Jesus said, “There is joy in the presence of the angels over one sinner who repents.” When I read this verse, I’m reminded of a time in my life when I was trying to repent.
Years ago, during my first year in seminary, a friend invited me to attend a service at North Heights Lutheran Church, a Twin Cities congregation known for its charismatic ministry. Charismatics are similar to Pentecostal Christians. They believe in manifestations of the Spirit, like speaking in tongues, prophecy and miracles. Today one out four Christians worldwide are Charismatic or Pentecostal. Towards the end of that service, the pastor invited people to come up to the altar rail for prayer. And I went forward because at that time I was filled with depression and self-doubt related to my sexual orientation. I was hoping God would change me.
So, I shared all that with the lay minister who was praying for me. After hearing my disclosure, he leaned over and whispered in my ear that he had faced similar struggles. Then he laid his hands on my head and prayed that the Holy Spirit would heal me of the devil’s power and lead me to a new path of life. He gave thanks that God rejoiced over my repentance.
Now, obviously, that prayer didn’t work. Because here I am today, an openly gay pastor. Yet, reflecting back, I wonder if God eventually found a way to answer that prayer. Just not the way originally intended. That same kind of prayer is still spoken by “ex-gay” ministers to LGBTQ Christians. However, today many of us see the spiritual and emotional harm caused by conversion therapy (which is still legal in 32 states, including North Dakota)—especially to our queer youth—affecting thousands of them each year.
The word “repent” is a loaded term for many of us. Repentance has been interpreted to mean that you must feel extreme remorse or regret. For centuries, this meaning governed Christian theology. Christians were taught that they had repent from their sins and do penance to be saved. Some us grew up feeling exaggerated guilt or shame because our pastors or priests told us we were condemned, because of what we had done or who we were. Because of personal failures and divorces. Because of struggles with chemical dependency.
But I don’t believe that’s what God intends for us. I believe there’s a better way to think about repentance.
The Greek word for repent is “metanoia,” which comes from two Greek words. “Meta” means to change, and “noia” means “mind.” So, metanoia means “to change your mind.” It’s similar to our word “metamorphosis,” which means to change one’s form. Like a caterpillar changing into a butterfly. Or a transgender person becoming in their bodies what they feel in their hearts and souls.
Unlike the word repentance, metanoia is not restricted to a narrow interpretation. It’s a change of mind in how we view God’s love and one another and ourselves. Today, I believe that kind change of mind is a central to understanding and living out the Gospel. Normally, repentance is something we humans do. But it can also apply to God. Just look at our first lesson from Exodus. This passage is part of the story of the golden calf.
After being freed from slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel arrive at Mt. Sinai. Their leader Moses goes up the mountain and stays there for 40 days, talking with God, and receiving the Ten Commandments and other guidelines for their community.
When Moses comes down, he discovers the people have created a statue of a golden calf to worship. Which makes God angry. So angry, that God is ready to punish them. But Moses intervenes. Moses argues with God. And, as the story goes, Moses changes God’s mind. Now that’s a pretty amazing conversation! Most Christians think of God as all-powerful and almighty and all-knowing. We assume God has it all figured out.
But what if that just isn’t true? What if God, like us, doesn’t know how a specific individual’s story will turn out? What if God can’t look into a cosmic crystal ball that foretells each person’s choices and mistakes and faith journey? What if life is as much a surprise to God as it often is to us? What if God is willing even to appear foolish for the sake of love?
When I was in seminary, I first studied the writings of Alfred North Whitehead, who’s known for developing “process theology,” based on the concept that God changes and is responsive to what happens to us as humans.
As Whitehead puts it: “[God] saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of [God’s] own life. It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved.”
That’s the kind of God that Jesus depicts in parables like those in today’s Gospel reading from Luke. Where God is like an impulsive shepherd who leaves behind a flock of 99 sheep to look for that single missing lamb.
Where God is like a poor woman who has nine coins, but still desperately searches for the one that’s lost. And when she finds it, celebrates by spending the money on an extravagant party with her friends.
A foolhardy, impetuous God. Guided not by condemnation, but by forgiveness and kindness and undeserved grace. A God who became one with us in Jesus, who was criticized for dining with sinners and outcasts.
