The makers of the lectionary must have chuckled to themselves, knowing that their choices for this Sunday would usually fall around the time of many congregational annual meetings.
Here's Isaiah promising that the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light (just in case we've forgotten all those warm feelings we had back at Christmas time).
Here's Paul, writing with astonishment, "What's this that I hear? Divisions among you!!"
And Matthew's gospel, reminding us again that the disciples didn't get a job description or an estimate of volunteer hours or even, apparently, a lot of "time to pray about it," when they were called to follow. We'd like to fill in the gaps of the story with some very modern tale of existential angst and dissatisfaction with fishing, but Matthew doesn't care about that at all.
Maybe the question we should ask ourselves at annual meetings is, "What do we have to leave behind in order to follow?"
Sunday morning June 12, as we were headed into worship at 8:30 a.m., our assisting minister, a lay person who is also a terrific writer, said something about quickly penning a line of prayer for Florida. Since I usually only scan the paper headlines on Sunday morning, he and my colleague had to explain to me that the latest news was of yet another mass shooting, this one in a gay nightclub in Orlando.
We had few details, and no time to adjust much of anything, except to add an intercessory prayer which was light on details. We also had very little time between services that day, so I did not hear the depth of the horror until I was on my way home after the 10 a.m. service.
It only took a few hours for some of my pastoral colleagues to lament on Facebook that they had not “pivoted” faster in their worship plans that morning. That seems to be the new norm – every public tragedy must be acknowledged immediately by faith leaders, lest we seem callous or ill-informed. For those pastors who are so light on their feet that changing course feels energizing – the more power to you. But I also worry that we are placing an unnecessary burden on ourselves – a burden that the social media age has only recently made possible.
I’m comfortable with the fact that we as pastors did not end up becoming the bearer of partial news to our congregation this past Sunday; but there have been a number of times in recent years when I’ve wondered whether Friday or Saturday’s news from somewhere in the world shouldn’t make me go back to the drawing board. And it seems that many of my peers in ministry – at least those who frequent social media constantly – feel duty-bound to make these pivots all the time.
Which leaves me wondering – what is worship planning for? Why do we feel so obligated to acknowledge every public disaster, tragedy or act of hatred almost as it happens? Do we develop some sort of sick "death toll threshold" for when an event feels “big” enough for such a change? Why do we feel that any words of life carefully pondered and written on Thursday are irrelevant by Sunday morning? And does our speed to adjust everything to the latest headline really help our congregations know the fullness of God’s love?
Let’s leave aside for a moment the likelihood that the faster we pivot, the more chance there is that we will get some of the facts wrong. That’s a risk, but not the only risk.
The greater risk is that we forget why we gather together as a community. When we gather as the Christian assembly, we are not merely gathering as a random collection of citizens, people whose “hearts go out to the people of. . .” wherever another tragedy as happened. We gather as a small slice of the body of Christ, with very particular local concerns and joys, proclaiming Christ crucified and risen here among us, and giving thanks to God in every time and place.
I say this often as I dismiss people from the communion table: “you are the body of Christ.” That means that the people right there in front of me are not just onlookers to the reality of God’s work. We are part of it. Which means that we are never apart from the suffering of God. We are united with all the baptized by God’s spirit, so even when we are completely ignorant of the suffering of another – maybe even the person right next to me in the pew – God can still join our prayers together in Christ.
Public tragedies – especially one layered with as many “isms” as the Orlando shooting – can strike different communities in different ways, and individuals within those communities in different ways, but sometimes I worry that our leap to acknowledge every tragedy is a cover for our own privilege – if we ourselves feel pretty fortunate, the vicarious mourning of public tragedies makes us feel a little less guilty. Seeing suffering can leave us with a kind of survivor’s guilt, and Facebook mourning can be a pallid way to alleviate that feeling.
