Text: Isaiah 40:27-31
Rev. Amanda L. Highben
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
February 7, 2021
I’m not sure when I started noticing this on social media, but sometimes someone will write “I see you” whenever they want to lift up or show solidarity with people who have been made to feel invisible or forgotten, people who labor without receiving rest or credit. “I see you,” says a Tweet, “nurses working twelve-hour shifts giving your all to your patients without proper protective equipment.” “Teachers trying to engage your squirmy first-graders over Zoom, I see you.” “Single parents working from home, young new pastor preaching against the sin of white supremacy, exhausted graduate student working long hours with little sleep and just ready to graduate already. I see you.”
When I first read our passage from Isaiah, I felt like the prophet was also saying “I see you.” Maybe you heard this too, especially when the poet acknowledges that “even youth will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” Maybe you felt like these words were spoken to you in your own weariness and you felt seen, recognized. Because in theory the young should not tire, but in reality you know fatigue all too well. Now nearly a year into COVID and still doing virtual or hybrid classes, meeting deadline after deadline but not yet free to be with your loved ones or friends all together in one room or at a common table. Some of us have not been home in a long time. We are fatigued in body, mind, and spirit. “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted.” “I see you,” says Isaiah. “I have not forgotten you,” says the Lord who is the everlasting God.
The people of Israel thought God had forgotten them. Robbed of their promised land and forced to live as exiles in a foreign kingdom, they thought God was no longer anywhere to be found. Either God was hiding from them, or God could no longer see them, so far were they from home, cut-off from their roots and the beloved Temple where they encountered and worshipped the God of their ancestors. And in their sorrow their vision of God narrowed; exhausted by grief, they thought it was possible for the Creator of the ends of the universe to somehow lose sight of them, to disregard their plight and apparently move on to other things.
But aren’t we sometimes guilty of the same limited thinking? Like the people of Israel, we forget who God is and who we are because of God’s power and grace. As the prophet declares, the everlasting God does not “faint or grow weary, his understanding is unsearchable.” This truth in itself is startling but the far more miraculous thing is that this God knows us and calls us each by name. Just a few verses earlier Isaiah says God is the one “who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.” This God would never and could never forget you; this God “gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless.” This God says, “I see you and I love you. Nothing in heaven or on earth could separate you from my love.”
Still, there are days when the idea of “mount[ing] up with wings like eagles” as Isaiah writes is laughable. Days when you can barely get out of bed because you pulled yet another all-nighter. Days when you’ve submitted countless job applications and yet heard from no one. Days when it seems like this pandemic will never end or hateful conspiracy theories will continue to ensnare people in fear and intolerance. Sometimes the best you can do is put one foot in front of the other, sometimes all you can is “walk and not be faint.”
In the poetry of the Hebrew Bible there is rhetorical device called triplets…three words or phrases that grow in emphasis or importance from the first to the third. This is the case for the last three lines of our passage from Isaiah. Except, the poet here subverts our expectations because the order is reversed. You’d think that walking without fainting would come first, then running without being weary, and finally, “mount[ing] up with wings like eagles.” After all, flying like an eagle is far better than walking, isn’t it?! But sometimes, dear ones, it is enough to just walk forward, step after step after step. Sometimes walking, instead of beating yourself up for not flying, is the most courageous thing you can do…and it is enough. What is more, God is enough, and God promises that as you walk, or crawl, or stumble but get back up again, the Creator of the ends of the universe shall renew your strength. “I have not forgotten you,” says the Lord who is the everlasting God. “I see you.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Grace and peace to you, Duke Lutherans, in this new year and new semester. Newness, it turns out, is something God is familiar with as well, as we hear (ironically) in the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” Or, as God declares through the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Newness is all around us now in this time and place. How many of us were so relieved and thankful on January 1 to know that the dumpster fire of 2020 was now in the books and a new year, and God willing a new day, was upon us? A friend of mine said she’d never make the mistake in 2021 of writing the wrong year on her checks. Of course, the other very new thing that happened last week was the inauguration of our new president and vice-president. So much was indeed new about January 20, 2021. Kamala Harris is the first Black woman and Asian-American to serve as vice-president. She was sworn-in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic and Latina member of the Supreme Court. When Amanda Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb,” she did so as the first National Youth Poet Laureate. And let’s not forget Doug Emhoff, who is now the first-ever Second Gentleman in U.S history.
Newness is also the word of the day in our gospel passage from Mark—new, because here in the first chapter we hear Jesus preach for the first time and what he says is indeed entirely new and different from what has come before. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near,” he declares. But this isn’t chronos or ordinary chronological clock-time; this is kairos, God’s time, the opportune time to take action, to repent, to “believe in the good news.” Those thousands of long years when God’s chosen people longed for and sighed-after their hoped-for messiah? That time is now over. The time of God’s kingdom—God’s reign, God’s power—is now at hand in Jesus…and nothing will ever be the same again.
Something radically new and different is also about to upend the lives of two sets of brothers casting their nets into the Sea of Galilee. Simon, Andrew, James, and John: husbands, fathers, sons, fishermen. But now, which is to say immediately, they acquire new identities when Jesus calls them to be his very first disciples. I must say that what stands out for me here is the nature of the invitation. Notice Jesus does not say, “Will you follow me? If you do, I will help you to fish for people.” Instead he calls out, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” This isn’t so much an invitation as it is a command, which could explain why the immediately leave their nets, their families, their livelihoods to follow him. How different is this Jesus than the way he’s so often portrayed in modern American culture! This isn’t a gentle, domesticated Jesus making footprints in the sand or agreeing to be our copilot. This is the Son of God whose claim on his disciples’ lives is so commanding and all-consuming that they immediately drop everything to turn and follow him.
It’s a bit frightening, isn’t it? I mean, did they have a choice? Did they have any idea who Jesus was before he suddenly appeared walking along the Sea of Galilee? And how did their families feel about their sudden departure? I mean, the wives couldn’t have been too happy about it; and then there’s Zebedee, the father of James and John, who according to the text is just left behind in the boat with the hired men.
And here’s the other frightening, unusual thing about this whole new claim on the brothers’ lives. “Follow me and I will make you fish for people,” says Jesus. But when fish are caught out of the water, they die. I’ve heard this story dozens of times ever since I was a little girl at St. Regis Catholic Church in Pittsburgh, P.A. I am very familiar with the image of fishing for people as a metaphor for discipleship. I guess it’s seemed rather gentle and pastoral, like the image of Jesus as the good shepherd.
But never before have I considered the death inherent in the text until I read these words from a New Testament professor who grew up in Argentina:
“Jesus recruits his first disciples. They will be ‘fishers of people.’ This metaphor was used by missionaries all over the world to justify and legitimize the allegedly life-giving ministry of the Christian evangelist. And yet, it really is a metaphor of death: fish, when taken out of the water, die! But that has been interpreted as dying to the world, which results in life unto God…
Fishing for people as a metaphor for death?! What?! And yet, it is. When fish are taken out of water, they die.
And so it is. Because in order for something new to come to life, the old must first perish, must give way and die. Otherwise nothing is new or changed. It’s just more of the same. Moving in the same direction. Upholding the status-quo.
Christina Nesslage, Duke Lutheran
Duke Lutherans Virtual Advent Worship
December 9, 2020
Text: Isaiah 40.1-11
About a century and a half before the Prophet Isaiah offers these hopeful visionary words to the people of Jerusalem, Babylon invaded Judah. They destroyed Jerusalem and pillaged the temple. They took the most educated citizens of Jerusalem were forced to leave their home and live in Babylon. The Babylonian empire had essentially torn apart the community of the people of God and separated from themselves and their place of worship. These were people who were hurting deeply. And they had been living with this pain and sorrow and grief for nearly 150 years. So much had been lost, there’s too much to keep track of. They don’t know when this will end, if it will end.
And then we hear these words at the start of Isaiah 40. Words of comfort for people who are in exile. A people who don’t know when they will be able to go home or even what home might even look like with all these years gone by. Words promising that God is here, that their God is drawing near to them.
It feels unexpected, that God is now coming close, drawing nearer to these people now. It feels unexpected. Like right now? In this darkness? They have seen so much death and destruction and have felt the pain and sorrow so deeply. It was probably hard for them to believe but what other option is there, but to believe?
The truth is in the midst of great suffering and sorrow, God is the only one who never fails. When humans fall short, over and over and over again, when death seems to be overwhelming. God’s word, God’s promise alone never fails. It might feel scary for those in exile, in grief, to put their faith in God, but God is the only one worthy of their faith, of our faith.
It takes courage to believe this truth, that God is true, that God brings comfort and might. It takes courage to believe and it takes courage to respond.
Because through the Prophet, God calls these people to do two things: to prepare the way in the wilderness and to proclaim this good news, from the tops of the mountains. Be prepared, and don’t keep this a secret!
The very God that led their ancestors through the wilderness out of Egypt is here. Even in the wilderness of exile period this gentle nourishing comforting God comes with a paradoxical might. Might that does not condescend or shame or chastise but reconciles. This paradoxical God that Isaiah and his fellow exiles knew is the very same God who comes to us in a Manger.
God who brings deliverance, shows up on a cold dark night in Bethlehem, born in a stable and in all of his infant glory, frees us from all that traps and ensnares us head
Bonhoeffer talks of how God rescues us like we are miners trapped in a collapsed mine, filled with hopelessness. For the miners, once they realize they are trapped, there is nothing that can be done, they are anxious and fearful and stuck. But the rescuer works her way through the dangerous rocky ground to save the miners. Whether or not they are aware that the rescuer is on her way. But the moment in which the minor can hear a voice cry out from the rescuer, the minor now catches a glimpse of hope.
It might seem strange and maybe even a little foolish for the miners to have such a sense of hope to have the courage to keep listening and waiting for the rescuer to get closer because their end is almost certain as they are trapped. But instead of keeping their heads down the miners look towards the voice, with great anticipation to be saved. To be delivered. To be rescued.
God comes to rescue us, in the midst of overwhelming death and grief, in the face of unending darkness. When everything else has withered and failed and faded away, God’s word endures, and God comes to us. When we can do nothing but wait courageously, God comes to us.
God comes to rescue us from the prisons of our own existence. When we are trapped in our own self-sufficiency, when we think we can work our way out of exile or out of the mine, God frees us, from our sense of self-importance. God comes to free us from our self-made traps of independence to call us into meaningful community with one another and with the triune God.
God comes to rescue us from our anxieties. From our fear of not knowing what might come, or what might not come. From our anxieties and uncertainties about our identity or our place in the world. God calls us into God’s arms like a loving, comforting shepherd.
God comes to rescue us from our guilt. From those things we hold secretly and shamefully. For those things we’ve done that have harmed our neighbors, or the things we didn’t do that would have helped them. For the times that we have not loved but instead leaned into fear, or resentment, or suspicion. God comes to forgive our sins so that we can be free from all guilt and shame.
God comes to rescue us from our loneliness. From our struggles to connect with another. From the grief and loneliness of social isolation. And from the challenges of communal living, when we step on each other’s toes, and overlook each other’s gifts. Christ is the one who unites us in community.
And what are we to do in light of this promise? Like Isaiah’s hearers, we can respond courageously prepared. Preparing the way, and sharing the good news. But in the face of such darkness and such heartache, it takes courage to be fearless and confessed this good news. It takes practice, it takes working on it in community. This upside down, inside out, world-shaking proclamation is that God is nigh seems absurd, especially for people who are experiencing suffering and don’t know when it will end. But God’s word never fails. And God comes to those who need rescued, exactly when they need it most, when it seems like there are no other options.
The good news is coming. Even though it is dark and it feels impossible to catch a glimpse of hope. Even in this place of utter darkness and pain, Isaiah tells his hearers to go to the mountain, up to a high place, where all can hear, and to proclaim, “Your God is here!” The prophet tells this to a people who are not quite sure if this is true, but he tells them to do this anyways. To announce the coming of God, in a prominent place, not to lean into the pain and sorrow of their exile, but to take courage and proclaim the good news of God. That their God, who is intimately concerned about their wellbeing and their comfort, is drawing near.
This is our call as well, to tell all who will listen this Advent, that God is coming. This might mean we say this aloud to ourselves and each other to remember this truth.
Be of good courage, the God of yesterday, today, and forever breaks through the cold dark night to come to our rescue, to bring comfort.
This is the good news—for us, and for all of creation. Amen.
Katie Elkin, Duke Lutheran
Duke Lutherans Virtual Advent Worship
December 2, 2020
Text: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
In this season of our communal life, as we’ve come to the end of our church calendar year and tothe end of a semester at Duke that has been unlike any other, I will use the words of the apostle Paul and give thanks to God, always, for you. For the congregation and Duke Lutheran committee members at Grace and St. Paul’s, who have continued supporting our campus ministry in innovative and traditioned ways. I give thanks to God, always, for you. During a time when basically everything else seems unfamiliar, unfortunate, or just plain unfriendly, Duke Lutherans has been a refuge. I have been strengthened through the constancy of Sunday evening prayer, the comedy of Thursday fellowship lunch, and the care of individually packaged goody bags. In the words of Pastor Amanda’s daughter Ceci, who popped into Bible study last night: “Thank you for the Duke Lutherans, Jesus!!!” I am positive that other Duke Lutherans would agree with me when I say that this community has sustained me over the past several months.
And, I don’t know about y’all, but these past several months have simultaneously felt like they trudged on for years and flew by in like, 3 seconds! So now, ready or not, we find ourselves near the end of 2020 and at the beginning of a new church year. We are in Advent! The time in our liturgical calendar when we anticipate Christ’s coming to dwell among us. Typically, I love Advent! I love the blue colors that adorn the church sanctuary. I love singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” on repeat. I love making an Advent wreath to light at dinner every night with my family. And I love the anticipation leading up to Christmas.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Advent. But… this year, four weeks dedicated to waiting almost feels insulting. Like, seriously, God? You want us to keep waiting?? We, who have been waiting to feel a sense of normalcy in the midst of pandemic? We, who have postponed weddings and grieved in isolation and visited loved ones through windows and livestreamed nearly every event on the planet? We, who waited days for the results of a Presidential election and are still waiting for a complete, peaceful transition of power? Right now, in our world, the powers of SIN and DEATH are all too apparent.
Um, God? We might actually prefer that you just come on over and fix everything, stat.
And yet, here we find ourselves. We are in the season of Advent, and we are waiting. We are waiting on the one hand for God’s historic self-revelation in the incarnation and we are also waiting for God’s future self-revelation on “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” – that moment when Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. And, especially during this Advent season, we might find ourselves wondering, when will that day be?
As we wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ in this time of Advent, we are reminded that we don’t actually know when that revelation will be. We have faith that Jesus WILL return, and we know, as Pastor Amanda preached on Sunday, that Lutherans are not in the business of trying to predict when. But we ARE in the business of being in present in the here and now. Partaking in the gift of Christian community. Being open to the ways that God is at work in and through us. So perhaps a more meaningful question for us to be asking during this season is, what do we do while we wait?
What do we do while we wait in an era of Zoom and FaceBook Live and YouTube streaming? What do we do in a time that has made us so painfully aware of the reality that not all Christians can partake in the grace that is gathering visibly around God’s word and sacrament? Bonhoeffer knew that visible Christian community is a blessing. He writes that God’s grace is what permits us to gather in visible community.
It could be easy to misunderstand Bonhoeffer’s words here and think that God arbitrarily decided to take the gift of visible community – the gift of grace! – away from us during this season. But that is not the case. It is not as though God suddenly changed God’s mind and took away the grace that allows for Christian fellowship. God’s grace is abundant and boundless and nothing that you or I or anyone could do can stop the extravagance of God’s love and God’s grace. And, although we are missing the gift that is community right now, God has not left us alone. It is not up to any of us to single-handedly figure out how to have Christian fellowship in this time of
pandemic. Paul’s words to the Corinthians make it clear that it is GOD who enriches us by grace in and through Jesus Christ. It is GOD who calls us into community with Godself and with one another. It is GOD who strengthens us to the end. It is GOD who is faithful.
Now, I don’t want to diminish the reality of the losses and the isolation that we have all
experienced over the past nine months. Bonhoeffer writes that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer,” and there is nothing wrong or shameful about wanting to be together in familiar ways! But Bonhoeffer, like Paul, is adamant that the ONLY way we are able to have community with one another is by grace through Jesus Christ. Visible community is a good gift, but it is not the ONLY way that we can be the body of Christ.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that the center of Christian life, indeed, the CAUSE of Christian life, is Christ! Pauls reminds the Corinthians that their spiritual gifts have been given by God in Christ. The Corinthians needed these reminders, because many members of the new church in Corinth had received gifts of the Holy Spirit and were feeling awfully satisfied with themselves. Paul is worried that the Corinthians are becoming short-sighted and maybe a little self-absorbed. He is worried that the Corinthians have been “deluded into thinking that what is now is all there
is.” And y’all, maybe WE have been deluded into thinking that what is now is all there is.
The Corinthians’ reminder came in a letter from Paul, and our reminder comes now. In this season of Advent. The season of hope, waiting, and expectation, which reminds us that what is now, is not all there is. By God’s grace that has been given in Christ Jesus, we are offered MORE than what is now. God IS working in and through our present reality, and God WILL continue to do marvelous things in and through us. AND there is something bigger than our present reality. There is something bigger than the immense grief and deep joy of the present moment. Bonhoeffer writes that our life together will remain healthy when we understand ourselves as being a part of one, holy, catholic, Christian Church. Our communal life will remain robust when we share in the sufferings and struggles and PROMISE of the whole Church. The whole body of Christ, the Church on earth, is bigger than Duke Lutherans or St. Paul’s. The visible community of Christians is more than a gathering on Wednesday evenings or Sunday
mornings. Christian community is, as Bonhoeffer writes, “a reality created by God in Christ, in which we may participate” through grace. The visible community is a reality created by God that is bigger than our present moment.
And our present moment can feel kind of terrible sometimes! We are still “in the period between the death of Christ and the day of judgment.” We live in the tension of the “now” and the “not yet.” We know that God is at work in the world, and we claim in faith that God the Son will come again to usher in the “something bigger” to which we are all called through grace.
But until that day, what do we do while we wait?
In verse 7 of our reading from Corinthians, Paul assures the church that “you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This “you” is a plural “you.” It’s a y’all! Paul is speaking to the church as a collection of individuals, a Christian community who, TOGETHER, are not lacking anything for their waiting. The spiritual gifts which we have all been individually given are not perfect or complete, but they are ENOUGH. They are sufficient. By grace in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, our gifts enrich our lives and shape our Christian community into “a gracious anticipation of the end time.”
While we wait this Advent, we are called to use our spiritual gifts and be active in our waiting. A prayer from Biblical scholar Walter Bruggemann asks God for the grace AND the impatience to wait. This Advent, may we impatiently look for signs of God’s kingdom come among us. May we be shaped by God’s grace as a visible Christian community on earth, even as we look toward the day when we will all be gathered into eternal community with God. May we build each other up through identification and celebration of our spiritual gifts. And may we continually be reminded that God gives us grace and peace, God strengthens us in our waiting, and God. Is.
“An Early (and Longer Advent)”
Rev. Amanda L. Highben
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
November 15, 2020
First, I have a confession to make. I looked at the Bible texts that our lectionary assigned for this Sunday and I just could not preach on them. Except for the Psalm, the passages were all kinds of dark and foreboding. In Matthew’s gospel Jesus teaches a parable that features “the outer darkness, [with] weeping and gnashing of teeth.” In the Old Testament lesson the prophet Zephaniah warns of the day when the blood of sinners “shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung.” Delightful, yes?! Then there’s Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians urging people to be prepared for the “day of the Lord” for it will “come like a thief in the night.” “When they say, ‘There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape.” So, I just didn’t have it in me to preach on these texts, not now, not on this dark November night in 2020, when we already feel like there’s been no escape and more than enough weeping and gnashing of teeth. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly a time and place for preaching on difficult texts that make us uncomfortable, that compel us to examine ourselves and the ways we are complicit in the world’s death-dealing systems. Greed, selfishness, violence, indifference—God judges all of these and calls all us to confession and repentance.
But tonight, instead, after a very long and strange semester and now on the threshold of finals, I thought we could use a little hope and promise. I thought we could use a little wonder and awe, a little glimpse of starlight and angels and Mary hastening through the hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth, babies growing within their round bellies. In short, I thought we could use a little Advent. Which really isn’t that premature…believe it or not, the first Sunday of Advent is just two weeks away on November 29. And there’s actually a movement within the church to extend Advent to seven weeks instead of the usual four, the reason being that it invites Christians into a fuller, longer time of anticipation, before things start to feel frenzied in December. In its ancient origins Advent was nearly seven weeks long and the Orthodox Church begins Advent today, with a forty-day fast preceding their celebration of Christmas on January 7. So we’re in good company tonight, as we listen to Mary’s song of praise, the one that Bonhoeffer calls “the oldest Advent hymn.”
