Sunday, November 08, 2020

Turning the World Upside Down: Reading the Beatitudes on All Saints Day

Adapted from sermon preached Nov 2020 in The Church of England's congregation in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Focus Lectionary Text: Matthew 5:1-12

One of the perks and challenges this past year of being a Methodist pastor serving in an Anglican congregation has been getting acquainted with a different hymnal full of songs I had never heard before. This past week I learned three more All Saints Day hymns, including one often known as Turning the World Upside Down. 

Turning the world upside down. I don’t know about you, but that’s sounds great to me. I think about the time Jesus started raging and flipping tables in the temple courts, driving everyone out with a whip made of cords. The Gospel accounts tell us that Jesus especially targeted the tables of money changers and those selling doves, calling the merchants robbers. 

Why those tables more than others? Well, the wealthy didn’t need to go to a currency exchange booth in the temple with its high transaction fees. They had no shortage of cash on hand. And the wealthy weren’t the ones purchasing overpriced doves to offer as a sacrifice. That’s what the poorest of the poor folks did when they couldn’t afford a lamb let alone a cow. The merchants Jesus lashed out at weren’t selling the first century’s version of cookies and quilts in the church foyer. This was about those in control turning having access to God’s love and mercy into a financial transaction that was out of reach for way too many people. Society’s system of exploiting the most vulnerable extended into the realm of institutional religion, sending the message to those unable to pay these exorbitant fees that God does not hear their prayers, forgive their sins, or even care about their suffering.       

Scholar Richard Beck writes that Christ’s righteous fury about the exploitation of the poor is “what causes Jesus to engage in a protest action that shuts down the financial system of the city during the annual peak of its commercial activity, where he "would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts" during the Passover week. An action akin to shutting down the Wall Street trading floor or shopping during Black Friday.” 

So why does The Church of England’s hymnal include Turning the World Upside Down in its list of All Saints Day hymns? What do its lyrics have to do with the lectionary's Gospel reading for the day? Everything. 

Let’s turn back in the story to Matthew 4:12-13, where we are told that “when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea.” Siblings in Christ, when Jesus heard that his cousin John’s prophetic ministry of calling out to the masses and preaching repentance was at its end, he knew it was his time to step up. He left his hometown of Nazareth, but didn’t go straight to Jerusalem. He went instead to the fishing villages surrounding a large lake known as the Sea of Galilee, way up to Capernaum at the far north end. “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). It is there that he began his grassroots organizing work, walking along the lakeshore and encouraging people to leave their boats and follow him.

Matthew tells us that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan” (Matthew 4:23-25). This is the point in the story where today’s Gospel reading begins:

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them” (Matthew 5:1-2).  The message Jesus preached is what we call the Sermon on the Mount, and the opening portion we read today we call the Beatitudes. There on a rolling hillside overlooking the water, Jesus spoke not to the religious gatekeepers, but to the people on the margins.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

(Matthew 5:3-12)

Over the centuries, power holders have twisted these words, hypocritically telling those whose backs they stand on that good Christians are supposed to be content with being poor, meek, and persecuted—that they should be happy in their suffering because they’ll be rewarded after they die. 

But that is not what Jesus was saying. Prof Lance Pape writes that “the list we find here is in the indicative mood, not the imperative. It is description, not prescription.” And, Prof Raj Nadella asserts that “the Beatitudes do not glorify situations of suffering but announce reversal of fortunes for the oppressed.”  Nadella points to the semantics of the text in its original language. Verse four, for example, is poorly translated in most anglophone Bibles. He writes that “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted—does not fully capture the force of the Greek verb at the end—parakleytheysontai. . . , [which] is derived from the Greek word paraclete, which was used in courtroom settings in the first century Greco-Roman context. It referred to lawyers and advocates and has the connotation of interceding on behalf of those who need assistance.” Jesus isn’t saying that those who mourn will get a comforting hug, he’s saying they will get justice and reparations.   

Nadella suspects that the ambiguity in the grammar about who exactly will be bringing about justice for these whom Jesus calls blessed is deliberate. Many assume it is God, but it could also be read as marching orders to Christ’s followers there on that hillside, including the persecuted themselves. Nadella writes that “many of the Beatitudes place the second part in the active voice…suggesting that the oppressed will participate in their own liberation. Rather than turn the afflicted and the oppressed into objects of our compassion and advocacy, the Church must acknowledge their own agency and actively work with them to facilitate the reversal of fortunes Jesus has promised them.”  

Turning the world upside down. Every saint that we celebrate on All Saints Day answered a call to strive to live a life consistent with the values of the Kin-dom of God, and, in doing so, they participated in the sacred work of turning the world upside down. May we honor their lives and show our love for God in our walk and our talk by stepping up—'cause it is our turn.