A God who even changes her mind for our sake. A persistent God who still calls us to change our minds—and sometimes see others with new eyes.
A God who is filled with joy when we choose love over hate, acceptance over racism, peace over violence, mercy over judgment.
That’s the kind of metanoia that marks true repentance. And that’s the path Jesus calls us to follow every day of our lives. Amen.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 346.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 15:1-10
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to [Jesus.] And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So, he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. “Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
FIRST LESSON: Exodus 32:7-14
The LORD said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ” The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’ ” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
"Tree of Life," based on Genesis 2:4b-9, Revelation 22:1-5, and Luke 13:6-9 (readings follow the sermon)
During the summer of my senior year at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, I worked on the grounds crew. One hot summer day that June, a tornado passed right over our campus.The next day, I had to help with cleaning up a number of downed trees. Two students and I were working on one large trunk that was a couple feet thick. After cutting it up, we faced the task of carrying it to a dump truck. Now you would think that three seminary students could figure out how to safely move a tree trunk a few hundred feet. But sometimes graduate-school education doesn’t equal common sense.
Anyway, the three of us decided that it would be a lot easier to just roll the log down the hill. So that’s what we did. But, of course, the log got away from us. Kind of like a scene from an old Laurel and Hardy movie…. It took off quickly, gaining speed, heading right towards a parked car. And all we could do was stand there wide-eyed and watch it happen. I guess you could say it was proof that God really does answer prayers—or maybe just plain old dumb luck—but, about ten feet before reaching the car, the log hit a bump, suddenly veered to the right, and stopped—preventing what could been a very embarrassing accident. Instead, it was an unexpected happy ending. So, that’s my seminary tree story. There are a lot of stories about trees in Scripture. Many with happy endings, others not so much.
Our first reading from Genesis is the introduction to the story of the Garden of Eden, which has two famous trees: the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge—the latter most of us Christians and Jews remember as the tree with forbidden fruit. Fruit that Eve and Adam ate, which led to their expulsion from the garden. (Not a happy ending.) In another story, the prophet Elijah seeks refuge under a broom tree when Queen Jezebel tries to kill him. But God saves Elijah. A life-saving ending.
Again, in our second reading from Revelation, there’s a tree in the passage from the very last chapter of our Christian Bible. The tree of life grows along a river that flows grows by the throne of God, the ultimate home for the faithful. Quite literally, a happy ending. And in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his story about the fig tree. You don't have to be a genius to understand what this parable is about. The vineyard owner is fed up. It’s been three years, and tree hasn’t produced any fruit. So, why not just cut it down? Give up? However, the grace-filled gardener wants to give it just one more chance. Just a little more cultivation. Just a bit more manure. Just one more year of growing and developing.
But the fig tree story doesn’t have an ending. Jesus finishes his parable with a question mark. We don’t hear what happens. Some of you know I’m a gardener. So, I get this tree story. For we gardeners can be terribly stubborn optimists who believe that growth can happen, no matter what. Even when we don’t know if the seed will actually sprout. Even when planting bushes in our hard, clay soil. Even when facing long brutal North Dakota winters. Even when seeing a dying tree, we still dare to hope for a happy ending.
The late comedian Gracie Allen, the wife of George Burns, once famously stated, “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” And so, it is for all of us. God, the holy Gardener, offers each of us opportunities for new growth. The grace of unexpected endings. The grace of just one more chance. One more time. To begin to view our fellow humans—despite the evil around us—not from the perspective of despair and hopelessness, but faith and possibility—one more time. To choose to treat others not with hatred and judgment, but with compassion—one more time. To see the world not with pessimism, but through the eyes of the One who created it and us—one more time.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, commented on this when she wrote, “What if faith is about recognizing that when something is not expected… and 100% surprising—perhaps it’s the work of God. Because honestly, we can manage the expected… all on our own. When it’s weird and seemingly impossible and somewhat out of nowhere—now that feels like a God thing.” I believe St. Mark’s is an example of that. Six years ago, our congregation could have let the story of St. Mark’s end with the sale of our old building. We could have decided to fold and allow others to carry God’s light into our dark world. But this community heard a different voice calling. A voice that uttered strange things. A voice told us that the tree of St. Mark’s is not dead. A voice that spoke a reviving word to us, about God doing something totally unexpected. And St. Mark’s heard God’s voice. And we said, “Here I am, Lord, send me. Send us.”
