sermon on Delighting in God’s Welcome

ricLuke13:10-17; Isaiah58:9b-14

 

Here’s the story: religious leaders had excluded a person from congregational participation, claiming this person was of a category unfit for God’s presence. Later—unfortunately much later—through Jesus this person is welcomed to the community, which is met both by popular acclaim but also by lingering resentments from the authorities.

This week, as we’re preparing for the Pride Parade, I’m having difficulty not seeing this Gospel story as a pretty precise parallel for how the church has treated LGBT folks over the past decades. It’s not an exact analogy; the Bible story is termed an exorcism or healing, while very clearly particular sexual orientations or gender identities are not wrongs that need to be fixed.

Yet still, it seems sadly uncanny how people who are lesbian, gay, transgender, and all kinds of queer have been condemned and pushed out of churches for years and years, being told you are not welcome, that the Bible’s regulations are against you, even that “God hates fags.” Then gradually, much too long later, came reversal, as some especially open-eyed churches—those who were best-attuned to the need for and prevalence of God’s grace, prevailing amid all of our lives that are too quick to condemn others in order to call ourselves okay—some communities gradually began offering a welcome and bucking the trend and rejecting the dominant and domineering regulations. And the broader popular culture—including some who will be lining State Street this afternoon—cheered this reversal even as some church authorities sought to slow the process or dragged their feet and grumbled through the change, or simply were put to shame by those with richer faith and compassion.

I said I was having difficulty not seeing this Bible story through this lens, and I really am feeling it as a difficulty. It’s not in the least that I regret the welcome. I don’t have doubts about God’s grace or believe we’re doing the wrong thing. I rejoice that we are a Reconciling in Christ congregation and find it a faithful necessity to have that rainbow logo with our identity. I’m eager to keep pushing our synod to fuller inclusion. That’s all well and good (other, again, than the regrettable delay of “what took us so long?”).

My difficulty in hearing the Bible story this way is the risk of just being self-congratulatory, that we pat ourselves on the back as those who get it, and we shake our heads at the feet-dragging grumblers who continue in shame. We don’t come to church just to applaud ourselves for being so welcoming or for proclaiming that God isn’t a narrow-minded jerk.

Partly it’s because we still have work to do. “All are welcome” may be exactly true as a theological statement, of the doors being open and the good news offered to all, of the Lord’s Supper as gifts given and shed for all. But that blanket welcome on God’s part doesn’t yet mean we do it well on our part. Pastor Sonja pushes this better than I, that if this weren’t just my place but were for all, then my way wouldn’t get to dominate as if it’s “right,” whether that’s for race or gender or learning style or ability level or age or musical taste or whatever. It raises the question for us: if God’s welcome is broadly offered and only true when it is enacted for all, then how do our practices and attitudes join that, and how are we the foot-dragging impediments of religious institution?

That propels us actually deeper into the content of this Gospel reading, and even more so the reading from Isaiah. In the Gospel story, there clearly seem to be sides, with the woman and the crowd and Jesus on one side versus the congregational leader and others as opponents. Rather than just inviting you to pick which side you want to be on, though, Isaiah prompts it by confronting your behavior. Specifically, verse 13 begins with a pair of contrasting very big “IFs”: “IF you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; IF you call the sabbath a delight…”

Let’s come back to the IF in a moment, but first pause to notice something spectacular: according to this in Isaiah, the purpose of this day is for delight. It’s a beautiful description—sabbath is not identified simply for rest or to go to worship, but for the delight God created you to enjoy. This day is so that your soul may sing. This is so that you may know freedom. It’s to release whatever distracts you and exactly to cure today what confines you, even if for a time, so you can glimpse a vision of a broader and better life, and praise God for it. Today is so you can delight.

To be part of this godly delight is very obviously not fulfilling regulations or requirements you need to do just right. It’s not how you worship (like how well you sing or what you say in your prayers, much less the right clothes or amount of offering). It’s not try out where you need to fit in so well, as if your welcome comes at the expense of somebody else, as if you’re better than others in some holy quality or another. Your delight is not dependent on your behavior, or conditional on how you feel about it. The delight of being uplifted arises exactly because you are never excluded by anything you’ve done. Never. Any aspect, good or bad: “your quirks, your questions, and your queerness…In baptism, you were claimed as a precious child of your Creator.”* The value of the day is that precisely—each in our very own ways—we need it. We need this chance to delight, because we’ve been crippled for too long and held in bondage for too long and keep worrying we’re not good or worthy enough, or have been told we don’t measure up. So you need this sabbath day, whose point isn’t what you do but is what you enjoy, realize, and delight in!

That also brings us back to the IF of Isaiah and the conflict in the Gospel story. The critical question in both is IF we’re just using this day for our own self-interested advantage. That can be hard to judge, if we’re delighting selfishly or more communally. For example, it’s supposed to be a day of rest; so if you get a weekend break with your family or a few moments of quiet amid the hectic week, is that delight worthwhile? Does that fit Isaiah’s criteria? Or, again, if you really enjoy singing Tom Hind’s liturgy in worship, is that delight for praising God, or is it that the tunes are catchy and choral singing releases endorphins that make you feel good and harmonious? Would that still count, since it remains far from Isaiah’s warning against “trampling on the sabbath”?

Maybe for more clarity we could ask this: Do we say we are so welcoming and loving, open and supportive because we like the old familiar faces of friends, or are we really ready for strangers and people who don’t look or act like us?

See, the delight is this broad, shared experience that is an engagement communing with who God created you to be and also in relationship with others as God created them to be. That’s bound to push you and make you open up some fresh edges. Again, this is the shape of things when we say that “all are welcome.” It doesn’t mean they’re allowed in if they look and act like you and know what you know and vote how you vote and keep quiet when you want them to. All are welcome means all, and it means a welcome from God, but also insists on welcome from us. Jesus sees you and reaches out to touch you, to offer you life. But you can’t block his vision or interrupt him reaching out to others who also need him. It’s impossible to secure more blessing by pushing aside or trampling others down, since we receive delight from God as we are receiving each other with delight.

Still more, this isn’t just embodied as we huddle amid a friendly little group at church, not just one hour a week we’re nice to each other, not just a shelter and refuge from surrounding nastiness. The delight of this gathering for God’s sabbath spreads out from here and across the world as the consummation of creation. For the brokenness and fractures that divide us in condemning each other, for sorrows that burden and devastations wracking and attempting to destroy our spirit, this godly delight is on the loose, the abundance of life, the fullness encountered in relationship, with Jesus and with each other. This is perhaps summarized in one of my favorite lines from the whole Bible. I even happened to reference it last week before noticing the verse would be included this week. It’s Isaiah 58:12: “You shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Wow. Could there be a better title for fostering shared delight?

