Sermon: Laughing into despair (June 18, 2017)

2nd Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11)
June 18, 2017
Genesis 18:1-15, 21:1-7 (Semi-continuous)

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Sarah had lost all hope. God had tagged her and her husband Abraham to be the mother and father of a great nation. God had promised them many descendants, even as many as the stars. And yet, Sarah’s womb remained barren. Her empty womb was an echo of her empty heart. Though Abraham seemed unshakable – and oh, did she love him for that – her pain was too great to hold hope any longer.

One day, in a moment of desperation masked as faith, she said to Abraham, “Why don’t you take my slave-girl, Hagar. Have children by her, and, since she is my slave, I will call her children my own.” Clearly, God wasn’t coming through for them, and Sarah would have to take matters into her own hands. Did it pain her to give up in this way, and to see her beloved husband with another woman who could give him what Sarah never could? Of course. It broke her heart. But if God wasn’t going to make good on the promise, something else had to be done. She would take care of it herself.

Maybe a part of her had hoped it wouldn’t work… but it did. Soon enough, Hagar was pregnant with Abraham’s child – pregnant with the promise Sarah had so longed for.

Sarah thought she could be brave, even, that she could be happy. But every time Hagar lovingly touched her swelling belly, every time she smiled her joy to herself, it was a dagger in Sarah’s aching heart. In her pain, she took it out on Abraham, blaming him for what had been her idea. Oh, how heartache can wreck havoc in life, destructively worming its way into all of our most important relationships! Abraham urged Sarah to deal with it, and Sarah did. She sent Hagar, the awful daily reminder of what Sarah did not have, away – and with her, she sent away her fractured hope that God’s promise could ever come to be.

Here is where we find Sarah in the part of the story we hear today. To me, that backstory makes all the difference in how I understand Sarah’s words and actions in today’s story. Every time the Bible has been meaningful to me, it is when I can see my own story in the story of scripture, and when I see Sarah’s story here, I recall all of my own dashed hopes, all of my own resentment that God didn’t deliver when and how I wanted, all of my own insecurities. Do you see yourself in Sarah? Whether you had hoped for a child, or something else in life that you had been certain God wanted for you, but found yourself wondering if God would ever come through – have you felt the despair, that sadness, even that resentment toward others who got what you so badly wanted?

When three mysterious visitors arrive at Sarah and Abraham’s home, she thinks little of it. Though Abraham is excited enough, Sarah doesn’t have much left to give. Since her bout with Hagar, God had promised again that the covenant would be fulfilled. God had changed their names (from Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah), and instituted circumcision as a sign of the covenant, but Sarah remained doubtful. But, as she goes through the motions of offering hospitality to these men, something does begin to stir in her. Could that be – hope? She dares not enter into it; too many times she had been hurt. Yet the stirring cannot be stilled.

Abraham meets with the three men under a nearby tree. Sarah knows her place is in the tent, but she can’t help but feel drawn toward them. She hides just inside the door – under that tree is where hope resides, where a plan, even a date for the fulfillment of God’s promise exists, but Sarah is unwilling to enter fully into this possibility that has been kept from her for so long. She still holds all the resentment of her past, even as she creeps toward hope, hiding just at its edge. And there, on the brink between hope and despair, as she hears the impossible and wonderful news that so many years of hope is not in vain… she laughs. Her laughter is the sound of resentment cracking, of pain beginning to

Sarah laughing, detail from “Angel Appears to Sarah”
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

dissipate. Her laughter is the sound of healing. Her laughter is, indeed, the sound of hope, and of belief that nothing is too wonderful for God. Her laughter is the name given to her son, Isaac, because he lives as the proof that with God, hope is never lost. Nothing is too wonderful for God.

Here, too, we have the opportunity to see our own story in the miraculous story of Sarah. Hope and despair are a part of the human story, the church’s story, and our individual stories. Even when despair is dark and dense, the laughter of hope-revealed can crack it, shed light into it, dissipate it.

Where do you see your story in Sarah’s story? When have you crouched on the brink between despair and hope, and fallen onto the side of hope, laughing at the goodness of God?

Where do you see the life of this congregation in the story of Sarah’s despair and her laughter?

