Playing with Serpents

sermon for 2nd Sunday of Advent — Isaiah11:1-10; Matthew3:1-12

 

In his book about growing up on a Wisconsin farm in the 1930’s called The Land Remembers, Ben Logan writes about George the mailman occasionally showing off his two-headed rattlesnake. He’d tried to turn it in for double the 50¢ bounty the state was, at the time, paying as reward for killing snakes. But that was for the rattle. Since this wasn’t a two-tailed snake, the state would only pay one bounty. George protested, saying, “Don’t that beat hell? Ain’t that just like a politician? Don’t even know which end of a snake bites!” (p66-7)

The surprise and humor of that dead snake maybe eases us into the idea today of playing with serpents. I know straight off this won’t appeal to some of you. Snakes may give you the creeps, even talking about them. You may figure the best policy is avoidance, so you’d not be in favor of the prophet Isaiah’s suggestion that “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the viper’s den.” You may just figure that’s careless, bad parenting, rather than a legitimate promise from God.

Actually, I hope you react that this is a weird idea. I’m expecting we have reservations and could still see the reason for a bounty, in trying to get rid of the danger of venomous fangs, keeping our kids safe, and if we happened to kill some not-poisonous snakes in the meantime, ah well.

This perception of serpents goes back to our very beginnings, somehow inherently of confronting a symbol of evil. Whether the feeling comes from Genesis or Genesis picked up on a pre-existing human tendency, that serpent in the Garden of Eden, labeled as “more crafty than any other wild animal” (3:1), is blamed for the corrupting influence of our sin. With that characterization, the story holds a primal fear, an instinctual anxiety.

So I’m hoping you have the sense that the prophet Isaiah’s playfulness must be a bit ridiculous. Maybe, then, you’re also getting a sense of an Advent theme here, about this season of expectations, but twisting those expectations in surprising or peculiar ways. Last week, it was the lesson that our coming redeemer was not cast as a triumphant warrior or valiant leader but as a thief in the night. Our expectations are surprised as we find ourselves yearning for a thief to come and find us. This today is another twisty surprise of our Advent expectations. Not as a serpent coming to redeem us (though John 3:14 does play with that image).

In encouraging you to play with serpents, it’s a worthwhile distinction that I’m not asking you to try the snake handling that some Christian groups do (you might be relieved to hear me say). Still, today I have to take their practice somewhat more seriously than usual, since they cling to a promise from God. They pick up a chunk added onto the end of the Gospel of Mark 500 years after Jesus, which also suggests they should be able to drink poison if they really believe. In either regard, these don’t seem very wise to try. It also seems like the main point is showing off. I’m not interested in you being show-offs, whether it’s related to snakes or much of anything else.

But if we’re not putting our infants into a snake pit to try showcasing how good we are at believing, then what do we do with this vision of Isaiah? As beautiful as this Peaceable Kingdom is, we have to admit it’s un-natural. We know the reputation of big, bad wolves as anti-rancher, snatching livestock, so it’s hard to imagine a wolf living with a lamb. We don’t picture lions as evil, but still can’t really see one eating straw. If the adders and asps are defanged and de-venomed then that’s simply no longer the creation we know. It would have to be a new creation.

That’s exactly what’s promised here. God envisions existence where there is no hurt and no harm, no destroying, not only where we get along peaceably with each other, but that is the shape of all creation. It’s good that God casts this vision for us, since it’s so unimaginable to us. God must have the vision to lead us there, because we simply can’t see how it would work. In fact, the infant playing with serpents seems so far-fetched that we who call ourselves realists would write it off as a utopia, as no place that could really exist. Our challenge amid this season of Advent, then, again with the surprising twist of our expectations, is to see how this reality of God is already coming among us and breaking into our reality.

To start, maybe we’d recognize our relationship with snakes and deadly serpents has changed since Isaiah’s time, and even since Ben Logan’s. Rather than avoiding them at all costs or being rewarded for killing on sight, we’ve come to better appreciate garter snakes of the garden and timber rattlesnakes at Devils Lake and diamondbacks and boa constrictors and enormous anacondas, and other reptiles and serpents, for their place in a natural ecosystem and even as beneficial to us by keeping rodent populations in check. We’re able to make distinctions that they’re not epitomes of evil. We have opportunities to give a closer look through glass at Vilas Zoo. Kids may even have gotten to hold a snake at a nature center? Any pet snakes?

But really to be living our way into Isaiah’s vision, besides the real snakes encountered in safe environments, it is helpful to think of metaphorical serpents. Let’s stick with the thought of where our kids play. There is such a prevalent sense that this is a dangerous world, an unfriendly world. We’re in an age of seeing risk at every turn, of stranger danger and terrorist threat and accidents and germs. We respond with antibacterial sanitizers, padded protection, and warning labels, pretending we can keep kids in a bubble, so they won’t be exposed to these sorts of serpents.

