When I moved to Fargo/Moorhead three years ago, I wondered about the state border between these two cities. When Charlie and I were shopping for a house, I asked a few people whether it would make a difference—since I was a pastor of congregation in Fargo—if we lived in Moorhead. What most people said to me was something like, “Oh, no, lots of people do that!”
So, we ended up buying a house in Moorhead. And since then I have made a daily trek from home to office—traveling all the way from Minnesota to North Dakota and back.
At first it was kind of exciting, crossing the state border each day. But after a while, it became very routine.
Except this past Thursday, when I crossed the border several times! On Thursday morning, Charlie had an appointment at the new Sanford Hospital on the west side of Fargo for a C-scan for his arm, which he injured in an accident last week, so he couldn’t drive himself.
Of course, I had an appointment at the same time at the Sanford clinic in north Fargo. So, we drove from Moorhead to the hospital, where I dropped off Charlie, then headed to my own appointment. After that, I drove back to the hospital, picked Charlie up and took him home—again crossing the border.
Then at noon, I had set up a lunch meeting with Curt, a friend from our Rainbow Seniors group, and Charlie decided to join us. So, we rode from Moorhead back to Fargo, crossing the border again! After lunch, Curt wanted to see our church’s old organ, so I took Charlie home and then drove back to our office in Fargo— which made two more border crossings. About 4:30 p.m., I drove home. Another crossing! But my driving day was not done. Because we went to the International Potluck that evening at Olivet Lutheran in Fargo. Once again, we crossed the border. Finally, after the potluck, we had our final border crossing. So, if I count correctly, that made a total of eight border crossings in one day! An all-time record!
Today’s Gospel also tells a story about border crossings. The lesson starts with Jesus and the disciples sailing across the Sea of Galilee, arriving at the country of the Gerasenes, located in modern day Syria. The Gerasenes were the people of the Roman district of which Gerasa was the capital city. So, Jesus crosses what today is an international boundary—but without any security checks or border wall. Jesus passes freely to a city originally founded by the Greeks a couple centuries before.
When Charlie and I visited Israel seven years ago, we sailed on a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Our guide pointed out the spot where supposedly this story took place, on the east side of the lake. Where a Roman settlement once stood. Where the farmers raised pigs for pork, a food forbidden by Jewish dietary law.
This story is situated in the center of a clash of cultures—contrasting the homeland of Jesus with a completely different society. The foreigners there would have been hated for their allegiance to the oppressive empire.
Yet, the man Jesus heals is one of those foreigners. By crossing the border, Jesus enters this man’s country and culture—a controversial act for any Jew of that time.
Based on the animosity many felt, Jesus could have turned his back on that man’s misfortune. Instead, Jesus, an immigrant himself in that moment, heals a despised and dangerous foreigner. A Jew who steps beyond his community to reveal God’s grace in the person of an outsider. A Gospel parable enacted in real life. In this healing, Jesus sends the legion of demons into a herd of swine. “Legion” was the Roman word for a unit of 5,000 soldiers. And the pigs were probably intended as food for the military unit of the occupying force there.
In all this, there’s a not-so-subtle impediment.
Jesus seems to engage in the kind of resistance sometimes practiced by oppressed people. Not an open, public protest, but symbolic defiance. Like the blacks who sat at Southern lunch counters in the 1950s. Like the transgender and gay individuals who refused to follow police orders just before the beginning of the Stonewall Riots. Like the Lutheran congregations that called LGBTQ pastors before the 2009 ELCA vote. Like the caravans of refugees who cross the Mexican border, knowing they might be sent to U.S. detention centers.
Like the law enforcement in certain cities who are refusing to cooperate with raids planned by immigration agents.
Like them, throughout his ministry, Jesus resisted the evil of this world. Jesus crossed borders. Jesus defied cultural norms. Jesus embraced the marginalized. Jesus welcomed the stranger. Jesus healed the foreigner.
That kind of welcoming grace and hospitality is the central message of the Gospel Jesus preached, and lived, and died for. The same kind of hospitality recently extended to our congregation by members of Temple Beth El Synagogue—who have graciously invited us to share their space. The same kind of love we are called to live out today. A love that transcends our differences. As St. Paul writes in our second reading from Galatians:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”
Paul suggests that Christ removes all the walls that divide us from one another. That we are now united in the love of Jesus, the One who came to change all that. The One who shatters the dark hatred of this world. The One who crosses the borders that separate us. The One who gives healing to our weary bodies. The One who grants comfort to our broken hearts, The One who brings together our diverse communities. Amen.
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GOSPEL READING: Luke 8:26-39
Then [Jesus and his disciples] arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee. As he stepped out on land, a man of the city who had demons met him. For a long time he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs. When he saw Jesus, he fell down before him and shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me”—for Jesus had commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man. (For many times it had seized him; he was kept under guard and bound with chains and shackles, but he would break the bonds and be driven by the demon into the wilds.) Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him. They begged him not to order them to go back into the abyss. Now there on the hillside a large herd of swine was feeding; and the demons begged Jesus to let them enter these. So he gave them permission. Then the demons came out of the man and entered the swine, and the herd rushed down the steep bank into the lake and was drowned.
When the swineherds saw what had happened, they ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came out to see what had happened, and when they came to Jesus, they found the man from whom the demons had gone sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. Those who had seen it told them how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed. Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear. So he got into the boat and returned. The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.
"The Wisdom of New Beginnings" - Holy Trinity Sunday. Based on Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 and John 16:12-15. The readings follow.
When I was a student in seminary, I began the painful struggle of coming to terms with my sexual orientation. Back then, I knew that if I came out, I could would be kicked out of the ordination process. So, my fears kept me in the closet of depression, isolation and shame. Finally, in the fall of my senior year, I started to explore what being gay might mean for me. I discovered an organization in Minneapolis called Gay and Lesbian Community Services that offered a four-week coming out group. So, I signed up.
On that first Saturday morning, walking through the front door of their building, I remember feeling terrified. A common experience for those coming out. I didn’t know what to expect or who might be there.
What I found were people like myself dealing with what it meant to be LGBTQ. And I met my first gay friends. For me, it was the initial step of a long journey. A decision that led to major changes in my life.
Sometimes, an inner Spirit reveals a path leading us to a life transition that we, by ourselves, could never imagine. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about that. Jesus says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth.”
Our first reading also reveals that kind of Spirit. The book of Proverbs calls her “Wisdom.” Because she’s a woman, some theologians call her “Lady Wisdom.” I love that. According to one Jewish tradition, Lady Wisdom was present when God made the cosmos—serving as architect to the divine master builder. The Hebrew word for “wisdom” is Chokhmah (חָכְמָה). In the book of Exodus, the same Hebrew word is used for the “skills” of the artists who created the beautiful curtains and altar furnishings for the tabernacle—the sanctuary tent that the people of Israel carried with them during 40 years of wandering in the desert. Maybe that’s the kind of wisdom we need here at St. Mark’s. In our journey towards a new place of worship, we need more than head knowledge. We also need the skills and wisdom of those among us who have walked the path of change and transition in our lives. Who have found faith to be a source of strength when life presents a strange detour. Who know that even though change can feel scary and uncertain and stressful, it’s often the way to arrive at something new for us as individuals and as a community.