And not just the oldest, but the most radical as well. In a sermon he once preached in 1933 on the Third Sunday in Advent, Bonhoeffer said this of Mary and the song she sings here in Luke’s gospel:
It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.”
How’s that for inspiration and hope?! How’s that for feeling empowered in the face of a year that has too often made us feel weary and defeated? And though Mary sang her song more than 2,000 years ago, praising the God who brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly, I’m reminded of another woman, dressed in suffragette white, who took to a stage last Saturday night and said this:
When [my mother] came here from India at the age of 19, maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment…I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black Women. Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight. Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the Black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.
These are the women Mary lifts up in her revolutionary Advent hymn, and all the hungry, for the matter, who long to be filled with good things, everyone who hungers and thirsts for peace, for rest, for an end to this pandemic, to racism, to sexism, to bigotry, for all who long for Jesus to stir-up his power and come.
As a teacher of mine once wrote:
Advent is not [so much] about Mary’s pregnancy but about the church’s continual prayer that God will come to us [which is the root meaning of Advent, to come]. [The church prays that God will come], bringing life to a dying world. Advent in the northern hemisphere is a time to meditate on the darkness in the universe, the social order, the lives of many people, and our own hearts, and to pray for God’s salvation and wholeness for all.
Advent, therefore, is about longing for the salvation, wholeness, and mercy of God to come to all people. “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,” Mary sings, “according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” And because we are descendants of Abraham by faith, the promises of God are for us too, just as they were for Israel, for Mary and Elizabeth, for the hungry, lowly, and poor.
Though sometimes it’s difficult to believe that God’s promises are indeed for us, especially after long months of unrelenting bad news. When fear and grief plague us, it can be hard to believe that God is with and for us in love. In one of his own Christmas sermons Martin Luther once preached:
This is the word of the prophet [Isaiah]: Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given. This is for us the hardest point, not so much to believe that He is the son of the Virgin and God himself, as to believe that this Son of God is ours…Truly it is marvelous in our eyes that God should place a little child in the lap of a virgin and that all blessedness should lie in him. And this Child belong to all [humankind].
Why is sometimes so hard for us to believe that “this Son of God is ours”? I suppose on some level it’s simply because we’re human, and fear and doubt are natural to the human condition. I mean, even Mary, the “passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic” woman in Bonhoeffer’s sermon, no doubt struggled to believe every now and then. Remember that when the angel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth, Luke writes Mary “was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Perplexed?! More like stunned speechless. Why else would Gabriel tell her to fear not? Madeleine L’Engle, the author of the beloved children’s book A Wrinkle in Time, writes about Mary’s particular fears in her poem, Young Mary:
I know not all of that which I contain.
I’m small; I’m young; I fear the pain.
All is surprise: I am to be a mother.
That Holy Thing within me and no other
Is Heaven’s King whose lovely Love will reign.
My pain, his gaining my eternal gain
My fragile body holds Creation’s light;
Its smallness shelters God’s unbounded might.
The angel came and gave, did not explain.
I know not all of that which I contain.
Like Mary, we too can fear the pain, and in our fear we start to believe we’re alone, left to our devices and without hope of rescue. Nevertheless, into all of this—our grief, our confusion, our very human fears—we proclaim on the doorstep of Advent that God comes with “unbounded might.” God comes to say fear not. Do not be afraid, Duke Lutherans, for God’s promises are trustworthy and sure, so sure we are too are called to join Mary in the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And why do we confess that the babe born in Bethlehem is also the Savior of the world? Because sorrow, fear, and even death itself were taken into the very heart of God in the manger as well as the cross. And there, in the heart of a merciful God, we are transformed, forgiven, and made new. In the words of one writer, “For it is [Christ] lowering himself, first to the realm of humanity, and ultimately to the grace, that salvation is accomplished. And it is in his resurrection that all people are raised to a place where fear cannot afflict.”
Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
Last Tuesday night into Wednesday morning bright lights could be seen streaking through the sky. These weren’t fireworks or spaceships, but bits and pieces of Halley’s comet hurling through earth’s atmosphere at 148,000 mph. This meteor shower, called the Orionid shower, is so named because it looks like the streaks emanate from the constellation Orion. If the sky above you happened to be clear that night, it was possible to witness ten to twenty meteors, or shooting stars, per hour. How many wishes, I wonder, were made that night?
Alas, my daughter Ceci’s most fervent wish—to just see at least one shooting star—never came true. It was a cloudy night in Durham, and it didn’t help that the best viewing time was between midnight and 6 a.m., when all good 7-year-olds should be in bed. But I’m not sure we would have seen any meteors even in the middle of the night, mostly because our neighborhood is too bright and close to the city. According to NASA, the best thing to do is to “get as far away from light pollution as possible and find a location with a clear, unclouded view of the night sky. Once you get to your viewing location, search for the darkest patch of sky you can find, as meteors can appear anywhere overhead.” Give your eyes time to adjust and develop night vision. Be still. You might need to wait for at least an hour before you see anything. Don’t fidget, don’t check your phone’s bright screen. Rest your body and center your gaze upon the wide sky in the deep, still darkness of the night. Breathe slowly. Be still.
“Be still,” declares Psalm 46 on this Reformation Sunday, as we remember that 503 years ago the German monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. “Be still, and know that I am God.” For his own part, Luther longed for stillness. He longed for his spirit to be still long enough to see the grace and forgiveness of God, like clear, bright lights streaking through the sky. But Luther could not and would not be still, as he was constantly trying to flee from the tumult he felt within himself and the world. His sins hovered around him like thick, dense clouds, and he could find no peace or refuge. No matter how often he confessed his sins—which he did, obsessively—no matter how often he berated himself for his failings, he was terrified that he would never be good enough for a righteous and holy God. How could ever do enough to earn God’s love, broken as he was? And if this is how Luther felt, priest and monk that he was, imagine how the lay people felt, those who could not impress God with their theological knowledge or ability to read the Bible in Latin. The best they could do was scrape together a few coins to purchase forgiveness from the Church.
The tumult and chaos of Psalm 46 were therefore familiar to Luther. When the Psalmist sings about mountains shaking in the heart of the sea and the waters that roar and foam, Luther would have replied, “Yep, I know that world.” His spirit trembled, just as the mountains tremble in Psalm 46, but his outside world was also full of fear and instability. Huge gap between the wealthy and poor? Check. Wars between nations and political leaders putting their own power above the needs of their oppressed people? Check. Plagues and pandemics? Check and check. More than 500 years ago Luther and his friends started the Reformation, and yet 2020 would not have been so unfamiliar to them. “Therefore we will not fear,” insists Psalm 46, and yet, Luther would have agreed, how can we not be afraid? From COVID to unemployment to the anxiety that nearly everyone feels as the election near, it seems like there’s more than enough reason to fear. How difficult it is to be still, to find refuge, when the very instability described in Psalm 46 seems feels very real and present.
Nevertheless, Psalm 46 is known as a hymn of praise, and when Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” based on Psalm 46, he titled it “A Hymn of Comfort.” But where and how is such comfort to be found?! How can we rest when the “waters roar and foam” and the “mountains tremble with its tumult”? How can we rest when we don’t know when a safe vaccine will be available? How can we rest when it’s still a risk to embrace our loved ones, sing hymns to together in worship, and share meals with our neighbors, as the Duke Lutherans used to do at the Grace House on East campus before COVID made this simple act of love dangerous? I’m reminded here of the words of one of our students, Jovita, who said the meals have “facilitated great friendships, especially with those in the local refugee community. What draws me is an ever-present call, or conviction. I feel called to reach out to my neighbors, not just periodically, but continuously through genuine relationships.” Thankfully, Jovita can still nourish these relationships through calls or text messages, but it’s not nearly the same seeing someone face-to-face, as sharing a meal from a neighbor’s home country or culture.
On this Reformation Sunday, as we dwell in the Psalmist’s hymn of praise and comfort in the face of our own world’s chaos and uncertainty, there are two things I want us to consider…
First, Psalm 46 names the troubles that afflict God’s people. Instead of ignoring things as they are or pretending they don’t exist, the Psalmist shouts it from the rooftops. The mountains shake in the heart of the sea, the waters seethe, the kingdoms totter. In other words, even God’s good creation suffers from earthquakes, volcanoes, floods, and droughts. But that is not all; the upheaval is also political and social, as nations use war, spears, and shields against each other. The Psalmist is unafraid to call-out all of this, to expose violence for the destructive thing it truly is. Psalm 46 calls a spade a spade. Yes, pain and suffering are real, but burying our heads in the sand will never lead to true healing or lasting peace. It is more than ok to name our grief over what we’ve lost, whether a sanctuary full of people or the meals the Duke Lutherans once shared at Grace House. It’s more than ok to grieve; in fact, it’s Biblical.
Which leads me to the second thing I want us to consider about Psalm 46. There is a refrain we hear twice in these verses, three times if you count the opening words. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” and then twice in verses 7 and 11: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” The key here is that in drawing near to the heartache, the Psalmist also finds the God of mercy and compassion who doesn’t shy away from sorrow, who gives refuge right in the thick of the storm so that there might a measure of stillness and rest.
You see, the Psalmist’s belief that God is a “very present help in trouble” became Luther’s great insight too and the one that sparked the entire Reformation project. People could no more flee the world’s brokenness or their own sins than they could flee themselves. In Paul’s famous words to the Romans, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Confess this. Stop fleeing and, instead, put down your heavy burdens at the foot of the cross where the Crucified One suffers with and for us in love. “This is the great fire of the love of God for us,” Luther once wrote:
“The chief article and foundation of the gospel is that [you] recognize [Christ] as a gift, as a present that God has given you and that is you own. This means that when you see or hear of Christ doing or suffering something, you do not doubt that Christ himself, with his deeds and suffering, belongs to you.”
Dear ones, if Christ belongs to us, if Christ is for us, then we can also be still and know that God is God. We can do this because, ultimately, the stillness, the refuge, the strength, the grace is from God alone. We do not have to find these within ourselves or manufacture them somehow, but they flow from the “great fire of the love of God for us.”
The love that we see in the manger, the cross, and finally the empty tomb, where even death itself could not separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,” God is, and always will be, our refuge and strength. Amen.
Still Called to Life Together
“Duke Lutherans is a welcoming community of Lutherans and friends at Duke University, called to boldly share God’s gift of life together on campus, in our local congregations, and through the wider Durham community.” dukelutherans.org
I recently attended Duke Chapel’s Religious Life back-to-school retreat—virtually, of course. Led by the Director of Religious Life, Rev. Kathryn Lester-Bacon, and including words of wisdom and encouragement from the Dean of the Chapel, Rev. Dr. Luke Powery, the retreat gathered together a diverse group of campus pastors and leaders, all of whom are doing their best to prepare for the school year ahead.
Many, many questions were shared:
- How will we best care for and serve our students when it’s still not safe to meet in groups?
- Will campus pastors be allowed to meet one-on-one with students to provide pastoral care?
- How can we tend to our students’ emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being in a time full of significant challenges and uncertainties?
- Will students suffering from “Zoom fatigue” even want to participate in online worship, Bible study, and fellowship?
- What resources will be available for our students when they feel anxious, fearful, or overwhelmed, as they no doubt will at times?
I suppose it wasn’t a surprise that, at least for the time being, there are still more questions than answers. Dr. Powery reminded us that circumstances—and Duke’s protective measures in response to the fluctuating pandemic—continue to be fluid. Although classes will begin in less than a month (August 17 to be precise), we will continue to receive new information and guidelines until then and probably throughout the fall and into 2021.
So much is yet unknown.
But, this much we know is true: Duke Lutherans is still called to life together. These were the words of our beloved Deacon William Dahl as members of the Duke Lutherans committee shared our concerns and hopes for our community of faith. We are still called to share God’s gift of life and unconditional, boundless love with one another, our neighbors, and the world. The means through which we do this have indeed changed; the end—our very purpose—has not. We are God’s children and we are still called to embody Christ’s grace and healing.
Perhaps now more than ever, dear friends, our students need us. They need our support and love. To this end I ask you to pray for them: for nervous incoming freshman, for isolated juniors and seniors who will not live on campus this fall, for graduate and professional students endeavoring to stay on top of their research, and, last but not least, their families. Pray for all of these, for “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5.16).
Finally, please reach out to me or one of our Duke Lutheran Committee members if you feel called to help us in any way. We are always open to new and creative ideas. Our partnership in ministry with St. Paul’s and Grace Lutheran makes all the difference for us, and we thank our God of grace for you.
Magdalena Phillips is a first year from Seattle who’s studying biology and environmental science. This semester, she led Duke Lutherans through a Lenten fast to help us reduce plastic consumption and waste. Even though COVID-19 caused campus to close before the end of Lent, Magdalena continues to encourage Duke Lutherans to care for creation from home.
How did you become interested in creation care?
I want to study marine science, and it’s really disheartening to read about how much plastic ends up in the ocean. It breaks down into tiny little parts which animals end up eating. Also, waste from more developed countries often ends up affecting people in less developed countries. I deeply value environmental justice and marine conservation, so both of those have made me really conscious about how much I throw away.
What inspired you to lead Duke Lutherans in fasting from plastics in Lent?
I think faith communities have such an important role in caring for God’s creation. ELCA Young Adults introduced a #NoPlasticsForLent challenge with information about how churches across the country could reduce the amount of plastic they use. And of course, Lent was the perfect time to “fast” from plastic.
What changes did Duke Lutherans implement as part of the fast from plastics?
The biggest change was the switch from single-use plastics to reusable dinnerware for Sunday night meal (pictured above). Hopefully in the future we can do some other things, like composting, but for now we just wanted to stop throwing away our plates, silverware, and cups every meal. Our transition to reusable dishes went really well! People seemed genuinely excited about it, which was wonderful.
How have your own practices around reducing waste changed since moving back home in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic?
Like everyone, my life has been pretty weird the last few weeks. But I’ve noticed my plastic waste has gone down since I’m not going out and buying things. I’ve been trying to order as little as possible online, because shipped items often come with lots of packaging. Right now, public health is more important than a video game (in all its plastic wrapping).
What does being a part of Duke Lutherans mean to you?
Duke Lutherans is a place where you immediately feel like you have a place to belong. Evening Prayer is one of my favorite things about Duke. It’s easy to get bogged down in tests and grades, but singing together every Sunday in the York Room reminds me that the world is bigger and more vibrant than my laptop screen. Even though we’re all apart now, it’s so incredibly lovely to have a community reaching out and checking in. It’s been a nice reminder that God is with us, even during a global pandemic.
“A Dead-End Road?”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
April 26, 2020
Text: Luke 24:13-35
“This life therefore is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on. This is not the end, but it is the road.” -Martin Luther
As this academic year comes to an end—and a very strange, anticlimactic, disappointing end at that—this prayer that Martin Luther wrote has been a comfort to me. It’s been a reminder that although we may be finishing papers and tests and qualifying exams (congrats Sarah!) and prelims (congrats Eric J!), although we may be marking the end of this semester, as people of faith, “this is not the end; it is the road…”
In today’s Gospel reading, two of Jesus’ disciples find themselves in the midst of what feels like the “end.” You see, just three days earlier, Jesus, who they thought was the Savior, the Messiah, had just been killed, and with him, all their hopes for redemption, for salvation, for life itself. Jesus was supposed to have been the one! But now he was dead. There were rumors that he was alive again, but clearly that couldn’t be the case. Death is the end. They were walking the literal road to Emmaus, but the metaphorical road they were on was a dead-end road.Jesus was dead…What else was there to do? Where was there to go?
As they walked, one of the disciples says four simple words that strike me as some of the most profound words in the whole Bible: “But we had hoped.” “But we had hoped,” Cleopas said, “[that this Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified] was the one to redeem Israel.” In these words we hear their anguish and confusion and deep disappointment. The disciples’ whole world had suddenly changed, and they now found themselves headed in a direction they had not expected, into a future they could not imagine, down a road felt like a dead-end.
But we had hoped…These four words may resonate with us right now. Maybe you’ve thought them sometime within these past few weeks. Maybe you’ve said them out loud. Maybe you’ve cried them or prayed them or yelled them, as the coronavirus has upended all that we had hoped was going to happen this spring…
But we had hoped…we’d be in the York Room right now, together in person for our final Evening Prayer of the semester, singing the incense song in two parts instead of one (although Madison, you’re holding it down well for us!). But we had hoped…to walk across Duke’s football field in cap and gown. But we had hoped…to gather on the front porch of Grace House to share meals with our friends and neighbors, or grow vegetables to share at the new Pathways Community Garden. But we had hoped…to begin that internship we’d been so excited about, or apply for the job we thought would be there. But we had hoped…we’d have the opportunity to take that vacation that felt so needed after such a grind. But we had hoped…that the kids in our community would be in school still, where meals were regular and reliable. But we had hoped…that our immigrant and refugee neighbors could continue the process of being reunited with family members instead of that process be halted completely. But we had hoped…to say goodbye differently. But we had hoped…things would have just carried on according to “the plan.”
As the two disciples were walking down the road and grieving Jesus’ death, none other than Jesus himself shows up and starts walking with them. “But their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” the text says. He’s literally right next to them but they don’t know it’s him! They call him a “stranger.” They don’t even get the hint when Jesus starts citing the scriptures and literally explaining to them the meaning of his own death. They continue walking down the road as if Jesus were still dead. They are walking with Jesus, as if Jesus were still dead…
The past couple of weeks we’ve heard various resurrection stories, right? We heard about the two women who discovered Jesus’ tomb was empty and ran to share the good news. We heard about Jesus appearing to the disciples in the Upper Room, and about how Thomas needed to touch Jesus’ wounds to believe he was really risen. And now we’re reading another resurrection story about Jesus appearing to his friends on the road to Emmaus. Like these two disciples, in other words, we too have heard that Jesus is risen. But in all the disappointment and disorientation that we are experiencing on this unexpected road right now, maybe we’re having trouble seeing him too. Maybe we’re also walking around like Jesus is still dead…
I had a friend who once told me about a spiritual practice he would do from time to time that he called an “Emmaus walk.” He’d walk around his neighborhood, or once in a while, he’d choose another neighborhood in town, and he’d try to explore it with new eyes. He would try to see Jesus in the wrinkled man smoking on his front stoop, in the USPS worker who would deliver a neighborly “hello” along with the mail at each home, in the small birds’ nest that was taking shape on his neighbor’s windowsill, in the old tree that demanded the sidewalk be rerouted around its roots, in the vibrant green plants that somehow grew out of the concrete. He would try to open his eyes—to open himself—to the ways that God was already present on the road.
Perhaps if we were all in Durham right now and COVID-19 weren’t a thing, Duke Lutherans would take an hour sometime this week and do an “Emmaus walk” in Durham together. But since we can’t, I want to challenge each of you, wherever you are, to take a half hour or hour to go on a walk and look for God (I’m not joking—do this! I will do it too, and if you’re willing to share, I’d love to hear what you saw)…
Jesus is already present on the road. He is already beside us, walking with us, even when we don’t see him. But what was it in tonight’s story that opened the disciples’ eyes? Let’s return to the text again…
The two disciples and the “stranger” continue walking the road—the literal road toward Emmaus, and the metaphorical dead-end road. Soon, it gets late, and this is where something quite remarkable happens. In the midst of their disappointment and disorientation, they invite this guy who they still think is a complete “stranger” into their home for dinner.This is a bold play. A risky move. I typically don’t (and by typically I mean never) invite people who randomly start talking to me on the street over for dinner. But for some reason they do. And when they sit down and break bread, then their eyes were opened. Right? It was there, at the table, where their vision shifted, where they finally saw that it was Jesus who had been with them on the road all along.
Duke’s semester is officially ending this next week. And whether you’ll soon be starting a summer internship, or returning to lab, or starting a job, or maybe you literally have no clue what’s next, all of us find ourselves walking down a road that, because of COVID-19, we probably didn’t expect to be walking. We, like the disciples, probably pictured all of this going differently. We, like the disciples, are headed into a future we can’t imagine, in a direction we didn’t foresee, down a road that may feel like a dead-end.
And into the disappointment and disorientation that may accompany us on this road ahead, tonight’s Gospel story gives us some unorthodox advice: eat with strangers.
