Naked No More (Luke 8:26-39, Psalm 22)

This past week I taught the Core 1 course in Luther Seminary’s Doctor of Ministry in Biblical Preaching program. The Core 1 course is the first class the students take, “Preaching as the Word of God.”

It was an exciting week! Nine students of all different denominations and varying years of preaching who have recognized that they want to improve in their preaching. They are ready for a change. And it is not overstating the case that they are also hoping for a bit of a transformation.

But, as we discussed at different times throughout the week, transformation does not come easily. It means risk-taking. It demands courage. It admits that change is necessary. It reveals that which you’ve tried to hide. Imposter Syndrome creeps in and you begin to wonder — why was I admitted to the program? When are they going to find out I shouldn’t be here? When are my classmates going to realize that I really have no business being a preacher in the first place?

Transformation is a word we like to use — and a lot. Why? It means change. It signals a new direction. It promises a future that is different from our past. But we conveniently forget, or typically ignore, that with transformation comes exposure. It releases into the open, for all to see, that which you know you need to change. It’s one thing for you yourself to know what change is necessary. It is quite another for others to know it as well.

And if we think transformation is hard as an individual, it is even more so as an institution, as a culture, as a system. A church has to admit its complacency in decades of sexual abuse so as to be a true advocate for the victims. An institution has to come clean with a record of poor decisions so as to be able to move forward with an actual vision and purpose. A society has to acknowledge that it actively harbors rape culture so that the anonymous victim of the Stanford case can truly be “every woman.” With this much discomfort, even pain, with this much exposure, no wonder we choose to remain in our places of brokenness, possessed by that which the world says is okay — that’s just the way it is.

But then Jesus comes along and asks, “what is your name?” perhaps the first realization of exposure. The story about the possessed man in the tombs is no mere exorcism — and that itself would be enough for most of us: exorcised of that which keeps us from being who we are; exorcised of that which prevents us from telling the truth — about ourselves and about the systems in which we work and live; exorcised of that which keeps us from living a full life.

No, this is not just an exorcism but a full-blown, multi-fold transformation — for the man goes from being out of his mind to sitting at Jesus’ feet; from living in the tombs to preaching in the city; from being naked to being clothed.

Being naked is all kinds of vulnerable and all kinds of fear. What will people see? Do we want our partner to see our bodies or do we turn off the lights, acquiescing only if the truth of ourselves can be couched in darkness? Do we celebrate our bodies or make choices about our ministry attire so as to abscond from the reality of our identity? Do we defer to denominational and doctrinal commitments rather than take a chance on saying something new about God? Do we say, “there’s nothing I can do” or do we actively, intently, deliberately look and listen for the places and spaces and circumstances where we might make a transformative move and say “no” in the face of, “it’s a high price to pay for 20 minutes of action.”

What does the first step in transformation look like? One of my Facebook friends posted this and I then posted it on my Facebook page. “Due to the recent news, I ask all women to respond. I ask, with respect and dignity attached to your answer, for your honesty. Maybe this will help people to truly understand what we mean when we say that we worry about being vigilant every single day. Have you lived a life free of sexual violence? Sexual violence is any sexual act or attempt to obtain a sexual act by violence or coercion, unwanted sexual comments or advances, acts to traffic a person or acts directed against a person’s sexuality, regardless of the relationship to the victim.”

My answer? No.

And to say “no” is a first step.

And what gives us the power to say “no”? Because of this story in Luke, we know that Jesus sees the naked and clothes them. Jesus hears our call, “O Lord, do not be far away!” (Psalm 22:19) and finds us. Jesus transforms our very selves — possessed by all that degrades and demeans life, both ours and others; all that insists we deserve to be overlooked or silenced; all that convinces us of our unworthiness; all that says “who am I that God would care about me?”

And then naked no more, we are able to proclaim throughout the world how much Jesus has done for us. And that proclamation, Dear Working Preachers, is transformative itself.


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Your Faith Has Saved You (Luke 7:36-8:3)

“Your faith has saved you.”

As one of my dear friends is fond of saying, “Put that on a t-shirt.” And, as we preachers are prone to asking, “will that preach?”

A simple statement, yet extraordinarily complex. This has to be one of the most challenging of Jesus’ sayings. What is faith in this story? What is salvation for this sinner from the city?

Lest we forget, we have been primed for this story, ready and wondering who will be the next glutton and drunkard, tax-collector and sinner, with whom Jesus chooses to be friends (Luke 7:34).

Yet, not to be overlooked is that those who hear Jesus’ words are not just the unnamed woman, but everyone sitting around the dinner table. Not to be overlooked is that those who believe whom Jesus came to set free, Luke makes sure to mention in the next verses. “Some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” Not to be overlooked is that you cannot determine your worth to Jesus by a calculation of your sins. That is not how God works.