Change is often surprising. It can happen without much notice. One day, you get up and go through your morning rituals. And a few hours later, you’re faced with something completely unexpected. Just ask my husband Charlie, who on Wednesday had a tumble with his bicycle. Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman who faced change. A little over a century ago, Eleanor married Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who later became America’s longest-serving President. FDR led our country through the Depression and World War II.
After 13 years of marriage, Eleanor was devastated to discover her husband was having an affair with her secretary and friend, Lucy Mercer. A revelation that almost killed her, as she walked through a time of deep disillusionment and despair. Struggling through her own pain and shyness and self-doubt, eventually Eleanor developed her own wisdom. She found the personal strength to become the major public figure that she remained for the rest of her life. Looking back at her personal ordeal, Eleanor once wrote: “Somewhere along the way, we discover who we really are, and then we make our decision for which we are responsible. [Just be sure to] make that decision for yourself, because you can never really live anyone else’s life.”1
Of course, reaching the point where you’re ready for a major change is not a simple process. There can be many forces of resistance: fear and insecurity, family voices and naysayers, career and financial consequences, anxiety and worry. Unfortunately, there’s no magic test to tell you whether you’re ready for a change, or when it’s time for a new beginning. But there are a couple things to consider.
The first is the reaction of people who know you well—but not in terms of whether or not they approve.
When I decided not to get ordained over three decades ago—because I wanted to live an authentic life and have someone to love, one of my gay friends got really angry with me. He thought I could be a pastor and have a secret gay life on the side. However, people who truly know you can give insight about whether what you plan to change is really something new, or simply a replay of an old pattern in your life or community.
Another question to ask yourself is whether this decision is really the next step in a transition process. For example, some people jump quickly to a new job because they’re frustrated with their current position—without any time for analysis of what they really want to do next. But change often requires a liminal period. An in-between time to consider various options and what a specific change might mean. I think our congregation has had that kind of time—both during our three years at Elim and our two years here at Prairie St. John’s. Because of our own congregation’s period of reflection and living in a liminal space, today we have a clearer picture of our true identity as a faith community. Of who and what we want to be in a new space.
We have a better sense of where Lady Wisdom is calling us next. A new beginning that comes not out of desperation or frustration or fear. For new beginnings don’t come out of that. They come from within yourself, your soul. From within the hearts and minds of a community. From the wisdom of compassionate leaders. From the prophetic voice of the Spirit of Truth. Out of all that, comes a vision of what a new beginning might look like, and how to get there. Of being ready to make a decision and act. For at some point, you just have to take a leap of faith. Without knowing exactly where it might lead—only that the Spirit is leading us, and God’s hand guiding us to new ventures. Where the creative fingers of Lady Wisdom trace the map of our lives and of our community.
A path that sometimes leads us from pain and suffering, to hope and love. Amen.
1 William Bridges, Transitions—Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014), p .165.
FIRST READING: Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: "To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth—when [God] had not yet made earth and fields, or the world's first bits of soil. When [God] established the heavens, I was there, when [God] drew a circle on the face of the deep, when [God] made firm the skies above, when [God] established the fountains of the deep, when [God] assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress [their] command, when [God] marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside [God], like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
GOSPEL LESSON: John 16:12-15
(Note: I have adapted this lesson by using feminine pronouns and words in reference to the Spirit. The original Greek text uses gender-neutral language. Using the feminine forms can help us see this passage in a new light.)
Jesus said: "I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, she will guide you into all the truth; for she will not speak on her own, but will speak whatever she hears, and she will declare to you the things that are to come. She will glorify me, because she will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father/Mother God has is mine. For this reason, I said that she will take what is mine and declare it to you.”
Once upon a time, there was a pond next to a flowing river. The pond was full of little fish, who spent their days swimming round and round and round. One morning, on the edge of the pond, there was a huge splash. A rainbow colored, sparkling fish had just jumped into the pond. “Where did you come from?” exclaims a startled pond fish. The sparkling fish smiles brightly and replies, “Well, I come from the sea!” The pond fish looks puzzled and says, “What is the Sea?” The sparkling fish tells her, “Why, the sea is what fish are made for! It’s nothing like this tiny pond. You don’t have swim in circles all day. You can dance with the tides!”
Then a pale gray pond-fish asks, “But, how do we get to the sea?” The sparkling fish replies: “It's easy! You jump from this little pond into that river. Then the current will carry you to the sea.” The gray fish’s eyes open wide with fear, “But that river is too deep and strong! We don't know where it goes. It's much too risky!"
The sparkling fish tells him, “But you don't understand—I've been there! The Sea is far more wonderful than you can imagine. It’s worth the risk. You just have to have faith and jump! The river will take you to the sea. I’ll show you. Who wants to come with me?"
At first no one moves. Then two brave little fish swim to the side of the Sparkling Fish. Together they leap into the river, and the current sweeps them away to the Sea.
This fish story is, of course, a parable for anyone who’s afraid of change. Like some of us who today may be facing a difficult life situation. Or churches that resist trying something new—who follow the cardinal rule for congregations: “But that’s the way we’ve always done it!”
But I think this fish tale is the perfect story for Pentecost. Just like the fish in that little pond, the disciples in today’s first lesson are called to experience something new. Something never done before. Without knowing what would happen next, they gather together in prayer and anxiety. When suddenly, a fierce wind blows through the windows, and flames appear over their heads. Spontaneously, everyone starts speaking strange languages. A cacophony of weird sounds. The people around them think they’re drunk. In reality, it’s the Holy Spirit, making them act crazy.
We Christians call Pentecost the birthday of the Church. But in many congregations, it’s a pretty dull party. Most of us Lutherans would never do what those early believers did. At least not in public. But maybe that’s what has brought us to where we are today. The age of a dying Church. Where soon there may be more Americans who openly claim no Church affiliation than those who sit in pews on Sunday mornings. Which tells us something needs to change. I believe living out the Gospel means daring to make decisions, even when we fear the consequences.
Hudson Taylor, a British missionary, once said: “Unless our Christian life is lived with elements of risk in our exploits for God, there is no need for faith.” The early Christians in the Book of Acts faced persecution and imprisonment, even death. Pentecost is a symbol of that kind of faith. A faith so desperately needed today.
Several years ago, some researchers conducted a study of 300 churches identified as successful. In his book, Excellent Protestant Congregations, Paul Wilkes names 26 characteristics of those churches. Three of which deal with taking risks. The first quality identified by Wilkes is vibrant faith. The kind of faith where church members say they feel excited when they face challenges in our modern world. For them, faith is an adventure, rather than a passive, leisure-time activity. They take risky actions based on their beliefs. Our congregation revealed this kind of faith when you voted to be Reconciling In Christ 28 years ago. That decision confirmed a never dying commitment to welcome all people, regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The second risk-taking characteristic of successful churches is that they are entrepreneurs—willing to engage in new ventures. Does that sound familiar? Well, it should. Let me remind you that we’re currently looking for a new worship space so we can move by August 1st. If that’s not a new venture, I don’t know what is. But that’s not the only new thing we’ve tried. Over the past years, we’ve developed an ongoing relationship with Churches United for the Homeless. We sublease office space to other organizations. We work with and on behalf of immigrant families…. Many of you could add something to that list.
The third characteristic of risk-taking congregations is a willingness to move beyond comfort zones. They dare to go places where others would never dream. Again, does that sound like St. Mark’s? This week, I’m reminded of the risk you took in calling me as an openly gay pastor. In a state that seems even more conservative than when I moved here three years ago!
