A Lenten Reflection, “Where will we go?”

As we enter into this Lenten season, we are called to reflect on that which unites us as human beings: the knowledge of our own mortality. In the gospel on the transfiguration, Peter James and John go with Jesus to the mountain top where  Peter suggests that they build three dwellings and stay there. To ride out the storm of the world in safety and seclusion. These three disciples are then witness to the transfiguration and there is “no one with them anymore, but only Jesus” (Mark 9:8). A good reminder when brought face to face with our mortality that this is it. This is all we have. That in this life it is not about the dwelling places or the mountain tops of seclusion but rather the faith, hope and love that is Christ.

But in the brokenness of our lives and our world where does this love of Christ show up? The love of Christ meets us perhaps most simply yet profoundly in a meal. Part of my evening this Ash Wednesday was spent with a group of friends helping with the Loaves and Fishes supper at the Holy Rosary Catholic Church over in the Seward neighborhood. It was a very powerful experience to be amongst those who have so little but are united through a simple meal. As I stood there I was reminded of the Ask a Muslim event the week before in which a professor on the panel was speaking about hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. He said that when you get to Mecca, all the men wear two pieces of simple white cloth as a symbol of our burial shroud and a reminder that we as human beings are all the same regardless of the worldly things that divide us. Perhaps Lent is our own sort of hajj in a way. A personal pilgrimage that reminds us we’re all in this together, “we’re all a mess”.

I continued to ponder this, looking out over the faces gathered before me. As things started to slow down, one kind looking elderly man came up to me and politely asked if he could have a few extra helpings of mac and cheese.  I told him sure thing and gave him as much as he wanted. To this he kindly thanked me and added, smiling as he walked away, “Oh good, now I have dinner for tomorrow night”. That hit me. Hard. And it was that moment where God really showed up. In the voice of this kind old man. In the acknowledgment that while I go back to my life at the U after this, where will he go? While I live among the dwelling places, he lives in poverty. Where will he go?

After the transfiguration, Jesus gets up and instructs his disciples to follow him back down the mountain. A call to arise and follow. To leave the mountain top and be present in the world. Luther often spoke in terms of being freed from what for what. Through our reflections in this time of Lent we are freed from our brokenness which separates us from the world for the call to acknowledge that before we return to dust, we are blessed each with our own talents to follow Jesus off the mountain top and into the world to spread his love and grace. And so this is my prayer for us as we make our way on our Lenten pilgrimage. That our individuality may transcend into the communal and that in the broken places we may go forth in love. Where will that man go? Where will we go?

May we go with God

By Mark Jensen

on healing, and the hunger games…some reflections on 2 Kings 5:1-14

(Please read the text first!)

This story that we’re given in the reading from the second book of Kings is rife with drama and political intrigue.  Our main character, Naaman, the most powerful general from a land called Aram is cursed with leporosy, a skin disease.  In an attempt to ask for healing, Naaman is sent to Israel by his King, trusting the word of a servant girl he had taken from Israel on one of his raids.  That’s right.  This disease is so disturbing, that he enters into enemy territory trusting that his servant girl knows of a prophet that can heal him.

There are layers and layers to this story.

But I’d like to focus in on this disease that was causing so much chaos in the land of Aram.  Now this disease probably wasn’t what we know as leporosy today, but it was still very painful.  Uncomfortable as this unknown skin disease might have been, it was most devastating because if and when people found out that he had it, Naaman would be cast out of community.  This disease separated him from others, much as a similar disease separated the man Jesus healed in our gospel lesson today.

We’re given two powerful healing stories.  Two stories of people healed of diseases that made them outsiders in their communities.  Two people facing isolation, loneliness, disconnection from community and possibly, a perceived sense of disconnection with God.  All of this begs the question of what the skin diseases of our time might be.  I think about those things that our collective culture has deemed unseemly, or unclean, even dirty.  I think about those things that people desperately desire healing for – because they feel cut off from community.

Maybe it’s physical hunger, or a lack of shower because one has no home.  Maybe it’s a painful, or public divorce.  Maybe it’s the isolation found in mental illness.  There are all sorts of ways that our culture, and at times our church, casts people out of its midst.