And now, look where we are today! Thanks to members of Temple Beth El, we have a new home. And instead of a period, God put a comma at the end of our story. A comma that speaks grace for this community. Grace for people here. Grace for someone like me—a gay man who never thought I could be a pastor in a congregation like this. Grace for Temple Beth El, to see life reborn and an exciting partnership unfolding in this place. Grace planted like a seed in our hearts, which will grow into a tree of life. Here. Among us. God’s story for us today—a happy story that has not ended. Amen.
1 Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Sermon on Empty Tombs and the Suddenness of Dawn”, April 9, 2014; http://www.patheos.com/…/sermon-on-empty-tombs-and-the-sud…/
FIRST READING: Genesis 2:4b-9
This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created, when the LORD God made the earth and the heavens. Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth and no plant had yet sprung up, for the LORD God had not sent rain on the earth and there was no one to work the ground, but streams came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground. Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. The LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 13:6-9
Then [Jesus] told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So, he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ [The gardener] replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”
When I was young, my family ate our meals around an old wooden table. We lived in a small house, so there was no dining room. The table was in the kitchen. It wasn’t a fancy table. In fact, it had a lot of scratches and dings. One of the legs had been chewed up by a puppy years before—you could still see the tooth marks That table held a lot of memories. On special occasions—like birthday parties or Thanksgiving or Christmas, my mom would have us pull apart both ends of the table to insert an extra leaf in the middle. Which turned it into a table with plenty of room for extra food and dishes and people. A table that seemed much bigger.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus talks about another way to make a bigger table. Jesus is having dinner at a Pharisee’s house. And Jesus tells his host that when he gives a banquet, not to just invite the typical guests like relatives or friends. Instead, Jesus suggests a radical party. He tells him to invite “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” The disenfranchised of that time. People who can never repay the favor. This, Jesus says, is what the Kingdom of God looks like.
It’s like that old kitchen table that seems way too small for your own church family. But just insert some of God’s grace in the middle, and suddenly there’s more than enough room. Room for those people who have nowhere else to go. Room for food. For acceptance. For love. Jesus knew that. For that’s where much of the ministry of Jesus took place. Around the tables of friends and strangers, even enemies. We clergy people like to talk about Jesus with fancy words of theology—like salvation and incarnation and forgiveness. But Jesus was more relational than theological.
Those who lived and ate with Jesus didn’t gather around tables to hear scholarly lectures. They came to hear stories about God’s love. They came for healing of their bodies. They came for comfort for their souls. They came for relief from their oppressors. That was the kind of bread they longed for. That was the kind of hospitality they dreamt of.
The same is true for us today. For despite the hatred and evil we see all around us in our world, Jesus still teaches us about a Gospel of welcome. The Gospel of a bigger table. This morning’s second lesson from Hebrews begins with the words, “Let mutual love continue.” The word for “mutual love” in the original Greek is “philadelphia”—which most of us have heard means “brotherly love.” Or to use a more inclusive translation, “sibling love.” Which, of course, is metaphorical. It doesn’t just refer to family members who sit around a dinner table. But also to the kind of love that should be the core value of any church. The kind of love people today so desperately need.
A couple years ago, I attended a training in New Jersey for people like me working with new ministries in the ELCA. I was excited to meet LGBTQ pastors like myself, and others working to welcome those who have felt rejected by Christians. Following the words of Jesus, congregations like St. Mark’s are trying new approaches to reach those in need. Strategies and experiments that sometimes mean you might make mistakes along the way.
We heard a story about St. John’s Lutheran Church in Passaic, New Jersey. A few years ago, their church decided they wanted to do something to help the homeless in their neighborhood. So, they decided to offer a free meal after their Sunday service. The members spent lots of time making plans for this new ministry.
