“Father and mothers”

sermon on John 15:9-17; 1 John 5:1-7 (and on Mothers’ Day)

It seemed an odd coincidence that on Mothers’ Day, our Gospel reading happened to have so much Father language. I didn’t clean up and edit the gendered stuff as I usually would, though. After hearing it that way, I wanted you to listen again another way, and notice if or how this feels different to you:

Jesus said, “As the Mother has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Mother’s commandments and abide in her love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the owner is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Mother. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Mother will give you whatever you ask her in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.”

So how was that? I’d love to hear your reflections. Maybe—especially today—it made you picture your own mother. Beyond that, I wonder whether the gender and term alterations helped you to hear what Jesus was saying, or not. Did it feel somehow liberating and closer, or was it kinda strange or awkward? Did the change make it less true, or more? (Either-or might be a bad prism to force it into, particularly for Lutherans who love to say both-and!)

Within or behind this little practice of hearing God the Father and God the Mother is a perhaps more fundamental base-level question about whether we’re able to reframe our mindsets and see differently, or if the whole thing needs to be torn apart. I mean, simply by hearing the word “Father” are we so totally preconditioned for one train of thought that we would just plain need to stop using it, or does other possibility remain within the word?

While the term “Father” could default us to picturing a white-bearded guy in the sky, I believe that we can deeply understand Jesus to use this language of Father not to reinforce patriarchy on a divinely-sanctioned level, but precisely to subvert it.

It’s like when Jesus uses the image of a kingdom, it largely reverses how we’d usually understand kings ruling.

Again, the surprising language about his servants in this passage today hearkens to a couple chapters and few minutes earlier on this same night, when Jesus stooped to wash their feet and said that if he, the one they call Teacher and Lord has taken the servant’s spot, they should do it, too. He leads and teaches by example, I guess we’d say. More, he shows he is Lord and Master in the way of a servant, the opposite of our presumed definitions for how that relationship operates.

So when Jesus uses the term Father, we can hear it in a way unlike and even contradicting the historical sense of fathers that gave us patriarchal systems. It might be that what he portrays of God the Father is more like how we’d traditionally see mothers—not controlling but loving. So he could’ve just called God, Mother! But using that term could make it fit into or maybe even reinforce our stereotypes and sinful systems, rather than challenging them and reframing our viewpoint.

Still, I recognize the possibility you see Jesus first and predominantly as male. That could make you want to rule him out and reject the whole thing, as if his being a man meant he was inevitably representative of the sinful system, and can’t fully be against it.

Yet if God and Jesus never meant to embody our usual models of masculine vs. feminine, maybe Jesus isn’t centrally seen just as a male, and we need to queer our outlook. God is identified with a poor, rural Palestinian, maybe with a single mother, and died executed by those in power. So it might well be that the God of Jesus wasn’t just reversing the power structures, lifting up the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones, maybe didn’t intend to be a typical voice of authority, but was from and for those on the periphery.

We might also go on to wonder whether John’s Gospel wasn’t written as a focal point and central repository for settling theological arguments about the nature of God, but was a reminder and encouragement of abiding love for a small community. It may feel, then, less of a commandment from on high to love, but more of an enticement to see things differently, including ourselves, as beloved.

With that, it’s only as ironic ideas that this could be counted as a victory, in the language of our 2nd reading. It must also redefine what a victory is. Not military mastery, but that love wins. Not victory over, but with.

Extrapolating from this sense of God and Jesus and our purpose, we may well realize I’m not supposed to be a central voice, broadcasting from here in this central place out to you, with this new camera zoomed in on me. Not only that, but I fully realize and am stuck with the caveat that I’m a male saying all this.

Here I am, front and center, educated white male and all.

So maybe I should apologize.

Maybe we just call this wrong and demand I shut up.

Instead, I’ll try to suggest that unless we can hear this from a straight, white man, the system hasn’t been subverted. In some form, it would still be playing into the standard power structures, rather than creating new possibility.

I certainly don’t want to be dictatorial, to have it my way, to be the center of attention. When Luther Seminary updated its mission statement with flashy jargon about training leaders, I fondly remember a professor railing against it by saying that “what people need is a pastor, not a God damned leader.”

So can this serve for us to see that we’re in it together? Our practice is about loving, and being loved in return. That’s what I want for you, for us, not least because it’s what Jesus wants and is doing.

Once more, if Jesus is tearing apart the old systems and structures, we set aside other definitions as wrongly centered, including definitions of success or power in our world. And we instead do what we can to move on together in love, with that as our central definition.

Does that mean Jesus’ main project could be framed as the justice of undoing hierarchies of domination, or is it love, period? Or might we find one of those isn’t possible without the other—no love, no justice; no justice, no love?

To wrap this up, I could offer a salutation or benediction, saying: Happy Mothers’ Day and look for the Gospel to fit into that. Or perhaps the larger point that achieves some of the purpose is to declare: I love you. As Jesus was loved by one he (for whatever reason) called Father and, therefore, as Jesus loved us. I love you. And because of how this operates in us, I thank you for loving me as we abide inescapably in the love of God.

Standard

“Life Laid Down”

sermon on John 10:11-18; 1John 3:16-24; Acts 4:5-12

Alleluia! Christ is risen! We keep saying and rejoicing in that Easter message, even though it seems we’re getting away from it.