I also wonder whether I focus on what’s happening in the world hundreds of miles away because I’m embarrassed by how little I know about my actual neighbors. We pastors may know a lot about our congregations, but how often are we completely ignorant of the miscarriage, or job loss, or family violence that happened this week to someone sitting in front of us? But here’s the good news: if we are really entering into the life of Christ as we gather as the body of Christ, in prayer we are NOT ever separate from that suffering. It is God’s job to draw us into that common life – and our knowledge or lack of it won’t stop God from that work.
Being the body of Christ also means we are not stuck in our present moment. At every communion liturgy, we give thanks “in every time and place” for Christ’s redeeming work – in every time and place. And if that’s the case, then our prayers are never just about what is happening now – they draw together the weal and woe of the past and draw all of us into God’s future. If we place on ourselves an obligation to address every headline in our preaching and prayers and public postings, what are we tacitly saying about our prayers in other times and places?
It’s hard to believe that only fifteen years ago, when 9/11 happened, few people lunged to social media channels to pour out their grief or anger or bewilderment. Sure, there was 24/7 news coverage, but leaders and churches had time to talk to one another as they absorbed the news. There were no instant interpretations via meme, or social expectations that you change your profile picture to prove your solidarity.
Now in 2016, it seems that no one has the time to breathe before they are expected to publicly acknowledge the latest headline on social media. The implication is that because you can react quickly, you must. But I don’t think I’m any better equipped now emotionally to absorb horrific news than I was 15 years ago, when a slightly slower media age gave me time to let it all sink in. My public response then – an invitation to a mostly-silent vigil, a sermon pondered over several days -- was a snail’s pace compared to what we see today. But those prayers then were heard and taken up into the life of God just as effectively as anything we offer now, because they are prayers that are caught up into the life of Jesus, who took our hatred, our fear, our anger, our grief – all of it – into himself. He taught us to pray, and his words are still enough. He gave us his body and blood, and that is still food enough.
There is a fine line between leading from the present moment and calling everyone to dwell in my particular interpretation of the moment. I’m often pleasantly surprised by how easily people tell me they can layer in their own joys and sorrows into the more open-ended petitions offered up in worship. The liturgy – with its “Lord have mercies” bumped up against “hosanna in the highest” – offers a tremendous amount of emotional space and range, and if we claim these words as our own, they can contain whatever this day brings.
There’s one more reason I worry about the leap into the headlines: it skews our attention toward the fast, the large and the tragic. But so much of the daily miracle of life in community is slow and small and quietly beautiful. At the end of Augustine’s classic “Watch O Lord” prayer, after lifting up the suffering and the dying, and the weak, there’s a line that I still take to heart in my preaching and teaching: “shield your joyous ones.” Do we believe as a church that we can still do that? That we can let a family celebrate a 60th wedding anniversary, or let our children sing a silly camp song, without insisting that they be “well-informed” at every minute? Can we shield the joy of our feasts together, knowing that, while we will always be connected in Christ to the sufferings of the world, we also are duty bound to hold onto the joy that the promises of God give us, promises that are as true now as they were before I read the last headline?
So yes – in case you’re wondering – I will address Orlando in my sermon this week. There is plenty of good and evil and healing and deliverance and reconciliation in our Scriptures and liturgy to contain all of it. And there was plenty of the same last Sunday morning too, when I knew almost nothing, but God was already weeping.
In the liturgy, we are invited out of the prisons of our present into the light of God’s eternal day, a way opened up for us by Christ’s horrific suffering and dazzling resurrection. I want that light to intrude on our consciousness brighter than the latest notification shining up from my phone.
Because so many people will have a Holy Week broken up by spring break travels and moments out of their usual context, I post this meditation on Luke's Passion as a sort of Prologue. If you can do nothing else before Easter, sit down and read Luke 22 and 23. Perhaps this framing will be helpful:
Passion Sunday Year C
We live in a world that loves a story of winners and losers, where history is too often the story that is told by those who came out on top. Truth gives way to truthi-ness, and the people with the loudest microphones set the tone of our narrative.
The story of Jesus’ passion, especially in Luke, can be read that way, as a story of mob mentality, a story of how fickle we are as human beings, how easily we turn against those who do not meet our expectations, how much we want to tie ourselves to a star.