This is a gathering where all are welcome, because God created all for delight, so you should have access to inspiration and rejuvenation and joy, and so should all others. But it doesn’t rest in this gathering alone. If you’ve missed church, you miss something wonderful and important, but you haven’t missed out on God or lost a ticket to some belated heavenly bliss. Rather, this is simply where we begin to live into God’s vision for our very present world, where delight isn’t confined to the worthy few, but spreads and is recognized by popular acclaim. This delight will march up State Street to reconcile the breach we have caused and felt. And then godly delight must continue on to the troubled streets of Milwaukee and charging through the closed doors of politicians-for-hire and is a deluge of repairs for Louisiana homes. And such delight must sweep away the rubble around a small, stunned Syrian boy and it resounds on the breeze with cicada calls and purges us like a baptismal rain and renews after raging fires. And, yes, all too often God’s delight has needed to bowl over shameful religious people exactly like us who have preferred to squander it or imagined it could be bottled up in individual serving sizes for your self-interest and pious-pretending pursuits. But there’s a cure for that, too.

The fullness of God’s blessing is for you, because you are part of God’s good creation. You are welcome here. Let’s sing it, better than I can say it.

 

Hymn: All Are Welcome (ELW 641)

* Thanksgiving for Baptism, http://www.reconcilingworks.org/ric/ricsunday/download/

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a funeral sermon

IreneWith Thanksgiving for the Life of Irene Josephine Rasmussen

September 1, 1919 + July 13, 2016

Exodus 20:9-12; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; John 14:27-28

 

“How long?” is a familiar question amid the Bible’s Psalms, a repeated refrain, even a persistent demand. I’ll come back to the Psalm later, because it takes a different tone, but let’s stick with the phrase “How long,” as it’s been on my mind in these weeks and months for Irene and since her death.

“How long!” might well begin as an exclamation for Irene. Her nearly 97 years made her the second-oldest member of this congregation, and well above most any expectation for life.

That time stretches back to the kind of farm life that hardly exists anymore and a Norwegian identity that has mostly been melted and blended into American culture. “How long” was such a length for her that it involves the increasingly rare trait of being shaped by the Great Depression, with thrift and endeavoring after careful and wise living. Irene could remember when their large garden produced almost all of her family’s food and that she didn’t have store-bought clothes for years, but only those made by her mother. She could recall when her father traveled to have a job with the Works Progress Administration, and—maybe even more remarkable for its contrast to this current culture—the overwhelming sense of optimism that went with hearing a speech from FDR. It sure feels like it must be a long time ago for somebody to say they were inspired positively by a politician!

The “how long” isn’t only a distance in the past, though, but also a duration. We can certainly celebrate that Irene and Paul’s marriage lasted for 65 years, which likely didn’t feel too long at all. And we can celebrate all they enjoyed through the course of those years, especially in travels to camp: Maine, the Black Hills, Montreal for the Expo, and much more. A couple weeks on the road each summer, and almost a month of the year spent camping out. That’s a lot, a long time to be outside. On those voyages, following after “are we there yet,” “how long” may also have been a question from a son in the back seat.

Those camping trips inspired a couple of the hymns (How Great Thou Art and Beautiful Savior) and Bible passages we heard this morning. The Exodus reading is actually part of the 10 Commandments given to Moses while the people were camping in the wilderness at Mount Sinai. I like the part about honoring father and mother because it offers an encouragement, a blessing: “so that your days may be long in the land.” It’s such a good biblical phrase for the “how long” of life and enjoying the world.

And the previous commandment about honoring the sabbath with rest also seems to fit with the recreation of those camping trips with Irene, of pausing to enjoy the world around you, of breaking from regular routines of life, and observing nature and the glories of creation and life around you.

Similarly, the vision of Revelation isn’t a description of the heaven we are destined for, but is a grand assurance and broad insistence that in spite of all that goes wrong, we share the blessings of life with a multitude, humans from all times and places, and all creatures, on earth and in the skies and under the earth and in the seas, as it says. A beautiful notion of praise, I expect it is part of the worship that Irene found on camping trips.

It’s also a vision that fits this occasion, of being brought back together with those who have been through ordeals and suffering, of God’s ongoing striving for redemption and to wipe away tears, of the baptismal springs of resurrection to new life. Good words, carrying us into the “how long” of eternity that stretches out in front of Irene and awaits us.

But before we get there, we also need to pause with the Psalm’s sort of “how long,” asking “How long shall I have perplexity in my mind and grief in my heart, day after day?” (13:2) It’s not a cheery question, but that “how long” was more the sense that I knew in my brief months with Irene, and which she had been headed toward over the past several years.

Sometimes “how long” is a lament, a prayer to God, a question of yearning. That certainly must have been the case for Irene at the tragedies of death, for her son David, and grandson Jonathan, and when she lost her husband, and her siblings, and so many friends. That is certainly a hard down-side to longevity.

And we wondered the question for Irene, too. How long will dementia worsen? How long until she isn’t able to recognize me? How long before a worse fall? How long will she be able to last? How long will this life go on?

Asking those harder parts of “how long” isn’t to say the situation was desperate. “How long” also meant important time of care from Paul and Maria. Irene did remember family and longtime friends. She remembered her childhood. She delighted in the visits from her church circle and could relate very well. She eagerly welcomed me as her new pastor, often over and over again during our visits. She continued to be eager to receive communion.

And maybe that’s part of our answer to the question, that in some ways we don’t know “how long.” We don’t know what will last or what’s coming next. Besides good times, we have plenty of anxieties that surround and lurk after us. Yet this faith turns us continually back to God and repeated assurance of hope, inspiring us perhaps with patience, but also promising the peace that surpasses all understanding, such as the world cannot give.

So that is for you now, for the “how long” of these ongoing days without Irene and for the rest of life: the peculiar assurance that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid. Somehow, in spite of it all, your “how long” is held in the promise of God’s embrace, that Jesus is with you forever and always.

I want to conclude with a couple words about our next hymn (When Memory Fades, ELW 792). For “how long,” we could’ve sung Amazing Grace’s notion that “when we’ve been there 10,000 years…we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’d first begun.” Instead we’ll sing this hymn with its strong text, perhaps almost too strong. In that, there’s some yes and no of how these words do and don’t apply to Irene and for our gathering today. I’m hoping that you find value in them for what they do say, perhaps even in spite of the hard honesty of the laments of “how long.” But if it doesn’t exactly make you feel like the resurrection praise we heard about from all creation in the Revelation reading (and our opening and closing hymns are probably better for that), still this one is a great tune, and for Irene’s love of symphonic music, it’s worth singing with gusto.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Joyce Jeanette Anderson Joyce

October 8, 1936 + August 11, 2016

Isaiah 48:12-17; Psalm 23; Galatians 5:21-25; John 14:1-10

 

Near and not far off.

Known and not unknown.

Lo, I am with you.

And, you know where I am going.

These are theological terms, statements our scripture attributes to God. But these are also personal terms, identities we knew in Joyce.