The church advertised. They recruited volunteers. And on the Sunday after Easter that year, they prepared the first meal. Then they waited and waited and waited. But no one came. Nobody! The planners couldn’t believe it. They just couldn’t figure out what they’d done wrong. So, the members turned to their pastor and asked her what they should do. Then one of the volunteers said, “Hey, there’s usually a line of men standing outside the Walmart store, looking for day work. Why don’t we take the food to them?” And that’s what they did. So, began their new ministry in a parking lot, serving hot meals to the hungry, along with songs and prayers.
Like St. John’s Lutheran, I believe Jesus is calling our congregation to find new ways to bring the Gospel to those who stand outside the doors of many churches. Here in our new space at Temple Beth El Synagogue, I envision God will reveal new opportunities for us and our ministry in the coming months and years.
Today, Jesus is inviting us to build a bigger table. Today God is calling us to create a community of welcome. A church that accepts each person who comes to us no matter what. And you and I are part of that welcome.
And perhaps you are someone who needs to feel that kind of welcome. And if you are struggling with a difficult period in your life, even if you feel lost or forsaken, please know that there are people in this community who can meet you wherever you are in your journey of faith, doubt, or uncertainty. Just know that you are not alone.
Even if religious leaders or other Christians have condemned and shamed you in the past, even if someone has told you that you don’t belong to their faith group, Jesus is here to greet you with open arms.
And we are here, too. We have set a special place for you at our banquet table. A table where Jesus gathers us all in together. A table where there’s plenty of room for everyone. Come, for all are welcome. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
When was a freshman in college, I thought I had the Christian faith all figured out. Even though I had grown up Lutheran, as a teenager I was influenced by conservative Christians. And by a theology that said all people are sinners, and the only way to be saved was to have a conversion experience.
So, in college I got involved with a group that encouraged me to share my faith. And to make sure that others were saved. Especially members of our family. My parents, however, were not very religious. My mom went to church once in a while. My dad hardly ever. Not even Christmas Eve or Easter. Just funerals and weddings. Usually the only time I heard Dad mention God was when he was swearing. And sometimes he swore like a sailor!
So, listening to the other Christians I knew at the time, I believed my parents were going to hell. And it was my responsibility to make sure that didn’t happen. Of course, back then we didn’t have things like computers or social media or cell phones. So, I decided to write a letter to my mom from college. Which I did, in old fashioned cursive script.
I wish I had that letter today. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I told her that I was worried about her and dad because they had not accepted Jesus as their personal savior. So, in my letter, I asked them to “make a decision for Christ.”
Today, I feel completely embarrassed about that letter. But I wonder what my mom thought. Because I don’t know. She never said anything about it. Like a lot of Midwestern families, we didn’t talk about conflicts or difficult topics. Because if you ignored a disagreement, it might just go away. Right? And I assume my mother didn’t tell my father about the letter either. Yet, from my perspective at that time, I felt like I had done what God expected me to do. And by not responding, my parents made their decision—something I then believed forever separated me as their son from my mother and my father. Which sounds a lot like what Jesus says in today’s Gospel reading.
There are many Christians today who would agree that what I did is exactly what every believer should be doing to save their family members from the judgment fires of hell. Some of you probably have siblings or parents or relatives who have condemned you for not fitting into their belief system. Because of how you read the Bible. Or what kind of church you belong to. Or how you welcome LGBTQ individuals.
For you, like me, it might have taken a lot of reflection and conversations along your faith journey to come to a place like St. Mark’s, where we don’t focus on condemnation and judgment as our central message. Instead, we see the Gospel of Jesus as about grace—God’s acceptance of each one of us just as we are, as beloved children. Fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God. Theologians use the term, “imago dei.” Which means our focus as believers should not be on who is outside our community, but whom we invite in—especially if they have been excluded or excommunicated by other church groups.
The Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote: “The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in the one who is not our image.” My prayer for Christians today—especially for us Lutherans—is that we look past our traditions and Northern European ethnicity to see God’s face in people who look very different than us. People of color. Queer individuals. The homeless. Migrant families.
If we dare to look close enough, the Bible is full of surprising examples of exactly that. In today’s second lesson, we read of people in Hebrew Scripture who were faithful. Faithful individuals with sometimes strange stories.
