgust for more conservative evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians, I have certainly been guilty of this in my own life.

Most of the time we think we have a pretty good idea of what it is to love one another. We love our spouses, children, parents, siblings, friends, and pets. We might abstractly love people or groups of people, for example, I love people nearing the end of their lives, as well as loving individual patients. Where things get a little more complicated is in loving those who are less loveable.

 We find it easy to love those who are like us. Many of us who are married or partnered find ourselves with someone who comes from a similar ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious background. Many of us choose our friends based on similar social and political leanings. It takes work to love someone who is different from us.

And human love is also imperfect because we want our love to be reciprocated. We want it to be equitable, guaranteed, and safe. We want to love and be loved, and we are willing to invest ourselves in it, if there is a guarantee that our love will be reciprocated or at least appreciated. Because to be loved and to love requires a certain amount of vulnerability, and we have learned, through socialization or hard-won experience, that vulnerability is an opportunity to be hurt. We sometimes prefer to love our neighbors from a distance, because then we get to dictate the terms of what it is to love one another. We would rather lift up #BlackLivesMatter in prayer because then we don’t need to have an honest conversation about the ways that racism is still deeply embedded in our church. It really doesn’t cost us anything, and we get to feel good about the ways that we are loving our neighbors.

This text from John’s Gospel is one of those passages from scripture that we have heard so many times that we think that we know what it means. But we owe it to ourselves to look a little deeper.  The context of these verses is tremendously important. Jesus has just shared a meal with his disciples. He washed their feet, which would have been filthy from sand and dust. It is an intimate time, the last time that Jesus is gathered together with all of his disciples before his betrayal. Jesus says of the foot washing, “I have set an example for you…that you should also do as I have done to you.” He is saying, “You should demonstrate love and service to one another by literally getting your hands dirty.”

And then Jesus foretells his betrayal. He says to those gathered around him, his closest friends, his confidants, “One of you will betray me.” The disciples are shocked. They look at one another in disbelief. Jesus is their friend, their teacher, their spiritual leader. They simply cannot imagine that this could be true. But Jesus knows that it will be Judas Iscariot, and Judas knows this too, so when Jesus says, “Do quickly what you are doing to do”, Judas runs out of the house. The other disciples still don’t get it, and think that Judas is running out to buy groceries for the Passover meal.

Then Jesus says, “Dear ones, I am only going to be with you for a little while longer, and you will be looking for me, because you have not been paying attention to all that I have been telling you.”   He goes on, “I am going to give you one major commandment.  Only one, because it is probably going to be hard for you to follow. It is to ‘love one another. Just as I have loved you, love one another.’”  Jesus concludes, “Everyone will be able to know that you are my disciples, if you show love to one another.” 

We do not get any commentary in the text about what the disciples are thinking or feeling about this commandment. So I imagine a very human reaction from the disciples regarding this commandment to love. OF COURSE they love each other. They are friends. They probably get annoyed with each other at times, but at the end of the day, they are loyal and loving towards one another.

But Jesus is NOT saying, “Everyone will you know that you follow me by the love that you show to your friends.”  Jesus shared a meal and washed the feet of Judas, the one who betrayed him for 30 pieces of silver. Judas is decidedly not his friend.

Jesus says, “Just as I have loved you, you should love one another…by this, everyone will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  ONE ANOTHER is not just Jesus’ inner circle of disciples. It is not just those who were open and friendly to the message that Jesus and the disciples shared. 

ONE ANOTHER is not just people who are Christian. Or American. Or churchgoers. Or polite or who are likely to reciprocate that love. The love demonstrated by Jesus is without condition. It is without qualification or justification. It is the sort of love that is demonstrated by washing the feet of the one who would betray you.

This is not the kind of love that we have because we have affection for someone, or a familial bond, or similar interests. It is the kind of love that flows from us because we are first loved by God. But it is hard to love this way. And for this reason, we need an example. God incarnate washes the feet of those closest to him, including the feet of Judas, who will literally turn him over to be killed. Jesus is incarnationally modeling what it is to love. We will at times fall short, but we need not despair, for God is still among us, and within us, and loving us in spite of all of the ways that we betray God and deny God by not seeing the face of Christ in our neighbors. We are loved at the core of our being, because we belong to God. We are made in God’s image. Nothing we can do can ever tear us away from God’s love.

BECAUSE WE ARE FIRST LOVED, WE ARE FREE TO LOVE.  THIS IS VERY GOOD NEWS INDEED.

