Tamar, and Others We Don't Like To Talk About

Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault 

First reading contains incident of rape, incest, and parental neglect. However, it's important to read all of the readings beforehand.

Inspired by 2 Samuel 13:1–16, 21–22; Psalm 103:1–17; 1 Thessalonians 2:9–12; and Mark 10:13–16, from Wilda Gafney's A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church.

After today, you can’t ever say that I save the hardest readings for Pastor Al! Lord have mercy. What am I going to do with this? Is what I asked myself this week! Well, here we go. At first, I thought I was going to go with the topic of family, which is very strong throughout all the readings. And it certainly may come up again, but I wanted to go a little deeper than that because we all have such varied experiences with family. For some that very word is a trigger word associated with abuse and neglect. And for others, it is the very definition of grace, and everyone in between. Going deeper than just family allows us to come at these readings on ground that’s at least a little more level. And so, I’d like us to explore these three concepts together: respect, honor, and status; through today’s readings. 

We’ll begin with our first reading and end with our Gospel reading, so let’s get this first one out of the way. Yikes. As you may have guessed, this reading from Second Samuel does not appear in any other lectionary. And this time I don’t blame them! I mean, who wants to talk about this on any day, in any place, much less in church on Sunday? Well, I do. I mean, I don’t want to, but I firmly believe that we must, especially on this most holy of days, in this most holy of places—because if we don’t bring our deepest hurts here, among the gathered body of Christ, how can we ever expect healing to happen out there? If we continue to pull the curtain between God and those things we don’t like to talk about, how can healing happen? Think of it this way.  

Imagine if racism was battled in pulpits across North America fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, five hundred years ago! Imagine how different our world might be today, if the pain of racism was called out by pastors across our nation beginning when European settlers stole their first plot of land in the Americas. The same could be said about sexism during Women’s suffrage movements at the turn of the last century, or any time in history actually, if people heard women lifted up by the all-male pastor’s club of the day. Here’s one last example, imagine if in the decades leading up to the AIDS epidemic, pastors spoke out against homophobia, right from their pulpits! I don’t think it’s too dramatic to wonder how many lives that could have saved, but instead we turned it into a “gay disease” that no one wanted to talk about, including the church. 

And as for the topic found in today’s first reading, what happened to Tamar is all too common today. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but so many of us know someone who has endured the same fate as Tamar. And did you notice just how similar the reaction was then compared to today? The amount of silence within the story? Her mother was nowhere to be found. Her dad was more concerned about protecting his son. A friend of the family who turned out to be an accomplice to this horrific crime. If you didn’t know better you’d think this was an episode of Law & Order: SVU, but unfortunately, it is a reality for far too many of our loved ones. The creator of this lectionary, the Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney, selected this as our first reading today, not to torture us, but to give us an example of how this shouldn’t have played out. 

To show us what it looks like when respect, honor, and status, are completely absent. To show us what it looks like when someone’s humanity is completely stripped of them. Whew! Ok, I think that’s enough of that story. Our Psalm for today was a beautiful response to our first reading, giving us the opposite of what we had just experienced. There, our Psalmist gives us the image of God who is not only wise and loving, not only our merciful redeemer and provider, but does so as our Mother, whose love flows from God’s very womb. And even names that love that comes from her womb, us. We are that love that comes from her womb. What a profound contrast to that first horrific reading. Because here God is the perfector of respect, honor, and status, lifting us up, as a mother lifts up her baby.  

As we move to our next reading, Paul continues this image of parental love but with a twist! Paul presents this kind of parental love as not just something between biological relatives, but as something that we actually get to choose! What Gafney calls, “families of choice.” I know for a fact many of you know that kind of love and how special it is. Whether you were adopted, officially or unofficially, by someone, or you were the one who took someone in as your very own. The selection of this reading creates this brilliant segue to our Gospel reading, where we have a very familiar story. Mark shares this little scene well into his book. So, by this time the crowds following Jesus are huge, and whole families are joining the crowd, kids and all.  

