The Dangers of Coming Home: A Sermon on the Prodigal Son


Jesus is gathered with his disciples and all around him are tax collectors and Pharisees, sinners and scribes and he uses the opportunity to tell them three stories of grace. He talks about a shepherd who has 100 sheep, but he notices that one is missing. So he leaves the 99 in the wilderness to search for the one. Anyone looking at this situation thinks the shepherd completely foolish!

Then Jesus tells of a woman who has ten coins and loses one. She sweeps the house, tears her house apart until she finds her lost coin. Then, when she finds her lost coin, she rejoices and throws a party that costs her far more than the one coin. Again, foolish to many onlookers. So when Jesus wants to hammer the point home, he tells the story of a father who has two sons.

We know this story as the Prodigal Son, the one where the younger son tells his father he wishes he was dead and wants his inheritance. The father grants his wish and the son sets off for a faraway land. Eventually he squanders everything he has and finds himself feeding pigs food that he, himself, would willingly eat. Not a good situation. Especially the good, law-abiding Jewish people hearing Jesus tell this story. So he decides he’s going to come home.

But this is an incredibly dangerous and risky idea. In the book of Deuteronomy, it talks about rebellious sons. In Deuteronomy 21, we hear this:

 If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him,then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death.

According to the law — which the Pharisees listening would know better than anyone — upon returning home, the son could be punished by death.

So the son rehearses his apology over and over again as he’s walking home. And we hear that “while the son was still far off” his father saw him and began running to him. Now, think about this. A dad who had been so scorned by his son years earlier, a dad who had every right to be upset and hold this act of rebellion against him — even so far as to be legally permitted to kill him — sees his son coming up the road and he takes. off. running.

He meets his son on the road and before the son can get his rehearsed apology out, the father embraces him and kisses him, tells the servants to kill the fatted calf and prepare a celebration because his son was dead and is alive again.

But I wonder…

I wonder if the father running out to meet the son was not only out of deep love and compassion, but also out of an instinct to protect him. The father would certainly know the punishment for the son as well. So when he runs to him and the first thing he does is to embrace him, to physically wrap his own body around his son’s, I wonder if this isn’t where we hear the story of grace most clearly.

It’s almost as if the father is saying, “If you’re going to kill my child, you’re going to have to kill me too. That’s how deep my love is.”

The father joins himself to the fate of the son in the same way God joins our fate to Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. In just a few weeks, on Good Friday, we’ll hear the story of just how far God’s love will reach to be with us and for us in our suffering and brokenness. 

Then God sends us out to share this good news with a hurting world. We are the body of Christ here in this world to run out of our houses, run out of our places of comfort safety to embrace those who are lost and forsaken.

I wonder what it would look like if everyone hearing this story in churches around the world this morning ran out of church to embrace and be with those who are lost and in need? How would that change our community? How would that change us? To join people in their worry and suffering, not so that we can fix them, but simply to be with them, embrace them, re-assure them that they too are loved children of a gracious God, this is our call as the body of Christ. 

So as we go on our way today, may we be blessed with eyes to see and ears to hear where God is calling us to embrace our hurting world. May we be blessed to realize that this whole thing is a gift from God to love and care for each other. And may we continue to give thanks for all of the ways that God’s love is transforming us and our world into a more loving and gracious shape.



Stubbornness, Self-Sufficiency, & Running with the Devil

Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

In college, I worked at a Bible camp up in Minnesota. We had a challenge course there — a high ropes course, where you would climb a wall and complete a course about fifty feet in the air. That wasn’t really my speed. My favorite was the low ropes course where, at most, we were 18 inches off the ground. For one of the team-building challenges, we were blind-folded and lead to a grove of trees that had ropes connecting the trees at about waist level in something of a maze. We had to follow the ropes until we found the way out. So we walked and walked. Marie, our facilitator stood near us and let us know that if we needed help, she would be there to help us. I didn’t need help. I was pretty good at solving these puzzles all by myself, thank you very much. (And also, you know, I can be a little stubborn.)