Hymn: Turning the World Upside Down

Sunday, November 01, 2020

An All Saints Day Devotion Suggestion

An All Saints Day Devotion 
Ljubljana, Slovenia 
Nov 1, 2020 


Today congregations around the world celebrate All Saints Day. While frequently overshadowed in the USA and Canada by the more secular traditions on All Hallows’ Eve (a.k.a Halloween), All Saints Day is a time to pause and honor the saints in the faith that have gone before us. Many families mark the day by visiting the graves of loved ones, their ancestors in the faith. In a number of congregations that I know, the names of members who passed away in the past year are read aloud. Here in Slovenia, lighting candles of remembrance plays a major part of this annual ritual. 

2020 has been a hard year. It has been full of losses—loss of loved ones, health, employment, much-wanted trips and gatherings, etc.—as well as losses than can be hard to articulate, such the loss of a sense of confidence of what our next month or even week will bring. This past week, I found myself on a video call with friend from seminary talking about how it is with our souls these days. She helped me name some of the losses I had not fully allowed myself to grieve, and we discussed that perhaps this year it would be cathartic for me to light or paint candles for those things as well. It was indeed. 

Sisters and brothers, it is good and right for us to name, honor, and grieve our losses, and it is good and right to remind ourselves that we are a people of hope—a hope that for over two millennia has often been symbolized with a lit candle, a light to guide our path and warm our hearts. 

This week I encourage you set aside time—either just yourself or with others in your house or on your screen—to light, sculpt, draw, or paint candles representing both named losses and hope in your life. Pray for the sorrow and fear in the world, give thanks for the lives of the saints who passed before you, and invite the Light of Christ to shine brightly in your life.

All my Love,


Monday, October 12, 2020

Again, I say, Rejoice! Paul, Pollyanna, and Philippi

Sermon preached in the Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia 

October 11, 2020

Lectionary focus text: Philippians 4:1-9

Hayley Mills as Pollyanna
Hayley Mills as Pollyanna

One of my favorite films growing up was Disney's 1960 adaptation of the novel Pollyanna, starring Hayley Mills. In it, a young girl comes to live with her stern wealthy aunt in a puritanical town. Gradually, Pollyanna’s infectious positive attitude transforms the people of this community. One scene that inspired a long-running joke in my family is when the pastor walks up to the pulpit and begins a fire and brimstone sermon with a booming “Death comes unexpectedly!” Thankfully for the pastor and his congregation, Pollyanna is able to gently give him feedback on his preaching style and persuades him to shift his focus to the numerous "glad texts" in the Bible, such as today’s letter from Paul, which encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. 

I was an adult before I began to understand the depth and nuance of Pollyanna and the theological discourse in the tale. If you come away thinking that the moral of the story is to always be cheerful—to practice what theologian Barbara Brown Taylor describes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark as a solar Christianity where acknowledging injustice, doubt, and despair is taboo—then I encourage you to look again. Pollyanna may have presented as an abnormally optimistic child, but she was processing major trauma and culture shock underneath her sunny demeanor. She had been extremely close to her missionary parents who had both just died, and she had grown up until that point in the West Indies in poverty conditions, having never even owned a doll, let alone worn a fancy dress. Her parents had taught her to deal with disappointment by playing a game requiring her to identify something she could still be thankful for, and answers involving humor were encouraged. And so, when her whole world is ripped out from under her, Pollyanna clings to their glad game and invites others to join her, because that is a family ritual that cannot be taken away from her.     

Today’s lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is also more than it may appear at first glance. The thing about reading old letters is that, without knowing the context of the conversation—the people and their past conversations and interactions—it is a bit like listening to a stranger talking on the phone. We can imagine the other half of the conversation, and we can make educated guesses about what the stranger is trying to communicate, but some things we simply cannot know.  For example, who exactly are Euodia and Syntyche? About all we know for certain is that they were Christian women who worked alongside Paul, that Paul urged the two to be of the same mind in the Lord, and he asked the community to help them. Many a sermon has been preached about the alleged squabbling between Euodia and Syntyche, but as I searched through scripture commentaries this week, I found a number of New Testament scholars arguing that these women have been unjustly maligned over the years. David Fredrickson writes that “people in antiquity were often encouraged to do what they were already doing; this was the polite way of moral direction.” 

Frederickson believes that Paul was not scolding but instead writing them a letter of recommendation, telling the community that they should help these women who had struggled alongside him. The exact word Paul used to describe the nature of their relationship to him translates better to “co-athletes.” The metaphorical imagery is that of the two running in the stadium with Paul, which may have been rather jarring to the recipients of the letter considering that that during this time only those society viewed as true men were allowed to compete in or even watch the games, and to ensure that others could not disguise themselves and sneak in, no one in the stadium was allowed to wear clothing. 