We’ve heard loving descriptions of this mother and grandmother, with stories and characteristics you almost certainly recognize also for sister, aunt, and step-mother, friend and teacher. Again, with the stunning summary statement that “God is love,” in Joyce, we similarly knew deeply invested care.

She was devoted to you, to your wellbeing, which is another stunning statement because it’s true for all of you gathered today, and for so many more people, as well. She loved to learn what was happening in your life, caring in both joys and struggles, with an amazing memory to hold all those details. I know this, because I also experienced it. Joyce was one of those rare people where in these past weeks I could walk into her hospital room for a pastoral care visit, and walk out of the room feeling more like I’d been cared for, and also more in touch with others, like hearing the latest ins and outs of Jenny buying a new house.

Though I’ve only gotten to know her a bit in these past months, that feels representative of the care you knew from Joyce, whether for your whole life, or in a brief encounter. Five daughters knew the care and love of this mother, the one who could discipline you for wrecking the car as a child by making you help prepare potato salad for a family gathering. That’s a remarkable kind of love, as you know, and as your friends were occasionally jealous of. It’s the kind of care that persisted and was apparently unflappable even after your father’s death, and the care and love that expanded to more family when she met Eldon, and as you were choosing partners, and as grandkids arrived, and on and on. You got to know best this very present and invested love of Joyce.

Others experienced it from her in innumerable fleeting moments. This is that central identity of Joyce as a nurse and—maybe even more—as a nurse’s nurse. She not only tended to sickness but to the whole person. She didn’t just hand on knowledge as a teacher, but valued the whole shape of life for her students. Still around UW Hospital in these weeks were those who either had known Joyce through the years, or were getting to know her in this way still. Even those who had never met her received from her, perhaps most vividly in her efforts on behalf of hospice care. In precisely this moment of confronting death with comfort and dignity, she appreciated the full circle of receiving what she had helped offer to so many others.

For those of this Advent Lutheran and Madison Christian Community, I should pause to say how Joyce valued you, though you almost certainly still can say it better than I can. She identified herself here, and amid many groups, in worship or at breakfast. She cherished the prayer shawl in these weeks and was showing off the card fashioned by the quilters. And Joyce was still looking forward to more reading with book group, to the wide variety you’d choose, even if it weren’t what she would’ve picked herself.

That’s another mark of her personality: the teacher was always also a learner, eager for new connections, to explore new places and discover new things. That’s true in her travels near and far, right up to that last voyage to Alaska with Carol, when she got sick enough that they needed to come home, which led to more and more medical investigations and finally the experience of hospice and the end.

At this point, I should say something about God. After all, I’ve said lots about Joyce. More than I usually would say about a person in a funeral sermon. But that isn’t because you needed me to describe her or say nice things about her. Rather, I said so much about Joyce because I also wanted you to hear that about God, a God invested in you (as Joyce was), caring for you (as Joyce did), never out to punish but to redeem you, close to you and knowing you in all kinds of ways (as Joyce lived right until the end), always seeking more for you.

This has been the language of our Bible readings. The verses from Isaiah aren’t a typical funeral reading, but are chosen for the Joyce/God pairing. it described God as “first and last,” meaning present before our birth and through it all and beyond death. Isaiah declared God’s love for and investment in the people, with a persistent will on their behalf—on your behalf—that would not be subverted, in those times by armies or calamities, or in our midst today by sickness and death. Isaiah proclaims God to be near, not hidden off in secret. God is with you, calling to teach and guide. So as we knew that in Joyce, we know it in God.

David’s reading from Galatians gives it a clear explanation, that we were able to know these good things in Joyce because they were gifts from God, these fruits of the Spirit. The love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, and more that Joyce shared with us came not as something Joyce had to strive after, but arose in her so naturally and directly as the blessing from God.

The familiar words of Psalm 23 lead us to see this presence in various settings. Sometimes you knew Joyce in the moments of providing, in preparing a table, even as she did for funeral services like these, or in times of quiet reflection like book group and Bible study, or in nourishing meadows of teaching, or in dark valleys, like those who knew Joyce during medical care or from hospice. This says God, too, is amid all those times and places.

And, finally, Jesus explains this whole premise in the gospel reading: as you have seen me, you have seen God. In some way, we can claim and believe that line of Jesus for Joyce.

But we also know there are limits. For all of her travels and explorations and curiosity, there are places she couldn’t go, not only for completing the Alaska trip, but that she is not with you now. For all of her past care, she is no longer able to be that. You have amazing memories and plenty to share, and you can also go on to embody some of that care and compassion that Joyce had been, but she won’t be present to be that for you anymore, and so finally, we need this word of God that proclaims something more, that isn’t only accompanying you in times of dying, but that will go beyond death and bring you to new life. This is the promise of resurrection that we look to in Jesus, a promise for you to live into, and the promise for Joyce from a God who is known, who is near, who is with you, and who will bring you home with Joyce forever.

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Is Jesus Divisive?

sermon on Luke12:49-56; Hebrews11:29-12:2
I’ve been practically giddy all week about this Bible reading.

Which I know sounds odd since this won’t rank among anybody’s favorites. But I relish the chance to struggle with Scripture, to wrestle with it until it releases a blessing for us.

In contrast, a month ago we heard the Good Samaritan, which is both so familiar and also almost self-explanatory. Be nice to each other, including some new people—it seems to say—or accept help from unexpected sources. You almost inherently can understand that, and barely would need a preacher.

With this passage, however, you’re left with two choices. Either you can claim that the Bible and religion are filled with too much nastiness and try to ignore and reject the whole spiel, or else you can hear these hard words, face the confusing dilemma, and exclaim, “Aha! This is why we pay Pastor Nick the big bucks!” So now we’ll see if you’re getting your money’s worth.

That comes with the immediate disclaimer that I don’t have a definite answer or resolution for you, but do have several possibilities to try on.

First, we may hear these words from Jesus simply as descriptive: there are divisions on earth. We may even find that on occasion to be a good thing: night and day, the weekend, our atmosphere separating air from outer space.

Other times, we sense division not necessarily as beneficial, but still at least as reality. Across the globe, we don’t all speak the same language. We don’t have the same skills or interests. And while Jesus may be indicating the individual differences or denominational disparities or interfaith turmoil that religion has caused, of arguments and separations in our families on up, still, stepping back from emotion, we are at a point in history where we might be able to recognize that there are real reasons we wouldn’t all have the same understanding of God, that our unique circumstances and upbringings and lot in life play a role.

That’s a fundamental distinction already in Jesus’ words. He was part of the monotheistic Jewish faith, but where they’d said the only, the sole, the mono- connection with God was in the Temple, Jesus was relocating the divine, taking away the hierarchy that made some closer to God and pushed others out of the perimeter. Simply by proclaiming the undoing of a central authority and enacting radical welcome with unconditional grace, Jesus was causing division and disrupting the old system.

