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From the Bottom Up

First Reading // Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm 46:1-11

Second Reading // Colossians 1:11-20

Gospel // Luke 23:33-43

Today marks our yearly celebration of Christ the King Sunday . . . And what a king he must be. So great that we declare him to be king of kings and lord of lords. In our scripture from the prophecies of Jeremiah this morning, God says, “I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” These words almost paint a picture for us of Jesus’ power, of his majesty, of him seated on a grand throne at the very right hand of God. 

Then with the Psalmist we declare together, “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be shaken; God shall help it at the break of day. The nations rage, and the kingdoms shake; God speaks, and the earth melts away . . . The Lord of hosts . . . is with us” . . . I get goosebumps. The halls of power? The very earth itself? Shaking and melting from nothing more than the voice of the Creator? What a fantastic and powerful God ours must be!  

Then we read in Colossians words from perhaps the most ancient of Christian hymns, that: “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; [that] in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” How impressive, how beautiful, how awe-some must it be to witness the Christ, the Messiah, whose very being binds us together, who causes the cosmos itself to cohere.  

And so we turn at last to our Gospel! To our Savior! Here he is! We get to see him in the written word before us! And so in Luke we read, “When they came to the place that is called The Skull they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his*” Wait, hold on . . . (shuffles pages) something must be wrong, because there’s no way that guy is the king we’ve been hearing about, regardless of the wooden sign hanging over him. No way they just nailed the Messiah to a tree and killed him. That’s completely absurd . . . disgusting . . .  outrageous. That’s not the truth. I refuse to believe that’s the truth. 

I wonder what the disciples were thinking as they stood around Jesus that morning. When the events of the past few days had left their world seemingly wrecked. When it seemed every one of their hopes had been utterly dashed. I wonder how sad they must have been. How confused. Angry. Frightened. When the Messiah they expected would begin a revolution against the greatest empire the world had ever known, when that supposed-Messiah was brutally murdered on a cross . . . a manner so vicious, the empire wouldn’t even do it to their own citizens. Everything about this Gospel experience feels wrong when we see it alongside the texts glorifying and testifying to what our Messiah, our Savior should be. This Gospel is supposed to be “good news”, but feels like just the opposite. Yes, Jesus does say to one of the criminals crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” But that’s big talk after a day of being brutalized by the powers of the state, while you’re hanging on a tree, slowly dying. 

So . . . Christ the King Sunday, huh? This isn’t the kingly face we recognize. This isn’t the kingly face we expected. What does it mean, that when the Messiah came to humankind in the person of Jesus, this is how the Son of God chose to present his power? What does it mean for us, as followers of that God, and of that Jesus? What kind of quote-unquote “rule” are we talking about? What kind of king? 

Just about three months ago, I helped lead orientation for the ELCA’s Young Adults in Global Mission program, often shortened to the lovely acronym “YAGM”. The 10-month experience sends young adult volunteers into communities all over the world to live and dwell with the people there. For two years the program has been on hiatus, since COVID cut short the 2020 year of service. But to get to see the program resume, to get to see the joy and excitement on the faces of twenty-four incredible young people, about to begin a year unlike anything they can imagine, in service to the global church . . . Few experiences in my life have been so fulfilling to witness. But I do admit I’m biased, I served in the program myself back in 2018 and 2019, in a suburb of Buenos Aires, Argentina. If you’ve gone on a mission trip or service trip, even if it was much closer to home, you might remember the feeling of anticipation before the journey. Even though you know that no matter how you imagine it, it will still surprise you or defy your expectations, you can’t help but think about what it will be like.  

I wonder if this isn’t unlike what the disciples were thinking, before the terrible events of Jesus’ passion. Remember that just five days earlier, they had watched Jesus ride triumphantly into Jerusalem. The donkey-steed was a strange touch, they thought, but the people still cheered, waving palm fronds and even laying their very cloaks on the road before him. Jesus had uttered phrases like “I shall tear down and rebuild [the great] temple in three days.” He had performed miracles that were exceedingly rare – opening the eyes of the blind and even raising the dead back to life. These were all things that their holy texts had said the Messiah was supposed to be able to do. The Psalms, the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, and the books of the law all said this is what is supposed to happen when the King of Kings comes to fulfill God’s covenant with Jerusalem. People received Jesus like a king, because many of them expected he was the one who would change everything to be just the way they had prayed for and hoped. The one who would teach them how to live. And then instead of that, he ended up getting arrested, horribly beaten, and killed. The head they looked upon was not crowned with gold, but instead with woven thorns. The face they looked upon was not bright and gleaming with oil, but instead was dark and bloodied. He was not seated on a throne, but instead hung from a tree. A cursed way to die. It was all opposite. All wrong.

When I think about conversations with YAGM volunteers from years past and present, it doesn’t matter where we were – in rural Madagascar, in the bustling Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa, or in downtown Mexico City. None of us, in the beginning, expected to find Christ in the faces where he most plainly appeared. One of my dear friends saw him in the face of a missing migrant-man, who was traveling by means of La Bestia, the Beast. An infamous train-track that runs north towards the U.S. border, and whose name comes from the many pieces of infrastructure that seek to break the bodies of those who would try to jump the train. Another of my friends saw Christ in many quiet conversations with his host family’s house-keeper, when there was no one else to talk to, and only in a language his tongue labored to speak. I myself found it in the bent body and wrinkled face of Osvaldo, whose disability a year earlier might have meant I dismissed him out-of-hand. However, never have I seen “the joy and love of Christ” expressed more plainly than in Osvaldo’s denture-d smile. 

So often, when we think of Christ as a ruler, we might be inclined to think about how the “rule” of this world often works. But it was Jesus himself who said, “my kingdom” or kin-dom, as I often phrase it, “is not of this world”. So often we expect power to come from the top down. From our government. From our pulpits. From our teachers. From our parents. But we learn today in Colossians that ours is not a “from-the-top-down” kind of God. Ours is a “from-the-bottom-up” kind of God, and in that God and Christ, all things come into being. It’s difficult to see when simply reading this, but when we share in these words from Colossians, we join them in singing one of the oldest Christian hymns in existence: we sing about a Messiah, who in the image of an ordinary human being, the fullness of God was pleased to reside. A God who suffered death and was buried. Only to rise on the third day. 

 Ours is not a “top-down” kind of God. In Jesus, God took “from-the-top-down” power, put it to death, and when the tomb cracked open showed us a different way. A from-the-bottom-up kind of way. For some, this might seem like weakness, but if we begin to doubt God’s incredible power, I urge us to remember what we have already declared with the ancient Hebrews in our Psalm: the power of the Creator is such that simple speech brings matter into being and causes it to melt away. But Jesus shows us how God chooses to use that power. To revive. To reconcile – which is a fancy way of saying “to bring all things back into the fullness of my love”. 

Christ the King Sunday is an opportunity to celebrate a different kind of power. To celebrate new growth from the bottom-up, even as the top-down way of this world seeks to gray and wither us. It is such a vibrant way to be, to live in a bottom-up world, if we can learn to accept its truth. A world that brings all of creation back into the fold through the divine embrace. A way of life that encourages us to be the very arms reaching out to those whom others attempt to cast out. And it is in this world that we are called to live, to break bread, and above all else to share with one another the joy and love that is Christ’s peace. Ours is a world where, even when it seems that death is all that surrounds us, we can look to the cross and hear Christ say, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Amen

If you would like to view a recording of the sermon, it can be accessed at United in Faith Lutheran Church’s YouTube page here, timestamped at 33’54”:

In peace,

Eric

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A Full Answer

First Reading // Psalm 17:1-9

Gospel // Luke 20:27-38

Grace and peace to you all, in the name of Jesus Christ, our Liberator and our Redeemer, Amen

Sometimes… In fact, a lot of the time, I think ministry can feel like Jesus’ experience at the temple in our Gospel text today. Here come the legal experts, your candidacy commit*, I mean… the Sadducees. And they politely but intensely ask you, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Now, if I were to translate the Sadducees’ question into one that contemporary religious experts might ask, I could phrase it… I don’t know, something like… And this is just off the top of my head here, but… “In the church, therefore, will you be Word and Service or Word and Sacrament? For you can’t possibly be married to both.” That being just one random hypothetical example. 