Today our Gospel reading goes back before Easter, before the surprise happy ending of Jesus rising from the dead. Instead, this is not even half way through the book of John. Jesus is chatting about agricultural practices, animal husbandry, what it is to be a good kind of farmer or—more directly—the good shepherd. Intern Lisa reminded us last week that resurrection is of the body, in the flesh, real life that eats fish. Still, this today seems like the stuff of regular life and not an Easter story.

Along with this, I’m also thinking about chilly Wednesday evening around the memorial garden. It may be our best place to remember resurrection. But this was the first face-to-face Confirmation gathering of 7th and 8th graders this entire year.

Besides the chance to see each other, they were talking about presentations they and their mentors will make for you next week after worship. They were told their presentations should reflect on faith, but Emilia Malecki pointed out they haven’t had a real class all year to learn about faith. So Pastor Sonja asked what sorts of things they might say anyway. Martha Wildman said we trust that God is loving and God is with us. Tyler McGown immediately plunged into the deep end of theology, asking, “If God is loving, then why did God make the coronavirus?” Wow! I can’t answer, though it’s worth speculating.

One way comes through our Gospel reading. Martha says God is with us, God is loving. That fits well with Jesus saying he cares for the sheep, all of the sheep, even other sheep we don’t really know about. He wants life for the sheep, in spite of lurking harm.

But then Tyler asks, what about the virus? If God is so caring, how does God relate to the harm and death and the terrible disruptions from life, including the forms that our middle schoolers were sharing, of longing to be in school, of missing sports, of not seeing friends. Heck, they even miss Confirmation! Shouldn’t God want to do something about those things, at the very least getting them back to Confirmation?!

We could take the Easter promise to say it doesn’t matter in the end that COVID19 has caused so much damage—whether we can recover from it or it seems irreparable—because there is resurrection. That perspective may put death in its place, as smaller than God’s good news, not what ultimately matters. Or it may trivialize death and gloss over our difficulties and ignore our sadness. I can’t say on which side you might land.

Another response is to treat the Easter message as kind of irrelevant or distant, and to take matters into our own hands in the meantime. If we don’t know where God is with the virus, we may make it depend on us to try helping each other through this hard time. The reading from 1st John instructs us we should lay down our lives in love, and if we have the ability to assist, we really, really ought to do it. BYOB Bible study struggled lots with these demands’ insistence on our lives and our bank accounts and our efforts.

Again, I don’t have a clear answer for this. Does God want us to help? Absolutely. Does God work through us? We’d certainly say so. Through these months that could be the healing by medical staff, our common care in getting vaccines, and so on. But does God only act through us, and is God waiting for us to do our part before God’s good can be accomplished? I don’t know, but it makes me much more nervous.

ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s Earth Day statement said this:
We know that healing is possible — for the planet and for our communities. We are not too late. The time is now. To us, God is calling; through us, God wants to work a miracle; through our finite and inadequate efforts, God can and will bring about ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’ God provides us with diverse gifts as protectors and guardians of creation. We affirm, therefore, the many stewards of the land who have been and are conserving the good earth that the Lord has given us.* 

Besides deeply disagreeing that God has given us this earth, I’m also nervous about the urgent responsibility of my little efforts bringing about God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth. You may be motivated by it, but I don’t think I’m capable of that amount of life-giving. God better have a back-up plan!

We’d like to help, to be “protectors and guardians.” We want it to turn out well in the end. But is that real life? And is that God’s way? Another part of Jesus’ words today are not so clearly the good news, definitely pre-resurrection. Jesus talks about laying down his life. His main point is to die.

I am reluctant to cast wolves as the bad guys, as primarily a predator on livestock, much less as a danger to humans, but to follow through on Jesus’ metaphor, he doesn’t say he’s going to protect and guard the sheep of his flock by killing the wolf, by releasing his hunting dogs and tracking it down with a rifle (or whatever the 1st Century Palestinian equivalent would’ve been). He says that when a wolf comes to threaten the sheep, he’ll die.

If we extrapolate this to our current context, it’s not quite Tyler’s question of why a loving God would send the coronavirus. Instead, Jesus implies that when threatened with a deadly virus, he’d lay down his life; he’d catch it and die. That may count for solidarity, that God isn’t apart from our suffering and pain. But other than the support of teamsmanship, I’m not sure how it helps to have the one we’re relying on wind up dead. We’d prefer Jesus to say, I am the good vaccine. I am the good doctor. I am the good antidote for all that ails you and steals life. I’ll fight like hell against anything that gets in the way. That’s not what Jesus says. That’s not what God does. I don’t know why.

Our first reading has a frequently quoted Old Testament verse: the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. A cornerstone sets the alignment for the whole rest of the building. In this case, all of what we’re building would’ve rejected Jesus as unfit for our alignment. But that’s how God does it. We wouldn’t naturally look at a shepherd who winds up dead as a good definition for the profession. We wouldn’t count one who doesn’t stand up very well to the virus as helpful for health or for our course of action. We wouldn’t count a loving God who dies rejected as the basis of a religion, of our hope, of the arc of the universe.

If this is the shape of the universe, we should be able to spot it around us. Just after this, Jesus will compare himself to a seed that is planted, dead and buried, but rises to bear the fruit of new life (12:24). So is God’s work like what we see in our gardens?