That may point us toward a next step of reflection. Beyond description, is this word from Jesus prescriptive? Does he seek to cause divisions?

I have to say, this is mainly what makes this passage uncomfortable for me. This version from Luke, where Jesus says he brings division, is a notch gentler than Matthew’s version, where he says he brings a sword. But still, when Jesus declares he has not come to bring peace on earth, that disappointment is the exact opposite of why I usually turn to Jesus and what I expect from him. Some of the first things that grabbed me about Christianity when I was in middle school were words like “blessed are the peacemakers,” “turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies.” These shaped my passion for nonviolence and even pacifism, to be against war and militarism and the death penalty. But here, Jesus seems to reverse his core message of love and healing and life, and—indeed—peace!

But that very reversal is the cue that we need to struggle with these words. Certainly there are some who employ this sort of message to reinforce violence or oppression or division or use of force. But the fact that they have to turn repeatedly to this passage or to an apparently angry Jesus cleansing the Temple or a single line about swords at the Garden of Gethsemane says that these hard passages are the exception and not the rule of Jesus.

So I would argue—and will argue—that Jesus isn’t stoking fires of hatred and fanning the flames that make us burn against each other. This isn’t a sort of division that lets me see myself as good and other races or religions as bad, much less worth-less and able to be excluded or exterminated or deported. Those have been dangerous precedents in history and are dangerous in our midst today. Such divisions are accusingly satanic, not godly or from Jesus. That is not God’s mission or intention for our world, and it must be resisted.

But that very resistance begins to illuminate another side of these words from Jesus. It’s not general divisiveness he promotes, as if desiring any and all animosity. But there are specific faithful distinctions that we would foster, that Jesus would back, when he’s prompting change and upset against tranquil apathy at the status quo. Such “peace” he may well be against. Amid plenty of divisions, we should readily and boldly proclaim, “I’m not that sort of Christian. We are not that kind of people.” We want to declare proudly and vitally that we are anti-racist and anti-sexist and anti-bullying and anti-oppression and anti-poverty. We are anti-terrorism but simultaneously anti-anti-Muslim and anti-anti-immigrant (if you can handle important uses of a double-negative) and anti-anti-gay. We know these divisions and know where we must stand for justice. Sure, we can work to heal the splits and repair the breach with other people, and that may be among our more vital tasks in these days, but that doesn’t permit us to ignore the divides or to pretend that compromise plain and simple is always the right thing.

That’s hard enough when we’d prefer not to have to keep struggling amid society. We don’t want to feel like a voice in the wilderness, crying out. We don’t want every election to feel like a doomsday scenario or for every click of news to be filled with despair. But beyond those larger fears and frustrations, we also know this more intimately. We know divisions in families, conversations that cause consternation, the topics that somehow are off the table for discussion. We know those family fractures that are fueled by even kind and faithful views.

Such values may arise from stuff that seems like a big deal, like arguing faith’s perspectives on health care. Or that your beliefs mean you’re called to love Iranians and Russians, and—yes—even terrorists, and all those with whom you disagree. That’s not a fun conversation. Or it may be more personal, like around parenting styles or medical decisions or financial choices. Or it may seem smaller, like that you’d choose to be here today, that you intentionally give away some of your income, that you do the silly thing of saying a prayer in times of need. We may not be persecuted or our lives at risk for what we believe, but among your family and friends and coworkers—besides the broader culture—clinging to your beliefs is still apt to cause divisions. Jesus may have been envisioning that result simply because of what matters to you.

It’s already a relief that Jesus recognizes and names the brokenness we’re bound to face. It’s good news that my family isn’t the only one God knows with some dysfunction. But beyond just naming the reality, we do need more. Clearly, this involves difficult decisions to weigh and really requires endurance and patience to persist. So we need support. We need this community. We need the great cloud of witnesses, those saints throughout history that our Hebrews reading held up for us. We need examples of those who have willingly or unwillingly suffered and were mocked and continued through blood and sweat and tears, and conquered somehow in death, even as the loss appeared to be overwhelmingly futile. It’s a stunning Bible passage, making us ask if it’s worth it, even while motivating us to carry on. We’re caught up in something we can’t quite explain and may not always like, yet know we must proceed.

And that brings us to a final part of the reflection. We should always remember that Jesus is up to something particular. With him, it is not just a description of everyday life, but a new way of seeing and interacting with the world, a new order, for new life. He begins by saying he’s bringing fire to earth and wished it were already kindled, and his stress while awaiting his baptism. These are lines about his death. He isn’t kindling a fire to start fights among others or to give us permission to take up the sword against those we don’t like. He’s inviting that division against himself, recognizing that he’s the one who’s going to get burned, the one who will be plunged into death. This makes the Bible passage about him.

But that also makes it about you, doesn’t it? See, you’ve been baptized into Christ as well. Your baptism joins you to the resurrection of Jesus and the promise of new life, but also joins you to his passion and death. Amid the communion of saints, you are brought into this Jesus way, this Jesus vision, this Jesus practice for encountering the world, and striving both against it and yet simultaneously on its behalf.

That means the fire is spreading. Jesus kindled it against himself, but also in you. It’s remarkable that the one other place these words for division and fire happen together is on Pentecost (Acts 2:3), when divided tongues of flame appeared on the followers of Jesus, filling them with diverse gifts and sending them across the world. Among those believers, this word for division also became a word for sharing—that they divided among themselves the cup of the new testament in Jesus’ blood at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17) and divided their possessions to distribute as any had need (Acts 2:45).

In this community of Jesus, then, we no longer recognize the world’s old, rotten divisions of haves and have-nots, of rich versus poor, of insiders and outsiders, winners and losers, successful or failure, the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, the worthy and the unworthy. In this community of Jesus, those divisions are cast out because finally, this is where we anticipate reconciliation will have the last word, since neither death, nor life, nor things present, nor things to come will be able to divide us or separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

 

Hymn: God of Tempest, God of Whirlwind (ELW #400)

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A Prayer for Revolution

sermon on Luke11:11-3; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:20-32
In the Covenant Room this morning, (the UCC congregation) is practicing music as prayer, part of a whole summer series on prayer practices. But here we’re focusing on the same stale or problematic words of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet maybe we can again encounter these words as central to our faith, and in that way revolutionary and even subversive.

So let’s jump in to the prayer of Jesus in Luke’s version, a piece at a time. It opens by addressing “Father.” I’m still getting accustomed to the versions of this prayer we use here. There are good reasons for adaptations, but also with a risk of missing out; the fact that Jesus uses the term Father or Abba instead of a typical conception like Creator or Almighty is an important part of what we learn about this God of Jesus. It is a relationship of intimacy, of care, of trust. Where generic terms God or Spirit would leave it to our imaginations what in heaven’s name we might be dealing with, Jesus instead points to one you know and who knows you. Luther’s Small Catechism says the point of this language is to build your confidence, so you can ask just as a child would approach a loving parent.

