“What is Truth?”
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Oct 28, 2018
Text: John 8:31-36
“What is truth?” It was my very first week of divinity school and as I walked into one of my first classes, the professor told us to get out a piece of paper and answer that question. “You have five minutes to write,” she told us. “Go.” And with those words, I remember an awful feeling of panic wash over me. In case you hadn’t gathered this already, I’m a bit of a people pleaser. I’ve always liked to make my teachers happy, my parents happy, my boss happy. I’ve always wanted to look like I’ve got my stuff together. That first week of seminary was already pretty rough; I felt unqualified, inadequate, and fairly convinced that I didn’t belong. So you can imagine the horror I felt when my professor had us get out a piece of paper and answer this very loaded question. I tried to think of quotes about truth, Bible verses about truth, but nothing came to me. I tried to play the “guess what the professor thinks the answer is” game, but it was the first week of class, so that was pointless. At one point, I remember staring at my blank sheet of paper, and writing the word “Jesus,” but then I felt like a 5-year-old answering a children’s sermon question, so I quickly erased it, assuming my professor was after something a bit more complex than that. My initial panic turned to embarrassment and embarrassment into resignation that this would surely mark the end of my very short seminary career.
Luckily for me (or maybe unluckily for you) it didn’t. But I often wonder: how would I respond to that question today? How would you respond to that question today? Perhaps you’d say, “You know what Pastor Ali (who’s only been ordained for what…6 weeks now)? We already know the truth. That’s why we go to church. That’s why we’re Lutheran! We’ve been at this for a while. It’s those “other kinds” of Christians who don’t know the truth, or the people who don’t show up at church on Sunday mornings at all. Not us…”
The Jews in today’s gospel text make a similar truth claim. They too point to their tradition. When Jesus tells them that “the truth will make them free,” they tell Jesus that’s impossible, because they’re the descendants of Abraham, and they cannot be made free because they’ve never been enslaved to begin with. They already are free. They already know the truth. They already have tradition, authoritative words to follow. But Jesus says to them “If you continue my word then […] you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”
So what is truth, according to today’s gospel text? There are two forms presented here: the truth of our sin, which enslaves us, and the truth of Jesus Christ, which sets us free.
Now, it is tempting to preach on the latter, to give a fabulous Reformation sermon on this very Lutheran truth that we are set free not by our own doing but by God’s grace. Trust me, I’d much rather do that. But I am compelled to preach about the other truth in this text. The truth that “whoever commits a sin is a slave to sin.” I am compelled to preach that while we are called to live in the truth of Jesus that sets us free, we are first called to confront the truth of sin that holds us captive. We are called to—truthfully and perhaps painfully—confess the ways that sin still has its hold on us, our church, the church. On this Reformation day, and every day, we must trip over this truth…
The summer before last, I found myself doing exactly that. I was in Germany and Poland studying the Holocaust, visiting concentration camps, museums, and memorials as part of an ethics fellowship. It was a summer of stumbling, of tripping, and I don’t just mean this figuratively. I mean literally, I found myself tripping over something in the ground. The source of my stumbling, I learned, are called Stolperstein, cobblestone-sized bronze plaques embedded in streets and sidewalks throughout Europe, each slightly raised from ground-level, and each engraved with the name and life dates of a Holocaust victim. And as soon as I stumbled upon one, I stumbled upon dozens. I later learned that over 70,000 Stolperstein are placed in the pavement across hundreds of European cities and towns. These stumbling stones are part of an ongoing art project commemorating Jews and other ethnic and political minorities at the very place they either lived or worked before falling victim to Nazi crimes. Above each name is the phrase “here lived,” serving as a reminder that this person didn’t live their lives just anywhere, but right here, on the very ground on which I walked.
Stolperstein aren’t something you seek out and visit, as you would a museum or memorial. Rather, they are encountered unexpectedly, catching people off guard, literally tripping people up as they go about their day. While some find the possibility of accidently trampling on the names of Holocaust victims blasphemous, Guntar Demnig, the artist behind the project, said “it goes beyond our comprehension to understand the killing of six million Jews, but if you read the name of one person, calculate his age, look at his old home and wonder behind which window he used to live, then the horror has a face to it.”1
As I stumbled over these stones that summer, I stumbled over something else too. I stumbled over the truth that those engraved names were not just names of people in another place from another time—people I had nothing to do with. Rather, they were names of people whose death was made possible in large part by my own church, by my beloved Lutheran tradition.