This is bad advice, according to most standards, isn’t it!? In “normal” circumstances, inviting complete strangers into our homes is not prudent, let alone in the midst of increased instability and uncertainty. So many of the articles I’m seeing right now are about how we can “hunker down” and “manage” this unexpected road ourselves. The “experts” are telling us how to protect our savings account and preserve our retirement funds, how to shop smart and ration our food, how to stay safe as we walk this daunting road.
And while we should heed some of these suggestions, today’s Gospel story shows us that life in the resurrection means taking risks. It means opening ourselves up—opening our hearts, opening our doors, opening our tables to strangers because then, it seems, will our eyes be opened to see that Jesus is the stranger. For it is in the breaking of bread with people we meet on the road that we recognize the God before us. It is at table that we see the Jesus who’s already been walking with us on the road.
What our Gospel story also shows us is that maybe dead-end roads are actually, paradoxically, the roads that lead to life. This world will say that the roads that lead to life are the ones that lead to wealth, status, a fancy job, a nice house. But the Gospel says the road that leads to life are the roads that lead to tables, to meals shared with strangers who seem to have nowhere else to go. This world will say that the roads that lead to life are smooth and well-marked, roads where the map is legible and the destination is clear. The Gospel says the roads that lead to life maybe are the roads that are a bit bumpier, the roads we didn’t think we’d be taking, the ones with twists and turns and dead-ends.
In this sense, though, maybe dead-end roads aren’t actually dead ends. Jesus’ death, after all, was the ultimate dead end. But just as God made a way out of that no-way, just as there was life after that dead end, the dead-end roads of our lives are filled with life too. Indeed, if we take seriously this Gospel story, it seems like the dead-ends are where life—the risen Christ—resides. These so-called dead-end roads lead to a different kind of life, real life—a life where meals are not rush but shared, where strangers are not ignored but fed, where our eyes are not kept from seeing Jesus but opened to God’s presence all around us.
So as we embark on ventures ahead of which we cannot see the ending, as we continue down these paths as yet untrodden, and as we head into perils unknown (and yes, there will be perils), have good courage, Duke Lutherans. For Jesus will be walking this road us, and as it turns out, when we are so imprudent as let ourselves be open ourselves and our tables to the strangers in our midst, perhaps we’ll also find, that Jesus been walking with us all along. Amen!
To watch a recording of this service, go here.
Where Do You See Resurrection?
In this Easter season, we asked Duke Lutherans: Where do YOU see resurrection? Here’s what a few of them had to say…
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
April 12, 2020 – Easter!
Text: Matthew 28:1-10
“Do not be afraid,” God tells the Israelites living in exile (Isa 41:10). “Do not be afraid,” the psalmists write in the face of persecution (Ps 56:11, 118:6). “Do not be afraid,” the angel Gabriel tells Mary when she learns that she will give birth to the son of God (Lk 2:10). “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his terrified disciples as he walks on water (Jn 6:50). “Do not be afraid,” Jesus tells his disciples again after foretells of betrayal and denial (Jn 14:1). “Do not be afraid,” the book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, begins (Rev 1:17).
I haven’t counted myself, but I’ve heard that some version of this phrase appears in the Bible over 100 times. The examples I just mentioned are only a few. Being afraid for ourselves, for our loved ones, our communities, our world, in other words, is as ancient as scripture itself.
But I have to admit, this phrase has always kind of annoyed me. In the face of fear, I’m not going to get any comfort or courage out of a command—as if the only reason I’m afraid is just because someone hasn’t yet told me not to be!?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never stopped being afraid just because someone has said that (Bolz-Weber). I am afraid—more so these days than usual. I’m afraid that I, or my parents, or my grandparents are going to get sick. I’m afraid of what social distancing will do to my mental health. I’m afraid for the friends who have lost the jobs they had, or for the ones who lost the future jobs they had hoped to have. I’m afraid for my neighbors who are already hungry, and the ways this virus will only make that worse. I’m afraid for my black and brown sisters and brothers, whom this virus is killing at significantly higher rates than white folks. I’m afraid for the havoc the virus will wreak on the global south, where the legacy of colonialism has left countries and communities lacking the resources needed to fight it. I’m afraid for immigrants and refugees, for those who aren’t eligible for benefits that will help them through this. I’m afraid for folks living in jails and prisons, who are often denied basic information and medical care, and for whom this virus will likely be devastating.
But alas, “do not be afraid” are the first words of the resurrection story in Matthew. The two Marys had gone to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Their grief was still raw. They were overwhelmed with sadness. They were afraid for a future without Jesus. To add to their already-shaken state, the text tells us that when the Marys arrived, the ground beneath them began to shake, that a glowing angel popped out of the sky, and that the guards were so freaked out that they fell over like “dead men.” The whole scene is utterly fear-inducing. The women have every reason in the world to be afraid,but the angel, who has quite the nerve, says, “Do not be afraid.” Women often have things unnecessarily explained to them—I’m not sure if “angel-splaining” is a thing, but if it is, these women seemed to be on the receiving end of it.
Even though the angel goes on to tell the women the Good News that Jesus is risen, they don’t seem too convinced by the phrase “do not be afraid” either. Matthew says that after hearing the news, the women, “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” Fear and joy.
I think we often assume that fear and joy are mutually exclusive. Or, that if we’re fearful, we lack faith. But these women show us that there is plenty of room for both fear and joy this Easter. We can be afraid for the future and rejoice in a God who’s already present in it. We can fear how long it will be until Duke Lutherans can meet again in person, and praise God for the joyful (albeit weird) wonders of video conferencing. We can fear the death this virus is causing (and the ways it’s exacerbating the already entrenched structural sources of death), and find joy because death is not the end.
So today, dear Duke Lutherans, if you, like me, are afraid, these women show us that we don’t need to try to muster up the strength to “get over it,” or “move on.” They show us that if we’re afraid, we’re in good company. Fear and joy. We can have both. And that’s such a relief, because I’m not sure I could take either one their own right now. Fear without joy would be way too all-encompassing and terrifying. But joy without fear in these circumstances would feel cheap, not believable.
I think there’s a tendency to make Easter into just that: a day for joy alone. To make it into a day exclusively for happy Hallelujahs and trumpets and bunnies and egg-shaped Reese’s Peanut Butter cups. Those Peanut Butter cups are delicious so no hard feelings to Reese’s, but the Easter story we get in scripture is not a sweet and rosy one. This is a story that doesn’t dismiss fear, or deny death. This is a story that is full of fear, one that looks death right in the face.
And it’s a story that says there is something else. Something even more powerful. Because Jesus lives, there also is great joy. This joy doesn’t get rid of fear, but it cuts through it. This joy doesn’t prevent danger or death but it gives us a way to live in defiance to it. This joy doesn’t say that everything is going to be OK, but it gives us the power to look fear in the face and say “hallelujah anyway.”
Hallelujah anyway because Christ is Risen! Hallelujah anyway because not the coronavirus, not “social distancing,” not greed or hoarding, not closed schools or packed hospitals, not even the finality of death itself can stop God’s love from living, a love that is alive and is here and that sustains us through these particularly fear-filled days. Hallelujah anyway!
This hallelujah isn’t just something we say because of Easter. It’s something we can’t help but live because of Easter. It’s something that transforms us. Moves us. Did you catch what Mary and Mary did in light of the resurrection? It says, “they left the tomb with fear and joy, and ran to tell the disciples.” Yes, Mary and Mary were still afraid, but the joy of resurrection moved them into action. Yes, they were still shaken, but they were also shaken into life. Not just back into life as it was, not back into “business as usual,” (cause as it turns out, “business as usual” is a system built to cause death – in Marys’ time and in ours) but into a whole new way of living and moving in the world.
The resurrection moves us into a whole new way of living too. It doesn’t prevent fear but it does means we are not stuck in it. It doesn’t steady our trembling completely but it does empower us to stand up on our shaking legs and move. It doesn’t eliminate our fear but allow us, in spite of it, to run toward one another, to run toward our neighbors in need.
Maybe “do not be afraid” doesn’t mean stop fearing. Maybe “do not be afraid” is another way of saying, yeah, this is a fear-filled and death-filled world, but “Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed. So hallelujah anyway!” Amen.
Kimberly Wagner, “Matthew’s Resurrection: Surprise Encounters,” preachingandtrauma.com, April 7, 2020.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, “A Mini-Sermon on Fear, Love, and Kent Brockman,” The Corners, March 19, 2020.
“Who is This?”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
April 5, 2020 – Palm Sunday
Text: Matthew 21:1-11
Each month for the past couple of years, some Duke Lutherans, along with neighbors in Durham who are Baptist or Catholic or Methodist or Episcopalian (or simply just curious), gather at Pour Taproom in downtown Durham for what we’ve called “Pub Theology.” I love these gatherings. It’s always remarkable to me how a random group of people—some friends, others total strangers—are willing to open up about some of life’s biggest questions. Questions around topics like Faith + Science, Faith + Borders, Faith + Money, Faith + Imagination, Faith + Enemies, Faith + Gender…
There’s always one thing I say to folks before we break out into smaller groups and begin our conversation (if you’ve ever been to a Pub Theology gathering, this will sound familiar). As I hand out the discussion questions, I talk about the ways we tend to see questions as something to be answered. Or at least as something that has an answer (especially for those of us for whom exams are a regular part of our life). But I tell people that these questions are different. These questions probably won’t be answered. They’re not supposed to be. In fact, I always say, we’ll probably end up leaving with more questions than we started with. And, I always say, that’s a sign that it was a good conversation. A faithful conversation.
Questioning, at least within the context of American Christianity, has a tendency to be seen as a sign of spiritual weakness. A lack of faith. We question when we are unsure, and being unsure is bad, is how the logic goes. But I think the opposite is true. Curiosity, confusion, doubt, awe, wonder, “fear and trembling” (as Kierkegaard would say)…that’s the “stuff” in which God meets us. All of these things that stir up questions in us are part and parcel of what this whole faith thing is all about.
Luke Powery, the Dean of Duke Chapel, calls asking questions a spiritual practice. Not the kind of questions with predictable or predetermined answers (have you ever had a peer who asks a question in class that they clearly already have the answer to? Seminarians seem to be particularly good at that). That’s not what I’m talking about. Faith prompts the kinds of questions whose answers aren’t predictable or obvious.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been asking a lot of those kinds of questions lately. As the Coronavirus has unsettled my sense of stability, upended my predictable routines, disrupted my “business as usual,” these recent weeks have been full of questions without obvious answers. At first, they were more practical ones like “When is the next time I’ll see a roll of toilet paper?” Or, “what day is it?” But they’ve grown in gravity: “How long is this going to last? How will I be able to get through this isolation? How many people are going to die? Why does God let this—and other bad things—happen?”
Life, especially right now, is full of questions whose answers are not obvious. Faith is full of questions whose answers we cannot predict. Today’s text from Matthew gives us one such question. “Who is this?” the crowds ask of Jesus as he process through the streets of Jerusalem. This is not just a question of faith. It is, I want to suggest, the question of faith. Who is Jesus Christ?
You’d think the answer would have been fairly obvious to those who asked this question. “Who is this?” the people ask. Weren’t they just waving palms and shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” The people seemed to know who this is just moments before. It’s the son of David. The Messiah. The king they’ve been waiting for!
But a closer look at the whole event suggests that their question is a good one. An honest one. A faithful one. The people gathered in Jerusalem genuinely wanted to know who this is because this was not the king they expected (let alone the king of kings). This is not the way that the Messiah was supposed to look. You see, in those days, a king would have been escorted by royal entourage, by military leaders or officials of the empire. But who’s with Jesus? His motley crew of disciples: smelly fishermen, manual laborers, disliked tax collectors, right? These aren’t esteemed leaders. These are nobodies, poor people, people with no prestige or power (as we typically define it). “Who is this?”
Jesus is not the king the people predicted. He did not spend his time in the temples or empire’s offices or in the city center. He did not come from the places of power. He lived on the margins, right? Walking in the wilderness. Befriending those cast to the edges. He was not recognizable to the people at the center. “Who is this?”
Jesus’s mode of transportation is also a bit strange. A king would have typically chosen to ride in on an animal with a little more, what shall I say…height? Stature? A war horse would have been the animal-of-choice for a king, an animal that represented military might, but Jesus foregoes a stately steed, and instead sits atop a donkey, symbol of peace and humility. This is not the imperial procession that it seems to be on the surface, in other words; it is a parody of it (Carter). On a day when people expected a triumphant procession flaunting strength and authority, instead they got a poor man, his outcast friends, and a donkey. “Who is this?”
The question itself unsettles them. As they asked it, the text says, the whole city was in “turmoil.” This can also be translated as the whole city was “agitated” or “shaken.” It’s the same Greek verb Matthew uses to describe the “earthquake” that accompanies Jesus’ death and resurrection a few chapters later.In other words, Jesus’ presence shakes the foundations of what they people thought they knew. It upsets their notions of power and authority. Unsettles their expectations. No wonder the people are asking questions. “Who is this?”
Who is Jesus Christ? I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I ask this question often enough. And when I do, my answers are predictable. Routine. Contained. But the story of Palm Sunday shows us that the answer to this question exceeds us. That this God is not what we expected or predicted. That this God cannot be contained. That this God disrupts the ways of the world, interrupts our business as usual. This God shakes the ground on which we think we stand.
Jesus’ introduction to Jerusalem invites us to be re-introduced to him.“Who is this?” we are invited to ask. In the midst of the Coronavirus, in this time when we’re likely already asking more questions than usual, maybe we’ll find ourselves more open to asking this one. Maybe, in this time when we’re shaken up a little bit, we’re better positioned to be shaken by this question. “Who is this?”
Let this be our question as we enter into the week ahead. Let us stay curious. Let us brace ourselves as the ground beneath us continues to quake. Because things are only going to get more destabilizing from here on out in this Holy Week. The road ahead is paved with earth-shattering questions. The question of betrayal and denial. The questions of trial. The question of suffering. The question of the cross. The question of the empty tomb. “Who. Is. This?”
The “answer?” We aren’t entirely sure. We know he’s not the kind of God we asked for. Not the kind of king we expected. Not the kind of savior we would have chosen. And that is the good news today, my friends. Thank goodness God doesn’t operate according to my limited expectations or desires of what a Savior should be. Thank goodness God’s definition power doesn’t look like mine. Thank goodness God’s love doesn’t resemble my own. Thank goodness this God is far beyond what I can predict or imagine, because my imagination leads me to some pretty grim places right now. We have a God whose unexpected, unpredictable, unruly love is exactly what this hurting world needs. Thanks to be God! Amen.
To watch a video recording of this service, go here.
- Luke Powery, “Who is This?”, Duke Chapel, April 9, 2017.
- Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading,” (New York: Orbis Books), 2000.
While earning her PhD at Duke, third year pharmacology student Jovita Byemerwa also serves on the Duke Lutherans Leadership Team, helping us think about how we can engage more deeply in our neighborhood. One way she invites us do that is by sharing meals with neighbors we might not otherwise eat with.
Each month, neighbors share a meal at the Grace House. Tell us more about what happens there.
The past couple of years, a few other Duke Lutherans and I started realizing that there’s a significant gap between our lives at Duke and the experiences of our neighbors in Durham. It felt as if the two worlds did not mix. We wanted to create a space where we could interact with our Durham neighbors in a mutual and faithful way. We decided to start sharing meals at Grace House, the house next to one of our partner churches, Grace Lutheran Church. This has facilitated great friendships, especially with those in the local refugee community. What draws me [to these meals] is an ever-present call, or conviction. I feel called to reach out to my neighbors, not just periodically, but continuously through genuine relationships.
What does a typical gathering at the Grace House look like?
Usually one or two people cook a meal from their home country or culture. We start the evening with a few words of welcome from Pastor Ali, and then the cook(s) share about the food they prepared and what that meal means to them. We then eat, talk, laugh, and catch up for the rest of the evening. When the weather is good, some people play games on the sidewalk. Afterwards, we all help clean up.
How have these meals shaped your understanding of what it means to be a neighbor?
I see God in the multiple cultures, languages, and experiences of people who gather at Grace House. People have accepted me and loved me, and they have invited me to share my life and culture with them, and for that I am grateful. These experiences have taught me that being neighborly is not an easy thing. It is about being vulnerable and willing to receive and give love, and to continuously challenge our default self-centered nature. It is about learning to actively listen to others. You very soon learn that you need God’s help to be a neighbor.
Why is taking part in your community important in your faith?
My community involvement is what helps me live out the faith that I’m taught and encouraged to live in Duke Lutherans. I get to truly experience life together with my fellow Duke Lutherans and neighbors in Durham. It is in these encounters that I learn about the meaning and the cost of life together. I get to challenge my own self-centeredness and experience the gift of God’s love and mercy through others.
“Making a Way Out of No Way”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
March 29, 2020
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14
A friend of mine recently said that this Lent has felt like a very “Lent-ish Lent.” Not that a global pandemic is ever well-timed, but if there’s ever a time in our life of faith as Christians that’s already somber, it’s Lent. If there is ever a season of lament, it’s Lent. If there is ever a time when we’re already thinking about how far we are from God, it’s Lent.
The Israelites, the audience of today’s text, didn’t observe the season of Lent, but they knew well what it was like to feel far from God. You see, today’s text—this vision that the prophet Ezekiel gave to his people—was shared while the Israelites were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been utterly destroyed, and the Israelites were forced to leave their land, suddenly cut off from life as they knew it. This was not only a crisis of identity (of questions like “Who are we? Where do we belong?”). But given that their temple (the physical representation God’s presence among them) had been destroyed, it was also a crisis of faith (of questions like “Where is God? Has God abandoned us? If God is so faithful, why are we here?”)
This lament is summarized when Ezekiel quotes the exiles, saying “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely” (Ez 37:11).
We hear similar language about bones in other psalms of lament. Psalm 31: “My strength fails because of my misery and my bones waste away.” Psalm 6: “My bones are shaking with terror.” Psalm 102: “My bones burn like a furnace.” Bones, says one Hebrew Bible scholar, refer to the deepest sense of ourselves. So when the Israelites talk about their bones being dried up, they’re referring to their inner-most pain, to the sense of being forsaken in their very core (Jacobson).
So the vision that Ezekiel shares with the exiles, then, is a striking one—an entire valley full of dry bones! It’s the ultimate image of hopelessness. Of unspeakable loss. Of dried up dreams that God would be with them.
Needless to say, the Israelites are in a very different situation than us, but maybe these past couple of weeks have felt like a bit of a journey through a valley of dry bones. Like a graveyard of buried expectations. Of losses we weren’t ready to grieve. Of feeling cut off. Of wondering where in the world God is.
The coronavirus may have us thinking about dry bones—about death and suffering—more than we usually do, but dry bones are nothing new, right? The dry bones of poverty, war, racism, hunger, violence, unemployment, homelessness—these deep pains that are only going to be further exacerbated by the coronavirus—have long been among us.
The question comes to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” The question comes to us, “Can these bones live?” In other words, can anything be done to change this reality of lifelessness and hopelessness? The answer, when looking out over a valley of dry bones, is clearly “no.” What’s done is done. What’s dead is dead. Dry bones cannot live again. Why would God ask such a foolish question?
A few years ago, I worshiped at a friend’s church one Sunday when this same passage was the text. As I sat down in a pew, I noticed something strange up at the front of the sanctuary. There was a heap of metal objects on the floor in front of the altar. I wasn’t sure what to make of this unsightly pile of junk in an otherwise very lovely sanctuary, so I ignored it and the worship service began. But when it was time for the scripture reading, and a woman began reading this passage from Ezekiel, about five or six other people who had been seated in the congregation stood up and walked up to the heap and began rummaging through the pieces. I still had no clue what was going on.
But as we were listening to this story, to the words of Ezekiel prophesying to the dry bones, words about bones and sinews and flesh and skin coming together and forming bodies, we began to see the bodies of musical instruments take shape. We watched as tubes and mouthpieces and valves were carefully put in their places. A trumpet was being assembled in one woman’s hands. A trombone began to form in the hands of a young boy. A couple of flutes took shape. And a tuba came to be.
The lector kept reading the text. When she got to the part when God told the lifeless bodies: “I will put my spirit (also translated as “breath”) within you, and you shall live,” these musicians breathed into their instruments and played a hymn in four-part harmony, and the sanctuary was filled with the sounds of music and of life.
The woman continued reading: “And bodies, a vast multitude, stood on their feet,” she said. “And they lived.”
What a story to read in this moment, isn’t it? In the midst of Lent, in the midst of this awful virus, we read a story of a God who causes dry bones to rattle and shake and stand up. What a vision of life!
It may be tempting, though, to take what I’d suggest is a dangerous theology from a story like this, especially at a time like this. A theology that glosses over suffering, or claims that suffering is in service to new life. A theology that says that with God, there really are no valleys of dry bones, because though things may initially seem bad, all is well.