Perhaps that’s in what the woman had faith — if a friend, ever so more a savior. So therefore, her salvation is not postponed to Jesus’ death but is known, in part, by her own actions. Not that her salvation was in question or settled by her resolve. But her decision to go to the house, her determination to enter into where she was not wanted or welcome, her desire to be like the other women who followed Jesus, were all acts of faith. Because faith, you see, is also the belief that you are worthy of salvation. You are worthy to sit at the table. You are worthy of touching, and being touched by, God. You are worthy of belonging. You are worthy of being called a disciple.

Maybe she heard Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth and believed him. Maybe she heard the sermon on the plain and thought “blessed are the poor” could be true. Maybe she heard about her sister in faith, the widow of Nain, and trusted that if Jesus could bring her back from the certain death of being husband-less and son-less, Jesus just might, for a few brief minutes, be her friend. Any maybe, she heard about those other women, who accompanied Jesus, who served Jesus, and thought, “I can do that, too.”

This past week a woman whom I met at a speaking engagement a few years ago, came to my office for a visit. She has been retired for years and sees this stage of life as some of the best years to study God’s word and learn what it means to have faith in Jesus.

Because of the focus of my new book on women in ministry, she said she had a story she needed to tell me. About how her first “call” was to ministry, but she was removed from her position because the new “sheriff in town” decreed that no woman should be teaching men. About how her family all but rejected her for her “newfangled beliefs” about a God who wanted and needed all, even women, to bring about the kingdom of God. About how she grew up indoctrinated about what was right and wrong, who was in and out, whom God loved and didn’t love. This, she tells me, now. Why? Because unworthiness can very well extend for a lifetime.

Like the Pharisee, so many are so certain about whom God includes; who is worthy of God’s love. One has to wonder — if we spent even as much time embodying the faith of the women in Luke 7:36-50 as we do figuring out those who don’t do faith as they should, how much farther the church would be ahead when it comes to living and securing the righteousness of God.

If there was ever a time for the church to preach, teach, and embody Jesus’ words, “Your faith has saved you,” now is it. The woman of Luke 7:36-50 is our reminder of that truth. For the sake of longevity, dogma, and survival, the church chooses to sit on the sidelines of justice. Seminaries select to describe the challenges to theological education rather than envision solutions. Ecclesial judicatories continue to perpetuate protocols that overlook systemic sexism, racism, ageism, and homophobism.

Behind “her” story are so many others, right Working Preachers? Those who, for so many reasons, were told and still are, that they don’t belong at the Lord’s table, they are not invited into the kingdom of God, who suppose, assume, that the good news of God does not apply to them. And, has “her” story been your story?

So, every once in awhile, someone like the woman of Luke 7:36-50 comes along and says no…and yes. Someone who says “no” to those who would keep her at bay; “no” to those who pull away when she enters the room; “no” to those who snicker and sneer and snarl when she dares to express her love. And someone who says “yes.” Someone who says “yes” to Jesus because she believes he sees her, too. Favors her. Regards her. Because to be seen, to be favored, to be regarded is salvation itself. Someone who says “yes” to herself — “I belong at this table, too. I have every right to show my love for Jesus. And I am also worthy to join my sisters, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others and I will serve my Lord as any disciple should.”

Maybe that someone, Dear Working Preacher, is you this week.


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When Jesus Showed Up (Luke 7:11-17)

“Lean back. Relax. Do your mantra. And say, this is what it is and what it’s always been.”

This from a guy I trust. Why do I trust him? Well, for many reasons, but mostly, because he tells the truth.

It’s a pretty good reminder — up until something happens that makes a mantra impossible to live by and even more impossible to believe.

I really do think that a lot of life needs this reminder. Too much of our energy, time, worry, anxiety is directed toward things that, at the end of the day, do not matter and that you can’t change. This is ever so true of ministry, I know. There are always things that require tending. It seems like an ever-present challenge to figure out what needs attention and what doesn’t. Priorities are complicated. Dreams are distant. In the midst of graduations, confirmations, changes, sifting through what demands are at stake, who needs us, what needs to be done, is a fulltime job. Life is an ever-constant negotiation of needs, priorities, and at one point do we just get weary and say, “If I have to deal with one more thing, I can’t do this anymore.”

But, for the most part, the reason for these kinds of sayings, like, “Keep calm and…” is that they remind us of the truth of life, the things that are most important. Until that one more thing shows up. When something interjects, intercepts, intercedes into our truth and it upsets our very core. Some sort of recalibration becomes necessary. Restoration is necessary. Resurrection is necessary.

The widow of Nain surely felt all of these feelings. She was a widow, after all. To what extent she told herself this self-help phrase too many times to count. But when her only son dies, that is the one more thing.

But then Jesus shows up.