Lutheranism’s ties to the Holocaust have almost always been narrated to me as a “peripheral” or “misunderstood” piece of the Lutheran story. But my time in Germany and Poland showed me how both of those descriptions dangerously underestimate the very explicit link between parts of Luther’s theology and Nazi ideology. That summer, I tripped over the truth that many Lutherans vocally supported the Nazi regime, and most others did through their silence. The truth that the story we like to tell of Diedrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was murdered for his resistance to the regime, was an astonishing exception to the church’s status quo. The truth that at both state and church functions, a banner of the Luther rose was known to have hung beside a banner of a swastika. The truth that Luther, in his late treatise titled On the Jews and Their Lies recommended “set[ting] fire to synagogues [and Jewish] schools,” so when Nazis burned and vandalized synagogues and Jewish homes across Germany in what became the infamous Kristallnacht or “night of broken glass”—the event that is often marked as the official beginning of the Holocaust—Nazi officials said “we are acting as Luther did.” Over 100 Jews were killed that night, on what was the eve of the anniversary of Martin Luther’s birthday. These truths are always difficult to tell, but hit even harder in the wake of the vicious violence at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh just yesterday…
To tell our Lutheran story (parts of which are good and faithful and Spirit-filled) and exclude these horrible and shameful parts is to tell an untrue story about who we are as Lutherans. It is to fool ourselves into believing that all has been well, and all is well today. It is to do what I admittedly have done after returning from my summer of stumbling, and try not to think about those Stolperstein—to try, you might say, to just get back on my feet again. It is to pretend that we are walking upright, that our stride is steady. It is to kid ourselves that we’re saint but not sinner, deceive ourselves that we are somehow different. It is to look at the injustices around us and fault the outsiders in our midst, blaming “them” but exonerating ourselves. It is to tell a story that bears striking resemblance to the one told by the Nazis, many of whom thought of themselves as devout Lutherans…
What is truth? The truth is that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. The truth is that we try so hard to free ourselves, to walk upright, to pave paths for ourselves that are smooth and stable. The truth is that, instead of naming our own sin, we blame others for the stumbling stones in our way. We try and get rid of those who we deem responsible for the cracks and bumps in our well-manicured paths. That is, after all, what we did to Jesus. And it’s what we continue to do to the weak and vulnerable in our midst still. But the call today is to trip over the truth that we are not as upright as we’d like to think. That the ground on which we walk is not stable or secure. That we will not only stumble but fall—flat on our faces—every single day in our walk in this world.
But…the absolutely absurd, the wonderful and wildly unmerited Good News today is this: when we stumble over the truth of our sin, so too do we stumble over the truth of God’s grace. Jesus meets us, with our knees skinned and our elbows bruised, on the ground. Jesus sees right through our “well-paved” paths—the sense of security and stability we try and give ourselves, the false foundations we build in our quest for control—and kneels next to us when we’re lying there in a heap and says “you are set free.” Jesus meet us the site of our stumbling and our sin and tells us that there is a truth even greater and stronger and more powerful than this.
“I am the way, the truth, the life,” Jesus says a few chapters later in John. The truth is Jesus. It turns out, then, that the children’s sermon answer I had written and quickly erased that first week of class was actually right. Or partially right—partially true—perhaps. Because the Jesus whose name I wrote was the Jesus who rose from the tomb for me, not the Jesus who hung on the cross because of me. Thankfully, we didn’t have to hand our answers that day. If we did, I certainly should’ve gotten an F. But the truth is, I get an F every day, and Jesus still sets me free.
I am going to conclude with a few more words from Martin Luther, a man who spoke bold words of sin (as we heard a few minutes ago), and bold words of life-giving truth. A sinner and saint, as he knew well. Luther said this: “If you are a preacher of grace, then preach a true—not a fictitious [or pretend] grace. God does not save those who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly!” You probably recognize that last part. Often misinterpreted, this does not mean we should sin so that we earn God’s grace, nor does it mean we get a free pass to sin however we please. Rather, sin boldly is a statement of truth-telling, for we cannot but sin. Sin boldly means we are free. Free to stumble. Free to admit that we stumble. Free to stop pretending that we are walking upright. Free to tell the truth. Free to stop trying to free ourselves. For it is then, in this wild and holy freedom, that we can really walk in the truth. That we even run in the truth without fear of falling. That we can dance in the truth without having to watch our step.
This is the truth, the good news that us Lutherans claim. It is the good news for Reformation Sunday…for this day and for all days. Thanks be to God. Amen!
“Called to Life Together”
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer Service
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.
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer Service
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 campus, Duke Lutherans!
It is a season of new beginnings. I am in the midst of my own new beginning as the Duke Lutherans Campus Minister.
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 are 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 and philosopher 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 this year. I am grateful and excited to be part of this new beginning with you.