We don’t need to hear Isaiah to be sending kids to play amid traffic, but may hear that pretending we can armor our children and ourselves against every possible attack of this world is going to make us imagine that the serpents are lurking in every dark corner and any moment we may be bitten and take a deadly turn. That worldview already poisons us in turning us directly away from God’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom. Enemizing everything contaminates us with worry, rather than cultivating playfulness, which is the antidote to fear. Nothing overcomes being scared like play.Erin Deheishe.jpg

And so not just kids but all of us can practice playing with serpents, cavorting and making merry right over their fearsome dens. The picture on the back of your bulletin is one Erin Zimmerman took on the Holy Land trip. It’s a Banksy design of a sort that pop up in protest, echoed by many other graffiti. Along the Apartheid Wall that snakes in amid Palestinian territories and constricts around villages like Bethlehem and tries to poison and strangle life, this sort of artwork on the Wall is playing with serpents, poking fun, insinuating humor, celebrating life.

With that model, we’re invited into the protest. When the world’s vision contradicts God’s, when the serpents are strangling life or threatening us with their fangs, we can respond with creativity, celebrating life, with play. We practice how to make sport and how to laugh at danger.

That’s a valuable Christian practice. Even though an Easter hymn might seem out of place in Advent, here’s a fitting stanza to play with, because it says it so well: “Now hell, its prince, the devil, of all their pow’r are shorn; now I am safe from evil, and sin I laugh to scorn. Grim death with all its might cannot my soul affright” (LBW 129). The dangers and troubles aren’t gone, but because of Jesus we treat them like they’ve already lost their power.

One final bit of this: if we’re getting ready to laugh in the face of death and all its forces, we should recognize that we’re not always just the children playing over the snakes’ den, but may ourselves be the serpents. As that brash voice of John the Baptist calls out the “brood of vipers” squirming out of trouble, that isn’t just an accusation against others but should stick close to home, in confronting the corrupting influence of our own sin.

Still, this call to repentance isn’t about hanging our heads to act miserable. Think of the whole of Jerusalem and all the people going out to the wilderness to John. This is a party. Also together here, we turn to celebrate new life, the new creation. We play off of each other. With that, it’s finding that your addictions and cravings, your secrets and your sufferings, your worries and your seriousness don’t have the constrictive control over you they claim. You’re not stuck in sin. John the Baptist knew they have so little grip on you that you’re cleansed of them as simply as taking a shower washes off dirt, because you belong to God, a God of delight and joy, of freedom for life, of the possibilities of a new creation. So take that serpentine desperation and that instinctual anxiety, and laugh, play, delight it into God’s Peaceable Kingdom.

Standard

A Thief’s Lessons

(sermon for 1st Sunday of Advent — Isaiah2:1-5; Matthew24:36-44; Psalm122)

 

It’s a pretty common sense that we come here to learn something.

Partly that’s since we spend lots of our lives in school, learning about various subjects and learning how to do things. So in thinking about the value of church, we may picture it as what knowledge it can impart, of what we learn while we’re at church. Two common answers are to learn about God and to learn our values.

That’s a tough measure for church, though. For starters, how can we learn about God? God doesn’t fit the usual patterns of how we learn. God doesn’t submit to cause and effect testing or show up under a microscope. Our best source for learning about God is the Bible, which often is perceived as ancient history or old stories with inconsistencies and inaccuracies. None of that seems to point to much clarity for learning about God.

See, normally we think that truth can be proven once and for all, but the whole category of faith remains unseen and that God must always be mystery. I heard Bishop Mary say the other day that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt; it’s certainty. That’s a helpful lesson, even if doesn’t directly teach us about God. In the end, we can never prove anything about God, but can only trust. Maybe in church we are hoping to learn how to be faithful, by practicing our trust. That’s still pretty indistinct and open-ended, though. We’d like more resolution.

So maybe we turn to the values we hope to impart, of church teaching how we ought to live, for learning “life lessons.” These are rampant in our worship services: we practice extending peace. We are continually nurtured to be reconciling. I’ve mentioned recently praying forgiveness and stretching our gratitude. This is a place to learn joy—since that doesn’t just happen to us circumstantially. We learn sharing, not simply in a preschool siblings way, but the grown-up version as we gather around communal tables and as we bring what we have to offer, in monetary donations or in skills. That ordinary sharing is extraordinarily essential to our life here. And it expands with compassion, that we learn to support each other in times of need and also how to reach out to others, in this city and around the world.

That’s the practical side. Less tangibly is the value learned in a really diverse set of relationships. We’ve been talking about that more with the new shape of youth ministry. It used to be that church served as a place of fun or a social outlet for youth, but now lives are so filled with those kinds of opportunity that we don’t look to church for the dances some of you remember or the pizza parties I knew. Instead, though, that makes us better able to notice the boundary-crossing relationships that youth—with all of us—develop and share here. This is no enclave of homogeneity, no social club, no narrow version of peers who are just like you. Your presence here for each other is remarkable in that you relate equally to each other, not marked by class or income, not in a standard hierarchy as teacher and student, not where age is presumed to be indicative of wisdom. You don’t look alike. You don’t like the same things. You don’t necessarily vote the same way. You don’t even believe the same things about God. You have lots of differences. Yet across all bounds you embrace understanding the fullness of each other’s experience. This community is amazingly unique in that.