So, beloved people of St. Mark’s, it sure seems like we fit all three of those criteria. Not that we’re perfect. No one is. And not that we’re done. For change is a constant factor in all our lives. And it can feel scary. But to me all this says that Pentecost is still happening in this community. The Spirit is here today. And just like that group of believers on that first Pentecost, the Spirit calls us to follow Jesus without knowing exactly where we are going.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote: “Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase—just take the first step.” May God help us take that first step—even a first leap in faith. And the next and the next and the next…. As we follow the call of that unpredictable Holy Spirit. Amen.
FIRST READING: Acts 2:1-21
When the day of Pentecost had come, [the apostles] were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel:
‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”
Once upon a time, there was a pond next to a flowing river. The pond was full of little fish, who spent their days swimming round and round and round. One morning, on the edge of the pond, there was a huge splash. A rainbow colored, sparkling fish had just jumped into the pond. “Where did you come from?” exclaims a startled pond fish. The sparkling fish smiles brightly and replies, “Well, I come from the sea!” The pond fish looks puzzled and says, “What is the Sea?” The sparkling fish tells her, “Why, the sea is what fish are made for! It’s nothing like this tiny pond. You don’t have swim in circles all day. You can dance with the tides!”
On weekend afternoons when I was young—especially in the summer—my family would often visit my Uncle Walter and Aunt Lydia, my mother’s sister. The North Branch of the Crow River meandered through their farm. As a kid, I loved fishing, so I would frequently go down to the river to catch my share of sunfish and crappies and northerns. Aunt Lydia and Uncle Walter never had children, which is probably why they made us feel so welcome in so many ways.
I think Aunt Lydia truly enjoyed being the host. Halfway through the afternoon, we’d have “coffee,” which of course wasn’t just something to drink. Aunt Lydia served sandwiches and homemade cookies and yummy cake. It was a full, farm meal.
Aunt Lydia also enjoyed making gifts. She knitted brightly colored yarns into mittens for me and my twin sister—the kind with a long connecting string that went through the coat sleeves, so a mitten could never get lost!
Aunt Lydia enjoyed colorful things, too. She had two blue and yellow parakeets that landed on your finger and came when she called their names. And although Lydia wasn’t an artist, she did “paint by numbers,” with those canvases that tell you exactly where to put each color—green on grass, brown on puppies, lavender on lilacs.
And Aunt Lydia enjoyed sharing her home. When her sister’s husband died, Lydia invited Jenny to come and live with them. Even after she was diagnosed with disabling emphysema, Aunt Lydia never stopped doing things for those she loved.
When I was a sophomore in high school, Aunt Lydia passed away, which felt almost like losing a parent. Aunt Lydia taught me a lot about hospitality and joy and grace.
Our lesson from Acts tells the story of another Lydia, who also demonstrated true hospitality. On his second missionary journey St. Paul dreams of a man who begs him, “Come to Macedonia and help us!” So, Paul’s team sets sail from Asia across the sea to Macedonia, in modern-day Greece, to the city of Philippi. Philippi was founded as a colony for retired Roman soldiers and their families. A city full of military men serving an oppressive Empire. Not exactly a friendly place to do outreach.
Paul’s first encounter in Philippi involved a group of women, led by Lydia, an immigrant from Asia Minor. Like Cornelius in last week’s story, Lydia was neither Christian nor Jewish. Yet Lydia becomes the first Christian convert in Europe. Some scholars suggest that “Lydia” was really a nickname, referring to her homeland—the kingdom of Lydia. Kind of like when I was in college, my group of friends (instead of calling me just “Joe”) called me, “Lars Larson, famous Swede.”
On a more serious note, during a time when one-third of the residents of the Roman Empire were slaves, Lydia’s nickname suggests that she must have started life as one. Back then, it wasn’t unusual to call a slave by a word linked to their country or ethnic origin instead of their real name. A racist strategy to make them feel less human.
Despite her upbringing, Lydia became a fascinating woman. A foreigner living with her family in a new land. A former slave who becomes a successful businesswoman.
But there’s one other thing that makes Lydia unique. Something most Christians would never consider. When I read that Lydia was a single woman and the head of her household, as a gay pastor, I also wonder, “Could Lydia have been lesbian? Did her household include a female partner?”
Which might sound shocking to some people. And sadly, because those of us who are LGBTQ are so used to other Christians condemning us with the six traditional clobber passages in Scripture, even we can fail to see the queerness within Biblical stories like this one.
Yet Queer theologians like the Reverend Elizabeth Edman (whom I met last summer) encourage people of faith to read the Bible from the varied human experiences of sexual orientation and gender identity. For by reading stories like this one in that way, it opens our eyes to new role models for faith—not just in Scripture, but also in our modern lives. As Edman writes, “My queer identity has taught me more about how to be a good Christian, than has the Church.” 1
The author of Acts describes Lydia as a merchant of purple cloth. Purple, of course, is a color embraced by our LGBTQ community, though we prefer a lighter shade of lavender. Some say that association comes from combining the traditional colors of pink for baby girls, and light blue for boys—which together make lavender.
In ancient times, the color purple that was so difficult to make, that only the wealthy could afford a purple robe or outfit. So, purple became the color of kings and queens—which I guess you could say is still true—just a different kind of queen! But unlike some rich and powerful people, Lydia uses her wealth in service to others. She turns purple into radical love.
Paul meets Lydia at a river that flowed by the city. Normally, when Paul visited a place, he started at the Jewish place of worship. But in Philippi, there’s no synagogue. So, Paul goes to the river. Where a group of womenfolk are gathered. Who went down to the river to pray. What happens next makes Lydia a model for Christian hospitality. Lydia says to Paul and his companions, “If you have found me to be faithful in the Lord, come and stay at my home.” So, Lydia opens her house to strangers. A home where they stay throughout their visit. The first of many house churches founded by Paul. The first Christian community in Europe. And Lydia is their pastor.
I believe Lydia is a model of faith for us today. Especially for us Christians here at St. Mark’s—who are looking for a new place to worship. Though, of course, I’m not suggesting that we follow Lydia’s example of worshiping down by the shore of the Red River here in Fargo. That would be challenging, especially in the winter!
Nevertheless, Lydia shows us how important hospitality is to any place of worship. For worship is not just about us sitting in pews, or singing hymns, or saying prayers.
It’s about extending a hand of welcome to those who are strangers in our midst. It’s about welcoming the foreigners in our community. It’s about trusting that God will provide a new place for us, where everyone will feel affirmation and love. A place, perhaps, where you might not normally expect to find a church, or group of believers.
Lydia shows us that being a person of faith—in a community that welcomes queer believers—means keeping our hearts open to the possibilities of what God can accomplish among us.
Lydia was a believer—who saw something that needed to be done, and dared to do it. Lydia was a Christian leader—who saw a different way to serve God’s people. Lydia made a leap of faith. And that, beloved, is our calling as Christians in this community of St. Mark’s. To welcome the stranger. To show love to those rejected by others. To try something new.
And that’s the place where the risen Christ is calling us today. A place where Jesus comes among us and says, “My peace I give to you. A peace that’s so different than what the world gives. Now, share that peace with those in need.”
Whether it happens in a chapel, or at an office building, or even down by the river. Amen.
1 Queer Virtue: What LGBTQ People Know about Life and Love and How It Can Revitalize Christianity, The Reverend Elizabeth M. Edman; Beacon Press, Boston, 2016, p. 4.