But make no mistake. This is not a story about whether Jesus will win or lose, whether he will be a king as he is hailed to be on that Palm Sunday. It’s only about what kind of king he is, and who will recognize it.
We think we know what kings do: they rule, they wield the power of the sword; they set themselves on top and expect everyone else to take their place below. They meet with other kings and rulers and travel the world making royal appearances.The king’s language tells the story and the king’s judgment makes the law.
And here comes this king who does everything backwards. . . who does not defend his power, who eats with the lowly, who has no palace, no royal guard. Who relies on the hospitality of others.
And finally, this king pardons, not the deserving, but those who clearly deserve punishment. And dies between two thieves.
Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. . .
Finally, before his final breath, someone declares him a king in an unironic way – and it is this thief, who is going to die anyway, who understands that Jesus’ kingdom, when he comes into it, will not look like a walk off the cross.
When you come into YOUR kingdom, Jesus, remember me.
Remember me in YOUR kingdom:
The one where enemies are reconciled ( 23:12)
The one where strangers take up a cross and follow you (23:26)
The one where sinners are welcomed (23:42)
The one where power is not measured by might but by righteousness and mercy
Jesus says today you will be with me in paradise
For what is paradise if not a place where the righteous are declared innocent
Where the sinner is pardoned
Where even the barren are blessed (23:29)
Where enemies become friends
Paradise –is that place of rest where the righteous wait for the resurrection
And today we are welcomed too – for this week, for our lives –into that place of blessed rest where we know that Christ is king, and where we wait for the resurrection, for the new life only this king can bring. That paradise is here today, because Jesus stands among us.
A sermon on Jessie Diggins, Rosa Parks, and the Wedding at Cana
John 2: 1-11
While the sports section was covering the Vikings 12 pages at a time last week, a tiny paragraph appeared posting news that was much bigger in my world: a Minnesotan named Jessie Diggins became the first U.S. Nordic skier to win a World Cup distance race. This is big big news in cross country skiing, and the race series last week that she was part of was front page news – in Norway.
There was one article that gave it a little more attention == and what was fascinating was the way various people commented on the win. No one described it as a long-shot or a miracle. The athlete herself was both elated and humble. She said again and again that it was her team’s enthusiasm that cheered her on, her coaches and waxers that made it technically possible. The godfather of Twin Cities skiing, Ahvo Taipele, said “I saw her ski when she was 12 and I always said she would be a threat.” Her coach said “we’ve seen how she can close down a race many times.” And of course a couple of people said, “The Europeans have been put on notice!”
And her parents, her parents simply said “This is the result of 100s and 100s of hours of dedication and training.”
And most of the world still has no idea what I’m talking about.
As the Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus, it never speaks of miracles or wonders. Jesus heals the blind, raises the dead, and this morning turns water into wine, but never is what he does a miracle. It is a “sign” – an act that reveals his glory and points to who he is. It’s putting us on notice that the Word is coming into the world.
But the funny thing is, with this sign especially, it’s a pretty well-hidden sign.
Think about it: what happens truly is astonishing, and it totally saves the day for this family.
Mary knows that not having wine is going to be disastrous – are they poor? Was there an accident and something was lost? Are they just pathetically poor planners? We don’t know. But what we do know is that in the world of Middle Eastern weddings, failing to have enough wine to offer your guests at a wedding is a colossal failure, a real shame.
Mary is maybe the only one at this time who knows that Jesus can be of any help with this issue. Their relationship is-- well, probably about as complicated as you can imagine a relationship between a human mother and a not-exactly-normal son would be. The way Jesus addresses her probably has more to do with John’s theology than with Jesus here – let’s agree to leave that aside for the moment. But notice this; all she says is:
Do whatever he tells you
And they fill the jars –
This is a ridiculous amount of water. It takes some serious obedience for these servants to do this, because this is enough water to keep people drinking for weeks nearly a thousand bottles. And it’s WATER they’re putting in there. You can imagine some of them saying “Why are we doing this? What good does this do?” No one wants to drink water. There’s an old saying, “in beer there is wisdom, in wine there is joy, in water there’s bacteria.”