After vouching for Euodia, Syntyche, and Clement as colleagues in the faith who have proven their dedication and valor, Paul encourages them repeatedly to rejoice in the Lord. Paul speaks of gentleness and says to not worry about anything but to make requests known to God. He writes that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:7).

Rejoice! Don’t worry about anything. Just tell God what you want. Taken out of context, these sound like the words of a prosperity gospel preacher writing from his private jet. But Paul isn’t a wealthy man who has no major worries. He is writing from prison, and he doesn’t know whether he will get out of there alive. Professor Christian A. Eberhart asserts that “the Apostle Paul could rejoice because he did not fear death.” His joy is not superficial; “it has little in common with the obligatory laughter of invisible (non-existing?) audiences in TV sitcoms. There is a difference between something funny and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and the power to change us.” 

Sisters and brothers, rejoicing in times of crisis and uncertainty and handing over our worries and laments to God does not mean we are naive, insensitive, or willfully ignorant. It is easy to praise God in the good times. Doing so in the hard times is a bold declaration of our source of hope and where our loyalties lie.  

A lot will happen between now and the next time we gather. Covid numbers around the globe will change. There might be another lockdown, and there might be a new treatment discovered. There will have been another presidential election in the USA. I suspect this fall is going to take us on an emotional rollercoaster. And so, my spiritual and mental health advice for us today comes directly from Paul. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).


The pastor's joy-filled testimony from the 1989 musical remake, Polly (Yes, I own the soundtrack)

Friday, October 09, 2020

My Book: Decolonizing Mission Partnerships

I am proud to announce that my doctoral thesis has been published in the American Society of Missiology's monograph series! 

This book has been many years in the making. Not only does it encompass much of my research and assertions about the history and relationship dynamics between United Methodists in North Katanga in the USA, it sets up a conceptual framework through which one can analyze other missional collaborations in postcolonial contexts.   

Paper copies can be ordered directly via Wipf and Stock (for the publisher's discounted price) or from a number of major booksellers. For those on a budget, there is a Kindle version for just $10

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Father Abraham and Foe's in One's Household

Abridged version of the sermon preached June 21, 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Lectionary Focus Texts: Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21:8-21

Hagar and Ishmael by Alan Jones
Siblings in Christ, the past few months of the pandemic have been quite a wild ride, and we have been among the lucky ones able to spend them in Slovenia, where lockdowns kept the infection rates low. That doesn’t mean that our lives haven’t been directly impacted, though. There have been the canceled trips, school and business closings, fear and uncertainty about health and finances, and a lot more time in our homes. And in our homes we’ve watched the news from around the world—places where people we love live. We watch from afar, and we pray, and we wonder what we can do. How is a disciple of Christ supposed to respond in such a time as this?

Amidst the tragedies, injustices, and violence that escalated since we last gathered, there have also been heroism and voices speaking truth to power. And something remarkable happened. Conversations around systematic racism—at least in North America and much of Western Europe—gained considerable traction, and many things I doubted I’d live to see occurred seemingly all at once. For the first time ever, books about the sin of racism are dominating The New York Times Bestseller list. Statues memorializing white men who treated Black and Brown bodies as objects to use, abuse, and dispose came toppling down. The NFL admitted it was wrong for censuring its players for taking a knee, and NASCAR banned the display of the Confederate flag at all its events and properties. We still have a long way to go, but now I have renewed hope for the future as more and more people are re-examining their understandings of the past and present, confessing their complicity in injustices, and resolving to take action.      

And so here we are this day after the summer solstice—the day where the day finally conquers the night. The world isn’t the same as when we last gathered, and, hopefully, neither are we. What does this mean for us as disciples of Christ, as a congregation? For some, you may find that many Bible stories suddenly hit you differently. Take today’s lectionary reading from the book of Genesis. In it and earlier in chapter 16, we are told that our patriarch Father Abraham and matriarch Sarah kept a young Egyptian woman named Hagar enslaved in their house, that with Sarah’s encouragement Abraham assaulted and impregnated Hagar. Sarah became livid when after this Hagar looked at her with contempt, and she abused Hagar such that she ran away into the deadly wilderness, only returning at the encouragement of an angel, who promised her she was to become the matriarch of multitudes of descendants. When Sarah herself gave birth to Isaac, and he had been weaned, she saw Hagar’s son Ishmael playing with his half-brother and was horrified at the possibility that the two brothers might one day share their father’s inheritance. I wonder which thought upset her more: that her husband might decide that the life of his half-Ethiopian son mattered as much as his son born from Sarah, that her son Isaac would recognize Ishmael as his beloved elder brother, or that she might soon be forced to treat Hagar as having equal or even higher status than herself? The text tells us that the thought of those enslaved in her house posing a threat to the power and privileges she held motivated Sarah to demand that the mother and child be tossed into the wilderness, where they would most surely die of thirst. I find myself rolling my eyes at what comes next. The writer attempts to absolve Abraham for tossing out his firstborn son and Hagar with the “God told him to go ahead and do what Sarah wants with ‘your slave woman’ because Isaac will be the father of the nation named for you and, besides that, I’ll make a nation of ‘the son of the slave woman’ because he’s your offspring too” fig leaf excuse. Abraham sends Hagar off with barely a day’s worth of bread and water. When the water runs out, she loses all hope and places her beloved son under the shade of the bushes.   

