Tear Down That Wall

sermon on Ephesians 2:11-22

To get us going on breaking down dividing walls, here’s an excerpt from Ched Myers, a favorite thinker and proponent of Christian nonviolence:
The U.S.-Mexico border fence, erected the same year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, poignantly symbolizes the social architecture of division that defines our world. But when barriers are built by the strong and wealthy to keep out the vulnerable and the poor, they will always be transgressed by those desperate to survive. The border wall reminds us that there have always been two Americas: one of inclusion and one of exclusion. The [exclusive dividing wall] was articulated in a Constitution that originally enfranchised only white landed males, and has been consolidated through [broken treaties], Jim Crow segregation, Guilded [sic] Age economic stratification, restrictive housing covenants, and laws precluding gay marriage.*
An interesting note: this happened to be written back in 2009.

I’d suspect that among Advent and the MCC, there’s broad resonance with this take on things, declaring as wrong those who are practicing exclusion. It’s probably a pretty typical sense in Madison as a whole. And even across America, it’s a majority viewpoint.

And yet, since Ched Myers is writing about our Ephesians passage, we need to be careful about how or why it’s stated. I don’t disagree with his politics, and generally find him to be insightful and motivating. But to talk about Ephesians against exclusion, in our time it can function as its own kind of dividing wall, allowing us to feel good about ourselves because—unlike those other people who want to build walls—we’re the ones who actually read the Bible and prefer to tear down walls. That’s the first problem.

The second problem is his paragraph doesn’t mention Jesus. Simple inclusivity becomes the focal point, without grounding in Jesus. It could imagine that our nation is the venue for this to be worked out, falling into the trap of viewing America as bringing about God’s plans. But that’s not what happens in Ephesians. What overcomes the divisions and brings peace is not America or our efforts at justice. What inaugurates peace and reconciliation is Jesus, notably who was killed by the empire.

We may find all the projects to counteract what’s broken in our nation to be worthwhile and important. Of course it has political implications to say that people are no longer aliens but are now citizens. That old language and imagery of Ephesians carries substantial weight in our country now.

But still more than questions of what happens at a border is the fundamental message that the hostility is ended and peace is enacted through Jesus himself, for those who are far off and those who are near. If the message isn’t about Jesus, we miss our grounding. We may still do some good around the edges, but our politics wind up obscuring what Jesus has done and make it about us, which is inevitably bound to fall short.

So it’s not about how many walls we’ve torn down, comparing ourselves against the excluders. That only manages to erect one new kind of wall, finding an Us vs a Them. Rather, the message remains on Jesus. As Paul would say this, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1Cor2:2). He didn’t come so that we could be a bit better at not excluding people. That keeps ourselves and our viewpoints at the center. Jesus came to make one new humanity in place of the old divisions.

Ched Myers later writes, “Members of this ‘church without walls’ cannot, by definition, cooperate with any of the myriad social constructions of enmity—nation, gender, class, race, or sexuality. Despite the fact that walls still exist in the world, Christians should live as if they have been torn down” (93).

Culture seems determined to divide, but we know that all existence is defined by Jesus and formed into the new humanity that God desires. All too obviously, even inside the church we are stuck still doing way too much with divisive definitions and operating with tribal like-mindedness, so we can only pray that God keeps forming us, both in church and outside.

Though probably I shouldn’t even be making that distinction between inside and outside church.

To view this another way, we can look to Samuel Dean. As we celebrated Sam’s baptism, there has been a view that baptism is what brings a person into the church. It has even been the ultimate and eternal version of becoming an insider, from being left out of God’s grace and instead entering the ranks of those eligible to get into heaven. Talk about exclusion and inclusion!

Certainly we’re happy to have Sam’s smiling presence with us, and celebrate an ongoing connection as we remembered his great-grandmother Jean Loichinger yesterday, and we’re grateful for all children among our gatherings. But God doesn’t love him just because he’s a cute little baby, or because he may grow up to be a doctor like his father or public defender like his mother or a loving parent or something helpful. Ellen and Yoshi have talked about this being a place where Sam will know love, apart from any of his achievements. Before all of that and entirely regardless of who he is or will or won’t become, this baptism declares God’s love for him simply because that’s who God is, and in order that that love may continue forming him into God’s new humanity.

Baptism doesn’t change that. It doesn’t make him an insider. It’s not making him a member of a special club called the church. It simply declares God’s love and this reconciling peace for him. It is an assurance that the walls have been broken down. This is really just where we happen to be for the opportunity to proclaim God’s love and peace, specifically for Sam but not at all exclusively for him. God would just as much want to proclaim peace for him if he were far off.

And that’s our message, not that we are a collection of folks who are especially good at or interested in tearing down walls, but that ultimately it has already been done by God on the cross, for Sam, for us, and for all. So Jesus has put hostility to death, freeing us from that confinement in order that we might live together as a new humanity. That’s building something that is big and beautiful.


* Ambassadors of Reconciliation Volume 1: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, Ched Myers & Elaine Enns, p82-3

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Jean Marie Loichinger
December 2 1932 + December 25 2020
Isaiah42:5-10; Psalm23; 1Corinthians13:8-13; John1:1-5,14

Mostly I want to let the family do the talking and sharing. For my part, I’ll offer a few words of the Bible readings in connection to Jean.

To start with the final one, the reading from the Gospel of John is typical for Christmas Day. I’ll probably always remember, when talking to the family and hearing the news of Jean’s death, that Fred said “Jean died on the day our Lord was born.”

I’m sure that timing is sad and hard. But it’s also beautiful. In Jesus is life, the reading says, life and light the darkness cannot overcome. Isaiah also celebrates that God created the heavens and earth and gives us our breath. With all creatures and coastlands and seas, Isaiah further proclaims there’s still more, new things that will come to pass.

But that already hints beyond death to resurrection. I was trying to start with this life, with Jesus and that Christmas moment of birth and new life. He comes to make his blessings flow, to give life abundantly and make that goodness known and present in our lives. His birth was to show God’s presence with us through all of our life.

There are plenty of those moments we celebrate for and with Jean, most especially in 67 years with Fred, and as a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, stand-in mother, and more. She shared so much delight and so quickly made friends and explored much of this world. I liked Isaiah’s phrase about being “a light to the nations,” thinking the reach of God’s promise and presence was both witnessed and embodied by Jean across the world. Right up to the end, her presence radiated with care and with life, with delight for all she shared with us.