And of course, like many religious celebrities or politicians, parents started bringing their kids to Jesus for him to hold. Think: the Pope blessing kids or presidents kissing babies. I don’t how those ever became a thing to begin with but parents just love doing that! I don’t know if popes and presidents like that, but I can tell who didn’t, Jesus' disciples, his closest followers, his inner circle. They said, “Uh uh, get your kid’s dirty mitts off him! You have any idea how hard it is to keep his tunic white!” Ok, I’m slightly paraphrasing there. Point is, they weren’t having it! And Jesus got angry. What?! Jesus was allowed to get angry? Yes, and so are you! In fact, I think God counts on it! But that might be for another sermon. Jesus corrects them and asks them to bring the kids to him, and then says something really odd.  

He said that it was to kids like those “that the realm of God belongs…[that] whoever does not receive the reign of God as a little child will never enter it.” Now, why is this so odd? I mean, maybe he’s just good with kids. What’s the big deal? Well, in that day, children weren’t thought of in the same way we think of kids. Today we sing about how kids are our future. Then, they sang about how their sons were gonna join the workforce in a few years, or how their daughters were gonna bring them a hefty dowry! Oh, I’m sure they loved their children, it was just different. There was very little respect, honor, and status afforded children. They had about as many rights as a woman, and not much more than slaves. You’ve heard that old adage, “Children should be seen and not heard.” It was like that only on steroids. 

So, when Jesus corrected them, and told them to bring the kids to him, to allow them to cut to the front of the line, and then tops that off with, these are who the realm of God belongs to, he is completely turning respect, honor, and status on their head! Those disciples must have felt like they were in the Twilight Zone! In your mind's eye, picture this, you show up at Thanksgiving dinner, and you walk in and see all the kids are sitting at the main table, and all the adults are sitting at the little plastic kiddie table complete with mini plastic chairs. And no one is complaining about it! They're just chowing down on their turkey and mashed potatoes like this is all normal, while the adult's legs have gone completely numb before they could even get seconds. That’s the best modern-day example I could come up with!  

That’s how strange this was to them! But telling them, that unless they became like these little kids, they wouldn’t enter the reign of God? That was the real kicker! To imply that these kids, who were given little to no respect, honor, or status, had something to teach those crusty old disciples? That must have felt like a low blow. But then I remember just how much my own children have taught me, how they have made me a better human being, and how they came out of their mother’s womb, free of judgment, free of bias, free of all the isms that we adults are so susceptible to, and I understand what Jesus meant. And then we’re led to wonder, where in God’s world does respect, honor, and status, need to be turned on their head? And who is there to teach us something about the reign of God?  

Palestinian children? Yes. Israeli civilians? Yes. Ukrainians? Yes. Black and brown people in the U.S.? Yes. Women in states who’ve lost the right to their own bodies? Yes. Trans people? Yes. Drug addicts? Yes. Alcoholics? Yes. Neurodivergent people? Yes. Bipolar people? Yes. The unhoused? Yes. I’ll let you add to that list on your own time. These and more, are groups of people in our society that don’t get a whole lot of respect, honor, or status, if any. Now imagine if we flipped that on its head the same way Jesus did. 

Imagine if we, all of a sudden, put them at the front of the line. Imagine if we, had the courage to talk with them like the human beings they are. Imagine if we listened to their stories, to their journeys, to their heart. Imagine what they could teach us, what they could teach us about respect, honor, and status. May we find the courage to turn respect, honor, and status on their head when the need arises—in the same way that God has already done for us—like a loving mother, showering us with unconditional love, whether we deserve it or not. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Do You Believe In Miracles?


Inspired by John 11:28-44 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

Do you believe in miracles? A line from one of my favorite songs goes, “I don't believe in miracles, and they happen every day. I don't believe in Jesus, but I'm praying anyway.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of expressing this disconnect between faith and reality, between what we want to believe and what we can see. If you ask me if I believe in miracles, well, probably like the writer of that song, my answer would depend on the day, or my well-being, or some other factor. But what is a miracle anyway? How do we even define a miracle? Is it always something supernatural? Is it always something unexpected? Is it always something positive? Is it always of divine origin? Are miracles objectively true, or are miracles in the eyes of the beholders? As you can see, it isn’t easy to define what a miracle is. 

