Becoming a Beatitude-Church

Becoming A Beatitude ChurchAll Saints message on Matthew 5:1-12 on November 3, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas.

This sermon was an adaptation of the one preached for the Installation of Bishop Susan Candea of the Central States Synod of the ELCA on October 20, 2019 at Atonement Lutheran Church in Overland Park, Kansas. You can listen to that sermon here.

One of the characteristics that attracted me to St. Luke’s when I interviewed here was your desire to grow in being an inclusive, diverse church. You had created a wonderful Statement of Welcome (which is on the back of every bulletin) and you started conversations about what such inclusion means.

These are important conversations in our increasingly polarized society which needs the church to be a witness to a different kind of community—a community bound together in Christ where we learn and grow from diversity rather than are threatened by it.

I was reminded of the importance of learning from and being blessed by those different from us when I preached at the Bishop’s Installation in Kansas City two weeks for my best friend, Susan. We have been friends for 26 years, but the most interesting thing about our friendship is that we are just about complete opposites on every personality spectrum. But I am a more whole person, and a more faithful pastor because she is a part of my life and her gifts, and way of being in the world are different from mine. Perhaps one of the saints you wrote on a white ribbon was the opposite of you and helped you learn and grow.

Learning from those who are different from us is much easier in our personal relationships and much harder in our life together as the church. We tend to want to be with those who are just like us. But the Beatitudes always push us out of our comfort zones into the margins, and into the lives of those who are different from us, and new to us. The poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, and the persecuted challenge us to explore what it means to be a Beatitude-church.

We must wrestle with the question: Can we move beyond viewing people at the margins, as recipients of our service, and instead, truly allow the Christ in them to transform our church and our mission?

We all know that one-third of Millenials and Gen Z’s have no religion, forgetting that means that two-thirds of them are spiritual and are interested in a grace-filled God-conversations! Jesus, who embraces all the complexities of their lives, is dying for a relationship with them, but we just wonder about “how to get ‘them’ in our church,” which is more about anxiety than mission. They are poor in spirit and the kingdom of heaven is with them, but we have not done much of the spiritual work in connecting our ministry with their life. As a Beatitude-church we must be on the move into our community, willing to ask, and learn, in order to be changed by their stories, and by the Christ in them.

At the beginning of October, I attended our Synod’s Leadership Convocation on Anti-Racism at Briarwood. I was powerfully reminded that the ELCA is the whitest Protestant denomination in the country despite our many commitments to increase our diversity. We have not done enough of the spiritual work of humility and openness to allow the identity, gifts, and worship forms of other cultures to change who we are.

This was painfully brought home to me this past summer in a conversation I had with a retired African American woman in our synod who has been Lutheran since she was young. She has served her congregation in many capacities. She and her husband decided to stop serving as Greeters on Sunday mornings because there are a few of their brothers and sisters in Christ who pass by them and will not shake their hands.They have remained members of the congregation, serving in other ways, yet still feel out of place in their own church. They hunger and thirst for righteousness’ sake. As a Beatitude-church we must be willing to do the work of anti-racism so that this behavior becomes unthinkable, and so that we might be filled with kingdom of heaven together.

We can give other examples of those who live at the margins whom we may serve in our ministry, pray for, but who are not as widely represented in our pews or even pulpits on Sunday morning—immigrants, the working poor, those with mental illness or who are differently abled, homeless people, and those in the LGBTQ community to whom the kingdom of heaven also belongs.

God calls us to be a Beatitude-Congregation—to be transformed and changed by those whom our Lord calls, Blessed and endows with the kingdom of God. How willing are we to step out of our traditions and customs, our liturgies and expectations to be transformed by the poor in spirit, to be blessed by the downtrodden, to be changed by the meek, to be shaped by the pure in heart, to be set free by the persecuted?It is so hard to do. But when the Beatitudes shape our life together, the Holy Spirit makes us into a new community.

John is a developmentally disabled man who worshiped regularly at Trinity Presbyterian in St. Louis when my husband, Dan, was the pastor. John made some people uncomfortable and presented challenges for many members. John had a booming voice and when it came time to say the Lord’s Prayer, John’s voice was a half-beat behind everyone else’s. So, the prayer would always have an echo—Our Father (Father), who art in heaven (heaven). A Beatitude-member who recognized that John was pure in heart suggested that once a month, he lead the Lord’s Prayer from the pulpit. John was thrilled. Over time, an amazing thing happened. John’s prayer sped up and the congregation’s prayer slowed down. They started praying together in one voice, in true unity. Musicians call this “entrainment.”