So if the birth of Jesus and Christmas is how God goes about showing God cares for our life and our celebrations, then we certainly give thanks and remember the good things.

But I think we’d also say that thankfulness remained true for Jean even when having to overcome adversity. For one, I wondered but never had a conversation with her about how her faith interacted with the loss of her vision. It’s a pretty inescapable topic, it seems. In these few readings today, it comes up more than once. Isaiah identifies the Lord as one who “opens the eyes that are blind,” and each of the readings references those in darkness brought into the light. Whenever this theme came up in Bible passages, (though I was too chicken to ask) I wondered how Jean felt, whether it frustrated or encouraged her to hear a passage about being able to see.

Scripture itself often seems content with this as a metaphor, as Jesus even says that those who are physically blind can see more than those who claim to have vision (John 10:39-41). That might have been Jean, too. Maybe she saw something more. I was always interested that a standard phrase was “it’s so good to see you!” Maybe her faith was a resource as she faced the difficulty, not just of eyesight but of much in life.

But that also points to more now. In Paul’s language of 1st Corinthians, none of us see very well for the present time. We see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face-to-face. We know only in part.

Not knowing can be difficult. It would be great to have a clearer image of what happens after death, of how we’ll be restored in these relationships, of what the grand eternal future looks like. It would be helpful to know what to expect, in our worries and our longings, in pondering healing and restoration of Jean’s vision, in our waiting to be reunited with Jean, and with her son Bob, and all those who have gone before us.

But instead we’re left with hope. Will we be brought together again? In the Bible, Paul believes so (1Thes5:14-17). And if the greatest is love, then God must cherish our relationships. After all, this is a God who was born and needed care from parents and who had relationships with siblings and friends and worked to heal and include the outsiders and faced death with compassion, all to offer more to come. This is a God of love, and so love mustn’t be only for this life. It must mean broader restoration. We might anticipate healing and wholeness.

Or maybe we can just know that it will be good, goodness that follows after you forevermore, in the words of the Psalm, to dwell in the house of the Lord as Jesus softly and tenderly calls us with Jean to our eternal home.

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The Big Picture

sermon on Mark 6:14-29; Ephesians1:3-14

We’ll come back to the killing of John the Baptist, but let’s start with Ephesians. The version Jan read tries to shorten phrases and clarify (and also adjusts gendered language for God), yet I suspect it was still kinda tough to follow. The original Greek has these whole dozen verses as one great big run-on sentence. We’ll sort through some complexity momentarily.

But I also want to say I don’t usually like Ephesians. It claims to be written by Paul and a lot of what makes people not like Paul comes from Ephesians, but it wasn’t really him. We’ve got six more weeks of hearing from it, but the lectionary manages to dodge the nastiest stuff about how wives are underneath their husbands and slaves should obey their masters. That’s not Paul’s understanding of what God wants for our households or our relationships.

But for the bad of Ephesians, I have to admit this passage today has really good stuff, if we can sort through and find it. You can pick the goodness out in phrases: Before the world was created… you were chosen… in God’s mysterious ways… and Christ will bring together everything in heaven and on earth… fulfilling God’s plans.

It’s super big picture stuff, beginning before the creation of the cosmos, and leading to God’s intentions for the fullness of time, which eventually will sweep up everything—all things, seen and unseen. It is such a big picture that it overcomes anything else, or redeems it to be brought back into the frame of God’s picture in Jesus.

To rephrase some of it: Your trespasses are rendered faultless. God’s organizational structure or desire is revealed in Jesus as an odd and mysterious path not of power over but life with, of love. The things that would oppose this way will be brought into line. So oppressive systems and destructive tendencies must somehow be redeemed in love and headed toward Jesus.

Holding all time and space, the entirety of the cosmos and beyond, this is big stuff, while also as small as your household and life. Both the word cosmic and our word for economy or ecosystem are in this reading. In times of wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, earthquakes, mudslides, heat waves, ocean die-offs, climate change, burning rain forests, groundwater contamination by manure or PFAs, etc. etc. (besides all the good stuff of a beautiful summer morning), it is incredible to think that somebody could say that Jesus’ death and resurrection have potential to encompass “all things.” And that you yourself are held in this big mysterious plan that will bring everything together. It’s probably both too enormous and too nebulous really to comprehend.

So let’s return to the death of John the Baptist and simply consider characters in the story, since if Ephesians is true and all things hold together in Christ and are summed up in him and brought in to the purposes of his work, then that has to include all this difficult stuff.

For fitting into the story of Jesus, we start most easily with John the Baptist. He was the forerunner. In Matthew’s telling, the very first public words of Jesus were an exact repetition of the first preaching of John, both saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

John evidently continues that message in today’s story, even willing to speak truth to power and stand up to the king and tell him he needed to reform his behavior. Such a daring pursuit of justice or confrontation with authorities might align with the plan and purposes of Jesus.

And yet, when John’s head ends up on a platter, we need a bigger explanation and fulfilling vision. It’s not enough to have been courageous and morally upstanding while he lived only to end in tragedy. Then Ephesians’ ultimate vision couldn’t be true.

If there is hope and there is victory in Jesus and something that comes together in the fullness of time, then God’s intentions must be more than getting killed for trying to do right. There needs to be redemption.

More, that can’t just be for John and John’s unfortunate death. If there’s redemption, it also needs to be for Herod. This Herod is Herod Antipas. His father Herod the Great’s violent tendencies were embodied in a story of trying to eliminate the baby Jesus by killing all the male infants around Bethlehem. Herod the Great, in fact, routinely murdered members of his own family, worrying they would try to take his power. And he used that power largely as an egotistical sycophant, in trying to copycat the Roman emperor.

This son, Antipas, managed to escape being killed by his father and to continue his trend, like naming yet another capital city after the emperor. It’s not his politics criticized in today’s story, but rather that he took his step-brother’s wife, who also happened to be his niece.

Still, it is Herodias who seems to take more offence at the critique of the relationship. Herod may have the power to imprison John, but it’s she who wants him executed.

If Jesus is working cosmic-scale reconciliation and forgiveness and somehow setting things right, it has to include those who seem so opposite of God’s ways, like Herod and Herodias. If Jesus’ love can do anything, it really needs to do it to them or for them.