What intrigues me about the story that we read from the Gospel of John, is that the actual miracle, the raising of Lazarus, ends up being a very small part of the story. The reality turns out to be, that what we witness in the raising of Lazarus, is what has already happened throughout the story to all the other characters. It really is masterful storytelling on the part of our author. So, let’s dive a little deeper to see what I’m talking about here. We started this story last week, and in the first half of this story, the focus is on Martha. Martha enters this story upset, and not just over her dead brother. She enters this story in a state of disillusionment over what she sees as either a failure of Jesus’, or of God, as she had known God. “If YOU had been here my brother would have never died!” 

I imagine her pointing an accusatory finger in Jesus’ face, yelling through tear-filled sobs. Jesus simply says, “Your brother will rise.” “I know, [she probably said annoyedly], I know that he’ll [eventually] rise in the resurrection on the last day.” As if to say, my brother just died, Jesus, I’m not in the mood for a Sunday school lesson. Or I guess it would be a Sabbath school lesson back then? Anyway, without missing a beat, Jesus looks her in the eye and says, “I am the resurrection!” As if to say, “Now, here, right before your eyes, Martha! It’s happening inside you, in this very conversation!” Because she responded with, “I believe you are the messiah, the Son of God.” You see, in that conversation with Jesus, surrounding the miracle of the raising of Lazarus, not only are Martha’s spirits raised, but her perspective of Jesus is raised. 

The “miracle” hasn’t even happened yet, and yet I can safely say that from that conversation forward, Martha never looked at Jesus the same way again. I assure you, after that conversation, he was no longer just “Rabbi” to her. She had been raised. But that was last week, in today’s story the focus moves to her sister Mary, who was not there to hear this conversation. Martha goes back home and tells Mary that Jesus is waiting for her nearby. Mary goes to meet him, and she too is upset with Jesus. She says the same thing that Martha did, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” The first time was bad enough but twice? Now Jesus was walking around with two daggers sticking out of his heart! Which might be why, he weeps with her. 

I have to pause the story here and bask in how profound a moment this is, and not just in Jesus crying, but in Mary and Martha’s accusatory comments. Here they are, on a first-name basis with the savior of the cosmos, and they’re angry with him, to his face! And I can’t help but stop here and reflect on our own relationship with Christ. Because we too are on a first-name basis with the Chosen One, and I don’t know about you but I’m angry with him all the time! I mean, we always hash it out and end up being ok, or at least civil with each other, but that was a learned behavior over a longer-than-it-should-have-been part of my life. Because that is not the way that I grew up thinking about God. I grew up equating God to my parents, whom you did not talk back to, whom you did not express your displeasure with their performance as a parent. 

And yet, that is exactly what Martha, and now Mary, do with Jesus. And sure, he cried a bit about it, but I can’t help but believe that this exchange between them strengthened their relationship. This exchange of erupting emotions, this exchange of piercing words, this exchange of tears between two people, one of whom just happens to be the Messiah, raised both their hearts and minds, allowing them to see each other in a way they had not before. So now Mary is raised, and the “miracle” has still yet to happen. So now Jesus is raised, into this deeper relationship with his friends Martha and Mary. Do you remember that first time you argued and/or cried with a friend of yours? You’re never the same after that, are you? And often in a good way. Neither were they. They had been raised. And then we have the famous miracle of the raising of Lazarus. 

It gets a whopping one verse at the end of this story, which begs the question, is this thee miracle of this story? Because it almost reads as the backdrop, to a more profound lesson that our author is trying to highlight for us, that miracles happen all around, us all the time, if we define them appropriately. Likewise, resurrections happen all around us, all the time, if we define them appropriately. To use a recent example from my own life, my youngest daughter Jesha was in the hospital all last week. She was fighting a mysterious bacterial infection that caused a painful abscess to form on the side of her throat. She had to have emergency surgery at one point to drain the abscess but she came out fine and is all better. Now, I think most people, especially those praying for her healing, would consider that the miracle here. 