FIRST READING: Acts 16:9-15
During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us.
GOSPEL READING: John 14:23-29
Jesus answered [Judas (not Iscariot),] “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me. I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe.”
Jesus said, “I tell you, if these people were silent, the stones would cry out.”
I like rocks. And stones. And boulders. Especially in a garden. Back when I started gardening at our house in Minneapolis, Charlie and I would look for rocks everywhere we went, and bring them back to our yard. It was almost like a game. If we were driving along a road and passed some good-sized stones, I’d yell “rocks!” and we’d stop. Once on the way to Red Wing in southern Minnesota, we pulled over for small boulders that had fallen from the bluffs along the highway.
Another time at a resort, we fished rocks out of a lake in the dark so no one would see us. More than once, we hauled large stones from the cabin Charlie’s mom has near Grand Marais. But, eventually, I got impatient with that slow rate of stone gathering. You know, it takes a long time to get enough rocks to make a significant impact when you’re landscaping a large yard, stone by stone.
So, one spring, I called a company that sold rocks north of the Twin Cities, and ordered two tons of small boulders. Now, I’m sure most North Dakota farmers would laugh at the thought of paying for rocks, when they have an unending supply in their fields. Yep, that’s what those City folks do,” they’d say. A couple weeks later, a large truck lumbered down our alley, and dumped my order next to our driveway. It’s amazing how much noise rocks can make. I spent that summer moving those precious boulders around our yard… next to the pond I had created, along the borders of the garden, to perfectly complement the shrubs and trees and plants.
When Charlie and I moved here three years ago, of course we had to bring some of those stones with us. I think the moving company guys thought we were crazy. After all, who moves rocks? But for us, some of those stones carried memories. Of places we had visited. Of good times shared. Of our Minneapolis home. When I look at those rocks now, I see more than lumps of granite or limestone. My mind hears the stories they tell.
Jesus said, “If these people were silent, the stones would cry out.”
Today is Palm Sunday. At least that’s what we called it when I was a kid. Now it’s “Passion-slash-Palm Sunday.” Now we combine all of Holy Week into one Sunday service. That’s why we read the entire passion story in today’s Gospel readings from Luke. But did you notice anything funny about the Gospel lesson I read before the procession? I did. Something I had not seen before. What’s weird is that in Luke’s Gospel, there is no mention of palm branches. The same story is told in the other Gospels. And in all three, as Jesus processes on a donkey into Jerusalem, the crowd waving palms like pompoms.
But in Luke, there are no palms. The people only lay down their coats in the street. Which means if we only had Luke as a Gospel, there would be no Palm Sunday. There’s also one other detail that makes Luke’s story different. The talking rocks. The verse where Jesus responds to the religious leaders, who tell him to silence the crowd. Hearing them call Jesus “king,” the leaders fear that Rome will send their troops to quiet the crowd with horses and swords. But Jesus says, “If these people were silent, the stones would cry out.”
For the rocks hear what the people say. The rocks remember the blood of those murdered by cruel oppressors. The rocks witness the change of tone from this day when the people shout hosannas, to five days later, when crowd chants for Pontius Pilate to crucify him, when Jesus walks over these stones carrying his cross. The rocks speak when everyone else is silent.
Which makes me think of an old Hasidic Jewish teaching that says a time will come when the stones of the earth will testify against us human beings, remembering the days we have spent walking and driving over rocks. I don’t know about you, but I don’t pay much attention to gravel and boulders when I’m in a hurry. However, Hasidic mystics view those stones as holy witnesses. For after being silent for millennia, they believe our actions will be judged by those same rocks. They will tell God and everyone how we treated other humans and our earth.
Maybe that’s what Jesus had in mind when he talks about the stones crying out. Shouting. Even whispering what they know. Voicing words when no one else can. Speaking truth to power. No longer keeping silent.
Years ago, people living with HIV/AIDS came up with a slogan that describes that struggle: “Silence Equals Death,” usually represented with an equal sign between the first and last word (Silence = Death). It was born out of an era when gay and bisexual men were dying because they were afraid to come out. Along with that slogan, they created a grassroots organization called “ACT UP,” which stands for AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Together, ACT-UP organized protests that eventually forced our government to do something. They staged die-in’s at Senators’ offices, blocked the lobbies of pharmaceutical companies, and led angry marches down city streets.
Groups like “Black Lives Matter” are doing similar work for justice today. Refusing to remain silent in the face of hatred and bigotry and discrimination.
Jesus said, “If these people were silent, the stones would cry out.”
Sadly, the voices of hatred still seek to silence people. On Friday, the Administration’s ban on transgender individuals in our military took effect, without much notice. Which means that 13,700 trans military members might be discharged and lose their jobs. Which means that any trans individual who tries to enlist will be barred from doing so. Which means that we Christians need to speak up for the voiceless and work for justice in our world.
That’s also the model for following Jesus described by St. Paul in our second lesson from Philippians—who says Jesus “did not regard equality with God as a thing to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” For Jesus didn’t come as a king to reign on earth; he came to serve the sick and poor. For even though Jesus was recognized as a rabbi, he spent much of his time with the outcasts of his community. Despite Jesus being the Word Incarnate, he welcomed the lowest class of his society.
Theologians say that some of those early Philippian Christians were probably slaves or former slaves. So, the imagery Paul uses is not just poetic. It spoke to their social and economic reality.
I believe the same applies to us today. We need a Savior who enters our human condition. Who knows our internal doubts and fears. Who understands what it’s like to be a silent minority. Who has compassion for those who live in the closet, or struggle with depression, or feel overwhelmed by the barriers we face just living each day.
That’s where the grace of the cross comes in. For Jesus came and died for people like us. Revealing a love for each of us, even when we feel unlovely. So that we can, in turn, can live freely and love graciously. And become the living stones that speak when the world seems to have nothing to say.
As Jesus said, “For if these people were silent, the stones would cry out.” Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 19:28-40
After he had said this, [Jesus] went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, saying, “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ” So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord needs it.” Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Thirty-one years ago, my boyfriend Steve died of AIDS. It was a sudden, unexpected death of a young man. Steve went into the hospital with pneumonia on a Tuesday, and died five days later.
Steve’s death was a huge shock for his large, Catholic family—with six brothers and three sisters. What made it awkward for all of us was that before Steve’s hospitalization, I had only met one sibling—Mike, Steve’s closest brother. Mike was the only one in the family that Steve had told he was gay, a couple months before he went into the hospital. And while Mike was supportive, he also told Steve to make sure he never got HIV. So, Steve had never told Mike about that.
A couple weeks after the funeral, Steve’s family invited me to dinner at his sister Connie’s home. Later in the evening, Connie came to me with a difficult question. With tears in her eyes, Connie asked me why Steve had never told them he was gay. She said they all loved him, and she couldn’t understand why he had kept it a secret.
I hesitated, and then told her the truth—that Steve didn’t tell them because he was afraid. Afraid that they wouldn’t accept him as he was. Afraid that they would stop loving him.
I could tell Connie had a hard time hearing that. Because it was too late to do anything about it. Too late to show her love. Which is sometimes the story of grief and families. Of loved ones wishing they could have said or done something different before their loved one died.
Today’s Gospel lesson is another one of those grief stories. Another story about siblings—two sisters and a brother. Another story of a brother’s death. Though there’s a big part of the story missing here. Just before our Gospel lesson in John, you find the story of Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, who was raised from the dead.