Like Rahab the prostitute. According to the book of Joshua, after 40 years of wandering in Sinai, the Israelites arrive in Canaan. From the Jordan valley, Joshua their leader sends two spies to investigate the military strength of the city of Jericho. The spies stay in Rahab's house, which might have been a brothel. But when the king of Jericho learns about the spies, he demands that Rahab bring them out. Instead, she hides them under bundles of grain on the roof of her house. After escaping, the spies promise to save Rahab and her family.
In beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, Rahab is also listed in the genealogy of Jesus. An ancestor who led to the birth of God incarnate. A story that doesn’t fit most people’s stereotype of a sex worker. Yet, I believe God uses flawed humans like her, like us, to tell the story of God’s love for all people. People like you and me with imperfect lives, divided families, and wounded hearts. Brought together at this table to share bread, broken for us.
And the table that we now use for this meal is a remarkable symbol of healed divisions. This altar comes from the old Catholic convent where we worshiped before coming here. It sat unused in the basement at Prairie St. John’s for many years. Our members Jeff and Brad (who work there) found it and offered it to us, because we needed a new communion table for this space. Who could have dreamed that a Catholic altar could end up in a Jewish synagogue, to be used by a Lutheran congregation? Three religious groups often separated by years of hatred and misunderstandings, whose histories are now brought together in this table of grace.
No longer divided, but united as faithful siblings. Loving parents and beloved children.
Sharing the peace of God in Christ. Living out the shalom of the Jewish covenant. Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Amen.
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SECOND READING: Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 12:46-53
Jesus said: "I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law."
In the summer of 1990, my husband Charlie and I went on a trip to Spain. Though, of course, back then we weren’t married. No gay couples were. We’d only been together about 10 months.
Earlier that year, Charlie had signed up for a summer course for Spanish teachers in Madrid. So, I decided to join him. I’d never been to Europe before.
I’d minored in Spanish in college and looked forward to visiting a country with so much history. With beautiful castles and museums and churches.
Once there, we traveled to various cities. In Salamanca, we went to visit the cathedral. At the entrance, I saw graffiti painted on the ancient door—large white letters that said in Spanish: “Soy lesbiana, porque me da la gana!” A poem that’s really a gay rights chant, meaning: “I’m lesbian, because I feel like it!”
Shameless words of pride. Shocking words for any Spaniard. Symbolic words on a church door. Words of courageous opposition to closed-door policies of Catholics and Protestants regarding LGBTQ individuals three decades ago. A stance still held by many Christians.
Words that echo a meaning of the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. Where Jesus says, “Knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
This is a familiar verse for most of us. But after two millennia of Christianity, it’s easy to miss the bold promise Jesus makes. For Jesus doesn’t say, “Knock, and maybe someone might answer.” Or, “knock, and we might open the door a crack.” Which is the kind of answer many hear today.
Like queer people, who have been so bullied by the Church that we are happy when Christians grant us a qualified welcome. Like people of color, who face racism on a daily basis, but are told not to complain about microaggressions, or past misdeeds, or inaction by politicians. Or like immigrants, who are told how lucky they are to be in this country, and that if they don’t like it, they should just go back.
Recently, President Trump took to Twitter, criticizing “The Squad,” the four women of color in Congress who represent his worst nightmare: they aren’t white, and they’re women who aren’t afraid to say what they think.
Many suggest people like that should just accept what they’ve received with “gratitude.” To stop knocking on the door, asking for more. More acceptance, more understanding, more protections, more power.
Recently I read an article by John Paul Brammer, a US citizen whose mother is Mexican American. Brammer addresses the issue of white privileged people expecting gratitude from immigrants. He wrote:
“But [from my perspective, that] kind of gratitude is the enemy of self-assertion…. [For] if we are made to feel like perpetual foreigners in our own homes, we will be less likely to advocate for ourselves and to ask for better treatment. I’ve seen this sentiment… among Mexican Americans as well as LGBTQ people. For some, there is stigma and shame in asking for too much, for being loud, for the audacity of voicing our discontent. 1
I believe that the words of Jesus we heard this morning speak in stark contrast to the voices of today’s world.
