Take Heart

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

1 Kings 19:1-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

For two days in a row now, I have walked around feeling very much like Elijah.

For two nights in a row now, I have gone to bed feeling very much like the disciples.

For 48 hours, I have been afraid. I have known fear. And so we’re going to talk about fear.

Fear is generally defined as a rational, unpleasant feeling that is a response to a perceived or real threat to a person. It is one of our most very basic emotions, a primal response to stimuli in our surroundings, that causes us to either try to escape from the danger, confront it, or freeze.

Rational fears help keep us alive by keeping us out of danger. Irrational fears are called phobias, and they are responses to stimuli that aren’t dangerous, but are still perceived to be. The fear of getting shot when someone is holding a gun to your head is a rational fear. The fear that your goldfish is going to hurt you is an irrational fear, a phobia: and it even has a name, ichthyophobia.

Fear permeates our scripture readings this morning. Elijah is running away because he’s afraid. It’s a rational fear: he has every good reason to be afraid. He has just executed as many prophets of Baal as he could, prophets loved by Queen Jezebel, who also worshiped Baal. And he has just received a message from the Queen basically saying, “I swear on my life: because you killed my prophets, expect that by tomorrow, I will have killed you, too.”

I don’t know about you, but if the leader of my country sent me a message saying that they were going to use all of their power and authority to have me killed by tomorrow, I’d be terrified too.

In response to this well-founded, rational fear, fear for his life, Elijah runs. He runs for over forty days, so far away that he ends up in the desert, at the mountain of the Lord, Mount Horeb, where God met the Israelites after liberating them from slavery and formed the covenant with them. Here, he hopes he can finally be out of reach of Queen Jezebel and her vengeance. Thinking himself the only person left in the kingdom faithful to God, he hopes that here, God will keep him safe.

The disciples, too, experience their share of fear. They have gotten into a boat, on a lake, and are caught in a storm. Now, I’ve never been in that exact situation—perhaps some of you have, and can attest to the horror of it. But my wife is a big fan of Deadliest Catch, and I’ve seen clips of their boats caught in storms, and it is the last place I’d want to be.

I once made a hobby of studying the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald—the real event, not the song. I know the names of ships like the Carl D. Bradley; or the Argus, and the Henry B. Smith, just a few of the 19 ships destroyed and 19 ships stranded during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913, resulting in the loss of more than 250 lives. Being on the water during a storm is a terrifying experience, and a very rational fear.

It’s no surprise then that the disciples, caught in this perilous situation, think that the sight of Jesus walking towards them across the water is actually a ghost. And it’s no surprise that they cry out in fear. It’s a rational response to the danger they found themselves in.

Of course, we know that fear is alive and well in our world today. It’s been brought into sharp focus over the last 48 hours in Charlottesville, Virginia, so much so that I, too, am afraid.

Friday night, hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches, intentionally calling to mind images of hooded KKK members marching with their torches in the heyday of the Klan, marched on the campus of the University of Virginia. They shouted “Sieg heil!” and “Blood and soil!”, two slogans of the Nazi party. They shouted “White Lives Matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!”. They fought with counter-protesters, and the police had to break up the fights.

They surrounded St. Paul’s Memorial Church, where the Charlottesville Clergy Collective held a prayer meeting and had set up a station to help care for people wounded during the protest, and the people inside held each other in fear that the hatred shouting and marching past their door would burst through it at any moment to attack those hiding inside.

Yesterday morning, hundreds more white supremacists marched on Emancipation Park in Charlottesville. They waved Nazi flags, the symbol of one of the worst perpetrators of genocide in modern history. They waved Confederate flags, symbols of an army whose sole purpose was to fight for the right of white Americans to own Africans and African Americans as property, as slaves. They came armed in camouflage body armor bearing assault weapons, claiming to be militias sent to “protect the peace.”

In an act of domestic terrorism, a car drove straight into a crowd of people opposing the white supremacists, killing one and injuring nineteen others. More than a dozen others were injured in skirmishes across the day. The governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, has declared a state of emergency so that he can mobilize state resources to deal with the crisis.

People are afraid. They are terrified. And they have good reason to be. The KKK used to wear hoods to hide their identity when they burned crosses on people’s lawns and lynched them. Now they and other white supremacists who share their ideology of hate walk and chant openly, spewing their hate and bigotry with pride. They have been empowered and emboldened to share their hate. And they are acting on it.

Like Elijah fleeing in terror because the one with all the power sought to use that power to hurt him; like the disciples caught in a storm that they alone couldn’t resist, the targets of the hatred of these white supremacists—of this evil—are afraid: genuinely, rationally, in fear.