We don’t know what caused Lazarus to become seriously ill. But it was unexpected. The sisters send a message to their friend Jesus, begging him to come quickly. But before Jesus arrives, Lazarus dies. A few days later, Martha meets Jesus in front of their home and asks him a question: “Why didn’t you come sooner, Jesus? You could have saved my brother.” When Jesus leads the sisters to the tomb, and asks the stone to be rolled away, Martha warns him that the stench of death will be horrible. But Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” After someone rolls away the stone, the women are amazed to see their brother walk out alive.
These two sibling stories foreshadow the death and resurrection of Jesus in this Gospel. And both are connected by intense smells. In the first story , Lazarus suffers a human death, which produces a horrible stink. In the second, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, prepares Jesus for his own death. Using a nard ointment that was also burned as incense in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple.
The scent is symbolic. The overwhelming perfume of eternal life destroys the stench of death. The house stinks of Heaven. The fragrance of amazing grace and abundant life. A scent all Christians should wear—carrying a divine aroma into our world.
Nearly a century ago, the famous spiritual leader, Mahatma Ghandi was asked by a missionary what he thought of Christians coming to India. Ghandi replied with a question: “Let us think of the bulk of your people who preach the Gospel…. Do they spread the perfume of their lives? That is my sole criterion. All I want them to do is to live Christian lives…. Don’t [just] talk about it…. [For] a rose doesn’t have to propagate its perfume. It just gives it forth, and people are drawn to it.”
While living with Christians in his country, Gandhi expected to experience qualities like unconditional love, forgiveness, and kindness. But in his eyes, the Christians he knew failed to live up to the standards preached by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and on the cross.
Sadly, many people could say the same today. Like LGBTQ individuals rejected by churches. Like women who still can’t serve as leaders in some denominations, or congregations that won’t call a female pastor. Like people of color who face passive microaggressions and blatant racism from white Christians.
In our Gospel reading, Mary, a Middle-Eastern Jewish woman breaks through others’ expectations. Her outrageous behavior reveals her radical love. Her perfume is shocking in its extravagance. Its fragrance overpowering, filling the house.
Today, seeing a woman wipe the feet of a religious leader like Jesus would seem inappropriate. Yet, it’s something that Jesus imitates when, during the last supper, he washes the disciples’ feet. Maybe Jesus even borrowed the idea from Mary. (Men have been known to do things like that.) Like Ghandi, Mary challenges us Christians to live out the love of Jesus in our lives and actions.
This past Monday, I attended a support group run by the Minnkota Health Project. Minnkota is a volunteer-run nonprofit for people living with HIV/AIDS. Each month, they meet in a room at the Fryn’ Pan Restaurant not far from here for a meal and emotional support. I serve as their spiritual advisor.
This month, I also brought $30 gift cards from Hornbacher’s, funded by a grant we received again this year from the ELCA’s Office of HIV and AIDS Ministry. Thirty dollars might not seem like much to most of us. But for an HIV+ individual living in poverty, it makes a huge difference in helping to buy enough food each month. They’ve told me how grateful they are that St. Mark’s does this for them. Like Mary’s perfume in our Gospel story, the gift cards are a tangible sign that our church cares about them.
The ELCA likes it, too. They tell me that most HIV ministry today happens in large metro areas. It’s unusual, they say, to see it happen in a rural area like Fargo. And in a little congregation like ours.
As I was getting ready to leave the Minnkota group on Monday, one of the members—who’s a Native American woman (whom I will call “Carol”)—stopped with her husband to talk with me, and another man who often helps other group members with rides or shopping or errands. Carol told us how much the group means to her. Then she added, “Boy, the two of you sure smell nice.” We all laughed. The other guy joked that he had just taken a shower. And Carol told me she liked my cologne.
Reflecting on that conversation, I like to think her comment wasn’t just about body odor. That it was Carol’s way of telling us how much our involvement affects her. That a disease, still closely linked to death, can bring us face-to-face with people to love. That’s the kind of perfume Mary shared with Jesus—not just a pleasant-smelling ointment. But also a graceful compassion revealed in a lifelong journey of faith in following Jesus and serving others. A love that ultimately led her to stand with a small group of women where Jesus was crucified, abandoned by others.
That’s the kind of love Jesus calls us Christians to share with our community and world. Even when it leads us to places of disease and death. Even when it leads us to the cross. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: John 12:1-8
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.”
When I was in elementary school, I did just about everything with my twin sister, Joyce. Looking back, I think we were pretty good kids. However, I remember one time when we got into trouble. Together.
We were in 5th grade, and I remember there was some kind of fight happening among the girls in our class. Two of our classmates, Cheryl and Cindy, had a disagreement and everybody was taking sides. I can’t even remember what the fight was about. But Joyce and I were on Cindy’s side. In our minds, Cheryl’s group was the enemy.
One day, Joyce and I were with our mom at the laundromat in town. We discovered that someone from our class had written some words in chalk on the outside wall of the building. It read, “Cindy is stupid.” I have to admit that between Joyce and me, I was often the twin who instigated things. So, this time, I came up with a bright idea. We found some chalk, and I rubbed out Cindy’s name and wrote, “Cheryl is stupid.” Of course, I couldn’t stop there. I added, “and she smells.”
A couple days later, Joyce’s teacher called us into her room after school. Mrs. Johnson was angry. She told us she knew exactly what we had done. She gave us a lecture about how disappointed our parents would be if they found out. Then Mrs. Johnson made us go back to the laundromat and clean up what we had written.
Today I can laugh at that story. We were kids fighting over a silly argument. Acting like we hated one another. Playing what I like to call the “judgment game.” But to us, it was deadly serious.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment game. But from a totally different perspective. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says. “Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”
Here, Jesus uses the Greek word “agape” for love. Agape is used throughout the Gospels and New Testament. This passage is part of the Sermon on the Plain in Luke. Last week, we heard Luke’s Beatitudes. Today, we hear about love and hate.
I believe some people don’t want to hear what Jesus is really saying. In fact, Jesus starts out by stating, “I say to you that listen.” In Greek, it literally reads, “I say to those of you who are hearing me.”
We Americans tend to hear things in terms of how they apply to us individually. We say things like, “When he did that to me, I was so angry!”—or, “I can’t believe how she treated me!” But throughout this Gospel lesson, in the original Greek, Jesus does not address what he says to the individual “you.” He always uses the plural form for “you.” A subtle, but important distinction that’s hard to hear in English. So, when Jesus says, “Love your enemies,” he’s not speaking just to me. Literally it would be, “All of you must love all your enemies.”
Jesus tells us to love, not just on an individual level, but as a community. One thing that has been especially shocking for me over the past few years is how hatred has become a feeling that unites people. Tribalism now rules our political discourse, dividing us into camps. We see it happen everywhere. For example: Your neighbors either hates immigrants, or your community feels compassion for them. Your church either condemns queer people, or you vote to become a welcoming congregation. Your political party either opposes equal rights, or you join protesters in a Woman’s March.
It’s the same judgment game I played as a child, only now the issues are more serious. Typically, the judgment focuses on figuring out who is on your side. And once I figure out you’re not on mine, suddenly, we have nothing to talk about. We judge one another.