We might summarize this by saying what we learn at church is a new worldview, reorienting us and contrasting with so much of how we’ve been socialized. Notice how often we’re ranked and divided into winners and losers and the ways you’re told you don’t measure up and aren’t good enough or pretty enough or strong enough or young enough or healthy enough. When you’re so bombarded by that marketing—including for Christmas presents that allege to be the perfect gifts you or your loved ones want or “need”—it is hard to unlearn that bad news of society’s message. According to some, we spend 35 hours per week watching TV and 11 hours a day paying attention to our electronic gizmos and average less than two hours per week outside. A pretty standard number is that you are the target of 3000 advertisements each day!

That’s enormous and scary, but that’s still only part of it. It’s not just to extract money from your pocket but a cultural message to put fear in your heart. The news constantly is trying to make you feel afraid, appealing to your reptilian brain and your tribal instincts. It’s a message that everyone not like you is bad or dangerous. Besides the news’ attack, it’s also structured into the core functioning of our government, no matter who’s in Washington D.C. as, for example, 44% of our federal budget—nearly 50¢ of every tax dollar—goes to prepare for war and fund violence and militarism.

Contrast all of that with the amazing prophetic word from Isaiah, that we will no longer learn war. Or, as phrased by the old spiritual, “Gonna lay down my sword and shield. I ain’t gonna study war no more!” Beating swords into plowshares for us means our dollars would go to feeding the hungry, to supporting society, into valuing life instead of trying to destroy it. That is what God is trying to teach us, Isaiah says, to stop learning war, to learn peace. God’s grand vision is of all tribes and all nations coming together, nothing less than teaching all humanity and all creation, united for peace and streaming to celebrate together. Those who would claim religion is bad would have to overlook this faithful sense of supporting the needy and welcoming the outcast and moderating the mighty (or, in Mary’s words, casting them down from their thrones). In this way, our world needs religion now maybe more than ever.

It’s a great vision. But we have to ask: how do you unlearn the corrupting consumerist culture and menacing militant message? Notice how little time we spend trying to learn to be nice to each other, to learn the lesson that you are okay, you are loved, you are cherished just as you are. If you need church to re-socialize you for this, it might seem like an uphill struggle when there’s only one hour per week when you’re getting one message and just from my one mouth.

But if we’re worried, we need to expand our expectations. Returning to some of the mystery of God and faith, we stick to the confession that the Holy Spirit works through common means. To say it another way, God is sneaky. God’s messaging is coming to you even with my words, and with your words to each other, and in song, and amid a splash of water, and in bread and wine.

Again, to rephrase this: church isn’t just about learning another set of rules and requirements, not just in studying a better way of living. Sometimes people refer to our Bible readings on Sunday mornings as “lessons” or even call the Bible their instruction manual. I don’t. We aren’t just listening for lessons on how to live. Even less are we hearing ancient history. We listen for a present and active reality breaking in among us.

We’re listening because that sneaky God, that stealthy Spirit, that thieving Jesus is using these words to take over your life, to claim your heart, to renovate your mind, to recreate your very existence in the blink of an eye. Maybe even more remarkable than Isaiah’s amazing vision of peace is the word from Jesus today: He’s coming like a thief in the night. He’s coming to what you own, or what owns you, and taking it, taking over your possessions and passions. He’s taking away your faulty worldview and taking your sins. He’s absconding with your presumptuous pride or your sense of inadequacy, either way leaving you as you should rightly be, with nothing but the image of God. He’s robbing you of your selfishness and pulling the rug out from under your fearful isolations. He’s taking your abilities and quite literally taking your gifts.

So if you think Advent is just a countdown getting you ready for Christmas and the cute little story of a baby Jesus and no crying he makes, well, this thief Jesus is coming more like the Grinch who stole Christmas, taking your gifts, taking away the glitz and schmaltz and crap, coming to rob you away from a culture that too often has you trapped and bound. He takes your false fears and stifled self-image that you may celebrate rightly and fully. You better watch out, ‘cuz Jesus is coming. And that’s good news.

Standard

Thanksgiving Eve sermon

(Deuteronomy26:1-14; Philippians4:4-9)

 

Once I crashed my motorcycle, going around a bend. Hit a patch of gravel. Was wearing a helmet and didn’t wreck the bike or myself too much. Couple hours later when my mom had taken me to urgent care to get gravel cleaned out of my hand she remarked, “oh, you must have been saying so many thank you prayers that you’re okay.”

I don’t remember what I might have replied to my mom, but I do know that her remark caught me totally off-guard. I hadn’t thought to be grateful at all, though—of course—that made plenty of sense. I have to admit that I was in seminary then and spending plenty of other time thinking about God. Still it hadn’t even occurred to me in those couple hours to say any sort of prayer. Even now—in confessing my lack of thankfulness and prayerfulness in the face of calamity—I’m still working on it.

See, this takes practice, to be grateful to God. It isn’t based in any circumstances themselves, anything exceptional or miraculous or the appearance of some sort of unusual blessing, but is rather based in our habit and that shaping of our worldview. It is an unfolding attitude. A stretching, not of muscles, but of our awareness. You can grow in your ability to give thanks.

Now, I know there’s lots of other practice in these days. You practice perfecting your family’s heritage recipes for rutabaga or a favorite pie and you practice carving the turkey how you might remember your grandfather doing it. You practice living into some of these old roles. Or you find new practices, new ways of observing this day. It’s also a new practice at new places in life, when you come back from college for the first time and aren’t the same even though you’re around those same old people. In most cases, it takes practice and effort to be around family, to steer past the disagreements and dwell on the more congenial discussions. It does, indeed, take practice to be kind.