The real crisis here is more than wine, it’s hospitality, it’s joy. The people are not dying of thirst. They are in danger of going home because the party has lost its luster, because this is not what a good host does.
But the obedient servants fill the jars, because Jesus told them to and because Jesus’ mother told them to do what he said.
And out of all this water, after all this work, one servant takes one cup to one man, the steward.
The steward, we assume, has no idea where this cup came from; He gives all the credit to the bridegroom, who likely has no idea that the servants have been hauling water full time for the last hour, much less who ordered them to do so.
But that one cup, that little bit of what was an enormous wonder of abundant wine, that cup causes him to wonder out loud about the entire philosophy of hospitality:
You, you have saved the best wine for last.
The assumption here is that the guests are not even going to notice how good the wine is. They would have noticed when it ran out, for sure. But not the quality of what is now in front of them. Not only do they not know how closely the wedding escaped disaster. Not only do they not know that Jesus is responsible. They don’t even know that this wine is the best of all. But they sure benefit from it. They might have all kinds of other explanations for what has just happened.
So it’s an odd thing. If this is supposed to be Jesus great revelation to the world of who he is, it’s pretty well hidden. If this is supposed to be a sign, it’s a sign that does not exactly turn the spotlights on him.
The people in the best position to appreciate what has just happened are the ones who actually had to work some to make it happen – those servants must have literally hauled water for quite a while. So while the wine sort of came out of nowhere, the full jars did not. It was the result of lots of work.
In our age of instant fame and viral videos, what we seldom see is the hauling of water. We want the miracle, the great moment captured in 42 seconds on someone’s camera, but we have little patience for the process of getting there.
Think of the civil rights movement. My generation came of age learning about Rosa Parks as if her staying put at the front of the bus was a spontaneous decision, a moment that catalyzed everything that followed just by sheer force of will.
But that’s not what happened. Rosa Parks was not just tired. And she was not the first person arrested for refusing to give up her seat. She was a churchgoing woman of color who had already been active in the efforts to call attention to segregation. She was known and respected across the community because she was engaged across a broad spectrum of the Montgomery community. As her husband put it, she was more often at community potlucks than cooking dinner at home. She was already active with the NAACP and was disciplined in the art of peaceful demonstration. And when her action catalyzed the Montgomery bus boycott, there were already legions of neighbors and fellow churchgoers who were ready to not take the bus to work the next day, and the next day, and the next. There was organization, and determination and grit from not just one woman but from a community. And their actions was one part of a struggle that lasted not just days but years. There was, and still is, a lot of hauling water happening to call attention to the need for human dignity and rights for every citizen. (This is beautifully written about in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg).
The ones who realized what happened at Cana were servants, which is entirely fitting since when Jesus decided to teach his disciples his last lesson about who he was, he took a towel, and wrapped it around his waist, and got down on his knees. His last commandment to them was that they love one another. And loving one another is not one deed but thousands upon thousands.
It shouldn’t surprise us that we don’t always see the signs. The world is too drunk with its own consumerism to care most of the time. Most of the time we don’t even notice the disasters we have narrowly escaped. That is no different than before. But God’s grace still pours down; Jesus still goes about his work, healing, giving life, giving joy. If we want to see it, we have to pay attention.
Next week at St. John’s we will gather and speak of what it means to follow this servant. There will be report after report by servants in this place who can tell you of hundreds of hours, thousands of dollars, a ream of examples of deeds done in Jesus’ name. Many of us may not feel that it matters all that much, whether we show up, whether we volunteer, whether we have that conversation with someone we don’t already know or raise our hand to help out.
It is easy for us to fret that it’s not enough; it’s easy to imagine that all that water we haul week after week is not what we need to really feast in God’s presence.
But Jesus is here; as we obey his commands, as we love one another, as we tend to empty jars and empty bellies and troubled hearts and questioning minds and hungry souls, the ordinary water of everyday life becomes the wine of joy. If we pay attention, we will see him at work.