In chapter 21 verse 16 we reach the line that has echoed through the generations and, in the age of smartphone video cameras perhaps even more so. “Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, "Do not let me look on the death of the child." And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.”

I’ve heard a lot of people refer to the Bible as a book of answers. I’m not quite sure how they reached such a conclusion, because I’ve found that reading it raises more questions than answers. Yes, there are some great teachings on ethics, justice, love, and one’s spiritual life scattered throughout—especially in the four Gospels—but there are also a whole lot of cruel and violent stories and instructions that the Church historically has whitewashed or glossed over because wrestling with them head-on can feel destabilizing, threatening even. As much as Sunday school curriculum writers try to make these stories into G-rated lessons complete with coloring pages, that’s not what they are. No, but they are giant mirrors reflecting the realities of humanity and our interpretations of God’s will back to us. They are sacred not because what they reflect is beautiful, but because of who we may become if we are willing to honestly engage with them.

And what happens if we do? Jesus’ teaching in today’s reading from Matthew 10 gives us a clue. Most of us grew up on the comforting part about God valuing us more than the sparrow and having counted all the hairs on our head. But it’s the next part about how “one's foes will be members of one's own household” and that whoever does not love Christ more than one’s family and isn’t willing to pick up their cross and follow is not worthy of him--that’s the part that rang loud in my ears this week as I increasingly found my desire to avoid conflict in my extended family and my desire to speak publicly about racism at odds with one another. What does it mean to say that we are the descendants of Abraham and Sarah? What is risked and gained by talking honestly about our more recent ancestors, our inheritance, and our complicity in denying our siblings what is rightly theirs? Who are we to Hagar as she weeps? Who are we to her child? Who are we to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin? Sisters and brothers—who are we, and what are we willing to give up and pick up to follow Christ?  

Last week I confessed my embassy’s DCM that when I arrived here last fall, I had wanted to invite the book club read Ibram Kendi’s new anti-racism book with me, but I chickened out, worried that it would get me branded as a wavemaker. And now I confess to you, my congregation, that in my desire to make sure every member experienced our gatherings as a cathartic ritual and positive exposure to Church for our children, I failed to prioritize the fact that being and raising disciples of Christ requires so much of us than a monthly communal act of worship. The role of a pastor is to assist disciples in discerning their individual and collective callings in service to God’s kingdom.

And so, I’d like to challenge us all gathered here today to spend this summer in a period of prayer and discernment about how we can do better as individuals, as families, and as a community of faith in following Christ every day and everywhere we go. For those who are preparing to leave Slovenia, I encourage you to find a church home that is actively involved in speaking out and taking action against injustice. And for those who are remaining here, let’s explore together how we can work together to become more faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.


Sunday, June 07, 2020

Trinity Sermon: Joining the Dance of Justice

Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2020
St. Margaret’s Budapest, Hungary 
Focus Lectionary Text: Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Good morning Saint Margaret’s community and thank you again to Father Frank for this opportunity to speak with you again. 

This morning we read one of my favorite creation stories from our Bible: the one where God methodically speaks the world into existence, declares it good, and then sets aside the seventh day for sacred rest. I’m honestly not sure, though, which story is my favorite because I also love the one in Genesis 2, where instead of speaking commands, God sculpts the first human out of humus, and this human becomes a living being when God breathes the breath of life right into the nostrils. It’s such an intimate image.