I wonder if it is in these very moments of “Lean back. Relax. Do your mantra. And say, this is what it is and what it’s always been” that Jesus sees you and says, “Stop. I have a different plan, a different idea, a different way, a different way of being and believing. It does not have to be what it is and what it’s always been.”

Notice that the widow of Nain does not ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus sees her. He sees her loss, so many fold. He sees her need. He sees her suffering. He sees what her life would be like, already a widow, now without her only son. Jesus sees that she has said one too many times, “this is what it is and what it’s always been.”

No, says Jesus. This does not have to be what it is and what it’s always been. And so Jesus restores the son to life and then gives him to his mother. And in restoring the son to life, he restores the mother to who she is. Jesus hands over to the widow of Nain her very self. It is a resurrection moment.

You see, when Jesus shows up and sees you, well, what it is and what it’s always been changes to “this is what can be.” Because this story is not only about Jesus and about us, but about God. Our God who sees us, looks favorably on us, regards us and what was and is? Well, is then transformed into what is possible. Even though Christmas was six months ago, we are only five chapters away in Luke from Elizabeth, from Mary. And Jesus will continue to see those we so easily overlook — the left-for-dead guy in the ditch, the wee, little man up in a Sycamore tree. Jesus sees so that we might see who needs to be restored to who they are or to what it might be possible to be — or even to what they once were.

This weekend, I went to visit my mother. She has Parkinson’s, and in the last few weeks she has fallen a number of times, a new manifestation of the condition for her, yet typical of the disease. “This is just what it is,” she said. In part, that is very true. We know the progression of the disease. We are all too aware of the next steps that we will need to take — a wheelchair, assisted living. We talked about some intermittent options — some additional services, more at-home care. We went over simple rituals that might help — counting to 15 once she gets up before walking. Doing only one task at a time. This is just what it is. This is what a lot of life is.

But, then Jesus shows up and sees you. My mom, a retired Lutheran pastor, told me about a Bible study she now attends once a week and really enjoys. She is getting help so that she can still lead chapel services every other week for those in the next building over who are in assisted living and nursing care. She has an idea about writing her third book, a devotional resource using material from her old sermons. And in those moments I saw my mom. Not the mom in a now frail and twisted and constantly moving body. Not the mom who can no longer make a meal for me. Not the mom I had to lift off the kitchen floor and place gently in a chair after she had fallen yet again while I was there. I saw the mom who was always filled with the love of Christ and who spent her whole life living that love for others.

Jesus showed up. And my mom remembered that Jesus saw her long ago and still does. And for a brief moment, she was restored to who she was. And “just what it is” was for just a bit, “there is so much more.” A resurrection glimpse. Yet, sometimes, that is all we need.


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Back to Reality

Back to reality. Perhaps that’s what many of you might be feeling right now. Easter is over. Pentecost has past. Ordinary time settles in to its rather long season of normal. And, gearing up for the long green season as a preacher is no small feat, and is likely a major challenge of ministry. It’s one thing to sustain interest in church, in God, during contained periods like Advent, Epiphany, and Lent. It’s another thing altogether to maintain that kind of attention getting all the way to the end of November.

And, if you went to the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta this past week, heading home after hearing at least a dozen sermons and the same amount of lectures, attending inspiring worship, and singing your heart out at Beer and Hymns with the Fleshpots of Egypt (the 2017 Festival is in San Antonio — see you then!), back to reality is your reality. When you hear the likes of Walter Brueggemann, Anna Carter Florence, Yvette Flunder, Raphael Warnock, and Otis Moss III, it’s not only difficult to return to normal — it’s more difficult still to believe you are anything but normal.

I suspect the disciples may have had a similar feeling in our Gospel lesson from Luke. Here they are, in Capernaum, after the Sermon on the Plain. Back to reality, they suppose. It would seem like just another healing story and it will be one of many to come. But the disciples can’t, and we can’t, overlook one simple yet profound phrase — “when he heard about Jesus.”

How did this centurion hear about Jesus? Hard to know, I suppose. The disciples haven’t really been out and about yet. Jesus has yet to send them (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-17) on an official discipleship mission. Yet, the centurion heard about Jesus anyway — because such is the nature of the Holy Spirit.

That’s what we need to remember in ordinary time, back to normal time, back to reality time. That according to the church, ordinary, normal, and reality time is full of the Spirit — and so are you. We are in the season of Pentecost. Don’t forget that. Every single day presents a possible Spirit sighting, an opportunity for someone to hear about Jesus, either because of what we preach or because of how we live; a charge to our parishioners that their witness about Jesus matters, an invitation to sing to the Lord a new song (Psalm 96:1); a chance to remember how really and truly the Gospel of Jesus Christ changes lives and communities forever (Galatians 1:1-12).