So how will you put something in an empty jar this week? It might not be dramatic, you won’t do it alone, and it might not even be noticed by anyone; and it’s entirely possible that when someone says this is the best wine I’ve ever tasted, they won’t know that it came from the work of Jesus. But Jesus offers joy to the whole party, every one. And this is just the beginning.
A few years ago an Orthodox friend of ours went shopping with a Jewish friend on a Sunday. They were both surprised to find all the stores closed. How had they not noticed that it was western Easter that day?
Actually, it's getting easier and easier not to notice.
The Christian calendar moves this day around within a range of about 28 days each year. Why that is, and why it doesn't always line up with Passover or Orthodox Easter, is a somewhat more complicated story. But that's a different post.
What is startling to me is how much more driven all of us are with each passing year by calendars other than liturgical ones. Our far-flung families have already driven people to "have Christmas" on whatever wintry day they can manage to gather everyone. Fewer and fewer retail establishments manage to close for an entire day on any day of the year, much less one as narrowly observed as western Christian Easter. School districts generally pick whatever week falls more or less mid-term for their spring break, regardless of what religious holidays might fall or not fall during that time. Even death -- that event that we cannot schedule -- is less likely to make us interrupt our carefully planned work and leisure plans. Thanks to cremation, families can schedule a funeral whenever it is most convenient for everyone.
It gets harder and harder, in this culture where time is precious but rarely conceived as holy, to just stop and gather collectively around the greatest mysteries of our existence.
You won't find me complaining during Holy Week about the workload. This is, in fact, the center point of my vocation, not an "extra" placed on top of other duties. It's a relief to know with certainty that inviting others into gathering around Jesus' death and resurrection, and to lead them in pondering these mysteries, is exactly what I should be doing.
I only wish it were easier for others, who don't have the luxury of a life built around this vocation, to give themselves permission to stop. Gather. Listen. Rejoice.
Having started my ministry in mission development -- in fact, in one of the first Lutheran mission starts in the movement that is now called "emergent," I often encounter a bit of surprise when people who only know that part of my history meet me. Even the folks who have been forewarned that I'm not a curse-like-a-sailor, tattooed hipster are a little taken aback when they discover that I do as much listening as talking. Over and over again, I've had to disabuse people of the assumption that being an evangelist is the same thing as being an extravert.
It's a common stereotype -- the outgoing, super-friendly pastor must be good at "bringing people in," right? Lay people often subconsciously or openly look for the most extraverted person they can find because they assume that extraverts are better at putting people at ease, more likely to reach out and help the congregation grow. As a result most introverted pastors -- and our numbers are legion -- learn how to pretend that we are more energized by crowds and light social interaction than we really are. At best, we put on a good show and go about secretly doing what we're really good at, which is building genuine relationships. At worst, we're made to feel like frauds.
It may have been true in previous generations that extraverts had the edge, when all you had to do was find people who were looking for a church and put them at ease. A couple decades ago mission developers were trained to do just that -- knock on doors in new subdivisions and strike up conversations with total strangers. The driving assumption was that if people knew your church existed and found the pastor friendly enough, some of them would ultimately beccome part of your church. And since most lay people would rather have a root canal than knock on strangers' doors and talk about Jesus, they went looking for pastors who seemed most likely to do so.
The mission landscape was already very different in the 1990's, but now all the arrows point in the same direction -- we can't just assume that people are "looking for" a faith community. Many have given up looking, and many don't even have organized religion on their radar. Some are so openly hostile to religion that the pastor is the last person they'd talk to. For congregations who are concerned about evangelism, this means at least two things when it comes to looking for a leader.
1) Your pastor cannot be the center of your relational life. Leaders who soak up affirmation for their friendly and outgoing ways might actually be doing your community a disservice if they are not also inviting every member of the congregation to see their relationships in a missional way. No human being can relate in a meaningful way to hundreds of people at once. Life-changing relationships come a few at a time, so leadership is more about building a climate of relationship-building than about being the center of those relationships.