And then there is Proverbs 8; we’ll have to wait until Trinity Sunday 2022 for it to next appear in the lectionary readings. I love its use of the image of Wisdom as a woman standing in the busy crossroads at the main gate of town boldly calling out to all who pass by words of warning, guidance, and joy. In verse 22 we are told that the LORD’s first act was to create Wisdom: before the beginning of the earth—before mountains and oceans and skies—before the heavens—She was at the LORD’s side. Like a master worker; She was the LORD’s daily delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Delighting in the human race…  I don’t know about you, but as an American citizen who closely follows the news from back home, I’ve been finding the idea of Wisdom delighting in the human race rather challenging. There is so much selfishness and cruelty in our world. So much violence and injustice. So much racism and treating human life as if it had no value. When looking out upon the evils of our world, goodness, rejoicing, and delight, aren’t the first words that come to my mind. And yet, when we look at how devout people of faith—people who at the core of their being believe in the sacred worth of humanity and all of God’s creation—respond in the face of hated and oppression, there is reason to rejoice.          

I’d like to share with you an example from our sibling diocese in Washington, DC. This past Monday, security forces in riot gear fired rubber bullets and tear gas on members of St. John’s Episcopal Church and others who were standing on and in front of the church property peacefully and legally calling for the end of police brutality. The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington condemned this violence as well as the fact that the nation’s president had ordered it in order to pose for photos in front of the church’s sign. Bishop Budde responded by writing, The President did not come to pray; he did not lament the death of George Floyd or acknowledge the collective agony of people of color in our nation. He did not attempt to heal or bring calm to our troubled land… “We are followers of Jesus…We stand with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd through the sacred act of peaceful protest.” Our bishop didn’t stop there. She extended an invitation to faith leaders across the city to join her in a prayer vigil at Saint John’s, and they showed up. Saint John’s rector, Rev. Robert Fisher, was there to welcome the crowds, although not at the church as planned because a police line had now been made that blocked access to the building. Using a megaphone to be heard over the wail of a police siren, the rector said, “We are gathered to share one voice in prayer and solidarity, so that we can speak against racism with compassion, and to affirm what needs to be affirmed today, that Black lives matter.” Bishop LaTrelle Easterling of The United Methodist Church also spoke to those gathered saying, “It’s good for us to bow our heads and pray; we should always be in prayer. And it’s even ‘gooder’ when we take those prayers and put feet to them and stand in spaces like this. But also stand in spaces where injustice is actually taking place... Let the prayers, the energy, let everything that is being amassed here – let us carry this out into the margins where the Gospel of Jesus Christ was always meant to be preached, always meant to be lived, always meant to be embodied, and always meant to make a difference.” My sisters and brothers in Christ, let us rejoice in this prophetic witness of what it means to follow Christ, not Caesar.   

Today is Trinity Sunday, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, Trinity Sunday is not among the favorite days on the church calendar for most preachers. Fearing that they will either fall into a theological heresy in their attempts to explain the doctrine of the Trinity or simply fail to help their congregants see why such a doctrine matters, we can be tempted to avoid the topic altogether. This is a great loss, for instead of dancing around the topic, we could choose to celebrate that we have been invited to participate in what has been described by theologians as the Divine Dance.

The academic term for this is perichoresis. This Greek word roughly translates as “rotation,” “going around,” or “making room.” Theologians embracing this notion of perichoresis understand the Trinity not as a paradoxical logic puzzle but as a wonderous interweaving and swirling dance of delight between the totality of God our creator, Christ our redeemer, and the Spirit our sustainer. And through Christ we too have been invited to join in this dance. Yes, suffering is real. Injustice and evil are real forces that we are called to call out. But there is also love and laughter and hope born from the pure joy of dancing with one another.

Dancing with others is a different experience from dancing alone. It is no longer simply about us and what we want to do. We have to pay attention to the bigger picture—how our actions support, amplify, or block out other dancers. We must think about making room, noticing who we’ve excluded, who we’ve blindly stomped on, and when we’re hogging the stage. When we dance with God, the master choreographer, we must be open to step out of our comfort zones, to learn dances of solidarity that involve risks and sacrifices and recognizing our interdependence on others. We must also be willing to join the dances of lament, protest, and prophecy.

And, so, this morning I invite us all to ask ourselves: How have I been dancing with the LORD lately? Have I been merely observing others as they dance? Am I truly open to allowing God to teach me new moves—moves that would expand my understanding of myself, my neighbor, and our call to work together? I don’t know the answers to these questions as they apply to you. But my prayer for you, for me, for all of us, is that this week and until the day we take our last breath on Earth is that we will dance with the one who brought us into life everlasting.  Amen. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Week Later: The Social Distancing Resurrection Account

This sermon was preached April 19, 2020 at the combined worship service (via Zoom) for Saint Margaret's Anglican Church in Budapest, Hungary  and The Anglican/Episcopal Church in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

New Life Appears
Focus Text: John 20:19-31

Last Sunday we celebrated the day that our Savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Today, we read the Gospel of John’s account of what happened next. 