And in our gospel lesson today, Jesus steps in, heals the disease, and the man in welcomed back into community.  In the lesson from second Kings,  Namman is only healed because God acts through people that Naaman knew.

At the insistence of the students I work with, I’m reading the first of the trilogy of the Hunger Games books right now, and as I was reading the text about Naaman, I remembered this story.  In the beginning of the book, we meet Katniss, who has just lost her father in the mines.  Her District, District 12, is the poorest of the districts and her family has no way to survive.  Her mother has one month to find a job, but plagued by grief and hopelessness, she is unable to care for her children.  Katniss, just 12, sells off as many of their possessions as she can and finally gives in to despair.

She’s walking home in the wealthiest part of town, in the icy rain, and decides to stop and look in the dumpster of the bakers’ shop.  Suddenly, the story goes, “a voice was screaming at me, and I looked up to see the baker’s wife, telling me to move on and did I want her to call the peacekeepers and how sick she was of having us brats digging through her trash.  The words were ugly and I had no defense.  As I carefully replaced the lid and backed away, I noticed him, a boy with blond hair peering out from behind his mother’s back.  I’d seen him at school.  He was in my year, but I didn’t know his name.  His mother went back into the bakery, grumbling, but he must have been watching me as I made my way behind the pen that held their pig.  The realization that I’d have nothing to take home had finally sunk in.  My knees buckled and I slid down the tree.  It was too much.  I was too sick and weak and tired, oh so tired.  Let them take us to the orphanage, I thought.  Or better yet, let me die right here in the rain…

There was a clatter in the bakery and I heard the woman screaming again and the sound of a blow, and I vaguely wondered what was going on.  Feet sloshed toward me through the mud and I thought, it’s her.  She’s coming to drive mea way with a stick.  But it wasn’t her.  It was the boy.  In his arms, he carried two large loaves of bread that must have fallen into the fire.  His mother was yelling, “Feed it to the pig, you stupid boy!”  He began to tear off chunks from the burned parts and toss them into the torugh.  The boy never even glanced my way, but I was watching him.  Because of the bread, because fo the red welt that stood out on his cheekbone.  What had she hit him with?

The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back on the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction.  The second quickly followed and he sloshed back to the bakery, closing the kitchen door tight behind him.”

The next morning, Katniss realized that this boy did this on purpose, burned the bread knowing he would be punished, but understanding she was utterly hopeless.  And later that day, Katniss saw a dandelion, was reminded of the hunting lessons her father had given her, and found hope, strength, and confidence in her ability to survive.

A young blond boy, hiding behind his mother, purposefully burning bread so that Katniss might survive.

Brothers and sisters, our alienation, our isolation, our brokenness can find healing in unexpected places, and through unexpected people.  When we return to our text, we find the cast of characters surrounding Naaman, not only advocating for his healing, but making it okay to be honest about the isolation and the brokenness that he’s experiencing.  The two bickering kings are interesting, the prophet Elisha is elusive, but notice the role of the servants.

  • The young servant girl, enslaved by Naaman, tells him about a special prophet in her homeland
  • Elisha’s servant who delivers the news to an arrogant patient, telling Naaman to bathe in the Jordan
  • And Naaman’s entourage of servants, cajoling him into entering the river

Naaman never would have gotten in that water had it not been for the cloud of witnesses that surrounded him, especially those with less power, risking everything they had to participate in the healing of this man.    Just as Katniss would not have survived without the little blonde boy risking his mother’s beating, assuaging her hunger and in that helping her remember her internal will to survive – so none of us can survive, let alone heal, in isolation.  We need one another, and we especially need the ones our culture would deem weak among us.

I remember the first invitation to share a meal offered to me by homeless folk in Seattle, and one man’s deep smile of welcome.  I think of infants curled up sleeping on their auntie, or their neighbor, bringing healing with each shallow breath.  This healing is the work of God.  That young blond boy peeking out behind his mother’s arm, the infant’s shallow breath, this is the work of God in our midst.

While it’s true that our God is a powerful God, it’s also true that God shows up in the poor, the outcast, the broken, the beaten.  God shows up not just to raise those who may be low, but to bring about healing and wholeness and redemption for all of God’s people, to help us heal as individuals, and as communities that are divided.  We are called to bear witness to that God who shows up in our midst, working as agents of reconciliation in our own life and in the life of the world.