The difference between most exercises and this exercise, is that the only way to solve this puzzle was to ask for help. Once you asked for help, you were let out of the maze. Not my proudest moment, then, when I became bound and determined to figure this out on my own. Finally, after everyone else had asked for help and were let out, it finally dawned on me.

There’s something in our human DNA that compels us to go it alone, to be self-sufficient. I can even see it in Lily, our 18-month-old. There are just some things she wants to do herself. And yet that’s not how God created us. God didn’t create us to go it alone, but to be in relationship, to be in community. In the Garden of Eden at the dawn of creation, God said it’s not good for us to be alone. We need helpers. We need community.

When the devil is tempting Jesus in our story today, so many of the temptations are rooted in the devil trying to get Jesus to use his power to prove his worth — to use his power to isolate himself as the Son of God. And yet each time, Jesus moves to emphasize connection and relationship. Part of our call as disciples is to follow a path that leads to connection and relationship — to actively make the choice to not go it alone.

When I was in seminary in California, I went to see the redwoods in Muir Woods one weekend. These trees are absolutely incredible. They grow to be hundreds of feet tall. They were so sturdy in the ground that I began to wonder how deep their roots grow. As it turns out, redwood roots are some of the shallowest roots of any tree. Redwoods are able to grow so tall because the roots of each tree grow horizontally and overlap with one another. They connect and intertwine with one another as a way of supporting their growth as they get taller and taller. It’s why you never see an isolated redwood tree. They always exist in forests and groves.

They always exist in community because they cannot thrive any other way.

In this way, God created us similarly to the redwoods. We thrive when we are connected to God and to one another in community. A temptation we often hear whispered in our ear is that voice telling us to go it alone, to be self-sufficient, to find our own way out of the maze. But God’s desire for us is to stay connected, to foster life-giving relationships of mutual support and care so that we can grow, progress, and evolve toward a stronger future rooted in the love of Christ.

So as we continue our journey of Lent, may you be blessed to remember that you were made for connection. You were created for relationship. God, who created you and formed you, did not desire isolation or loneliness for you. So when the voice of temptation to go it alone comes knocking at your door, may you remember that you belong to this community gathered here today, and that the God of mercy knit you together into the family of God so that you may have life and have it abundantly. Amen.


Hearing #BlackLivesMatter in the Psalms

It was truly the last place I expected to find something like this, but tonight as I was reading Psalm 146 to the community gathered for worship, my mind starting flashing to names and stories of victims of police violence and voices of the Black Lives Matter movement speaking out against it.

Listen to this:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the Lord as love as I live; I will sing praises to my God as long as I have my being.

Ta-Nehisi Coates says in his new (and game-changing) book Between the World and Me, he tells his son about the importance of his body — how his body is really the only thing he has in this world. “I will sing praises to God as long as I have my being,” or as long as I have my body, my agency.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
When his breath departs, he returns to the earth; on that very day his plans perish.

Next, the departing breath and Eric Garner came to mind. The repetition of “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” Over and over again, while his breath not only departed him, but was forced from him, and on that very day, every plan he had perished.

The Lord sets the prisoner free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.

I think of Freddie Gray and his rough ride around the city of Baltimore, while bound in handcuffs. I think of Sandra Bland, violently arrested after a routine traffic stop and found dead in her cell.

The Lord watches over the sojourners;
he upholds the widow and the orphan

And then images of the thousands of refugees fleeing Syria pour in. Families leaving home looking for a better life — for any life at all. Warsan Shire writes, “no one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.” What a powerful reminder to those of us who live with the privilege of never having to flee the mouth of a shark.

The way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

This is where it falls off the rails for me. I know that the Christian story ends with redemption and life overcoming suffering and death. But lately it just seems like the wicked will always find a way to get on a Sunday morning talk show and blame Obama for invading Iraq.