But another part of that week tells a different story. You see, my wife Sara was in LA on business, and I don’t think either of us expected her to rush home for this. Maybe we were in denial as to how serious this was, which is pretty common with people and their families in the hospital, but we assured her that we would be fine. So, there we were, Jesha and I, together for 10-12 hours a day, in the hospital, caring for each other, in what turned out to be quite a horrifying experience. But the emphasis I would put on all of that is, together. In our little half of that cramped hospital room, we talked, as much as she could, we laughed, as much as she could, we cried, we slept, we watched our beloved Oakland A’s get their butts kicked every day, and then we left, but most importantly, we did not leave the same father and daughter that we walked in as a week prior. 

My friends, every time a relationship is deepened, no matter how painful the experience might be, you both risen.  

Every time a relationship is strengthened, we risen.

Every time comfort is given, you all are risen!

Every time understanding is achieved, y’all are risen!

Every time forgiveness is given, y’all are risen!

Every time you are vulnerable with another, y’all are risen! 

Every time you see more clearly, feel more deeply, love more unconditionally, y’all are risen!

Every time you experience selflessness, y’all are risen!

Every time you are valued and appreciated, y’all are risen!

So, I guess I believe in miracles after all. 

I hope you do too. 



Saint John the Baptist: The Patron Saint of Agnostics

 Inspired by Luke 7:18–23 as found in The Women's Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W

One thing that drives me up the wall is indecisiveness. I don’t have much patience for it, and the older I get the worse it gets. I bet we all have someone in our group of friends or family though that is indecisive. You know, the one who can never decide on where to go to eat, or what movie to watch, or which TV show to binge next. Raise your hand if you have someone in your group of friends or family that is like that. Those of you who are not raising your hand, that probably means that you are that indecisive one in the group. I mean look, you couldn’t even decide to raise your hand or not! I’m just teasing. To be fair, my aversion to indecisiveness probably comes from my upbringing. One of my mom’s favorite sayings was one that I cannot repeat here, but it’s a phrase that included a certain four-letter word and the word pot.  

It’s a humorous, albeit crass phrase that gets at the heart of making a decision. If you don’t know it, ask someone later, but not right now. To be fair, if we’re honest, we all have indecisive moments in our lives. I sometimes don’t like to decide because I want to make sure my decision is acceptable to everyone. The joke there of course is that no decision is acceptable to everyone. So, just make a decision already, I tell myself. Other times there are just too many choices to choose from! And other times we genuinely don’t care which choice is made so we just step back and let others decide, which is fine unless everyone else in the group also feels that way. Decision-making is an important part of our lives, in our work lives, our personal lives, and even in our spiritual lives. But maybe not as much as we’ve been taught. 

A nasty habit developed in the Christian church, particularly in America, that began all the way back in colonial America. And that was this idea that one had to make a decision to follow Christ or not, to believe in Christ or not, to have faith or not. It’s a very black or white kind of theology, right or wrong, left or right, yes or no. You’d think I’d like it. But I’m Lutheran, so I don’t. Nothing in life is that simple, including our spiritual lives. And our Gospel reading is a perfect example of this, and it’s also why I think that John the Baptist should be the patron saint of agnostics. Just so we’re on the same page, an atheist is someone who has decided that God doesn’t exist, which I can respect, for the mere decision alone. They have made a choice and have moved on.  

Side note, some of the most profound and respectful religious conversations I’ve had have been with atheists. As long as they know you’re not going to try and change their mind, they are some of the deepest thinkers out there. They are the ones that have not decided. The simplest definition of an agnostic is someone who believes that if there is a divine being, it is unknown and unknowable to humans, so for that group, God remains a big question mark. Another way to describe agnosticism is to say that since humans can’t prove the existence of God, then one cannot believe or disbelieve in a God. Well, if we use that definition then we’re all quite close to being agnostics! They taught me a lot of things in seminary but proving that God exists was not one of them! 