But first, to put today’s reading in context, I invite us to back up a bit in story to the start of chapter 20, where we find Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb before sunrise on the first day of the week. She finds the stone rolled away, and so she runs to Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved with word that the Lord’s body has been moved. Those two rush to the tomb, also find it empty, and then go home. Mary, though, remains and is still weeping when two angels and then Jesus appear and speak to her. Jesus calls Mary by her name and instructs her to go tell the others that he is ascending to his God and their God. “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.”

This is the point in John’s story where today’s reading begins, except now it is evening on the first day. Mary had spoken with Jesus early in the morning. What happened in between the morning and the evening? John doesn’t tell us, but Luke says Jesus then walks to Emmaus with Cleopas and an unnamed disciple—perhaps Cleopas’ wife. They discuss with Jesus the testimony of the women, have a long conversation, and invite him for a meal; He breaks bread with them and vanishes the moment they realize who he is. Then the two rush back to Jerusalem where they find the group has gathered. They swap testimonies, including an appearance of Jesus to Simon. Then Jesus appears and speaks to them.

Now trying to weave the four gospels’ resurrection accounts together creates quite a bit of chronological and geographical confusion. They all agree that Mary Magdalene was at the tomb early in the morning and that there was a lot of fear and confusion and doubts among Jesus’ followers that day. Luke’s account next has Jesus leading the disciples to Bethany, where they watch him ascend. John, however, has an entire week passing where the terrified and confused disciples don’t appear to do much of anything—not even leave the house except for perhaps the most essential of tasks.    

I find it quite fitting that the lectionary has us reading John’s account this year. I’ve started calling it the Social Distancing Resurrection Story. Where do we find the disciples three days after Jesus’ crucifixion? Except for Mary who slips to the tomb so early in the morning that it is still dark outside, the rest are on lockdown. Traumatized by what happened just three days earlier, they are hiding in an undisclosed secured house for fear of what could happen if they were to go out in public. I can only imagine the sort of conversations happening in that house that weekend. The various manifestations of shock and grief – angry outbursts and accusations, paralysis, binge eating, too stressed out to eat, anxiety attacks, bargaining with God, arguing over what to do next and whether going the market was worth the risk of death.

Reports that morning of the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection now added to the mix. The proclamation that Jesus is alive wasn’t enough to get them to unlock the door and shout the good news, so instead, after they’d had several hours to process all this, Jesus comes and meets them where they are. He does not lecture them for their cowardliness or lack of faith or understanding. Instead, not once but twice he says “Peace be with you.” He says that as he is being sent, so is he sending them. Then, he breathes the Holy Spirit onto them—the breath of Life—and tells them that they have the power to forgive sin and the power to withhold forgiveness.

Peace, the Holy Spirit, and the power of forgiveness. Wow. Jesus Christ the King appears to his followers just three days after having been unjustly tortured, humiliated, and killed and his first order of business is to say Peace [shows wounds], Peace, I am sending you [exhales] Receive the Holy Spirit, You are able to forgive all sins. And then he leaves.

One. Week. Later. the disciples are still in lockdown mode in that house when Jesus appears again. Does he lecture them on their lack of productivity or good deeds? Does he scold them for still being too afraid to step back outside into the world and use the spiritual gifts he has given them? No, for a third time he says "Peace be with you," and since Thomas had missed his previous appearance, Jesus gave him too a chance to inspect his wounds. 

The final appearance of Jesus that John shares with us happens back in Galilee, a three to five day walk from Jerusalem depending on if you take the direct route through the lands of the Samaritans. There Jesus finds a group of the disciples have joined Simon Peter in returning to the apolitical life of village fishermen. Is this the time that the risen Christ finally explodes at them for fearfully playing it safe and keeping their heads down? Does he ream them out for avoiding crowds and putting their physical safety first?  Nope. He helps them catch a net-full of fish and makes them a hot breakfast there on the beach. Then Jesus turns to Simon Peter and asks him to show his love in three ways: tend his sheep, feed his sheep, and follow him.    

Here where I live in Ljubljana, Slovenia, it has been nearly 40 days since the schools shut down and the movement restrictions began. For our family, this has meant 40 days of staying home—40 days living under the same roof with visitors who suddenly became our indefinite housemates. Needless to say, it has been a period of messy emotions, tense conversations about how best to stay safe, fear, frustrations, grief, and even feelings of guilt that many people don’t have enough food and a safe place to stay. Perhaps you have had this nagging feeling that you aren’t doing enough to help others right now. Perhaps you’ve been a bit hard on yourself for not being more productive. You want to do something.