I digress… As we have heard over the past few weeks, this section in the gospel of Luke tells us a number of stories about different scribes and experts in the law posing various legal and rhetorical questions to Jesus, to test him. Unsurprisingly then, some parts of today’s text are familiar terrain. For example, we’ve heard a good deal already about caring for the widow, the sick, and the poor. However, something unique in today’s Gospel are the people offering the question to Jesus. This reading is the only time the Sadducees are specifically mentioned by name in Luke, and the writer immediately qualifies them as *quote* “those who say there is no resurrection” *unquote*. As you may have noticed, resurrection is a key theme in both their question and in Jesus’ answer, but this resurrection focus should probably be more ascribed to the motivations of the gospel-writer. We should be cautious in over-emphasizing any one aspect of the Sadducees’ thinking, lest we read too deeply into our limited knowledge of this ancient Jewish sect. 

That said, I have spent a lot of time sitting with the Sadducees in this Gospel text over the past few weeks. Their clever legal test is quite the conundrum. In some ways, it reminds me of philosophy’s classic “trolley problem”. In case you haven’t heard it, I’ll pose it quickly. You see that a trolley is traveling downhill at high speed, and then realize with horror that there are three people tied to the tracks in front of the trolley. The brakes are out, and the trolley can’t be slowed before it hits them. However, within reach you notice a rail-switch – a lever – that would move the trolley onto a second track just before it hits the people. You have enough time to pull the switch and save the three who are trapped, but then you realize the second track also has a person tied to the rails. The classic question is: Do you pull the switch? Do you let the trolley hit the three, or pull the lever and save them, even though it would mean taking responsibility for hitting the person on the other track? . . . My answer to this question is usually an irritated groan. Yeah yeah, it’s a clever philosophical test, but ultimately someone’s getting crushed. It feels like an impossible question to answer. And there is central issue of the Gospel today. What do we do with impossible questions? Why do people ask them and what is the real question here? Do we take the Sadducees’ test at face value? Or is the real meaning hidden behind their question? 

First, let’s consider the scene. Jesus is teaching at the temple in these readings. For the people of the time, the temple was a place where authority and right-ness of teaching were consistently brought into question by experts in the law. The fact that Jesus is teaching there, being questioned by those very experts, and that he has garnered quite a crowd of listeners is noteworthy. It’s noteworthy because it means Jesus has begun to get a reputation for his thinking and his wisdom. But this wisdom is a subversive one, an unconventional one. Now, we should also pay attention to the kind of questions being asked of Jesus – problem after problem, all of them about authority and power. And all of them with frustrating twists. There’s something we can identify with, pastors, professors, and seminarians alike; boy do people like to ask back-handed questions . . . Oftentimes, like many of those posed to Jesus here in Luke, these questions are designed specifically to be legal and moral traps. Their goal is to catch you out, to get you to say the wrong thing, to admit your guilt or insufficient wisdom. Surely no one in the room can relate to that. 

However, people usually ask these frustrating questions because they care about something. Very often because they care deeply about something. So if our goal is to get to the motivation behind the question, we should seek to understand what care or concern inspired the words. Sometimes, the care behind our questions comes from a place of selfishness – out of greed or the goal of self-preservation. We can see this in the instance of those who grumbled against Jesus’ meal with Zacchaeus in our reading last week, or in the “but why?” that so often comes up in conversations about expansive inclusion. We tend to prioritize the preservation of our own comfort and power, rather than share it with others . . . In other times, though, the care that motivates a frustrating question can come from a place of genuine concern – for loved ones, or for a community. And in still other times, in fact this may be the most common case, there is a mixture of both – selfishness and genuine concern in the questions we ask. With this in mind, let’s look again at the question of the Sadducees. 

The almost-impossible scenario posed here to Jesus is working on a couple of different levels. The clearest and topmost layer has to do with what life will be like in the resurrection. At this point in history – and honestly maybe nowadays too – it was expected by many people that the resurrection would involve a continuation of life as they knew it. And that helps explain the second layer of the Sadducee’s question, this subject of marriage. The marriage referred to here, of a widow to her widower’s brothers, is called levirate marriage. It was a method for preserving the family-line, life, property, and wealth of the widow in case of a tragic loss. Even though the notion of levirate marriage is not necessarily a method of binding women, it is of course a partial result. It would be wise for us to pause for a moment and recognize, even if it was not by design, the way this system easily erases the autonomy and agency of women. Moreover, if we find ourselves tempted down lines thought that would disparage the culture and laws of our Jewish siblings, past and present, I would encourage us to first examine closely the ways our own laws bind and oppress human beings . . . Back to the question of the Sadducees; it becomes clearer in this context, even it’s if not easier to answer. 

So, we might understand the question, but now comes the harder part: to discern our response to it. Firstly, and most importantly, sometimes no response is owed. When the sanctity of ourselves or our lives is being questioned, we are never obligated to bare our trauma or pain to those who only ask questions designed to harm us. However, if we do see a genuine care within the frustrating question, and if we choose to respond, what do we say? Here we turn to Christ’s answer to the Sadducees. As much as their question might have been posed with hooks designed to catch and snag, the question behind the question seems to be concerned with security. “Alright, teacher” the Sadducees seem to be asking. “How exactly is this whole resurrection thing going work? Who takes care of this woman? Who protects the family property and inheritance?” Jesus’ response respectfully tells them, “You are askin’ the wrong question.” It’s not we who are gonna to be doin’ the defending and securing. The resurrection-life Jesus is talking about, is a different kind of life. God will do the protecting. God will do the securing. And in more than just the essentials. “The day-to-day struggle isn’t going to be an issue anymore,” Jesus says. No, God is doing this in a way that guarantees fullness of life for all involved. In the case of the woman widowed seven times over, the patriarchal bonds of her earthly life are broken. In the kin-dom of God, her well-being is guaranteed; “there is no longer any need for us to marry, protect, and secure one another,” Jesus says. He goes on to say, later in this same chapter, that the only reason widows even need securing in the first place, is because you men have built a world that eagerly seeks to consume and devour her when she is alone. The Gospel says, “No longer.” The divine mother has guaranteed safety and bodily autonomy to her daughters for eternity. 

Our call in this text, as ministers, as Lutherans, and as human beings is to discern the root of challenging questions, and to offer whatever answer heralds the fullness of life which God has promised. And siblings in Christ, if sometimes you feel like you don’t have all the answers to the questions and uncertainties pouring into your mind, rest in the fact that Jesus left questions unanswered too. There’s so much he didn’t say to the Sadducees about what the resurrection world will be like. But in our scripture today, it doesn’t just say that this is the God of our future. No, this is the God of our present. It says our God is of the living. Both those who have lived in the past. And those who are living, right here, right now. Our calling as Christians is the forward movement of the already-and-not-yet. This does not exempt us from working to break the chains of this life that continue to bind and oppress, but rather demands that we begin that justice-work at once. From the pulpit, at the polls, and in the public meeting place. As a response to the fullness gifted to us by God. God’s fullness of life will be for all in the resurrection, yes, but through Christ and the Spirit God’s fullness has already broken into creation. And ours are the hands prying wider the cracks out of which pours the wellspring of God’s righteous and liberating grace. This is a grace that seeps into broken things. A grace that seeps into bones, broken by police brutality . . . A grace that seeps into glass storefronts shattered by hatred . . . A grace that seeps into a broken earth whose skies choke with ash and whose ground holds the memory of so many innocent lives lost . . . And that grace declares, “They are not dead, for to God all of them are alive.”