"St. John the Baptist in Prison, Visited by Salomé"
Guercino, 1591–1666
So, let’s turn our attention to our Gospel reading. Here we get this little scene between John and two of his disciples. Now, already, your Spidey senses should have gone off, because yes, it says two of John’s disciples. Not disciples of Jesus, disciples of John. John still had disciples. Now, why would that be? Well, many scholars have concluded that it was because he was still on the fence about Jesus. I mean, think about it, if he completely, 100% bought into what Jesus was selling, why would he need or even have disciples of his own still? Followers don’t have followers. Think of it this way, you would never hear a pastor say that they have followers. Can you imagine if someone asked me how big our church was and my answer was, “Oh I have about a hundred followers.” 

If you ever hear a pastor say that, run! Cuz that ain’t no church, that’s a cult! To be clear, I’m not accusing John of being a cult leader. His following started before Jesus began his ministry, before there was someone for John to follow. But what about after? Why didn’t he and his followers all go and start following Jesus after his baptism? Well, because they’re human. It’s not very realistic to think that 100% of everyone that encountered Jesus, even John’s very own followers, just dropped everything, including everything they believed prior, and started following and believing Jesus wholeheartedly! That’s just not how we humans work. And not just as a group, but also as individuals. I’d be lying to you if I stood up here and told you that God expects 100% of your heart and mind, 100% of the time!  

No human can do that, and God knows that. Which is why you don’t hear any judgment when John the Baptist, sends a few questions to Jesus, from his lonely prison cell. And they were not easy questions, to say the least. John asks his cousin Jesus, “Are you really the one we’ve been waiting for? Or should we keep looking?” Yikes. I don’t know if that was harder to ask or harder to hear. But in typical Jesus fashion, he doesn’t give him a direct answer. Like, how hard would it have been for Jesus just to say, “Yes. Yes, John, I am the one.” Would that have been so hard? Instead he said, “those who were blind receive sight, those who were lame walk, those who were diseased-in-skin are cleansed, those who were deaf hear, those who were dead are raised, those who are poor have good news proclaimed to them.” 

Which was just Jesus’ way of saying, “Consider the evidence.” Consider the source, sure, but first, consider the evidence. Another way to ask this would be, are people being healed or hurt? Likewise, are the vulnerable given hope or judgment? Those are good questions to ask if you’re ever wondering if something or someone is of divine origin or not. Not that following Jesus means perfection, far from! We’ve all hurt people but on the whole, when taking a look at the big picture of our lives, have we hurt or healed? Have we given hope or judged the vulnerable? We have this tremendous opportunity right now in our world, yes, even in little ol’ Auburn, to bring hope and healing. And one of those many groups, I would like add to Jesus’ little list.  

Jesus mentions the blind, lame, diseased, deaf, I would add the questioning, the doubting, the unknowing, the skeptics, the proof-seekers, the fence-sitters. We have this amazing opportunity, the same one that Jesus gave his cousin John when he was in the throws of questioning from his dark, lonely prison cell, to comfort the questioners, to ease the minds of doubters, to sit on the fence with fence-sitters; because, as we know all too well, comfort doesn’t always come with answers, but sometimes it comes with sitting alongside others, and maybe even admitting that we too have got a lot of questions. Because faith isn’t about having all the answers, or being 100% committed, or making this big one-time all-encompassing decision for Christ! Sometimes it’s just taking a step. Sometimes it’s just taking a seat. Sometimes it’s just asking a question. Whatever it is for you, I pray that it is met with comfort, openness, and love. And it it’s not, you just send them to ol’ Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of agnostics, of the questioning, of us. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Yeasty Dreams


Inspired by Luke 13:20–21 as found in A Women's Lectionary For The Whole Church, Year W

There’s nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread is there? There’s something about that smell that just transports my soul back to my childhood. Watching my mom and her mom make bread was a regular part of my upbringing. However, my mom and grandma were much faster at it than Sara is. Not because they were faster, and not because they were better bakers either. But only because the bread that they made was unleavened, a flatbread. Many cultures are known for their flatbreads, and they of course go by many names. For me, I knew it as a tortilla. Our Jewish siblings know it as matzo. Our Norwegian neighbors know it as lefse. And many Asian countries know it as naan, just to name a few. It is much faster to make than leavened bread, but don’t let that fool you. 

