Don’t Be Afraid (throw the hymnal)

The tragic events of last weekend were never far from my mind this week.

I was delighted to receive this lovely pashmina from one of our Women of the ELCA—which I was easily able to fashion into an orange stole.

Orange in the church, “… a plea and a penance and a proclamation: that … we people of faith… have something to say to the violence of death and destruction. That we have seen, and noticed, and that we are not unchanged, unturned, unmoved, we who are alive.”[1]

One place my mind went this week was to Charleston, South Carolina in June, 2015. To Pittsburgh in October of 2018. To Christchurch, New Zealand just this past March.  Places that now remind us that even as we gather in our houses of worship, our sanctuaries, we are not immune to the violence perpetrated by dangerous people with guns.

I remembered how, particularly after the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, congregational leaders began to talk about how we might protect ourselves when we come together to worship or study or serve. I remember some congregations organizing presentations by the local police.  Conversations about “security teams,” even whether someone should always be carrying a firearm when we’re gathered. About keeping our doors locked tight once everyone is inside worshiping. Maybe you had some of these conversations.

While these conversations were happening, I was serving at little St. Peter in small town Trenton. We noted the conversations, acknowledging that even we weren’t immune to the risk of someone coming and shooting.   And then I read the best piece of advice for worshipers.

Each of us has at hand a heavy object with fairly sharp corners.  Even the most determined shooter might be thrown off guard if 10 or 100 substantial cranberry-colored hymnals came flying at him.  At St. Peter, there’s one man who almost always sits in the balcony, right at the rail. He makes a video recording of the service.  We just agreed that he’d have a stack of hymnals next to him, and if he saw me quickly duck down behind the altar, he’d start pitching them.

Thanks be to God, we never had to use that self-defense system while I was at St. Peter, and I pray that they, nor us, nor any congregation ever will. But that’s how we at St. Peter decided to “be ready.”

In today’s reading, Luke gives us a lot of advice about being ready. We’re supposed to consider our material possessions—if we have too many, they’ll be lost or destroyed, so why not sell what we have and give the proceeds to the poor.  Luke’s Jesus suggests that having fewer material possessions helps us keep our heart ready for God.

Then we’re advised to be dressed and keep our lamps lit, watching for the boss to come in during the middle of the night.    If we can manage to be ready when he gets in from the wedding party—at whatever time that might be, he’ll serve us a middle-of-the-night feast.

And that strange one: “if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into.”

Well, of course he wouldn’t.

But we stand reminded to be on guard against that stealthy thief.

Our dear friend and gospel-writer Luke apparently did not study with my homiletics professor. The Rev. Dr. Hank Langknecht at Trinity Lutheran Seminary would have advised him that one solid example will do; more muddies the water, confuses the listener. Luke, do some editing; choose the BEST of these examples from Jesus.

But we have 3 examples, and hearing them, there’s no question that we’re to be ready.

But what’s not entirely clear, is for what we’re to prepare.

Luke’s watching-for-the-thief example notwithstanding, I think there’s something more than keeping our eyes trained on the door, hymnals at the ready.

Because, we have to go back to the very first verse that I read. Don’t be afraid, … because your Father delights in giving you the kingdom. (Luk 12:32 CEB)

Don’t be afraid.

How easy it would be to let fear rule in our lives.

Not just random shootings, but there are things of which to be afraid everywhere we turn.

Loss of a job; disease or injury; since we’re sending folks back to school today, we might think of students who fear the report card or the teacher conference.

But God says don’t be afraid…because God wants to give us the kingdom.

There’s a rabbit hole for us:   what does giving us the kingdom mean?

I think we can avoid the rabbit hole if we go back to those servants waiting in the night, fully dressed and with lamps lit.  That boss who will come in and be so delighted that they waited up that he’ll head straight to the kitchen, tie on an apron, and whip up a big pot of macaroni and cheese—and bring it to them at the table–along with a nice assortment of beverages and maybe a big fruit salad.

That’s a meal that’s worth waiting for and now you know my idea of the perfect meal…and I think this is a great way to flesh out that brief verse: “don’t be afraid, …because your father delights in giving you the kingdom.”

We’re pretty good at this kingdom meal thing here at Trinity.

Thursday nights our kitchen fills with people who have their aprons tied on and are ready to cook and serve.    And Trinity Hall fills with the kind of people we might expect to be waiting on us if we went out to eat at Frisch’s. I’ve heard those folks sometimes come in early…waiting, ready.  Because they know they’re going to be fed.  And they know they’re in a church, and that the people serving them are church folks. And that we’ll pray for them if they ask. Actually, we’ll pray for them whether or not they ask.

We can’t protect them from all the dangers in their lives, no more than we can protect ourselves from all the things that make us afraid.

But on Thursday nights, when they walk through our doors, we show them God’s love, God’s kingdom.

We give them a meal to feed their bodies.

We visit with them and treat them with respect to feed their psyches.

And we pour God’s love on them to feed their souls.

Be ready for the kingdom of God—God wants to give it to you.

There’s a wonderful piece of wisdom that I first heard from a colleague—pastor Alice Connor.  Its attributed to John Lennon and recently made popular by the 2011 movie “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

“Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.”

I’m not sure that previous sources were using this phrase to talk about God, but it sure works.

Don’t be afraid—in the end, God will see to it that everything’s alright. Watch for it.



Where is God?