If you would like to view a recording of the sermon, it can be accessed at LSTC’s YouTube page here:

In peace,

Eric

The Mantle of the Women // Easter 4

First Reading // Acts 9:36-43
Psalm 23
Second Reading // Revelation 7:9-17
Gospel // John 10:22-30

The 1960s were a time of great upheaval in the world; social movements came to a head as advocates denounced the discrimination of systemic racism under Jim Crow. This was happening as rockets carried the first human beings to our planet’s moon, and we were able to look back upon our world and see it for what it was – a small blue marble, floating in the ocean of space. At the same time war raged in Vietnam, another war was raging, one hidden away in laboratories and offices scattered around the world. But this too was a global conflict, one that shook the very foundations of our civilization on this planet. A few scientists were arguing that the planet’s surface was moving. Until this point, most experts thought that the continents and oceans had always been as they were, locked into place, but new evidence was beginning to convince them that they were very wrong. It turned out, that the earth’s crust – what we had known as the thick and solid bedrock of humanity – was not so thick and solid, but in fact was floating. Not on an ocean of water, but an ocean of gooey, plastic rock. 

Maybe you’ve made a crock-pot of nacho cheese before. And if you let it set there, a kind of skin will form over the surface of the cheese, but then if you turn the heat back on, that skin starts to crack and break apart, getting pulled back down into the warm-gooey-goodness and remelts. That’s what scientists were saying happens to, not just mountains and valleys, but whole continents and oceans! This announcement flew in the face of centuries of scientific research. How could you possibly know that from a few cracks and holes in the Earth’s surface, people asked? Some said it flew in the face of God! But by the 70s, nearly all the scientists of the world agreed, the theory was right. The continents moved because of complex forces down in the mantle, the layer below the Earth’s crust. If one of those Apollo astronauts, as they floated out in space, had been able to reach out and pick up our planet when it was the size of a basketball, the crust of our Earth at that size, which seems so strong and thick, is actually thinner than the skin of an apple. Our understanding of the world had just been changed forever, and even today we know very little about the mantle of the Earth, and how exactly it keeps the continents rolling. 

Oftentimes, when we look at the Bible, we don’t realize that we’re viewing it from a height of thirty thousand feet. We see a small piece of a landscape, and in truth it often offers a marvelous view, but we fail to realize that the Bible, its history, its formation and its figures are a whole planet, a world complex and solid, with depth far beyond the flat pages we’re reading. The world of Scripture is one that we know, frankly, about as well as we do our own world and its geology. But today we get a glimpse into its depths, into a story that comes up only once every three years in our lectionary, this year on Mother’s Day. It tends to be that the further you travel from the center of our Christian tradition, the more women appear in our history and narratives. Their stories appear routinely on the edges, partially lost, often cast out and hidden, which has often caused men to believe the women were never there. But like the glowing cracks of rock on the edges of our continents, hidden beneath the seas, one can look closely and see their stories. We find inscriptions on tombs and graves with names and titles, like one that reads “Ammion – presbytera”, the feminine word for priest. Rarer still is the evidence in the Bible itself, holes in a narrative written almost exclusively by men. Of course there are the “Marys”, and in Romans 16:7 we can read, “Junia, outstanding among the apostles”, and then today in Acts we read, “a disciple whose name was Tabitha.” The story of the only woman given the title of “disciple” in the entire New Testament, whose name in the Aramaic is Tabitha, and in the Greek, Dorcas. We still don’t know much about who Dorcas was, but we do know what she did. The devotion expressed by the community of widows shows their intense love and care for Dorcas. The goods and wares these widows display for Peter point to Dorcas as a woman of means and skill in artisanry. And what of these widows? In the ancient world, widows with wealth and property might retain them, but only a tiny group of the population lived with any real disposable income. For the rest, especially widows, separated from the men which were the primary means towards power and any financial security, life was tenuous. There is a reason that widows are often pointed out as requiring special care and attention in Scripture. 

We read that Dorcas “was devoted to good works and charity”, but the Greek implies this was not occasional, but a continuous action of good works and charity to her community. In writing on the text this week, Professor Raj Nadella notes that whereas other benefactors in the New Testament are stingy with their giving, as in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, or in the case of men assigned the title of deacon elsewhere in Acts, we hear little of their actual ministry. Dorcas, evidently without the same formal title, is doing the work of a deacon in her community, and is doing it in abundance. Mother’s Day is a holiday fraught with challenges, especially for a preacher presenting masculinity, okay in spite of my red nails… Not everyone has a relationship with their mother worth celebrating. Motherhood carries with it twisted expectations of women’s bodies, and their role in our world. Not all bodies are blessed with the ability to give birth. Not all women want to give birth. But, if I may offer this, Dorcas’ ministry and role as a ministerial leader breaks the mold. By acting as sister and mother to these widows, she takes on a non-traditional motherly role; Mother’s Day is a day for celebrating the incredible women who care for us, yes those who birth us, but those who accompany us and lead us in all the different aspects of our lives. This is a congregation who has called multiple female pastors, has many women active in leading and teaching this church. I myself would not be here without the women of this congregation and the women pastors of my home congregation who affirmed my call. Dorcas’ ministry is a forge of heat and energy for a community in need, even if those visible on the surface, those sent to tell Peter to heal her, were two men. 

The driving heat of earth’s mantle gives rise to worldly motion. The crust is lighter and so floats, so it retains visibility, but it is the mass and heat of the mantle which drives the motion and life of the overlying plates. We so often scorn the visible effects of the mantle, spewing ash and molten rock onto the surface, but the motion of the plates makes the evolution of life possible, and the effects of volcanic activity produce the very soil which provides lush grapes and good wine. The crust of masculinity above the mantle of the early church continually tries to cover over it, to smother it, to quench its head and hide, bury its presence. But the churning power of the mantle does not draw its energy from above and outside, but from within. From the churning heart and core of our mother Earth. You know, the scientific words for the earth’s layers, like the Bible, comes from the Greek. The crust is called the Lithosphere, from the Greek “lithos” meaning “rock”. The mantle, though, is called the Asthenosphere. And do you know what its given name “asthenos” means? It means “without strength”. “Without strength”, is what they decided to name the force that changes the face of the earth and remakes it. No, today instead we read, “Tabitha, get up.” Amen

In grace and peace on this Mother’s Day,

Eric

Green From Ash // Lent 1

First Reading // Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Second Reading // Romans 10:8b-13
Gospel // Luke 4:1-13


At the end of January, I returned from a journey in the wilderness, though it wasn’t forty days – more like fourteen. And the subtitle for the beginning of my 2022 wasn’t so much “Eric, full of the Holy Spirit, was led into the wilderness”, as it was “uh oh… if Eric has to spend another Chicago January on Zoom, we might need to give them a psych-evaluation”. So amidst the raging omicron variant, I journeyed with a professor and some of my peers to a snow-buried village, pressed against the valley walls of the Glacier Peak wilderness in northern Washington – a place whose name some of you may know by the Evening Prayer written for it in the winter of 1986: Holden Village. The story of how the Lutheran Church acquired Holden is a sermon all its own, but it was given to the church as a run-down copper mine from the World Wars. The primary mission of Holden is to heal the landscape from the mine’s damage – a process that, even with the combined efforts of the Village and the mining company, will take centuries. 