The parable Jesus tells about the pesky neighbor repeats that message. The man wants to show hospitality to his visitors but needs to borrow some bread. So, at midnight he goes to his neighbor’s house, and knocks and knocks and knocks. Until his groggy and grumpy friend finally opens the door and gives him what he wants.
The author of Luke puts these words in the context of prayer. But some Biblical scholars believe Jesus originally taught these sayings to the first disciples he sent out in pairs to share the Good News. Itinerant preachers. Instructed by Jesus to carry nothing. With no home base.
As a result, they had to learn to ask for what they needed. They were completely dependent on the hospitality of others for food and shelter.
A ministry of collaborative hospitality that reflects the gracious welcome we find with God. The same kind of hospitality our congregation has received from Temple Beth El Synagogue.
For like the people of Israel in our first reading from the very last verses of the book of Exodus, St. Mark’s is a wandering community. And just like the people of Israel, the cloud of God’s holy presence has followed us along each stage of our journey. Providing everything needed both by them and by us.
During the past 6 years, we have been dependent on the grace of God and the hospitality of others as our ministry has moved from place to place. Along the way, God opened many doors. And today, God has led us to a new door.
At the time we moved here 28 months ago, Prairie St. John’s told us about their plans to build a new hospital but didn’t know when—until this year.
When we started looking for a new worship space back in January, I really didn’t think it would be that hard. However, our search took nearly six months! We had to do a lot of door-knocking both literally and figuratively, with about 45 different options.
So, here we are today—ready to begin a new path in our pilgrim journey.
This is our last day of worship here. A day to remember the good things experienced in this space. A day to grieve the loss of this lovely home. A day to celebrate God’s abiding presence among us in this sacred sanctuary.
On Tuesday, everything here will be moved. And we will close these chapel doors one last time. Next Sunday, we will joyfully gather before God, as we pass through the doors of a new sanctuary. And God’s presence will follow us there.
Together, our faith has allowed us to see amazing possibilities for our congregation. And I believe our new sanctuary will be a place people come looking for unqualified acceptance.
A place to find God’s undeserved grace. A place to feel God’s loving embrace. A place to lean on God’s arms during the darkest days and most difficult steps of our journey.
A place with a door that opened to us even before we stopped knocking. With words of hospitality boldly emblazoned on the hearts of everyone inside.
A place where, no matter who you are, or where you come from, or whomever you love, you are truly welcome both here and there. Amen.
1 Brammar, John Paul, “Stop Demanding People of Color to Show ‘Gratitude’”, Out Magazine, July 19, 2019; https://www.out.com/…/stop-demanding-people-color-show-grat…
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FIRST READING: Exodus 40:34-38
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.
GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 11:5-13
And [Jesus] said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Today’s Gospel lesson reminds me of times when I’ve had to act as peacemaker between people who don’t get along.
When I was Executive Director of The Aliveness Project, we had an onsite meal program that served hot meals for people living with HIV/AIDS. We served 10 meals per week, with about 80 people at each meal.
Deb was the Director of Food Services. She had worked for us on and off over the years. Deb was a dedicated, hard worker. And her Meal Program staff were our front-line workers—dealing face-to-face with just about everyone who came through our front door.
They served as gracious hosts to the newly-infected young man, or the homeless woman who was so grateful for a hot meal on a cold winter day. They also were the sounding board for clients who sometimes said critical and hurtful things. Deb and her staff and volunteers faced that on a daily basis.
Another major program was our Medical Case Management Program. Our case managers helped individuals who were often in crisis—with overdue rent, unpaid utility bills, debilitating depression, abusive relationships, and huge medical expenses.
Each social worker had 40-50 clients, a daunting caseload. Laurie was director of that program. Normally, Deb and Laurie got along. For they had a lot in common.
Both were strong, independent women. Both were in their 40s with husbands. Both were Jewish. Both were skilled managers. Both were fierce advocates for their clients. Both were unafraid to say what they thought. And, let me tell you, they did. Often. To me.
Their major disagreement with each other focused on the silos that separated their programs. Deb would complain the case managers never stepped up to help on days when the kitchen was understaffed and overwhelmed with the number of meals to be served.
Laurie would tell me that the meal program staff seemed to think her case managers just sat in their offices chatting with clients. And sometimes their cooks seemed unwilling to bend the rules, like giving a sandwich-to-go for a client who had no food at home.
