-Autumn Without Family-

He sat, or rather, the
bench held him
while he curled like paint flakes
and watched for the bus.
Breath percolated out of his nose

as if unsure.
Short motes, and long ice trails.
He briefly adjusted his woolmitts from
folded
to crossed with elbows.

But the real cold was in the setness
of his face. Rapt as corrugated
steel rebar. That

sat stronger than the rest
of him, or even the bench.
Dignity was freshly siphoned

from his shoulders.
In the way his grey pant-legs quaked
above his shoes,
they tapped out an argument
between being old and being free.

Where he was going was
not home. And where he left
was just as empty.
The bus curchunked, and
swung its grimeglass doors.
There was a grateful air
in the way it swallowed him.

  

Thoughts About Stewardship-Vicar’s Corner

Newsletter article on Stewardship written to my internship congregation Trinity Lutheran Church wherein I make a poop joke.

In this time of gathering harvest, families, and thoughts– it is good to take a moment and think about what lies at the heart and other end of gathering: giving. What do I mean by “what lies at heart and other end”? I mean that what we often take to be the opposite or other-end of a thing (gathering in, versus giving out) can often also be found deep at the very heart of that thing itself. Luther made this discovery in distinguishing between Law and Gospel, that is, the word that puts to death and the word that brings to new life. Sometimes at the very bottom of the law is written the gospel. The very thing that puts us to death can also be a source of great life.

I talked to a few of you about this very thing in our question driven pastor’s bible study. The topic was prayer, and we discovered that for Luther, prayer is all about the law given in the second commandment. This law says sternly that we are not to take the name of our Lord God in vain. This puts us to death every time we curse or swear or call upon God for our own selfish desires. But for Luther, written at the very bottom of this law is also a life-giving Gospel letter: that we should use God’s name to call upon in our every need. In short, the Gospel we find at the bottom of the second commandment, is the gift of prayer! Praying is not our fault! It is not about our worthiness, or if we have the right words, or even about getting in right with God. But instead, the second commandment teaches that it is something God wants to hear from us, no matter what. It is a place that God promises to meet us in our deepest needs, no matter who we are. God promises to listen to and hear our prayers because that is what it means for us to use God’s name well. At the very heart and other end of not taking the lord’s name in vain, is prayer. So too, I want to say that at the very heart and other end of gathering, there is giving.

Why do we gather things? We hope to share in the abundance of life. Yet, gathering without giving defeats this abundant life. It kills us more than it makes us alive. We probably know too well the stories of misers, and how they cut themselves off from the world in their hoarding. There is something fundamentally wrong with someone who gathers in and stops at just that. So much so that it bothers us, and we call it greed. Gathering without giving at its heart is a sure sign of death. It is a sign that we are cut off from what makes us human to those around us. The point is, only in giving from what we gathered do we share in the abundant life that gathering hopes to achieve. Therefore, to answer why we gather things we must also ask why we give things.

Why do we give? It is the very thing what makes us human. Giving is so fundamental to our being, it is so basic that we cannot live without it. That is why the misers in the stories so easily appear as dead shells of humanity walking. Because they are! It is as fundamental as a mother’s milk given to a baby. From the moment we are born, we cannot survive on our own. No baby can carry on living if we do not give to it milk, love, and all manner of care. So too can no Mother live without giving those things. No one can live without giving. Even our breath gathers in so that it can also breathe out. Even our food gathered in does not stay long. Try holding that in. But how much more alive does it make us when we give!

So Trinity, there is all the stewardship campaign you should ever need: check your pulse. Are you living? Are you breathing? Then that is why you should give. Because giving is what makes us alive to one another. Giving is what makes us human and not dead empty shells. Just as giving to a baby shares life with the baby, so giving to the Church shares life with the Church. Just as a mother cannot live with herself if she withholds life from her child, so too does giving to others keep you alive. Giving is at the heart and other end of why we gather; so that life may be abundant and we might be to one another as God has been to us. Amen.

  

Render Unto Caesar- Sermon.