I woke up early this morning and had a little extra time in my mourning schedule. So I scrolled through Facebook for a bit and ran across something I hadn’t heard of before. A priest I know in California has shared a post from her bishop that read “I don’t want to bless any more orange stoles.” I hadn’t ever actually heard of an orange stole…orange isn’t one of our normal liturgical colors. But the tone of the post told me an orange stole isn’t going to be for a happy occasion.

It turns out, in 2013 a movement arose after the shooting death of young Hadiya Pendleton in Chicago: the “Wear Orange” movement. A few years later some Episcopal priests decided to raise up the movement in their congregations. So a priest near Cleveland who has some sewing skills started making orange stoles to be worn on the Sunday after “wear orange day” in early June. She couldn’t keep up with the demand. She described the use of the color orange for a liturgical garment this way:

“This orange stole is not a statement that I want you to see me. It is a plea and a penance and a proclamation: that we have something to say about this, we people of faith. That we have something to say to the violence of death and destruction. That we have seen, and noticed, and that we are not unchanged, unturned, unmoved, we who are alive.”[1]

After I read about the orange stole thing, I thumbed around to find out more about the Wal-Mart shooting in El Paso yesterday morning. 20 dead, 26 wounded by an angry young man. But then I noticed another article. It turns out that just hours before I read, in DAYTON OHIO, another shooting had happened. 9 dead, 24 wounded. The odds are good that someone hearing this sermon this morning has some connection with someone who is impacted by that shooting so close to home.

As I prayed about who we are as a society that can’t seem to do anything to stop this kind of violence, I realized that just like Mary and Martha, victims of my laryngitis a couple weeks ago, another carefully prepared sermon was going to be left on the cutting room floor.

This morning you were supposed to join me in considering what it means to amass worldly goods and how we might be faithful in using the gifts with which God has blessed us.

But instead, early this morning, I turned back to our scriptures for today.

Usually by the time I offer you my sermon I will have spent many hours studying the text I’ve chosen and how God might use that text, through me, to speak to your life, your situation, your needs. Which is what I had done with today’s reading from Luke.

I have NOT spent those many hours studying our reading from Colossians, but that’s where I was drawn early this morning; to consider what it means for Christians to live in our sinful world in 2019.

This morning all I had to work with was my horror and grief at these events and a few notes I had jotted during my meeting with fellow clergy a couple weeks ago.

One thing I had jotted down was “where is God?”

Some people look at tragedies like these and wonder how we can follow a God who lets such things happen. Shouldn’t God be powerful enough to stop a gunman from opening fire in a crowded place like a busy Saturday morning shopping center or a Saturday night nightclub?

My answer to that question is that God is just as dismayed, or more dismayed, by these acts than we are. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to imagine that God may be rethinking God’s commitment to free will.

Free will is the lens through which I view these things.

God’s great preference would be for us to live together in peace and harmony. But in order for us to be fully human, to lead meaningful lives, God created us with free will. And along with free will comes our propensity to sin.

God has also given us plenty of teaching on how to best live with our gift of free will, to choose the better. The 10 commandments come to mind.

Colossians counsels that as followers of Jesus we should behave differently, avoiding evil actions and words. We are to clothe ourselves “…with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

And I think that most of the time, most of us are able to avoid impurity, evil desire and greed and can speak without anger, malice and slander. But perhaps that new self, in the image of our creator, needs to do more.

So I come back to the question “where is God?”

God is in the tears of those who watch their friends and family members and total strangers being gunned down.

God is with the first responders who come in to do their jobs the very best they can.

This one may be hard to hear, but God is even with those shooters, who, although grasped by evil, are still, like us, flawed children of God. Jesus died and rose even for their sins.

God is here with us and if we are a new self in the image of our creator, we look to God for what this violence might mean in our lives.

For each of us a response looks different.

Prayer is certainly a response that each of us can and should make.

For me, the response was an early-morning change in how I would preach God’s word to you today.

Here at Trinity we’re making space for voting on Tuesday. Perhaps as voters, each time we consider the ballot before us we can study what we’re being asked to vote for and pray about making a selection that might begin to shift the societal norms and expectations that allow rampant gun violence.

Maybe I need an orange stole.

Maybe you’re able to write letters to lawmakers.

God is in each faithful response to evil and violence, whether simple or grand.

I’ve had a hard morning, and one thing I promise as your pastor is that I’ll always tell you the truth. So here it is:

I’m mad at God for making me re-write my sermon this morning instead of enjoying a relaxing start to my Sunday.

I’m mad at our society that can’t seem to stop people from killing other people with guns and cars and whatever else they can think of.

I’m mad that racism is still rampant as I worry about all the young black men in my neighborhood—including my future son-in-law—who live knowing that no matter how upstanding they are they still have a higher chance of becoming some kind of victim than my own white son does.

I worry about my daughter and all those of you who are getting ready to go back into schools, which we know are places at high risk for gun violence.

And I boot up my computer and see my background—a picture of our tiny granddaughter. Whose skin won’t be white. And I worry about what the world will have in store for her.

When I started typing this morning at 5:00, I made a mistake. But I didn’t change it and I’m very glad auto-correct didn’t either. Way back in the first sentence of this sermon, I talked about my morning schedule. But I typed the letters m-o-u-r-n-i-n-g. An extra vowel that gave a completely different and very appropriate meaning.

Mourning comes first.

And after our time of mourning and deep sadness,…what’s God calling us to do?