One thing I’ve been doing for five weeks is helping our daughter with assignments her 2nd grade teacher sends us. The science unit all month has been on insects. We've learned together in more detail than I remember being taught about how ants are born, how exactly some camouflage insects change their color each season, and, of course, how a caterpillar enters into its cocoon to become a butterfly. I was reminded of how often in nature it looks like nothing is happening when in actuality tremendous transformation is gradually occurring. Some things simply can't be rushed.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Siblings in Christ, these are confusing and scary days. Like the disciples, we are locked in our homes and holding in tension the Good News of the risen Christ with the knowledge that Christ doesn’t promise that following him protects us from the problems of this world. We are, in a sense, in a cocoon as well. It may appear that we are doing nothing but staying alive, and we wonder why nevertheless we have so little energy.

I invite you to consider the possibility that, like the disciples who even after seeing the risen Christ continued for weeks to avoid public spaces, perhaps internally much more is happening than you think. Perhaps the Lord is patiently waiting for the work that the Holy Spirit is doing on our hearts to be revealed when it is time for us to leave our cocoons.           

My sisters and brothers in Christ.  The world is changing, and so are we. Let us go forth this week with the hope that we will emerge on the other side of this a more loving people.


Monday, January 13, 2020

John, Jesus, and Staying in Our Lane: A New Year's Resolution Sermon

I first preached this sermon in the Church of England's congregation in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Lectionary Text: Matthew 3:13-17

Good morning!  Here we are together in this place in the year 2020. For some of us, this is difficult information to process. We think about the passage of time, what our life journey has been thus far, and perhaps we make promises to ourselves about ways in which we’ll do better from here on out. Some of us may be pumped up and excited about the future while others fearful, discouraged, or overwhelmed.  We may even feel guilt or shame about what we have or haven’t done to address the problems of this world, and, I suspect there are among us those who are tempted to use the tradition of making a new year’s resolution as weapon to beat themselves up for falling short of being their idealized version of themselves.  If the latter describes you, then I please let me offer the words of advice made famous by the comedian Bob Newhart: “Stop it!” 

Seriously though, if you can’t yet silence your inner tormentors then at least stop listening to them for this moment and remind yourself that you are a child of God. You are loved unconditionally, and the fact that you are in this room today proves that you want to draw closer to God, and that you want to be a faithful disciple of Jesus and, in this very moment, you are doing your best. We don’t berate a child who is making great progress on doing long division for not understanding how compound interest works, do we? No, we don’t because that would be harmful to the child’s mental health and counterproductive to the goal becoming skilled at math. So why, then, do so many of us think that bullying ourselves into doing better will make us better people? 
So that said, I have a couple alternative new year’s resolutions to suggest: 

1) Be kinder to yourself this year. Give yourself permission to decline requests because you have something else on your schedule that day, and then make sure that something else is self-care. Do whatever helps you re-center, re-energize, and hangout with God.  

2) Stay in Your Lane. Now hear me out; I didn’t like that expression the first time I heard it.  To me, it sounded a lot like “keep your head down” or “mind your own business,” but as I was meditating on the Matthew passage this week, those words kept coming back to me. And so, I began pondering what staying in one’s lane could mean in the context of that story. See, I was taught in seminary that when we read scriptures—especially when they are familiar stories—that we should approach them with curiosity. Ask ourselves, what is it that I haven’t noticed before? We should read the text in many different locations and ponder how different contexts illuminate different aspects. We should pay attention to what comes before and after, compare it to similar statements and stories found in and outside of the Bible, do some research on the original audience, get out maps, and ask questions we’ve never asked before.  Such as, what would it mean for John and Jesus to stay in their lanes, and could that teach us something that impacts our lives today

You know, sometimes I feel a bit bad for John. Talk about doing your best to live up to your parents’ expectations all while living in a family member’s shadow. And what were these expectations? According to Luke, an angel told his dad, the priest Zechariah, that John “will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”  (Luke 1:15-17)

John looks to me like a textbook example of an over-performing only child raised by older parents who set high behavioral standards ‘cause John took the no alcohol part of the instructions and took it up a notch. He “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist,” and instead of bread he lived on “locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4) Way before his slightly younger cousin Jesus stepped into public ministry, John was already out in the wilderness of Judea, preaching repentance and baptizing crowds of people in Jordan—across socio-economic and political lines, including Pharisees, Sadducees, soldiers, and tax collectors.

John was a superb teacher, and many came to him for advice. 