That’s all besides practicing your shot for hunting or your strategy for shopping or your skills on crowded roadways. Yes, in these days there is plenty to practice. And as we head into what often feels like the busiest time of the whole year, this may not seem like the best or most obvious moment to start some new training and work on a new practice, but I’m going to commend it to you anyway. Besides, there’s no deadline. You can keep at it. You can hold onto this sermon for next year if you’d prefer.

With this preparatory word nudging you toward gratitude, I’m just following our Bible reading for tonight. The passage from Deuteronomy has a couple of great, helpful aspects to it. First, the setting of this reading is an instruction from Moses before the people entered the Promised Land. I like that it is a preparatory instruction, because once they go into the Promised Land and plant their gardens and raise their families and try to establish order in their villages, life will get busy and they’ll be distracted. So the plan needs to come beforehand. In the same way, knowing that life will get busy and you’ll be distracted, tonight I’m giving you the heads up that you should be preparing to give thanks.

The second thing I like about that reading is that it’s also very rehearsed. Moses gives a little speech to recite, the bit about “a wandering Aramean was my ancestor.” It’s a funny little speech, because it’s peculiar to trace lineage as Aramean. It was the minorest detail. There’s no reason to say it like that. So why would you want to rehearse telling a family tree in that weird way? Maybe the unusual phrasing makes it stick for rehearsing gratitude. An odd origin story could mean you had no reason to expect all the good that’s come to you, even in the most gradual way through the generations.

The other thing I like about that rehearsed aspect is that Deuteronomy was actually compiled about a thousand years after Moses. So this became a method of saying, “we’ve been working on this forever. This is part of who we are and who we should be.”

It’s actually striking how much of that parallels the Thanksgiving tale we like to tell, of how our ancestors the Pilgrims came to a new land and were assisted by much wiser and kinder natives which led to giving gratitude. We like to repeat that story and rehearse that narrative even if those were only our ancestors in some peculiar, generic sense. And whether or not it was factually an event that happened, it still says this is part of who we are and who we should be.

That also highlights that practicing gratitude isn’t only opening our awareness to what has happened in the past and what we’ve already received and how much good has surrounded us. The practice of gratitude also opens up the future. For example, in Deuteronomy, remembering they themselves were runaway slaves meant an ongoing openness to other foreigners. As we keep rehearsing a nationalistic narrative of Pilgrim immigrants aided by Native Americans, we’re reminded that our rugged Euro-centric frontier individualism actually pales compared to the support of community for sustained wellbeing. Or, again, remembering we were immigrants makes us better able to see now that newly arrived refugees may well need help. Or, once more, it may engender a willingness for us to value natives, including at Standing Rock and to appreciate their concern for our shared natural environment.

Oh, but there I went and brought in current events and politics, even though you were hoping that such messy divisions might somehow be avoided at Thanksgiving gatherings, that somehow you’d be more thankful if you could avoid those conversations. You may even feel like some of the recent past of politics and current events and the state of our world has diminished your ability to give thanks.

But especially here I’m going to redouble my encouragement to you. If my mom thinks a motorcycle crash is a good time to say a thank you prayer, I’ll certainly tell you that working on this practice in the time ahead will surely struggle against despair and drown anger and offer inspiration against the politics of resentment. Start on your thanksgiving, even as you’re hoping for change and looking for ways to improve the system and longing for more.

This, after all, is precisely what the Apostle Paul commends to you this evening: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Amen

Standard

a funeral sermon

eileenWith Thanksgiving for the Life

of Eileen Grace Bolstad

20Nov1925+18Nov2016

John 11:23-28; 2nd Corinthians 9:6-15; Psalms23&42

 

For my part, about all I can say at a moment like this is I wish I would’ve had more chance to know Eileen, had known the fullness of her life and gotten to share more directly in her benefits to this congregation.

Instead, I mostly knew her lament that she wasn’t capable of those things anymore. Already that’s a strong indicator of her personality and her value to this congregation and our lives. To have a 90-year-old lamenting she’s no longer out digging in the garden really says something about her!

In spite of how vibrant I continued to find her, still she regularly apologized for her memory loss. That decline meant she couldn’t do what she wanted, couldn’t be involved how she’d like and care for others as she was used to or even tell stories of her beloved grandchildren as much as she wished.

While I missed out on part of this amazing woman in these last months of her long, beautiful life, I had glimpses of who Eileen had always been.

That strikes me, for example, in recalling two other funerals earlier this year. I was impressed that Eileen was still among friends visiting and caring for Irene Rasmussen, and she also was always eager to hear how Ruth Olson was doing when I visited them at Oakwood. She was still filled with her characteristic care, which had been part of relationships amid the life of circle and quilting and giving rides and providing food through the years for services exactly like today.

I’ve also clung to Susan’s words claiming Eileen as both her gardening buddy and also her mentor or teacher. That parallel is richly descriptive, that Eileen’s teaching was never overbearing or anything, but was relational and joyful, as a buddy. In watching Susan interact with the Kids in the Garden this past summer, it felt like a glimpse or reflection of who Eileen also was in that role, cherishing the children as well as the soil and growth of plants. Kids in the Garden was somehow a best of both worlds—for Eileen’s delight in young people and for the work of the land.