If history tells us anything (with wars and crusades and the Middle Passage and the Holocaust), if the world around us right now tells us anything (with the growing number of coronavirus cases and deaths, with the deaths of two Duke students this past week, with more and more people out of work or out of homes or hungry)—if our past or present tell us anything—it’s that all is not well.
The Israelites knew that too. Despite Ezekiel’s vision of life, the Israelites continued living in exile for years after this. They’d still be coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of their temple and their land (Odell). Still cut off.
So I’m not here today to tell you that everything is going to be OK. Or that God will rescue us from our circumstances or fix all our pain. But what I am here to proclaim is that we have a God who loves us so much that God became a body to walk in this valley with us.
The Gospel text that churches across the world read today that’s paired with this Ezekiel text is the story of Jesus visiting the tomb of his friend Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha who had died. When Jesus arrives at the tomb, Martha said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. In other words: “Where were you Jesus? Why did you abandon us? If you’d been here, this wouldn’t have happened.” And what did Jesus do next? Jesus wept.
We have a God who does not magically make pain and suffering go away. But we have a God who weeps with us. A God who grieves with us. A God who dwells with us in the valleys of this world that are full of dry bones. A God who intimately knows and is present in our pain.
“Can these bones live?” No. It is impossible. There is no way.
And yet…today the good news is that dry bones—somehow, some way—are actually not the end of the story. Death does not get the final word. Because God, against all rationality, makes a way out of no way. God, in the face of all impossibility, keeps making life possible. God raises up dry bones to stand on their feet, and raises up dead friends, and is raised up himself, and keeps on raising up you and me.
Not always in ways we’d expect. Not always on our own schedule. Not always in ways we understand. But hear this good news, my friends: You, who are grieving or scared or feeling far from God or who just might be wondering, “Can these bones live?” are already filled with God’s irrational and impossible gift of life. This does not fix everything, but it does give us—deep inside our bones—the power to stand up. Like those dry bones, we are filled with the power to rise, and to look forward with an irrational and impossible hope. Thanks be to God!
To watch a video recording of this service, go here.
- Luke Powery, “Lectionary Commentary,” The African American Lectionary, August 17, 2008.
- Margaret Odell, “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14,” Working Preacher, April 6, 2014.
- Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14,” Working Preacher, March 9, 2008.
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Virtual Evening Prayer
March 22, 2020
Text: John 4:5-39
I want to begin by inviting you to imagine with me. Imagination is one of the most important tasks of Christians, especially, I think, in times of turmoil. Theologian Stephanie Paulsell goes as far as to say that “[faith] depends on imagi
And in this moment when our physical worlds have suddenly shrunk, when that which is before us is our couch, or our cat, or our computer, this particular moment calls us to do some imagining.
We as Duke Lutherans need to imagine—reimagine—what it means to be the church, what it means to be in community when we’re not at Duke. We need to imagine what “life together” while physically apart looks like. Our leadership team is working on some ideas, so keep an eye on our GroupMe and weekly emails for ways you can continue to take part in “life together” while at home. And please, if you have other ideas, let us know (none of us have ever done this before, and a shared imagination is needed, so we’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas as well!).
So yes, we will be doing lots of imagining and reimagining in the weeks ahead, but tonight, I want to take us back to the source of our imagination, the holy scriptures, which tell the story of a God who took on flesh to live a radically reimagined life. So let’s look closer at one of those stories, the story we just heard from the Gospel of John.
The story is about a woman who had set out to retrieve some water at the city well, but meets Jesus there. Now, we know a couple things about this woman. First, we know she’s a Samaritan. This is not just background information. Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews. As the text itself says: “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” That is to say, this conversation between this woman and Jesus (which, interestingly, is the longest conversation by far that Jesus has with anyone in all four Gospels), was not supposed to happen. This woman would typically have been shunned by a group of Jews like Jesus and his disciples, not just because she’s a woman, which, at that time would have been enough, but because she’s a Samaritan woman.
We also know that the woman goes to the well at noon. This also is not merely background information. You see, women at this time would typically would go to the well, often in groups, in the early hours of the morning while it was still cool outside. But this woman goes in the heat of the midday sun. By herself. We are not sure about her circumstances, but it seems that this woman did not want to be seen, or maybe that she had no choice but to go alone.
We also learn later in her conversation with Jesus that she has had five husbands and the man she’s living with currently is not her husband. Biblical scholars (who, I might add, are predominantly men) have long characterized this woman as a prostitute. But a closer look reveals that we don’t actually know why she’s had so many husbands. Maybe commentators are right about her sexual promiscuity; that’s one viable option. But there are others. Maybe she was a teenage bride. Or maybe she had been widowed multiple times. Maybe she was divorced for being infertile. In that time, the power to divorce was entirely the husbands’. We don’t know. But what we do know is that her marital status renders her abandoned, separated, isolated from her community.
And while the circumstances of our isolation are entirely different—the woman at the well was socially shunned while we are physically separated, the woman at the well was isolated as a result of first century Middle Eastern cultural norms, while our isolation is the result of a pandemic. Entirely different situations. But perhaps these recent days, in which we’re suddenly isolated from our own communities, allow us to glimpse what this woman may have been feeling.
At the well, Jesus cuts through the isolation with a kind of radical connection that was not supposed to happen. A kind of radical sociality rooted in a holy imagination, that saw new ways of togetherness.
And what does Jesus do? He offers her a drink of water. Not just the water from the well that will quench her thirst for a couple of hours, but the waters of life. The waters of God’s very self. God’s love. God’s grace. God’s presence, when the presence of everyone else has all but vanished.
“Give me this water so that I may not thirst,” the woman says.
Did you hear what Jesus says next though? She says give me this water and he asks about her husband. He goes straight to her pain, the source of her isolation, her lowest point. Just as water flows to the lowest point, God’s grace also flows downward, right to our lowest points (Yancy). No matter how low, how isolated, how parched we are, God’s grace, like water, finds every crack and crevice of our lives, bringing with it new and abundant life. What good news this is today, isn’t it?
But, my friends, the story does not end there. What does this woman do after receiving this living water? She goes “back to the city,” the text says. She shares the Good News with her community and it says “many Samaritans from that city believed in [Jesus] because of the woman.” In other words, the woman had not only been given the waters of life, but she was given waters for life—for a whole new way of living! With her deepest thirst quenched by Jesus, she could not but address the needs, quench the thirst of those in her city—those from who she had previously been isolated.
As people who have received this living water, how are we called into the parched places in our neighborhoods and communities? Who are the neighbors around you who are thirsting?
Social distancing is extremely important. To love our neighbor right now means to listen to what our wonderful doctors and healthcare professionals are telling us right now: to stay home—not just for our sake, but for our neighbors’ sake, especially those who are most vulnerable. But let’s not confuse physical distance, though, with social distance. While physical distance is a what it means to love one another right now, sociality is more important than ever. Relationship is more urgent than ever. Connection (virtual connection, that is) is more critical than ever.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve already felt a temptation to see this physical separation as a kind of hibernation. A time to catch up on all the Netflix I’ve been neglecting. Yes, this quarantine may give us a very necessary break from the grind of business as usual—may actually allow us to rest a little bit, to slow our regular hurried paces, to spend more time outdoors, to catch up with friends and family, to read books, or make art, to take a real pause from the treadmill of life at Duke. I hope our bodies and our souls get some time for rest (there’s enough time for Netflix too). But let us not confuse rest with retreat.
The question for us as people of faith right now is how are we called into a greater sociality with our neighbors, the kind of radical togetherness that Jesus shared with this woman at the well? How are we called into physically-distant but so
We, dear Duke Lutherans, are all spread out across the globe so I don’t know exactly what this will look like for you right now. Maybe it looks like calling up elderly neighbors in your church or community to see if there’s anything they need. Maybe it means reaching out to any parents of young kids that you know and offering some virtual tutoring or babysitting to relieve parents for a couple hours a week. If you have favorite restaurants or businesses, perhaps it means reaching out to see how you can support their workers in this uncertain time. If you have a job, maybe it means giving financially to organizations in your community on the front lines, we are called to be generous, even (especially?) in times of scarcity. Maybe, if you’ve got some new time on your hands, it could means researching ways to fight for the protection of our incarcerated neighbors who are particularly vulnerable to infectious disease. If you want to start a pen-pal relationship with folks in prison, let me know and I’ll get you connected. Maybe it means reaching out to the schools in your area to see what emergency services they may need help with (I know Durham Public Schools is looking for 34 drivers to deliver meals for families facing economic hardship). Maybe it looks like writing a note to the health care workers you know to thank them for the incredible work they’re doing and tell them you’ll hold them in prayer. Or calling up that friend struggling with their mental health while stuck at home, or friends for whom home doesn’t feel like home, and telling them you’re there for them. Or calling up each other to check in!
I don’t know what this looks like for you, but as people who have been given the waters of life, we cannot but make life more livable for our neighbors, especially those for whom these next months will be particularly difficult. Because our faith is always one of God meeting us in the places in us that are most parched, and of finding the parched places in our world. Right? As people of faith, we cannot have one without the other: having our deepest thirsts quenched and quenching the thirst of others. Being given water and watering. Being met by Jesus in our isolation, and meeting others in theirs.
So on this night when we gather apart, hear this Good news my friends: We have a God who meets us in our isolation. A God who is here! A God who offers us living waters—the gift of new life—which far exceeds anything we could ever imagine. So come to the well, you who are parched. Drink these waters and live! Amen.
To watch a recording of this service, go here.
“What Kind of Fast?”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke University Chapel
February 26, 2020 – Ash Wednesday
Text: Isaiah 58:1-12
Rev. Ali Tranvik
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
February 23, 2020 – Transfiguration Sunday
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Today we find ourselves on the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, this season that begins with the Magi following a bright star in the dark night, and leads us through many of the stories of Jesus’ ministry, and then lands us here, today, on Transfiguration Sunday (Butler).
Today we find ourselves on a mountaintop, for what I have to admit has always struck me as a bit of a weird encounter. Jesus hikes up a mountain to pray, and brings three of his disciples: Peter, James, and John. The event is ordinary at the outset, but soon something very extraordinary happens: Jesus starts shining. “He was transfigured before [the disciples],” Matthew writes, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” And if that wasn’t strange enough, Moses and Elijah—two characters from back in Exodus, patriarchs of the Jewish faith—appear as well and begin talking with Jesus. Then a bright cloud overshadows them and a voice from the cloud says, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” The whole series of events is so unusual and frightening that the disciples fall to the ground in fear.
And I don’t blame them. I think that would be my reaction too—perhaps even more so given my context in our modern, disenchanted world, in which everything can be explained according to the laws of physics, the “natural” laws revealed by the scientific method. This story, with its supernatural effects unsettles me a bit, because it does not conform to the kind of “normal,” empirically-demonstrable truth claims to which I’ve become accustomed (Hall). Shining faces and reappearing dead people and voices from the sky don’t fit my scientific world view.
Now, we can’t know what that encounter on the mountaintop was really like, or frankly even that it happened—in terms of “scientific truth.” But what’s significant about this account is not its “special effects” but rather what it affirms for the disciples—and for us—about Jesus (Hall). Shining in light, it’s clear that Jesus is not just another special human being, or a particularly talented teacher, or a moral example for all. Shining in light, we see that Jesus is divine. That Jesus is God’s son (Hall). That Jesus is the living God among us, who shows up in ways that are always going to surprise us, startle us, unnerve us.
Each Sunday night over on campus, the Duke Lutherans community gathers for a service of Evening Prayer and a fellowship meal (you’re always welcome to join us, by the way!). At these gatherings the past few weeks during the season of Epiphany, we’ve explored some of the surprising ways God shows up among us. We framed it through John 1:14, which is often translated as “The Word became flesh and dwelled among us,” but which the Message Bible translates as “The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” Through stories of scripture and stories of our own lives, we’ve looked at how God is alive and at work not only in “the neighborhood,” but in “our neighborhood,” at Duke and in Durham. We’ve tried to see God with new eyes (Christina preached a beautiful sermon about this new kind of seeing last week). We’ve tried to see God appear before us—in our classes and dorm rooms, in our apartment buildings and our jobs, in bread and in wine, in water and in word, in our neighbor and in the stranger, in the darkness of our lives, and now today, in the shining light of the transfiguration.
So what does “transfiguration” mean? It’s probably not a word most of us use on a daily basis. The word for transfiguration in Greek is “metamorphose,” which is used to describe a transformation from one way of being into another (we may think of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly). Transfiguration is a word that suggests activity, movement, motion. Antonyms of transfiguration might be stagnancy, stability, immobility.
The word draws to mind a prayer that Martin Luther once wrote: “This life is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be, but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished, but it is going on, this is not the end, but it is the road.”
The life of faith, the transfigured life, in other words, is a life of movement. Or perhaps I should say, a life of being moved. Being stirred to action. Set in motion. Because Jesus—who’s transfigured before the disciples on the mountain, whose whole life is one of transfiguring, and as a result, whose body we transfigured by hanging from a cross, and then was transfigured again three day later—this transfigured Jesus also transfigures us. This God who lived a life of constant movement (a life on the run, running with and towards those in need as the authorities chased him for not following the “natural” laws), this “God on the move”necessarily moves us.
I want to tell you a story, one of many that some of our Duke Lutherans will learn more about in a couple weeks on the spring break Freedom Ride to Atlanta and Montgomery. It’s a story about a man named Robert Graetz. Graetz was born in 1928 to a middle-class family in Charleston, West Virginia. It was a largely segregated town, in which Graetz attended all-white schools. He reflected back on the racial segregation of those early years and said, “There were black people around but my only real contacts were with janitors and others in menial positions. Helen, our cleaning woman, was the [black person] I knew best. Otherwise, black [folks] had no significance for me…they were often the butt of jokes and not considered people of value” (A White Preacher’s Memoir). Based on these words, it’s clear that Graetz grew up largely shielded from the unjust realities of Jim Crow America, in a system designed to instill fear in white folks of their black and brown neighbors.
Graetz went on to attend Capital University in Ohio, followed by seminary, where he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. In 1955, when Graetz was just 28 years old, he and his wife Jeannie accepted a call to move to Montgomery, AL, where he was called to serve as the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, an all-black congregation, just as the Civil Rights Movement began to take root.
As Graetz and wife packed their bags for Montgomery, Graetz was contacted by his superiors in the Lutheran church with a warning to “not rock the boat.” They made him promise, “to not start trouble.” He did promise not to start the trouble. But just weeks into his new ministry in Montgomery, Graetz says he joined the trouble that was already underway. The movement had begun, and Graetz couldn’t help but get caught up in it. Graetz—whose heart was beginning to be transfigured by the faith and courage of his black brothers and sisters who contested the laws of “nature” in order to help those in need—soon became the only white pastor in Montgomery to support the bus boycott there.
Now, I’m not sure Graetz himself would ever narrate his own story as such, but I want to suggest we today read it as one of transfiguration. A white man from segregated West Virginia, whose fear and racism ran deep, soon learned that “faith is not rest but exercise,” as Luther’s prayer said. Graetz was moved to work alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, and others in the black community of Montgomery to end the segregation of buses, a boycott that lasted over 500 days before city authorities finally gave in, and during which Robert and Jeannie’s home was bombed twice. In his memoir, Graetz wrote, “Dr. King used to talk about the reality that some of us were going to die and that if any of us were afraid to die we really shouldn’t be here.” Their three young children were also threatened. Jeannie received anonymous phone calls during that time, saying, “We see your children are out playing in the yard…”
In the midst of the bombings and the fear that undoubtedly accompanied them, Robert Graetz seemed to take his friend and fellow trouble-maker Martin Luther King Jr.’s words to heart, when King said “If you can’t fly then run. If you can’t run then walk. If you can’t walk then crawl. But whatever you do, keep moving.” And so he did.
Graetz’s story of what I would call transfiguration is an important one for us in these turbulent times. But it’s important to note, especially as we near the season of Lent, where we are called to take an honest look at ourselves, our church, our history, that Graetz was a remarkable exception to white Christianity’s quietist status quo. Most white pastors, along with white Christians in general, stood silently by in the face of racial injustice. While Graetz was an outlier, I also think it’s important to note, that he is not a hero. Making him into one allows me to distance myself from him, and gets me off the hook for my own inaction, for my own stagnancy.
Graetz was a man—just like you or like me—who was transfigured. And a man who knew the costs involved of a transfigured life. A man who was caught up in the movement. And if Graetz could be moved, so too can any of us.
How are you caught up in the movement? To be clear, I’m not talking about engaging in boycotts or political rallies or protests in the streets (although that may be part of it). Movement does not just mean organized “movements.” Rather, being caught up in the movement of transfiguration, I want to suggest, is being caught up in God’s active love.
I have one of the coolest jobs ever, because I get to watch little moments of movement—of transfiguration—every day in the Duke Lutherans community. I see movement in one Duke Lutheran, who’s challenging us all this Lent to give us using plastics. I think of another Duke Lutheran who wasn’t able to drive in the snow this past week and so instead of getting a couple extra hours of sleep ended up walking multiple miles to show up to cook and eat breakfast with neighbors who needed a hot meal. I think of the Duke Lutheran who is moved to beautifully improvise with new notes on top of old hymns on the piano when we gather for Evening Prayer. I think of the four Duke Lutherans who show up and grab a shovel and prepare the ground for a community garden that we’re beginning with neighbors in the West End this spring. Obviously, there are also days of fear and stagnancy, but I see God, living and moving and shining in this community all the time.
“What does it mean to be moved?” Dartmouth Jewish studies professor Susannah Heschel asks. It’s a good question, and one worth pausing to ponder for a moment. J Kameron Carter, one of my teachers at Duke Divinity School, says “to be moved is to undergo something. It is to be set in flight, to be set roaming and roving and wandering, to be opened out into what exceeds you, to move into the open, to have one’s limits crossed, borders breached, the very notion of ‘world’ broken open.”
To have our limits cross, our borders breached, our world broken open, our whole lives transfigured, we too may fall to the ground, overcome by fear, immobile like the disciples. We may not want to be moved. We may be just fine with things the way they are. We may not like what movement entails. We may be afraid. I’m afraid.
The perhaps unwanted news today is that movement doesn’t overcome our fear. But the life-giving and good, good news this morning is that being moved in God’s means our fear does not overcome us. Listen again to the words that the transfigured Jesus spoke to his disciples on the mountaintop. When they were on the ground, overcome by fear, he says “Get up and do not be afraid.” The Greek word for “get up” here is “egeiro,” which suggests not only physically standing, but being raised more broadly. In other words, not only raised to our feet but to a new way of living and moving in the world!
Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples that things will be easy. That they will be safe. That life will be stable and secure. Instead he touches them—an intimate, loving gesture of his presence—and the four men walk down the mountain together.
What they’re walking down into—what follows the story of the Transfiguration—is the beginning of the end of Jesus’ life. No more wedding parties and hanging out with children and fish fries on the shores the Galilee. Instead, last suppers, betrayal, suffering, and death lie ahead.
Transfiguration Sunday, then, is this pivotal Sunday—it’s the culmination of the season of light, where Jesus embodies that light quite literally, and it’s a day that leans undeniably into the darkness of Lent, when, in just a few weeks, we will meet Jesus on another mountaintop, this time not shining but nailed to a cross.
As we begin Lent this week, we are asked whether we will get up, be moved, and head back down the mountain with Jesus to Jerusalem where crucifixion awaits.
Professor Heschel—who asked the question “What does it mean to be moved?–doesn’t leave us with any clear answers. But what she does say is that being moved (being transfigured) is precisely to not give into despair, knowing that “there’s something else coming” (Carter).
So “get up and do not be afraid!” Let’s head back down this mountain together and move boldly into the darkness ahead. For our deep comfort and hope and joy is that Jesus shines and lives and moves with us and within in. And there’s something else coming.
- “Bombed by the K.K.K. A Friend of Rosa Parks. At 90, This White Pastor Is Still Fighting,” New York Times (Aug 17, 2018).
- “Robert Graetz: Civil Rights Leader,” American Freedom Stories, Biography (Jan 5, 2014).
- “Shine Jesus Shine,” Rev. Amy Butler, Riverside Church, NYC (Feb 7, 2016).
- “Something Else A’Coming’‘” J Kameron Carter, Contending Modernities (May 31, 2019).
Yes, the story you just heard is the Christmas story. No, it wasn’t a mistake. Yes, I know Christmas is over and that it is now late January. (Yes, our Christmas tree is still up at our apartment, but that’s beside the point).