“Entrainment” happens when each musician tunes in so closely to the person next to them—and through deep listening, and the subversion of their own ego’s need to stand out—they are able to match their sounds and blend together, in one voice, in true unity!

We feel it here singing hymns together—we are not individual voices, men or women, young or old, black or white, gay or straight—we praise God with one voice…Our souls are taken to a higher place where the ego melts and the union of diverse members, voices and hearts join together in Communion. In this moment of holy “entrainment”—we feel One with God and each other—the very experience God desires for the church, the kingdom and all of humanity. Trinity Presbyterian Church did not just allow John to join them, they did not just tolerate his presence, they surrendered themselves in order to be changed and transformed by the Christ in him.

God calls each of us to be a Beatitude-member who engages in the spiritual practices and kingdom work of surrendering to Christ and being and transformed by those at the margins. The Holy Spirit empowers each of us into deep listening to those who are not yet included in our community—continually inviting us into relationships of “entrainment” with the Christ in the outcast.

The kingdom of heaven is alive and active in God’s people who suffer, and they have a story to tell and gifts to share, just like John! God calls each of us to hear and receive them, so we all might be made new in Christ! Can you imagine our congregation, our synod, our whole church, as places of “missional entrainment” (pause) where we engage the poor in spirit, those who have been shunned and rejected, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, in relationships of humility and story that change and transform who we are, and how we are church.

As we become a church that listens deeply and closely, surrendering ourselves to the Christ in those at the margins—be it immigrants, the poor, or diverse cultures—we “entrain” with them and they with us, coming into true unity as God transforms us and our communities into a Beatitude-world. What a vision for the church!—that the suffering people of this world would no longer experience ours or any church as a barrier to knowing God’s love, but rather, the very place where they can experience Communion fully “entrained” with God in the body of Christ.

The church’s Beatitude-mission is embodied every time we come to the Lord’s table, as Jesus extends forgiveness and grace to all. At this table, Christ empowers us with his life and Spirit to fulfill this holy calling. In this Holy Communion, as we are fed with the body and blood of Jesus, we are “entrained” with Christ and he with us, that we might be Christ’s hands and feet, his heart and voice in the world. Continue to be nourished by the love of Christ, for this world needs a Beatitude-member of a Beatitude-congregation in a Beatitude-Church that has the faith and courage to be changed by the Christ at the margins.



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Abide in the Word and his Words

Abide in the Word and in his WordsA Message for Reformation Sunday on John 8:31-36 and Romans 3:19-28 given on October 27, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

We all have struggles that can isolate us from others, causing us to feel alone, separated from Jesus or even abandoned by God. I have had times like this in my own life.

Undergoing treatment for breast cancer eleven years ago was one such time of isolation for me—and it wasn’t because I did not have a loving family and support, I did. Some experiences just leave us feeling very alone and that’s part of being human while living in a fallen world.

One day, Pastor Gary Voss who was filling in for me at the church I was serving, brought me Communion at home. I felt strong enough to be out of bed, sitting in my rocking chair in the living room with a warm hat on my bald head, and blankets covering me. I’ll never forget the bible verse and the moment he read it to me—it was Psalm 27, but he changed the word, “evildoers” in the second verse, which I had never thought to do as a pastor. He began to read:

The LORD is my light and my salvation;
whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold[a] of my life;
of whom shall I be afraid?
2 When “cancer cells” assail me
to devour my flesh—
my adversaries and foes—
they shall stumble and fall.

A few words brought me back to the truth of the Word made flesh in Jesus, and I was freed. Pr. Gary reminded me that God is in the pit of despair with me and I was not fighting for my life alone. I was embraced by the God who is in all things.

"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

This is what Martin Luther discovered that began the Protestant Reformation and changed history forever. He too felt isolated and alone by his own brokenness and sin. As a monk he tried and tried to please God, to be perfect, to follow the commandments, to do what God and the church required.