Even though in some ways it was so long ago, there was a lot about Eileen that continued to be tied to the land, continued to be a farmer. Susan described it as paired commitments to faith and to the earth. In conversations, I heard Eileen talk about farming and agriculture, not only with the love of a spouse in appreciating her husband’s career, but also in who she was, in that farm up north and its hardworking roles and how that place drew them to return even in retirement. Moving to Madison to provide the opportunities for you children to grow up, as you’ve mentioned, was certainly a worthwhile decision, but even with that move Eileen remained rooted in the soil and identified with the farm.

That identity gave rise to a couple of the hymns and Bible readings for this service, plus the reflection that comes out from them. With farming imagery, we heard of sowing bountifully and gratefully reaping the harvest. We heard Jesus describe a grain of wheat buried in the soil, and how that symbolizes our lives.

Whether or not it was because of that farming background, Eileen embodied these metaphors extraordinarily. She sowed bountifully in life. She was not sparing in her relationships with you, never stingy or reluctant about her good works. She gave of herself, and just as the passage recognizes, this generosity has produced the fruit of abundant thanksgiving among us here. We, indeed, gather today to celebrate with gratitude our benefit from Eileen’s life. Even more, this isn’t just about Eileen, but recognizes that the very presence of God was also embodied for us in her bounty and grace and cheer.

With that faithful dedication, we can pivot from Eileen’s direct commitment to growth and soil and the earth to that paired commitment of hers to faith. We could note that the passage from 2nd Corinthians is often used in churches as we’re talking about financial commitments. While Eileen helps us understand the broader stewardship of our whole lives—that our giving is about our shared actions and attitudes and the fullness of how we encounter each other and the earth—still in the much narrower financial sense, I just want to mention that among the notes and plans that Eileen had written for the end of her life, Peter shared that she made special instruction that her pledge to this congregation should be paid completely for the year. Again, it’s only one mark of her broader life, but it shows her passion and concern and dedication for faith as it continues to be lived out in this place.

Also for this moment and bearing fruit even in death, the words from Jesus are the last time he speaks in public in the Gospel of John before his own death. He proclaims his own burial is like a seed that will rise to bear fruit, and also that his death somehow glorifies and praises God.

These are hard tensions to hold and describe for Eileen. She was so vibrant and spunky and so well embodied for us what life should be that we must be slow to apply the words of Jesus about hating life in this world, or at least we’d have to be cautious about what exactly he could mean in that, maybe that her love for life and losing of it was in giving herself to us, that unusual gain by giving away in generosity.

On the other hand, Eileen did reach the point of saying she’d had enough of this life. The memory loss was not how she wanted to live. Even more, in the past month as she struggled to recover from that small stroke, life was not the shape she knew or yearned for. Last week, after she’d fully realized that, death came quickly.

Yet even as she lost life, she glorified God. As hard as it is for us, there is gain in this moment, not only in recalling and celebrating the past fruitfulness of life well-lived, but more as we trust the goodness of her reunion at long last with Ingman, and even simply as we witness and are still being taught by her trust and faithfulness at the end.

We heard Psalm 42 today because I happened to read that for Eileen this past week. As I started to read, that was the last moment I saw clarity and dedication in her eyes. She stopped in some of her agitation, she focused and listened, trusting the goodness that the Psalm proclaimed. These words were her words, and by her witness are also for you:

My soul thirsts for the living God.

Why are you so full of heaviness,

O my soul,

and why are you disquieted within me?

Put your trust in God;

for I will yet give thanks

to the one who is my help and my God.

Standard

The King & You

sermon for Christ the King Sunday

(Luke23:33-43; Colossians1:11-20; Psalm46; Jeremiah23:1-6)
I’d like to begin introducing you to Alexa Rose, her parents Danielle and Ramon and their family, to get ready for her baptism and to orient us amid this Christ the King Sunday.

The odd connection is Alexa’s grandmother Robin used to work with a man who became a church music director with whom I later worked. Tracing that forward some number of years, past Danielle’s graduation party (which, if I recall, was one of Ramon’s first visits to Wisconsin), beyond that, I had the privilege of officiating at their wedding, fue la primera y la única vez que hablé español en una boda.

Later, when Alexa’s brother Leo was only a newborn, came the misfortune of presiding at the funeral of Danielle’s little brother DJ. He was a delightful young man, with great care and a huge smile and the enormous tragedy of an addiction from which he couldn’t escape in this life. A couple months after that, yearning for something positive, we celebrated Leo’s baptism and how blessing continues in our lives. Danielle’s father, Darrel, polished the baptismal font to sparkling. Yet to come, he and I have long talked about doing some icefishing together.

So there’s a lot there. In one respect, that’s the kind of stuff I’m honored to anticipate sharing with you, the big celebrations, and hopefully not too much tragedy, and all kinds of really regular moments and conversations and details.

Much larger and more important, though, than me as a pastor who happens to intersect with your life is the notion today that Christ is the King of this. As King or Lord, it means all of this falls within the realm of Christ, under the influence of his reign and his jurisdiction. He has claim that extends over and around all of these moments.