The promise of the Spirit is what makes going back to ordinary, normal, reality time possible. Our reentry should be one of rejuvenation. We have Easter and the day of Pentecost behind us as promise. We have a preaching festival behind us as inspiration and affirmation, encouragement and hope, with the promise that people hear about Jesus because of your preaching.

This is what makes the church different. Our reentry into normal after moments of exhilaration and stimulation is never normal but is able to imagine and interpret normal through the promise of the Spirit. Your preaching should be different after Easter and Pentecost. Your preaching has to different after a week of amazing preaching, worship, workshops, and fellowship.

But, it’s not about different that assumes you will be better. No. Easter does not make us better preachers. Preaching conferences such as the Festival of Homiletics do not make us better preachers. Rather, the promise of Easter and the promise that preaching does make a difference? Well, we are then made more faithful preachers, attentive preachers. Preachers who are once again reminded that one of our primary callings is to help our listeners view the world through God’s eyes. To see the world as God wants it to be. To live life as God needs us to live so that the world might know God’s love. We are then made preachers willing to take risks, because no theological certainty will ever help you preach the truth of the resurrection. Preachers willing to be prophetic, because the world needs to hear the truth. Preachers willing to work for, and invite others into, the kingdom of God because, “it ain’t coming unless we bring it” (Yvette Flunder). Preachers who remember once again, because we need those reminders so very often, that “when he heard about Jesus” means some preaching and teaching just happened and needs to continue to happen.

On the last day of the Festival of Homiletics in my closing comments as emcee, I ended with a quote from Mary Oliver. Replace “poetry” with “preaching” and “poems” with “sermons” and I hope you will hear and know that back to reality is nothing ordinary or normal, but the greatest gift of all.

“Poetry is a life-cherishing force. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes indeed.”


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Trinity Talk

Holy Trinity Sunday is a somewhat ambiguous liturgical day. I never know what to think about the Trinity, to be honest. And I am always rather dubious about doctrines that the church deemed necessary to assert. Not because I think they are wrong or nefarious or some sort of suspicious ecclesial stamping out or silencing of rogue voices. Not because I don’t believe that God reveals God’s self through Creator, Word made flesh, and Spirit. Not because there’s anything inherently problematic in creedal claims of the church for the sake of its identity. But I do fear when a doctrine takes over our imagination for God or when we try too hard to fit a doctrine into a biblical text or when we allow a rather complex affirmation about God’s activity in the world to replace real life experiences of God.

My denomination is rather fixated on the Trinity these days, as if it answers any and all questions about how to think about God. In senior approval essays, students going into Word and Sacrament ministry are asked to reflect on how they see the Trinity at work, or how they connect their ministry to the doctrine of the Trinity, all of which can lead to rather bland and boring statements that barely, if at all, touch any kind of theological ground.

So, I wonder if this Sunday instead of explaining the Trinity, where no explanation is really adequate, you invite some actual theological thinking. That is, you help your congregations realize that a critical characteristic of faith is an ever-striving and dynamic making sense of God. The Trinity can’t be the only way to get God. It is as limited and finite as our humanity. It is one attempt of the church to articulate the being of God in a particular time and place. So, how might we attempt to describe the being of God in our particular time and place? This is not to suggest a replacement of the Trinity. By no means! as Paul would say. But it is to acknowledge that theology cannot be something that was decided long ago so as never to be questioned again. Theology is radically contextual and if we keep perpetuating church as that which has God all figured out, we clearly have no clue who God is — and maybe that’s one of the reasons why many people are suspicious of the church’s absolutes.

Talk about the importance of the Trinity as not that which sets God in stone, but that which represents the very nature of the church — that inherent to being church is an ongoing endeavoring toward naming God’s activity in our world.

If the Trinity is critical to your understanding of God, offer a testimony of why that is the case, not for the sake of persuasion or argument, but for the sake of witness to how theological statements that the church makes about God have to find a home in our own lived faith.

Invite your parishioners to write their own statements of faith, their own creeds, to name what they think that somehow reflects their own sense of what the Trinity means. In other words, don’t explain the Trinity, but petition Trinitarian thinking, not for the sake of prescriptive commitments to God but for the sake of active and engaged dialogue and discussion around how doctrines of the church might actually matter for theological deliberation.

Nobody cares about doctrine if it’s left behind in the 4th or any other century. Nobody cares about doctrine when it is preached from the pulpit as if it is law. Nobody cares about doctrine when the only nod to its relevance is one day in the liturgical year. If you want the Trinity to matter, then it has to matter beyond Holy Trinity Sunday and it has to matter for how we know a life of faith.