Not all of us have that kind of relationship with our father. But part of the point is that God is not equivalent with your regular father, and Jesus says as much later in the passage, that even if some earthly parents were evil enough to give a scorpion when their child asked for food, our heavenly Father is not like that. (Though there, I should correct myself. Luke doesn’t have a Father in heaven, which would still leave distance or some sense of separation. Here Jesus just says “Father,” and here and now is part of God’s household, with all that exists.)

Again, there’s a risk and arguably a historical proneness to contort this for masculinity that reinforces chauvinism and blocks access for women. Yet the image of God Jesus shares is exactly striving to contradict patriarchy. This isn’t a stern father, or a punishing father, or an absent father, or with an opposite pairing in a caring, sensitive, supportive, cradling mother. This Father of Jesus nurses us (see John 1:18), somehow an attempt to hold images of mother and father simultaneously while highlighting where the problem and redemption’s task lie. This certainly shouldn’t be the only term we use for God. Still, if it’s set aside we might imperil the argument of Jesus and his effort to reshape culture in the ways that that Colossians reading was voicing, standing up against false gods of empire and pompousness and violence. We need caution so Jesus’ radical transformation isn’t thwarted by backfiring struggles for inclusivity.

I expect we can continue to discuss that in our years to come, but for now we’d better move on to “hallowed be your name.” This is old language that probably could use updating, since it only calls to mind Halloween or the hallowed halls of your alma mater or a venerable sports venue. Actually, though, if we can hang on to that image, it may be more descriptive for us than just substituting “holy.”

This is about God making God’s name respectable. That’s a good way to start a prayer, putting the onus on God by saying, “give us a reason to trust you. If you’re so loving, prove it.”

But it’s also an admission that God’s name is often not treated as hallowed. It’s not only the common conceptions of “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” Picture how you’d treat those “hallowed halls.” Walking into your old school may fill you with memories or hushed wonder. It may not be totally good, but you’d realize how that had shaped you. Or going to a favorite sports arena may lead you to awe or anticipation. That’s what the name of God does in this prayer—brings to mind all that has transpired through the millennia of God’s story and also anticipating rightly what’s yet to come.

(Only a slight tangent, notice how selling naming rights contorts this process. It’s harder to hallow stadiums named after cell phones, insurance companies, or banks. Yet those businesses do understand devotion, though, albeit in an idolatrous way, according to Colossians. In this prayer, too, we have to ask what’s in a name and what it does, what we expect from God.)

That leads to the next line, “Your kingdom come.” Again, Luke won’t let our vision stray or allow this to be otherworldly. There’s no “on earth as in heaven.” This is about our lives here and now. I know “kingdom” is another of those controversial terms. Yet, just as God the Father contradicted abusive, bossy, or controlling parents, so this statement is directly in opposition to the prevailing empire. Asking for God’s kingdom meant pushing the Roman Empire out, for the oppressive Pax Romana to be replaced by the peace of Christ. And still today, for lives controlled by corporate lobbying and manipulative marketing and capitalist consumption and all those -isms, we do know it’s a power struggle.

So this envisions a new kingdom, though it’s another old term and we’re not even well-acquainted with the concept of king being negated here. But there’s not a great substitute. The “democracy of God” doesn’t fit, since we need the unique perspective of Jesus and not the dangers of majority rule (a reality we’re having to face in our political environment right now). “Household of God” isn’t broad or bold enough. “Kin-dom” could come close, standing for what binds us together and against what fragments us, but it lacks the oomph of God’s presence breaking into our world and lives to change the status quo and bring us out from the realm and stronghold of death into life.

If it helps, John Dominic Crossan suggests you can “mentally rephrase it as the ‘ruling style of God’ [and] imagine how the world would be if the biblical God actually [ran things]…It dreams of an earth where the Holy One of justice and righteousness actually gets to establish—…say—the annual budget for the global economy.”* Again, rather than re-entrenching fearsome patterns where might makes right, as we pray this it is an invitation to join the reigning of God, living into an entirely new style of encountering the world, which actually frees us from confining structures and stands up for others.

The next petition is “Give us each day our daily bread,” which clearly isn’t just peanut butter sandwiches much less communion bread, but is the sun and rain and soil and farmland and lack of erosion and pollinators and yeast and farmers and governmental protection and bread machines and factories and roads and all that’s required to get you bread. It’s a lot to cram into one line (as maybe we’re coming to expect).

That was also what John Goltermann was saying in our visit this week. He said that at 82 years old, his prayers in the evening are sometimes 20 minutes long in thanks for all the blessings of his life. He was saying that even amid being down that day, wishing he could do more, reflecting on struggles after his wife’s death, and also amid life-robbing dementia.

That may illustrate how this petition is revolutionary. After all, it’s at least characteristically American and maybe too human to want more, to be proud of accumulations, to have greed, the “pretentious symbols of self-aggrandizement” in those big, beautiful words of our Colossians paraphrase. To say thanks when we have an abundance may be good manners, but is hardly revolutionary.

But this petition isn’t about always yearning for more. It is gratitude for the fullness of enough. In John Goltermann’s words, it doesn’t need to lament passing up the “golden opportunities” to climb higher. Instead, it’s able to be satisfied. It doesn’t ask “give me everything I want,” but “give me the bread I need each day.”

Oh, but that requires revision, too. It’s not “give me.” We pray, give us what we need. It is communal, not selfishly individualistic, and that’s counter-cultural for sure.

As if it weren’t difficult to share material goods, the prayer gets harder with “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Just as the hallowing was about God’s name, this is how we view and treat each other’s honor. This means not getting what you claim to deserve, not holding to account, not keeping score of winners and losers. That erases a lot of markers we like to tally to prove ourselves worthy. It’s a radical word, even more so in Colossians’ appraisal that Jesus disarmed those oppressive powers by nailing them to his cross in sacrificial love.

Maybe the first reading from Genesis points in this direction, with a notion of positive contagion, that one good apple can save the whole bunch. It’s a fun reading, with Abraham’s incremental argument on behalf of justice or mercy or goodness or forgiveness or compassion or healing divisions or whatever we might call it. And while we should disagree with the sense that we have to coerce God away from destruction, we can pretty easily see that as applying to us, as an ongoing effort to offer redemption instead of reciprocal violence, or meeting evil with evil, bit-by-bit getting ourselves to practice really respecting others by “forgiving everyone indebted to us.”

This prayer Jesus continually is teaching us ends “do not bring us to the time of trial.” A prayer for deliverance is a fitting conclusion. It’s a prayer that all the rest of the prayer works out as it’s supposed to, that we’re led by the Holy Spirit not to put God to the test and don’t find ourselves standing on the wrong side of God’s revolution, a prayer that life wins, that forgiveness spreads, that all would have what we need and we would realize it’s enough, that God’s way becomes the world’s way, that we abide in God’s care forever.