In Alexa Rose’s baptism is the declaration that nothing in her life will be separated from Christ or left outside of his blessing: her delights in her big brother and her smiles at her parents. Their efforts in so many ways to keep her secure—in providing a home and working long hours and throwing birthday parties and struggling against society when its racism or sexism or tribalism would threaten her wellbeing. Christ is in connections with grandparents and the guidance and care of her baptismal sponsors. All of this is held and nurtured by Christ.

And the promise continues far beyond what we know today, as she grows and meets new friends at school and discovers what her interests and passions and abilities are and as she begins making choices in her life (whether good or questionable, as all of us experience), on through years and decades.

We know this love and blessing of Christ was with Ramon and Danielle at their wedding, but we also confess with sure and certain hope that even death couldn’t separate DJ from love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus. Christ as King must be amid threatening politics just as surely as icefishing. Today we identify that for Alexa Rose, through the thick and thin of it, through the sorrows we’d so much like to spare her and the triumphs we wish heartily for her, all the way to her final breath.

And then, even as today we’re holding that very moment for a saint at the opposite end of life’s spectrum and saying goodbye to Eileen Bolstad and commending her out of what our care could accomplish, releasing her fully into the eternal care of Christ’s embrace, even in this moment of death we trust a promise of Paradise, that that last enemy will be overcome, and the love and life and blessing in Christ Jesus will continue.

So as we trust this for Alexa and for Eileen and as we are able to hold onto it for ourselves, let’s notice that in calling Christ the King, rather than it being a similarity to our typical rulers, we should hear a contrast. When we say Christ is King, we very particularly mean he’s not like other kings, those who rule and control and disregard our lives for their own benefit or whims. This title, exemplified by one being tortured and executed on a cross, clearly is not trying to claim Jesus is the mightiest or the bossiest. He’s not an authoritarian who always gets his way. He’s not in a posh palace separated from the realities of our life.

Embodied in his crucifixion, Christ’s kingship is precisely exemplary in patient endurance for reconciliation, is with suffering, knowing the realities of life, not separated from those mundane and difficult details of your existence. He is a King who can relate to you or, to say it stronger, is related to you, your brother. (That also has the implications that you are entitled to your inheritance as part of the royal family! That focus will have to wait for another day, but please don’t lose track of it!)

Another aspect of Christ being King also contradicts a common notion about faith and belief, and that’s in what makes him your king. Just as it wasn’t the ironic inscription on the cross that made him a king, neither was it by popular acclaim. It’s not that you invite him into your life. It isn’t the degree to which we attribute credit or how we pray or how we might try to claim favor. Jesus doesn’t need your confidence in order to be king. His work and his reign aren’t dependent on you or subservient to you like that. Though he’s a servant king, he’s not at your beck and call or waiting to do your bidding.

He—and he alone among all who would be called king—holds the role by divine right, in accomplishing God’s will. In the language of Colossians, this extraordinary passage that portrays for us the fullest widespread concept of a cosmic Christ—a king of the universe—the thrones and dominions and rulers and powers are subject to him not because they’re reporting for duty, but since his realm encompasses all.

So, in a huge distinction, while he doesn’t cause sin, he must in the end still be responsible for it. Tragedies and addictions aren’t attributed to him but neither are they outside of his realm. Even the worst corruption and decay and death, the nastiest and most virulent attitudes, the fiercest exclusionisms, the ugliest religious hatred, the most careless environmental destruction all fall within his redemption, are embraced by his healing love, are purged with the breath of resurrected life.

That’s for us, too. For Alexa at her baptism and Eileen at her dying and for your lives overcome with worry, yet bound in his kingdom, we have to confess it is vital he makes the promise good forever in baptism, because he’s not the king we’d choose. He isn’t the leader we’d like. He wouldn’t win elections or popularity contests.

Imagine and sense, if you can, some of the despair for the women disciples at the foot of the cross and those men who looked on from a distance. Imagine and sense their loss, their disappointment, their worry. It would be much more appealing to have a glorious and triumphal ruler, who shattered the cross, uprooted its deadliness, saved himself, then swung out with a force-field that brought his opponents to their knees and protected his chosen ones and helped us always to escape the worst scenarios.

That’s not Christ our King.

Our model is, yes, compassion and sacrifice and a long arc of justice. But the most important and most difficult word today of Christ as King is so countercultural you’ve likely hardly heard it in recent weeks: forgive. We may be surprised or even skeptical that it should be part of baptism for precious little Alexa Rose, but she’ll need it, and Christ will still be for her then. And as it sets her on the course for receiving forgiveness, it also prepares her to be forgiving.

This is the challenging reconciliation that is at the heart of Christ’s kingdom and stands so starkly in contradistinction to all other authorities and rampant blame. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” We are people striving to embody God’s justice for our world in these days, but our identity is not just in trying to do better, much less in feeling better about what we’re doing or more self-righteous. We are people challenged as we give our lives in sharing this prayer: Father, forgive. Forgive their selfishness. Forgive their prejudice. Forgive their violence, their greed. Forgive their hatred. Forgive their incompetence or ignorance, that they don’t know what they’re doing. Forgive their disruptiveness and destructions. Forgive their incivility and immorality. And me, too, forgive me.