Maybe we witness it with the prairie burn this week? An apparent vision of resurrection, of old death that already is greening and rising to new life. But I’m not sure what that means for the baby bunnies that were trapped in the burn. Their death may nourish other life, but they themselves need more of a resurrection promise, or else it becomes a miniscule metaphor of the circle of life, which is fine for the Lion King but doesn’t reveal God’s way as the true shape of the universe.

Maybe in this Earth Week, we at least re-examine what we’ve been trying to build, the pattern we’d followed and the cornerstone we chose, how we’ve tried to shape life and the expense that causes our planet and its vulnerable peoples. We might reconsider our ways.

The Earth Day message from Bishop Eaton also talks of racism and repentance, and says:
Because God gave humans the vocation to be stewards of the earth, we proclaim that, for Christians, care of the earth is…central to our holy calling to treasure the earth and care for it as our home, fully integrating creation care into our love of God, neighbor and all in the environment… [W]e know our recovery from the pall of 2020 will, in many ways, be a transition to a new way of life. 

So beyond the pall of 2020, maybe we follow God’s way in Jesus, the rejected cornerstone, not to make life more profitable or to enable us to live longer and extend our efforts, but to reset the whole foundation, with the one who commends the giving away of life, a life laid down.

Can we glimpse it in banks finally turning away from lucrative fossil fuels? In power companies installing renewable energy? In justice for Black lives? In world leaders on a Zoom screen putting aside differences to talk climate change?

Again, I don’t really know. But maybe we will find ourselves catching up with the arc of the universe and beginning already to live in the future we proclaim as we continue to declare: Alleluia, Christ is risen.


*https://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/8097

Standard

Sharing

a sermon on Acts4:32-35; John20:19-31

I’m kind of an ideal communist.

By that I mean I like the idea of communism (and I’m using a lower case C, if that matters). But I haven’t ever had to give communal living much of a go, except with family.

I was reading an article by somebody who’d grown up in a commune, and how it involved doing each other’s dishes, and being raised by multiple adults, and so sharing not only responsibilities but also joys. She said in spite of the benefits, she hasn’t chosen that as her lifestyle or way to raise her own children.

Along like lines, I think of myself as quite generous with finances and sharing money, but I get pretty stingy when it comes to having to share my peanut butter. Go figure. I might be very giving of my time, but insist on some quiet personal space.

This sort of the thing is in the background of our Acts reading. Those couple verses appeal to me, that “the whole group of believers were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed any possessions to be their own, but held everything in common.” As an ideal communist, I take that to be ideal community. Or maybe more directly: ideal church.

It doesn’t say those early Christians were living in a commune, nor that they didn’t have any individual property, but that they were willing to sell them when help was needed. In a book that calls Acts “The Gospel of the Spirit,” Justo Gonzalez says “it describes a community in which mutual love is such that if someone has need others go and sell their real estate in order to respond to those needs” (p72). So we don’t have to idealize it as giving up everything we have to move into a monastery in order to be like the early believers.

But it does perhaps invite us into a generous commitment to each other, as they were described “of one heart and soul.” We are invited to practice love, practice God’s shalom of wellbeing for our mutual lives and for all creation.

That’s also an ideal, of course, to think we could meet all needs and always agree and fulfill God’s purposes as church. But it’s not just us who have problems living up to that ideal and who have trouble giving our lives away.

These little verses in Acts are followed by a strange story of Ananias and Sapphira, a couple pseudo-communists, sort of participating in the church. Ananias sold some property to give the money for others’ needs. But he said that it sold for a lower amount, in order that he could keep some for himself. The story makes clear he didn’t need to sell the property or give the money, but wanted to retain some personal benefit. Essentially he was lying to the church about how loving he was. And with his lie, instantly he fell over dead. And then his wife came in and with that lying lower amount she also said that they had given fully, and she too keeled over.

That strange story could clearly seem like a threat: in church, you better be really, fully loving, or you’ll drop dead.

But the challenge is that practicing love can’t be motivated by threats. I can’t coerce you to care for each other or to give more. I probably can’t convince you that doing this church thing of sharing isn’t about your personal benefit, but is simply the ideal way to be together.

On the other hand, mostly I don’t have to cajole you into it.

This year especially has reminded us of how important community really is. As we haven’t been able to be together and share life in ways we’re used to, it’s been a challenge and maybe even disheartening, hurting our soul.

Still, much remains of practicing love together. We may not be the ideal community or ideal church, but we practice. We try to carry each other’s burdens in prayer and compassion, striving to be attentive to the struggles shared among us. We try to help. That can be a listening ear. It can be a meal delivered or caring cards. At times, it’s more directly financial assistance when somebody has needs.

Not only in crisis, it’s also simpler things. We are engaged in helping raise each other’s children, including as we opened the position for the Director of Children and Families Ministries this week, and as we received from Confirmation students at their market yesterday.

Or this: for the Perspire guys’ happy hour on Thursday, Graham McLeod brought his home brew to share with the group. For offering as any has need, that’s a pretty ideal church to me!

Certainly not restricted as a clique-ish in-group, we also want to extend love to meet needs. Since this passage is about giving financially, we celebrate that 15% of your offering dollars go for emergency support and help in our community and around the world.