At that point, all that’s left is to say, let it be so: Amen.

 

* Crossan, The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord’s Prayer, p78

and here’s the stunningly powerfulColossians Remixed”paraphrased version of 2:8-19 by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat

Make sure that no one takes your imaginations captive through a vacuous vision of life rooted in an oppressive regime of truth that parades itself as something other than a mere human tradition, as if it somehow had privileged access to final and universal truth about the world apart from Christ. You see, in Christ there is a radical presence of Deity, fully instantiated and situated in the particularities of history. And you have come to partake in that presence; that fullness is yours in Christ, who is the very source of every rule and authority that purports to have sovereignty over your lives.

In him you find your legitimacy, your entrance into the covenantal community, because in relation to him your real problem—a deeply rooted sinfulness manifest in violence and self-protective exclusion—is addressed and healed. The symbol of legitimacy is not the size of your stock portfolio or the number of hits your website gets daily, but that ancient rite of baptism in which you die with Christ to all these pretentious symbols of self-aggrandizement and are raised with him through a trusting and believing faith in the power of God, who raised Jesus from the dead.

Don’t forget that you were once dead too—dead in the dead-end way of life that characterizes our cannibalistic and predatory culture. But now you are dead to that way of life, and God has made you alive with Christ by dealing with the real problem through radical forgiveness. You see, when the idolatrous power structures that bolster this oppressive regime of truth nailed Jesus to the cross and poured out all their fury on him, all of your debts were nailed there too. All of the ways the empire of death held you captive and robbed you of your life—the exhausting and insatiable imperative to consume, the bewildering cacophony of voices calling out to us in the postmodern carnival, the disorientation and moral paralysis of radical pluralism, the loss of self in a multiphrenic culture, the masturbatory self-indulgence of linguistic and societal games, the struggle to not become roadkill on the information highway—all of this is nailed to the cross, and you are set free. Let’s not beat around the bush here. What is at stake in this conflict at the cross is indeed a power struggle. And Jesus takes precisely the principalities and powers that placed him on the cross—the idols of militarism, nationalism, racism, technicism, economism—and on that very cross disarms, dethrones, conquers and makes public example of them. In this power struggle, sacrificial love is victorious precisely by being poured out on a cross, a symbol of imperial violence and control.

If all of this is true, then don’t allow the front-men of these vanquished powers to tell you what to eat and drink….Don’t be duped by advertising that tells you that various products are indispensable to constructing certain images and personas. This is all crap. They are still trying to captivate your imagination, to suck you into a globalistic regime of homogeneous consumption. Resist this Mc-World nightmare with all the strength you have! Avoid the Disney-ization of your consciousness! This stuff has no substance to it, no depth. It suffers from the unbearable lightness of being. But in Christ we find substance, something of weight and power.

And don’t get sucked into consumerist ideology when it comes dressed up in the clothes of Christian faith. A “new manly piety” just might be more of the same old patriarchal power-grabbing, capitalist legitimating stuff that we have seen being pimped both at the mall and in the consumer-friendly church. And all the charismatic enthusiasm in the world, rolling the aisles with holy joy, amounts to little more than puffed-up humanism if it is devoid of a radical transformation of entire human lives. So much religious renewal seems so attractive, so comfortable, so safe. But it is fundamentally secular. Its cultural imagination remains in captivity to an idolatrous worldview, and it has lost contact with the real source of life. It cannot sustain deep and radical growth that is subversive of the regimes of truth because it is not nourished from the source of all things—it does not grow with a growth that comes from God.

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I Break for Jesus

“Lives Matter” sermon

(featuring Psalm13; Colossians1:15-28; Genesis18:1-10a; John10:11-18)
It seems obvious we can’t have a vacation from church because our lives won’t accept that pause.

A couple examples: I was in Hawaii, ready to play cards with family when news came about Orlando. And I was eating lunch when I heard of Philando Castille’s death in my seminary neighborhood. I was starting my weekend with a movie on the couch with Acacia when my phone buzzed about Dallas, visiting my mom as the Fort McMurray fire blazed, and was going to the baseball game when learning about France this week.

We can hold onto only so many of those moments, but nevertheless our routine lives become marked by them. Even as you’re adding a new Dallas tragedy to these layers, you may still hold the memory of where you were when President Kennedy was shot. I can picture in elementary school where as a 1st grader I knew something wasn’t right when the Challenger space shuttle blew up. I recall the seminary classroom on 9/11 when the first tower had been hit and a professor suggested we might want to be in chapel worship that day.

She was right. We continue to need this. This is where we come for good news, for a change. This may be where we look for answers. We may expect to find something different, hope amid despair, find life amid death. We may seek community, since “Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

Okay, those were theme song lyrics to the old TV show “Cheers.” I know that reference to a bar may not seem to fit the seriousness I was mentioning, but scan the obituary pages these days and notice the memorial services at a bar, or at a botanical garden or park. We have to ask if church is just another place to commiserate, with beautiful distractions in music or moments of quiet. If so, is this any different than those other places that are made to bear grief and sorrow and the longing for sympathy in these days?

Though church functions well in those quote-unquote “standard” ways, we have the burden of admitting that, in worse moments, we can end up hypocritical and less engaged in fixing the world and sharing love than we followers of Jesus should be.

We also have the added theological conundrum when these terrible things happen. A loving God who merely weeps with us wouldn’t seem to be very helpful. But a mighty God who causes catastrophe is left constrained in fear, not worthy of devotion or praise. President Obama’s remarks this week were constructively hopeful, but he phrased recent misfortune in terms that “God has called [the dead officer] home.” I disagree that God is the type to interrupt life with horrendous violence as a means to take us to heaven. But if that’s not what God does, it leaves the question of where God is in these moments, or the still harder wondering if God even exists.

As we’ve said before, though: here we are. We may gather in church intent on continuing to figure this stuff out, on confronting the hard questions. More, in the face of tragedy and sorrow, we not only desire answers when we cry out “why,” but also long for resolutions, for ways to resolve the problems and end the crying. We long not only for less pain, but to be people who can heal.

Yet today we remain hurting people. For this summer, there has been too much hard news, too much sad news and bad news, besides all the personal struggles and sadnesses that wear us down as we bear them. In what’s becoming more devastation than we and our world can handle, we just can’t catch a break. It seems there’s no vacation from all these problems.

That, again and centrally, is why we are here, why—in spite of travels and visitors and all that fills long summer days in often very good ways—why we find ourselves in church. We need a place to pause and collect ourselves. We need some beauty and music to fill our hearts and lungs, inspiring us. We need encouragement. We need the presence of each other, to sort through and talk about this stuff, or sometimes just for a hug or smiling face.

