Sermon by Rev. Ali Tranvik
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church – Transfiguration Sunday
February 23, 2020
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, unglamorous, “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”
Reflections by 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”
Sermon by Rev. Ali Tranvik
Preached at 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.
Sermon by Rev. Ali Tranvik
Preached at 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.
Palm Sunday Sermon by Rev. Ali Tranvik
Preached at Duke Lutherans Evening Prayer
April 14, 2019
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”
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 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”
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.
“Called to Life Together”
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at 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.
Sermon by Rev Ali Tranvik
Preached at 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.