So why are we back to Bethlehem? Back to the shepherds and the angels, to Mary and Joseph and the child lying in a manger? As we talked about last week, in this season of Epiphany, we are trying to think together about what it means that “God has moved into the neighborhood,” not only into “the” neighborhood but “our” neighborhood, right here at Duke and in Durham. What it means that God not only dwelled among us physically/materially in the incarnation, but how God continues to dwell among us physically/materially today–often in the people and places we least expect.
Last week, we looked at how God is here, how God gets close, by starting at the most elemental level of proximity. “Clothed in Christ,” God is as close to us as the very clothing on our bodies. Tonight, we’ve moving outward a bit, looking for God not on us, but around us.
Tonight’s text from Luke’s Christmas narrative is the part about the shepherds. As Kayla described, the shepherds are out in their fields and get a surprise visit from an angel who announces, “God is here! And he’s in your neighborhood! Go see for yourself!”
But did you hear what the shepherds did after witnessing God incarnate, what they did in light of their new neighbor? They didn’t go the synagogues to worship, or pause for prayer. They didn’t become rabbis and start preaching about Jesus. They didn’t drop their cloaks and staffs and head out on a big evangelistic mission to tell everyone the news. It says the shepherds “returned [to their fields], glorifying and praising God.”
They shared the good news of God by? …going back to work. It said the shepherds returned! God moving into the neighborhood compelled them back into the neighborhood! Back to their fields, back to their sheep, back to the very same thing they were doing before.
But they didn’t return to those fields in the same way they left them. This baby who had taken up residence in the neighborhood changed things. It changed them. It changed the way they did their work. It called them back to where they already were, to do the same work, in a whole new way.
Martin Luther once said, “wherever you are, there you are called.” He was describing what we call “vocation,” the idea that living our faith isn’t limited “church stuff,” like Evening Prayer on Sundays, or bilingual tutoring on Tuesday nights, or sharing breakfasts with our neighbors who live in the woods that surround Duke’s campus on Friday mornings—the things we do as a church. Vocation means that all of life is an opportunity to see that God is here. All of life becomes a way to live out our faith and into that reality—as students and siblings and friends and sorority sisters and band mates and lab mates. In all of the ordinary, un-glamorous, “right-where-we-are” stuff of daily life.
Now, I’d be remiss to continue on without stopping for a moment to say something about vocation that I think the church fails to name often enough. And that is how the theology of vocation can be—and throughout history has been—used as a way to maintain an unjust status quo. To justify things the way they are. And the way things are is often profoundly unjust! Whether used by a slave master to a slave, or a domestic abuser to a survivor, or the rich to the poor, “wherever you are there you are called” can be wielded as a weapon of oppression, as a way of saying “stop complaining, this is part of God’s plan.” I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that there’s no such thing as “vocation” when it comes to relationships of slavery, abuse, economic exploitation. Which means that sometimes, the call may be to “drop your nets” and go elsewhere, away from the place you are.
But I do think vocation can be helpful as a lens for those of us who are students in our lives here at Duke. Because vocation is quite counter-cultural, especially for us here at Duke. A place designed to help us land jobs or internships or research grants or spots in the next prestigious school. The logic of this place is that we’re only here so that we can move up and move on to the next, right? Doing the work that we’re already doing in the place where we already are does not make for very attractive Instagram photos or lines or our resumes. That’s not the stuff that makes the alumni magazine…
After seeing that God is here, the shepherds get back to work in their fields. So the question for us tonight is, given that God is here, what is our work? Where are our fields?
Most immediately, our field is Duke. How can you live out your faith in your dorm? Your SLG? What does it mean to know that Christ is at Twinnies or line at ABP? In your public policy class and your lab? How are you called into relationships not just with the people in those places who are there to help you advance through them, but the people who aren’t going to help your grades or career…the cleaning staff, the parking attendants, the people who re-fill the vats at the Perk with hot coffee or ones behind the registers of the Duke store?
I don’t think faith means telling these people about God. That’s not what the shepherds did, right? Faith is about paying attention to the people who live here. It’s about actually seeing the people who work here. About taking the small, ordinary, everyday kind of encounters and seeing them through the lens of faith. About noticing God in the rhythms of our daily work and daily life…
I want to do something a little bit different for a minute. I want to pause and have us reflect together a little bit on vocation. We’re going to do a little activity that helps us see our daily life and our daily work here in this “field” as ways where we can live out our faith. A quick story to frame things: There was once a man walking through his town and he noticed a group of people building something. The man stopped and as the first worker, what are you doing? “I’m making bricks.” The man asked another worker who was doing the same thing, that same question. “I’m building a school.” Again, the man asked another worker, doing the same thing, that same question. “I’m giving God glory.” Same work, three different ways of seeing it. So with one or two people around you, I want you to share one mundane, routine thing you do in your life here in this field of Duke, and then share three ways of thinking about it. Example: I am doing my public policy homework. I am furthering my education. I am glorifying God. Let’s take a couple minutes to do this then come back together…
I hope you had the chance to see, and I hope you have the chance to continue seeing, all the ways that we can live out our faith in this “field” here at Duke. But we also live in another field: Durham. You may have already caught wind of this, but I want to tell you about a situation that’s happening in this broader “field” right now that’s been getting national news coverage the past couple of weeks. There is a public housing complex just a few miles from here called McDougald Terrace. It was built in 1953 as a place to concentrate Durham’s poor. For decades, now, McDougald has suffered chronic disrepair–mold, mold, carbon monoxide, gas leaks, the list goes on. Recently, two infants living at McDougald died in their sleep, prompting the entire complex to evacuate. 270 families have been displaced from their homes, and are now staying temporarily in various hotels across Durham.
More general or long-term questions arise, like: what is Durham to do in the midst of an increasingly urgent affordable housing crisis? How does a city who prides itself on its a progressive reputation, on its many services that address the needs of the poor, justify the growing gap between those who live in the shiny new buildings of downtown or in Duke’s dorms, and those whose complaints of unsafe living conditions are ignored or denied until two babies die? Or, why is none of the $95 million dollar housing bond that was recently passed to address affording housing in Durham being allocated to McDougald Terrace?
But we’ve got immediate questions to deal with too. Needs of our neighbors temporarily living in hotels around things like transportation, food, childcare—not to mention the trauma of displacement, the reminder that their lives (as poor black people) have long not mattered in the eyes of their city, the grief over two infant deaths, the uncertainty of what’s next.
Because we’ve tried to listen and pay attention to what’s happening here, we’ve learned of a few specific ways we can get involved. There are needs around toiletries and baby care items and school supplies, so we’ve got donation boxes here tonight, and will continue to have them out on Sunday nights while there are particular needs. Also, our help is needed with some child care at St. Paul’s this Wednesday afternoon. I can give you more info after Evening Prayer if you’re interested.
If, like the shepherds, we really believe that God has moved into the neighborhood, how are we called to take part in our neighborhood? How are we called into the work of these fields of Duke and Durham? I want to close by sharing with you something interesting that Pope Francis recently said that helps us get at that.
He was recently talking to a bunch of Christians and one person asked him, “What’s the most important thing I can do to live out my faith?” His answer didn’t have anything to do with telling people about Jesus. He didn’t say anything about going to church. He didn’t say it means following all the rules—like not swearing, or not drinking at parties. He said to be Christian is to be like a shepherd. But to be like a shepherd, he said, “you must smell like sheep.” I’d venture to guess he wasn’t speaking literally, that seems kind of gross. He meant, as explained in his next words, that like shepherds, we must let those we tend to “rub off on us.” We must get close. So close that we become people marked by the odor of our work. Like shepherds, we must go to the places of suffering and chaos and crisis, the places where sheep are stranded and in danger. We must live with hay in our hair, our cloaks tattered and our crooks worn thin. Our sheep, in other words, must be so much a part of who we are and what we do, that we as shepherds begin to smell like them.
The verse Christina read puts it like this: Through us, Christ spreads a fragrance, an aroma that comes with knowing him. For we are not peddlers of God’s word, but we are people who, because of the presence of Christ, we begin to smell like Christ. Faith, in other words, is not about what we say, but about how we smell!
God get close to us, so that we can get close to others. The daily work of getting close, of showing up, may sound hard, it may sound like a lot on top of an already-busy schedule. I’m here to tell you that it is. But I’m also here to tell you that it is genuinely the most joyful thing you’ll ever do. Because it is in getting close to one another, that we encounter the living God. The God who is love, and who is here. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“God the Migrant”
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
November 24, 2019
Text: Matthew 2:13-23
By Jovita Byemerwa
I wonder what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph to flee with baby Jesus by night, leaving everything they knew and facing the unknowns of a foreign place. However they knew that staying was not an option: it guaranteed death. Last year, I read a story of a Guatemalan woman who was impaled in metal bars as she attempted to jump over the US–Mexico border wall with her two children. Since reading the story, I have found myself thinking a lot about her decision, a decision that was labelled “very foolish” by a U.S border chief patrol agent. I must admit that I too was struck by the “foolishness” of the story. What would make this woman, a mother, decide that crossing in that way, with two children was a good decision?” I wondered. “What could be so bad that this was the best way forward? What exactly was it that she was fleeing from?”
It feels easier to me to empathize with Jesus’ migrant story in tonight’s scripture reading than with this mother’s migrant story. In Jesus’ story, we know who Jesus is. We know what Jesus was fleeing from. And there’s even an angel of God who shows up for some added credibility. On the other hand, the story of the Guatemalan migrant woman describes someone unknown to me, fleeing a Herod that isn’t obvious to me, and there are no angels involved…at least not according to the news report.
Indeed, I know very little about this woman or her story. But as I think of her story, I find myself using my unanswered questions to distance myself from her. To extract myself from her situation and to wash my hands of relation or responsibility. While I welcome the image of God the migrant, I have a harder time doing the same for her.
But the truth is, as much as I try, I cannot separate myself from this woman. Because the truth is, we all are running from different kinds of death. She isn’t the only one fleeing. Herod was fleeing from a death of a certain kind: his power. This woman fled from death, quite literally. You and I try our best to escape death too. But in this process of fleeing from death, we overlook an important detail: that we are all fleeing towards something. We are all seeking out life wherever we can find it. And these things connect us all, no matter what side of the border (or the political aisle) we find ourselves on.
Perhaps we don’t need complete stories or all the answers or angelic confirmations to recognize that we are all on the road together. To recognize this very hunger for life–and life abundant–that is in us all.
By Rev. Ali Tranvik
In the verses just before the ones you heard Eric read a few minutes ago, the three wise men notify Herod, king of Judea, of Jesus’ birth. “Where is this child?” The wise men ask. “He is the king of the Jews, and we have come to pay him homage.” Herod, immediately threatened by this “new king,” is filled with fear. And so Herod plots to destroy Jesus, slaughtering all infants in and around Bethlehem under the age of two along the way. Overcome with this sense of threat, Herod in other words, doubles down on control, on containment, on maintaining “good order.” On devising a plan for stability. On organizing those who fit his definition of worthy and lived according to his terms, and getting rid of those who don’t.
Now, I am not a king, or a queen, but if I am being honest, I share more in common with Herod than I’d like to admit. I, like Herod, I like to feel in control. I like making plans. I have goals and visions for what’s best for me and “my own.” I like when things are stable, when life is fairly predictable. And as a result, I don’t welcome surprise, I don’t hope for the unexpected. I have learned the art of management—in my relationships, my job, my faith—because I like that which I can contain, that which I can control.
Jesus (not to mention his unwed teenage mom and no-name carpenter dad), is an obvious misfit in Herod’s “good order.” From the very get-go, Jesus was thoroughly un-welcome. And so he flees, migrating to Egypt with his family in the first days of his life. Jesus, in other words, was born a fugitive. Born itinerant, homeless. Born “on the run.” And frankly, Jesus never really stops running, does he? He never stops walking and wandering and crossing borders. This is a God who lives life on the move. A God who destabilizes our “order.” A God whose love could not be controlled or contained. A God whose very life itself could not be contained, not even by death itself, the ultimate “barrier.” A God who comes to us as an un-asked-for Christmas gift, no matter how hard we try to draw lines to stop it, even though we didn’t ask for it, even though we most certainly don’t deserve it. A God whose gift of life–and life together–is already given, no matter how hard we try to restrict or contain it.
And, if I am being honest, this profoundly unwelcome, uncontrollable, uncontainable love is what I long for most this Advent…
Art by Kelly Latimore
“God the Potter”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Preached at Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
November 3, 2019
Text: Isaiah 64:1-9
“We are the clay, you are our potter.” -Isaiah 64:8. The potter does not have an easy job. Even before sitting down at the wheel, there is much work to be done. The potter first extracts from the earth the sticky clay—an ancient, organic substance that has decayed and rotted in the ground for thousands of years. Then the potter carefully removes the small rocks, sticks, and other organic materials that would damage the finished pot. This process takes a long time, as the clay needs to be pounded down, sifted clean, wet, re-mixed, and dried. The potter then works out air bubbles using a method called wedging, where she kneads the clay over and over with her hands, aligning its particles and making its texture pure and smooth. When the clay is finally ready to throw—ready to be molded and formed into a vessel—the potter places it on a wheel. But if the clay is not attached firmly enough, it will fly right off when the wheel begins to spin. So the clay undergoes a process of what potters call “centering.” To center the clay, the potter must use a forceful pressure, slowly balancing out this wobbling and lopsided lump around the spinning wheel. Once the clay is centered, though, it quickly becomes dry and begins to resist the potter’s molding. Dry clay is difficult to work with, so the potter splashes it with water, which brings the clay to life and allows it to be formed. As the wheel spins, the potter gets very dirty—wet clay is spinning off in all directions. But the potter’s hands are strong, and guide the clay, forming a vessel from the inside out. The clay is then sent into the fire, where it becomes sturdy and strong. The potter has formed a vessel, from nothing more than the dust from the earth. And yes, to dust it will someday return. But…you can see the potter’s fingerprints in the vessel’s surface, if you look closely…
I recently learned about a kind of Japanese pottery called “kintsugi,” which translates literally to “golden repair.” It is the art of repairing ceramic pots and vases that have been broken. Kintsugi uses a kind of glue, but what makes this art form unique is that it’s then mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. What this does, when the pieces of the pot are rejoined, is actually highlights the points of breakage. The cracks are not disguised or smoothed over but rather illuminated in shimmering (even gaudy?) gold. The cracks become a visible part of the object’s history, part of its story, part of its beauty (rumor has that when this art form first originated in the late 15th century, Japanese collectors found these Kintsugi pots so stunning that some deliberately smashed objects of value so they could be repaired with the popular gold seams. Who knows if that’s true, but it’s kind of a funny image nonetheless). Kintsugi reflects a larger Japanese philosophy, which embraces that which is flawed. It is an aesthetic of imperfection and incompletion. It values marks of wear, it celebrates the use of an object, the work it has done, the work it has yet to do. Since its conception, people across time and place have become captivated by Kintsugi. It’s displayed in top museums, it’s created a kind of niche tourism in Japan, it even became the title of American rock band, “Death Cab for Cutie’s” 2015 album. Who knew. Regardless, there is something we are drawn to in this kind of art. Something that gives us hope in seeing broken things stuck together again. Something that perhaps reminds us of ourselves. Something that reminds us of our Potter God, who works with sharp and shattered stuff, reforming us again and again, painting us gold and making us of use for the world. Thanks be to God!
“Taste and See”
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer – Duke Gardens
September 15, 2019
Text: Luke 24:13-35
Last year, I was part of a book club that met once a month on a Saturday morning for a potluck breakfast – everyone was supposed to bring one breakfast item to share. One month in particular, I did not have it together. I was not at all ready with something to contribute to the meal, so on my way over to my friend’s home, I stopped by the grocery store and picked up a loaf of bread.
When I arrived to the house, I added my bread to the breakfast spread, only to look around the counter and see…only bread. There were, I kid you not, 11 different breads on the counter, brought by the yes, 11 book group members. This group had gone for many months of potlucks that had resulted in well-balanced (or at least mostly well-balanced) breakfasts, but this time, there was nothing but bread. No egg bake. No orange juice. No fruit. No bacon (!?). Instead, there was rye bread and wheat bread, bagels and a baguette, a sourdough loaf and cinnamon raisin toast. There was even a gluten-free bread, but honestly, given the amount of gluten that was just in the air of that kitchen, I don’t the gluten-free loaf stood a chance.
Just briefly eye-balling our potluck items tonight, I think we’ve hit a few more food groups this time. Well done.
Aside from being an easy last-minute thing to bring to a potluck meal, I think we also may have ended up with only bread that morning because bread is such a fundamental part of so many of our meals. It’s one of staples the human diet in nearly every country and culture of the world—tortillas in Mexico, croissants in France, naan in India, injera in Ethiopia, challah in Israel, pretzels in Germany, arepas in Colombia, and I don’t know, hamburger buns here in the States!?
Bread is such a staple—it’s so commonplace on tables throughout the world—that I think it’s easy to take it for granted, to think of bread as kind of the mundane, even the drab part of the meal. There’s often nothing particularly notable about bread. Bread is so extraordinarily ordinary.
In today’s story from Luke, two disciples are walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Three days prior, Jesus had died. So this was the same day the women had gone to the tomb and discovered it was empty. So we can imagine that this is a day full of utter confusion, of complicated grieving (to say the least), maybe of suspicion, of fear for what this would all mean, for what would come next.
Two disciples were walking and talking about all of this, and all of the sudden, the risen Jesus himself shows up and joins them on their journey to Emmaus. But they did not recognize him. They called him a “stranger.” This “stranger” proceeds to jump right into the conversation and try to help the two disciples clear up some of their confusion. He points to scripture, explaining that all of this had been prophesied. He explains, in other words, the significance of his own death. But even Jesus’ best, most eloquent scriptural, theological explanation didn’t open their eyes. Which is crazy, right!? This was the most prominent prophecy in all of scripture explained by the prophet himself. But they did not recognize them.
It began to get late and the two disciples invited Jesus to come stay at their home, which is odd, given this was someone who they thought they had just met, someone they believed to be a complete “stranger.” This was someone they still did not recognize—until what? Until they sat down at the table…
This fall, Duke Lutherans is exploring “the table.” Life together at the table. We are looking at stories in scripture that deal with food and eating and feeding, and thinking about what they mean for the way we gather at tables at Duke and throughout Durham.
It is at a table where the disciples finally recognize Jesus. It is when Jesus breaks bread that they finally see him. It is when Jesus does the “most Jesus” thing of all, that their eyes are opened to who he really is.
I wonder what we think is the most characteristic activity of Jesus. When we imagine Jesus, what is he doing (Barreto)? For many people, he’s probably on the cross. Or maybe he’s preaching to a crowd. For some, he may be healing the sick. For others, enthroned at the right hand of God. For Luke, though, the most distinctively “Jesus” thing is breaking bread…with friends and sinners and tax collectors and women and Pharisees and poor folks and people who by many standards were not considered “appropriate” dinner guests (Barreto).
So in this story it was not Jesus’s physical presence that opened the disciples’ eyes. It was not his teaching, or his knowledge of scripture. Think about that…disciples had spent years being in the presence of Jesus, listening to him teach and preach. They knew that face. They knew the sound of his voice. They had known this man intimately, yet failed to see him when he joined them on the road. They’d failed to hear him when he spoke. But it was when they ate with Jesus, when they tasted bread,that they finally recognized him. It was the moment, our text says, “when he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples,” which, as you probably recognize, are almost the exact words we read a couple chapters earlier when Jesus and the disciples find themselves at another meal, at another table, breaking another loaf of bread. When Jesus had taken bread then and said “this bread is my body broken for you,” and took wine and said “this is my blood, shed for you” –foretelling the ways that his actual body would be broken and literal blood would be shed just hours later.
Some of you may know that both of my parents are Lutheran pastors, so having grown up in the church quite literally, I’ve heard those words, which are said each week before Communion, more times than I can count. I’ve eaten so much Communion bread over the years that it had become routine, about as ordinary and familiar and unremarkable as the bread of the PB&J sandwiches I ate for lunch every day as a kid.
But a couple years ago, I read a book that reminded me that this meal is anything but ordinary. Sara Miles, in her book “Take this Bread,” retells the story of when she, a lifelong atheist, at age 46, decided to peek into a neighborhood church that she had walked past for years, and ended up taking part in a small communion service, an experience that would eventually take her from professional chef to founder of this incredible food ministry for folks experiencing homelessness in the Bay Area. I quote a piece of her story now:
“I still can’t explain my first Communion,” Miles writes. “It made no sense. I was in tears and physically unbalanced: like I’d just been knocked over from behind. The disconnect between what I thought was happening—I was eating a piece of bread; what I heard someone else say was happening—the piece of bread was the “body” of “Christ,” a patently untrue, or at best metaphorical statement; and what I on some odd level knew was happening—God, named “Jesus” was real, and in my mouth—utterly short-circuited my ability to do anything but cry.