Grace be unto you from God our Father, and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ, Amen.
To say there is very little the Pharisees have in Common with the Herodians, is an understatement. It would be like if Sarah Palin didn’t like what Jesus was saying, so she went and got together with her good chum Hillary Clinton and approached him. Their main platforms are exactly opposite one another. The Pharisees on one side, don’t like Rome and its constant meddling in their affairs. Meanwhile, the Herodians are committed to keeping Rome in power through the puppet King Herod. About the only thing they have in common is that they don’t like Jesus.  So I hope you can feel the tension in the room when they ask their question: “Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The trap is this: If Jesus answers “yes” then he is in trouble with the Pharisees and the crowds who do not like Rome and think the tax is unfair. If Jesus answers “no” then he is in trouble with the Herodians and the Roman government itself. He can be charged with treason. But Jesus does not take the bait. He answers them, “Show me the coin used for the tax.” And then they bring him a denarius, which is a telling feat, because they have the money to spare for the question, and Jesus does not. Jesus looks down at the coin and says to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” 21 They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Are WE amazed though? I think we have heard the words “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and render unto God what is God’s” too many times. It is used to support so many different things, that there is an audible eye roll every time someone says it again. It is hard to hear these words in a fresh way. So, let’s talk about the heart of the matter. And maybe we will find out why we should be amazed at these words.
Now, I’ve laid my eyes on an American Dollar once or twice, and I’ve seen it enough to know that it doesn’t have a picture of a live, active ruler on it. In Jesus time there was a convenient picture of Caesar there to make his point. Pictures of dead presidents aside, we can still ask Jesus’ question: whose seal and inscription are on our dollar? Who does it say it belongs to? Well, I suppose it is the United States Government and her Treasury. Which is pretty much our version of Caesar. According to the bill, the US Federal Reserve owns the dollar. Yet I’m still tempted to say that when I have a dollar, it’s mine. I earned it after all. What Jesus points out, is that the dollar does not have MY name on it. It has the name of my government. My Caesar still owns this dollar even if I am the one holding it.
Now there’s something particularly interesting about our money, which didn’t hold true in Jesus’ time: every US dollar and coin bears the phrase “In God We Trust.” Isn’t that a precious little chestnut: In God We Trust. What would this country look like if that were actually true? I mean, how many of you are thinking about trust in God when you spend your money? I know that’s not what I’m thinking. When I hand over my money: I’m thinking, now I can get me some tasty cheese sandwiches. Or I’m thinking, “Ouch, there goes yet another bill I could barely pay.” But trust in God? Our own Supreme Court has said that the words “In God We Trust” on our money has no real religious meaning. No real meaning! Can you believe it? This is their very argument for why we can keep the phrase on our bills and coins without violating a separation of church and state. And you know what? They are right, you can tell it has no real meaning, or we would not look at money as fearfully as we do. If we actually trusted in God, wouldn’t we approach money in a completely different way? Why are we so guarded about calling it our own when we have it?
We are now ready to be as amazed as the Pharisees and Herodians were when they hear these words: Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, Render unto God what Belongs to God. This is no mere pithy phrase establishing a separation of church and state… it is much more than Jesus telling us to pay our taxes, and give God’s stuff to God. When Jesus says this, one commentator imagines he can see him casting the denarius aside in disgust! As it clatters on the ground, you can hear that this is like a gauntlet being thrown down along with that coin. The gauntlet implies that we should go and give ALL our money to the government, not just the tax. Jesus throws away one coin, and symbolically tosses all the rest back to Caesar as well.
His argument is that regardless of the tax, the money wasn’t ours to complain about to begin with. Our money says it belongs to Caesar right on the front. Furthermore, this money is idolatrous, we make it a God– right down to the graven image we put upon it. So, he says, give ALL of this repulsive money back to Caesar whose seal is upon it. He tells them: you are fixated on this money as if you own it. But more accurately, it owns you: money is a God that rules over you. So much so that you are worried about surrendering some portion of it for a tax! Remember again that Jesus did not have the money to answer the question. He is not ruled by money. But the Pharisees and Herodians readily had a denarius to give him. Can you see how ruled by money they are? How much are we ruled by money?
So he says, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and forget this money. This is all idolatry, and you should have nothing to do with it. Finally, give to God what belongs to God: namely, give the same authority and power you are giving to this money to God. God should have sovereignty, God should have this power, not money. God should have our respect, and our fear, for in God we also find Grace and love. Money does not give us love nor grace. Only power and fear. So trust not in money, but trust in God!
And that’s the rub that makes these words so amazing: trusting in God is hard! It is not something that we can do on our own. Ack! I cannot even do it when it is printed on my money. I mean, there it is, the very first commandment: you shall have no other Gods. But by the time I get awake and rolling in the morning I have already made time, coffee, and doughnuts my Gods. I must say that I daily trust in God just about as much as I trust in the weather man. And I’m pretty sure the weather service lies to me more than anyone I know.
One thing is clear, we’re going to need a lot of help. As Luther says in his Small Catechism: “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot trust in Jesus Christ.” he says I cannot do it! “I can’t trust in my Lord, or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with her gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as she calls, gathers, enlightens and makes holy the whole Christian Church.” We cannot trust or believe in God by ourselves, but the good news is, God has sent God’s Holy Spirit, and God does the work of faith for us in Christ. Saint Paul says in First Thessalonians “For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that God has chosen you, 5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction”
It would be as if, in our Baptism, God says “Show me this person. Whose seal is upon them? And whose inscription is marked upon their hearts?” Why, this child is sealed with the cross of Christ! This child belongs to God, and has God’s name written in their every breath. Here, in the water of the font and through the hearing of God’s word, we are truly rendered unto God. GOD gives us faith where we have only fear and money. All that we are belongs to God, and through Christ and the Holy Spirit, we are made new. Here at the font we are made to trust. We are made a people of faith. So give to God what belong’s to God! (The secret is, God had you all along!)
God works faith in us here. We need a lot of help, for sure. But God has already abundantly supplied that help. God has already claimed each and every one of us, and made us God’s own. As we learned last week from Pastor Bill: [God Loves us!] And so through God’s love, money no longer rules us. With God as our ruler, we become free to use our money as a blessing to others. So maybe we should rewrite the slogan on our money to say: In God we gain Trust. Because in God, we gain one another. Because God’s Trust in us, gives us trust to share! And that brings new worth to every penny and every neighbor.