2) In true evangelism, listening is just as important as talking. For far too long, lay people have quivered at the prospect of sharing their faith because they've been led to believe that it's about having answers instead of asking questions, about selling a product instead of invitation into a body of believers. Introverts play a crucial role in a congregation's mission because they often pay attention to things that extraverts ignore in their rush to broadcast their thoughts to the world. The next time people fret about "getting the message out," consider whether you've taken enough time to listen to your community first.
One congregation I know engaged their whole evangelism team -- lay people, mind you -- in a listening campaign. Each team member started with someone they knew and had 1-1 conversations with people who were progressively further from the center of their congregation's life, until finally they were talking to thoroughly unchurched neighbors. They weren't there to talk, but to listen. I suspect what they learned in those conversations will do more for that church's mission in the future than anything the most outgoing pastor could do.
A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching for the funeral of Ruth Ferguson, long-time organist at St. John's and the wife of our current interim organist. Someone from the Twin Cities chapter of the American Guild of Organists asked if they could pass on the sermon to their cohort, and they did so this week, mindful of the duties and joys we worship leaders carry during this Holy Week. So for all of you who for whom this is a week of work as well as clarity, of duy as well as joy, here it is:
Funeral sermon for Ruth Ferguson April 5, 2014
Matthew 11: 28-30
Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of attending a funeral at which there were a number of clergy and musicians and other church professionals gathered. The preacher’s refrain was that we live in Good Friday, but Easter is coming, and – glory hallelujah -- the deceased had now gone to that blessed land where every day is Sunday! Taylor says she looked around as he said those words, “every day is Sunday,” and she saw all those church workers flinch.
Anyone who has lived in the home of a pastor or church musician -- much less two church musicians -- knows exactly the reason for that. A life shaped around leading Sunday worship is a life of no big parties on Saturday night, and weariness on Sunday afternoon. A life of every day being Sunday isn’t necessarily our definition of heaven. We know there’s a good reason the good Lord the other six days of the week in which we can say, it isn’t Sunday yet.
Ruth Ferguson was someone who knew that the praise of God, done well, is no easy task. Her life for years was formed by the rhythms of planning and preparation and practicing for one Sabbath after another in this place, working all week long so that others might be able to sing their praise of God in this place week after week.
This was not just her job, it was her vocation, the calling to support the song of others and to interpret the word, the calling to lift hearts and spirits through music. And long after she no longer had any obligation to worship every Sunday, she continued to do so, joining God’s people in worship week after week until just weeks before her death.
Not only in her paid work but in all of her being, discipline was not a dirty word to her, but simply the shape of a life in which one’s calling is clear.
By all accounts she was someone who seemed to gravitate naturally to disciplines that others might see as burdens, whether the mastery of a Bach fugue, baking dozens of brownies and hosting dozens of students, serving as a Stephen minister or providing support and stimulation to an exceptionally bright son. All of these tasks are the kind of thing that could easily be overlooked, work that is not necessarily applauded or praised in and of itself. But without someone to lead the singing, without someone to set the table for a feast, without someone to say, “here, here you can learn all you want about this thing that you find so interesting” -- without that work undergirding our lives we are all unmoored.
When Jesus tells his disciples, “I will give you rest,” the word has many connotations: it can mean rest in terms of
- peace, freedom from struggle; something we are indeed grateful for after these last years of living with Alzheimer’s.
- it can be the rest of death, that final surrender of all of our labors to one who holds us fast.
Most especially “I will give you rest” means the rest of Sabbath. Sabbath rest was not simply a rule about a particular day of the week, but a way of life, a rhythm of working, and then giving over one’s work to God. Sabbath was the very marker of Jewish life, the yoke that was meant to make work not an oppressive burden but, as Bob Smith put it, being “harnessed to God in the joy of obedient life.”
The joy of obedient life. In Christian worship we celebrate that kind of life -- a life directed by God’s word and fed by Jesus’ very life. As we say when we gather at this table every Sunday, it is our duty and our joy. The burden is light, because it is Jesus’ own obedient life that we follow, and we know that there is no suffering we endure, no place we can go in this life where our shepherd has not already been, and even in the valley of the shadow of death, he is with us. It is not the quality of our obedience that finally matters at all, but the unfailing love of Christ who was obedient even unto death.