All of this means taking a cue from Paul, “We have peace.” A rather bold claim, don’t you think? But Paul knows what he is talking about. He gets that what we say about God somehow has to matter for our lives. Beyond how this passage from Romans is deemed adequately or sufficiently Trinitarian, look at his opening phrase, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace.” Paul is an example of what happens when you assert something particular about God — it leads to something that you can then know as promise about your relationship with God. For many, Paul’s statement in Romans 5:1 is doctrine — the doctrine of justification by faith. But, Paul didn’t claim doctrine for doctrine’s sake, nor did he even have one in the first place. He realized something about God’s activity in the world and sought to describe that activity. For Paul, this something about God could not just be descriptive of God, but had to make a difference for our very existence and life with God. Being justified by faith means we have peace.

A rather bold claim indeed.


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Spirit Focus

Happy Pentecost, Dear Working Preachers! At the risk of sounding like the proverbial broken record, are you ready for preaching this Sunday that celebrates the Spirit?

One strategy is to pick your Spirit. That is, choose one text and preach that text’s presentation and understanding of the Spirit rather than attempting a conglomerated spiritual mess that leaves the people in the pews asking, “Wait, what’s the Spirit again? What does it do?”

And only you know what Spirit your congregation needs to know this week. Do they need to hear about the Spirit as advocate, the Spirit of truth who accompanies us in our believing? Do they need to hear about the Spirit as a mighty wind, poured out upon us, taking over our very speech? Do they need to hear that they are indeed led by the Spirit of God and are therefore children of God?

Or, maybe they just need to be reminded that there is a Spirit; that it’s worth some of our faith attention, that it actually might make a difference for how we see God at work in our lives.

To hear that maybe, if we focus on the Spirit, the Spirit just might show up.

In Lutheran circles, the Spirit as the “shy member of the Trinity” is no joke. It seems that we can get by just fine without much recognition of what the Spirit might be up to. Perhaps that’s not just a Lutheran problem — and perhaps it might even be your problem. But it’s a problem that is a rather potent one for preachers. For without the Spirit, it’s hard to comprehend being able to step into a pulpit each week and proclaim the Word of God. It’s hard to imagine putting your theology on the line week after week and think this is all in a day’s work. It’s hard to conceive of having something to say every Sunday that is any different from any other preacher out there and that will actually make a difference.

So before you think about what your congregation needs to hear about the Spirit this week, maybe consider what you need to know about the Spirit this week. I can’t answer that either, but I can suggest one thing — consciousness makes possible the possibility or, in other words, makes expectation a reality.

Let me explain.

Much of what makes things happen in our lives is the result of intentionality, concentration, and deliberate focus, or at the very least, the things that we think matter for our lives or where we want to see change and growth.

Three examples: many of you know that I was a violinist in my former life. The ability to play the music I was asked to play and wanted to play meant practice. “Of course,” you might say. But practice is not just playing a piece over and over and hoping for the best. It is taking the parts apart, isolating certain skills, and practicing the heck out of them. It is that kind of focus that makes the difference when you get to that particular technique in a piece — runs, double stops, whatever. Consciousness makes possible the possibility.

I am also an avid weight lifter. One of the most important lessons when it comes to weight lifting is to focus on the muscle you are working. You think you can’t manage that last French Press? Oh yes you can, if you have your triceps in mind. Consciousness makes possible the possibility.

Or think about when you first started preaching. It didn’t do a whole lot of good to write a whole sermon and hope for the best. You had to work on the parts — openings and closings, transitions, sermon design, illustrations. Consciousness makes possible the possibility.

In other words, for you to see the Spirit active in your life, a little focus may be necessary. Not that the Spirit’s presence is dependent on your determination to see it. The Spirit is there, whether you want it to be or not, whether you think it’s there or not. Spirit focus may just be worth the effort.

One more story for the sake of full disclosure because being intentional about the Spirit sightings is a challenge for me. I will call this story “Birds of the Holy Land.” Actually, it’s three stories. The first is from three years ago leading a trip to the Holy Land of Luther Seminary students. We were at the Mount of the Beatitudes, celebrating Holy Communion. Our worship service began with my colleague reading the Sermon on the Mount. Just as she read Matthew 6:26, “Consider the birds of the air,” two beautiful green birds emerged from a hole in a tree just above us. The second two stories are from my Holy Land trip this past January. While visiting the site of Peter’s denial of Jesus, the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a rooster crowed. And at the Jordan River during our remembrance of baptism? A white dove perched on the roof of the building site. You just can’t make this stuff up.

My reluctance and even resistance to these Spirit moments should be cause for spiritual alarm, I suppose. But instead, I choose to believe that these were God’s reminders to me that the Spirit truly is present. I just needed a reminder of Spirit focus.

Pentecost is just such a moment — a Spirit focus Sunday that sets in motion a Spirit focus life.


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Resurrection is Promise

I don’t know about you, but I am rather weary of empty promises. You know what I mean — those expressed by political candidates, those uttered by a family member who has one too many times bailed on you, those said by friends in whom you just simply cannot believe anymore, those institutions, including the church, that make promises for God they have no business making.