But whatever it was about his personality and psyche, he was tortured by the knowledge that every day, he came up short, broken and imperfect. So, he studied Scripture to understand, to learn, to improve and there he discovered—not just the law of God, but the unmerited grace and love of Jesus—

…since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith…For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

A few words brought him to the truth of the Word made flesh, and he was freed. Luther discovered that God is in the pit with us—not abandoning us to writhe there alone, but through Jesus’ brokenness on the cross, sin is the very place God meets us to save us, to bring us out of isolation and make us whole through a relationship with Jesus.

"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

When Jesus says, “continue in my word” he invites us to continue in him, to abide in a relationship with him as the Logos, as the Word made flesh. Jesus wants us to continue in a relationship with him in all circumstances of our life—the good, the bad, the ugly, the joyful, the confusing, the ecstatic, the isolating, the loving, the exuberant!

We abide in him by dwelling in the words he spoke in Scripture and by speaking them to each other, reminding us that this Jesus is with us in all things and that abiding in Christ is what truly reforms our individual lives, and our life together in community!

So, continue to abide in Jesus—both his constant presence as the Word made flesh, and his words in Scripture—talk with him about how to balance and use the time, talent and treasure God has given you—abide with Jesus and ask him about how he desires you to share his love in your daily life or use your skill or talent to help Spirits Come Alive at St. Luke’s.

There’s no one right answer, but there is a truth that Jesus has for you—and whatever that is, and wherever that conversation leads you is also good for our community.

Continuing to abide in our relationship with Jesus, both in his constant presence, as the Word made flesh, and in his words about being faithful stewards has led us to establish the Mission Endowment Fund and we install the officers today and receive Chris Sherrod officially into membership after 20 years of being here—so you never know how abiding in Christ will reform your life!

"If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free."

Jesus welcomes us to continue in a relationship with him—to abide in him, the Word made flesh—and in his words for us, trusting God’s gift of unmerited grace and love—the truth that frees us for wholeness and community and life in Christ. That’s our on-going Reformation.


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Sólo Uno Volvió: Only One Turned Back

Solo Uno Volvio Only One Turned BackMessage developed together with Pr. Dan Anderson-Little using a poem by Magdalena Garcia for Pentecost 18 on Luke 17:11-19 given on October 13, 2019 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

We are so familiar with Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers and the one who returned to give thanks, we need a creative way to hear this anew. My husband, Dan has a colleague who wrote a poem in Spanish about this passage and I will us the English translation and offer a reflection after each stanza of the poem as a way to enter this text differently. The poem is called, “Sólo uno volvió” / “Only one turned back”

Sólo uno volvió

Only one turned back
and praised God for the healing action
instead of remaining silent
or going indifferently on his way.

Only one turned back…why only one? When Jesus heals you, don’t you want to praise God and thank Jesus for your new life?

But sometimes we don’t turn back. If we live with a specific hurt or an enduring pain or a debilitating disease; if we lived in the shadows because of who we are, or what has happened to us, or because we have become accustomed to guilt or shame, or because of our race or ethnicity or culture, we learn to live in fear. That is certainly true for the lepers. It was a disease that not only disfigured the body but isolated the soul—it kept one from participating in family, community, and society. After a while, you learn to sit on the sidelines, to remain silent, to swallow your pain.

But the one who turned back recognized a new chance at life in all its fullness. He let a sliver of joy begin to replace his fear. He felt joy because he could embrace his family and eat with his friends. And so he turned back, he raised his voice, refusing to be silent, refusing to be sidelined, and he praised God.

Sólo uno volvió

Only one turned back
and thanked Jesus for his intervention
instead of taking the credit
or attributing the deed to someone else.

Only one turned back…why only one? When Jesus heals you, you know it was him who did it, don’t you, blessed by God, anointed with God’s power?

But sometimes we don’t give thanks for healing—because when we give thanks, it makes us vulnerable as we put ourselves in another person’s debt. Thanking another means admitting we are dependent on them, that we can’t live life by ourselves, we can’t make it alone, and on our own terms. And we must let go of control. That was certainly true for the lepers. Their disease had robbed them of all control—they always lived at the mercy of others. Finally, now that was gone, they could determine their own lives, they could set their own course. They did not thank Jesus because that would mean giving control back to someone else—they were made new and they were not going back—they were not even looking back at the one who made it all possible.