It seems so often that the wicked always win. That the perpetrator always gets away and that justice is so far from present.

And yet, this is where our subversive hope lies. Remember the Christian faith as a whole, started when a group of oppressed people refused to defer to the Empire. They refused to give up hope that a different future was possible. And then, they went out and lived like this subversive hope made a difference. They refused to defer to empire. They did the daily hard work of telling the story of resistance and hope to another generation.

This is where movements like #SayHerName come in. Tell the stories. Say the names. When we continue to tell these stories and we continue to live, day-by-day, into this subversive reality where the wicked are brought to ruin in our neighborhoods and our communities, then soon and very soon, we will find that there is no place for wickedness and everything said earlier in this Psalm will be true.

This is where the spirit of Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, and the countless others will be remembered. And we will live deeper and deeper into a wicked-less future.


#SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: A Sermon on Race + Mark 7:24-37

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace + peace to you from God our creator and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

When I was in high school, I had a friend named Paul. Paul was one of the only black kids in our school. Growing up in Fargo, diversity wasn’t exactly a strong suit. You had Norwegians, Swedes, and a couple German families who moved to town to stir things up a bit, but that was about it. Then you had Paul. One afternoon our school had a basketball game about an hour away, so a bunch of us non-basketball types made the drive to watch. In the middle of the second quarter, the student’s section across from ours started chanting something. We couldn’t figure out what they were saying at first. But whenever Paul was out on the floor, whole sections of the bleachers, were chanting, “Go pick cot-ton. *clap-clap -clapclapclap”

It was one of those feelings that just made your stomach sink. It was like something out of a movie. I’ll never forget that feeling. It was equal parts shock, disappointment, and confusion. How could this still be a thing that people cheered?

As I’ve watched all of the news stories unfold over the last year, and heard more names added to list of victims – Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland – that same sinking feeling comes up more and more often. Not only have we not learned lessons from centuries of racism, but we’re not even open to listening and conversation in the same way we perhaps once were. When we cut ourselves off from listening to people who are different from us, we also cut off our ability to feel compassion and empathy.

But we are not nearly the first to experience these things.

In Mark 7, Jesus goes away to the region of Tyre, which is far, far away from Jewish territory. Jesus is firmly in Gentile land now. He wants to lay low. But there’s a woman who notices. She has a daughter who is in need of healing and she begs Jesus to heal her. And the way Jesus responds leaves him almost unrecognizable to us. He says, “Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You can imagine the scene when Jesus says that. The record screeches to a halt and everyone stands back in astonishment. Did Jesus really say that? Dogs back then were not kept as pets. Dogs were feral scavengers back then. This is a pretty major insult.

But notice how the Syrophoenician woman responds.

She doesn’t puff up preparing to attack. But she doesn’t shrink away either. She stands on her holy ground and says, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

Notice what happens here. Jesus doesn’t puff up. And he doesn’t shrink. He listens. He considers. And he repents. Remember repenting simply means turning to go in a new direction. Jesus repents here. Initially he dismisses her outright, but after listening to her, he heals her daughter, and blesses her on her way.

Mark then pairs this story with Jesus healing a deaf man. He takes the man in private, makes some combination of touching and spitting and commands his ears to “Ephphatha!” — which means “be opened.” And he can hear. Now why is it important that these two stories are paired together?

Because they are both fundamentally about Jesus giving us a model for how to listen and respond when someone is in need, and then he shows his power to open that which once was closed and free that which once was bound.

This morning, all across the country, congregations from all faith traditions are wrestling with the reality of racism in our world. Racism is that which closes us off to each other and binds us from loving our neighbor in the way Jesus calls us. And it affects everyone. No one is immune. BUT that doesn’t mean we stop working to help better understand our prejudices and find ways to bring justice and peace to this world so divided.