And, you know how it feels. The breaking of a promise, a promise not fulfilled, goes beyond disappointment, beyond a sense of sadness, beyond mere frustration. It is, instead, heartbreaking because you needed to believe, you gave in to trust, and you allowed yourself to be vulnerable to another’s actions. The end result is not only trying to figure out how to negotiate your feelings about the other, but also how to figure out what to do with the self-exposure you wish you had not risked. That is, the breaking of a promise is at the same time both cause for a reevaluation of the one who broke the promise and also of yourself — why did I think I could believe in this person, this system, in the first place? What’s wrong with me? Why couldn’t I see the truth?

Then there is the recognition of the other side, when you begin to remember and realize the promises you have broken. And you know that what you feel is what you have potentially made others feel — and that is not a good feeling. Not at all.

What does promises broken have to do with resurrection? Resurrection is a promise that was not broken, cannot be broken, will not be broken — ever. God stakes the incarnation, God’s love, God’s commitment, God’s very self on this promise.

If there is just one thing that our people might remember about resurrection, one thing we need our people to hear on the last Sunday of the season of Easter before the summer’s scattering, one thing that maybe you need to remember as you wind up another Easter season? Resurrection is promise — plain and simple. There are a lot of empty promises that make up our lives, but resurrection isn’t one of them. And some days, perhaps many days, all we need is one promise we know won’t be broken to make it through the day.

We might say, well, of course, that’s all well and good. You are stating the obvious, Karoline. But think about it. What difference might it make that at the end of the day, this is a promise that is real; that when no one else comes through, God does; when there seems to be little to count on, you can count on resurrection — for both your future and your present.

Resurrection is often relegated to a belief of the church to which we simply comply and that which we by rote confess. We go through the motions each Easter, each time the creed is said, but how often do we stop and say that resurrection makes a difference for how I live my day today? What might it feel like to know that the promise of the resurrection is mine now?

I think that’s in part what Jesus is praying for — for the disciples to be able to hear that his resurrection is a promise to believe in. I suspect that Paul and Silas weren’t just praying to God for something to do to pass the time in prison. Rescue from prisons, rescue from death, are promises God makes and God comes through. Why? “Because Light dawns for the righteous, and joy for the upright in heart” (Psalm 97).

So, what if we preach that resurrection is promise, is our promise, is your promise? That it is a given. It’s the one thing you can count on. How does that change your present? How does that shape how you live? How does that influence your own promises to others?

This latter section of Jesus’ prayer in John is a clue to what the resurrection promise might mean. Here, Jesus prays for those who have yet to believe. God loves the world (John 3:16), you see, but how can the world know this promise that will indeed be kept without us living this resurrection promise on a daily basis? That is, God counts on us to embody God’s promise in a world of broken ones. God needs us to give witness to the ultimate promise kept when our experience, and that of those with whom we do ministry, knows only empty promises. God invites us to live in the promise that is truly ours forever — that is the resurrection difference.


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Resurrection is Companionship

You may have noticed a pattern these last few weeks in the titles and emphases for Dear Working Preacher. “Resurrection is…” and so far, the possibilities have included relationship, abundance, protection, and love. This week? Resurrection is companionship.

Why companionship? The Gospel reading from John is one of the major passages where the paraclete is introduced — the one who is called to be by your side. The disciples will not be left alone or be left orphaned. The one who walks alongside them now will still be known in the paraclete which will be breathed into them by the resurrected Christ (John 20:22). The primary reason for the gift of the Spirit is so that the disciples might experience the presence of Jesus in his absence. The resurrection, all well and good, still means the departure of Jesus. And one extraordinary gift of the incarnation is knowing a kind of companionship for which we all long and desperately need.

The readings from Revelation and from Acts might also point to the theme of companionship: “And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 22:5).” And, “Come and stay at my home,” says Lydia (Acts 16:15). I think that a characteristic of living a resurrection life is the need for and the invitation to companionship. One truth of the resurrection is that companionship is secured.

The resurrection of Jesus promises lifelong companionship with Jesus and with God. Resurrection is that which secures companionship when only isolation and separation seemed the likely result. What difference might this make for what difference the resurrection makes? I wonder to what extent our fear of death is not a fear of tombs or graves or urns but that there just might be some consciousness of being alone. Notice that so much of our resurrection imagination is reunion — that we will be with our loved ones again. We are not meant to live companionless. Yet so many of us do.

According to online Merriam-Webster, companionship is “the good feeling that comes from being with someone else.” This criterion is worth some reflection. I’d like to think that the good feeling Jesus is going for has to do with the reason for the incarnation in the first place. I sense that many of us think we have companions. But having someone to do things with is not the same as experiencing a good feeling from being with that someone.

In the words of Prince, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” That’s one reason for companionship. Getting through life is no small task. And true companionship is a kind of accompaniment that helps us live with a resurrection perspective.