Why did Communion move me?” Miles continues. “Why was I completely stirred up by someone whose name I’d only spoken before as a casual expletive? I couldn’t reconcile the experience with anything I knew or had been told. But neither could I go away: for some inexplicable reason, I wanted that bread again. I craved it all the next day after my first Communion, and the next week, and the next. It was a sensation as urgent as physical hunger, pulling me back to the table through my fear and confusion.
As I struggled with bread and belief over the following year, it stayed hard,” Miles writes. “I began to understand why so many people chose to follow rules that would tell them what to do, once and for all. It was tempting to rely on a formula of religion, which actually kept you from experiencing God in your flesh, in the flesh of others. It was tempting to proclaim yourself an official Christian and go back to sleep. But the faith I was finding,” Miles said, “was jagged and more difficult. It wasn’t about abstract ideas. It was about action. Taste and see, the Bible said, and I did. I was tasting a connection between Communion and food—between my new faith and my real life. My first year at church ended with a question whose urgency would propel me into work I’d never imagined: Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”
Sara Miles taught me how to recognize Jesus in bread. How to recognize Jesus at the table. She helped me see the strange power and gift of being fed and nourished, strengthened and sustained by Jesus in bread-form. But she also helped me recognize that being fed changes us. It transforms us. When we “eat Jesus,” as Miles provocatively but accurately puts it, we cannot but live differently because of it. We cannot but do something about it. For Miles, that looked like starting a food pantry and giving away literal tons of fruit and vegetables around the same altar where she had first received the body of Christ. “Now that you’ve taken the bread, what are you going to do?”
Norman Wirzba, a professor at Duke Divinity School, puts it like this: “If we are what we eat, then eating Jesus should make us more like him.” Eating the body of Christ, in other words, we become the body of Christ. Eating this bread, we become bread for the world.
We become for the world hands that care for bodies that are sick and hurting. We become for the world a sanctuary to “strangers” (or those we mistake as “strangers” until we too recognize that they are Jesus in our midst). We become for the world a power that stands against the sins of racism and white supremacy. We become for the world a welcome for our LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters. We become for the world bread that feeds our neighbors right here in Durham who are hungry. We become for the world people who call out the greed and hoarding that make it so that some people do not have material bread!
Because Jesus chooses to show up in bread means that all of our ordinary, routine meals together become radical. “Ordinary” tables become places of transformation. “Ordinary” bread becomes a way to recognize Jesus. “Ordinary” company (no offense anyone) are possibilities for holy encounters. This means that you don’t need to start a food pantry, or travel across the world to fight global hunger. You just need to show up in the places where you already are. To meet God and one another at the tables you already eat at. The tables in your kitchens and in restaurants and at coffee shops and in public parks and even at the cafeteria tables at Duke. Frankly, these everyday encounters around tables are much more difficult work.
But we are fed and strengthened for it, beginning right here and this table tonight. So come. Taste and see. Be fed by the body of Christ and then go out as the body of Christ. Into the world. For the world. Amen!
-Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Luke 24:13-35,” Working Preacher, April 23, 2017.
-Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversation (New York, NY: Random House Inc.), 2007.
-Norman Wirzba and Fred Bahnson, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2012.
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
September 8, 2019
Text: Acts 16:9-15
I’ve always loved Lydia. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been drawn to this woman we hear about in today’s reading from Acts. I’m not quite sure what it was…
…It could have been her rather intriguing line of work, a textile merchant who dealt only in purples. Very niche.
…Or maybe I’ve come to admire her business skills. Lydia was a savvy businesswoman who defied the gender norms of her day and became one of Thyratira’s most successful entrepreneurs.
…Or maybe I was drawn to Lydia as a child because I yearned to see women in scripture who were disciples, strong leaders, ministers. Perhaps Lydia helped me understand from an early age that maybe God could use me as a woman in ministry too…
This fall, Duke Lutherans is exploring “the table.” We are looking at what it means to share life together (a phrase we talk about a lot around here) by eating together. We’re taking stories in scripture that deal with food and eating and feeding, and thinking about what they mean for the way we gather at tables at Duke and throughout Durham.
But before we get to the table, there’s something else to look at first. Because eating together always starts with an invitation, right?With someone showing hospitality. And that’s just what tonight’s story is about. Paul and his fellow evangelists arrive in Macedonia, and they meet a group of women praying by the river. One of these women is Lydia. Lydia listens to Paul and she’s baptized and then says this: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my home.”
The way I think this text is often read is fairly straightforward. Paul is an important guy, so after meeting him and hearing him, Lydia invites him over to her house for dinner. In doing so, Lydia models hospitality. She teaches us what it means to invite, to give a warm welcome.
But I think there’s more going on here if we take a closer look. While it may seem like a well-mannered, customary dinner invite on the surface, Lydia’s invitation is actually quite radical. You see, Paul is Jewish, Lydia is a Gentile. Paul is a man, Lydia, a woman. Paul, a citizen of the Roman Empire. Lydia, a foreigner. Meals across these sorts of lines weren’t supposed to happen. But let’s also remember, this Paul is not the Paul we know, many centuries later. We see Paul as a hugely important and illustrious figure in church history. But in his day, Paul was a religious fanatic who went around preaching about a guy who apparently rose from the dead and then converted Paul by making scales fall off his eyes. I mean, Paul was out there, an outlaw, who was repeatedly beaten, imprisoned, and eventually killed for his faith. But as far as we can tell, Lydia never asked “Who are you? Where are you from? What are your intentions? Who are you buddies over here? Can I trust you?” She simply—and almost immediately after meeting him—invites this man (and his friends) into her home.
But the story gets even weirder when we keep digging. Listen again to how Lydia invites Paul: “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord,” she says, “come to my home.” That’s not how invitations usually work, right? That’s an odd set-up. She could’ve said, “if you have time, come on over” or “if you’re interested.” But instead she says “if I’m faithful.” Have you ever gotten an invitation like that!? “If you think I’m faithful, let’s get lunch at ABP next week.” Or “If I’m faithful, let’s meet up for a beer.” That’d be a weird invitation, wouldn’t it? But that’s what Lydia says, and I think that her doing so shifts our attention in this story from the invitation to faith. In other words, this story that we think is about invitation is actually about faith. So what’s really going on here? What is this faith thing all about?
Faith, we believe as Lutherans, is a gift. It’s not something we do or earn or need to muster up on our own when we’re “strong” enough or “holy” enough. Regardless of how good we are, or smart or accomplished we are, faith is already given. Let me put it a little differently in the context of this story: Faith is knowing that we’ve already been invited to the table. That the table is already set. That the feast has already there. And that the host is not us but Christ, at whose table we are all guests.
Through this lens, then, we could read Lydia’s words (“If I am faithful, come to my home”) as, “having been given the gift of faith, I’ll see ya at my place! Having already received the invitation, come join the feast! The feast isn’t mine—it was given to me, to all of us, to share together!” Hospitality, in other words, isn’t Lydia’s to give. It’s already there. And I think her invitation to Paul seems to show that she knows this.Given the gift of faith, how could Lydia not extend an invitation to Paul? As a guest at a table that is not hers, how could she not add a few more chairs?
This invitation has already been extended to you, Duke Lutherans. God has already pulled up a chair at the table for you. You, who are already feeling overworked or overwhelmed.You, who are so tired that you’ve been dozing through this sermon until I just started using the word “you.” You, who are lonely. You, who are afraid.You, who are struggling with depression, or anxiety.You, who are worrying about a loved one and are stuck far away.You, who aren’t sure if you belong here.
You already have a place at God’s table. So what does it mean to live as people who have already received the invitation? How do we live hospitably—and faithfully—here at Duke? In Durham?
It may mean finding ourselves at literal tables with the “Pauls” of our world. Breaking bread with people we don’t know, people we might find suspect, people whose backgrounds differ from ours, people who just seem “a little bit off,” to be honest. If the table’s not ours after all, we don’t dictate the guest list, the seating arrangement, the menu, the conversation (Powery). Hospitality opens us up for new and frankly uncomfortable encounters at the table.
Interestingly, ‘hospitality’ shares the same root word as ‘hostility,’ thus risk is built into the very fabric of welcome (Powery). Hospitality is built upon two words: hostis, which originally meant stranger, and pets, meaning “to have power.” Therefore, hospitality implies the power of the stranger, the risk the guest presents. This is why philosopher Jacques Derrida coined the phrase “hostipitality,” as a way to indicate the inherent potential of hostility when we open our doors (Powery). Welcoming others in is not always safe. Inviting others to the table is risky business. We might get hurt, both metaphorically and literally.
I think we’d miss the point, though, if we limit hospitality to literal tables, or to “homes” as we often conceive of them. I tend to think of my apt, my home as my space. A space I choose to invite people into if and when I want. A space where I tell people when to come, and when to leave (albeit a bit more subtly). But faith un-domesticates, dis-locates hospitality, so that it isn’t just about welcoming people into our literal home, to our literal tables (though that’s certainly part of it). Rather, as guests at God’s table, hospitality is a new way of being in the world in which we are open to each other, to “the other.” Duke Professor Jan Holton describes hospitality not as a “welcoming in” but rather as an “opening outward” (Holton, 175). Not as “a set of fixed acts” but rather as a “posture” (Holton, 178).
There are few people who more faithfully embody this posture than Durham’s own Ann Atwater. Some of you may have heard of Ann Atwater from the book or new movie “The Best of Enemies.” Duke Lutherans did a Bible study alongside the “Best of Enemies” book this summer, so some know her story quite well. For those who don’t, Atwater was a black single mother, church matriarch, and community organizer here in Durham. In 1971, Atwater was fed up with the disproportionately poor quality of education her children and other children of color received in Durham’s schools, and so she co-chaired a citywide deliberation on school desegregation. But her other co-chair was not only someone who vehemently opposed school desegregation, but her very existence as a woman of color. C.P. Ellis was the leader of the Durham chapter of the KKK a staunch white supremacist (a belief that he thought was divinely ordained, by the way). He only accepted the co-chair position in an effort to thwart the federally mandated desegregation order. In the conversations and meals and votes that ensued, Atwater not only opened herself toward her “best” enemy, but she became his friend.
Like Lydia, Atwater had every reason in the world to withhold hospitality, and yeah, to be hostile toward Ellis, a man who had made very explicit that her life did not matter. But instead she made room for him at the table. Hers was not a cheap hospitality, but indeed a costly one. A hospitality that comes out of a faith that believes that hospitality is already given. A hospitality that can’t not but open her up to surprising relationships, and unexpected—even unwanted—dinner guests.
Lydia of Thyatira and Ann Atwater of Durham embody the inside-out and upside-down logic of God’s hospitality, a distinctly different kind of hospitality than our own.
-Our hospitality claims we’re the host. God’s hospitality says we’re the guest.
-Our hospitality is a choice. God’s is given to us, whether we like it or acknowledge it or not
-Our hospitality is something we offer at particular times for particular events (when we’re having party, when we’re holding the door for someone). God’s hospitality is always/already.
-Our hospitality expects reciprocity (Rob and Bob invited us over for dinner. Now it’s our turn to invite them). God’s hospitality expects nothing in return.
-Our hospitality is based on inviting others “in” to our table. God’s says the table is the world.
Following Lydia and Ann’s lead, let’s live into the risky and costly hospitality that the gift of faith compels us to. For these women remind us that all of us are guests at a table we did not set, sitting among people we surely would not invite, eating a feast we did not prepare. Thanks be to God! Amen.
-Rev. Luke A. Powery, The Welcome Table, sermon preached at Duke Chapel, Sept 1, 2013.
-Jan Holton, Longing for Home: Forced Displacement and Postures of Hospitality, Yale University Press (2013).
To learn more about Ann Atwater, visit the Ann Atwater Freedom Library.
Sept 3, 2019
The new semester at Duke is officially underway. In these first days, Duke Lutherans has been delighted to welcome students new and old into our life together. But despite our best efforts during Orientation Week, being in a new place can be disorienting. These times of transition can feel unsettling.
At Evening Prayer this week, we read the words God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah to the Israelites who—for utterly different reasons—found themselves in new and unfamiliar place: “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce…seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:4-7).
In the midst of uncertain new beginnings, God calls us to garden. To dig in. To plant new things. To eat together—not only with those near us or like us but with neighbors throughout “the city.” As the new year begins, I await the new things that will be planted here at Duke Lutherans (including an actual community garden!). I look forward to the things that, by God’s grace, will take root. For the relationships that will form, the conversations that will take place, the meals we’ll share around the table.
A few weeks ago, Duke Lutherans announced a Matching Gift Campaign, where every dollar given between Aug 1-Oct 31 is doubled. We’re nearly half way to our $25,000 goal! Thank you for the seeds you are sowing in the Duke Lutherans community. For the new growth you’re making possible through your generosity. For seeking and praying for the welfare of this ministry we share.
To contribute to the campaign, go here.
“Pull up a Chair”
“The kingdom of God is a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table,” Rachel Held Evans wrote, “not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, and because there’s always room for more.”Held Evans, a 37-year-old best-selling Christian author, tragically died this spring after initially being hospitalized for the flu. As I’ve reread some of her work in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by the way she talks about God’s invitation to the table. I’ve been struck by the way she was so quick to note that we are not the ones to set the table or prepare the feast. It’s already been given. We simply are invited to pull up a chair and dig in.
In a certain sense, that’s a good way to sum up much of what we were up to this year at Duke Lutherans. We pulled up chairs at the long wooden tables of the York Room where we gathered to eat after Evening Prayer each Sunday night, cafeteria tables where we pause to eat together in the middle of a busy week, plastic folding tables where we broke bread with folks experiencing homeless in Wilmington on our Spring Break trip, taproom tables where graduates wrestled with questions of faith at Pub Theology, and the picnic table on the porch of the Grace House where we started sharing meals with new neighbors from across the Durham community.
Eating together can be particularly difficult at a place like Duke, where class schedules don’t account for meal times, extracurricular schedules don’t make room for many breaks, and “earning bread” is a full-time job (and then some)–leaving less time to “break” or “share” it. But we also know that we are called to the table to share the bread of life together. In fact, once we recognize what an underserved gift this bread is, and the fact that it’s already been given, how could we not?
One 2019 graduate said this: “Duke Lutherans helped me realize what a gift it is to pause in the middle of a hectic day and eat a meal with friends who genuinely wanted to hear about my day…I didn’t realize I needed that. I had papers to write and reading to finish. But when I’d come to the table, I realized not only the literal sustenance the food gave my body, but also the way those conversations fed my soul.”
As we look back on this year and ahead to the next, we give thanks for the gift of life together at the table. We also give thanks for your presence at the table, for all the ways you support this ministry. Let us know if you’d like to join us for a meal next fall, we’d love to have you. As Held Evans rightly said, because our God is a God of abundance, there’s always room for more.
Rev. Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
April 14, 2019 – Palm Sunday
Text: Mark 11:1-11
I don’t know exactly what it is, but recently I’ve had endings on my mind. Maybe it’s that here at Duke, classes are wrapping up next week and graduation is somehow already right around the corner, when we will be saying goodbye to six Duke Lutherans graduates. Or maybe it was the abrupt ending to our basketball season. Or perhaps it’s because as a church, we’re now at the end of Lent. Or maybe I’m just anxiously anticipating the end of pollen season here in NC, when every item in my apartment won’t be plastered in a fine yellow film, & my car will once again return to its original color (which, at this point, I’ve entirely forgotten what that is).
With such endings in mind, I admit I found it difficult this week to read today’s Palm Sunday text without thinking about where this story ends. It’s hard to focus on Jesus’ Palm Sunday parade, when we know that this road leads to a table, a garden, a trial, a cross, an empty tomb…
Maybe I’m tempted to fast-forward to the end because we live in world that is often oriented toward “destinations.” A world that seems to care less about who we are or what we’re doing, and more about where we’re going—and what our 5-year plan is to get there. The internship’s great, but will it lead to a job? I love college, but where will I go to grad school? Work’s fine, but will it earn me a promotion? The house is alright, but when we can we update that kitchen? I’ve liked life in Durham, but where to next?
But today’s story doesn’t really have an ending. Listen again to the last verse of the Mark text. It says “Then [Jesus] entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” Jesus, in other words walks into the temple, looks around, and leaves. As I was thinking about endings this past week, I was struck by the apparent lack of one here.
Often times when there is no clear end in sight we put one there ourselves. The Gospel of Mark, from which our text today comes, even has an added ending in an apparent attempt to resolve the inconclusiveness of the first. But we do this too, right? We think of Palm Sunday as the Sunday before Easter. The event before the ending! But I’m going to resist that temptation today. Because I think that the ambiguity of where Jesus’ Palm Sunday procession concludes suggests that maybe endings aren’t so important. Palm Sunday’s unclear ending invites us to actually look at what was happening first. To look not at where Jesus is going but rather how he’s moving through the middle.
And when we do we see that the middle is full of movement. Cloaks are being thrown before Jesus. Leafy branches are cut from the fields, hauled into the city, and spread across the streets. A donkey trots onward. Shouts of “Hosanna!” dance through the air.
And the middle is full of people. Beyond the crowds that surround Jesus on either side, this account both opens and closes by telling us that Jesus is journeying with his disciples. And let’s be very clear about who these guys are. They’re not royalty or government officials or military leaders, the kind of company that would typically escort a king in a public procession of this sort. They are no-name outcasts, poor people, people with no power (as we typically define it) or prestige. They’re smelly fishermen, manual laborers, disliked tax collectors. Jesus’ best friends, whom he has walked with and shared life with for years.
The people around Jesus suggest that this Palm Sunday procession is not about some destination further down the road, not about some prescribed or even necessary ending. It was not, in other words, a journey to the cross. Rather, Jesus’ Palm Sunday journey ended up at a cross because of the way Jesus journeyed throughout his whole life! Let me say that again: Jesus’ Palm Sunday journey ended up at a cross because of the way Jesus journeyed throughout his whole life. Jesus was killed because of the places he went—kinds of places I admit I often avoid. Because of the kinds of people he surrounded himself with—kinds of people I admit I often ignore.
Jesus’ journey—on Palm Sunday and every day—was not a journey of looking ahead, but rather of looking around. Of paying attention not to where the road would end, but to what was right in front of him. To who was right in front of him.
The way Jesus walked through the world was unsettling. Threatening. Costly. We prefer an easier path. We prefer a known destination (we want to go to heaven and we want the pastor to tell us how we get there, right?) We’d like a short-cut to the empty tomb…
The Duke Lutherans Leadership Team gathered a few weeks ago and I shared a story with them that I want to share with you all today. It’s about a Lutheran pastor named Heidi Neumark.1 During college, Heidi took a year off and lived on John’s Island off the coast of SC as part of a rural service program. St. John’s was a community of descendants of enslaved people, who Heidi said were gracious in allowing her to listen in as they sat around, chewing snuff and telling stories. One of people whose stories she loved the most was an old woman named Miss Ellie, who lived down the dirt road from Heidi in a 1-room wooden home. Most afternoons, the two would sit in old rocking chairs on the front porch and drink sweet tea, before Miss Ellie would leave to visit her friend Netta, whom she’d known since they were kids. In order to get to Netta’s house, Miss Ellie had to walk for miles through fields of tall grass, home to numerous poisonous snakes: coral snakes, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, and copperheads (aka my personal nightmare).
Netta’s home was actually not that far from Miss Ellie’s place, but there was a stream that cut across the fields. You had to walk quite a distance to get to the place where it narrowed enough to pass. Heidi felt sorry for Miss Ellie, who in her old age would have to push through the thick summer heat and marsh mud, not to mention the snakes. But then Heidi thought of the perfect plan. She’d build a simple plank bridge across the stream near Miss Ellie’s house. She bought the wood, recruited a few extra hands, and built the bridge in a day. She could hardly wait to go back to Miss Ellie’s house and see her reaction.
When she got there, Heidi gushed with the news of her new short-cut to Netta’s house. But Miss Ellie’s face did not register the grateful look Heidi expected. Miss Ellie stood there for a long time, looking puzzled, and then she shook her head and said, “Child, I don’t need a shortcut.” She went on to tell Heidi all about the friends she kept up with on the way to Netta’s. The shortcut would cut her off from Ms. Jenkins, who she always swapped gossip with, from the “old folks” who she’d check in on, from Miss Hunter’s place, where she’d trade quilt scraps for the best raisin bread you’ve ever had… “Child,” she said again, “can’t take shortcuts if you want friends in this world. Shortcuts don’t mix with love.”2
Miss Ellie’s walk through those field grasses of John’s Island reminds me of Jesus’ walk through the field grasses laid before his feet in Jerusalem. It reminds me of the way Jesus walked through the world his whole life, through metaphorical and probably not-so-metaphorical muddy fields and long grasses and snake-laden paths. Paths that he too walked because of love. A love of foreigners, children, women, lepers, widows, poor people, all the “wrong” kinds of people. The people we find unlovable. Or lovable only if they can benefit us in getting to our own ends. Jesus even loved the people who killed him! This love was so radical, so senseless, so threatening to us that we killed Jesus for it.