Maybe that brings us to the dancing daughter. This story is most often portrayed with rotten stereotypes as an erotic dance with her seducing her inebriated step-father, who crumbles under her feminine wiles. That might not be out of the question for this family, but it might also say something about lecherous male interpreters and their disparaging views of women.

See, this might also be a little girl. The other times Mark uses the term, it’s for 12-year olds, like the one to whom Jesus said “talitha cum; little girl, get up.” Maybe this daughter had a tap routine she learned and she’s cute as a button as she does it and really nailed it this time and Herod is just bursting with pride and enjoyment. If Herod needs to fit into Jesus’ eternal picture, then it does us no good to caricature him as a demonic villain. And this girl, whoever and whatever she is, needs to fit in, including if that’s one who was innocent and trying her best and caught up in the trap of corrupt and violent systems.

They all need to fit. They need to have their story not remain in these few verses of the Gospel of Mark, but be brought toward a larger future, in which we are all joined together, all saved. In all of our corruption and errors and hurtfulness. In all of the problems we created or couldn’t escape. In the things that seemed huge at the time, and the things that quickly disappear into the mists of history, the headline harms and the small injuries that are forgotten except to the lone victim, the rare perpetrator.

And you. You may or may not identify with any of the details of Herod and John and a dancer and intrigue. If that’s not your story, that may feel good. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t caught up into Jesus’ story. You have been chosen, since before the creation of the cosmos. Through all the ins and outs of your extremely small existence, with your biggest faults and your grandest achievements, you are held in the much larger embrace of forgiveness and love and guarantee of adoption into God’s holy family, promised an inheritance with God’s loving plans and purposes for you and for all things.

As we live into that promise, we here and now proclaim and in our own small way practice this reconciliation: The peace of Christ be with you always.

Ephesians 1:3-14, NSRV—Nick Special Re-done Version
Eulogized and praised is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in Christ has eulogized and praised us with all spiritual blessings in the divine realm, just as God chose us in love even before the creation of the cosmos to be holy and faultless in the presence of the divine, ordaining us as adopted through Jesus Christ, according to the pleasure of God’s good will, to the acclaim and honor of God’s gifts which were given to us in the Beloved One, through whose blood we are set free, forgiven our trespasses, according to the abundance of his gifts, of which he has more than enough for us, and so with all wisdom and reason the mysteries of God’s will have been made known to us by the good will of God’s intentions, in the economic order of the fullness of time (the way the ecosystem of God’s household is organized), is that all things would be summed up in and headed by Christ, all things in the divine and earthly realms, and in him all things were chosen and ordained for the purposes of his work and the plans he wanted, in order for us—the original hopers in Christ—to be acclaimed for his honor, in whom you heard his word of truth, the victory message of your salvation, and in whom you had confidence, affixed with the promised Holy Spirit, which is the guarantee of our inheritance for freedom as God’s own people, to the acclamation of God’s honor.

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Call Stories

sermon on Mark 6:1-13; Ezekiel 2:1-5

The Bible readings today have call stories. Or, because you can’t have one without the other, calling and sending stories. God calls Ezekiel and sends him to say “Thus says the LORD God.” We’ll hear Jesus call his disciples and send them out two-by-two to heal and teach.

So it seemed kinda fun today to hear some more call stories. And you’ll get to!

First, a bit more intro. I’m not sure we’d feel like we’ve had the experiences of the Bible passages, having heard a voice with heavenly visions, or been directly commissioned by Jesus himself.

On the other hand, I don’t want to diminish that you hear God’s voice call to you in worship, and from here Jesus sends you out to extend his mission.

Yet it may feel foreign to say you have a calling. In contrast, when I was in seminary, it was constant. Almost daily at times. We didn’t have elevator speeches; we had call stories, telling of how God got us to seminary on the path to being a pastor.

500 years ago, Martin Luther struggled against this reduced perspective, that church professionals had holy callings, but other people had mundane, secular jobs. He refuted those who said it was holier and better to be a pastor than to be a parent changing diapers or a shoemaker or even a soldier, all of which could serve God’s activity in the world. Our views tend to get this exactly backward, thinking some callings are holier and put us closer to God. The good Lutheran phrase is: God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does. God calls you to send you. It’s how God’s work reaches into our world. It led Luther even to say that God is milking the cows through the vocation of the farmer.*

So I celebrate God’s work in all the callings of your life—jobs, volunteering, family, friends, being a citizen, living on this planet, etc. etc. I suspect I say too little for you about that big perspective, “in every circumstance of life, “as it said in our Prayer of the Day.

Which is prelude to say we’re going to share call stories, and I’d love to hear yours. Intern Lisa and I will share them in the seminary and pastor mode. But I really, really, really don’t want you to hear those as the only kind of calling from God, nor as a better kind. She and I may be more used to this language, but that’s no advantage for how much God works through us.

Hoping that’s firmly enough stated, here’s my spiel:

Growing up, when I’d have a role in church, people would occasionally ask if I’d ever thought about being a pastor. Remember, God speaks in these voices, so it’s worth sharing those questions, especially with young people, and it’s worth listening. Not just about in church, but wherever in God’s world.

Still, my answer was Nope. I was sure I was going into forestry to work for the DNR. Positive. But my grandpa kept telling me he wanted to talk with me. Finally, in the spring of my senior year, I sat down with him one afternoon. He didn’t push. What I remember of the conversation is summed up in two words: being there. He wanted to describe for me, that for him, being a pastor meant being there with people’s lives.

I still have the feeling of walking down the steps from his front door that day and somehow knowing that I wasn’t following the path to forestry and would do this instead. It was right for me.

Of course, that doesn’t clarify everything. Ezekiel seems to have no idea what his message from God will be, and it sounds scary being sent by Jesus unsupplied to face strangers. I prepared by majoring in German, partly knowing my grandpa used to preach sometimes in German. Well, that isn’t how it’s turned out for me. My first day of internship, I walked into my office not sure at all what a pastor did during the week. I still don’t have it figured out. And that’s one of my favorite things.

This week, Kris Knoepke’s dad Elmer asked if I like doing this. I said yes, because you’re fabulous and I love you. And he asked if this year was hard, and I said yes, because this is about being with you, which I don’t always get right. But this year I mostly wasn’t with you, with one-way worship broadcasts, cut off from many hospital visits, an empty building. So much less contact, less fun, less life.