Any kind of bread is a time-consuming process. In fact, it took so much time and effort for our ancient ancestors, as I learned this week going down the rabbit hole of the history of bread, that they only made it for special occasions, in the same way we have cake for a birthday or wedding. There’s a little bit of trivia for your next cocktail party. But then some genius baker discovered yeast, which added a whole new dimension to not only the flavor of bread but also its preparation. Scholars think that happened around ten thousand years ago somewhere in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia. Leavened bread may be delicious, as well as beautiful, but it made an already time-consuming process even longer because now you had to wait for the bread to rise. So, all of this is fascinating, but why would Jesus compare it to the realm of God? 

Jesus said that the realm of God “is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” I think we can take away at least four lessons from this, to teach us what Jesus meant by this comparison, to teach us how we can live this out. Those lessons are: the realm of God takes time, it is bold, it is communal, and it takes work. But first, what do we mean by the “realm of God”? I really like this translation. We usually hear this as the “kingdom of God”, but not only is that overly gendered, but it’s just not that accurate. Kingdom is too small. Not only is it a human concept but it just has too many limitations. The word kingdom implies borders, walls. And I don’t think anyone here believes that God’s realm has borders or walls! So “realm” works much better. 

God’s realm is wherever God has power and influence. And who are we always saying that God’s hands are in this world? Whoever wants to assist God in spreading her realm across the globe. Ok, so now that we have a working definition of “the realm of God”, let’s see what kind of yeasty lessons Jesus has for us. Now the first of those lessons is an easy one, it takes time. God’s realm takes time. It’s not a race. We’re not in the business of seeing how many souls we can save in record time! Those that are really interested in spreading God’s realm have got to be willing to play the long game. It’s not going to happen overnight, or even over a month. It’s gonna take a lot of patience and waiting, just like waiting for bread dough to rise. Now, let’s talk about the boldness of God’s realm. 

Another word might be potent. Just like it doesn’t take much yeast to make a loaf of bread rise, it doesn’t take much of God’s realm to make a difference in the world. And I think what makes it so potent, what makes it so bold, is how different it is. I mean, think about how different yeast is! It can make a whole host of delectable baked goods, it can be used to make ethanol fuel, and let’s not forget, without yeast, we couldn’t make liquid bread, beer! However, yeast can also cause food to spoil, as well as cause a plethora of infections throughout the human body! It is a strange part of planet Earth. Likewise, the realm of God is also seen as a bit strange. The realm of God declares winners when there wasn’t even a race! It interprets people’s words and actions in the best possible light rather than the worst! 

It lets go of grudges way sooner than is deserved! It teaches silly things like loving our enemies, and sharing rather than saving. How weird is that? More than weird though, these are bold, potent, ways of being in the world, that too often go against the grain of humanity. The next lesson is that the realm of God is communal. Jesus said that the woman was using three measures of flour. That’s about 40 pounds of flour. 40 pounds! Why in the world would she be using that much flour? Because bread-making in the ancient world was often a communal activity. In order to conserve the fuel needed to bake the bread, as well as other resources, a whole community would gather to make bread for everyone. God’s realm is meant to operate the same way. It is a team effort, where all participate, and where all get what they need. 

And what do I mean by all? Who is included in this communal endeavor of spreading God’s realm? For that, we come to the last of these yeasty lessons, that God’s realm takes work, hard work. The bones of our ancient ancestors clearly show us that they knew what hard work was. Their bones show telltale signs of wear and tear, specifically on the parts of the body involved in making bread; wear on the knees from grinding grain to make the flour, wear on the hands from kneading that flour with the yeast. Have you ever kneaded dough? I would help my mom make tortillas sometimes and she would have me knead the dough because she had joint problems in her hands and wrists. After kneading for a while, I remember thinking, isn’t that enough? It wasn’t! And that was dough for a flatbread! 

My lovely wife making bread dough as a visual
while I preached this sermon.
Kneading dough with yeast in it is an even bigger job because you gotta make sure that the yeast is evenly spread throughout the dough. Otherwise, it ain’t gonna look very pretty! This made me think of how we’re supposed to spread God’s realm evenly throughout our world. Because if we don’t, it ain’t gonna be pretty. And let me use a recent event to explain. I’m sure many of you have heard of the horrific treatment that one of our local pastors has received this past week. Many of you even know him because he used to be our youth director back when I first started. I’m of course talking about Pastor Casey Martinez-Tinnin. 