Standard

Living, Daring Faith

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
sermon on Luke21:5-19; 2Thessalonians3:6-13; Isaiah65:17-25; Psalm98

Let’s begin with those beautiful stones of the temple, since just over a week ago some of us were in that place, outside that temple area by the remaining western wall of the ivory limestone that fills the Holy Land hills and adorns almost all buildings.

Still, those remnant rocks may pale to the beauty those followers of Jesus were noticing. A book I was reading on the trip called Excavating Jesus quoted the ancient Jewish historian Josephus that the temple “appeared from a distance like a snow-clad mountain; for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white” (Crossan & Reed, 256).

In Luke the disciples name this beauty, while in Mark they comment “what large stones” (13:1). They were right; the biggest stones in that wall were each “40 feet in length and over 10 feet in height…14 feet thick” and weighed more than 500 tons (236-7).

The enormous scale and incomparable beauty were designed only partly to inspire awe for God, and to a greater degree for reflecting the power and majesty of King Herod the Great. He was a cruel ruler who didn’t care a lick for oppressed workers and didn’t respect the religion, but was manipulating the system to serve his own grandiose ego. That was his goal. We may consider it with schadenfreude that his immense building project got destroyed. “Not a stone left on stone,” as Jesus said.

Doubly ironic, even the remaining wall he had constructed came not to be a place to admire an ancient king, but of wailing and looking for God’s presence. Now, that famous Western Wall wasn’t part of the temple itself, but a lower foundation on the far side of the temple compound. Still, it has served as the mark of something gone, something lost, and that wall has been labeled as the holiest Jewish site.

I confess that has prevented my prayers there, of sticking a slip of petitioning paper into the cracks. While some in our group used the occasion very well in hopes for both Israelis and Palestinians, with prayers yearning for peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims together, still I haven’t been able to convince myself to pray there. Partly it’s because it feels unfair or out of place to give so much significance to one perspective, and not just religiously but also with national grandiosity, which strives to undercut the faithful devotion up on top of that wall, of Muslims who want to pray at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.

And it seems odd to me to identify that wall so worshipfully when we don’t hold that level of piety for our own Christian locations, if you could even name what might be our holiest sites. Mostly our group found the ancient sanctuaries marking Jesus’ beginning in Bethlehem and end in Jerusalem to be commotion and distraction with little spirit of holiness.

Generally we’re left with that ambiguity about our stones and how they mesh with the practice of our religion. Also prompted by Excavating Jesus, let’s reflect on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the likely location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. It was constructed under Constantine the Great, another ruler claiming that self-important title of greatness. In 325, he converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, or we might have to say converted Christianity to the Empire. When he built that church 1700 years ago, he modeled it on the halls of royalty and the style of burial emperors were given.

But the enormous scale and marbled beauty meant a change for Christianity. These stones also came to mark something lost and gone. This church was, after all, named after the tomb, a place of death, a memorial, as “Holy Sepulcher.”

Contrast that with what the angel at that tomb asked on Easter morning: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus has risen. He’s not here!” (Luke 24:5). From our very beginning, we were sent away from the tomb to follow our resurrected leader. See, this faith of ours is about life and hope and action. This is not fundamentally a faith or practice of walls and structures. This isn’t about our large or beautiful stones, but is about the “living stones” (in words from the Bible’s book of 1st Peter 2:5 that Palestinian Christians often use). This way of Jesus isn’t stuck in old archeology but is alive and on the move. When the Emperor built that central church for his own sense of glory, its byproduct was attempting to kill, to euthanize, to bury the church that was living as the body of Christ. But our kingdom doesn’t have a palace, isn’t memorialized in a tomb. It spreads wherever we go, through the ongoing life of Jesus in us, as in us he continues his work of reconciling, healing, blessing, striving for God’s will of peace and justice on behalf of all.

For this role of ours and the enormous efforts in which we participate, perhaps the most fitting phrase of the day came at the end of our 2nd reading, “Do not weary in doing what is right.” That is a perfect faithful instruction, but we also know it’s hard. There are many of us who are passionate about this work but are, indeed, weary, who are frustrated and worn out, who are upset and confused. In this week, for many of you that first means the election and the news. But we’ve always got plenty of ongoing struggles. It’s in our families. It’s that time is too short, and more so in busy, dark days of autumn. It may be sickness or sleeplessness. This may be lonely work that uses us up. Or it may be so simply that we don’t know what to do, how to go forward, what our next steps should be. We may very well be weary in trying to do what is right.

But that’s not new to us. In his words today, Jesus spoke of catastrophe, when literal walls collapse and (maybe worse) when metaphorical ones don’t. He spoke of wars and violence. These aren’t predicting harbingers of coming endtimes, but are ongoing realities of the sad divisions in this world. These things have always happened, and they still do, even while we continue striving ahead. Jesus realizes it is difficult to persist in doing right. We may feel terrified or persecuted or be betrayed. He even says that some will be arrested for their persistence of following him.

With that, I want to help you hear this not just framed by the context of an election, but also with another set of ears. Two weeks ago on Reformation Sunday, our group noticed how different it was to sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in Bethlehem, and not just because the congregation sang in Arabic. With people living under a military occupation, it was a strong, new sense to sing, “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpow’r us.”