  

Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost

This is my first sermon that I gave as Vicar at Trinity Lutheran Church. The text is Matthew 21:23-32. Not the easiest text for a first sermon, but I’ll let you be the judge of how I did.

Grace and peace be unto you from God our father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

Jesus has done it again! He got into a spat with the chief priests and elders while teaching in the temple. It seems like just about every other week Jesus gets into one of these battles of wits. This time, the chief priests come to Jesus asking a me-me question. Now, you all know what a me-me question is, you just didn’t call it that until I invented the word for it just now. It’s a question that is completely focused in on yourself. No matter what the words of the question, no matter what it seems to ask on the surface, its only real concern is me, me, me, me, me! That’s why I call it a me-me question. You’ve heard these me-me questions: Are we there yet? Do I have to? or Are you gonna eat that? But there are also other more difficult me-me questions like: What’s the point? Am I really worth anything? and How am I going to get through this?

There is one thing all me-me questions have in common: they come from a place of fear and of doubt. Me-me questions are what we ask when we are curved in on ourselves, when we look into the depths of our own abilities and we become afraid that we will not be able to measure up. We want to control the outcome, we want to be there already, we want to amount to something.

And so, the chief priests ask their me-me question, because they are afraid and focused on themselves. They want to control Jesus, to find someone who they can blame so that they can have the power to get rid of him. They ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” The question is a self-serving question. A trap, to see what the chief priests can do about Jesus, who has made them uncomfortable.

Jesus answers this me-me question by calling it out as just that: a self-serving question. He turns the trap the chief priests tried to set for him on its head, and reveals them for the people trapped within themselves that they are. He says, if you can answer my question first, I will tell you the answer to yours. “Did the baptism of John come from Heaven, or was it of human origin?” Jesus question is an outward focused question, the opposite of a me-me question. It points the chief priests and elders away from themselves and what they are trying to control. Jesus points instead toward John the Baptist, and God’s work through him.