Nevertheless, I hope and trust God was still working, still sending me to the world God loves, especially to you. But I don’t know. We can’t prove it. These things likely don’t feel holier, and maybe should, in fact, feel like normal life and “every circumstance” in the world, where God is already out there milking cows and teaching and healing, and sometimes it’s with our hands and voices and hearts.


* Wingren, Luther on Vocation, p9

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Desperation & Baptism

sermon on Mark 5:21-43 and the baptism of Oliver Robert

You may well consider this a joyous day.

But I invite you to pause and notice the predominant mood of the Gospel reading, of those who come to approach Jesus: the father with the dying daughter and the chronically ill woman in the crowd. What would you say their moods are? What are their attitudes?

One characterization that came to mind is desperation. They are desperate as they approach Jesus. Desperation, a word that literally comes from the Latin for “hopeless,” and yet in this case maybe we’d see it actually circling back around to faith. They are so hopelessly despairing that it makes them hopeful, faith-full, putting trust in Jesus.

A woman has been sick for 12 years. It’s tough for me to imagine that compounding of her suffering. She’d also endured bad health care and gotten no medical relief. To exacerbate her problems, chasing down those treatments and cures left her broke, a health care problem we still haven’t managed to remedy. In all of that, it seems she turns to Jesus almost as a last-ditch effort.

And then the story goes even beyond last-ditch efforts, from the far-fetched desperation to the downright absurd. Messengers come to the father and tell him his daughter has died. They raise the very rational question, “Why trouble the teacher any further?” That is a moment without hope. Desperate. What can be done in the face of death? There are clearly no other solutions and, further, why even bother Jesus?

From those truly desperate situations, it may seem like a leap to your own happenstance. Again, you may well consider this a joyous day and feel happy to be here, feel like happy days are here again…or are at least a little closer.

But with that, I’d point out your own peculiarity as you yourself are approaching Jesus. I suspect you’ve been eager to be here, waiting for this opportunity, maybe talking to others for months about when it would finally happen. Why? What’s the big deal?

At least as obscure, for 67 weeks of online worship, you’ve been tuning in religiously (ha). I don’t know if there are any perfect attendance awards, but no matter what, it’s a lot of dedication to have figured out how to participate in worship from your living room through a screen. Or maybe you hadn’t been tuning in and had felt cut off and unable to connect, which is certainly its own kind of desperation.

Now, you may say you come to church at least partly because of your friends and the relationships here. But you must also need something that isn’t offered elsewhere in life. The other solutions don’t quite cut it, whether that’s like the woman in the Bible story who spent all she had on other answers and was still looking, still in need, or like the father in the story who simply had nowhere else to turn at a dead end, no obvious way out. You need more than doctors and medical experts, need more than cultural answers, need some relief. You need something in the face of death and need explanations for life. Something of that brings you to approach Jesus, even if it’s mostly with chronic low-grade desperation.

And then there’s Oliver Robert.

Olly didn’t have a choice to come this morning. It wasn’t his own longing and desperation. The cute little ham with a big toothy grin, when the grin isn’t obscured by chewing on his toes, he may not seem to have the needs that fit our Bible story. But Rachel and Matt brought him here for some reason. They decided they needed to approach Jesus, expecting there’s some solution that Olly needs. They’re likely not thinking directly of his death this morning, not confronting an immediate fearful situation like the parent in the story.

And yet, here they are for this odd practice that splashes water at a baby and proclaims healing, wholeness, cure, some sort of answer of life. They say they’re here because they can count on unconditional love, embodied in this loving community and still more beyond that from God. They trust that a question of “why trouble the teacher any further” would be moot, since with Jesus you can trouble him for any little thing and his unconditional love will always be ready and responsive to our needs, even beyond that ultimate point of death.

As we are trusting that for young Oliver Robert, and as the promise of God’s love for him also renews our hope for ourselves, it’s worth observing a note about faith.

Jesus repeats his famous phrase “your faith has made you well.” It could also be translated “your faith has saved you.” It can give the impression that the sick woman overcame desperation in order to believe firmly and deeply enough to be healed. That she was so convinced and so dedicated she somehow earned the good thing she was after from Jesus. It becomes not only having to hold up our end of the bargain to receive God’s goodness, but that the whole thing is initiated by and dependent on us, needing to trouble Jesus in prayer and pester him and be insistent on what we want and need, and finally he’ll come around to help.

But as we witness the promises to Oliver, we have to observe his faith doesn’t make a lick of difference. Maybe we see his parents believing on his behalf, bringing him and his needs to Jesus, just as the daughter in the story wasn’t saved by her own faith; she was dead and couldn’t do anything. Her father was begging and pleading for her.

And yet the begging, pleading, praying, yearning isn’t about convincing Jesus to be good or God to be loving. Power simply flows out from Jesus. The love is unearned and unconditional. In the story, we are reminded it’s for community leaders with obedient servants and it’s for a poor unnamed woman. It’s for all of us. Always.

Baptism, then, is not something we do to change God’s mind, for saving Oliver instead of condemning or punishing him. Baptism isn’t for God. It’s for Oliver, for us. It’s to be used as the seal and reminder of who God is for him and for us, an assurance of unconditional love and saving grace, of Jesus’ presence and the gift of his eternal and abundant life in and for us through everything, through illness and troubles and worries. In good and joyous times. Even through death.

Baptism, and this church service itself, are God’s response to our desperation. The answer isn’t in finding some obscure hope, not in clinging tenaciously to an outlandish belief, not in trying to muster enough faith that crawls out of desperation and bootstrap pulls ourselves up to be able to approach Jesus. Rather, Jesus comes to you amid desperation, finds you in your homes and on deathbeds, as his power flows out to you. In all your desperate needs and despairing longings, he shows up with faith, with hope, with love. And these abide. Always.

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Seeds and Students

a sermon on Mark 4:26-34 and the end of a school year

These words from Jesus really seem to fit.

Jesus hardly could’ve managed to tell us a better set of parables if he’d known that we were gathering today for a worship service that includes blessing our graduating seniors and celebrating the conclusion of a school year.

The first parable is about unexpected growth, of a small seed sprouting with a single leaf, then stretching skyward, and becoming a whole plant with all new potential to do good things. We may see that in a general sense as our young people grow and change and develop. From looking at them at a small starting point—maybe as babies, when we met them at a baptism, or as they first arrived in our midst—there’s no way to predict how they’ll turn out or be able to say what passions and skills they’ll develop, where their interests will lie, what they’ll share that will also shape us.