Let us pray,


God, we give you thanks for your love for us, an expansive love for all of humanity and all of creation. May that same love flow through us as we seek to follow you. Amen.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Come and Have Breakfast...a sermon on John 21:1-19

A.Kumm-Hanson, Santa Cruz, CA 2014
( A sermon preached to the community of Calvary Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, MN on April 10, 2016)

Grace, peace, and mercy are yours from the Risen Christ. Amen.

Today’s Gospel text tells the story of Jesus’ third appearance to his disciples. Jesus’ first appearance was to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb. His second appearance was to the disciples in a locked room. Today, we hear that Jesus appears on a beach and cooks breakfast for the disciples. It’s a strange story. The disciples have been fishing all night, and haven’t caught anything. They see a man standing on the shore, they do not know yet that it is Jesus, who tells them to put their nets on the right side of the boat and they will find fish.
Their net was suddenly filled with an abundance of fish of many kinds. It was this unexpected catch that makes the disciples think that this stranger on the beach is maybe more than a meddling busybody telling them how to do their jobs. One disciple turns to Peter, and says, “It is Jesus!”  Then in one of the strangest literary asides in all of scripture, we hear that Peter puts on his clothes (he was apparently naked) and jumps into the sea. The other disciples steer the boat back to land, and find a charcoal fire with fish cooking, and fresh bread. And Jesus says, “bring in some of those fish. Come and eat breakfast.” So they sit down and eat together.
This is the most simple and ordinary of things, and yet, so profoundly hopeful. Because this is the second time in John’s Gospel that we hear about a charcoal fire. The night in which Jesus was betrayed and turned over to the religious authorities, there was a charcoal fire burning in the courtyard of the high priest’s house. By the light of that fire on that dark night, Peter denied Jesus three times. He denied knowing him, he denied being a disciple, and he turned his friend over to those who would crucify him.
It is this morning, over another charcoal fire, that Jesus meets Peter again. I think a lot about what Peter might have been feeling upon seeing Jesus again. When the violence started that night, he chose to save his own skin and denied Jesus more than once. We hear that Peter goes out and weeps bitterly, hot tears of shame and regret soaking his face. It is this running and hiding that makes me wonder if Peter was jumping out of the fishing boat to swim to the shore towards Jesus or to hide from him by swimming farther out to sea. The text really isn’t clear.
But if I am completely honest with myself, I would be swimming out to sea to get away from Jesus. It is the most human of impulses to engage in self-preservation. I too would have denied knowing Jesus that night if it would have saved me from the same fate. I HAVE denied knowing Jesus, when it comes to seeing his face reflected in others. We all have. Every time that we think that racism is a problem in another state or city or neighborhood we deny knowing Jesus. Every time that we refuse to make eye contact with that man or woman on the street asking for spare change we deny knowing Jesus. Each time that we draw a line between “us” and “them” whether politically or socially, we deny knowing Jesus, because to know Jesus is to see his face reflected in another. And shame is a powerful motivator, because once we are aware of the ways that we fall short, we want to hide from our brokenness. We want to hide from God. We have mistakenly juxtaposed a loving God who desires reconciliation and relationship with us, with the idea of a hall monitor who is watching our every move, just trying to catch us doing the wrong thing in order to punish us.
In my work as a chaplain, I regularly meet people who believe that they are beyond the reach of God’s love. That for whatever reason, often related to addiction or mental illness, they are not worthy of God’s grace and forgiveness. My patients experience real spiritual and emotional anguish over being “called out” by God upon their death. I don’t have all the answers, but I do share stories of how God desires reconciliation with us, not explanations for all the ways that we think we fall short. And today’s Gospel text is one example that I share with my patients.
When Jesus sees Peter, he doesn’t demand an explanation for what happened that night in the courtyard at the high priest’s house. He doesn’t demand an apology or an admission of wrongdoing on Peter’s part. He provides a meal for the disciples and simply says, “Come and have breakfast.” They come together, over fresh bread and grilled fish, to be filled and sent out.
This is the most simple and hopeful act in the world to me. Jesus seeks Peter out for reconciliation over a shared meal. This story of breakfast is intended to be a parallel to Jesus’ last interaction with Peter over the first charcoal fire. By the light of that fire Peter denied Jesus three times. By the light of this fire, Peter affirms Jesus three times. Jesus took the first step in reconciliation. And God has already taken the first step in reconciling all of humanity with Godself, by coming to earth as Jesus. We are already in right relationship with God because of the reconciliation of the cross.
Furthermore, as Jesus emphasizes to Peter, there is work to do. Jesus tells Peter to “feed my lambs” and “tend my sheep.” This breakfast is more than just about filling the disciples’ stomachs. It is about equipping them for their work of spreading the Gospel to all nations. Jesus tells them that it is going to be hard, but that they are to “Follow me.”