On the other hand, we also do have to confess we’re no ideal community. We really do pretty little for meeting needs. Partly, it may be that we don’t have the same need of the church as in Acts. Those who require help can turn lots of other places for relief. Besides food pantries and such, we have assistance programs like unemployment benefits we’ve heard so much about this year, or efforts to help refugees at the border. Beyond broad impacts of charity, then, there’s also taxation that serves to share and help (which I suppose is sorta coercing the practice of love, after all).

So there are needs that the church doesn’t meet. And you don’t share all you have, selling possessions to support others. Your offerings do some small things to meet needs.

Still, the biggest single piece of the budget is paying for me. I try to be honest about that and I really strive for it to serve a need of yours, as well. The central verse of the Acts reading is that the apostles “kept giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” and that’s maybe what I’m mostly paid to do. (Though yesterday, Simon Sellwood asked what’s part of my job, and it’s never simple to answer.)

In testimony to our risen Lord, we have today the powerful story about Thomas wanting to touch Jesus. There’s commissioning you as followers to offer forgiveness. But what stands out to me is the repetition—three times—of Jesus saying, “Peace be with you.” He seems to feel that’s important, if he repeats it so much.

Peace be with you. Perhaps he knows you long for this peace. As you miss relationships and others from this community and so much more, he shows up to offer himself in peace. As you know what’s lacking for yourself and the needs of others and the hurts of this world, he gives even more than reconciliation and healing. After this year while you’ve been trapped behind locked doors and maybe with too much fear, he comes to speak peace and be peace into the upset and sorrow.

Even as he offers you himself—body and blood, heart, soul, he is offering you that wellness and fullness of life, the guarantee and the practice of God’s goodness. He delivers the peace that is God’s shalom, the wholeness, wellness, and will that isn’t just an absence of tension but the presence of justice. In appearing even today for you, Jesus is bringing more than a casserole, more than a lesson on life, more than even an ideal communist can expect or dream. He is bringing the assurance that fear, force, isolation, individualism, wants, needs, death itself cannot stop his gift of life. Peace be with you. It means “all shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” (Julian of Norwich).

We shouldn’t idealize our capacity or our community. But we don’t need to. With assurance, Jesus comes for the afraid and those who feel things are scarce and are hoarding life. But in his own abundance, he comes to open us up, even before we sing, “Come and fill our hearts with your peace” (ELW 528). As you are invited to practice love, it is made possible, is enabled first and foremost by God’s peace as Jesus gives himself to you in love. And that is why we bear witness to the resurrection. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Standard

Indeed? Alleluia!

sermon for Easter Day 2021 (Mark 16:1-8, Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, 1Corinthians 15:1-11)

What comes next?

Mary Maxwell for months said nobody has gotten to come back after death to explain what it’s like. Fred Loichinger has been wondering and worrying at the lack of answers, what it means for Jean as he isn’t there with her. Wayne Nelson phrased it for Marj that he didn’t know what happened after life, but knew it was in God’s care.

We hold this today with people you’ve shared in memorial, and in hope of sharing Christ’s resurrection. So what comes next? What might we expect for our reunion with these loved ones? What can we hope in sharing that triumph of Easter? We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe that’s not fully where your mind is, even if your heart yearns deeply for it. The reunions with loved ones you dream of may be not eternal but daily, the potential to practice love, to visit family and friends, to offer hugs. Getting to spend time together, in three dimensions—even seeing the bottom half of faces!—could be some of the triumph of this Easter. I hope there’s more to come. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

This Easter comes at a point in the pandemic of renewed hope, including as many are looking at vaccines in these days. I heard Karen Schwarz and Jen Streit have their second shots today, which can be taken as a gift of life, a glimpse of resurrection. Kaisa and Kathy Johnson had shots on Friday, a bit of Easter in the face of Good Friday. Maybe stopping the risk and spread of death is some of the triumph of Easter. I hope it’s more than that. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It could be that the return of life is an aspect of Easter. Besides the people you’ve been missing, there’s all the other stuff—being able to go to a restaurant, scheduled events and activities resuming, or simply that you don’t have to be quite so afraid going to a grocery store. I hope the triumph of Easter is a tad more than having fans at a baseball game or American Players Theatre. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Perhaps the new life is borne in the witness of spring, especially on this amazingly warm day as you enjoy something outside. Maybe you can notice little green beginning to emerge and the colors of flowers poking up through dusty dead leaves. Perhaps it’s clear for you in the cheerful hop and chirruping song of robins, returned sandhill cranes, soon the chorus of frogs.

Or with MCC gardeners putting in seeds that, with tender care, will grow to feed the hungry. Or the upcoming prairie burn, where scorched earth will quickly sprout with rejuvenated life. Onscreen now, it’s hinted at by this Easter garden, as Lori DeMuese and others with the Arts Task Force thought you needed a feeling of abundance and beauty. With hopes for the restoration of all creation, the natural growth of life in glorious warm sunshine may be some of the triumph of Easter. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

We may find the victory of life in births. My CSA farmers at Plowshares and Prairie Farm are not only preparing plants for nurturing and nourishing life, but in these days are also welcoming a new baby. The continuity of life going on, the hope in what the future of a child will develop into, the potential and hope for the years ahead could mark some of the triumph of Easter. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe in hopes for the future, you consider cultural changes and wider societal developments. We may call it the politics of Easter, in overcoming death and helping foster life. There may be policy advancements you celebrate in these days, and you may consider them, at least in part, to be a blessing from God. You may hope for advancements in racial justice, may think on how you yourself have awakened. You may be paying attention to Derek Chauvin’s trial with such awareness, hoping there is new potential for Black lives to matter, and that as a triumph of Easter. I hope there’s more to come. We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Along those lines, this Easter happens to fall on the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. 53 years ago last night, he gave his last speech and said he was happy God allowed him to live in this period, because, he said:

I see God working in this period. We have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that people have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. People, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

Also in the human rights revolution, if something isn’t done, and in a hurry, to bring the colored peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed. Now, I’m just happy that God has allowed me to live in this period, to see what is unfolding. 