Like many gay pastors, he has recently been the victim of what can only be described as a character assassination. Two people from an ultra-conservative group posed as parents looking for help for the transgender child, met with him to talk, and recorded the conversation without his permission. Like many pastors, he trusted these people out of compassion for their child. Only to be taken advantage of, to have the video posted online, highly edited of course, all for the purpose of defaming a pastor who’s simply trying to save lives, from harm by others or themselves. He and his family and congregation are now enduring death threats, and harassment from so-called “Proud Boys” stationing themselves outside their house, hurling insults at them, and spreading lies to their neighbors. 

Many in the area have come to their support. Which is great to see. However, I have to wonder, could that have been prevented? And if so, how could we prevent it in the future? Are we even planning for the next time this happens? This is where that evenly spread yeast comes in, the yeast that takes hard work evening out across God’s realm. Because what if, and I know this is a big what if, but stay with me here, dream with me, what if, we had spread God’s realm so evenly, so broadly, 

that every church was a Reconciling in Christ church,

that every church was a welcome place,

that every church was a safe place,

that every church was a healing place,

that every church was overflowing with love,

that every church was flying a pride flag in support of their LGBTQ+ siblings, whether they had a gay pastor or not! 

Because then, how would their enemies know who to target next!? Do you see how something as simple as a pride flag is so much bigger? This isn’t just about creating a safe place here? This is about creating a safe place everywhere, for everyone! This is a matter of life and death, and that’s no exaggeration! What if, we spread God’s realm so evenly, so broadly, that it created a blanket of protection upon this whole region? Can we dream that big? I don’t know. I do know this, small dreams make small results. So why not dream big? I honestly don’t think we have a choice but to dream big. 

Not if we’re gonna take Jesus at his word, that the realm of God is like a woman mixing yeast into flour, until all of it is leavened. How can we not dream big, when we have a God who takes the time and waits patiently for us, whose love for us is boldly potent, who continually gathers us around this communal table, and who never tires of putting the work in for us. Dream big my friends. Dream, yeasty dreams, as we make bread for the world, with the world, for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Laetare! Rejoice!


Inspired by Song of Songs 4:7–16; Psalm 136:1–16; 1 John 4:7–12; John 3:11–17 as found in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W

This has been a strange Lent. I’m not sure if any of you are feeling that way, but for me, it’s been a bit odd. I think it’s been partly because of the state of mind I’ve been in. Life has been quite a roller coaster this year so far, complete with ups and downs and loop de loops and even the occasional nausea. I mean, life is usually like that, right? It just seems like this year the roller coaster has been set at high speed! And I have a feeling that I’m not alone. That roller coaster has made plenty of stops here at Bethlehem too. Like most churches these days, financial stress is at an all-time high. That coupled with our very divided society makes for quite a few loop de loops. Churches are having to make decisions that they never thought they’d have to, like making cuts to key staff or ministry programs. Some have even had to close up shop. 

Thankfully, we are nowhere close to that but the threat always seems to be looming around the corner.  However, other than me being away for the month of February, it hasn’t affected our worship life too much. Which is important because if we’re gonna grow, visitors need to have a positive experience here at Sunday worship. Some of you might be thinking, “Well, if that’s the case, Pastor, could you make this sermon a little more positive?” Don’t worry, I’m getting there. I just think it’s healthy to say how many of us are feeling, out loud, first. Especially during this time of year. Lent is all about reexamining our lives, taking stock of our relationship with God and others, and identifying where we need a course correction, where we need to improve. 

But when you’re already feeling knocked down, Lent can feel like it’s just kicking you while you’re down. And that’s coming from someone whose favorite season is Lent! But even I am struggling with this one! And then I was reading a book the other day and I came across something I hadn’t heard of before, Laetare Sunday. Just curious, have any of you heard of Laetare Sunday? Where? From what I’ve read, many Anglican, Catholic, and Lutherans celebrate this day but I’ve never heard of it before, and I grew up Lutheran and went to a Lutheran seminary! However, the more I read about it, the more that didn’t matter to me, because it turned out to be a beautiful tradition that I wish more Lutherans would celebrate!  And here’s why. First of all, the word Laetare is Latin for “rejoice.” 