And I am afraid–afraid of the truth that my own silence makes me complicit. That our own silence allows this to continue. That we as white Americans have a lot of work to do, and most of us are unwilling to do it.

Contrast that with the phobia—the irrational fear—of the white supremacists. A friend of mine, a deacon in our own ELCA, reported last night that one of his wife’s students in Ohio expressed that he was afraid of black people because he was taught that they were violent. He’s in the first grade. It doesn’t take long for the hate of white supremacy to take root when it’s being taught to our children.

And it’s important to call white supremacy out for what it is: evil. It’s important to call it out as absolutely antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Because white supremacy has in the past, and continues today, to be supported by perverted interpretations of the Gospel. Yes, people still use the Bible to justify white supremacy. When Christians do not speak up against hatred and evil like white supremacy, our silence speaks for us. Even when it’s uncomfortable. Even when we don’t want to offend. Even and especially when we’re part of the problem. Despite a supposed dedication to diversity, the ELCA is the second-least diverse church in the country. Thirty years after our formation as a church, we are still over 96% white. Why do you think that is? We need to speak out against sin and evil, especially when it’s this important.

And it is important. It’s important because, as the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Romans, which we read this morning:

“But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

The only way the good news of Jesus Christ will be heard is if we speak up. Is if we shout it. Is if we confront the ways in which it is warped, perverted, and twisted to serve sin and evil.

But why here? Why today? Why do we have to talk about it today? This isn’t Virginia. This is Wisconsin. We don’t have any connection to those folks over there, do we?

But we do. Just as Paul reminds us, “the same Lord is Lord of all”. We are Christians. We are part of the church that exists beyond our walls—which is where the vast, vast majority of the church exists.

We do, because the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

This is the same Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963:

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevances and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of… racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say, ‘These are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ Yes, I love the church… but oh, how we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect.”

Because it is true, what the eminent theologian the Reverend Karl Barth once said about preaching: that it is done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, interpreting current events through the lens of Christ. And Christians need to stand up to white supremacy just as much now as they did when the Reverend Doctor Dietrich Bonhoeffer did during the Nazi regime, and was martyred for it.

Because if we do not speak up and proclaim the Gospel, who will? If we do not speak to those living in fear, like Elijah and the disciples were, who will?

It is up to us. It is our responsibility. It is our calling to be lights in the darkness, to be the cake baked on hot stones and water that strengthened Elijah; to be the great wind, earthquake, fire, and sound of sheer silence that draws attention to God’s presence; to be the voices that calm the storm and remind those living in the grip of such terror that, like Elijah and the disciples, they are not alone; that there are other voices that stand with them.

…That God is present with them.

…That we worship the same Jesus who said:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

…That following the example of Jesus Christ, Christians have spent millenia standing up to oppression and injustice, for just like preaching, what good is the Gospel if it doesn’t affect people’s lives?

And that’s exactly what people have been doing—affecting their lives by bringing the kingdom of God with them. As many white supremacists as there were in Charlottesville this weekend, there were many more people there to stand up to them, including hundreds of Christians, lay and clergy, from all across the country. They gathered there to dispel hatred and fear, to stand up to oppression. They prayed. They sang. They marched. They worshiped. They healed–literally, physically helped the injured get well. They stood between different groups of protesters to shield them from harm. They spoke.

They put the good news of Jesus Christ into action. They lived out what it looked like to be the kingdom of heaven here on earth. When we pray, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven”, this is what we pray for. This is what we mean. Like a song by the Rend Collective goes:

“Build your kingdom here
Let the darkness fear
Show your mighty hand
Heal our streets and land
Set your church on fire

Build your kingdom here.”

And you know what? The people of Charlottesville, Virginia–they heard. They saw. They heard the voice of God in the voices of hundreds of Christians as they sang and prayed. They saw God’s work in the hands of counter-protesters as they dragged the wounded out of the way, huddled with the afraid in the church, locked arms together to form barriers to protect those targeted by bigotry and hate.

They brought salvation with them this weekend. They proved that the ones in fear were not alone. They became angels, messengers of God, bringing word from all across the country that they were not alone. That thousands of voices—our voices—were with them. That our prayers were there. Our support was there. They brought comfort and peace to the heart of the storm.