Our directors’ meetings could sometime dissolve into a gripe session about who had said what, or what someone did or didn’t do. My job was to listen, and listen, and listen. To make sure everyone felt heard. And then negotiate and reconcile and navigate a solution to the most recent disagreement.
In today’s Gospel story, Jesus faces a similar dilemma. Martha and Mary. Two strong women. Two fierce followers of Jesus. Two female faith leaders who didn’t get much recognition from their male team members.
Two very different personalities. A talkative extrovert who says what she thinks. A reserved introvert, who likes to reflect and listen.
Along all with that, you throw in family dynamics. Two sisters who don’t always get along. One kind of bossy, who acts like a mother. The other a baby sister, used to getting away with things her older sibling could never do. Predictable behavior related to birth order.
Yet, together, they form a family. We assume both parents died long before. For it was unusual in that day for two women to run a household.
It’s easy to read this passage from Luke simply as an argument between two sisters. And to hear what Jesus says as a shame-filled admonishment to the stressed-out Martha.
However, I think there are deeper layers of meaning hidden behind their bickering.
Today, we read this story with a very domesticated eye. And a lot of gender-based assumptions. We assume Martha is serving a meal. After all, that’s what women do, right?
But the text doesn’t mention food. The original Greek word is “diakonia,” which can refer to any kind of service. “Diakonia” is also used in the New Testament to refer to Christian ministry. That’s where we get our English word “deacon.”
So, instead of cooking a meal, you could read this passage as Martha being busy coordinating various ministries offered to the followers of Jesus. Instead of a stereotypical church lady, Martha is a pastor ministering to all those who came to hear Jesus. And her home was probably one of the original house churches used by the first Christians, and popular again today.
Thinking of Martha and Mary as deacons or pastors opens up a new vantage point see this story. To recognize these women as significant leaders.
In fact, in the Jewish faith community at that time, sitting at a teacher’s feet was considered a place of honor for a male disciple. So, when Jesus praises Mary for acting that way, he shatters traditional expectations for women.
The New Testament points toward extensive female leadership in the early Church. For example, in the last chapter of Romans, Paul thanks 27 people for their missionary work—one third of whom are women, including the female pair Tryphena and Tryphosa.
Early missionaries often worked in pairs, and male-female couples were assumed to be married. Which makes me wonder about the nature of Martha and Mary’s relationship.
In English translations, they’re called sisters, but in the original text, the language is less exact— “sisters” could refer to sisters in Christ, or biological siblings, but also possibly lesbian partners.
I love the idea of imagining them as positive role models in Scripture for us queer Christians—especially because the Bible has been used in so many negative ways against us.
For like Martha and Mary, Jesus calls people of all genders and sexual orientations to serve God in the style that best fits your and my personal identity, skills and gifts. Or, as Jesus says, to choose “the better part” or role for you.
Each of us has our way of doing ministry. You might prefer doing things like Martha. Here at St. Mark’s some of you enjoy doing ministries focused on people or social justice activities. Like Jane serving meals to the homeless at Churches United. Or Tara serving as council president. Or Mary Jane leading a Habitat for Humanity project. Or Linda going with a group to Guatemala.
On the other hand, some of you might like to follow Mary’s example by focusing on spiritual reflection and worship. Like Ruth reading a lesson today. Or Ryu playing the piano. Or Amelia bringing forward the communion bread. Or Rabbi Janeen leading services at Temple Beth El Synagogue, our new interfaith partner.
Like Martha and Mary, we have many female leaders who play major roles here at St. Mark’s, alongside male and transgender friends and members.
And today, Jesus calls all of us to be part of God’s reconciling ministry in our world. As St. Paul writes in our second lesson: “For through [Christ Jesus] God was pleased to reconcile all things to [God].”
As reconciled members of the Body of Christ, this is the promise we have together: that God loves us and empowers each of us—despite our personal differences—to do ministry in our own unique way.
And like Martha and Mary, we share God’s love through worship, prayer and service with those in need in our community. Amen.
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GOSPEL LESSON: Luke 10:38-42
Now as Jesus and the disciples went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."
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.”