In 141 years, this story has surely made an appearance in the life of Bethlehem. Though I wasn’t here at the time, I suspect there was a sense of this when your long-time pastor, Pastor Zajac left, and with him, the organist. Suddenly Bethlehem found herself without a pastor, a musician, or a budget to call someone else into those roles. And suddenly, the possibility of an intern fell into your laps, and with a laugh, the congregation painted the walls of the parsonage – right over the wall paper – to prepare for her imminent arrival. An organist in need of a loving community showed up, on a day that the supply pastor did not – a story Bethlehem members now remember with a laugh. Nothing is too wonderful for God! Some years later, it was still clear that a fulltime pastor was not a possibility for this congregation. How easy it would be to fall into despair. But Bethlehem did what she does best: she prayed. And in the midst of that prayer came the possibility of a covenant, partnering with another congregation to share ministry and a pastor. On the day of my call sermon, a toddler who was here for a baptism pulled the fire alarm – and laughing, we all stood outside to greet each other while we waited for the fire department to arrive.

Laughter has played a role in many of Bethlehem’s most uncertain moments. Laughter has broken into what would be despair, to remind the good people of Bethlehem that God’s promise is good, that God will deliver, that nothing is too wonderful for God.

This past year in the life of Bethlehem has presented its own challenges. Like in the story of Sarah, myriad emotions have been embedded in those challenges. Speaking personally, it is not lost on me that, through those struggles, I was pregnant with a child I would soon know as Isaac, who smiles and laughs more than any baby I’ve ever met, whose existence in my life is a daily reminder that laughter can be born into difficulty.

That is what God does, again and again: God takes despair, and laughs into it. God takes our hurting hearts, our resentments, our insecurities, and says, “Believe me: nothing is too wonderful for me!” God takes death on a cross and turns it into resurrection, forgiveness, and new life. God takes suffering, and turns it into endurance, and character, and hope – and hope does not disappoint us, because, as Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Sarah’s son Isaac, laughter, did go on to become a great nation – his offspring was Jacob, who had twelve sons, who would become the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s chosen people, a people that still exists some 6000 years later. Sarah’s laughter, the sign that God’s promises do come true, exists throughout the generations, even to ours.

How will this laughter, this promise, make itself known in your life? How will it make itself known in the life of Bethlehem? How will God take suffering and turn it into endurance, character, and hope? How will God turn something difficult into something life-renewing? How will Bethlehem’s story continue to be grafted into the story of Sarah, as it is grafted into the story of Christ’s own death and resurrection? I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that: God will. Because nothing is too wonderful for God.

Let us pray… God of laughter and hope, make us ever confident in your promise, because in your promise we find the hope of life renewed. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Sermon: Sent out to heal divisions

Pentecost A
June 4, 2017
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

A running joke in my family is based on the fact that my dad is Swedish, and my mom is Norwegian. When they were married, a couple folks played this up. One asked my dad how he felt about “mixed marriages.” Another gave them as a wedding card a picture of the bridge between Sweden and Norway. All through my childhood, we had displayed on a single shelf, two flags: one Swedish, and one Norwegian, as a reminder that though we are different, we can at least sit together on the same shelf.

It’s a silly joke – the enmity between the two Scandinavian countries really ends with Ole and Lena jokes. But while there may not actually be any cultural friction between my parents, or Swedes and Norwegians more generally, there is plenty of other cultural friction in our world. Of course this is true on the global scene – the world is a diverse place that is becoming a larger and larger mixing pot as people leave their home countries in search of a better life – usually either to escape violence and unrest as refugees, or to find work so they can support their families. Though the diversity of cultures present in America is one of the things I love most about this country, it also presents us with a challenge, to figure out how to live together and respect one another, despite our differences. It’s also important to remember that cultural friction is not just a result of migration from other countries – there is plenty of cultural difference among those who have lived in America for many generations. I just read the excellent best-selling book, Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir by a man about my age who grew up as a self-identified hillbilly in rural Ohio and Kentucky, and went on to go to Yale Law School. He describes a culture, right here in my own country, which is entirely foreign to me as a born and bred middle-class American! The lack of understanding about the different cultures that make up our country makes it difficult to address many of the most profound social issues that plague our country.

Yes, even as the world becomes more globalized and accessible, in ways it also becomes more divided. We are divided by language, income, experience, outlook, values, culture, religion… and much more. The Bible story that describes this reality is the Tower of Babel. You remember that one? The once-united people of the earth, in a moment of lapsed trust in their God, decided to build a tower so high they could reach heaven. God says, “Not on my watch!” and mixes up all their language so they can’t complete the project. The language was just the beginning – from there, the division of our world has only increased.