Today, we too raise our voices in the name of peace. We too recall the salvation our Lord brought to the oppressed and the captive. We too stand in the way of sin and evil. We too acknowledge that we have a long way to go, and that the road before us is long, hard, uncomfortable. We too stand with our siblings in Christ as we proclaim to those in fear, all those in fear: “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

Featured Image: “Congregate Charlottesville Contronts Unite the Right 20” by Stephen Melkisethian is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. It depicts some of the counter-protesters, including clergy, who stood against the hate groups that were holding a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

We Had Hoped

It wasn’t a long walk, even by today’s standards. And yet to the disciples, it was a walk that would have no end.

Third Sunday of Easter A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Acts 2:14a, 36-41
Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19
1 Peter 1:17-23
Luke 24:13-35

Life doesn’t always turn out as we expect it.

As a little kid, I had hoped that I would grow up to be a train engineer, or inventor, or astronaut, or magician. I read up on trains, I doodled all sorts of Rube Goldberg machines, I checked out books on stars and the planets from the library, and I used to put on magic shows for my parents.

None of that worked out. Though I still have a deep love for astronomy and the wider universe, and a soft spot for magic and illusion.

After four years at Marian Catholic High School under the direction of Mr. Greg Bimm, who directs one of the nation’s top high school band programs in the country, I had hoped to follow in his footsteps and become a music teacher, a band director. That’s why I went to Capital University and enrolled in their Music Education program under Jim Swearingen.

That didn’t work out, either. I dropped out of the Music Education program and, after some heavy discernment, conversation, and encouragement with people I trusted, prepared myself to go to seminary.

I’m not sure what I hoped would happen after that. I know that I wasn’t expecting the road to lead to Three Lakes, WI. I just don’t know what I expected.

“We had hoped…”

These three words express better than any others how Jesus’s disciples felt after Good Friday. “We had hoped…” Jesus’s disciples, and others who heard of him and followed him, placed a lot of their hopes and dreams in him.

We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem Israel.

We had hoped that he would be our king.

We had hoped that he would throw off our oppressors, liberate us from the Roman Empire.

We had hoped that he would remind us that God still existed, still heard our cries, still remembered the covenant with us.

We had hoped that he would be hope for us, a people who needed hope, needed something, someone to believe in.

Good Friday ended all of those hopes and dreams. It’s difficult to be a king when you’re dead. It’s difficult to liberate a kingdom when you’re dead. It’s difficult to inspire hope when you’ve been executed.

The death of Jesus Christ wasn’t just the death of a friend. It was the death of a movement. It was the death of a different way of thinking. It was the death of God here on earth, in the flesh. It was the death of hope.

“We had hoped…”

The disciples were not the only Christians to have their hopes dashed. The church in the last 50 years has experienced disappointment as it looked to the future and what it hoped to accomplish.

50, 100 years ago, it looked like Christianity in North America and around the world was constantly growing. Steadily, it seemed, more and more of the world was at least hearing the word of God, if not converting to Christianity altogether. Analysts confidently predicted that the rate of growth would continue in a linear fashion, and based on that, that the entire world would be Christian by the 21st century.

In that same time period, our congregations in North America were experiencing similar growth. And we, too, assumed that it would be a linear growth. If we had 70 people worshiping on a Sunday and next year it was 80, then the next year, it would obviously be 90, and the year after that, 100, and the year after that 110, and so on and so on. We were so optimistic about our future that when it looked like we were about to run out of seats in our sanctuaries, we simply tore them down and built newer, bigger, better ones, assuming they would fill up at the same rate.

We had hoped, but our hopes were not to be.

We had hoped that our growth would continue in a linear line until everyone in the world was Christian.

We had hoped that our privilege would mean we never had to confront our society’s and our own racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, classism, mistreatment of the poor and immigrants.

We had hoped that we as the church would maintain our highly privileged spot in our society, where everyone bent over backward for us because it was how one proved they were a good American.

We had hoped that we would never lack for money or volunteers or pastors or programs.

We had hoped it would be easy. And none of our hopes have really come true.

And it’s not just our institutions that had hoped for things that didn’t go the way we planned.

Maybe we had hoped that cancer would be cured by now, instead of watching people we loved die from it.

Maybe we had hoped that something would jumpstart our little town’s economy, attracting young people to move here, instead of everyone growing up and leaving.

Maybe we had hoped… well, what did you hope? What have you hoped?

The road to Emmaus from Jerusalem was anywhere from 6 to 10 miles long. It wasn’t a long walk, even by today’s standards. And yet to the disciples, it was a walk that would have no end. Their hopes lay dead in a tomb near a Jerusalem, behind them.

So deep are they in their sadness and lost dreams, that they miss the obvious right in front of them.