Then listen to how inward focused their answers remain! The chief priests and elders redouble in fear. “If we say it is from heaven, then we will look like hypocrites.” If we say it is human, we fear we will lose our popularity because the crowd looks at John the Baptist as a prophet. Jesus makes us hear them going: “me-me-me-me-me!” underneath all their questioning. And so the chief priests and elders answer out of fear, saying that “we do not know where John’s baptism comes from.”

You see, Jesus has already won, the battle of wits before the chief priests even opened their mouths.
Jesus has already won because he points away from himself to God and God’s work. While the chief priests and elders can only point at themselves.

What do you think? Jesus then tells us a parable: there were two children sitting in front of the television. Mom poked her head in and asked the eldest if she would go unload the dishwasher. She complained and said “Mom, my favourite show is about to come on, and I am tired. I just got home from soccer practice. I’m not unloading the dishwasher right now.” But afterwards, she regretted it and went to unload the dishwasher. Mom went and asked the second child if he would unload the dishwasher, and he said “Okay Mom, I guess I can do it” but then he got to a really interesting part of the video game (level 21!) he was playing and never went. Then, Jesus asks the chief priests and elders, which of the two children did the will of their mother? The answer is of course, the first. The one who repented, and did the work of unloading the dishwasher. I think we can all agree that it is never any good to say you are going to do something, and then not do it.

But here again, we can become trapped. Because it is at this point, in reading today’s gospel, that we all want to pick teams. “Oh, I am SO GLAD I am the good kid that actually unloads the dishwasher.” “At least I’M not like those chief priests and elders.” I’m on the good team, I will repent and do God’s work!” “Ugh, I am disgusted by those people who say they are going to unload the dishwasher and then don’t do it.” I’m on the good team! I’m on the good team!

Notice then, when Jesus picks for us the next people on these teams…For the bad team, I pick chief priests and elders! Boo them! We say, I’m glad they went on that team. And now, says Jesus, For the good team, I pick Tax collectors and prostitutes. Wait, WHAT? Did I hear you Jesus? Tax collectors and prostitutes? I thought this was the good team! Why are THEY here? I didn’t sign up for tax collectors and prostitutes, this is a FAMILY church Jesus. Don’t you realize that kids are listening to this sermon?

And then, we too are caught in the same way the chief priests and elders are. All of those questions we start asking in response to who’s on our team, are me-me questions. Jesus is pointing us away from ourselves toward the boundaries of society. Toward the other, and the outcast. And we get uncomfortable, and we get me-me questions.

Here is the good news: It is truly not about whether you have unloaded the dishwasher or not. It is not about whether you are on the “good” team with the tax collectors and prostitutes, or the “bad” team with the chief priests and elder. It is not even so much about who is first into the kingdom of God, and who is last. No, what this parable teaches us, is that it is the repentance that really matters. The reason we want to root for the tax collectors and prostitutes, is because they have repented. They heard God’s news through John the Baptist, and they turned their heads. The reason we want to be on the unloading the dishwasher team, is because the girl repented and did her mother’s will. And that is all the worth that the parable shows us: it is repentance that counts.

Now, repentance is not a thing you can do, like for instance unloading the dishwasher. I have to be careful when I talk about repentance, because I do not mean it in the way a lot of people hear the word. The most common idea is that repenting should be feeling really really bad about yourself because you did not unload the dishwasher. It is feeling extremely sorry for your sins, and promising to do better. But that is the opposite of what I mean, and this parable means, when I talk about repentance. Because, what does that kind of repentance do to you? It turns your head down, and inward. Right? That kind of repentance makes you go like this: It makes you focus on yourself and how small you are. That kind of repentance turns all our questions into the worst kind of me-me questions. “why wasn’t I good enough?” “How can I be better?” “How am I not myself?”

No, the whole reason we want to be on the Tax collector’s and prostitute’s team is that they have been curved out! Why would we want repentance to be so curved in?

This parable teaches us to re-frame how we look at repentance. It turns our me-me questions into grace-filled other-filled questions. “How are you doing?” “Do you have enough?” “Peace be with you, will you come over to share supper with me? This kind of repentance is something positive! But moreover, this kind of repentance is passive. It is God working on us, curving us back away from ourselves and out into the world. When the girl repents, it is not because of what she thought (she was tired!) But it was because of what her Mom thought. In this way, repentance is not a thing that YOU do, but more a thing done to you.