Village though it may be, Holden is far removed from the outside world. It took two planes, a bus, and a two-hour ferry – sixty miles up Lake Chelan – just to get to Holden’s dock at the mouth of the valley. After all that, there was still one final hourlong bus-ride up a winding mountain road, through no less than eighteen active avalanche-chutes. Needless to say, it’s not a place you want to break a leg. To be at Holden is to always be keenly aware of your own vulnerability. And our readings today show us several windows into God’s protecting presence over God’s chosen people. The journey of those people is long. It involves surmounting incredible odds: refugees fleeing famine, who are enslaved and forced into the labor of an empire, freed only to become migrants – walking the wilderness in search of a faraway promised land. The wilderness – true wilderness – is not a hospitable place. You can do a lot to prepare, but it has a way of reminding you where human power ends, and God’s begins. 

As hard as it was for us to believe with six feet of snow on the ground, the dry seasons at Holden are long and intense. Wildfire risk is a part of life there. So when in 2015, a lightning strike sparked a blaze near Wolverine creek down-lake, there wasn’t immediate cause for panic amongst the villagers living in the dense green forest at Holden. As the fire grew, there was concern it might block access to the village road, and so they evacuated nonessential personnel as a precaution, but the blaze was staying close to the lake, and burning relatively slowly. And then the weather changed. In a couple of days the fire exploded in size, and jumped the road that should have been a fire-break. The village was now in need of serious protection. As the Wolverine Fire clawed its way up the valley, fire crews prepared for its arrival. Holden’s buildings were covered like giant presents in fire-resistant wrapping paper, sprinklers were set up on porches, and smaller fires were even intentionally set to burn the fuel around the village so that when the fire arrived, it would hopefully burn around Holden, rather than through it. And the village had one other trick up its sleeve – the Rain Birds. Think about a garden sprinkler, you know, the *chu – chu – chu – ch-ch-ch-ch-ch*. Each of the Rain Birds is like one of those, but with a firehose feeding it, instead of the hose in your garden. The massive amount of water they spray literally changes the air, creating a dome of humidity and dropping the temperature by dozens of degrees. And so, after three terrifying weeks, through some combination of the skill of the fire-crews and a measure God’s grace, the shield held. The lush valley walls had been reduced to a terrain of blackened spires, but Holden Village had been spared, a green jewel set into a landscape of ashes. 

Before the fire, you might not have been able to tell that the mountainsides carpeted with dense green trees and brush were sick. But they were. For the centuries since the indigenous peoples were purged from the landscape, it had not been allowed to burn, so that, rather than a patchwork-quilt of meadow, grassland, and different types of forest, the land had grown up tree upon tree – tightly packed, each fighting for light against its encroaching neighbors. So then, when the fire did happen, it couldn’t be stopped – starved for so long, it ate everything and left the land bare. The world, which we have pretended for so long to be under our control, has begun to push back against our power. The combination of longer dry seasons from a warming climate and overgrown landscapes are resulting in more and more megafires. The fear of losing control over what we believe belongs to us – our land, resources, and borders – is feeding the rise of authoritarianism across the globe and has again sparked war in Europe. I always said growing up that Lent was my favorite church season, but man, Lent is supposed to be forty days, not three years… Yet, here we are again, looking out over the wilderness. 

Now I can’t turn stone to bread, but when given the choice between trusting that God can fix this mess, and staking out whatever claim I can to make my bit of wilderness a bit cozier… it’s a lot easier to take and hoard than it is to trust and have faith. Yet, it’s precisely in moments like these where my thoughts return to Holden – a community of people, of whom many have difficult relationships with God and the church, who have come to live together in Christian community. Who have come together to listen to and care for the land and one another. The view of the landscape at Holden is dominated by three enormous hills called “the Tailings”, piles of toxic mining waste hundreds of feet high. These scars on the land are a daily reminder of the work yet to be done, a reminder that Holden only exists because of people who tore into the mountain for no other reason than to take. Yet it was the commitment of Holden to restore the landscape, that meant people were out there to save that bit of forest when the Wolverine Fire came through. That surviving jewel of green is a place now for the forest to begin growing outward again, and indeed it has begun to grow out and up the mountain slopes. New patches of green emerge each year, and the first trees have even begun to take root into the toxic piles of the Tailings themselves – reaching down into the earth to heal and give new life.  

The example of Holden reminds us that the way we build resiliency is by leaning on one another, trusting that God will work in and through us to restore and bring new life. Many times throughout the journey of God’s people, we find them presented with a choice – a choice that Jesus too was given by the devil in the Gospel – a choice between trying to take power for ourselves, or choosing to trust in God’s power. Alone, the choice is hard. But we aren’t meant to make the choice on our own. Even Jesus, the Son of God was not one, but is always three – God, Christ, and Spirit together in the wilderness. We aren’t meant to do this alone, but in community. We can do a great deal through God, amidst seemingly impossible odds – that’s the whole message of Lent – looking to the impossible gift of life brought by a cross which should only have brought death. Like the community at Holden, this Christian body is able to bring life to a landscape and people in need of renewal and care, not apart from the world, but a part of the world. Lent is a reminder that the wilderness is not just a place of isolation, but a place for coming together in eager and resolute anticipation of new life from the ashes. Amen 

Peace be with you, as we journey the wilderness,


Eric

A Eulogy In-Between // All Saint’s Sunday

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a

Gospel Reading: John 11:32-44

Greetings in Christ to you, dear people of God, on this especially humbling All Saint’s Sunday,

 . . . This week I found myself thinking back to a day a couple of years ago, when I was a live-in assistant at a community for dis-abled adults in Argentina called El Arca. The oldest member of our family was a seventy-two-year-old man named Osvaldo, Osvi for short. One part of our daily routine at the home was a period of rest after lunch, followed by afternoon tea. So each day, after a very welcome nap, we assistants would get everyone up for the meal. 

Many afternoons when I went to wake Osvi, he would already be out of bed, singing, laughing, or working at his desk, in a bedroom which was covered entirely with the blue and gold of his favorite futbol club. On this day though, he wasn’t up yet, so I knocked on his door and asked the customary “Permisso?” before entering.. I moved into the dark room, the shade still drawn over the window, and heard no response as I said, “Osvi.. Boquito mio.. Es tiempo para levantarse.. – Buddy.. It’s time to wake up..” Still hearing nothing, I clicked on the light to reveal that familiar room of blue and gold. Even the bedsheets and quilt bore the colors. Now, Osvi could be a hard sleeper sometimes, and I repeated the wake-up call as I moved closer to his bed. No response. As I got up next to him now, I furrowed my brow, and felt my stomach sink a little bit. Like I said, Osvi could be a hard sleeper, but man.. He was out today. On top of that, he has a very thin frame, and while sleeping he doesn’t have his dentures in, so his gaunt face looks even more so. What’s even worse is that his eyes don’t quite close when he sleeps, so he’s got these little slits of white for eyes, and now I panic for a moment. I can’t see any movement of his chest. I shake his shoulder a bit, saying, “Osvaldo?? Osvi, Che – es tiempo para levantar – Bud. It’s time to get up.” I shake him again, a little harder now, definitely panicking and suddenly feeling really sweaty. And just as I am about to call out to one of the other assistants in full panic, I hear an “Ahhhhhhhhhhh..” as Osvi lets out a sigh and rolls over, sluggishly waking to the world. “Ay, por DIOS – good GOD”, I remember saying, and storming out of the room to laugh off my remaining fear to one of the other assistants. 