We are just about to eat breakfast with Jesus around this table. We are going to break bread together and drink wine together as we are filled up and sent out for our work as disciples. We eat together each week to remember Christ in ourselves and in one another. We need not hide from Christ, because the reconciliation is already complete. Come and eat breakfast.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The work of chaplaincy and "emotional labor"

A. Kumm-Hanson Minneapolis 2016
I stumbled across something the other day comparing the physical labor to what is called "emotional labor." This idea resonated with me, because of the emotional intensity of chaplaincy. Work of this nature has ramifications for the chaplain's personal life and perhaps an honest appraisal of the toll of emotional labor can contribute to resiliency and health for the chaplain.

Chaplains dwell in the realm of the not-quite-tangible. Our practice involves spiritual and emotional concerns, not physical or social issues to be addressed. Our tools of assessment are not stethoscopes or CT scans, but our ability to listen deeply, our intuition, and our own emotions. In order to assess our patients, we literally use our own souls. We check in with what we are feeling to "take the temperature of the room" (to quote a CPE supervisor). We reflect back the emotions of our patients using mirroring techniques. We do not feel in full the trauma or death or pain of our patients, but we do go into those spaces with them and surround ourselves with that suffering.

Chaplaincy does not involve physical labor like industry, but it involves labor. One of my wise colleagues mentioned that the main difference between a healthcare chaplain and a parish pastor is that while pastors can and do enter into spaces of suffering and dying, they may only do so a few times a year. Chaplains go into the places of deep suffering many times per day. It is emotional labor to center one's self again and set aside whatever might be happening in the next hospital room over or the ER or whatever the chaplain witnessed already that day to be FULLY present with each patient.

It is tremendous emotional labor to be able to walk into a trauma room (I have the privilege of working in a level 1 trauma center) and exude calm. It is human nature to react to extremely stressful situations with "fight or flight" responses. It is a matter of training and experience to be able to observe calmly what is happening, with heightened senses, and be a source of calm and steadiness for others.  Instead of "fight or flight"chaplains "focus and feel." One of my favorite ER nurses said about chaplaincy, "Your physical presence in a trauma room is a rock for the patient, but also for the staff. We know you are going to be calm and we look to you for that strength." It is not physically possible to hold onto all the pain that we take in, but it takes emotional labor to release that pain also. When we come home from that night shift or that day of visiting nursing homes, we often just want to eat and turn our brains off. And in our sleeping or our reading or our netflix binge watching, that pain seeps out slowly like sap from a tree. It hurts a little, but it is necessary to relieve the pressure.

Our conversations with patients are deep. We talk about the sorts of things that many of us would rather ignore. Death and suffering and aging and tough decisions. We are called into ethical dilemmas and to bear witness to patients gasping for air and to offer comfort to family members. We are called to sit with patients so they do not die alone. Sometimes we forget how to have light conversation, because so many conversations in chaplaincy are serious. We might have little tolerance for small talk in our personal lives because we bear witness to the most sacred and painful moments of the human experience. But we want you to know that nothing you might say will scare us, because honestly, we have heard it all before.

We might not want to be social butterflies during our off time or we might want to surround ourselves with a close network of people who "get it." Because it is so hard to explain what we do, why we do it, and how we can possibly continue to do it day in and day out for years. We love our work, but it changes us. We think way more than the average person about the ravages of cancer or the slow death of dementia or the violent randomness of trauma. We are constantly thinking about the lives (and deaths) of our loved ones and we are constantly faced with our own mortality.

We might not always have the emotional energy to be fully present to our own spouses, families and friends at the end of the day. This is the greatest consequence of emotional labor for me. I am an introvert and sometimes I just do not have the emotional reserves to be a wife and family member without time to recharge.

For me, the most important tool in managing the toll of emotional labor is ritual. I symbolically put aside the day by changing out of my work clothes immediately upon returning home. I pray silently in my car that God would hold the concerns of those whom I serve in my work, so that I can let go of them. I visualize all of the trauma and suffering that I hold in my body draining out of me and into the earth. Sometimes I literally lay on the ground and do this. I worship in a faith community that sings its prayers and holds hands together, and I derive strength from the great cloud of witnesses each week. I cry when I need to, because sometimes it is all too much to bear.