Now, I’m sorry to spoil the Easter punch line, but here is the good news: This is a kind of love that can’t be killed. A love that lives on, and is given to us, which means we also can’t be killed, no matter how thick the grasses get or how many snakes lurk beneath our feet.
If we are to walk through the world like Miss Ellie, like Jesus, then we too will find ourselves on such paths. On roads less traveled (not in some sexy or “Instagram-worthy” way), but on roads full of mud and snakes. But this road, paradoxically, is where life is found. Where life together is found. Where love is found. It is a road that leads to neighbors who need us and neighbors who God knows we need, and if we’re lucky, it’ll lead us to some good raisin bread too.
It is a road we’ll find ourselves walking when we pay attention. When we look around, not ahead. When we open ourselves to what and who is around us. When we open ourselves up to relationship we may not have anticipated. To love we may not have planned for, or chosen for ourselves.
What will this road look like for you? Will it lead you the US-Mexico border, where our neighbors’ needs are particularly pressing right now? Or to the borders that barricade neighbor from neighbor right here in Durham? Will it take you to over to East Durham, where I know there is in fact good raisin bread at the East Durham Bakery, or right down the road to Jubilee Home, a new home for young folks transitioning out of juvenile detention? Will it lead you to take the Bull City Connector, when that may not be the fastest route? Or to dinner tables with people who are hungry? Or to front porches to hear stories from the world’s Miss Ellies? 2019 graduates: where will this road take you in the new places you will soon call home?
We do not know where this road will lead us. But as we go forth, let’s end by praying together the prayer that Duke Lutherans has prayed every Sunday evening this year (see bulletin). As you know well, this is a prayer that reminds us that while we are called to ventures of which we cannot see the ending and to roads as yet untrodden, we have a God who walks this road with us. We have a God whose hand leads us, and whose love supports us. So may we go forth into this holy week, into these final weeks of the semester, onto the paths of Duke and the roads of Durham, to wherever the road may take us, with good courage to walk with Jesus. Let’s pray together:
O God, you have called us to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
May it be so!
*The story in this sermon is a retelling of a story from Breathing Space: A Spiritual Journey Through the South Bronx (Beacon Press: Boston, MA, 2003), a novel by Lutheran pastor Heidi B. Neumark (pp. 14-18). The book is full of fabulous stories like this one. Check it out here.
“Jesus and Jazz”
It was Augustine who once said “[s]he who sings prays twice.” Martin Luther agreed. “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world,” Luther claimed. In these comments, both Augustine and Luther point to the importance of music in the life of faith. Many of us in Lutheran churches know this well, and partake in the joyful act of music-making through liturgy, church choirs, or worship teams.
A few weeks ago, Duke Lutherans grad students–along with 21+ neighbors from across Durham and across faith tradition–gathered to explore this intersection of faith and music at our monthly Pub Theology gathering. Hosted by Duke Lutherans, the Congregation at Duke Chapel, and Duke’s Presbyterian Campus Ministry, Pub Theology provides the opportunity to wrestle in ecumenical community with questions of faith (usually, only to come away with more). Past discussions have explored the relationship between faith and topics like money, gratitude, science, food, gender, phones, and imagination, among others. Last month, our conversation about faith and music focused on the genre of jazz.
To set the table for our conversation, we asked folks to check out “Seeing God in Jazz,” a short article by Rev. Dr. Willie Jennings, and a YouTube video of renowned jazz saxophonist and NC native John Coltrane playing “A Love Supreme.” Here are a couple of the questions we grappled with…what do you think?
- “To play jazz is to worship—to be in church,” Coltrane’s wife once said. What makes playing or listening to music a form of worship or prayer? Or if it isn’t, why not? Does it matter if we’re playing it or listening to it? Hearing it live or recorded? Playing alone or with others?
- Jennings writes that when he listens to jazz, he “catch[es] glimpses of something not definable, certainly not quantifiable, but nonetheless actually present.” Music gives witness to the reality that “we are much more than we can grasp, understand, control.” What might Jennings mean? How is faith similar or dissimilar?
- Improvisation is a musical term that describes the “act of creating, composing, inventing, or playing something without prior preparation.” Is the Gospel story improvisation or a set score of music? Does it make a difference?
To learn more about Pub Theology Durham, go here.
“Blessings and Woes”
Rev Ali Tranvik
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Feb 17, 2019
Text: Luke 6:17-26
I had a little time to kill on a recent layover, so I stopped in an airport bookstore. I wasn’t looking for anything specific, so I browsed the front display table with all the best-sellers, the books that claim they’d get me through the next four hours of being crammed in a middle seat. Here’s what I saw:
- “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo, who now has her own Netflix series on the subject
- “The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts”
- “How to Win Friends and Influence People: The Only Book You Need to Lead You to Success”
- Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead”
- “The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom”
- And a book called “14,000 Things to be Happy About,” which is literally just a giant list of oddly specific nouns that should make us happy, including pre-moistened towelettes, Arabian horses, owning a watermelon baller, potpourri, the state of Wyoming, and air hockey (that last one is actually true. I love that game and if anyone knows where to find one or wants to play me, please let me know).
Now while I’m not convinced that potpourri is the key to happiness, there can be some genuinely helpful and informative stuff in these books. They can provide tools for healthier bodies or more loving relationships or cleaner homes. For example, I recently learned how to fold a fitted sheet, a task that until Marie Kondo came on to the scene, I thought was humanly impossible…
But these books don’t just claim to have helpful tips and tricks. Whether explicit or not, they claim to have the recipe for success. They claim that if I work hard enough, eat healthy enough, organize my calendar and closet enough, if I would just “lean in” a little bit more, I’d be rich, full, happy, and well-liked. I’d have it all.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m not quite there yet. OK fine, I’m not even close. But that’s why these books exist, right? The logic of self-help or self-improvement is that, well, I need help! I need improving! I am not good enough as is! But the logic of these books is also that I can be. I’ve got the power. I’ve got the capacity. I am self-sufficient. And while I’m clearly not there yet, these books give me something to aspire to. Something to strive for.
I spent the majority of my layover there in the airport bookstore, standing amidst the overpriced gum and memory foam travel pillows. Although I must admit I tend to be wary of those airport books—I have a very cynical husband—I still buy what they’re selling. I still cling to believe that while I’ve got a ways to go, I could—with a bit more “tidying up”—have it all.
But today’s Gospel reading from Luke has one word for me, as one who strives for wealth and fullness and happiness and popularity: Woe.
“Woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you.”
As much as I would like to confine these words to their original context, or say they’re limited to hearers of a faraway time and place, I can’t help but feel their sting. Woe to me, for I am rich. I am full. I am laughing. And it’s unclear if others speak well of me, but the point still stands.
It seems as though we often like to read the “blessed-are-you’s” and “woe-to-you’s” as we do those airport books, as another formula for success. Even though Jesus’ formula for happiness does not resemble any we’d ever read about in an airport best-seller (poverty, hunger, weeping, and hatred), there’s something about having a formula I think we take deep comfort in. Because then it’s still on us—our capacity, our agency, our self-sufficiency. Then we can still be “masters” of our own fate.
Though we often read it as one, the Bible isn’t a self-help book. Jesus’ words are never formulaic. I mean, the guy walked around speaking in parables that stumped nearly everyone. This is to say the Woes aren’t quite as simple as we’d like them to be. This is to say that the problem is not just my wealth or fullness or laughter or reputation. Rather, it is what those things do to me. It is the myth they help me continue to tell myself, that I can be enough on my own. It is the power they hold over me.
Woe to you, in other words, who are seduced by the trappings of luxury, or to you who thinks that giving money to the blessed poor gets you off the hook.
Woe to you who think that fancy food is that which actually feeds.
Woe to you whose laughter drowns out the sound of your neighbors weeping.
Woe to you whose is more concerned with people-pleasing than truth-telling.
It appears that it is not these people, like myself, who came to hear Jesus’ sermon in our text today. Let’s look at the text again. The people who showed up were those who “came to be healed of their diseases,” Luke tells us in verse 18. The ones who were “troubled with unclean spirits.”
If I am honest with myself, I know that I too am diseased. I too have unclean spirits. I too need healing. But maybe the difference the people there that day and me is that I try and heal myself. Maybe it’s a nice vacation, an interesting meal, a diet, a new job, a nice car, a competitive internship, a better GPA, another line on the resume. Whatever it is—for me, it’s all of those things (except cars, I don’t care about cars) —it’s always about me trying (and failing!) to heal myself.
Blessed are the poor because they’re the ones who showed up.
Blessed are the hungry who went to Jesus to be fed.
Blessed are those who weep and went to Jesus because they couldn’t be comforted by anything else….
I don’t know. But what I do know is that I wouldn’t show up to a mid-week, mid-day, impromptu gathering in the middle of a field. I’ve got my self-help books.
What the Beatitudes and Woes remind me of, quite uncomfortably, is my utter lack of power to help myself. What they show me is that this power comes from Jesus. It comes from a God who, as Luke says in verse 17, “came down with them stood on a level place.”
Did you catch that? While Matthew describes this sermon taking place on a mount, Luke says it happens on the ground. On level ground. And this is not just a God who meets us on level ground but whose work in the world is that of level-ing. A God who flips our expectations upside-down and cuts against every measure of worldly success. A God whose power is in weakness, whose wealth is in poverty, whose wisdom is foolishness, whose throne was a cross. This is a leveling God, who “brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. Who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty,” as Mary sings in the Magnificat.
This may not sound like Gospel to me, or to those of you who feel as though the Woes apply to you too. But this is indeed Good News. It’s admittedly not the Good News I want, but it is the Good News I so desperately need. Cause Jesus’ healing is much better than any thin and fleeting “happiness” I could ever give myself. Jesus’ healing doesn’t bring happiness according to our definition but rather offers us makarios (in Greek)—real happiness, deep and abiding and life-giving joy.
And this joy frees us from no longer striving to find happiness ourselves. It frees us from the impossible task of trying to help or improve ourselves. It frees us to live for the neighbor! To live boldly into the gift life together—a gift I certainly don’t deserve, but one has already been given. So if we are to “lean in” to anything, let it be this. For in this freedom, we find the joy that we have been searching for all along. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Most of you are probably familiar with this script (and I apologize for the gender roles in advance, I did not write this script): Guy meets girl. They are complete opposites, not at all each other’s “types,” but they somehow have this instant and inexplicable connection. They keep bumping into each other, never mind that they live in a city of five million people. It must be fate. They exchange numbers. They go on dates. They fall in love. But wait—there’s a plot twist. Something gets in the way: a demanding career, a disapproving mother-in-law, a fear of commitment. There’s some mildly suspenseful scene at the end (that more often than not entails the guy chasing the girl through an airport and catching her just as she’s boarding). There’s a profession of true love, a proposal, a ring, and a “yes,” while the crowd of people who happen to witness the scene erupt in applause.
This, while admittedly boiled down a little bit (although not that much), is the basic structure of almost Romantic Comedy (otherwise known as ROM-COM) ever created. Profoundly predictable, fabulously corny, and absurdly unrealistic, ROM-COMS claim to tell the stories of love. They claim to tell the stories of love actually, as the very title of the 2003 hit ROM-COM “Love Actually” suggests.
In these films, love is about happiness. Love is romantic and sentimental, warm and fuzzy. It never gets tired or negative or confrontational. It always ends with a walk down the aisle, starry-eyed “I-do’s,” and either rice thrown or bubbles blown, as the happy couple begins their “happily ever after.”
It is these images and characteristics of love that I’ve long associated with the passage in Corinthians we heard just a few minutes ago. “Love is patient, love is kind,” has become the wedding text, an ode to not just to love but to romantic, ROM-COM love. And the effect that that’s had on my hearing of them, then, is a certain cheapening, domesticating, taming of a text that really is far from tame. Taken seriously, I think these words are some of the most bracing in the entire New Testament (Winner, “Corinthians Cross-stitch,” Duke Chapel, Jan 20, 2013). So today we’re try and take back these words from Hollywood and see how they apply not just to love of a significant other, but of family members and friends and enemies and neighbors of all kinds. We’re going to look at how these words bear on our lives, not just on wedding days, but every day. We’re going to try to uncover what love actually is…
So let’s begin by taking a look at where we are in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. This passage comes in the 13th chapter, after 12 whole chapters that have been focused on various disagreements in the young Corinthian church – what food to eat, what clothes to wear, how to worship, how to marry, who had the most important spiritual gifts, and so on. Paul spends the first 12 chapters addressing these debates and finally in the 13th chapter he suggests that the Corinthians seemed to have missed the point. What matters in the life of faith is not following the rules or having the right answers. It is to love as Jesus loved (Ibid).
Now, Martin Luther suggests that we cannot know anything about the Bible unless we read it through the lens of Jesus. The stories of the Old Testament that come before Jesus, or the letters of Paul that come after Jesus really make no sense unless we read them in light of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. So, if we really want to understand this passage in Corinthians, if we really want to know what love is, let us look to the one who is love itself.
The story we heard about Jesus today from the Gospel of Luke may at first glance seem a bit mundane. There’s no walking on water, there’s no account of a miraculous healing. It’s not one of Jesus’ famous “action stories.” In this passage, Jesus goes back to his hometown of Nazareth, reads a passage from Scripture in his home synagogue, talks to the people gathered there, apparently upsets or offends them, and is driven out of town. But if we think that Jesus has something to teach us about love, then let’s take a closer look at what exactly Jesus is saying and doing.
Let’s listen again to the words Jesus reads from the scroll. He says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.”
Needless to say, the kind of love Jesus is talking about here stands in stark contrast to ROM-COM love. More honestly put, the kind of love Jesus is talking about here stands in stark contrast to my love.
Because when I try and love, I hand-pick people who are like me. People who share my views. People who are easy to love. People who make me happy. Either that, or I try and love someone who’s not like me in order to change them or save them or make them more like me. And in both cases—although I am really good at telling myself otherwise—I am not actually loving them. Instead, I am loving myself in them. I am loving my neighbor not on their terms but on mine. I am loving my neighbor not for their sake, but for mine.
That’s why the Bible tells us to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This isn’t to say that I always love myself well or always have high self-esteem (I can assure you, I often don’t). But what Christianity presupposes is that no matter how I love, I’m always, on some level, going to be doing it for me! (Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 35)
But Jesus’ love is different. This love has nothing to do with me, and everything to do with my neighbor. Jesus’ love is actually patient, because it’s always for the neighbor’s sake. Jesus’ love is actually kind, because it is always defined by the neighbor’s needs.
Jesus shows us what this looks like from the very first thing he does in the scene. Remember what he did? He didn’t get up and start preaching, although I’m sure he had a lot of good stuff to say. He didn’t lecture. He didn’t instruct. The first thing Jesus did was open the scroll and listen to hear the word of God. The very first words out of his mouth were “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Jesus shows us that before love speaks, before love acts, it listens. It opens itself to God and listens to what is needed.
This passage also tells us what happens when we open ourselves to God and listen to what is needed. It gives us a clue about the kinds of neighbors we’ll encounter…the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. It tells us that when we love actually, not for our sake but for our neighbor’s, our lives won’t look quite like a ROM-COM. Things won’t be perfect or predictable. We may find ourselves in the midst of suffering. In poverty with the oppressed. In prisons with the captives. We’ll end up on life’s edges, like Jesus did, when the crowd from his home congregation tried to throw him off the edge of a cliff. Indeed, “no prophet is accepted in their hometown” (Lk 4:24).
I don’t know about you, but this kind of love sounds impossible to me. It’s simply asking too much. I’ve already got a full plate. I don’t have time to love like this. And even if I did, quite honestly, I wouldn’t be able to do it.
But today’s Gospel tells us that we don’t need to love like this on our own. We cannot love like this on our own. For after Jesus reads from the scroll, he says “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Do you see? The scripture has already been fulfilled. The gift of love is already given to YOU. It is given for YOU. Jesus is already loving our neighbor through us and for us and in us and in spite of us. Jesus, in other words, doesn’t “help us love.” Jesus IS love.
So hear now the Good News to the Corinthians and to us all: “Jesus is patient; Jesus is kind; Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Jesus bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Jesus never ends […] and now faith, hope, and Jesus abide, and the greatest of these is Jesus.” (Winner, “Corinthians Cross-stitch”).
This is not a verse about happily-ever-afters or perfect relationships or marriages (spoiler alert: those don’t exist – no offense, Isak). It is a verse that reminds us of a love—an unselfish and unwelcome love—that is already there.
And as recipients of this love we are free. We are freed from ourselves and freed for our neighbor. And in this freedom we will find an abundant and abiding joy that is far greater and far deeper than any false fuzziness or ROM-COM happily-ever-afters could ever provide. Living freely in this love is what love actually is. Thanks be to God! Amen.
“Images of God”
An Advent Exploration
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Throughout the season of Advent, Duke Lutherans helped lead the midweek Advent services at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, one of our local partner congregations. Through song, scripture, prayer, art, and reflection, we explored “Images of God,” looking at a different biblical metaphor for God each week. Some of these images are likely already a regular part of our church vocabulary or prayer life, and many other biblical images may be strange or unexpected.
But Advent is the time when we are to be open to strange and unexpected things. To watch and wait and stay awake–figuratively and literally! It’s the time when we prepare for God’s coming into the world in human form, in time and space, in Jesus. It’s also the time when we look for and notice the ways that God already dwells with us, in ways so mundane and ordinary, they’re surprising. It’s the time, then, when we are reminded that it is God who comes to us (not the other way around)–not on our terms or according to our expectations.
And when we recognize this, cool things start to happen in our lives of faith. Exploring the many images of God changes the way we see God, they change the way we see ourselves (as people created in God’s image), and they actually change the way we see each other, or perhaps “the” other. Here’s why. As Professor at Duke Divinity School Lauren Winner suggests, the attributes we say belong to God are those we end up valuing in the world around us. So, if we picture God exclusively as an old white man with a long white beard, we actually tend to give greater esteem to old white men (bonus if they’ve got the beard). Following this same logic, if we imagine God as a woman laboring and giving birth, as we will in just a few weeks, perhaps we’ll see the women and mothers around us through new eyes. This is all to say: our spiritual imaginations make a difference. Exploring these images changes how we do life together on the ground.
And so, throughout Advent, we have sought to open ourselves to seeing God, ourselves, and our neighbor anew. As we have waited for the coming of God Incarnate, we have looked for and celebrated the many ways that God Emmanuel comes to us and meets us, here and now.
Advent I – God the Migrant – Matt 2:13-23
Advent II – God the Bread -John 6: 25-35, 52-59
Advent III – God the Warrior – Eph 6:10-17
Advent IV – God the Laboring Woman – Isaiah 42:5-16
Below is the most recent sermon from the exploration…
“God the Laboring Woman”
Rev Ali Tranvik
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Dec 23, 2018 – Advent IV
Text: Isaiah 42: 5-16
“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant.” -Isaiah 42:14
I’m just going to go ahead and say it right off the bat: This image of God is uncomfortable. Maybe that’s putting it lightly. This image of God is disturbing. I have to admit, even as a woman, I struggle with imagining God as a woman at all, let alone as one who is in the midst of a bloody birth. God the father who art in heaven? Alright. God the shepherd who guides his flock. Can do. God the bread who feeds and sustains us. All over it. But this…? This is not an image of the God I’ve been waiting for this Advent…
As those of you who have been at any of the midweek Advent services know well by now, the bible is full of all sorts of images for God—some of which are already a regular part of our church vocabulary or prayer life, and others may sound just plain weird. But as I’ve said in weeks past, Advent is a time when we are to be open to strange and unexpected things. It’s the time when we are reminded that it is God who comes to us (not the other way around), and the ways that God comes to us aren’t perhaps the ones we’d expect or choose. It’s a time when on the one hand, we see God’s manifold and mysterious nature. And a time when, on the other hand, we see God’s desire to be known by us, accessible to us. And birth is about as basic and universal an image as any…
Perhaps this is why Isaiah uses this birthing image. It turns out he continues with childbirth imagery elsewhere in the book, also depicting God as a midwife and a nursing mother. Again, images many women know well.