But the one who turned back knew that his life was forever connected to Jesus. For him, it wasn’t giving up control, but it was finally having a partner, a power, a God, who would bear his burdens and share all of life with him. With Jesus he had a relationship that saw and knew all of him, that made all of him possible, all of him okay, all of him welcome.

Sólo uno volvió

Only one turned back
and undertook his true liberation
instead of remaining enslaved
or perpetuating existing barriers.

Only one turned back…why only one? When you live in a prison that keeps you from reaching your true potential, don’t you want to taste the sweetness of freedom?

But sometimes liberation is too scary for us, too open, too possible. We grow so accustomed to our chains that we feel naked without them. We long for freedom, but when it comes, we don’t know what to do or how to act. That was certainly true for the lepers. They wanted liberation from leprosy so badly. When they saw Jesus they called out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” But when he had mercy on them and set them free, freedom was terrifying, a conundrum, a burden. In the past, leprosy determined how they would live, they knew the rules, and the limits and the expectations. Now it was up to them. And they were scared. What are the boundaries? Who are they now?

But the one who turned back knew that Jesus had removed not only the barrier of leprosy, but the barriers he had constructed in his mind. For him, his healing was invitation to live a new life—the life that God had intended for him. It was a life with the parameters of praise and gratitude and the love of a life-giving God—those were new boundaries, worthy of exploration.

Sólo uno volvió

Only one turned back
and testified of his transformation
instead of professing xenophobia
or blaming the victims.

Only one turned back…why only one? When Jesus heals you, don’t you want to share your testimony with others don’t you want to shout it from the mountaintops?

But transformation is hard work. It can be hard for us to let go of the anger and resentment that have been our companions for so long. We are victims of so much wrong and if we let it go, how will “they” pay—those who treated us so poorly? Then, we sometimes wonder why others who have not yet tasted transformation are still stuck in their old patterns. We so easily turn our anger toward others who have not progressed as we have—those easy to label and reject. We see it today in our country—a nation of immigrants turning our backs on immigrants who come to escape persecution or find opportunity denied them in their own country.

But the one who turned back knew that his healing was connected to the healing of others, and that his testimony began with praise and gratitude. He knew that he wouldn’t truly be free until we all are free. And so he shared his testimony—not only how much God loved him, but how much God loved everyone. 

Sólo uno volvió

Only one turned back
because only one was cured
from the debilitating leprosy
of isolation and discrimination.

Only one turned back…why only one? When Jesus’ healing power touches us, is it just your body that is made well? Isn’t your whole life that is restored—your spirit, your mind, our soul, and your relationships?

But curing and healing are not always the same thing.

All ten of the lepers were cured of their leprosy. The disease that ate away at their bodies was removed and they would always live free of that scourge. They were physically healed, freed to return to their families and communities. But what about their soul? What about their relationship with the God who created them and sent Jesus to restore and save them? Did they walk away thinking that a relationship with God didn’t matter? That their good fortune was due to hard work, loud shouting, and good luck, so they could go back to old ways that isolate themselves and shut out others in their new life despite the miracle they experienced?

We can be physically healthy and spiritually bankrupt.

But the one who turned back knew that Jesus had not just cured his body, but had healed his whole being. And he knew that his own wholeness was not complete until he praised God and thanked Jesus. With his gratitude, he completed the circle of relationship and love between them and began to let this relationship with Jesus Christ save his soul as well as his body. The one who returned was not just cured of a disease, his gratitude and relationship with Jesus made him whole—experiencing salvation right then, in body, mind and spirit.

Sólo uno volvió

What’s the difference between the nine and the one, between curing and healing, between physical restoration and whole-soul salvation? Returning for a relationship with God in Jesus Christ—the only one true desire of God’s heart for you.



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A Freshly Cracked Clay Jar

A Freshly Cracked Clay JarA reflection on my recent experience of removing the implants I had inserted after breast cancer.

The absurd difficulty of deeply loving myself and offering self-compassion the way I freely offer it to others was laid bare as I recovered from yet another surgery. This time, the implants came out; I did not know this surgery had a special name, “explant” surgery. If I knew then, what I know now, I probably would have opted for a flat chest after a bi-lateral mastectomy for two kinds of breast cancer—Oh yes, I am an over-achiever.