Now, Osvi’s little Lazarus moment ultimately gave us all a good laugh that afternoon, and another chuckle to me as I thought back on it this week. However, in our readings for today, it’s not laughing, but tears.. that we find again and again throughout the scriptures. . . . Yet, they’re also mixed with words like “rejoice” and “be glad.” What a strange day isn’t it? All Saint’s Day? This mix of life and death, sadness and joy. I suppose that’s what you get when you add in a reading from the book of Revelation though, huh? You know, a funny thing about Revelation is that in Spanish bibles it’s known by another name: “apocalipsis”. Love that. Nothing says “Good News” like ending the Bible with the apocalypse. But that word, “apocalypse”, which seems to come up all too often in news and conversation nowadays has a very different meaning in the biblical sense. It comes from a Greek word which means to peel back a layer, to reveal what lies beneath. It’s partly from that “reveal” that we get our English name for the book – “revelation”. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of language throughout apocalyptic literature on the end of the world, that’s true, but it’s much more about revealing a new way of seeing things. About showing a deeper meaning hidden within what we thought we understood. It can be a comforting thing, right? To hear a deeper meaning in the midst of a world that on the surface is often so full of fear and pain. A world which right now groans against the burden of climate change. Against this continued pandemic. Against another year of losing those dear to us. Apocalyptic literature like we read in Isaiah and Revelation was intended to be a comfort for ancient peoples, and for us too – stories of a God working beneath and within all that to bring about our salvation. To “destroy . . . the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; [that God] will swallow up death forever.” That’s the whole thing behind the Messiah right? That our God would save us, God’s own people, from the unbelievable brokenness of our own messiness.  

The question often on my mind for the last eighteen months then, is so what the heck happened? We’re supposed to be the people of God founded in this community in Christ, right? Where new life has broken into the old world. And maybe like some of you, after the first year of the pandemic had passed, and as the vaccine rollout began, I was starting to feel like maybe this was possible; that our rescue and salvation were close at hand – my aging family members were finally fully vaccinated, and my own first dose was on the calendar. 

Then, on the week of my birthday last April.. even as my own arm was still sore from the shot, I received a WhatsApp message from Flor, one of the Argentinian assistants at El Arca. A number of folx in the community – despite an abundance of care, had finally tested positive. Osvi was one of them. Even before I got to the part of the message saying he had been hospitalized, I knew that the outlook wouldn’t be good. For someone as old and weak as Osvi was, the best practice was prevention, not treatment. As is often the case when hardship arrives, I prayed more that week than I had in months. Monday came and went with a blur of emotions amidst my normal classes. On Tuesday we got another text from Flor – Osvi’s condition had worsened. I remember praying that he would see his own birthday on that Wednesday. His was that same week, only two days before my own. The day came and went. And then Thursday morning on the 15th of April, the news came. Though with the help of a ventilator, Osvi had made it to seventy-three, and then passed in the early hours of the next morning. . . . 

“‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’” 

. . . Or so we are told Mary said. “Where is the God of Isaiah now?”, I imagine she wondered. Where is the, quote “LORD for whom we have waited”, unquote? I imagine many of us have felt that. Over the last two years, or in some other part of our lives. God knows . . . that I felt it that week this past April, and many times since . . . We’re told that when Jesus heard and saw this grieving for Lazarus, that he was “greatly disturbed”. But a truer translation might be that he felt anger. Some scholars have said that it was an anger at those around him for their lack of faith, but one of my professors this week offered a different understanding. What if Jesus was angry at death? At disease and sickness and the unfairness of it all? . . . Now, the “four days” mentioned in the Gospel text are important – Jews believed the soul of a person remained around the body for three days before leaving to the heavenly realms. It was on the day when the miracle should have no longer been possible, the fourth, that Lazarus was resurrected. And as miraculous as it is, it wasn’t exactly the be-all-end-all, was it? Lazarus wasn’t raised immortal – we can’t find him in some market in Jerusalem today to ask him how it happened. He had to die again. Jesus’s “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” was offered to Mary not just as a promise of the now, but also of the future. The Apostle Paul says that we Christians are an “already, and not yet” people. And I wish with all my might that I could make sense of this “already and not yet” sort of day, but I can’t. Except to point us again towards the Christ, both above us and within our midst. 

If I had to point to one person in my life who best exemplified Jesus’s joy, it would undoubtedly be Osvi. Never have I known a person to live in such genuine gladness – and the hundreds of other people who have met him would say exactly the same. Christ’s own face shone in the grin of that bent and fragile man – who, at the sight of a friend or neighbor, would often smile so broadly that his dentures popped right out of his mouth. Since Osvi’s death, I have found myself more than once struck with the thought of him setting his eyes on Jesus for the first time. I’ve said more than once now, that while I don’t imagine there are dentures in heaven, I’d give a lot just to see how far they’d fly as he rushed to embrace the Messiah.  That is the bitter-sweetness of All Saint’s, dear people of God – knowing those we love are both present and apart from us, until the kin-dom of God comes crashing back into Creation. In the midst of the evil in this strange between-time, we are to look not just at, but for the Christ present in our neighbor, however hidden that Christ may seem, even as we cling to the promise of how the story will end. . . “God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away . . . ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’”

Amen and Amen

Photo Credit: Flor Carabajal

In peace to you and to all whom we remember on this day,

Eric

In the Midst of the Messiness

First Reading: Genesis 2: 18-24

Psalm 8

Gospel: Mark 10: 2-16

For the moment, let’s put a pin in all that adultery talk and come back round to it after bit. Last summer, after spending the first 8 months or so of the pandemic quite isolated from everyone and everything else, my friend Jacob, the executive director of a camp where I was working at the time, came to the staff with quite the treat. There was a man we’ll call Isaac, who had a relationship with Jacob through a hunting outfitter. It turns out Isaac had offered an invitation to Jacob and our summer staff to come and stay with him for a few days on his property. That “property” turned out to be 11,000 acres of land along a mountain valley in the front range of the Rockies. We were absolutely floored. More than that though, probably because of the combination of the isolation and endless routine resulting from the pandemic, we really knew what a gift it was to do something like this. So many of the experiences on that trip are still deeply holy to me. The Psalmist this week certainly seems to share in my wonder at the majesty we’re blessed to find in the natural world sometimes. 

My most profound memory of that week, though, was actually our last evening on Isaac’s property. We were all inside the kitchen of the tiny, century-old inn that served as the ranch-house, preparing dinner, when Isaac pulled up and said, “Everybody come on. Get in the truck. I want to show you something.” We told him, “Dinner will be ready any minute.” And then Isaac said calmly but sternly, “Turn off the oven. It’ll be fine till we get back.” Now Isaac was an imposing guy – middle aged, strong-bodied, tall, and though he was quiet, he had a power to his voice that, even after only a few words, you knew to take seriously. So we piled into Isaac’s pickup, finding some buckets and a big bag of feed pellets as we did so, and started rolling down the valley towards the front of the ranch. Isaac – with orchestral music, no less, playing over the Ford F-250’s radio – tells us that we’re going to be hand feeding the herd of cattle he just brought into pasture for the night. As we round a bend, and the cattle come into view, Isaac cuts the engine and we roll quietly to a stop. Fast forward five minutes, and here’s the scene: 

The wet grass, the cattle, and the crisp mountain air filled our noses. A few of us, buckets in hand – rattling with the sound of some feed, are on our knees, making our way knee-step by knee-step through the tall grass of the pasture. The cattle, bells clanking lightly round their necks, aren’t all that used to people, and so are skittish – clearly wanting the food, but hesitating to get too close. So as we encourage an animal or two at a time, we talk in low, calm voices – the cool grass wet with dew brushing our clothes, the humidity condensing out of our collective breath into wisps of fog all along the valley. The sound of a slight breeze filled the air, rustling through the grass and off away into the tree branches on the valley slopes. The soft clomp of the cattle’s feet, and the quiet burble of the stream can be heard running along the center of the pasture. And all of this is seen through the deep purple veil of those last few minutes of daylight, as the sun, long hidden by the mountain peaks, drew nighttime over the whole valley.  