But I believe something happens to us psychologically when we play that judgment game. Momentarily, at least, you feel better about yourself. You step up on that little pedestal we all have in our heads or egos or psyches. And you end up looking down on “those” people. They become enemies. And, boy does that feel good!
But today Jesus is calling us to quit playing the judgment game. “Don’t judge,” Jesus says (and again he’s using that plural form of “you”)—“and you all won’t be judged.”
But how do we stop playing that game? How do I stop feeling angry about what those people say about my queer community? How do you stop hating those who want to build a wall? How do we stop resenting the people who are unwilling to change state laws and corporate policies to protect our the most vulnerable among us?
I believe the key is that the love that Jesus talks about is not just about feelings—not that I would ever deny the importance of acknowledging how we feel. Emotions are a normal part of our human experience.
But the kind of agape-love Jesus talks about is not based on our feelings. It’s based on actions. Loving actions that can overcome the hatred that pervades our world.
The past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about that, including a couple situations that have made me feel a lot of anger and resentment. It’s made me wonder: How do we move beyond the judgment game?
The story of Joseph in our first lesson shows us one way to do that. This is one of my favorite stories in Genesis, probably because it’s my namesake. When you look at Joseph, he had a lot of good reasons to hate—to play the judgment game. His brothers resented Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery (today we would call it human trafficking.)
In Egypt, Joseph becomes a servant of Potiphar, the captain of the guard, Later, Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempted rape. So, Joseph goes to prison.
There, Joseph interprets the dreams of two cellmates. Eventually, Pharaoh calls for Joseph to interpret his own recurring dream, predicting a seven-year famine. Pharaoh likes him so much, that Joseph gets appointed as director of a famine relief program.
Eventually, the brothers of Joseph come to Egypt for food, because they are starving. But they don’t recognize him That’s when Joseph gets pulled into the judgment game. He hides a silver cup in the grain bag of Benjamin, his youngest brother, the one he truly loves. Then he accuses the brothers of theft. Finally, Joseph tells them the truth. Of course, Joseph had every reason to hold a grudge. He could have just sent them back to Canaan. To live with regret and the memory of what they did.
Instead, Joseph forgives them. Now, that doesn’t mean Joseph forgot what happened. After all, his community passed this story on to us, centuries later. But Joseph chose to no longer play the judgment game. He did something unexpected. Something based on grace. Something based on agape love.
The story of Joseph is not a story of retribution—though Joseph had the right to ask for that. It’s a story of restorative justice. God saves Joseph from death and slavery, and restores him to a position of blessing. Likewise, Joseph saves his brothers from starvation and guilt, and restores their relationship as family. Forgiveness is like that. It’s not just about one person saying they’re sorry. It’s also about the person who’s doing the forgiving. About finding a way to restore the trust that was broken. To let go of resentment. To start on a new path in the journey of that relationship.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who fought for years against apartheid in South Africa and saw many friends go to prison because of it, once wrote: “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”
May God help us to remember. To remember there’s a way to end the judgment game. The way of love. The path of agape. The shared journey to reconciliation. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 6:27-38
Jesus said, "But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for [God] is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."
During my last year at Luther Seminary, I had to write a senior thesis. The course was called “Systematic Theology.” The goal of the class was for each student to lay out their personal theology. I was in a liberal mindset even back then. And internally I was struggling with my sexual orientation and how to justify that within a theological framework. Of course, no one knew I was gay in seminary. If I had come out, I would have been expelled.
So, I decided to write my paper about liberation theology. About how human sin is not just an individual issue, but also imbedded in social structures. I had read books by Latino liberation theologians, like Juan Luis Segundo—as well as others like James Cone, who wrote theology books from the black experience.
When the day came for me to present my thesis to my classmates, I knew that I might face criticism. But I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of unbridled anger and hostile condemnation that I heard in response. When I started talking about God’s “preferential option for the poor,” I might as well have thrown a grenade into that classroom of seminarians.
The phrase “preferential option for the poor” was coined in 1968 by a Jesuit priest, Pedro Arrupe. A term later used by Catholic bishops in Latin America. The concept is based on many parts of the Bible that talk about God as protector of the vulnerable. Where God has a preference for powerless individuals who live on the edges of society. Liberation theology fully embraced that concept—linking it to passages in the Gospels that connect the poor and marginalized with Jesus.
Today, liberation theology—including queer liberation theology—is taught in our seminaries and church colleges. Andrés Albertsen, a gay Argentinian Lutheran pastor I know, just started teaching a class at St. Olaf College, called, “Reading the Bible through the Eyes of Latin American Liberationist Christianity.” But my initial interest, 30 years ago in seminary, was way ahead of its time.
I was reminded of that senior paper when I read today’s Gospel lesson. This reading is Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. But the word “beatitude” does not appear in Bible. The term comes from the Latin word, “beati,” that begins each verse, and translates as “blessed” or “happy” or “lucky.” “Beatitudes” is what we call the unique blessings spoken by Jesus. If you Google it, almost every site refers to the list found in the Gospel of Matthew.
Most Christians assume that the Beatitudes are the same in both Gospels. But they’re not. In fact, they are radically different. In Matthew, there are eight blessings spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s version has a definite spiritual flavor, like: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” or “Blessed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” or “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
Luke, on the other hand, has only four beatitudes, that obviously highlight social justice issues, stating: “Blessed are you who are poor,” and “Blessed are you who are hungry,” and “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, and revile you….” Notice that Luke also changes the focus to “you.” Instead of saying, “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus speaks directly to them, by saying, “Blessed are you who are poor.” However, when Jesus uses the word “poor,” it’s not the working poor that politicians like to talk about. The Greek word here means “destitute”—who today would be the homeless, the indigent.
Luke also adds four curses to the Beatitudes. The New Revised Standard Version in our lectionary, starts these out with the word, “Woe.” But a couple translations use much stronger language. Like “Cursed are you rich.” My favorite is the one that says, “damn you”—curse words we don’t normally use in church. Words more likely heard in a bar, or on an urban street, or maybe from a preacher like Nadia Bolz-Weber, if she were here today. Shocking words that I believe convey what Jesus originally intended—where he might say, “Damn you rich! You already have your consolation! Damn you who are well-fed! You will be hungry! Damn you who laugh now, you will learn to weep!”1
When I read the Beatitudes like that, I find them to be intense and raw and inescapable.
As an artist, I like to see things visually. Here, I can imagine Jesus painting two pictures for us. One painting is of a group of poor, hungry and sad people standing in front of a hut in a Third World village. Or maybe a drug addict on a street corner of one of our cities. People who are outcasts. People to be pitied. Yet, Jesus looks at them and says, “Blessed are you! You’re the lucky ones!”
Then there’s a second painting. It’s a group portrait of our community. Looking happy and healthy, with nice clothing. No matter how we rationalize or deny it, most of us Americans fit that picture. We have jobs. We have places to live. We’ve got money to buy food. We’re self-sufficient. We are blessed and, gosh, everybody likes us. Right?
But when I read these crazy Beatitudes in Luke, my eyes are opened. I see own portrait, painted by Jesus. For Jesus takes all my self-perceptions and desires, and politely blows them to pieces.
Is anybody else bothered by that? I know I am. It’s no wonder my seminary friends got angry. But that’s exactly the point. For if we’re really reading it, we should be disturbed. Sometimes, art and scripture do that to us.