Another important part of my resiliency is self-care. I relax HARD on my days off. I sleep a lot. I work out. I eat good food and enjoy good coffee. I try to do creative, generative activities like art and knitting, that allow me to create something tangible. I derive enjoyment from physical activities like yard work and cleaning, because it allows me to use my body instead of my mind. I ask for help when I need it. I love my spouse deeply and enjoy the company of my dogs and their enjoyment of the present moment.

I am not perfect at any of these things, and I still find myself getting worn down at times, but they are disciplines and they get better with time.

Fellow caretakers and chaplains, how do you counteract the toll of emotional labor?

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Vigil with the Word: Year C, Fifth Sunday in Lent

The texts for the Fifth Sunday in Lent are:

John 12:1-8
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Phillipians 3:4b-14

I have chosen to focus my commentary on John's Gospel.

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

This particular text from John’s Gospel is full of themes that make for fascinating sermons. There are themes of Mary breaking gender roles by touching Jesus. There is a discussion about the extravagance of using a pound of “nard” to wash Jesus’ feet. Which means nothing to us now, perhaps saying something like “took a pound of saffron and put it into pancakes for Saturday morning breakfast” would make more sense. Taking something that is extravagantly expensive and using for the most ordinary task. Then there is a discussion about serving the poor and appropriate use of resources.  But I do not want to talk about that. I want to reflect upon this text in my context as a healthcare chaplain.

This story has the title of “Mary Anoints Jesus.” About a week before Jesus is to die upon the cross, Mary anoints his feet with the most pure and costly oil. Anointing, the ceremonial marking of a person with oil or by symbol alone, is a practice with a long history. We hear in the Hebrew Bible about priests being anointed. The disciples are said to anoint the sick after healing them.  And in this passage, Mary anoints Jesus.

The Catholic church has entirely different connotations of the practice of anointing, so I will not go into those here. But in my practice of ministry, anointing is something that I do frequently. It is part of the commendation of the dying liturgy, something that I find myself doing about once a week, as well as part of a blessing that I give to my patients. Anointing happens in the baptisms that I provide for the sick and dying. Sometimes I use oil, sometimes I use water, sometimes it is just my fingers, smelling faintly of alcohol rub from my hand hygiene ritual. Anointing is a physical representation of a holy manifestation. It is a proclamation of “This moment is sacred. God is here. We are setting aside this moment as something outside the ordinary.” Anointing takes the most ordinary of things, one person touching another, and imbues it with a sense of the holy. It is a mark of God’s presence.

Mary is the only one that sets aside this sacred moment in the bustle of a large group dinner and the disagreement about the use of the nard. I think about how I often make eye contact with a dying patient or their family members as I am anointing someone’s forehead. I tenderly make the sign of the cross and resting my palm on their head, I say, “Well done good and faithful servant. To God you belong.” Quiet words amidst the chaos of a trauma room, the alarms of an ICU or the oppressive air of a nursing facility. An anointing of a moment. God is here.


Vigil with the Word: Year C, Fourth Sunday in Lent

The texts for the Fourth Sunday in Lent in Year C are:

Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21

I have chosen to focus my commentary on the Gospel reading from Luke: 

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
 So he told them this parable:

The Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother
 Then Jesus said, ‘There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ ” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” ’

This is one of the most intriguing parables for me.  It has drama and “dissolute living” and lots of questions of fairness and justice. Prodigal has two meanings: first, spending money or resources extravagantly and recklessly; and second, having or giving something on an extravagant scale. The younger son squanders his inheritance and comes home. His father is delighted to see him and throws a party. His older brother reacts like I would and is suitably outraged. How DARE this irresponsible one be welcomed home? But the father is also prodigal. He is reckless with his love and acceptance. He says to his older son, “this brother of yours was dead and has come to life!” 

I see a lot of prodigal love in my work as a chaplain.  Reckless and outrageous love. Love of daughters caring for their dying parents. For neighbors who made sure that other neighbors are fed. For a son I met the other night who visits his father every single day in the memory care unit, even though his father has not been able to recognize him for months. For people who love with the heart of God, and who proclaim, “Your brother was dead and has come to life…and his life will again lead to death. But he is living now.”


However, the complexity of human experience also demands that we consider all the ways that we are not able to be “prodigal” in our love for others.  How the demands of caregiving lead to resentment. Of family members who cannot bear to see or speak to the dying. And how that is okay, because we all can only do what we can do. Some of us simply cannot bear it. Because this parable is not intended to be instructive. It is intended to be demonstrative. Demonstrating the prodigal love of God for all of the beloved.