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.

Very, Very Uncomfortable

Maundy Thursday
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 116: 1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Back in 2003, I was part of a program out of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago for high schoolers who wanted to more intentionally delve into their faith. It was a three week program. The first week and the last week were spent at the seminary, living in the residence buildings, and either doing classwork or other activities.

The middle week, however, was spent in Mexico City. It was my first time ever being out of the country. I knew enough Spanish that, if I got lost, I wouldn’t die in a gutter, but I was by no means fluent. I was thrust into a new world, a new culture, a new society, that while recognizable in some aspects, was very foreign to me.

On top of that, we as a group were being asked some challenging questions, and having some really deep discussions that weren’t easy to have. And on top of that, we were going out into some of the poorer areas of Mexico City to do service projects.

Split into three groups, my group headed out to spend time at an orphanage, just sitting, playing with, talking with the little children who lived there. I’m an introvert, so throw me into a room full of kids I don’t know, speaking a language I don’t know, in a culture I don’t know, and, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience five years later as I traveled to Costa Rica with my Liberation Theology class at Capital University. I’ll never forget visiting the Iglesia Luterana Costarricense, the Lutheran Costa Rican Church. The church got its start in one of the poorest sections of San Jose. As we toured the old stomping grounds, we passed through a section of cinder block houses that were the new government-sponsored housing. But beyond that, where the church started, we left cinder block behind.

The houses there were little more than sheets of corrugated aluminum slapped together for shelter. Raw sewage ran through channels down the hillside. Electricity barely functioned here, even though down in the valley, the sprawling city of San Jose gleamed in the sun. In the midst of such poverty, desperation, well… let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience four years later on my internship. First Lutheran Church in Muskegon, MI is one of the churches that hosts Family Promise, an organization that relies on churches to provide a week of shelter for homeless families, as no homeless shelter in the area lets families stay together: men go to one, women to go to another. The host church is responsible for providing meals for the families, who are then taken by van to job interviews, and the like. The most important meal is dinner, and the churches are encouraged to have people eat with the folks, play games with the kids, and keep the parents company.

Again, throw me in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know, including kids, people who’s current life situation was very different from my own… well, let’s just say that I was very, very uncomfortable.

I had the same experience the first time one of my friends confessed to me that, if I were gay, he would want to date me. At the time, I had no idea how to react to that; I didn’t even know many women who wanted to date me, let alone any men, and I’m not really sure how I responded. I can say though, that I was very, very uncomfortable.

It almost makes what Jesus does in the Gospel according to John seem… quaint.

Now I don’t know about you, but the whole footwashing thing has never made me uncomfortable. Feet don’t gross me out just because they’re feet, and the idea of pouring a little water over dirty feet and wiping them dry doesn’t bother me. Maybe I’m just a weirdo who’s not grossed out by such things, but I know that for many people, this story is what nightmares are made of.

It was no less awkward and uncomfortable for some of Jesus’s disciples, like Peter, who has a penchant for running his mouth when he should be quiet. Peter’s uncomfortable for all sorts of valid reasons. Maybe his feet are ugly; at the very least, we know they’re dirty. Washing feet was the work of a servant, and Jesus is no servant: he’s the Teacher, the Master. This work is beneath him—there’s a reason it’s relegated to servants, they should be the ones dealing with dirty work. Maybe Jesus stripping off his outer robe made Peter feel uncomfortable, I don’t know. What I do know is that, well… Peter is very, very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that, at first, he refuses to let Jesus wash his feet.

It’s not the first time a follower of Christ has been confronted with something uncomfortable, and it won’t be the last. What we are called to do is very, very uncomfortable.

We are called to treat those we consider enemies as we would our friends; even people like Assad.

We are called to extend the very fullness of hospitality to people, including the poor and the homeless, even if we secretly or not-so-secretly believe that they’re scamming us or are responsible for their own condition.

We are called to feed the hungry, even if we know they’re going to go to the food pantry in the next town over and get more food.

We are called to love our LGBTQ+ neighbors, even if their love and sexual expression makes us uncomfortable; and not some superficial “I love you, but…” love, we’re called to actually and fully love them.

We are called to challenge the idolatry of our society that puts money, flags, political ideology and military might above all things, justifying all sorts of atrocities in the name of security and profit; even when we benefit from that idolatry.

We are called to check our own privilege as, for the most part, heterosexual cisgender white Wisconsinites, to recognize the ways in which we contribute to unjust systems that keep minority populations under oppression, and to speak up for and work for change.

We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ, which is all of the above and more, to a world that instead feeds on fear and complacency, refusing to heed God’s will for creation; even when we are the fearful, ignorant, complacent ones.

And it will make us very, very uncomfortable.

And yet, Jesus does something uncomfortable: he washes his disciples’ feet. And he tells them, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” And also, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On my trip to Mexico City, I learned something about poverty, and I learned something about humanity. I was pushed out of my comfort zone to experience life in a way I never knew. And I came home better for it. And I hope we left those little children a little better for it, too.

In Costa Rica, I visited a church that was born in and out of extreme poverty. And through them, I learned and saw what it was like to live the radical good news that Jesus taught and preached, from people who had no hangups about eating with the poor, or the sick, or the dirty; people I realized I’d been avoiding.

Spending the evenings with the Family Promise folks made me realize that I had so many preconceived notions about poverty and homelessness in the United States, and that those preconceptions were harmful. They influenced my actions in ways that hurt real human beings on a personal scale. Spending time with them opened my eyes to my own privilege.

Even hearing from my friend that he would date me if I were gay made me realize my views on sexuality were uninformed, that my views hurt people, and that I needed to do some soul-searching and introspection for myself and who I am.

Each and every time, it was uncomfortable. But each and every time, the experience opened me up to the working of the Gospel, to the movement of the Holy Spirit. Each one was an experience of love, the same kind of uncomfortable love that Jesus showed his disciples in washing their feet.

The same kind of love he showed them in the garden later that night, when he went willingly with the guards to protect his disciples.

The same kind of love he showed the following night when he was willing to die, a scapegoat, a state-sponsored sacrifice, so that he could demonstrate God’s willingness to break the cycle of hate and violence that has so consumed us as human beings.

We are called into uncomfortable situations because in those situations, we find God. We find God who has been there the whole time, showing unconditional love to the people in those situations and challenging those outside them to really see the people affected by them. God is not comfortable—anyone who’s told you otherwise was outright lying—because God never lets discomfort get in the way of acts of self-giving, sacrificial love.

Just as God enters uncomfortable situations to make divine love known, so too are we called to do the same. Though us, God is experienced and known, just as God is experienced and known though those whom we encounter. Because it is in the most uncomfortable places and situations that we experience love.

Featured Image: “Washing of Foot” by Josh Ragai is licensed under CC BY 2.0.