“Blessings and Woes”
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at 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 premoistened 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 is not only the kind of self-help book you’d never find in on an airport bookstore front display table, the Bible isn’t a self-help book at all. 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, the lie, 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: 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. The gift of love is already gi 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 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”
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church
Dec 23, 2018
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.
“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.