We are a community of healers, joined together in Christ, to participate in the healing, forgiving, and creating work of God in this world.  And at the same time, we are a broken community.  We’ve known heartache and division, spite and deep loneliness.

And so today, I am here to tell you that there is healing that exists for you.  There is a welcome in community, in this community here, to bring your whole selves.   There is also invitation to be a part of this healing community, loving and serving and reaching out to those who are broken.

In the meal that we will share together in just a moment, we are reminded that God is always present amongst us, with us, especially in those broken places, and especially among those cast out of community, those with the everpresent skin diseases of our time.  Our sins are forgiven, and we are set free by God to be agents of healing and reconciliation in this world.

presence, not perfection: some thoughts on Christian hospitality

Each month, LCM-TC is focusing on a different value that we hold central to our ministry, and to living out the Christian faith.  February = hospitality.  These are a few thoughts from a sermon I preached at pause, on Matthew 25.  The text is at the end, as well as a few questions for reflection (just in case you’re away and want to gather a few friends of your own!)

The Reflection:

There are some passages in the Bible that are confusing, some that are vague or nebulous.  This is not one of them.  For anyone who is throwing down judgment about sexuality, around drinking, about any kind of personal behavior really, I challenge them to read this passage.  Our call as Christians is so clear in this passage.  We’re given a straight shooting response as to where Christ will show up until the Kingdom of God is realized.  And, there’s a pretty significant consequence named for not doing all of those things that are listed.

I’m going to read the  words once more:

Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ 41-43“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

There’s some conviction there, ‘ey?  But when we read this – not with an eye to the fires of hell of our imaginations – but through the eyes of God’s grace and mercy and love – I think we get another picture.

We are promised, brothers and sisters, that God shows up among us.  God shows up here on this campus among the lonely, the grieving, the ostracized, the lost.  God shows up in you when you’re feeling particularly broken by the sadness in this world and in your lives.

When we surround ourselves only with those on the top of the heap – the strong, the powerful, the happy, the resourced, we’re missing out on a big part of life.  When we are disconnected from the brokenness of the world, when we isolate ourselves from those who are suffering, when we withhold our love and care, we are disconnected from God…and that, brothers and sisters, can feel like the fires of hell, it can feel like outer darkness, it can feel like weeping and gnashing of teeth.

But this passage, and the call it offers, invites us into a life lived in communion with God, and with others.  We are called into a life lived in hospitality.  We’re called to open ourselves to the stranger, to the hungry, to the sick, to the homeless…trusting that they have something to teach us about the living Christ.

Now hospitality can be a funny word.  It makes me think of Martha Stewart, and a perfectly cleaned house where I offer perfectly frosted cupcakes.  It also makes me think arguments that break out at churches and in families about who is on for making coffee, and who is bringing the waldorf salad.

I’m not as interested in that, though I do love beautiful cupcakes.  Instead, I want to talk for a little bit about a more radical version of hospitality.  This hospitality, rooted God’s unconditional grace and love for each of you, doesn’t require perfection.  It requires presence.  We are set free to care for others, by offering food and shelter when possible, but also companionship and care and laughter and love.  It all kind of gets mixed together in this kind of radical hospitality.

When we notice, really behold, the whole person, our quest for justice becomes deeper.  Our commitment to service grows stronger.  Our curiosity is piqued as we see the light of Christ in the stranger, and are blessed by their presence…as we are each blessed by the connection we experience with the living Christ.

In just a moment, we’re going to break up into small stations.  You are invited around the cross, to light a candle or two for a person or place in your life that is in need of the love and care of this community, of the broader community, or simply of your presence.  You are invited to make an offering of your time or talent or a financial gift.  This community exists because you all make it happen – your offerings are the core of our expression of hospitality, on this campus and in the broader community.

And last of all, you’ll be invited to gather around the table in small groups of three or four.  In the meal that we’ll share, God shows up amongst us in all of our broken places, healing us, restoring us, and setting us free to live lives of love in this world.  In this meal, and in the presence of God, we’re reminded that none of us are only broken, and none of us are only healed.  We are all, each of us in need of one another.  And so it is with the world.