And Dr. King concluded that last speech with these words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And God has allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

With him, maybe you’re grateful for the demands for justice, to see it unfolding. Even if the peaceable kingdom hasn’t arrived, maybe the anticipation of better life to come is some of the triumph of Easter. We can be happy, even though we don’t fully know what will happen. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Maybe you take Isaiah’s mountaintop, not just looking into the promised land but the fulfillment of the promise. Maybe you’ve known enough tears and want them wiped away. Maybe you feel like you’ve waited and waited for God to act, waited through the bleakness and are ready for the banquet.

And for the wide open banquet table, welcoming all into the promise, as Peter was discovering in our Acts reading, as he said “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.” That blockbuster statement meant the ultimate division of Jews and Gentiles were both included and welcome at the banquet together. This resurrection possibility of overcoming oppositions was as radical as Republicans and Democrats eating together. Can the triumph of Easter hopes be as big as that? We don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In how we continue forward, beyond our stifling fears, the messenger in the Gospel declares Jesus is going ahead of you. This isn’t a day of looking back a couple thousand years, but looking ahead, trying to catch up with Jesus who is ahead of you, out in front. Or maybe not catch up, but knowing he’s out there and active and we’ll meet him on our way.

Easter can seem routine repetition of an old story, that we pretend on Good Friday like we don’t know the ending. But with Jesus going ahead of you, there will always be surprise of where he turns up, and we’re not yet at the ending. We can hardly know what to hope in the triumph of Easter. We won’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

There will always be mystery. Later in the chapter from 1st Corinthians, Paul says it’s like from a seed trying to guess what the plant it produces will look like.

What do resurrected bodies look like? How will we be raised? What will this mean when death is finally conquered? What comes next? When is this final triumph of Easter? How big can we possibly hope? Probably not big enough, since we don’t fully know. But Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Standard

Palm Sunday Questions

reflections on Mark 11:1-11

So I have some questions. You can reflect on your own, or type comments.

To put you in place as you start to consider the questions, here’s a picture (1) on the Mount of Olives near Bethany looking toward Jerusalem. It’s about a mile to the golden Dome of the Rock, the location where the temple was.

This is where Jesus was arriving. He had been out in the boonies, the wilderness and countryside, with rural folks. Today marks his first arrival in the big city of Jerusalem, the religious center, the capital, the seat of power.

So, to start pausing for questions: How do you think those big powers would feel about this rural superstar Jesus? How might the crowds of his followers be treated by the urban elites?

2. We notice the shouts of hosanna. Hosanna is a Hebrew term that means “save us,” as Intern Lisa had in our opening litany.

So: What did those crowds of people want to be saved from? What makes you cry Hosanna, save us? How do we expect Jesus to respond? How is this country bumpkin perched on a pony coming to the capital going to liberate you from oppressions?

3. The commandeering of the donkey—or actually horse, as Mark’s version just says colt—goes through more than half the verses of this reading.

So: What’s the big deal and why so much detail? Is it to show Jesus had a plan? What about the phrase, “Its master needs it;” does the horse know Jesus is its master?

And we usually picture it as a humble contrast to a warhorse, but Mark just says “colt, horse.” Not so much gentle and calm, Mark’s depictions of Jesus would typically be more intense.

So what image or attitude is Jesus trying to capture with this action?

4. It goes from the detail of the horse to saying people spread their clothes in front of Jesus (as well as leaves from the field, like straw—not palms or branches; palms are actually mentioned only in John). Anyway: the only other time it happens in the Bible that people lay down their clothes like this is in 2nd Kings (9:13) at the start of a coup, where a new king is proclaimed who will be described as a maniac (9:20) as he goes to kill the other king and take over.

So: How does it strike you if the crowds were expecting Jesus to lead a maniacal insurrection? How does that make you feel about joining in with your palm branches today?

5. The crowds associate Jesus with “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” David had been a fierce fighter and a clever general, ruthless in expanding territory and getting what he wanted. Their greatest military leader had been in power 1000 years before this, and they’re still looking for one like him.

So: Is that Jesus? Or will Jesus prove to be the opposite of the lineage of King David?

6. Back to that term hosanna: besides a plea for salvation, it was also used for praising royalty, like the English phrase “God save the king.” This king Jesus is determined  not to be saved, though.

So: Do you think Jesus knew while riding into town that he’d be killed this week? How would the crowds have reacted if they knew? How do you react?

7. In the last verse, Jesus goes into the temple, looks around and leaves.

So: Was it getting too late? Was the timing just not right? Had he put all his energy into the donkey plan and still needed to work on a next big idea? Was he casing the joint?