Today, faced with this text—with these Beatitudes—I believe we have two simple options. Option 1 is for us to take these blessed sayings and explain them away—gradually watering them down, to dull their bitter taste. For most people, that’s a pretty compelling path. The path most pastors and Christians take. In Option 2, we let these words interpret us. To change our vision of ourselves as Christians. Or as the theologian Walter Brueggemann once said: “The prophetic tasks of the Church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that lives in denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”
Our calling is to ask ourselves the hard questions, like: What is Jesus saying to me in these words today? What if I could let Jesus challenge my ideas about what the good life and success are really all about? What if our idea of church could be infused with that vision, and focus not on wealth and buildings and church growth, but on the poor and marginalized of our community?
Thankfully, I believe that here at St. Mark’s we share that vision already, at least in part. That’s the blessing (and the curse) of us no longer owning our own building. We live with the uncertainty of life. The challenge for our church is that there are always new things for us to see and new ways to look at issues like poverty and racism, sexism and homophobia. And new ways to read the Beatitudes today. Something, maybe, like this:
- Blessed are you poor, for in your face we see the eyes of God.
- Blessed are you hungry, for we are called to feed you.
- Blessed are you who feel rejected by our society, for this is a place where you are welcome.
- Blessed are you who weep, for we are here to cry and laugh with you.
- Blessed are you who are separated from us by walls and fences, for Jesus calls us to tear them down.
- Blessed are you who march with Native American women, queer people, refugees, and others hated by this world, for together we shall be called “children of God.”
Today, we are blessed to have a place and community like this. A place where we can talk about how we see ourselves. A place to think about who we want to become.
A place to listen to the words of Jesus. A blessed place, to see God walking beside us.
Even when we don’t know exactly where we are going. Amen.
1 The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus; Robert Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar; Macmillan Publishing House, New York, 1993; p. 289.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 6:17-26
Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets."
When I was young, I loved to go fishing. I grew up in Dassel, Minnesota a small town about 40 miles south of St. Cloud.On Sunday afternoons, my family would often visit my Uncle Walter and Aunt Lydia, my mother’s oldest sister. They lived on farm northeast of Dassel. What I loved about the farm was the river. The north branch of the Crow River meandered through the property. During summer visits, my family spent hours fishing for northerns, sunfish and crappies.
One Labor Day weekend, when I was about 6 years old, we were fishing on a warm afternoon. Suddenly, my mother got excited because she saw an enormous fish. It looked like a log floating by in the stream. In retrospect, maybe it was a sign.
Not long after this, my Aunt Lydia came out of the house sobbing. She told us, as we stood there holding our fishing poles, that my grandfather—the father of my mother and Lydia—had just died of a heart attack.
When we got to my grandfather’s house, my grandma Ida told us a strange story. Just before he died, grandpa called her into the bedroom. “They’re coming to take me,” Grampa Bill told her, pointing at someone she could not see. With those words, he passed away.
Back then, I wondered—and to be honest, I still wonder today—who came to take my grandfather? Was it God? Was it Jesus? Was it angels? People who have had near-death experiences tell of meeting spouses and parents and friends. Loved ones who passed before. And a bright light that welcomes them to their eternal home. I like to think that’s what happened to my grandpa. A holy encounter with love. An epiphany.
As a child, I remember my mother repeating that story about the big fish and my grandpa. In my six-year-old mind, the death of my grandfather was forever connected to that afternoon of fishing on my uncle’s farm.
In a similar way, today’s Gospel story links fishing with a major event in the life of Jesus and Peter.
Like my hometown, first-century Capernaum was small—only about 1,000 people. A fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, called Lake Gennesaret in this lesson. Of course, the way people fished at the time was very different than when I was a kid. Instead of the long cane pole I used as a boy, they used fishing nets, dragged behind their boats.
In 1986, archaeologists discovered the remains of a first-century fishing boat, buried in the mud of the Sea of Galilee just south of Capernaum. In fact, it’s called the “Jesus boat,” and today it’s displayed in a small museum next to a kibbutz near there.
I saw that boat when Charlie and I visited Israel seven years ago. The boat is much larger than today’s fishing boats—eight feet wide and 26 feet long. A huge boat that needed a crew to row and steer. The kind of boat used by the fisherman in this story. But for them, fishing was not something you did to relax on a Sunday afternoon.
Fishing was manual work. It was also a team effort—Peter, James and John were partners in their business. They worked side by side from early morning into the hot afternoon. These fishers had little—if any—formal education. Some were illiterate, and many were poor. It’s ironic when you consider that these first disciples would not meet the minimal qualifications for ordination in our Lutheran Church today.
Yet, Peter later became the leader of the early Church. In this ordinary guy, Jesus saw something special. But Peter doesn’t see that in himself. He says, “Get away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” A curious reaction for someone who has just hauled a record-breaking catch of fish. You’d think it would be more like the end of a Super Bowl game—where the winners high-five one another and celebrate their good luck. Well, except for last week’s game, which was not that exciting. Even the half-time show—normally my favorite part—was not very good. Nevertheless, Peter has something to celebrate. But he doesn’t feel that good about it. He sees himself as undeserving, as a sinner.
The prophet Isaiah has a similar reaction, in our first lesson, when he sees God. He cries, “I am a person of unclean lips.” I remember feeling that way when I was in seminary. As a closeted gay man, I was terrified that others would discover my secret, and expose me as a sinner. Now, I know that God did not see me that way back then. Just like Peter, who was afraid Jesus would see only his sinfulness, his brokenness, his self-doubts. But I don’t think Jesus came to make people feel guilty. Jesus came to bring holy love to people like Peter. An epiphany on a smelly fishing boat. Revealing what others cannot see. The presence of God shining into hearts and homes. Amazing grace revealed to shame-filled humans.
The same is true today. For Jesus comes not to reveal sin. Jesus comes to bring the holy presence of God to ordinary places. Jesus comes to instill holiness in people like us. Holiness that touches our broken hearts. Holiness that heals our troubled minds. Holiness that comforts those hovering on the border of life and death. Today, a lot of people in our culture feel like they have no value. That they have nothing to offer.
I once read about a survey that asked a large group of Christians what they believed God thought about them. It asked them to name the one emotion God feels for each of us humans. Can you guess what the survey revealed? It’s actually kind of shocking. For the majority said, “When God thinks about me, I believe that God’s overwhelming feeling is disappointment.” Disappointment. Isn’t that incredible? With all the songs and Bible verses and sermons about grace, we still think God is disappointed with us.
How awful, really. Because the truth of the matter is the exact opposite. What I’ve learned in living this life, is there’s nothing holy or spiritual about beating yourself up. There’s no redemption in wallowing in shame. Talking bad to yourself does not please God.
St. Paul knew that grace is given to free us from all that. In our second lesson from Corinthians, Paul calls himself “the least of the apostles” and says he’s “unfit to be called an apostle,” because he persecuted the early church of Jesus. “But by the grace of God,” Paul says, “I am what I am, and [God’s] grace toward me has not been in vain.”
Paul was convinced of God’s love when Jesus appeared as a bright light on the road to Damascus. Paul was the last of all the apostles to see the risen Christ.
In Jesus, Paul saw something he had never seen before. In Christ, Paul felt a love he had never experienced. A holy encounter with grace. A meeting that instilled in him a confidence no one could take away. That’s the kind of faith we share here at St. Mark’s. For this congregation is based on the theological concept that we are all saved by grace. That God in Christ loves us as we are. Despite what others may think. Despite what other Christians or politicians may say. Despite what our own self-doubts may whisper in our ears.