First, a lot of this could have been avoided if the disciples had just listened the women who went to the tomb. The church has a long history of discounting the voices of women, and that starts right from the beginning of its existence. The women, whom we hear on Easter morning running to the disciples and exclaiming, “We have seen the Lord!”, are ignored, and their good news forgotten.

Good news is difficult to hear when things are bad. It’s difficult to hear when hope is lost. It’s difficult to believe when it feels like we’ve lost everything.

But it’s in those times, when we can’t hear good news, when we can’t possibly believe it; it’s on the road to Emmaus, that Christ appears in the flesh, even when we don’t recognize him.

Because of their grief and their dashed hopes, the disciples on the road to Emmaus walk for some miles with Jesus and don’t even know it. They don’t recognize him because to them, he, the living representation of their deepest hopes and longings, is dead. And they know, as well as we do, that no life comes after death.

Which is to say, we don’t know it very well at all.

It’s why the disciples don’t believe them when the women, the first apostles of the good news of the resurrection, tell them “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”. It’s why the disciples who run to the tomb and see it just as the women had told them still don’t believe it. It’s why even after Jesus explains to them everything, while they’re still on the road, that they don’t get it. And yet, Christ is there.

It’s why we don’t believe that churches are successful if they’re official numbers are done, even when the church is doing good things.

It’s why we don’t believe the church has any worth when everyone in it is a sinner (and that is the truth), even though we know that Christ came for us sinners, so that we may live.

It’s why we don’t believe that the church is anything if our society doesn’t value it more than everything else, even though the church spent centuries being looked down on by the surrounding cultures of its time, and yet, Christ is there.

The road to Emmaus feels like it goes on forever when our dead hopes and dreams are at the beginning. But it is on the road to Emmaus that Christ is found, not dead, but alive; not hopeless, but hopeful.

Because we are not a Good Friday people, who walk away in fear and despair; but an Easter people, who like the women at first Easter morning run to share the good news, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!”, and who meet Jesus on the road.

We meet Jesus on the road when we realize that it is not the number of Christians that matter, but their mission.

We meet Jesus on the road when we realize that privilege doesn’t make the church, the church makes do with whatever it’s given, and has for the last 2000 years and hasn’t yet died.

We meet Jesus on the road in the love and support we see for cancer patients and the survivors left behind.

We meet Jesus on the road when we confront the sins of the church, ask for and receive forgiveness, and live into our baptismal callings as beloved children of God no matter how screwed up we are.

Time and time again on the road to Emmaus, we meet Jesus, our hearts burning within us, yearning for the hope that we thought was dead, and yet, is right in front of us, as God peels away the layers of doubt and despair that keep us blind to the ways in which Christ is here, really here, today, tomorrow, and every day.

So that we too, in the very same hour, may get up and return to the place we thought we’d let our hopes die and proudly, confidently, boldly, unashamedly proclaim, as the women did, as the disciples did, as Christians have for the last 2000 years:

“Alleluia! Christ is risen!”

Featured Image: “Hope” by Steve Snodgrass is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Fury and Control

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

Good Friday
Preached at St. Peter the Fisherman Roman Catholic Church in Eagle River, WI, at the ecumenical Good Friday service organized by the Vacationland Ministerial Association.

John 18:1–19:42

Back in grade school, I hated when we’d break up into teams and play sports. I wasn’t very good at sports—to this day, I’m still not good at sports—and that usually meant I was picked last or close to last. Unless it was something like “who could climb the monkey bars the fastest”, because I was a speed demon on the playground equipment. But basketball, baseball, soccer, ugh. I hated it.

But then, then, I got smart–or at least, I liked to think I got smart. Games have rules, right? And most games need someone to make sure the rules are followed. So I started volunteering to sit out and be the referee, or the umpire, when we’d play team games. As far as I was concerned, this was a win-win. I got to participate without the embarrassment of being picked last, but I also wasn’t really participating, and therefore, couldn’t let my team down. Perfect!

Of course, there was also another reason I liked playing ref or ump. That’s because being ref or ump in a game gives one an enormous amount of power and control in the game. Now I like to think that I was a pretty fair ref, and that even though I didn’t have any real authority I pretended to use it in a just and right way. But there’s no denying that I liked being in that position of control. It was fun. It was really, really fun.

I’m of course not the first human being to be in a position of power and control, and I’m not the first on which it took a hold. From the moment of our creation, we human beings have sought ever higher and higher levels of control. It seems to be wired into our makeup. We always want more control. Whether we’re toddlers demanding that we set our own bed time, children who want to play ref instead of team member, teens in rebellion against their parents, or older church folk clinging to the ways of the past, we live our whole lives looking for more and more control, to shape the world in our image.