These are enormous words of promise, but must also seem foolish. We met women whose sons were locked in jail because of Facebook posts, and men who lost jobs for resisting the occupation, and there were families whose homes were destroyed and whose generations-old olive trees were uprooted. We heard of mistrust of corrupt government and the fear of interacting with neighbors or even family because they might be bribed as informants. This sure seems to be threatening to overpower.

And yet this faith persists. This is the remarkable thing. This community continues together. We followers of Jesus proceed ahead.

The pastor of Christmas Lutheran, Mitri Raheb’s book Bethlehem Besieged offers glimpses of the struggles of what it’s like to live under occupation and still find hope. He tells of those who snuck out while under curfew so they could gather for worship, and of an ecumenical and interfaith silent resistance march, and of an organ restored with overseas help in time for Christmas Eve worship.

This is the living, breathing, embodied faith that can’t be sealed inside a tomb to be memorialized by large stones, but breaks out and keeps moving ahead. It is the faith that plants a new olive tree that will grow for the next thousand years, or even hopes in that possibility, battling against despair. This is a living, daring, confident hope (as Martin Luther termed it) that allows us “to stake our lives a thousand times,” he said, to serve even through suffering (Luther’s Works 35, 370-1). Our faith isn’t headquartered in a central building or confined in big old pretty walls, but endures in community, gathered here, not in commiseration but compassion, and not only in this circle, but in connection with sisters and brothers, young and old, around the world, and even wider, as our Psalm reminds us, when the music of our song is joined with pounding ocean waves and singing birds, over hills, down rivers, across all lands.

Of course King Herod the so-called Great in his selfish pride could not put up walls that would stand against that. Neither could the greatness of the Roman Empire overpower it. The gladness and joy that God continues striving to create among us keeps bursting out, bending weapons, healing pain, reconciling nations. Perhaps the most vital vision of that today, when we feel so divided and some are fearing what is to come, Isaiah sees that God’s work among us is bringing all into unity, the wolf and the lamb together.

Again, then, in the face of all the sorrows and struggles and weariness, we practice persistence. This makes it so timely today to be pledging our time, talent, and treasure, for each other and for God’s ongoing work. We are not people scared into scarcity, but trust and see the abundance of our amazingly diverse skills and commitments that keep growing and spreading. Our extravagance and boast is in what we share. We trust and see what God is accomplishing through us, and also for us, in how we support each other and reach out to the world around us, doing what is right for people who need our help and for all creation. This is what we offer together, empowered by Jesus. This is how our faith lives, and nothing can kill that.

Hymn: Everything is One, by Herb Brokeringeverything-is-one

Standard

On the death of Hussain Saeed Alnahdi at UW-Stout

wallIt’s always hard to be away from home, but this is the sort of news that makes me feel isolated and stranded, wishing to be back amid my own hurting people even if it doesn’t fix anything but only means a chance to hurt together instead of apart. That’s part of the reason for these words.

Yet it’s also because this is exactly a moment to be in Palestine. Even without knowing motives, we have to believe the Saudi Arabian student’s death had something to do with how he was perceived. In precisely that way, our host for touring the Diyar Consortium مجموعة ديار this morning was a young Christian woman named Angie who was born in Bethlehem, came to college in the Twin Cities, and returned to Bethlehem. Unlike Hussain, she survived. Still, she introduced herself by speaking of encounters where a classmate said, “I hope you’re not going to blow us up” and with only slightly more poor humor being asked in the dorms if her schools had taught bomb-making. This to a woman, and without a head scarf.

Not that that should matter.

We’re too apt to make the blanket condemnations (“THEY are terrorists”). We’re too slow to allow individuals like Angie–or too late, in the case of Hussain–to prove themselves, though that’s not something that should be asked in the first place. In labeling a tragedy as “Menomonie’s turn” (or any other town’s), we’re too forgetful that this is systemic. Together, those mean we’re too persistent in erecting walls that only foster divisiveness and threaten to cut us off from sharing good.

Today we visited the separation wall, a militarized apartheid structure that strives more and more to close off and ignore Palestinians. The base of the wall is founded on some presumption that Palestinians will blow you up, are destructive, terrorists, could not also want peace, so it’s best just to take their land and shove them far to the side. In our evening reflections and devotions, a group member wiser and more eloquent than I said that, from our experiences, that gets it exactly backward–the Palestinians are delightful, overflowing in hospitality, kindness, joy, generosity, creativity. And by erecting a wall, the Israelis are closing off for themselves the possibility of sharing in that and receiving from it.

We received from and delighted in Angie today and what she showed of the Dar al Kalima University College’s cultural and arts work (historical pottery, a photo competition, sound recording, cooking, and women’s soccer were some of those delightful points). We’ve squandered the chance to receive from and delight in young Hussain. Sometimes we drive each other beyond points where sharing delight even seems possible.

As with the group tonight, though, I invite you to notice transformations and glimpses of hope. See where walls need to come down and are even crumbling. Celebrate this re-formation of togetherness. Rally against the separations. We need it, for each other and also from each other. Palestinians and Israelis. Americans and Middle Easterners. Muslims and Christians (or secularists). College classmates of different skin colors. Of course, political parties. And on and on.

It takes work, but in one way that’s why I spent a year planning a trip to the other side of the world: it’s worth the work.

Standard