If this is like our children and youth, we may not want to be quite so careless as the farmer in the parable—just sort of ignoring the seed and drifting off to sleep and going about other business. We may want to be invested and highly attentive. As a congregation, we celebrate our dedication to our young people, including the hiring this week of Cheyenne Larson to be our new Children and Family Ministries Director in an expanded role and the history of the Boundary Waters trip for high schoolers. In these and other ways, we may want to help foster growth, and just like some plants can be trained in a certain direction, we may want to train our young people in a preferred direction, guiding them. But even then, we can’t be sure how it will turn out. We can’t be sure they’ll follow our advice or share our interests. Mystery remains while we wait.

Besides this general view of unexpected and unpredictable growth and development, we could certainly see it more specifically for students and for all of us in this strange, surprising past year. They had to adapt in a different environment, and we’ve all grown in ways we couldn’t have imagined.

Since Jesus starts his parable by saying that this is about the kingdom of God, we might note that he’s not just saying “here’s a metaphor of the stages of human development” or “here’s what it’s like to grow older.” And so to make sure God is still part of what we’ve been considering, maybe we recognize the faith and trust.

When a tomato seed is planted, it doesn’t have to be convinced to grow tomatoes and not zucchini. Though the process may take a while, we trust it will naturally grow into what it is supposed to be and do what it’s supposed to do. So perhaps the parable prompts us to trust that through whatever mysteries and adaptations, behind the scenes and even while we are distracted or sleeping, God is still working. The growth is happening. And we may trust, the very evidence of plants and of people growing a sign of the kingdom of God, present in our midst.

I appreciate in this little image that Jesus doesn’t care even to mention watering and weeding and fertilizing, doesn’t put up a fence to keep out the rabbits, doesn’t worry about the risk of crop failure. This is a story of success. In this little image, growth in God’s kingdom may be unpredictable, but it’s also inevitable. You’re God’s project, and you’re good at growing.

The second parable from Jesus tells of the mustard seed that grows into the biggest shrub and welcomes birds to its shade. Paired with the first parable, we might be apt to think of this as a story of success, that you’ve grown into what you should be and are now serving others.

At the MCC, we often have reason to celebrate that for our graduates, for our children as they grow. There is a lot of success in our midst. A lot of hard work and grand accomplishments through our students’ school careers and in their vast extracurricular activities. We tend to have high-achieving young people who go on to impressive schools and who courageously pursue wild opportunities, transplanting them all over the world, taking them far from the nursery where they were raised. We can celebrate those successes and the difference they (or you) go on to make in the world.

But I want to pause to wonder whether that’s the metaphor Jesus is actually using in this parable. He says the mustard seed starts small and grows into the greatest and offers welcome.

But I suspect there’s something teasing in this image, that it’s not quite at face value. The reading itself says these are kind of riddles and not clear explanations from Jesus. So I’m not sure, but I’d invite us to consider some possibilities for the riddle.

See, Jesus could’ve picked an image like a sequoia seed, also a tiny seed that grows into the largest of all trees and shapes its ecosystem while living for a very long time. Instead Jesus picks the greatest of shrubs. A shrub, even a great one, isn’t exactly an image of grandeur.

Jesus also could’ve picked something that stood out. If it’s about achievement, then it would have to be rare and special. But a mustard plant is really common in Palestine. It pops up all over the place.

And those birds nesting in it. It’s nice as a vision of hospitality, and Jesus could be saying that the church is welcoming to all. Or it could be that you grow up into what you’re supposed to be when you are in service to others.

But partly it still strikes me as curious; if I’m planting my garden, I’m a little nervous about birds hanging around it. I know there can be benefits where some might eat bugs that could harm my plants. But they might also be eating the very seeds I’m trying to plant, or pecking away at the things I’m trying to produce. I’m not sure I want even more birds nesting and hanging out in my garden.

This mustard shrub almost sounds like an invasive species in the field, taking up space and giving shelter to bad company.

You may prefer the simple face value that is about a godly celebration of our great graduates, for their successes. But I’ll at least ask you to consider if the kingdom of God is not in being the biggest and the best and the most helpful, but might be with those of us who are common and haven’t achieved as much as we want and don’t manage to be the most productive or make the best fruits, and who may keep undesirable company from time to time.

Maybe God is active and cultivating you even when you’re a tiny mustard seed, and when you’re growing where you’re not supposed to be, and when you don’t stand out, or when there’s waiting and mystery and you don’t even know what you’re growing into. Through it all, Jesus says you’re part of God’s reign that is popping up everywhere you look.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Carol Marie Hinrichs

September 24, 1927 + January 28, 2021

Psalm 23; Proverbs 31:20-31; 1Corinthians 13; John 14:1-6,27

It’s always a little strange and difficult at this part of a service for somebody I never got to meet, as if I could report and tell you things about somebody you knew and loved so well, who meant so much to you as a mother, a grandmother, a family member, a friend, a sibling in Christ.

And yet, I feel quite confident as I stand here today in speaking of Carol’s strong character, having some sense of who she was.

I could find little glimpses of who she was in an autobiography she wrote way back in high school. A favorite part of mine portraying her was a page listing likes and dislikes. It’s so great that I’ll read the whole list.

Likes: Pumpkin pie. Apple pie. Neat people. Loyal friends. Spinach. Tall people. Friendly people. Reading comics. Beautiful scenery. Canary birds. Going to church. (Not something many high schoolers I know would add to a short list of favorite likes!) Opera singers. Music. Kittens. Flowers. Candy.

Then the dislikes: Mince-meat pie. Snakes. “Sassy” children. Having a cold. Gaudy colors. Drunkards. Careless people. Careless drivers. Dirty streets. Filthy houses. Police dogs. Fixing my hair. Proud people. Storms. Unpainted houses. Cranberries.

I don’t know; maybe that could be a standard list for a teenager in the early 1940’s, but I still suspect it says something about Carol and gives me an impression of her, even on through the rest of her long life.

Again, though I didn’t know her, another way I could draw some inferences is from her growing up as a pastor’s daughter, that that meant something about what sort of life was modeled and shaped who she was in relation to others. Again, it doesn’t always result this way, but it really seems that Carol lived into that lifestyle of care and hospitality, and especially in attending to others. I’m told that her presence was always welcoming and that she was dedicated to listening, hearing deeply what others had to say, receiving not only from them but receiving the person.