I have no doubt that people in our pews are longing for companionship. Perhaps, it’s even the reason they are coming to church. And, what do we offer? True companionship? Or some sort of watered down equivalent? Antonyms for companionship include discord, divorce, hostility, separation, antagonism, strangeness. I suspect that our people know these feelings better than they know the true friendship and accompaniment of companionship. Are we representatives for and embodiments of this kind of companionship? Because Jesus seems to suggest that part of what the resurrection means is the kind of companionship that is real. That will not go away. Certainly, this is what the Samaritan woman at the well needed. With five husbands either dying on her or divorcing her, Jesus offers her companionship with him that is true and real and will not go away.

And dearest Working Preacher. Are you in need of companionship? Can you hear this sermon for yourself as much as you need to preach it for others? The preaching life is a lonely life, an isolating life. You know this. But who are your true companions?

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” (African Proverb).

The need for companionship is as basic, perhaps, as the need for that which keeps us alive. That is, in part, John’s point. The resurrection promises future companionship for us — with God, with Jesus, with each other. But if the incarnation is true, that companionship promised in resurrection has to be known here and now. Delayed companionship does little to make it known, yet I wonder how many of us are satisfied with companionship that we think might come in our future knowing full well it is not an experience in our present.

True companionship is hard to find, friends. Where we hope for it, it fails us. Where we trusted in it, it deserts us. Where we count on it, it leaves us. But the truth of the resurrection? Companionship for life.


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Resurrection is Love

Resurrection is love — a rather simple, yet extraordinarily complex statement, at least when you look at the texts for this week.

Our passages this week, certainly from John, and even from Acts, suggest that an appropriate post-resurrection life motto is “choose love.” But that can be an awfully hard thing to do.

And why is that? Have we determined someone unworthy of our love? Are we afraid it won’t be reciprocated? Is it too much of a chance? Do we expect a return on our efforts? An adequate response to our investment? Because this is how love seems to work in our world. In a world that values agreements, securities, sureties, warranties, and contracts, in world that has as its motto “quid pro quo,” to love without a guarantee is a commandment that seems almost impossible to obey.

How we live resurrection love is full of challenges. Case in point, Peter having to explain to the Jewish leaders why he had dinner with the profane; Jesus having to explain to the disciples that they need to love one another, even amidst the threat that any one of them might betray the community at any time.

Jesus’ command to love one another is dangerously out of context. Read without its literary framework, it becomes another biblical platitude quoted by those who think it’s easy and who rarely stick to it themselves. It ends up on posters with the backdrop being some sort of idyllic scene of an ocean, snow-capped mountains, a rushing waterfall, or birds flying across a bright blue sky. It actually seems doable.

But, of course Jesus’ command in John follows the presence of evil and the departure of Judas. This is exactly when we need to be reminded to choose love — when evil seems to be having its way. When those we thought were close, we thought we could trust, abandon us. When the actions and words of others clearly come from hate and suspicion and prejudice. Choose love.

And our decision to choose love does not even have to be in the face of the most overt and blatant expressions of its opposite. Our lives are full of minor incidents, if you will, when we can decide to come from a place of love rather than one of frustration and anger and judgment. And, as you very well know, parish ministry is full of these minor incidents.

The disciples were commanded to choose love in the aftermath of betrayal and in the midst of uncertainty. This is what “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” means. This is the kind of love Jesus is asking us to live — not for guarantees, not for reciprocity, not for assurances, but for the sake of a different way to live in the world. And why? So that the world can come a little closer to knowing God’s love.

Often, we think steps towards love demand a major effort. Sometimes, this can be true. But this past week, I have been reminded of how choosing love is not only a different way to live in the world, but also a different way to see the world.

In other words, when you love, you can more easily see the love that surrounds you. When you love, you can more readily recognize acts of love. When you love, you can more clearly sense expressions of love. Love can often be overlooked, taken for granted, dismissed as just an act of kindness when you are not used to living in love.

“Love one another as I have loved you” is not a reference only to the foot washing. It is meant to remind the disciples of the entirety of Jesus’ time with them. While the miraculous deeds were certainly signs of Jesus’ love for them and for the world, simple signs of love likely permeated Jesus’ life with his disciples. Stop and imagine that for just a moment. What happens when those easily overlooked, taken for granted kind of actions become the ways and way of love?

Choose love is doing it, looking for it, and naming it. It is living a life that that loves unconditionally and calls attention to the love you receive, love you can never repay — and that is the point.