It’s a reference to an Isaiah passage which way back in the day used to be one of the readings on every fourth Sunday of Lent. And so, it became known as Laetare Sunday. But even after common lectionaries became a thing, and that Isaiah passage was no longer read on every fourth Sunday of Lent, the traditions of Laetare Sunday were just too deeply embedded, and so they stuck, and these traditions are quite profound. At its most basic, it marks the halfway point of Lent. Which might sound insignificant, but you gotta remember, some Christians take Lent very sacrificially! Like abstaining from certain foods or drinks, or certain activities. So, being told that you’re halfway there, that the finish line is now in sight, is anything but insignificant for a lot of people! However, on an even more profound note, it’s a respite. 

It's a respite from the somber nature of Lent. And let’s be honest, somber is being kind. Sometimes it’s downright depressing. Trust me, I get quite a few eye rolls when I tell people that it’s my favorite season! And I get it, Lent can not only be somber, but it can also be quite challenging, even intrusive. So, another tradition on this day is to change the color of the day from purple, to what they call “rose” but is often just straight-up pink, which may be why not everyone celebrates it! Thank you to Roberta for putting together some “rose” for us today! But it’s this focus on rejoicing, in the middle of Lent, that really spoke to me today. Which is why our first hymn was a very un-Lenty kind of hymn! And so will the others be today. Not only is it a nice break from the norm, but it sure seems like it’s needed right now. 

Our readings for today do a great job of pushing us into a rejoicing state of being. Our first reading is from Song of Songs. We did a series last summer on the Bible’s wisdom literature and it included a few passages from this book. It was pretty spicy at times, but you couldn’t help but walk away from it feeling just in love with love, no matter the kind of love. In this passage we have two lovers absolutely in awe of one another, just head over heels for each other! For those of us who have experienced that kind of love, we know that not only is it wonderful, but it’s also a bit scary, and not at all rational, is it? Sometimes it makes us say and do the funniest things, all in the name of love! Kind of how our passage started with, “All of you is beautiful, my beloved companion, there is no flaw in you.” Ok, how do you read that and not roll your eyes! 

I mean, I love my wife, Sara, but she ain’t perfect! And if any of you tell her I said that, I will deny, deny, deny! Seriously though, isn’t that the way love can be? And not just romantic love but any kind of love. It just makes us believe the silliest things. But it also makes us see the best in others. Makes us sacrifice for others. And who cares if it don’t make sense when you’re simply in love with love! And to think, the author of Song of Songs wrote this to show you just how crazy in love God is with you! And if that ain’t worth rejoicing over, I don’t know what is! Our Psalmist continues the theme of rejoicing, but through the lens of thankfulness. Thankfulness for not only the mighty deeds of God that the Psalmist lists, but mostly for the everlasting faithful love of God. Hesed is the Hebrew word used here. 

It refers to a deep love that is filled with trust, and covenantal promise; a love that is not controlled by conditions. Again, if that’s not worth rejoicing over, I don’t know what is. And the next two authors continue to drive this home like no other. Talk about being in love with love. If this was a baseball game, Song of Songs is on third, our Psalmist is on second, First John is, well, on first, telling us that not only is God filled with love, but that God is love. The Gospel of John is up to bat and what happens next? Someone call it! Grand slam! Can you tell I’m ready for baseball? John hits it outta the park, clearing the bases, with “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” 

And we can’t leave out the next verse, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” There’s so much in these readings to rejoice over, where do we even begin? It doesn’t matter. Begin anywhere. Just begin somewhere. This is our respite, from the hard work of Lent. Take advantage of it, my friends. This is Laetare. Rejoice! For no matter how tough you are on yourself during this season, or any season of the year, this is your reminder, that at the end of the day, you are loved, no matter what. This is your reminder that when all is said and done, God looks at you and says, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, as she invites us to our ultimate respite, in her tender arms. Rejoice! Amen.