And so, brothers and sisters, as you go forth from this place, I invite you to keep your eyes out for God in your midst.  You are set free by the grace and love and absolute forgiveness God has for you.  You are set free to care for and cook for and welcome and open yourself to the abundance of God’s presence in this world.  Live this abundant hospitality, draw near to the hungry and the broken, the ostracized and the homeless, for there you find Christ.

May it be so. Amen. Amin.


The Text:  Matthew 25

31-33“When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left. 34-36“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.’

37-40“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’ 41-43“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

44“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’ 45“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.’  46“Then those ‘goats’ will be herded to their eternal doom, but the ‘sheep’ to their eternal reward.”

Questions for reflection (leader’s guide):

Think for a minute about whether you’ve ever experienced meeting Christ in a stranger.  If people feel like they’ve had that experience, encourage them to share.  If not, discuss what might be getting in the way of them seeing Christ in the stranger.

Talk together about when and where you’ve encountered the people listed in this passage?  Concrete examples, or metaphorical, are welcome.  What do these categories look like at the U?  Who are the outcast, the imprisoned, the hungry, the marginalized?  Where do you see them?

(If there is time, and if the group seems to be gelling…this is a touchier subject) Have you ever felt like the stranger, the outcast, the marginalized?  Did you experience a sense of love or people reaching out to share themselves with you?  What was that like?  If not, what could have they done?

A Food Philosophy?

There is so much about food that is central to our life as humans, as Christians, and as our much smaller sub-set of the student community that meets every Sunday night at Grace University Lutheran Church for a dinner and discussion series called Bread and Belonging.

This Sunday, we’ll be cooking together using sustainable food, purchased from a local co-op.  Not only is it important, but also fun and life-giving to cook food that’s good for you, and good for the earth.

Interested?  Show up at Grace at 3:30 for Cooking Club!

In the mean time, I want to share with you some food philosophies that Lutheran Campus Ministry collected at the U of M’s Food Day in October.  We encouraged people of all faiths to think about where their spirituality intersected with their choice of what to eat and with whom they eat.  These are a few of the responses we received:

I feel that there is a sense of abundance around food in the world if it is all shared and dealt with responsibly.  I believe in eating whole, good for you, nutritious meals that sustain not only your body but mind and spirit as well.  There is nothing more fulfilling than having a good meal with friends, family or strangers. Food that is made from the earth and doesn’t harm it is the best for people and of course mother earth herself.  Sharing food makes it possible for community to form and lives to be transformed.

Food is life. Life is spirit.  When we create, consume and nurture homegrown, healthy foods we connect these – in a way that a wrapped-process-food substance can never do.

Food is here to keep us going.  We should only eat to sustain ourselves and the rest we should share, and help others who don’t have enough.

I believe that it is our responsibility to do right by each other and the Earth.  In doing so, we are making an effort to show our devotion and respect to God.  As such, we should grow and gather our food in respectable ways and offer meals to those who would not otherwise eat.

I think that food is always greater when shared with others.  My family always gathers in large groups and we all cook together.  We cook food that we grew or food from local farms when possible.  So much love can be shared through a meal – it’s a time to come together, enjoy one another’s company, all while filling our bodies with the beautiful gift of food that the Lord has given us.

I believe that food should not only satisfy our hungering bodies, but should also have a spiritual impact.  Our food should always keep us mindful of the blessings we receive from God.

I try to think about where my food is coming from – is it shipped or locally grown? Is it organic? I try to focus on cooking my own food rather than eating out and to make informed decisions while grocery shopping – as much as a college student on a budget can.  Doing so is a good way to care for creation.

I prefer eating with community whether that be with people I love and know or people I am sharing my time and energy with.  I also believe in eating healthy, natural, local food that not only nourishes our body and soul, but also our community.

I think that food is an essential part of everyone’s life.  We all need nutrients in order to live.  Jesus meant for food to be shared, a symbol of him, and understood as God’s creation.  It’s important to have community over food.  If we share in that, we will all knwo God a little better.

I believe that everything on the Earth was provided for us to use and preserve.  We were given the plants and the animals to flourish by, but in order to make the most of this gift, we must treat it with respect and not take it for granted.  We have been entrusted with the responsibility of sharing this gift with all of humanity, and also to not squander it.  We must conserve our resources and make sure that none of it goes to waste.  In this way we can thank God for the gifts He has given us.