But, the Tower of Babel was not meant to be the end of the story. Today is the day of Pentecost, and it is often described as the answer to, or even the reversal of, Babel. In Babel, the language was all mixed up, symbolizing great division and lack of cooperation among the people of the world. At Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit enters the scene, suddenly all the different nations can once again understand each other – and with that new ability comes also the hope of renewed community, and renewed ability for cooperation as one Church.

Problem is… doesn’t it still feel like we live in Babel, and not Pentecost? Division is still so prevalent. Working “across the aisle” seems a thing of the past, whether in Washington or even in our families and personal relationships. Finding common ground is increasingly difficult. So if Pentecost really is meant to be a reversal of Babel, then what is that supposed to look like?

Well, here’s what it doesn’t look like: it doesn’t mean our differences suddenly go away. We still speak different languages, and have different ways of understanding the world. And maybe we don’t want those differences to go away! If we are to take Paul seriously, in his letter to the Corinthians we heard a moment ago, having these differences can actually be an advantage! When the Spirit blows into our lives, she equips us with different gifts, perspectives, approaches, and abilities to see the challenges of the world from different angels. I, for one, am incredibly grateful that there are some people who enjoy and are good at math, or building things, or data management, or technology – so that I don’t have to be, and I can instead focus on the things that do bring me joy!

So no, the Spirit doesn’t come to eliminate those differences. Rather, the Spirit comes to be present with us in those differences, and in the myriad challenges we face because of them – and by that presence, the Spirit equips us to use what would have been our disruptive, damaging differences to instead build up this Church and this world. You see, the Holy Spirit is not some sort of superhero, sent to rescue us. Rather, the Spirit equips, encourages, and stays with us, and helps us to see the needs of our neighbors and community.

But that’s not all. The Spirit also equips us to take the next step. You see, we can’t overlook the role the Spirit plays in our text from John, which is sometimes called, “John’s Pentecost.” In this version of the coming of the Spirit, there is no raucous wind, or fire, or speaking in other languages. There is peace, and there is commission: “Peace be with you,” Jesus says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you.” You see, the Spirit’s presence with us is very good, but it is this sending out piece that will change the world. In order to heal our brokenness, the Spirit sends us out into the places where difference and division might try to tear down, so that we can instead bring the spirit of love. We are sent out into situations that might not be comfortable for us, but it is still possible for us to be there and do God’s work because of the promise of the Spirit’s peace. In short, we are sent out to do the work of the Church, bringing peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope to a tumultuous, broken, hurting world.

Where might be the Spirit be sending you in this time and place, to accomplish that goal of healing division? Perhaps the Spirit is sending you to attend a part of Synod Assembly this weekend. The theme of this assembly is “Building Bridges,” and will focus on global and local mission. It is open to anyone – there are several workshops on topics like, building a relationship with a congregation in Zimbabwe, or learning about Islam from our local imam, or immigration and refugee resettlement, or understanding the accompaniment model of mission, or the effect of incarceration on families. Would learning about those topics help you heal divisions in our community? Or, perhaps the Spirit is sending you to learn about local ministries, such as the one our friend Wala will tell us about today that serves people with disabilities. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to pray and give to ELCA global ministries, as you can read about on the insert in your bulletin. Or perhaps the Spirit is sending you to stay closer to home, working on reconciliation in your family or between you and a friend, or engaging in those difficult conversations about our differences so that instead of letting the difference divide us, we can find a way that it will make us stronger, like in the Corinthian community Paul is writing to. Who knows where the Spirit will send you!

The coming of the Spirit undoes Babel, but not by removing the barriers. It undoes Babel by showing us how to overcome, by being present with us as we face those barriers and challenges, by showing us the way to dismantle them, and reach out to those whose language or understanding differs from our own. I believe that once we let the Spirit send us to these places, where we will inevitably encounter people who are different from us, who may even make us feel uncomfortable, that we will also be moved beyond our personal concerns, and become better equipped to see the world as a whole, to understand how to work for the greater good, and not just for our individual needs. We will see ourselves as a part of the global community, with neighbors to love and serve all over the world. By the power of the Holy Spirit, this is our mission.