When “the crowds asked him, 'What then should we do?' In reply he said to them, 'Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.' Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, 'Teacher, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what should we do?' He said to them, 'Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.' (Luke 3:10-14A lot of people were thinking that John was the Messiah, but “John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”(Luke 3:15-16

And then we come to the moment in today’s lectionary text. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell it a bit differently, but Matthew says that “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.” (Matthew 3:13-15)

If you go searching for scholarly commentaries on Jesus’ baptism, you’ll find a lot of theologians tying themselves into knots trying to shoehorn this story into neat and tidy doctrinal statements. But there are so many hard questions to address. Why did Jesus need or want to be baptized? What exactly happened in that moment when the Holy Spirit came down, and does this mean that the Spirit wasn’t in Jesus already? Was the voice from heaven heard by anyone other than Jesus (Matthew says say, but Mark and Luke’s versions leave one wondering)? Had there been a possibility that God wouldn’t be pleased with Jesus? How do we make sense of this story when talk about trinitarian teachings? What does this mean in terms of the meaning and protocols around baptism? 

Yeah, so, let’s not open that box today. 

Instead, let’s turn again to John, whose birth and ministry were foretold by angels, who is trying so hard to live a righteous life and to turn others righteous living, yet he sees himself as unworthy to even untie the dirt and sweat caked cord on his cousin Jesus’ sandal. And Jesus comes to him and basically says, “You stay in your lane, and I’ll stay in mine. Your calling is to call folks to repentance and baptize them. So get over get over all this ‘I’m not worthy self-talk’ and baptize me. My job is something else, so, no, I’m not here to baptize you.” 

Does this resonate with anyone this morning? It sure does with me. Every single person in this room—so that includes you—who desires to live a life pleasing to God has been give a specific set of gifts for the road they are on. The good news is that God doesn’t expect you or me to excel at everything or to actively respond to every problem in this world. We are only asked to answer our calling and to faithfully stay in that lane. Don’t think of life as a race; we are not in competition with the folks to our left and right. They are being sent on a different journey.  And if they try a pull a John the Baptist and say “Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly do this. It really should be you,” remember that without boundaries, we can’t move forward. If it isn’t in your lane, you can follow Jesus’ example and say “No.” 

Now here’s the challenging part. If it is your lane—if it is next big thing in the middle of the road God has called you down, then don’t let fears of inadequacy or the knowledge that, yes, it is asking a lot, stop you from facing it. In the longrun, running away from our calling leaves us feeling lost. That said, taking regular breaks for self-care is not the same thing as quitting. In fact, being kind to ourselves helps us to be better people.  
Now, yes, sometimes “Be kinder to yourself” and “stay in your lane” are inadequate words of advice when trying to figure out what we should be doing with our lives. But, sometimes, they are exactly what someone needs to hear.  Amen 

Thursday, January 09, 2020

New Year's update from Ljubljana

Hi all,

Ljubljana, Slovenia
Haven't blogged in a long time, so figured I should at least give a quick summary of the last 6 months of 2019.  So, let's see...

June: Movers came and packed up nearly all my material possessions, sending some to a storage warehouse and more pounds than I care to admit (I refuse to leave behind my missiology books, and my husband insists on taking his piano and sheet music) on a ship bound for Slovenia.  As the truck rolled out, husband caught his flight to start his new assignment in Ljubljana. I then flew to Congo, and Mom took E and the dog for the summer.

July:  Finally got the official piece of paper saying I'd completed my doctorate program. 

August: Arrived in the charming city of Ljubljana, Slovenia and began my new role as shepherd of the Anglican-Episcopal Church in Ljubljana (one of three anglophone congregations here, the other two being a Catholic parish and an evangelical

international church).

September: Juggled unpacking, figuring out new city, trying to learn Slovenian, getting daughter signed up for activities, dealing with the dog's heart problem, and a bunch of other stuff (like FPM management, tasks for Bishop Mande, medical appointments, etc.). Met a nationally-famous professor, and he invited me to give a guest lecture on racism at the University of Ljubljana (in the Erasmus program).  Also went to Hungary to attend the Church of England's regional synod. 

October/November: Kept juggling responsibilities while keeping up family morale by doing a bunch of regional tourism. Mom came to visit and road trip with us over E's fall break. Found out that my thesis was selected by the American Society of Missiology for publication in their monograph book series. Started tedious process of reformatting thesis to publisher's specs.

December: All of the above plus a bunch of holiday events (and baking), and Stu and I put together a well-attended Christmas Eve service (helps to be married to the congregation's organist).
view from top of hill not far from our house

I calculate that in the past 6 months I've spent time in 9 countries (including brief layovers would bring it up to 13). 

2019 brought a lot of changes and surprises, and, all things considered, it was a good year for the Walters-Denyer clan.  I'm not yet sure what 2020 will look like in terms of my personal and professional life, but I'm looking forward to finding out.

Lots of love,