I was not sure twelve years ago, that I would choose additional surgery so that at age forty-six I could continue to look like a “natural woman.” But my daughter was only in fourth grade. What will it be like for her to begin developing what I recently had cut off? Does she understand this? Would it help for her mom to look “normal” in a bathing suit, on family vacations, or when she catches a glimpse through a cracked bathroom door? I cannot make up for the fact that her mom was incapacitated for the better part of nine months of grueling treatment that plastered me to the bed in ways I could not have imagined. Breast implant surgery seemed like one way to re-claim a sense of normal for me, and maybe for everyone. We could not get the time back, but Mom looked closer to how she used to look.

But then, one day, my body decided it had enough of foreign objects inside, and on Palm Sunday, 2019, I woke up to a bright red, inflamed chest on the right side. I felt well enough, so off I went to lead worship at the church where I am the pastor, to wave our palm branches and read the Passion story. I called my oncologist the next day and that week began to schedule an MRI. It appeared as though the implant had ruptured, and the silicone was leaking, or that the scar tissue around the implant had begun to contract, causing it to bulge. I was immediately referred to a plastic surgeon for explant surgery, but it would be six and a half weeks before it happened.

It was not as bad as chemotherapy of course. I could still work, but the inflammation in my body traveled up my neck and caused a chronic headache that did not stop until I was in surgery recovery. I was so pleased and excited to relieve my body of this awful battle, I never even thought about having to grieve the loss of breasts a second time…until the bandages and tape came off. After that, I could not get out of the shower without crying.

My pectoral muscles—damaged by radiation and then stretched to hold an implant—“roller-shaded” up toward my shoulder, leaving nothing but a very thin layer of skin over my rib cage. The ribs do not protrude quite as noticeably on the left side where there was no radiation, but it is still a concave pocket. The grief over my new look surprised me since I was so relieved to feel better—in fact, once I recovered from surgery, I felt better than I had since the implants were inserted.

But as I peered at the new me in the mirror, all I could think was that I looked like Frankenstein and the Grinch in some horror-movie combination. Jagged scars across protruding bones looked as if this part of my body was suffering starvation; this image that was complemented by a concave scoop to my chest curving outward toward the round “mommy pouch” my first OB/GYN told me was my badge of honor for giving birth to three children. Dress me up in a Grinch costume and it would be a perfect fit for Halloween. Who could love this body? I did not. How was I going to get through this grief when I cannot even shower and dress for a new day without tears and a feeling of horror?

I brought my grief and pain to my spiritual director; I needed God to give me a way to cope. I told her my horror-movie Frankenstein-Grinch combo story. She looked at me and asked a question I never, ever would have thought to ask: “What do Frankenstein and the Grinch have to offer you? What gift do they bring?”

What a strange question! This was a negative image, not a positive one for me, so why would she ask that? I pondered her question despite my skepticism. A slow dawning floated up through heaviness of my mind, like bubbles rising in champagne. “They were both loved in the end—and it did not matter what they looked like—those who loved them did not care!”

A clip from the movie, “Young Frankenstein” with Madeline Kahn popped into my head. “You little zipper neck” she said, and "Oh, you men are all alike, seven or eight quick ones and you're off with the boys to boast and brag. You better keep your mouth shut…Oh, I think I love him."

And all the Who’s in Whoville never noticed and did not care that the Grinch had a concave chest and a pot belly—they loved him and let him carve the Christmas roast beast.

It seemed so obvious once I realized this, but my own body made me blind to the images of power I had identified. Those who truly love me, do because of who I am, regardless of how I look—and my husband has even said so, “I will take you any way you come—you are alive!”

Can I take me anyway I come? Can I care for myself with compassion and body-love no matter how misshapen I may look or feel?

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. ~2 Corinthians 4:7-10

Frankenstein and the Grinch have offered me a new view of God’s extraordinary power and love, along with the life of Jesus residing in my freshly cracked clay jar.

This essay is published in the new book, House of Compassion, a publication of Retreat House Spirituality Center in Richardson, Texas. House of Compassion is the third book in a series published this year: House of Love, February, 2019; House of Hope, May, 2019--I have essays in both of those books and hope to have on in the fourth book due out in December, 2019.

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.