To say that Ruth found joy in obedience not to say there was no work or no struggle, especially in the last years as her Alzheimer’s set in and what previously had come automatically became difficult. It is heartbreaking to watch someone whose service to others so clearly gave joy to lose the ability to serve in that way. It was bewildering for those who benefited so much from her faithful leadership to lose it.
But even in her diagnosis John says, she was able to find humor, to allow what was her plight to simply be her life. And she had the foresight to offer her family a light yoke as well – clear directions to follow so that decisions in life’s most bewildering moments would not be so hard.
Thanks to that foresight many months before now, the morning she died – a Sunday morning, of course – her husband John had his orders – “if you are scheduled to play, and I die, she said, you go play.” And so he did.
And once again, as is our duty and our joy, we sang God’s praise and heard God’s word and gathered at this Table with all the saints who have gone before us. What a blessing to know what to do, when we have no words of our own and perhaps no voice but the voices of community around us.
Learn from me, Jesus says. The word means simply “be my disciples” Hear not only his words but see his deeds. Jesus’ ministry again and again gives witness to an understanding of Sabbath not as a rule but as God’s intention for freedom and healing for all creation, a discipline which allows the rhythm of work and rest to give life rather than use it up. A way of living and loving which gives and forgives without keeping score. In learning from Jesus, we follow him to the Table where he offers this life to all the world, and we also follow from the Table to the cross. He gives us rest even in this most wrenching moment of life, because he has gone ahead of us through suffering and loss into resurrection, from death into life eternal.
You will find rest for your souls. The promise is to Ruth and also to all who mourn her.
And now as we take this last duty and joy upon us, the burden of carrying her to her resting place, the task of committing her to her Redeemer and accompanying her with singing.
Here too the yoke is light. Sorrowful, yes, but light. For now we can give her over completely to the gentle care of Christ, the one who has held her fast since her baptism, and we can allow her to fulfill the work of eternal praise for which she is so very well-prepared, gathered around the throne, singing blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, forever and ever.
Saturday night is over. Sunday morning is here. The singing begins and it will have no end. Alleluia.
 Heard in a sermon preached at Luther Seminary and reproduced in the Introductory Edition of “In the Company of Preachers,” November 2007.
Today is Candlemas, aka the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord. And what does this have to do with Groundhog Day?
Punxatawney Phil forecasts the rest of the winter on February 2; that's because Wednesday is the "cross-quarter day" that sits at the midpoint between Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. Whether or not the temperatures or snowfall will be wintery or spring-like in the next six weeks in your part of the world, the daylight is now as long as it was on Halloween (the crossquarter day of fall). And who doesn't light brighter mornings and evenings?
In the church year the pagan customs of the crossquarter day were transformed to mark the day Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple, meeting Simeon, who sang that this child would be "a light to lighten the Gentiles." It's the official end of the Christmas season and the last story about Jesus as an infant (which some years has been my excuse for still having our Christmas tree up).
In former times Candlemas was when beeswax candles for the coming year were brought to church and blessed for the year. The Poles actually had special candles blessed this day, called "gromnicy," which were specifically lit in thunderstorms as a prayer for safety.
We're a long way from thunderstorm season here in Minnesota, but maybe you'd like to set aside a candle to be lit during the storms of life. In the mean time, we'll have almost six more weeks of Epiphany this year, plenty of time for the bracing texts of the Sermon on the Mount.
In Atina Diffley’s marvelous memoir of organic farming Turn here, Sweet Corn, her husband Martin relays early on in their relationship that he does not consider himself a “blood farmer,” even though his family has been farming the same land on the outskirts of St. Paul for generations. It’s a line that does not initially ring true when Atina describes the grueling daily work of cultivating and selling organic vegetables on the last real farm in Eagan, Minnesota.