I’d contend, though, that church is not exactly a place of answers. If we yearn for “why” questions to get simple explanations like “because of God,” our lives, our world, and certainly the mystery of faith are more complex than that. As hard as we may work, it’s no easy fix. As powerful as the love and life of God is, even resurrection doesn’t eliminate the sting of death we face.

Amid complexities we hold as we gather here, we don’t claim total good in ourselves or condemn others as ultimately evil. We don’t say Muslims are bad or police are against us or that all trucks are dangerous weapons. We refuse such categorical fears. Even amid the deepest darkness, we strive to find and name the light. We long for, but also expect and trust redemption, both consistently and impatiently.

This is the faithful and paradoxical language of the Psalm chosen for this service. It is among the Bible’s vital reminders that faith isn’t being happy all the time, not blind rationalizing that God has a bigger plan, or anything like that. The Psalm gives us language to complain, to lament, to cry out “How long?! How long must I bear pain and sorrow?” And yet it goes on to sing, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Even as we gather today with too much grief, wondering when and how it will all be over, still we practice singing, with joy, trusting love that endures.

Another of the complex distinctions in the heated mix this week is the skirmish about #BlackLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter or #AllLivesMatter. Held by boundless compassion, we know these can be both true and also silly to squabble about. A child who skinned her knee needs different care in that moment than another. Or, in Bishop Mary’s example, the fire department treats all houses as worth their attention, but when a house is on fire, that one matters. Again, we can say that God loves everybody, but sometimes when it’s miserable and you feel horrible and you wonder if everything is out to get you, you need to know that God loves you.

This fits the lectionary reading from Colossians assigned for today, which essentially says “All Lives Matter.” But it isn’t only meaning multiracial of black, brown, and white skin tones. It isn’t limited for those killed on duty or those killed by those on duty. This stretches wider. Christ Jesus is making amends for all creation, reconciling “all things.” This proclaims an enormous vision of God’s work. Examining the expanse of this in terms of these days, it says that American Lives Matter and French Lives Matter, that Christian Lives Matter and Muslim Lives Matter, that Black Lives and Blue Lives Matter, that victims’ lives matter while terrorist lives also matter, and cancer lives and homeless lives and poor lives and wealthy lives all matter. Old lives and young lives matter. Plus polar bear lives matter. Monarch butterfly lives matter.  Democratic lives and Republican lives matter. Each and every one of these is worth announcing, for its own value. The huge scale of all these lives matter, and your small life still matters to God. None of these are excluded, and they’re also brought together in reconciliation, out from deadliness and hostility and competition to new life and peace in Christ Jesus. It’s among the Bible’s most stunning readings (though it’s not perfect). It’s an important promise for us to cling to in these hard days. The place of God’s amazing work in Jesus isn’t just inner spirits or after death but is spread through every complex intricacy and relationship of creation.

That points us to some surprises. We know that prejudice cannot suffice as the end expectation, that God’s work continues and may pop up where we weren’t looking. This is what’s in the lectionary reading from Genesis: Sarah and Abraham receive strangers with hospitality, and then also receive unexpected good news and joy. We meet and receive God’s presence in people and places we know to look, in bread and wine where Jesus declares he will be found. But God may also show up with strangers and outsiders and unfamiliar faces. Amid or underneath any of the desperate circumstances around us, then, we may keep searching to find revealed the surprising good news of God’s work.

Life can’t be defined by tragedies, then, because the tragedies begin to be redeemed in the ordinary moments, these summer days, the very places and relationships you find yourself when the shockwaves hit. God is deep in all those events and commonplaces.

In the Gospel chosen for this service, Jesus the Good Shepherd similarly says there are other sheep not of this fold. His caring presence is not restricted to those who gather for church or even for the human contingent of sheep. Imagine how shocking that would’ve been to those earliest Christians, surrounded by fearful persecutions.

In some parallel way, we keep coming back here for the assurance of this declaration, so critically needed. As we’re surrounded by too much death, Jesus declares his life not stolen, but given. His sacrifice is not a loss of life, but a gift, a gain, a sharing. Different from but so connected to the disasters that have happened, in Jesus is the word that death does not triumph and enmity and hatred will not break our world apart because God will not give up at reconciliation. Unflinchingly, this Good Shepherd won’t abandon you but will go through death to abide in care.

That promise enables us to find relief and encouragement, to be sustained and resilient, to overcome almost overwhelming hopelessness, to find confidence in community, to rejoice in beauty and delight in song. These aren’t distractions or compensations amid the sorrows of life. Flowing out to these days when we seem to face unending sorrow and flowing out across this trembling world—flowing from this heart of God, who in the image of Jesus is revealed as a God of compassion, of care, of love, of life for you, and a God we all need at just such a time as this.

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Who is my neighbor?

sermon on Luke 10:25-37; Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Colossians 1:1-14

My favorite line in this so-called Good Samaritan story used to be the lawyer’s first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

More on that another time, though, because this week, I’ve been bemused by the lawyer’s second question: “and who is my neighbor?” Maybe Ken Streit can advise if this is a lawyer-ly brain trying to chase down the loose ends and leave no stone of the law unturned. But it’s still foolish. If the question were unasked, if the lawyer would’ve left well enough alone, he could’ve gone off self-satisfied, thinking, “Well, the folks on my block like me pretty well. I get along fine with people at the office. Even my teenage daughter manages to put up with me.” Then that lawyer could’ve kept a nice, small vision of his responsibility and probably remained smugly self-assured.

But he instead opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms. The question slipped out: “And who is my neighbor?” Why didn’t he just stay self-congratulatory, figuring he was doing fine? Later in the Gospel, a similar guy is praying (or sort of praying, but more gloating) that he’s much better than the sinners. He saw himself favorably compared against thieves, rogues, adulterers, and a nearby tax collector. But!—that story concludes, in its coup de grâce—all who exalt themselves will be humbled (18:14).

So did pride make this lawyer ask the “who is my neighbor” question? Or earnest desire? Could he not keep his mouth shut? The story says the reason is that he wanted to justify himself.

That is all too often the problem. In regards to God and the world around us, we have a burning desire to show we’ve got it figured out and are acting just how we’re supposed to…or at least on a bit better footing than others.

We keep trying at self-justification, even though in our hearts, we know and trust that this faith and God’s own self is about peace, forgiveness and grace, redemption and lives recreated and made whole, transforming sinners into saints. If you need that word of good news, please hang onto it, because in spite of salvation and unconditional love and all that Jesus came to reveal, giving freely, still with the lawyer we slip back in, unable to help ourselves in wanting to be proven right. We repeatedly dive headlong into the task of trying to justify ourselves.

So when we gather for church, we may accept a few challenges on a to-do list, but that really aims again to feel good about ourselves, to be reassured in our self-righteousness, so we can claim we’re doing okay, that at least we’re trying to be kind in our families, and striving to be the sort of citizens we should be, and not too nasty to those around us, so God must want to pat us on the back as much as we do.