8. The next day (only in Mark’s telling of the story), Jesus will come back and do what we normally call “cleansing the temple,” but could more clearly call disrupting the living daylights outta the whole operation and shutting down worship. The term used isn’t cleansing, but overturning, overthrowing, destroying.

So: In this very center of their culture and hierarchy and sense of worth, how would the elites respond? How would the people feel about this desecration? What if your worship were dramatically interrupted? What was Jesus hoping to accomplish or trying to provoke by upsetting the people and the system?

9. The Palm Sunday parade can feel like a festival, a celebration. It might’ve been meant like some stylized victory march. But the feeling doesn’t last long.

So: As it goes on, would we think of Jesus as a winner or a loser? As overly humble, or too provocative? Should he have tried something else? What would it mean for this to have ended differently? For all of us who wanted to be saved, does Jesus fulfill or disappoint our hopes? Or both? Why would God want to be identified with this person, in this way?

Standard

a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Marjorie Thea Nelson

19 June 1936 + 1 March 2021

Isaiah 42:5-11a; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 23:42-43

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

There’s so much to remember and to be celebrated in Marj as a spouse, as a mother, as a grandmother, a family member, Marj as a friend and mentor and coach and teacher, Marj as an inspiration and encourager, offering wellbeing and life, sharing here and to the other side of the world in Cameroon, a light to the nations, we might say. There are all these things you look back on and remember and celebrate and will continue telling stories about, perhaps in the online visitation after the service and for a long time to come.

For all of those memories, I begin by recalling something in these last five years of time I’ve known her, when Doug talked about watching his mother change, about who she was becoming through memory loss and what the interactions were like, the altered roles of care and what it was to be there with and for her.

It could be seen as a long goodbye, the slipping away, of her not being who she had been and not being capable of what she once was. Certainly there were those challenges, and Wayne and others of you dealt with those remarkably, intimately, so caringly, with dedication, even through the difficulty.

But maybe that care also recognizes that it wasn’t just a long goodbye as Marj was able to interact less and less, until it has its final ending with death. There’s also more simply and regularly that relationship evolve over time and years, the changes that inevitably go with life, of not knowing Marj the same ways as when you and she were younger and at that stage of things.

But it goes also with Doug’s wonder at who his mother was becoming, and striving to take that for what it was and even to consider it a gift, if I recall his sentiment.

It’s embodied in Wayne’s trips across the street to see Marj at her care facility, made much more difficult in these months of the pandemic. It already began as the ways to connect with Marj and spark something in her mind. Things like a flower or the birds at a feeder, an old photograph or words of a greeting card, asking about a meal or telling news or an old story, lately with those things needing to be delivered through staff or through a screen window or through a screen of an electronic device.

Some of that is the project of remembering, to re-member, finding ways to connect the members of the body together again. You wouldn’t let the relationship be severed, but would re-member, re-linking with Marj in new ways and old ways, continuing to keep her with you, a love that’s willing to go on loving, as the song said.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

As Wayne recounted when gathered for a farewell at the cremation and again yesterday, telling of a canoe trip where Marj had already pushed off from shore into the current when she was asked if she knew how to steer and replied No! Yet they made it along the trip, through rainy days and the rocky stretches, making it through rocky stretches of life, not because things are perfectly as you wish or are easy or even because you’ve tried so hard and so successfully.

There will always be loss and eventually death, and with Marj there may have been more of that or longer of it than you would’ve wanted, may have wanted more of her, of who she had been. And there are times of disconnect, times when it wasn’t very possible to connect with Marj. Again, because of the pandemic, because of the changes, because of the circumstances of life, and maybe some of you wish you would’ve done better, that more would’ve been possible.

But it’s not just remembering; you also are remembered, remembered in and into the mind of Christ Jesus. When disconnection threatens and relationships are fractured or even seem severed by death, you are remembered, forever and endlessly re-membered into the body of Christ across all times and places. Maybe still more directly or personally, when memory fades and forgetfulness overwhelms, when your mind is not what it used to be, you and Marj are remembered. With all creation and for all time, Jesus remembers you.

That is the mind of Christ Jesus with you and in you.

We don’t know what’s to come, can’t conceive in our minds even what this bigger picture is of the future into which we’re invited, what it will be to be brought into God’s arms and brought back together with Marj. It’s more than we can know. Even as we give thanks for this life, we can’t say much about what’s after life. So all we can do is trust in the God who takes us by the hand and keeps us, trust the one to whom new songs arise, life flowing on in endless song above earth’s lamentation, trust that for all of our prayers and pleas for remembering, that Jesus assures, “Truly I tell you, today, tomorrow, now, and forever, you will be with me in Paradise.”

Standard

Meditative Reflections for Taizé Liturgy

Psalm 51:1-12

This Psalm is a prime confessional resource, admitting our sin, longing for mercy, for forgiveness, for a change.

Today, it’s located near the beginning because we’re used to a rhythm of starting with confession. The season of Lent started also with this confessional Psalm, in Ash Wednesday worship.

We expect an aspect of contrition, of needing to feel bad about ourselves, or at least about sin and what we’ve done wrong. A default feeling of Ash Wednesday is that the greasy smudge is fitting attire to mark our inner state of being. That sense can pervade the season, mired in contrition, morose lament, groveling at how rotten we feel.