And that could radiate out, especially when it was amplified by her work ethic. Coming to mind is the Care Ministry she started at Mount Olive, connecting across generations and bringing people together with the sort of care she herself offered. And then, also celebrated in her obituary, there were the fruit cakes that she made to support her alma mater Valparaiso, and organizing others to do even more, and keeping it running for decades, beloved enough to gobble up the whole supply.

Hearing some of those stories also helps me develop a picture of Carol’s character.

Yet another way is because I do know her daughter Sarah. Around this same memorial garden just over two weeks ago, Sarah and other mentors were gathered with our Confirmation class. They were discussing and reflecting on what was important about Confirmation, and, as I recall, Sarah’s answer was that for her own children Confirmation was a time to think about morality and develop their ethics in a shared environment.

So when Sarah also reflects on learning from her mother and her influence and expectations, some of the many terms and values that have come up are words like honesty, faithfulness, kindness, generosity, organization, hard-working, inclusion, thoughtfulness, authenticity, dependability, sincerity.

As I witness the importance of those things in the life of Sarah, it gives me some reflection, a way to see Carol without having seen her life, knowing in part.

And for the sake of this being a sermon, I really should get on to the most central part of what we may know of Carol, and that’s that her life was a reflection of God.

Our reading from 1st Corinthians had the line that “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” In this passage on abiding love, dedicated love, never-failing love, it should be clear that you saw in Carol such a loving person, because she has such a loving God. In her own kindness, was a glimpse that we have a kind God and are kin with God, beloved in God’s own family. Of course I may know that Carol was who she was, because I trust that this is who our God is. Of course we should expect that Carol would be there with her welcoming, caring presence, because, in those favorite images of Carol’s own Confirmation passage, the Lord is our shepherd, walking with us beside still waters and through deadly valleys, leading us to lush pastures and finally and forever on to home.

This God in Jesus gives peace, leading you on the way of life. And as we have the opportunity today and this weekend to remember Carol and celebrate the reflections of God you witnessed in her, we also reassure our troubled hearts in anticipating the day when we see face to face, not simply in reflecting back, but gathered by eternal and unending love, with the caring hospitality of God into God’s own house, dwelling again with Carol and seeing this all fully, face to face.

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Binding the Strong Man

sermon on Genesis 3:8-15; Mark 3:20-35; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

What to do about all of this?

Our first reading from Genesis is fraught with layers of misinterpretive garbage, entrenching patriarchy for generations, either warping the fabric of society by the story or warping the story with the sinful preconditions of society.

It’s a hard Bible reading even without extra blame denigrating the woman, and without biological hereditary details of original sin, without making the serpent into something he’s not (like into Satan, which is likely the association the lectionary leaps to today). Genesis shows a breakdown in all kinds of relationships—with other humans, with creatures like the serpent and the misused tree, with our own bodies in shame, and in hiding from God, all resulting in long-lasting separation.

The Gospel reading seems doubly lodged in those fractures. Only three chapters in, the conflict is already fierce. Jesus’ friends and family think he’s gone nuts and want to seize him and force him to shut up. He reacts by further shredding his culture’s ultimate fabric that tied the family’s standing all together; he disregards them and the familial values.

At the same time, authorities from Jerusalem bring accusations. These guys came from the capital city, the center of culture, using all their authority against Jesus. One reasonable analogue would be Joseph McCarthy labeling opponents as Communists. In this case, they are trying to sideline Jesus by saying he opposes their connection to God and spiritual work. They accuse him of operating through an unclean spirit, dressing up their discredit with the colorful term Beelzebul, perhaps meaning the Lord of Dung.

Just as Jesus refuses to be shut up by his family, he responds rather directly to the accusation. He essentially flips the tables, saying he is doing God’s work and bears the Holy Spirit, so it is they who are the satanic opposition.

If we took it as re-presenting Genesis, we could see Jesus in God’s place, cursing Satan. But Jesus isn’t trying to punish and cast them out, as we typically claim happens in Genesis. A frontal assault would obviously never work against those powers, and 12 chapters later his bold stance inevitably leads to his execution.

But actually Jesus is working on redemption, striving to reclaim what belongs to God and set things back in order. His description of his subversive strategy goes like this: “no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” Jesus is coming like a thief in the night to plunder the strong man’s house—those authorities, the culture, and much more.

To be clear, this isn’t going to be about Jesus defeating his enemies, at least not how we’d typically conceive of that. It’s not about a movement and expanding the mob that is so crowded into his house they can’t even eat. So it’s also not about raising church attendance to get more on his side. That’s not how he’ll do it. It’s not trying to put in place a theocracy, to make a Christian nation, as if values could legislatively force people to be closer to God, nor about you personally trying to be better. That is not how Jesus will find redemption and bring things back into God’s order. Those actually try to coddle the strong man and tidy up his house, rather than tying him up to plunder it.

For Jesus plundering Satan, rather than restricting this to a superhero battling the ultimate villain, it helps to know that the word satan isn’t a name or title; it means accuser. And for what Jesus is doing, that has to be a much broader scope. Those from Jerusalem who are literally accusing him are satan, and as they misuse their authority they are satan. The illnesses he’s been confronting as they take away life are satan. Jesus’ family and friends trying to stifle and silence him are satan. Our sin and fractured relationships in the blaming and seeking to better our own position are satan. Our thinking we can—and need to—hide from God is satan.

Seeing it that broadly shows just what Jesus is up against and why taking it head-on would be bound to fail. He needs to be subversive, stealing in with a sneak attack to plunder the strong man’s household.

One way we describe how he does this is through forgiveness. Jesus himself says that every blasphemy will be forgiven. Blasphemy is actually a Greek word with a root meaning “hurtful.” The hurtful things aren’t returned in a retributive cycle of violence, trying to attack what hurts you, but are forgiven.

Unfortunately the Genesis story isn’t trying to portray that part of things, but it’s interesting to imagine if the woman would say to the man, “I forgive you for blaming me” and if the man would say “I understand you gave me the fruit to try helping me and offering wisdom,” to imagine if we said to our bodies, “I’m not ashamed of you, will you forgive me,” even to imagine how we would regard snakes and serpents, perhaps not as evil or scary, if there had been forgiveness.

Of course, some of our hurts we feel we need to cling to. We want justice, by which we mean evening the score. Forgiveness is less appealing. Even if God in Jesus declares forgiveness and redemption from all our hurts and sins, it doesn’t feel very satisfying.