This is the work of the church in our time. When we affirmed our baptism we made a promise to “strive for justice and peace in all the earth.” When each of us made those promises there were different issues of justice and peace in all the earth toward which we strove. But today, gathered here as the church, this is our reality.

It’s some of the hardest work we can do, because it means leaning into the discomfort of recognizing our privilege. And the easy thing to do is snap back to the status quo. But in this case, as in many, the easy thing to do is not the right thing to do. The right and just thing to do is to listen our brothers and sisters who are being oppressed. To follow the example of Jesus and, rather than simply shut down the next time we hear “black lives matter”, take the next step toward listening and understanding another person in their struggles.

So, as we do this work together, may we be blessed in the same way that the deaf man was. Hear Jesus speak the word of “Ephphatha!” to you. Be opened to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is living, working, and moving in your heart. Be opened to a spirit of repentance following the example of Jesus. And be opened to a God who calls you to strive for justice in peace in all the earth. Because it is in this openness that we will truly see the coming kingdom of God.


Books I Read in 2013

It seems that every time it comes around to write out these year-end book posts, it always gets a little crazier, and I’m always left feeling like I should have spent less time reading and more time being a productive member of society. But I didn’t. And reading is fun.

I set out to read 90 books in 2013, which is admittedly insane. I completed 2/3 of my goal — 60 books!

Presented below is a list of all of the books I read in 2013.  As I finished each book, I added them in. So this is, more or less, chronological throughout the year. Following that is some highlights and favorites. And I finish with some trivial statistics and self-indulgent nerdery. Here we go!                          book cover of Ways of Going Home byAlejandro Zambra                                                                    

Now for the superlatives…

Favorite Fiction Book

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is an incredible book in all of the ways that every review says it is. Read it with all of the awe and incredulity that’s meant to accompany its reading. Stay up late to finish it. Then later this year, go and see it in the movie theater. But whatever you do: READ. THE. BOOK. FIRST.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is another wonderful book. It’s a story that you can get lost in as it follows a boy from his childhood through adulthood in a bizarre North Korean setting. You yearn with the character as he strives to survive and thrive in the midst of a brutal totalitarian regime. Here’s an interview with Johnson (who won a Pulitzer for this book) from the SF Weekly. Check it out here.

The Circle by Dave Eggers was one of the more recent books I read and got completely lost in. If _Brave New World_ would have been written when Twitter existed, this is what Huxley would have had in mind. Very engaging story that made me question and scrutinize the way I use social media and interact with everyone for a long while after I finished.

Favorite Non-Fiction Book

Anything by Brené Brown! If you’ve seen some of my posts on Twitter or Facebook, you’ll know that Brené was my big literary/intellectual/social work crush of 2013. It sounds weird, but I stand by it. If you’ve never read any of her books, she recommends reading The Gifts of Imperfection first, Daring Greatly second, and finish up with I Thought It Was Just Me. Highly recommend all of her stuff. Seriously. Read it. Now.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber is a must read for anyone who’s worried they screw up too much to be a Christian. It’s a seriously good book that deserves all of the credit it has received. The way Nadia weaves through stories — both from the Bible and from her own life — is flawless. Can’t recommend this book enough.

Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View of Women by Sarah Bessey is an excellent companion to Nadia’s book. Sarah is an incredibly poetic writer and beautifully explores her own experience as a follower of Jesus with the male-centric messages that are often implicit in popular (read: evangelical) Christianity. She finds that it’s actually Jesus who calls her to be a Feminist. She also writes about feminism in a loving, kind, and compassionate way as well. Again… Just read it. It’s awesome. I promise.


Total Pages Read (compiled by using Amazon’s pages numbers for each book): 16,267

Total Pages Read (adjusted for accuracy — subtracted 10% to count for indices, footnotes, and other numbered, but not read pages.): 14,640

Pages Read Per Day: 40.1

Average Number of Days It Took to Read One Completed Book: 6.1

What were some of your favorite books from 2013? What are some that you’re looking forward to in 2014?

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2014!


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