Now, just as I am getting within arm’s reach of the first animal, I feel my right knee go into something soft, and quite wet, and very very warm. But the bull’s neck is craned, his nose nearly to my hand now – I don’t have time to think about whatever it is I’ve just kneeled in. So I move one last, small step towards him as the bull timidly takes the pellets from my hand. His nose is soft and cool on my palm, but that quickly gives way to the warm and very slimy tongue that I feel against my fingers. As I ease the pellets into his mouth and pull my hand back to move to the bucket for more, his large flat teeth rasp against my knuckles. The tension has been broken now, the other cattle, seeing things are safe, are won over by their eagerness for food, and so over the next few minutes we all empty our buckets, handful by handful, into the wet and rough and slimy mouths of these beautiful creatures. 

It really was an incredible experience – certainly the closest thing to a St. Francis moment I’ve ever had. But romantic as it might seem in my telling, it wasn’t a “petting zoo” experience, was it? By the end of it my knuckles were raw, my back was sore, both of my knees were covered in… freshly digested grass… Yet, in that moment I felt more firmly connected to God’s presence than I had in the eight months before and the fourteen since. Why?  

Throughout all of our readings today, we hear words pondering the nature of intentional and Godly relationship. Relationship between humankind and Creation, relationship between humankind and God, and relationship between human beings. What does that mean for us? Maybe some of you spent more time intentionally outside over the past year. Many of you likely spent more time with some of your loved ones. Maybe what felt like too much time with some of your loved ones. (pause) Maybe some of you were kept from spending time with your loved ones, or harder still, lost someone dear to you. Maybe the pets and animals around us helped lift you up when the people of the world were too much, or too far away. Our readings speak of relationship, because relationship is the foundation of what it is to be created by God. 

However, to be in relationship is also a colossal challenge. It opens us up to the risk of pain and hardship. Of loss. God knows this. God knew in giving humanity free will in the garden that it meant risking sin breaking into the creation God had made. Yet God created anyway, and indeed we see in Christ just how far God would go to restore the relationship we had broken. To take on relationship is to pour love into a central part of ourselves and others. Something that connects us to everything around us. Perhaps that’s one reason for why Jesus emphasizes marriage so bluntly in our Gospel text; that the emphasis isn’t on the laws or the “cans” and “can’ts”, but the love between the people. That still leaves many unanswered questions though, I admit – questions not easily answered. I myself am a child of divorce. I have dear friends who have heard this text used to further ensnare those already trapped in abusive relationship. Yet note that strangely the gospel ends, not in critique, but in the blessing of children. I believe that to wrestle with the text is important, and quintessentially Lutheran. Quintessentially human too, I’d argue. Take Isaac, for example. The first night we arrived at his ranch, after all the other staff had gone to bed, Jacob and I were sitting with him around a campfire. 

To our surprise and horror, he told us of the necessary reality of disease – that he doubted the severity of this novel coronavirus, and that, in any case, pandemics were a part of life; sometimes they happen, and sometimes people die. Now I would learn in time that Isaac had experienced profound loss and pain, which might have encouraged him to think with such cold logic. That said, there is no excuse for his words – and I still wrestle with them from time to time. However, his wisdom also brought us to the valley that night, to the cattle, to rooting ourselves in the creation from which we came, not ignoring the crap on our knees or our red knuckles, but tentatively reaching out to another, again and again – that we might find God in the midst of that messiness. May God continue to bind us together in relationship and in love as we navigate that mystery. Amen

This sermon was recorded this past Sunday during worship at Irving Park Lutheran Church. If you would like to watch the recording of the message, you can go to this link, time-stamped at 20:04:

https://youtu.be/AZ-orsoSW3c?t=1204

Fair warning – the audio quality is less than ideal.



In Grace and Peace,


Eric

A Eulogy That Shouldn’t Have to Be

When last January, it became clear that the novel coronavirus was going to change our lives and our world, five grandparents quickly came to my mind. One lives in Wamego, KS, two more in Paducah, KY, one in Appleton, WI, and the last, a continent away in Buenos Aires.

In many ways, I am blessed to have made it so far having lost so little. When last week I received my first vaccine, I nearly wept in the back of that Walgreens. But today I received a text I’ve been dreadfully fearful of, even though I had felt in recent days that the danger may finally have passed.

Osvi, amigo mio, no tengo las palabras para describir el impacto de tu vida. //

Osvi, my dear friend, I don’t have the words to describe the impact of your life.

En tu sonrisa, viva la alegria de Cristo. //

In your smile, lives the joy of Christ himself.

El hombre de mil amig@s. //

The man of a thousand friends.

Que descanses en paz. //

May you rest well.

The world contains a little less joy today, in the wake of your passing. I will spend the rest of my days treasuring the infinite good you managed to pour into Creation, in spite of incredible odds, but today I lament the loss of a family member who, like so many, was unjustly taken from this world by the evil of this pandemic.

Though God has prepared a new seat at the heavenly table, we have lost a seat at ours. I pray that your spirit and the Spirit Sophia will accompany us in this time of mourning and cherishing your memory.

Osvi, I suppose you won’t have your dentures in heaven, but the thought of them popping out when first you set eyes on Christ, el amigo tuyo, would be quite the sight. The bitterness of my tears is made sweeter at the thought. Perfect smile met with perfect smile.

I do not know why you had to go this way, but I find myself left with a small flame of faith, and the words of your dearest friend:

Creo en Dios, Creo en Dios
Como creo en la amistad y en el amor
Como creo en el camino
En el hombre en el destino
Más allá de todo creo en Dios

Creo en Dios, Creo en Dios
Como creo en la lluvia y en el sol
Como creo en la mañana,
En el viento, en la montaña
Más allá de todo creo en Dios

Yo creo en Dios
Más allá de mi alegría
Y también del dolor
Yo creo en Dios
Y no sé si muchas veces
Yo merezco su amor

Creo en Dios
Creo en Dios
Como creo en los hijos y en el sol
Como creo en el consuelo
En la tierra y en el cielo
Más allá de todo creo en Dios

I believe in God, I believe in God
Like I believe in friendship and in love
Like I believe in the journey
In the mankind in the finale
Beyond it all I believe in God

I believe in God, I believe in God
Like I believe in rain and in the Sun
Like I believe in the morning
In the wind, in the mountain
Beyond it all I believe in God

I believe in God
Beyond my joy
And also my pain
I believe in God
Though I don’t know if many times
I’m deserving of His love

I believe in God, I believe in God
Like I believe in the children and the Sun
Like I believe in the redemption
Of the earth and the heavens
Beyond it all I believe in God

To read more about Osvi, click the image above, which will take you to a piece I wrote two years ago, while still living at El Arca.

Until we meet again. //

Hasta la mañana, Boquito mio.

ESMA ~ EEUU // Worlds Collide

When folks first heard I’d be spending my year in Argentina, I, like so many of my YAGM siblings, received some worried looks. At least one person even asked me, “don’t they have a dictatorship?”

(No, they don’t.)

But there was a subtle fear that trickled out of the fabric around us before we left for our years of service that most of us volunteers likely haven’t forgotten. This worry and concern for the danger of anything foreign, while ignoring the danger amidst us, is such a common United States mentality. Matthew 7: 5 comes to mind in hindsight.