Which brings us more directly to how Jesus effects this. Since the strong man’s household isn’t interested in the forgiveness he’s selling, he can’t show up as a door-to-door salesman pitching cheap grace. We already said he can’t do it forcibly. Instead, he sneaks in to plunder, to take away the hurt and blame and leave grace in its place.

In the garden, the man and woman put on clothing and hid from God. In Jesus, God puts on clothing and hides from us. He sneaks in. God steals into our very bodies and lives. When the authorities execute him, just when death thinks it has driven him out to continue its reign and control of the household, Jesus is raised and therefore binds death, confining its rule over us, limiting the hurt on our lives, reclaiming us for God’s intended goodness.

2nd Corinthians says that as God raised Jesus from the dead, we too will be raised. This isn’t a heavenly afterlife, and not just for eventual resurrection, but is already now stealing you out of the household of deadly accusations and plundering you back into God’s possession with reconciliation. So even as our bodies are gradually dying, Paul declares you are being made stronger each day. The strong man isn’t retaining his control over you. He’s not so strong.

The hiding Jesus does this not in what is seen of your body and your struggles with death and with life. It’s not in evaluating your hurts, what you’ve done, what you’ve failed to do, what’s been done to you, not in tallying suffering. In Paul’s language, we keep our minds on Christ hiding within us while remaining unseen. In that, you may know Jesus is struggling to bring you again into God’s presence, stealing you away from the strong man, and back into the household and family of God. That is for your benefit, and as it takes you away from hurt, it is for the benefit of your neighbor and all creation.

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Holy, Holy, Holy!

sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday, on John 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17

Holy Trinity Sunday can come across as trying to “peek up God’s skirts,” as one professor referred to the probing task.

It can seem like guesswork of trying to navigate through the dense fog of mystery, putting together pieces that don’t quite fit—three in one, but not three gods, still only one God. In more skeptical moments, rather than sticking our nose where it doesn’t below, we may say it’s all just a human project anyway, that 1700 years ago committees decided what God was.

Given that these doctrines were debated and formulated later, certainly we can have the feeling we’re reading into things with our Bible passages. The Gospel of John almost certainly didn’t have a concept of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And yet for this Trinity Sunday, we’re given a passage from chapter 3 with language of God’s only begotten Son and being born of the Spirit, seeming to cherry-pick what we hear as pointing to the Trinity.

Of course, rather than us deciding on the Trinity and then hunting for things to support it, another interpretation is that God’s identity was revealed for us in and through the Bible, leaving at least indicators of Trinity.

Still, I wonder why the Isaiah passage was chosen for today. It doesn’t seem to have those hints of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or of God, Word, and Breath, no Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. About all I can detect of Trinity is the threefold Holy, Holy, Holy. It seems a stretch to say that those angels are singing one Holy to each of the three persons of the Trinity. What it probably means is super extra holy. If one Holy is already holy, and Holy Holy is even holier, then Holy Holy Holy is holy guacamole holiest.

In practical terms, that meant mega Off Limits: Do Not Touch. Holiness was not supposed to come into contact with mundane messy humanity. Our ordinary lives are the reverse of God’s reserved being, and humans shouldn’t dare approach. Thus Isaiah’s fearful cry, “I’m doomed!” He wasn’t supposed to be there in God’s presence, with holiness so overpowering it could obliterate him, end his puny plain life.

That may not be our typical sense of God. We tend to think we can approach God. In our declarations that God accepts you just as you are, we avoid the distinctions that would put us distant and separate from God.

We may be especially uncomfortable with a concept of fearing God. We probably want to qualify it as awe or reverence or respect. But Isaiah is just plain scared. He recognizes the danger of approaching holiness. “I’m a man of unclean lips” and my own smirking holy guacamole line puts me at risk. Such snark is not worthy of God, and God’s holiness would have reason not to allow it, to displace me and cast me even farther from God’s presence.

Pausing to appreciate that holiness, our precarious posture is probably of supplication, to approach more cautiously. We try to clean up our act.

That’s still embedded in our worship practices. Notwithstanding those of you who are lackadaisically and inattentively engaged in this while in your pajamas at home, we’d typically devote ourselves to being devout, accustomed to dressing up, putting on our Sunday best, cleaning up our appearance as a symbol of our inner self. Historic church buildings have been lofty and grand, conveying this enormity and hushing our unclean lips. We try to treat each other a little better. We bow our heads in prayer, posing in humility to come into God’s presence. We sing praise that offers acclaim, at least mouthing the right words. Even our offerings—now mostly thought of as funds for operating the church budget—still probably have some connection to bringing something valuable to God, to offer our best. We try to put our best foot forward in worship—a word that is from Old English “worthy-ship,” for how we are worthy to enter God’s Holy, Holy, Holy presence.

The thing is, we’re not too good at cleaning up our act. We can make a brief show of it on Sunday morning. I know I can barely muster a little bit of holiness, and am far from Holy, Holy, Holy. If that’s what it takes, I am indeed doomed.

Well, Isaiah doesn’t even get a chance to clean up his act. He’s still realizing the risk when an angel flies up and jabs a burning coal into his mouth, a representation of being purged and prepared for God.

Your own purging comes not with fire but with water, as in baptism you were cleaned up and prepared for God. Especially clear if you were baptized as a baby, there’s nothing you did to get yourself ready. Your parents and a pastor might have seemed to be in the role of the angels, flying in to help set you right for God.

The Isaian angels share some of the fearfulness. They aren’t cute cherub baby angels or pretty ladies in flowing white gowns. More a sci-fi image, these are winged serpents. Phrased here as flying “flaming creatures,” the word seraph is Hebrew for “burning.” With serpents, fiery also meant poisonous. That’s a worthwhile image of Isaiah’s fearful predicament; approaching God is like being surrounded by poisonous snakes, a swarm of water moccasins and cobras and diamondbacks.

In a coincidence, that also appears with our John reading, referring to the book of Numbers, a story when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, and were indeed surrounded by poisonous serpents. Moses, as the angelic go-between, was told to make a bronze serpent and put it on a pole, so that people who were bitten and whose lives were threatened could look at the bronze serpent and have relief, be purged of the problem, be saved.

John says that’s what Jesus is like, as he is lifted on the cross. When your life is threatened, poisoned, infected, you look to Jesus on the cross and find relief, life, salvation.