In asking Jesus, the lawyer was presumably hoping for a nice, tidy legal category, that neighbors are those in a three-door vicinity, or they share your religion and values, or can relate to your socioeconomic status and past-times, that neighbors look like you and act like you. You know, something easy.

But Jesus blows the whole thing wide open. Not only do those in the story closest to the lawyer fail to recognize the beaten up half-dead guy who really could use some care. What’s worse, Jesus goes on to pick out a rotten Samaritan as exemplary, as the model. This is shocking. Samaritans were sort of a corrupt version of Jews. This lawyer would say Samaritans read their Bibles wrong and misplaced devotion and had gone astray in following religious practice. Yet Jesus commends him!

For much of our culture, the parallel today of a Good Samaritan might be to highlight a Good Muslim as the one doing it right, which would be so unexpected or even heretical for those who claim Muslims are infidels or prone to violence or somehow inferior. Or, to look at it from the other side (since we can’t be so self-righteous in justifying our worldview), it might be a conservative fundamentalist Christian who protests against Planned Parenthood or transgender bathroom rights. Since a “Good Samaritan” simply has become a synonym for a “do-gooder,” we can’t hear how Jesus’ example originally functioned instantly to undermine self-justification that demeaned the other.

After our self-assuredness is undercut, when we are stopped from claiming we’re so well on track, when blinders are removed to illustrate our privilege, when we have to re-evaluate what’s right, then we don’t list tasks to be completed, but see actual neighbors, as deserving or needing care, opening channels of compassion. Having identified love as the greatest commandment, as our supreme goal, Jesus brings us across the threshold from self-justification to obligation on behalf of our neighbors.

Which instantly becomes an enormous question, always determined by your own situations and contexts, of who your neighbor is. So I can’t enumerate or explain what needs to be done; instead, we can encounter examples of “who is my neighbor”:

I continue to be impressed at how well we offer care for each other in these two congregations. But maybe that reinforces this great opportunity to be outside, so we aren’t closed off in a sanctuary and can more directly see our neighborhood. This raised a question as we were preparing for this service: realizing that our music may be intrusive, we worried about offending or bothering the people we’re trying to reach out to. But we also wanted to share our joy and broadcast a welcome. On the third hand, we can’t presume that what these neighbors need is to be part of our worship service, though I continue to struggle with that.

Asking what our neighbors do need and how we may offer service also fits with being outside today. We can look to see reminders that neighbors are well-served by the summer Kids in the Garden program. There are those who receive from our food pantry gardens.

Our vision of neighbors is also broadened as we witness the restored health of prairie plants blooming and song sparrows calling and the buzz of insects. These aren’t just part of our surroundings, nor natural “resources” for our use, but are neighbors, sisters and brothers in creation.

That broad view asking about the wellbeing of others prior to our own utility can also raise questions about the source of our lunch or the labels inside our clothes. How do these help or harm the many producers, of farmers and garment workers and factory employees, and soil health and water supplies, and national politics? In each aspect of these decisions, the question of “who is my neighbor” invites us to be attentive to the benefits or repercussions, rather than simply passing by unaware or unconcerned.

But—you may protest—it’s not all butterflies and picnics. There’s more traumatic stuff. After all, Jesus chose to spotlight somebody who had been robbed and injured. And this week in particular we’ve had too many examples of tragic pain and loss, beginning with two more shootings and the shape of the most horrible edge in racial disparities, where it takes protesting to reiterate even that their lives matter. But then in sorrowful reversals, a wretched retribution, and the cycle of violence, we also have had to witness the attacks on police. It is shocking and awful and discouraging.

But even the fact that we are seeing it means something in the context of this story, that it fills us with emotion, that we are moved with compassion. That is a start. We see that neither black lives nor police in uniform can in these days be equated with the robbers in the Bible story, where those were just non-characters of the set-up, (though perhaps in the larger vision we’d see them also in need of care and redemption and healing). The point of the Bible story isn’t in determining who the bad guys are. It is the question of recognizing neighbors in need, which in these days we can see both in police officers and in people of color faced with inequality. Jesus then asks us to see ourselves as neighbors who can help amid a desperate situation.

I’ll tell you that on Friday morning I almost scrapped my original sermon to focus entirely on this, and you may or may not believe that would’ve been the right thing to do. But I don’t believe preaching is just responding to current events, because, as important as this is, and as much as it’s part of a bigger and terribly complex problem, we’re also good at forgetting and moving on, only to be shocked and saddened by a next calamity. That makes us again into priests and Levites who pass-by rather than Good Samaritans. Neither is this Scripture text about one issue, no matter how important.

So I am continuing on, since we’re also aware of so many other worries we encounter. We can find neighbors in those who suffer oppression (and have too often been met with our apathy), like the LGBT community after last month’s shooting or the vulnerability of victims ensnared by human trafficking or families in bondage to poverty and the homeless we meet through The Road Home. It’s in disaster situations like after flooding in West Virginia. Almost certainly we should be motivated on behalf of refugees too easily tuned out as “not our problem” and ignored by those who officially should be helping, a precise modern parallel of the Bible story.

Speaking of modern examples, the setting of this Bible reading, this road from Jerusalem to Jericho, now has a wall running right down the middle of it. 30 foot tall concrete, cutting off this Palestinian route, a path used for centuries no longer accessible, allegedly for self-security of Israelis but in actuality severing families from each other and making life less livable. We can no longer pass by this apartheid wall without asking “who is my neighbor?”

And with the image of this same location, this same road, Martin Luther King called us to “develop a kind of dangerous unselfishness” * on a system-wide scale. Here are some of his words:

On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that the edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values (he continues) will look with righteous indignation [at capitalist systems that] take profits out with no concern for the social betterment and [will] say: “This is not just.” [And] this business of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of peoples normally humane cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice and love.**

In the end, we’re left with no excuse, no self-justification for failing in love and justice. It’s no relief that we’re not directly to blame nor because we didn’t notice the suffering. This journey with Jesus along life’s highway becomes all-encompassing. I realize seeing all this hurt and standing against hate is no small agenda, no easy task, no quick solution. But this is the can of worms that gets opened with the question, “who is my neighbor?” If we’re honest, it’s not a surprise. As described in the Deuteronomy reading, you couldn’t argue; you know in your heart what’s right. Love is not about your self-satisfaction to feel like you’ve done enough, but is an ever-expanding role. Though it’s never perfect, never complete, never fully attainable, the Colossians reading nevertheless invites you into this calling of such enormous terms to “lead a life worthy and pleasing to our God in every way, [to] multiply good works of every sort and grow in the knowledge of God.”

If you still think the lawyer’s question was right to be asked, the only remaining word is this: “Go and do likewise.”

 

Hymn: Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us with Your Love (ELW #708)

* p284 in Testament of Hope

** p240-1 in Testament of Hope

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