Now the reality is, back in the 1970s, Argentina did have a dictatorship. A military coup (Junta) took over the government, and what ensued left a scar on both Argentina and her people, one that endures to this day. Given political power to “annihilate” the left-wing political factions of the nation, armed government soldiers and police began assassinating, and kidnapping any person who opposed the current government. They were taken from their homes, from their work, from the streets, in unmarked vehicles by federal soldiers and police. What followed was a decade-long cycle of kidnapping, imprisonment, torture, and murder of between 15,000-30,000 political “dissidents” against the Junta.

The majority of these people were in their twenties and thirties – a political movement, a generation, cut off at the knees.

Each Thursday, the aging mothers of these desaparecidos (“disappeared”) children fill the plaza before the Casa Rosada, before the seat of government, and speak the names of their lost loved ones. As we watched them march one rainy August afternoon, now old, supported by others, hair white as the handkerchiefs which represent their movement, the feeling was one of confusion, sadness, disbelief.


Now I find myself, just two years later, reading of militarized police and federal soldiers taking young adults like myself off the street into unmarked cars. I watch videos of their friends fearfully asking what they’ve done, why this is happening. I watch soldiers beat a veteran of their own country down, for asking a question. I watch mothers stand in the street, arms linked together, protecting the young people behind. Some of these stolen people protest for equity – something our president calls “radical-left”, a movement he eagerly admits hoping to destroy. Others are simply going about their lives when they’re taken.

And I’m shocked. Sad. Scared. Because this is what my family, my friends, strangers, were worried might happen to myself and my YAGM peers as we lived, worked, put down roots all over the world. And yet so many now ignore the frightening reality of our home country. My heart has been heavy, in recent days, as this reality washes over me. When I think of Argentina, I think of warm empanadas and mate, given abundantly by people who owed me nothing, yet gave me so much love.

Brokenness and evil come from willing ignorance of people, not from their differences. I implore that we find the Christ in our neighbor, all across the lands and seas of a world which feels so large, and yet is such a fragile refuge in an ocean of stars. I pray that we wake up. I feel as though there is a storm on the horizon.

//

Ahora buscarme, solo dos años despues, leyendo de policía militarizada y soldados federales que estan abductando los jovenes en la calle y los poniendo en autos sin notificados. Ví videos de sus amigo@s con temor preguntando, “Qué hizo? Por qué es esto pasando?” Ví soldados del nacíon golpean excombatientes de la misma nacíon, solo porque los hizo una pregunta. Algun@s de estos desaparecid@s protestan por igualdad – una cosa que el presidente dice es del “izquierda-radical”, un movimiento político que el es re honesto que quiere destruir.

Y siento sorpresado. Triste. Tengo miedo. Porque esto es que mi familia, mis amig@s, extraños fueron preocupad@s que va a pasar a mi y mis amig@s de YAGM durante nuestr@s vidas, trabajos, y pusemos raízes a través de todo del mundo. Y a lo mismo tiempo no miramos al realidad que es pasando en nuestro paíz. Mi corazon es re pesado en estos dias, en el centro de este realidad. Cuando pienso de argentina, pienso de empanadas calientes y mate, da con generosidad de la gente que a mi tiene ningun deuda, y a lo mismo tiempo a mi dio tanto amor.

El quebrado y el mal viene de ignorancia conciente de gente, no de sus diferencias. Pido que buscamos El Cristo en el otro, en todos lados, a través del tierras y oceanos de un mundo enorme, pero a lo mismo tiempo es un mundo tanto pequeño en todo del espacio de este universo. Pido que despertarnos. Siento una tormenta en el horizonte.

Tormenta_Sunset

With fear for the past, and hope for the future,

Eric

 

The One About Anger // Volcan-Theology

On a sunny-but-cool spring morning in late April of 2017, myself and a couple dozen of my colleagues found ourselves slowly winding through the excavated streets of the Roman city of Pompeii, listening to our guide discuss various aspects of the history and culture that had been preserved in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius’ famous eruption nearly two-thousand years ago. As we turned down a small side street, I glanced to my left, and through the ruined stone of a long-since-forgotten structure, was met with the sweeping upward-curves of the volcano, framed perfectly by ancient walls. And in the foreground, growing from the dark soil that still filled the ruined plot, were the waving blooms of bright-red poppies. Struck by the symbolism, I lifted my camera, and twisting the lens into focus, snapped a picture.

A few hours later, I and a few of my friends would be panting heavily, our deep breaths matching the rhythm of loose stone crunching under our feet step-by-step, as we crested the final slope up onto the rim of Vesuvius itself. The warmth of the morning sun had not held out, and the grey sky above even elicited from us exclamations of alarm, as white flecks of ash fell lightly onto our faces, only for us to realize they were, in fact, snowflakes. With the mountain steaming quietly to my left, I hiked round to the far side of the caldera, and stood there in wonder, looking out onto the cities of Napoli and Torre del Greco, whose urban fabric tightly hugged the flanks of the mountain below, even as the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum sat in their midst, warning quietly of threats yet to come.

Now this week, it was Wednesday night, and I was laying in bed. My eyes were focused upward onto the dark ceiling of my bedroom, as the tumult of the world around us again found itself raging within me. I’m sure many of you know the feeling by now. The burning uncertainty, the anxiety, the stress, so – much – stress, as the prayers I offer up to the Lord during the day don’t seem to be enough anymore to ease the frustration welling up within me. For someone who is so often emotional, I’ve been remarkably stone-faced over the past few months. And that has worried me. You see, I’m not an angry person. I’ve never been able to hold on to grudges, even when I’ve desperately wanted to. I tend flee from anger. But as this pandemic crisis continues, and as I witness the destruction it wreaks on so much that we hold dear, I’ve felt such fury, but then, before I can let the anger go, it will suddenly recede deep within me. Then, sometime later it will burst back upward, bubbling even higher and closer to my mouth, and then again, for some reason unable to escape, it will dive back down to the depths. I felt it well up suddenly this week as I read these words from our Psalm for the first time: “For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us just as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid heavy burdens upon our backs. You let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and water,” and then I reached the next few words: “but you brought us out into a place of refreshment.” And my anger fell back within me.

All across our planet, we find volcanoes, these stone vents for the power that still churns beneath Earth’s surface. I’ve always been fascinated with them, if my romanticizing Vesuvius wasn’t enough of a clue. In particular, I’m amazed at the way some mountains, like the Hawaiian Islands, or Mount Etna in Sicily, release magma fluidly and constantly, while others, like Vesuvius, or Mt. Saint Helen’s here in the United States, explode suddenly with incredible power. If you’ll humor my metaphor a bit further, I’ve learned over the years that the difference comes from the magma itself. Some liquid rock is very fluid, and hot, with little gas trapped within it, and so it spills out onto the surface, flowing as quickly and as far as gravity will take it. But the rock inside mountains like Vesuvius is different – it’s only slightly cooler, but much more gummy and plastic, and most importantly of all it’s full of trapped gases, so it sticks up beneath the mountain, clogging the vent, and building in pressure until the energy is so great that it bursts outward and upward, in whatever direction it can. Think of the “mentos” and coke experiment we often did as kids – the foam has to go somewhere.

So as I laid there in bed Wednesday night, my anger welling up within me, nearly bursting from my throat in a sound that, for my mother and sister’s sakes I’m glad didn’t erupt from me that night, I thought back onto a conversation from the young-adult study I’ve been a part of for the last eight weeks. Abide, the group is called, taken from the text in John just after our Gospel reading for this week. You see, I recalled that three weeks ago, our Abide groups spoke about the holiness of anger. And it was in that moment for me that everything clicked. You see, so often in the church, and especially I think, as Lutherans, we shy away from our anger. We are afraid to acknowledge that, as a God-given emotion, anger is holy. Anger is good. It certainly can manifest dangerously into hate, and wrath, but so too can any good thing be twisted by brokenness into a sinful thing. Good food into gluttony. Sexual pleasure into lust. But anger, in and of itself, is a blessed thing. This week we read in the Gospel of the Spirit, our Advocate. This Advocate is not arguing in our favor to God, but instead is God pouring God’s-self into us. Walking with us and filling us. Bestowing us with the Godly power we so desperately need to live out Christ’s example. This ancient energy does not come from without, but from within us. And it is powerful, bursting into the world from our hands and voices and bringing newness to the Earth.