That is again striking because, in that conversation, Nicodemus had been asking how to get closer to God, essentially what he needed to do to clean up his act. He was pondering how to be born again, how to have the fresh start, knowing it was as impossible as climbing again into his mother’s womb.

But it’s not humble origination. It’s not meek supplication. It’s not avoiding doom and condemnation by cleaning up our acts enough and watching our mouths. The coal is offered to touch your lips. Your baptism purges you before you even know you need it. God sends the Son that you may have life. The opposite of separation keeping you out, you are adopted in as an heir in God’s family. The Holy Holy Holy unapproachable God approaches you, comes near to you. You don’t make yourself worthy in worship. Your worthy-ship comes from God.

And this holy-making God spreads it out far beyond you. Isaiah sees we need not hunt to peek up God’s skirts, since God’s robe spreads and drapes filling the world, even while the seraphim are singing “the whole earth is filled with God’s glory.” And John sees that as we are scared and fearful, as we need help and salvation, it is not escaping out of existence to some special sanctuary, but exactly into our midst, God abundantly sends the Son by the power of the Spirit for life. Because God so loves the world.

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Upon All Flesh

sermon for Pentecost 2021 — Acts 2:1-21; John 15:25-27, 16:4b-15; Romans 8:22-27; Psalm 104

It may not feel the same, but I still don’t want to underplay it.

There’s plenty in the Pentecost story from Acts that may seem so extraordinary, so much different from your own experience on this Pentecost, not least that they were all together in one place! (They are in a house, though, so that matches your location.)

You probably didn’t hear the roar of a mighty windstorm. If you held something flammable over your head, it is unlikely it would start on fire or that you’d need to stop, drop, and roll. And you’re probably not speaking in foreign languages that you’d never bothered to study but in which you find yourself suddenly fluent. Whatever you’re doing, I sorta hope you’re not attracting a crowd, much less one that would ridicule you as being drunk in the morning.

In the Pentecost story, all of those phenomena and phenomenal behaviors are attributed to the work of the Holy Spirit.

That may run a risk of you suspecting or even expecting that when the Holy Spirit arrives, she shows up with pyrotechnical linguistic glamour. And as you remain with hair unsinged, mono-lingual (or at least not super-lingual), in a house not experiencing an un-forecasted whirlwind, and not drawing gawking onlookers, you could wind up with a feeling that the Holy Spirit must be absent.

But I don’t want to diminish your own strangeness. You’ve still got a pretty odd phenomenon: that you’re receiving this sermon. It’s not normal. It’s counter-cultural. It’s weird. More than these minutes with these words, there’s the whole thing of you being connected to church community.

What explanation do we have? Can your participation be explained by the fact you enjoy friendly and supportive relationships? But you wouldn’t have to be part of church to be around like-minded folks. We may not even be the best at caring for each other in times of need. The same if this relates to a desire to be a good person, as if this were the sole or primary place for morality and ethical encouragements. It’s not likely you’re bored and just have some time to kill. Are you still here because it was your upbringing and now is just a habit?

I think we’d mostly have to say that your strange behavior must be because the Holy Spirit is at work, creating faith in you. She’s making you do this otherwise unnatural thing. All the briefly extravagant details of the Bible reading actually may pale in comparison to the lifelong oddity of faith evident in you. The Holy Spirit’s work is about the only explanation. We know it’s there, as Linda said.

That’s also where Peter turns as he explains what was going on. It’s interesting: he doesn’t try to explain where the weird events are coming from. There are fires and windstorms and stories of miraculous abilities throughout the Bible, but Peter doesn’t pick one of those as his prooftext. He quotes the prophet Joel. It’s an explanation that doesn’t point to the phenomena at all, but to the people. Peter essentially says, Don’t be surprised this is happening, because Joel says this includes all people. The old and young. The masters and the servants. Every gender. The point isn’t the supernatural stuff. The point is the people. All the people.

Like you.

The point is the Holy Spirit has been poured out on you. God is working on you, and in you. In the words of Jesus, God is alongside you as the Comforter. And Jesus says it’s even better to have this Comforter with you than to have Jesus himself. She is with you as Comforter amid all your pain and suffering and waiting for it to be better.

That’s why the Holy Spirit bothers to show up. Not for a little magic show of wind and flames and languages. The Spirit comes to you because you need her, need comfort, need something for the pain and suffering of life in this world.

Maybe that’s also why God insists on so abundantly pouring out the Holy Spirit—since the need is so pervasive, this pervasive presence needs to be on all flesh and more.

Paul asserts it’s not only we who are longing, but all creation, that even “the things of nature, like plants and animals, suffer in sickness and death” and need some sort of liberation.

Psalm 104, one of my favorites, shares this worldwide outlook, of the “wide variety” of creatures God has made, so many that the “earth is full” of them. And they all look to God for goodness, for relief from panic, for life. And that Holy Spirit shows up for them, to renew the face of the earth.

I was reading more of the prophet Joel, to discover more about those words that Peter was quoting. It turns out that it’s even more prolific than on all people—young and old, rich and poor, all genders. Just before those verses, the prophet proclaims, “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field” (Joel 2:21-22).

In Joel’s time, they needed the Holy Spirit to come and comfort and set things right because of an ecological catastrophe, the destruction of locusts that not only destroyed crops, but made the land itself suffer, the animals hunger. How amazing that this prophet preaches to the dirt! Joel has God’s good news to announce: “Do not fear, O soil!” It’s faith-enlivening even to imagine the conditions for soil that is glad and rejoicing.

On this Pentecost, as the Holy Spirit again and continually arrives to comfort and renew, we may associate with that ecological destruction, facing a climate emergency that is causing plants and animals to be sick and die. We may take Joel’s metaphors of destruction caused by a great army and long for a chance to rejoice and be glad for people in Gaza, who have suffered much too much, and not just in recent 11 days. Or maybe we take the pouring out on all flesh to think of communities without privilege and disenfranchised genders, and know that God’s work is for them. Or maybe you picture the old and the young and hope for relief from suffering for our youth who have born a strange brunt of the pandemic and the elderly with diminished life and lingering illness.

Or maybe you know your own difficult circumstances, your fears and pains, your discontent and your longing. And whatever that is, God’s goodness is poured out on you, comforting, renewing life, bringing joy.

It may not be a little fire on your head, but that work of the Holy Spirit abides with you and for you. And that is the most miraculous thing of all.

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