And on some level, we’re pretty successful. Life is a constant struggle for control, losing some here, gaining some here. Some are better than others at it.

There’s just one problem, one barrier to our seizing total control. That problem is God.

And that brings us to Good Friday.

More than anything else, Good Friday was an attempt by humankind to take control away from God. You could argue that we already tried that in the garden of Eden. According to that story, we tried to take control away from God by making ourselves better, smarter, more like God. It didn’t work.

So we needed a new plan. And when God was foolish enough to come incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, we were presented with the perfect opportunity to take control. We killed God.

And you know what? We’re still not in control.

We thought that if we were in control, we could make the world a better place, a place that better reflected our wants and values. Instead, we’re no better off than we were before, and we’re probably worse. I see what we’ve done to our world in our attempt to control it, and it infuriates me.

It infuriates me that chemical weapons are still being used as tools of war and terror, and that there are people dumb enough to try defending it or try using it to justify even more killing.

It infuriates me that no one seems capable of doing anything to stop people like Assad and Kim Jong-un, or the human rights violations in Egypt, Russia, the United States, Israel, Pakistan, China, without invasion or bombs.

It infuriates me that my own country drops bombs on the people of Syria and then denies the refugees safe haven, literally condemning them to death, and somehow thinking its doing some great and noble service in the process.

It infuriates me that the most holy region of the world for three major religions has been reduced to a literal war zone because we can’t learn to get along, instead using our sacred writings as billy clubs to beat on our neighbors and justify unleashing our rage and hatred against those who don’t think like we do, because “the Tanakh/Bible/Quran says it’s okay”.

It infuriates me that around the world the LGBTQ+ community is hunted and murdered, and that our own thinking in our churches not only accepts that reality but cultivates it and allows it to continue, because instead of worrying about people being attacked and killed for their sexuality and gender identity, we’re more worried about offending people.

It infuriates me that we laud praises on the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and then go about our lives as a racist community, a racist country, because our white privilege allows us to ignore the tragedies we leave in our wake and pretend we’re not responsible for fixing them.

It infuriates me that around the world those of us with the most stuff on the whole refuse to help the poor and the needy as Jesus did, without qualification or stipulation, because by telling ourselves that they deserve their position or are responsible for their own condition we can justify doing nothing.

It infuriates me that congregations and churches will sacrifice people, ideas, hopes, dreams, their mission in order to hold onto their precious buildings and “the way they’ve always done things”, as if the building and our less-than-useful European traditions could do the work of God without the people and their dreams.

This is the world we created when we attempted to take control of it away from God? We thought this was a better future than the one God had planned? We thought that we were actually capable of overcoming our sinful natures on our own? We thought we could maintain control?

But we’re not in control.

If we were in control, the death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday would have been just that: his death, the ultimate price we human beings can exact from one another.

If we were in control, there would have been no harrowing of the dead.

If we were in control, the tomb would have never opened. There would be no resurrection. Death would still be in control. Mary Magdalene would not have become the first apostle, sharing the good news of the risen Christ with the other disciples. God’s unconditional love and willingness to be sacrificed on the altar of hate in order to end the cycle of hate and broken promises that had characterized God’s relationship with humanity would never have been proved.

But we aren’t in control. We never have been, we never will be, and if our current and past attempts at remaking the world in our own image are any indicator, we never should be. We have always been slaves to a control that is not our own.

Once, that was Sin and Death, cruel masters of our own making that turned on us and shackled us. But today, today is Good Friday.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we are not in control.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that, though we continue to act as though Sin and Death still rule over us, God reclaimed us, banishing the hold Sin and Death had over us, reaffirming our place as beloved, if unruly and rebellious, children of God.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that God, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen, is in control, and that one day, our seemingly-endless struggle against that control will cease, that the reign of God that has already broken into the world will come to completion.

Today is the day on which we remember and recognize that we tried to take control from God, and we lost.

We are still a world in rebellion; we don’t like to lose. We still inflict hardship and calamity and pain and suffering and torture and death on each other in our attempt to maintain what little control we might have. But thanks be to God that our sins are not the final word.

Thanks be to God that our power is fleeting.

Thanks be to God that our revolution did not sever our relationship with God, but rather provided God the perfect opportunity to re-imagine, restore, renew, and redeem that relationship.

Thanks be to God for Good Friday.

Featured Image: “Cross at ‘Dawn'” by *Robert* is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.