When a volcano erupts, it’s the same transformative Spirit power of our planet bursting onto its surface. So often in the Western world, we view fire as evil, but so many cultures and native peoples, and certainly we Kansans, know that fire is a cleansing thing – necessary for the health of the prairie and the things that live upon it. It’s because we as humans try to manipulate that power, rather than celebrate it, that we often find ourselves in the path of its destruction. Look at Pentecost, which comes to us so soon. Fire is the Spirit, and the Spirit is fire. Christ understood that the time after his ascension would not be easy. You can feel the concern, love, and reassurance in his voice this week when we read “‘I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me”. Jesus knows the difficult trials ahead – a world which without Jesus’ physical body can often leave us feeling overwhelmed and forlorn. But Jesus goes on, saying to the disciples and to us, “but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.” In the meanwhile, my dear siblings in Christ, I want to bless your anger. I want to bless my anger. Because yes, if we’re not careful it can level towns and take lives. But the beauty of anger is in its power to transform us. The beauty of our Earth’s volcanic spirit, is that from lava comes new life. The nutrients of that fresh ash and rock yield lush grapes for good wine.

And so I close with a question: Do you know why the poppies at Pompeii struck me so, blowing in that spring breeze years ago? Because the poppy also bloomed one hundred years earlier, at the end of the First World War. A time which saw more death and destruction and unhealthy wrath than perhaps any other in human history. A time which also brought a pandemic, one far worse than ours. And yet, from the churned-up soil of the battlefields of France, came a flower which bloomed so completely and fully, that whole fields and hillsides were covered in nothing but its blossoms. Amen

 

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In anger, pursuing peace,

 

Eric

Indecision // Accompaniment // Emmaus

These last few weeks, I have been wrestling furiously with my own inaction. Because, as at least a few of you can sympathize, it seems like the longer that this pandemic carries on, the harder and harder it has become to do, well… anything. Getting up at the normal time, brushing my teeth and showering, devotions, emails, sermon writing, all of it. Bit by bit, week by week, I have felt my energy draining lower – and lower – and lower… Until this week, when even the core parts of my daily routine and self-care, things that bring me enjoyment, even they began to lose their lift on my spirit.

All the while, the world raced on around me, as we all fight to overcome this virus. This pandemic, which has taken so much from us. And I felt angry – I felt angry that I didn’t know what to do. That I could see injustice and brokenness in the world welling up to the surface in so many black geysers, and yet I felt I had no strength to fight. Now for me, this has been really really hard. Because the biggest revelation in my faith over the last year or so, has been that evil thrives when others are apathetic, and do nothing. And so my brain, my greatest ally, and also my greatest enemy, has been criticizing myself endlessly for not doing enough, for not saying enough, for not being enough. But then this week, as I began to drag my feet again through Sunday or Monday, or maybe it was Tuesday? (let’s be honest, how many of us even keep track of the days of the week anymore?). Well it was sometime early this week, that I stumbled across a realization while digging into our texts – I was struck by a sudden and powerful sense of fellowship with these two disciples on the road.

Over the last couple of years, this Road to Emmaus passage from Luke has become a mainstay in my life. It’s through this story that our Latin American siblings brought the message of “accompaniment” to our church, a message which now serves as the cornerstone of our Global Mission in the ELCA, and it is from this story that the spirit of the YAGM program was born. So of course, I’m going to be a little biased towards it, but the reason that I so love this text is because, until the very end of the story, God’s presence feels all but nonexistent. Now of course for us readers, this text couldn’t be more full of God’s movement among us, but for these two disciples, for Cleopas and his friend, they are feeling as though they are walking alone. Their journey, is the after-Easter slump, but without the Easter. Though I can’t know for sure, I imagine their movements were somewhat sluggish, trudging along, discussing, questioning, lamenting. Their teacher, the one they had hoped was their Messiah, their friend, he was dead, dead and now also missing. The story was over, so it was time to go home.

However, we soon see that while on the way, the resurrected Jesus himself comes among them. The one person these two people would have most wanted, most needed to see. But for some reason, Jesus hides his identity from the disciples, and for a long time while I was growing up, that bothered me about this story. Why would Jesus do that? Pretend to be someone else, so that his sad and grieving friends wouldn’t immediately get to experience the joy of the resurrection. At one point I wondered if Jesus does this just so that he can lecture the disciples on their lack of faith. That really bothered me. At another time I wondered if it was just so Jesus could have a bigger “Taadaa!” moment later. That bothered me too. But then during YAGM’s placement event, a pastor spoke on this text, and placed it in a new light for me. Jesus comes to these disciples through a person they do not expect, gives them deeper knowledge and understanding of God’s loving plan for our world, and in the end God’s holy presence is only revealed to them through the breaking of bread with this, a stranger. You might start to understand how global mission would tie into that message, and if not, that’s okay, though it’ll have to wait for another sermon.

So, this week when I first read through these texts, I originally was met again with God’s loving presence in the face of those I do not expect. But as I read and reread the Gospel lesson, the new meaning that embraced me this week, from looking into this text in the midst of this pandemic, was Christ’s meeting his disciples in the midst of their grief, and their confusion. At Jesus’ asking about their conversation, they stop moving, still and sad, and pour out their lament to this stranger. What struck me particularly this time round were their words: “But we had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” I could ask you all what hopes and dreams of our own have fallen to the wayside recently. Vacations, athletic tournaments, graduations, proms, weddings, time with friends, time with family? This is what so gripped me this week. That Jesus comes to his disciples, though they have lost faith, though they have missed the point, and just listens to them. Walks with them in their uncertainty and their doubt. And then with a strange sort of loving-scorn, that feels a bit like a parent who kneels down with open arms towards their upset child and says, “Oh for heaven’s sake, come here” Jesus offers them yet another explanation of his teachings, just to help them get it.

These disciples missed the signs Jesus had left, telling them he had risen. The signs in the scriptures, and their disbelief at the women’s words from the angel. These disciples were human; how many of us are likely to behave any differently than they had? The world we live in has a way of eating away at faith and hope – sin and brokenness are so very powerful that way. However, God comes to us, in the midst of our worrying or our fear, and listens to us. In Psalm one hundred and sixteen we read this week that God “inclined his ear to me”. How loving. How intimate. That our God would lower God’s-self to hear us, and that each time we fall lower to the ground, God comes closer to us still, even to Earth as one of us, even to die as one of us. This has been the great comfort for me this week, as we continue on in the midst of this draining time.

My mental health, which is so often a gift, has also so often broken me down these last few weeks. Anxiety preventing my uncertain hands from confidently doing the simplest of things. Yet God comes to me, to all of us, always encouraging us to do more, but also always offering grace and love, when we say “today, Lord, I can’t”. The resurrection message for us this week is a constant and eternal outpouring of grace amid the brokenness that grips this world. God’s quiet roadside message of, “I love you. And I walk with you. In all that you do, and all that you cannot. But when you again find the strength to walk further down the road, I will lift you up, and I will joyously pour my love and wisdom into you, my dearest ones. And at journey’s end, in the breaking of the bread, you will see my face, and know that death is but temporary, for through me eternal life has come to all.” Amen

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In peace, here and on the road,

Eric