But after chapter upon chapter of eighteen-hour days, hailstorms and the continual war against weeds, Atina describes how annually, at the end of the grueling harvest season, the two of them would “quit.” “I hereby quit farming,” they’d say to one another, and proceed to drop all conversation about the farm, yields, or plans for next year. For two weeks they would play music, read, take time with friends and generally act as if their home was not also a farm.
I’m about to embark on about a month of “quitting” pastoring, and doing so at a time of year when the pastoral vocation usually consumes every bit of free space in one’s home and mind. For the first time since my son was born, I have the opportunity to complete a Christmas season as a person in the pews, going home after one service is over and not having to return for another. We might even (<gasp>) go skiing some Sunday.
I know I need this respite in order to grieve the end of one call and be ready to start another, but I also wonder whether it might just help me remember that my first vocation is to be a baptized child of God. Imagine that – not first a pastor, or even first a mother and master-of-holiday-ceremonies at home – but first and foremost a child of God, who gets to receive the season rather than manage it.
When the Diffleys complete their moratorium on talking about farming, they return to the conversation intentionally – asking whether the daily life of farming still succeeds in helping them live out the values of stewardship and community that they hold most dear. It’s a giveaway on the book jacket that at some point the actual management of the Gardens of Eagan will be handed over to others, but to read the memoir is to recognize that passions can be lived out in a variety of ways, and sometimes the most passionate people are the ones who most need these times of stepping away from the work that consumes them.
I’ve often wondered whether a ritual of quitting might be helpful to pastors in the middle of a call rather than only at the end, or on a sabbatical? What would it mean, as we head out on our moments of vacation, to actually declare “I hereby quit pastoring?” Might we find moments – even small ones – to say “I’m going to just be a baptized child of God right now, and figure out later whether the call to Word and Sacrament is the best way for me to live out my baptism.” ?
To some people, such a ritual might sound like an abandonment of call, a dangerous foray into unbelief, denying the divine pull of God on our lives. But the Diffleys’ story hints that such a ritual might actually be something which would preserve call rather than destroy it.
So, for today, I am just a baptized child of God. That’s enough.
When our children were very small we taught them a few hymns as bedtime prayers, including a couple in German. “Nun danket alle Gott” (Now Thank We all our God) became a favorite, especially as our daughter started German immersion preschool and began to understand its references to mothers wombs and childrens' legs – “der uns von Mutterleib und Kindesbeinen an.” She requested German hymns by abbreviation, so “Now Thank We all Our God” was simply “Dinge” - things, as in “who wondrous things has done."
I can't hear this hymn without thinking of my own children's chubby toddler legs, but the childlike syllables and domestic references belie the horrors of the hymnwriter's life. Martin Rinkhart had the kind of pastoral experience no one would ever willingly sign up for. Serving during the 30 Years War, he was the only clergyman in the walled city of Eilenburg during a time of plague, and was said to have buried as many as forty parishioners in a day. He himself fell ill but survived; his own wife died. What does it mean to be thankful in the midst of such incredible loss?
Knowing the story of Rinkhart’s life reminds me that gratitude is not so much an emotion as a practice. More and more scientists are proving what our ancestors knew – if you remember what you are grateful for and express that gratitude, your satisfaction in life – even more so in low times in your life – goes up. (If you haven’t already seen this lovely video from SoulPancake detailing an experiment on happiness and gratitude, do watch it.)
Over the years, my kids have dropped off in requesting that we sing hymns at bedtime, but there is still a lovely knowing glance to one another whenever this hymn appears in worship. And no matter what is going on in our lives at the time those chords begin, and I’m reminded to be thankful -- Now, now.
Thanks to workingpreacher.org for this reminder about my friend Deanna Thompson's lovely essay about talking about things we don't know how to talk about. Even those of us who do love words confront times when words fail us. It's a great connection to this Sunday's second lesson from 2 Timothy.
One of the great blessings of the internet has been its power to help some very fine writers in the midst of personal crisis to share their story more or less as it happens. Some of them write books as well, but I'm grateful for sites like caringbridge that allow people to reflect on illness and grief without having to go through years of editing and publishing details first. As someone who knows how hard it can be to speak in such times, the ability to write to many loved ones at once is a blessing.