Or maybe in our efforts to be better, the disciplines of Lent you may still be trying to follow—the fasting, attention to prayer, donations of money and time, or whatever it is you try to do for the season. Later on, the Psalm would go on to reflect on “acceptable sacrifices,” saying it isn’t a show of burnt offerings (and I just now thought about that as the burnt palm leaves on Ash Wednesday), but the sacrifice God desires is a troubled spirit and broken heart.

Starting a service, starting a season, with that emphasis on cleaning up your sin makes it seem the relationship starts with you and is dependent on you getting things in order.

Though you may get around to spring cleaning, I don’t believe you can create your own clean heart. Notice in the Psalm that God does the laundry—the washing, cleaning, blotting out stains, scrubbing, cleansing. God the expert washer-woman is getting you all cleaned up and good to go.

Hebrews 5:5-10

We’ve moved away from dour contrition, both in our start on reflections today and in this season; instead of starting with the confession of our sins, we’ve been building worship around a remembrance of baptism.

I hope that’s emphasizing for you a focus on God instead of on your abilities, emphasizing God’s promises to you, maybe even when you were a baby, perhaps asleep or perhaps wailing through worship, that it’s not about your behavior but is about the kind of God you have.

Still, even when we put our focus on God, the insidious old ways sneak back in. Just after reminding you about God the washer-woman cleaning you up, still you went back to singing kyries, a plea and prayer for mercy, as if you had to beg in repetition.

Partly that’s an aspect of Lent, silencing our canticles of praise as off-limits for services this season. With Taizé, we’d usually be singing lots of glorias and alleluias. Instead, I feel a little bashful even letting the A-word out of my lips during Lent.

But that silly practice contorts our relationship with God. A version of it comes in this peculiar Hebrews reading, which puts even Jesus into contortions with God, requiring his “reverent submission,” and that he had to learn obedience, which involved suffering.

Read the wrong way, it can be pretty gross stuff, sick and twisted, turning to a notion of punishing ourselves for God’s sake. Or if not our suffering, then that Jesus needed to suffer, and since my sin is so bad he needed to be in miserable pain because of it.

That’s not what this is about. So we’re changing direction, a move away from kyries and pleading, away from commending suffering submissively to hierarchy.

Just so, we’ve not been begging for mercy, but remembering it is God’s promise in baptism. We should be singing glory and alleluia and all our praise, maybe especially in this season and in this year we’ve been through, that God doesn’t intend suffering. Instead it is God who “leads you into life.”

John 12:20-31

In our task of reorienting, of re-understanding your relationship to God and therefore also how to see yourself, we’ll notice that this Gospel reading doesn’t talk about sin and punishment, with somebody suffering as a substitute in your place. The judgment is not that God is angry and needing to be appeased. It’s not that you need to feel so bad about yourself until you can earn God’s good graces.

This is a culminating point in the Gospel of John. In his telling, it comes just after Palm Sunday. Jesus is being made known to the nations, part of drawing all people to himself. That’s not because they’ll go to hell without him. It’s because he’s good news, because in him we see a God who so loves us, a God who leads you into life. His death isn’t to show that it requires reverent submission, but just the reverse, so that you can know you’re not captive to evil and deadly powers, to bear this fruit, to share the blessings of eternal life.

His revelation is that life isn’t scarce and to be hoarded; life is abundant. Even when it is being threatened and taken away, still it can spread and grow, in inspiration and more of giving itself, and in that is its glory. Death cannot stop this. This is big news; it’s good news of what God is doing for you, and it’s why we look to Jesus.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

So if you trust that God is actively striving to love you, to give you life, if you’re ready to set aside the personal accounting of having to tally how good or bad you think you’ve been, if you’re not interested in feeling miserable either for sin or for some sense of punishment and suffering, if you’re ready to live into love, to lay hold of the life that God is offering to you, how do you do that?

I clearly don’t believe the way to improvement is through lecturing, cajoling you to try harder, offering instructions. The futility of that effort fits God’s own sense as we just heard declared through the prophet: “I will put my law within them [says the Lord], and I will write it on their hearts. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

So, again, if it’s not about teaching or laying down the law, how do you get there? Jeremiah sees it simply that God makes a new covenant, a binding relationship that God promises not to remember the bad, not tracking iniquity. Instead God decides to give you new life, as new as if you finally had a heart that could pulse the blood of life through your arteries when all you had before was a useless rock in your chest, the very Spirit of God pulsing through you, enlivening you, so that you may be what God wills.

It is this sort of transformative life-giving promise that we remembered in our thanksgiving for baptism this morning, with the words “God wants the fullness of life for us, and we have access to this life in God’s Son. Jesus is thus God’s definitive ‘yes’ to us.” God’s yes to you, giving you love and filling you and leading you into life. That’s where God is.

Standard

“One Year Later”

sermon on John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:1-10; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Numbers 21:4-9

Out with the bad, in with the good.

By my tally, we’ve been doing this for 52 Sundays. Pretty much a year since hardly any of you have been in the Blessing Room for worship. I know it’s making you mark other milestones, laments of the loss of life and loss of living, extending from what came on us so suddenly and we’re still figuring out how to respond, as well as a few of the deeper Why questions.

I’d say our worship needs to deal with it, and it just so happens that today’s Bible readings have snippets of Why questions, starting with a sense of the bad. Why the bad?