But as familiar or common as these images may be (for those who have given birth, or been in the delivery room during a birth), I still find them unsettling. Why? I don’t know about you, but I’m not so keen on the idea of a divine body that suffers, swells, leaks, and bleeds. Frankly, I’m not sure I like the idea of a divine body at all. This image, in other words, feels a little bit too close to home. I want to keep God at a sanitized distance. I want to picture a God who is pure and pristine. Not one who needs stitches and a shower…
But frankly, it is this image in Advent, perhaps more than any other, that prepares me for what I am about to supposedly “celebrate” tomorrow night. This very embodied image of God as laboring woman prepares us for the very fleshliness of the incarnation itself, when God will inhabit the other side of this birthing metaphor, not as one who births for our sake, but as one who is birthed for our sake.
Today’s image—and tomorrow’s incarnation—remind us that God is not some mysterious entity that operates from a distance, some dis-embodied spirit fluttering above and uninvolved in human life. It is a God who comes down to us, who takes on flesh and blood, who catches us off guard by becoming one of us. Will Willimon, a professor down the road at Duke Divinity, writes “God surprised us by appearing in human form, even more, as a person who looked suspiciously like the annoying guy next door, an undeniably human person who hungered, thirsted, rejoiced, suffered, raged, wept, and died as all persons do.”
This is not the God I’ve been waiting for this Advent. I’ve been waiting for the God I see in so many of the Christmas pictures. The one surrounded by a shimmering golden glow. I’ve been waiting for the God who comes to me like a new pair of shoes—neatly packaged and tied with a bow. I’ve been waiting for the God who is calm and bright, as we sing about in one of our beloved Christmas hymns. The God who meets me in my Sunday best, on my time and on my terms, when I too am all “calm and bright.”
But the God we get in today’s image, is not to shiny. This is a God who’s sweaty and sticky. A God who literally breaks open for us. A God who meets us right in the mess. God the laboring woman, knows us, therefore, at our grossest, in our most vulnerable, in the midst of all our messes, thus challenging our categories of what is impure and pure, unclean and clean, unholy and holy. Challenging the notion that when things get dirty and real and messy, we need to wash them up. This kind of God we may want or wait for in Advent, but it’s the one—thank God—who comes to us nonetheless.
So in this 4th Sunday of Advent, before we turn to the God who is birthed, let us linger on the image of the birthing God in Isaiah. Today’s passage is situated in a section of Isaiah that biblical scholars refer to as Deutero-Isaiah. It was written while much of the Judean population was living in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem had been politically and militarily trounced, and the Israelites had been forcibly removed from their homes and land, separated from family and friends, and made to live somewhere else, in alien territory, with no realistic hope for imminent return (Winner, 135). Today’s text was written in the wake of this catastrophe, and seeks to assure the exiled people that God has not abandoned them: God is present and at work even now, in the midst of this mess (Winner 135).
In the first few verses we heard Cindy read, God announces that old things are passing away, and that soon God will bring about something new. Then God pauses, and a narrator invites a large convocation to celebrate God by singing “a new song.” The narrator, likening God to a soldier going forth into battle with a warrior’s cry (harkening back to our image this past Wednesday, interestingly), affirms that God will prevail and will bring about what God has promised. And then, God begins to speak again, describing the new, redemptive action that God is going to take on behalf of God’s people (Winner 138). And that’s where we get the laboring woman image.
Now, this image is much more specific than “God is like a woman in labor.” Isaiah makes things quite explicit, focusing intently on God’s breathing, and the sound of that breathing. In this one verse—verse 14—Isaiah uses three different verbs that pertain to breath, each meaning something slightly different, and none of them mere synonyms for “breathing.” The first word for God’s breath is pa’ah, often translated as “to cry out,” but theologian Lauren Winner said that she thinks “groan” or “bellow” is a better translation. The next two breathing words in the verse continue to stress that God’s breath is not at ease; it is, indeed, labored. God “gasps” (nasham) and “pants” (sha’aph). The work of bringing forth new life does not come without effort and cost on God’s part, Dr. Winner suggests. That is to say, we are not easy babies to bear.
God bears us not to the soundtrack of Silent Night but with bellowing and gasping and panting. God bears us in a way that doesn’t attempt to fight or purify or rid itself of the pain of labor, but rather, in a way that works from inside it (Winner, 140).
These graphic verbs make us tune into that pain. They force us to hear God’s labor. They graphically invite us into the delivery room, into the mess and pain and wonder and beauty of birth. You see, these verbs are the sounds of God’s labor, but so too are they the sounds of life.
One of my best friends gave birth to her first child earlier this fall, and in talking about her childbirth experience, I remember her talking about the all the breathing exercises the nurse had her do during her labor. Now, I haven’t given birth myself, so I don’t know this first hand, as I’m sure many of you do. But breathing, my friend told me, actually changes the way women’s bodies respond to the birth process—the more intentionally they breathe, the more relaxed their bodies become, which allows the birth process to progress. Yes, breath is the sound of labor, but it is also the sound that brings forth new life.
“The old things have come to pass,” we hear God say in Isaiah. “A thing new is coming!” So as we wait for the coming of God incarnate, let our breath “sing a new song to the Lord,” as Isaiah writes, as we give thanks and praise to God our Mother, who meets us in the mess, who is breathing us into life, here and now. Amen!
*Indeed, sermons never reflect an individual voice but rather that of many. Beyond the included citations, I want to acknowledge in particular Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner and her book, “Wearing God: Clothing, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.” Hers was one of the voices in this sermon that greatly shaped mine. To read more about biblical images of God, check out her book here.
“Called to Life Together”
Rev Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
Sept 30, 2018
Text: John 4:4-26
As some of you already know, Duke Lutherans is taking the first three worship gatherings of the semester to explore our new mission statement, our new focus for this year: “Called to life together.” We’ve been unpacking one of these words each week. The first week we explored what it means to be called, and looked at Jesus’ call to Martha in Luke 10. The week after that, we asked what it means to be called to life, and reexamined God’s promise of eternal life in the familiar words of John 3:16. And tonight we ask: What does it mean to be called to life together?
Tonight we’re looking at the story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well. As we just heard, Jesus is on a journey from Judea to Galilee but stops in the middle for a drink, where he has a conversation with a woman (which is, interestingly, the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in all four of the Gospels). Before we take a closer look at this encounter—at the radical kind of life together that the two of them share there at the well—I want to note something important about the larger context of this story. I want to look, for a moment, at where this encounter takes place. I want to suggest that where it takes place is not mere background information but matters for how we understand this story. The notable thing about the place we find ourselves here is that it’s a placeless place, of sorts. You see, the story takes place in Samaria, which for Israelites, was enemy territory. Samaria was inconveniently located between Judea and Galilee, so Jews would often resort to a longer, roundabout way of getting from A to B rather than going through the middle. And if they ever did go through the middle, they certainly weren’t accustomed to making any stops.
This moment of life together that Jesus and the woman at the well share, then, happens between A and B. It happens in the middle. In the space between. In the placeless place. The no man’s land.
My life, perhaps yours as well, is often focused on getting from A to B. There’s home and then there’s work. There’s today and there’s tomorrow. There’s the beginning of the semester and the end of the semester. I’m always so caught up in where I am and where I’m trying to go that I don’t often pay attention to the middles, the in-betweens. I don’t make plans to be in no man’s land. I don’t put the placeless places on my schedule. In fact, I actively avoid them—and if I have to go through them I try and just get through them—because frankly I don’t know what goes on there. I avoid the middles because they’re not on my own terms, not on my map, not in my control.
This past weekend, 16 members of the Duke Lutherans community participated in the Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope, a weekend of walking Durham, of listening to the stories of our neighbors, and learning about this city’s history. It was a weekend of going to places that are in between my As and Bs. Of stopping in the no man’s lands of my city map, my social map. Of spending time in the middle places that I always pass by. Stagville Plantation. The Hayti Heritage Center. The Pauli Murray murals. The Durham History Pub. The Latino Credit Union…
Today’s Gospel story tells us that life together happens at those kinds of places. So let’s take a closer look then, at what happens in this in-between where we find ourselves in today’s text. The woman in the story goes to the well and we know she goes around noon. This timing is notable, as it was much more common for women to go to the well together in the coolness of the morning hours. The fact that this woman is out in the heat of the noon sun suggests that she may not have wanted to be seen. She likely doesn’t want to be bothered. She’s just trying to get from A to B without any trouble…
But as we know, she’s not so fortunate. Her plan is interrupted—disrupted by Jesus, who asks her for a drink. She’s caught off guard by this question. Instead of passively and politely responding to his request, as would be customary for women in her day, she instead says something along the lines of, “Who are you? Why are you talking to me? Don’t you have somewhere else to be?”
And she was right! This encounter at the well was a kind of togetherness that for all kinds of reasons was not supposed to happen. The woman Jesus chats with at the well was a woman (a big no-no), she was a Samaritan woman (a bigger no-no), and she’s a woman who has had five husbands, the current man she’s living with not included (there aren’t nearly enough no’s for that one).1
I need to pause and parenthetically say something about this last point, especially in light of the events of this past week. Because of her marital history and status, this unnamed woman, throughout biblical interpretation history, has been characterized as a prostitute (by almost entirely by male biblical scholars, I might add, and that’s because for much of history only males have gotten to be biblical scholars, I also might add). John Piper, for example, a preacher in my hometown, describes the woman at the well as “a worldly, sensually-minded, unspiritual harlot.”2 But it’s important to note: all we know is that she’s had five husbands and this current not-husband. We don’t know why. Maybe commentators are right about her sexual promiscuity. But maybe they’re not. Maybe she was teenage bride. Maybe she had been widowed multiple times. Maybe she was divorced for being infertile. We don’t know. In the midst of Christine Blasey Ford’s public hearing this week, in the midst the very real pain and trauma that has resurfaced for so many women who have endured similar experiences of sexual violence and assault, in the midst of a culture—a church—where women are often blamed and judged and dismissed, it is important to examine our own interpretations, our own assumptions. Because the way we read scripture matters. The way we see those on the margins of our authoritative text shapes the way we see those the margins of our world, not limited to but certainly including women. So let us read this holy text, then, as faithfully as we can, with our ears strained to hear those on the edges, those whose stories have been re-told for them.
I also want to suggest, though, that perhaps biblical scholars’ characterization of this woman as a prostitute has functioned as a kind of distancing mechanism. A way to say, “hey we’re different. We are not the woman in this story.”
But if they—if we—are honest with ourselves, we know that we are the woman in this story. “Who are you?” We say to those who interrupt us. “Why are you talking to me?” We say to those who disrupt us. “Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” We say to Jesus. We too find ourselves trying to get by, trying to get through, right? We may not have had five husbands, but we have five midterms. Or we have five experiments running. Or we have a 5 am workout. We too are just trying to make our way from A to B. And frankly, we’re tired. We don’t need a disruption. We’ve already got enough going on.
But if we look at this story, we see that as inconvenient and unwanted and uncomfortable as Jesus’ disruptions are, they—in fact—are exactly what we need. They are just what are soul yearns for. Did you catch that in the story? Jesus had said, “Hey I’ve got living water.” The woman’s like “That sounds great. Give me some of that living water.” And what does Jesus do next? He asks about her husband. Jesus isn’t avoiding the subject…he’s avoiding the BS! He cuts right to the core. He goes right to her deepest shame. He meets us in our places of shame, or pain, or weariness. You have heard it said that water always finds its lowest point—well, the living water finds our lowest points.3
We try our best to avoid this disruptive Jesus. We try go out to the well at noon to avoid encounter. We try to focus on the As and Bs to avoid the messiness of life together in the middle. But Jesus reroutes us, disrupts us, and meets us there anyway. You see, life together (the kind of life together that’s only possible in Christ), doesn’t always happen on our own terms, or according to our own schedules, or in the places we might think—or prefer—they would.
There was a story that we heard on the Pilgrimage last weekend that has stuck with me this week. We were told this story when we were standing outside Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in downtown. This church, built in 1886 by the Duke family, was built to be a “church for the masses.” But it wasn’t long before that vision was put to the test when members of Durham’s African American community showed up to worship there, asking to receive Communion. Upon their request, the ushers at Duke Memorial locked the doors, barring their entry. “Who are you?” We might imagine them asking. “Why are you talking to me? Don’t you have somewhere else to be?” But there was an Associate Pastor inside the church who learned what was happening on the front steps. So he took the elements out the back door of the church, walked around the whole building, and served them Communion on the front steps. “This is the body of Christ given for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.”
I’d venture to guess that this was not part of that pastor’s agenda for the morning. Outdoor Communion was not on his own terms. Being disrupted was not part of his plan.
But Jesus showed up anyway. And that is the good news. Life together happens through Christ, not us. You see, it was not that pastor over at Duke Memorial who made life together happen that morning. It was already there, in the form of a piece of broken bread. Life together—Communion, we might call it—is a gift that has already been given.
You will be invited forward in just a few moments to receive this gift. To hear those totally weird and wondrous words, “This is the body of Christ given for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” You’ll be invited to eat this gift. To be changed by this gift. And to be called forth by this gift, to go to the front steps where people are knocking and hungry. To go the wells of this world where people are thirsty for living waters. To go to in-betweens and middles and no man’s lands where life together happens. May it be so. Amen.
Rev Ali Tranvik
Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
Sept 9, 2018
Text: Luke 10:38-42
“Called to life together.” This is a phrase you’ll hear a lot of at Duke Lutherans this year. It’s a phrase that’s printed on our lime green plastic cups and lime green shirts. It’s a phrase you’ll find on our website and our facebook page. It’s phrase that we are going to try to live into (and spoiler alert: fall short of, again and again) in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Duke Lutherans is called to life together here on campus, among one another—Lutherans and non-Lutherans, undergraduates and graduates. We’re called to life together in our local congregations: St. Paul’s, an ELCA church a mile down the road, and Grace, a Missouri Synod church just off East Campus, where we’ll be sharing life with young people and old people and everyone in between. And we’re called to life in our community, called into relationship with neighbors throughout Durham.
So I wanted to take the first couple worship services this year exploring this calling a bit more, unpacking this “mission statement” of sorts, as we look at the year ahead. Tonight we’re asking, “What does it mean to be called?” Next week, we’ll ask “What does it mean to be called to life?” And the following week, we’ll look at “What does it mean to be called to life together?”
So part 1: What does it mean that we are called? This is our starting place, before we look at what we’re called to. On the most fundamental level, we are a people with a call. Luther talked a lot about this, he called it “vocation.” But it’s a concept that certainly predates Luther; it’s found throughout the Bible: God calls Moses through a burning bush. God calls Samuel through a whisper in the night. God calls Jonah, who is perhaps the most reasonable one of the bunch in that he hears God’s call and runs the other way. God calls Mary to give birth to Jesus. Jesus calls the disciples to drop their nets and follow…
And today, we hear another example in the story of Jesus calling Martha to stop all the cooking and cleaning, to stop with the tasks and to-do’s that she thinks would impress Jesus at their dinner party, and instead come and sit on the living room floor and hang out. Jesus calls Martha to stop doing in other words, and come simply be.
“But Jesus,” Martha objects, in my own paraphrase now: “Doesn’t it tick you off a little bit too that my sister is leaving all the chores to me? There sits Mary—quite contrary—while I’m stuck doing all the work?! Would you please get her to stop schmoozing and send her back to the kitchen?”
Jesus answers her, “Martha. You are fretting and fussing about so many things, but only one thing matters. And I hate to break it to ya, but your sister figured it out.”
I don’t know about you, but Jesus’ response to Martha here has always really bugged me. Martha is in there working her butt off, frankly, she’s doing more than her fair share, and what happens? Jesus rebukes her. Martha’s just trying to be liked by Jesus, trying to do works for Jesus, fulfilling—no exceeding—expectations for Jesus, but what happens? Jesus admonishes her. As a Martha myself, I find this totally ridiculous. Totally unfair. And I would venture to guess I’m not the only on this room (given that this room is located at Duke University) who thinks so. Right? We’re the Martha’s of the world. The Martha’s on steroids, in fact. The super-Martha’s, who earned our way here. Who work really hard. Who know how to impress.
But Jesus, in this story, see right through that. He sees right through Martha. He sees right through us. It’s a call that exposes our performing and posturing. It’s a call that not measured by what we accomplish or produce. It’s a call that puts no stock in resumes, exam scores, or number of metals earned. It’s a call that isn’t impressed by busy schedules, a call that doesn’t define worth according to the number of snapchat friends we have, or the number of times we made it to the gym this week…thank goodness.
It’s a call that invites us, in the midst of the inevitable busyness and pressures of life at Duke, of life in a consumer society, of life in an age where we can be endlessly amused, entertained, distracted…to stop. To put down our books or our phones, our stress and concerns, and come to the York Room on Sunday evenings, or Duke Chapel on Sunday mornings, or Bible study on Wednesday evenings. To spend ten minutes between classes wandering in silence through the majestic architecture of Duke Chapel, or taking a walk with a friend and enjoying the buzzing abundance of creation of Duke Gardens. To spend some time in scripture each evening. To begin each morning in prayer.
I hope you’ll do some of these Mary kind of things throughout the year. I hope you’ll find time to sit at the feet of Jesus, to sit at the feet of others (where we often find Jesus), and simply be. For this is the simple and refreshing and life-giving and Good-News call in today’s text.
But…I think we would be mistaken to think that this is where God’s call in this story ends. I think we would’ve missed something really important if our only take-away from this text is that God’s call is to contemplation instead of action, or about being instead of doing.
Rewind 500 years to medieval Germany, where a feisty monk named Martin found himself questioning the contemplative life he was living. Martin’s questioning led to a revelation—a Reformation. Perhaps the life of faith is not limited to churches and monasteries but also happens in homes and offices, universities and breweries, throughout streets and around dinner tables. Perhaps the life of faith isn’t some quiet retreat to elsewhere, but rather takes place in the places we already are. Maybe the life of faith is not one of removal from the world, but rather a life lived in it (in it but not of it, Luther clarified).
Now if that’s the case, then the character of Martha is perhaps a bit more complicated that we might have initially thought. Luther’s reading of this story emphasized that Martha is not any less holy or Christian than Mary; she’s not any further away from God’s love. Luther goes even further to say that Martha is not wrong about doing works. Rather, she’s wrong about what works do. She’s wrong about who needs them. She’s wrong in thinking that Jesus does!
Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your works, but your neighbor does.” You see? Martha is merely mistaken that good works lead to faith, instead of the other way around. She is mistaken in thinking that her work in the kitchen will earn her a spot on that living room floor, instead of her already-given spot on the living room floor leading her back into her work in a whole new way.
When we come and sit and the feet of Jesus, when we enter into relationship with this Christ, when we listen to Jesus, we can’t help but get busy in the world again. The life of faith does not end there at Jesus’ feet—it starts there. It starts with these feet that walked around with tax-collectors and criminals and bleeding women. Feet that walked on water. Feet that we nailed to a cross and feet that three days later walked out of a tomb. Sitting at these feet calls and compels us to get on ours and get to work. This is what it means to be called.
But we do not know what this work is, we do not know where this work is, we do not know who needs or how we even begin, until we first listen. Until we first listen to God’s call. Until we listen well to one another. Until we listen even better to people who aren’t in this room, people who find themselves on the margins of our Martha world. The called life is a life with our ears strained…
So as we begin this new academic year, I invite you to the living room. I invite you to pull up right next to Jesus’ feet. Grab a big pillow. Get comfortable (…although not too comfy, for we won’t stay here too long). And listen up.
September 2, 2018
Welcome to Durham, Duke Lutherans!
It is a season of new beginnings. I am in the midst of my own new beginning as the Duke Lutherans Campus Pastor.
You all are beginning your semesters as biomedical engineering students, incoming freshmen, divinity schoolers, philosophers, music majors, and (hopefully really good) basketball players.
As we prepare for this new beginning with Duke Lutherans, we look forward to forming and deepening relationships with you, experiencing God’s grace through word and sacrament each week in worship, wrestling with what it means to be a person of faith on campus and in the world today, and living out our vocations as neighbors throughout the Duke and Durham community.
While we all find ourselves in a new beginning here at Duke, as people of faith, we are always in the midst of a new beginning. As Paul writes, “Behold! Everything is being made new.” Or as Luther says, “Life is nothing else than a daily baptism,” a recurring dying-and-rising. Or as Lutheran theologian Soren Kierkegaard claims, we are always in the process of “becoming Christian.” The life of faith, in other words, is one in which we are given the grace to start anew, morning by morning.
I invite you to rise each morning, find some water, and mark the cross of Christ on your foreheads as we enter the unknown and unsettling newness God has in store for us together this year. I am grateful and excited to be part of this new beginning with you.