Let us pray… Come, Holy Spirit. By your power, show us the way to peace. Send us out into our communities and into the world to heal divisions, to live out your love, and to be good neighbors to all our neighbors, near and far. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Listen here: PentecostA (6.4.17)

Sermon: Ministry is risky, or should be (Feb. 19. 2017)

love your enemies

Text: Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us seems easy enough to get on board with… until we realize that doing that might put us in an unsafe, uncomfortable position. But Jesus never promised to make us comfortable – only to bring us comfort in the promise of love, grace, and forgiveness. It is these promises that make it possible to do the risky work of ministry.

Epiphany 7A (2.19.17)

Sermon: Choosing life in the law (Feb. 12, 2017)


Text: Matthew 5:21-37, Deuteronomy 30:15-20

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us some pretty tough interpretations of the law, interpretations that convict every last one of us. Yet a closer look shows us that following the law as Jesus describes it does, in fact, bring life, just as Moses told us it would in his sermon centuries before to the Israelites. “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live!”

Epiphany 6A (2.12.17)

Sermon: Salt and light in a world of difference (Feb. 5, 2017)


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Text: Matthew 5:13-20

Jesus promises us that we already are salt and light in the world. Yet in such a divided world, where our differences seem more pronounced than ever, we sometimes have different ideas of what it looks like to be salt and light. Our challenge, as Christ-followers, is finding a way to embrace what unites us, even as we use our different viewpoints and skills to bring God’s love to the world in whatever way we are able.

Epiphany 5A (2.5.17)

Sermon: Jesus blessed whom?? (Jan. 29, 2017)


Text: Matthew 5:1-12; Micah 6:8

Jesus begins his famous Sermon on the Mount by calling “blessed” a bunch of people we wouldn’t consider blessed – the meek, the poor, the hungry, the persecuted… In doing so, he is promising them, “You are already blessed, because I am with you – especially when you feel less than blessed!” Jesus makes clear in this sermon that his priorities lie with the oppressed and disenfranchised. Whom would Jesus call blessed today?

Epiphany 4A (1.29.17)

Sermon: Disruptive peace (Advent 1, Nov. 27, 2016)


Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Luke 24:36-44

How easy it is to love Jesus, the “Prince of Peace”… until he is less peaceful and more disruptive! But sometimes disruption is what love and peace look like, and our readings in Advent show us this. Today Jesus tells us to “Keep awake,” not to fall into the peaceful slumber of complacency that allows our most vulnerable brothers and sisters to live lives that know no peace.

“It seems Jesus is quite clear about where and for whom our peace-seeking efforts should lie: with the most vulnerable, the most needy members of society. For all his hard-to-love disruptive qualities, this is what the love of Jesus looks like: like keeping awake and constantly vigilant to serve “the least of these,” to do what is necessary to bring peace to them.”

Sermon: What kind of king? (Christ the King, Nov. 20. 2016)


Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43

We have an image of what a king or ruler should be like, but today’s passage from Luke, describing Jesus on the cross, is not it! So this sermon addresses two questions: if this is our king, then what does it mean for us as followers of this king, and second, does this picture differ from what we expect of our secular rulers?

“I have been thinking more than usual this week about what my Christian call means in public life, or said another way, how to be a patriotic American who is also living out her faith in civil society. I wonder if part of it might be to ask these questions about how Christ would reign in America today, and then to hold our elected leaders accountable to that (by calling, visiting, writing letters, etc). And then to fight for those same things President Jesus would. To work in whatever way we are able to bring Christ’s reign here to earth, through our prayers and petitions, our love and compassion, our faith-full voices, our willingness to use our particular gifts and positions for helping those in need, as well as our willingness to forgive, and our invitation into Christ’s salvation.”


Sermon: What happens after this election? (Nov. 13, 2016)


Isaiah 65:17-25
Isaiah 12:2-6
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
Luke 21:5-19

Our country is divided after this election. With emotions and reactions all over the map, how do we be the Church together? First of all, we allow people space to feel what they need to feel. Then we trust wholeheartedly in the Lord, who is our salvation – which doesn’t mean sitting back and waiting and watching, but actively doing our part to continue to reach out to those in need, and never stopping to speak up on their behalf.


Sermon: Being saints in a weary world (All Saints, 2016)


Text: Romans 6:1-14; Luke 6:20-31

Lutherans believe you don’t have to have died to be a saint; we are all saints because God made us so in our baptism (even as we also continue to be sinners). So what does it mean to be a saint in this broken and weary world? Jesus gives us a good idea in his Sermon on the Plain (Luke’s version of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount).

All Saints Day Sermon 2016