That’s the message we have to proclaim to our world and our community here in Fargo, North Dakota. For Jesus says the same thing to us that Jesus said to Simon Peter in the fishing boat so long ago, “Don’t be afraid. I am calling you by name. And will lead you, wherever you go.” Like Peter, the voice of Jesus is calling us today. Calling us by name, as beloved children of God. Calling us to catch not fish, but people. Like Peter, in Jesus we see the holy love of God our Creator, revealed in ordinary people like me and you.
And all we can say in response is, “Here I am. Send me.” Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 5:1-11
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
When I was a college student, I minored in art. In one of my painting classes, I learned a trick that I’ve used over and over again.
The challenge for any artist is getting too close to what you are creating. You work on a drawing or painting for so long, that you stop seeing how it looks to others. It’s easy to miss bodies that are out of proportion, or distorted faces, or leaning landscapes.
One of my college professors, Dr. Bruce McClain—who still teaches art at Gustavus Adolphus College—taught me a technique that makes you see your work of art from a totally different viewpoint.It’s actually very simple. All you do is take your painting, and hold it in front of a mirror. Looking at it in a mirror flips the image. You should try it. Maybe you’re not an artist, but just take a picture you like and test it out. I guarantee you will see things you never saw before.
On the wall of my art studio at home, there’s a large mirror Charlie and I bought years ago at an antique store. Whether I’m designing a mosaic or doing a watercolor, I stop from time to time and look at it in the mirror. Almost always, something jumps out at me. I see it with a new perspective.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus himself becomes that kind of mirror. Not literally, of course. Though I suppose, if Jesus could turn water into wine like he did in the reading we had a couple weeks ago, he could also do some magic with mirrors.
In fact, in today’s lesson, it sounds like people were expecting that. For someone asked Jesus, “Are you going to do something like we heard you did at Capernaum?”
But what Jesus does in this lesson is not magical. It’s prophetic. He makes people look at something they don’t want to see.
This story is a continuation of last week’s lesson. Jesus has returned his hometown faith community. At first, we get the feeling that all the people love Jesus. They hang on his every word. But then the mood changes. Jesus says something that offends everyone in the room. It’s like he holds a mirror up to their community, and shows an ugly reflection, previously invisible to them.
Based on the stories Jesus tells, I can guess what that issue is. Can you?
To illustrate, Jesus tells a couple stories well-known in Jewish folklore about the two most famous Hebrew prophets. The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. And the story of Elisha and the leper Naaman. Nearly three millennia ago, the prophet Elijah was threatened by Israel’s King Ahab, who was a tyrant. So, Elijah flees his home country, as a refugee. He crosses the border and travels to Zarephath, a Phoenician city to the north. Along the road, Elijah meets a nameless widow in a field. Elijah asks her to prepare a meal for him, from the last bit of flour in a jar and oil in a jug left in her pantry. Which she does, but the food never runs out. God saves this Phoenician woman and her son from starvation.
The second story is about Elisha, Elijah’s successor. About how Elisha helps Naaman, a commander of the Syrian army, who has leprosy. During much of their history, Israel and Syria were enemies—as they are today. Normally, an Israelite would help a Syrian. Naaman’s wife has an Israelite servant girl, who tells her that the prophet could heal her husband. So, they send for Elisha, who instructs Naaman to go bathe in the Jordan River seven times. It sounds like magic. But Naaman thinks it’s a stupid idea and refuses to do it. Eventually, his servant convinces him to just give it a try. And God heals Naaman, the Syrian leper.
These are the two stories that Jesus uses in his sermon. Stories that make the people in his synagogue angry. Stories that have one thing in common. The person assisted by each prophet is a foreigner, a person of a different race and country. Using these stories, Jesus holds a mirror to the faces of his faith community in Nazareth. A mirror that reveals deep-seated racism. And long-established hatred of immigrants. An unspoken belief that God would never help people like that.
Sound familiar? If Jesus were here today, and held up a mirror to the face of our community, I wonder—would we see a similar image?
When Jesus says this to the people in the synagogue, they are so infuriated, they want to kill him. They actually try to throw him off a cliff. But there’s a missing detail in this story. For modern archaeologists tell us there was no cliff outside of Nazareth. The angry crowd would have to drag Jesus about two miles to get to a place like that. But maybe the group is so filled with hate—like a lynch mob—that’s exactly what they do.
It reminds me of this week’s news story about Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” show star who suffered a violent attack in Chicago. One of his friends reported what happened. The actor arrived from New York late Monday night. Early Tuesday morning he was hungry, so he decided to get something to eat at Subway. On the way, Jussie is attacked by two white men, who call him a “faggot”—an ugly, ugly word—and then pounce on him.
Jussie fights back, but they beat him badly. Then they actually put a rope around his neck and pour bleach on him. As they leave, they yell, “This is MAGA country!” What’s even more shocking is that this wasn’t the first time Jussie was targeted. A few days before, a letter addressed to him was sent to Fox Studios in Chicago, with cut-out letters that read, “You will die, black fag.” More ugly words. Despite all that, police and others have expressed doubt that it was a hate crime.
Ugly, homophobic words and brutal, racist actions. Not unlike what Jesus faced. Though Jesus was targeted not for who he was, but whom he stood for. The foreigner. The outcast. The stranger. The leper.
Jesus, the Light of the world, shines a mirror that reflects those marginalized faces back to his and our community. And reveals the compassionate face of God. Our second lesson talks about that kind of mirror. A mirror that reflects not hatred, but love. In the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, which is really a love song, St. Paul writes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known.”
Those words remind me of the day, 30 years ago, when I attended my first service at a new gay church in Minneapolis. It was a small, start-up church for our LGBTQ community—with no building, no denomination, no support from other congregations. It was called “Spirit of the Lakes.” Because it had no building, the first services were held at The Aliveness Project, a community center for HIV+ individuals.
Eventually both the congregation and Aliveness would have a big impact on my life. I met my husband Charlie at the church that fall. And a little over a decade later, I was hired as executive director of Aliveness, and worked there for 14 years. The church services were held in a large meeting room at Aliveness. Previously, the room had been used for yoga classes, so one wall was covered with mirrors, floor to ceiling.
During the service, all of us worshipers faced the wall of mirrors, looking at our reflections. The mirror images were very distracting and disorientating.
Since then, I’ve wondered if there was a purpose in that. Maybe the pastor thought it was a powerful symbol for us LGBTQ individuals to stare at ourselves and one another as we worshiped.
For many, this was their first experience at a queer church. During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when many of us were losing friends and loved ones. During a period when there was little acceptance, and no legal protections for people like us. During a time when many of us hid our faces in dark closets.
Looking back, it was liberating to see the smiles of people like me singing hymns and praising God together. The mirrors revealed our reflections as God’s creatures, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. Those mirrors reflected a lot of love. And to see clearly the face of Jesus among us. To view our world and ourselves with new eyes.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “Some [people] see things as they are, and ask why. Others dream things that never were, and ask why not.”
My prayer today, is that Jesus will help us see things that no one else can see. To see people not through the lens of racism or homophobia or hatred. But through a mirror of love—that transforms the world from the nightmare vision it sometimes is, into the dream that God intends it to be.
May God in Christ make that unknown dream and that unseen vision a reality among us, here at St. Mark’s today. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 4:21-30
Then Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land. Yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.