I like to say repentance is like when someone with ADD walks by something shiny. The shiny thing turns their head. Oh! Look at that! And it’s a HUGE difference! Repentance like this: (navel gazing) vs. repentance like this: (oh! Look!)

So too, when you repent, it is not something you can do by looking in on yourself. Repenting is when the shiny grace of God turns you away from the place you were walking, and points you in a new direction. Look over here! See the peace and love of God! It is shiny, and now you too can be shiny for others. Mom turns you away from the television and toward the dishwasher so that you too can eat from clean plats. God turns us away from ourselves and toward one another so that we too can live in community. God turns us away from death and toward life! So turn then, and live!

That’s the kind of repentance we celebrate every time we share communion and we say this is Christ’s body broken FOR YOU, and this is Christ’s blood shed FOR YOU. And by that we mean you are not alone. Here, in the last place you would expect to look, on the team with the tax collectors, prostitutes, and yes, EVEN YOU. There is God working to turn our heads toward grace. Christ is here for you. We are all here for you at Trinity. It doesn’t matter what team you are on, or if you did your Mother’s will and unloaded the dishwasher. Here, in the bread and wine we are set free to share grace with one another. Now you are free to ask grace questions “how can I feed my neighbor as I have been fed?” “How can I be a moment of grace in someone’s life, as this bread and wine are a moment of Grace for me?”

Christ died to set us free from ourselves. To give us peace, and comfort in one another. And, in that way, Christ points us ever outward, away from our me-me questions, toward grace and toward the boundaries. Toward the outcast, the tax collectors and the prostitutes. For there, in the place you would last think to look, that is where God’s work of repentance, grace and mercy has already begun.

  

-Repeat Minus the Lather-

As if it were bricklaying or
an onion we could dice and
caramelize with olive oil

we imagine it facebook-eventable
but peace is a memory problem.
It fades. We repeat it to ourselves,
we repeat it charbroiled.

Already it slipped my mind
how my stomach goes
hydroelectric at the top of a swing
chainrust squeezed into my palms
rubber seat arching.
Zoom in on sky, ground

pans out.
And I have to hear peace
again when later I’m impaling
at my keyboard. That cursor
blinks, like a crow molting.
Blankness in its feathers.

I go off to smite against a wall.
Come back incorporeal,
and peace is whispering
something slow and tree sap
and I miss it. Preoccupied by
the branches and rootwars

the concrete on the curb
cracking upward.
Peace, even carved lavishly in
constipated rage
on a bathroom wall
is forgettable.

  

-Word Choice and Meaning-

She said he had an infectious smile
as if the take-over
were the only importance.
Sure, we all turned up our maws,
but did we fester? Invade?
Did we swell and pustulate?
I wonder if he really
had a six courses antibiotics smile.

I don’t tell her how
leavened bread
might not corrode her face.
It wouldn’t hurt to have
a jingle you hum
to the widening fog while
washing the dishes smile.
He might be more

worth her while if his
grin was a chocolate craving.
You could say his
simpers open a six pack
and put briquets on the grill.

It’s the headwaters of a spring
burbling away a swelter in August.
Or simply a woosh.

But she has already moved on
to jumping about pancakes
and hair follicles.
The infectious smile creepnumbing
my heels for amputation.

  

-Community-

These doughnuts are spelled with an “ugh!”
and were mine. But they are
are pinkening Sara’s fingers,
and I suspect the cinnamon twist
of Ben-shaped treason.

Last Tuesday, dishes began
their own grazing
and I’m pretty sure it is not
my turn to wrangle them from pasture.

I do not know how oregano
sprouted from our ceiling.
In a few weeks, when it hangs low
enough, I will ask if it belongs
to anyone. Then

clip some for eggs.
The best is when we’re all
postured as if we had a sofa.
Legs comfortably skewing.
Our palms taking charcoal rubbings
of the carpet. Overstiff elbows.

Once Ben had the idea
that all windowsills were Baptist
Preachers…the first steps
toward the light.
Sara said he was

transcendental. And I just
swallowed my bagel
where it sponged uncomfortably
in my esophagus.