This past week I received a box of some leftover items that were handed out at a women’s retreat I led back in February — fun things like a book bag, lip balm, a notebook — all with the retreat theme logo on them. Included in the box was an envelope that said, “this is just for you.” Inside was what looked like a square from an afghan, knitted or crocheted (I am sadly not able to tell the difference!), in beautiful, bright colors, spring colors. On a rectangular piece of paper, the following explanation was included: “May this pocket-sized prayer shawl, made with love and infused with prayers, be a sign of God’s sustaining presence. May it refresh you in times of weariness and provide comfort in times of anxiety or loneliness. May it bring joy, gladness, and brightest blessings.” It now has a permanent place in my school bag. I love reaching in my bag for something — a pen, a tissue, my eyeglass cleaner — and feeling my pocket-sized prayer shawl. I remember I am loved and to choose love.

Resurrection is love.


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Resurrection is Protection

Good Shepherd Sunday will determine much of our preaching this week. You will likely settle on an aspect of Jesus as shepherd that is just right for what your congregation needs to hear. And that is exactly what you need to do. At the same time, I also wonder how Good Shepherd Sunday as a Sunday in the season of Easter affects our perspective on and interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection.

My own lens for the image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd has been shaped by a convergence of events this past week. Of course, that’s exactly what preaching is — the message of the sermon is determined by the preaching life. The life we live during the week, in all of its intersections of circumstances, contexts, and communities, determines our view of the text. Something comes to the surface that we could have never seen before the crossroads of the current week.

At the risk of being too personal, but we have come to know each other better over the last almost two years, I’d like to share with you the junctions of my preaching life this past week that have led me to come to realize the sermon I need to hear on Good Shepherd Sunday — resurrection is protection. Resurrection is safety.

Last Sunday, I preached at the “Walter Wangerin, Jr. Celebration of Excellence in Preaching” series in the Chapel of the Resurrection on the campus of Valparaiso University. After the service was a conversation with about 30 Valpo students about the sermon, seminary life, and even Greek. Follow up conversations had students thanking me for a sermon, that among other things, seemed aware of the truth of sexual violence on college campuses and the need to speak up and speak out and speak for the victims. In fact, and I am not making this up, that morning I had Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You” in my head. The next night, I preached at the opening Eucharist of the Institute of Liturgical Studies at Valpo. As you most certainly know, preaching is the most vulnerable act of ministry. Two days in row and it just about killed me. Admittedly, I am out of shape, this preaching professor. Exposed and exhausted, I then led two workshops the next day. I arrived home late Wednesday evening after a full day of plenaries, meeting new people, a banquet where my professor with whom I had my worship class in seminary and who played the organ at my wedding received an award. Lots of memories of seminary days past. Thursday morning, I taught my Preaching John class, where students await internship decisions and are negotiating first call interviews. Friday, I had a meeting at which some very hard truths were said.

Adding to the fullness of this week? Receiving copies of my new book on women in ministry in the mail (exciting, but vulnerable), it was Sexual Violence Awareness Week at Luther Seminary, I have been in contact with a number of clergy women about sexual harassment and violation in their current situations, and I myself have experienced this week, several times, nothing new of course, the resistance to my voice and the attempt to silence it. And, finally, one of the long-time members of our congregation died, Mr. Ray. My boys loved Mr. Ray. And telling them about his death exposed for them once again where and how our lives are precarious, that you never know when what you assume to be will no longer be. My younger, fourteen, worried, “did I say ‘hi’ to Mr. Ray last Sunday? I hope I did.” And broke down in tears.

Where does all of this leave me? Resurrection is safety. Or, I need it to be. And this is the true gospel of Good Shepherd Sunday that I need to know. Jesus as Good Shepherd promises protection, that the valleys of death and depression and despair are not traveled alone. That the shepherd really does protect his sheep. No one will snatch you away. No one. No thing.

Safety is essential — on so many levels. Professional, personal, spiritual. With whom do you feel truly safe? Literally safe. And safe with your truth, who you are, who you want to be. Safe with your concerns and your grief and your sorrow. Safe with your celebrations and joys and dreams. Safe with you aspirations and hopes and accomplishments. Safe with your fears and your body and your mind. Safe with your thoughts and your concerns and your needs.

Resurrection is safety. Of course, from death’s grip. But it is also safety from grief that could overwhelm hope; anguish that could crush the spirit; loneliness that might isolate the soul.

Resurrection is safety because the shepherd sees to it that our needs are fulfilled. There is no safety when your basic sense of what you expect from life — including being safe — is not met.

Resurrection is safety because the shepherd is totally committed to the well-being of the sheep. Who is committed to the well-being of you? Just you? Anyone else?

Resurrection is safety because the shepherd knows his sheep intimately. Who knows you, truly knows you? Or do most think they do, so much so that you can’t be you?

The empty tomb is a promise of protection. Not from the truth of life, but for the sake of the truth of your life.

What is that truth? That you are who you are. That God loves who you are and needs you to be who you are — in every moment of confidence and in every moment of self-doubt. That you are indeed, a sheep in Jesus’ fold and that nothing, no one, no thing, no church, no institution, can change that. Ever.


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