Ephesians may be the most simplistic, meaning an easy explanation that avoids responsibility. (Though I rarely compliment it, I admit this passage has nice parts, like verse 8—“by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God”—for some, a favorite verse of the Bible. But that good news is getting ahead of our starting question.)

For Ephesians, an explanation for the bad, a reason for problems around us, is simply to say there’s evil, a malevolent force, oppositional to the good. Maybe the devil. Our version for today used the terms “destructive spiritual power” and “the spirit of disobedience.” That’s one way of sorting this out.

Not many of us likely identify the devil as the cause of the pandemic, but we should probably remain open to some explanation of spiritual evil.

Ephesians also moves toward another description, which may be our preferred or standard explanation. It goes from the devilish evil powers to say that we have been corrupted to do wrong. Our Psalm used the term sin for the rebelliousness that leads to our affliction.

This is not infrequently our reasoning: that we get sick or have problems because of our own fault, our own stupidity, our own lack of precaution or of healthy practices. In broad scale, we’ve heard the pandemic attributed to human-caused deforestation and capitalism, appetites, greed, and travel, as well as aggravating factors like poverty and systemic racism. Maybe we don’t prefer being culpable, but this category feels more like direct evidence; we at least know who is to blame. We have met the enemy, and they are us.

If that negativity doesn’t make you feel very good, I’m not sure how much you’ll like the third category: it’s not the devil doing us damage, nor are difficulties inflicted through our own wrongdoings. God is the one doing it.

The reading from Numbers portrays the catastrophe as caused by God. As a punishment, as a repercussion, sure—but the bad thing is directly attributed to God. The Lord sent poisonous serpents in order to bite the people and kill them.

Our mainstream perspective doesn’t often assign God’s will to death and destruction like that. We aren’t quick to claim the coronavirus is God’s judgment on whatever ethical contagion we currently condemn. While I’m not willing to let God entirely off the hook, this explanation leaves me uncomfortable; I’d prefer for God to be the solution more than the problem.

As we turn from problems to solutions, I’ll pause to say that Intern Lisa recently finished a class called “God, Evil, and Suffering,” so if you want to discuss these classifications or hear what she was studying, she’d be more adept than my quick brushstrokes manage.

Now: out with the bad, in with the good. For positive response, there are again several versions in today’s readings. In Numbers, the people are prompted to change their behavior, turning from complaining against God to devotion to God, from disregard to gratitude, from grousing to praying. God gives them an object of faith to focus on, the snake on a pole for connection.

That may relate to this worship service, a focal point for your faith. Maybe it leads you to believe you should pray more if you want better outcomes. In St. Patrick’s Breastplate, prayer becomes armor, protection amid bad problems.*

For a next response, taking matters into our own hands, the final line from Ephesians points to a sense of self-control and human potential for salvation. It says God created you to do good works, right deeds, and so instead of wrong-doing, you are supposed to be right-doers, Dudley Do-Rights. That’s another solution to bad problems.

Again, our own behaviors are the most apparent and evident, so it’s not without reason they draw our focus. Through the past year, it has meant we take confidence in precautionary measures like masks and distancing and obeying guidelines. Or, on the larger scale, putting our faith in the vaccine.

I’m not arguing against those. Just as I’d say it’s worthwhile for you to sin less, not to be so harmful to yourself or others or the planet, I’m certainly not going to suggest that ways we’ve confronted the virus don’t matter. And without evaluation or appraisal, I’d just note that—though the pandemic has regularly been part of our prayers—we could probably observe that our prayers for God’s action are emphasized less than efforts for our own actions.

But let’s also notice something of God’s action or response, connected to Jesus. It’s not a vindictive God, who will poison and kill you just because you were doing something wrong. It’s not a God who will save you if you are properly devoted. It’s not a God who’s waiting around for you to do the right thing. This God recognizes that you prefer the wrong thing, love it even, and would hide from doing right. And yet, God loves you. God loves this whole crazy hurting world.

God so loves the world. Now, I wish the Gospel of John would’ve been better at underlining that about Jesus not coming to condemn and less interested in winning an argument. After all, the point is that Jesus comes for those who don’t receive him, don’t want him, don’t love him, those who kill him. It’s those people whom God so loves. It’s us.

And in spite of all of it—all your efforts, all your lack of efforts, the ways humanity blows it, the ways humanity wants to go-it-alone, the things we take credit for and are proud of as having the right answers—through all of that, God so loves you.

It says, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness,” but there’s a difference. It’s not “just as.” There, the poisonous serpents were what was killing people. With Jesus, it’s us doing the killing; we lift him up.

And yet, it is from there that life spreads. It might spread with a vaccine. It might spread because we become more loving. It might spread as we’re trying to do what God rightly intends. But ultimately it spreads because God so loves you, and because this loving God won’t even let death get in the way. In the face of current realities, if that feels unclear or uncertain, maybe you can at least take confidence in good news that God doesn’t want you to perish. Even more infectious than what causes death is God’s way of love, life, and salvation.

*I arise today through a mighty strength: the invocation of the Trinity, the Creator of creation.
I arise today in the power of faith, through the strength of Christ’s birth, his baptism in the Jordan River,
through the strength of his cross of death for my salvation,
through the strength of his bursting from the tomb.
I arise today
in the prayers of the ancestors, in the predictions of prophets, in the preaching of apostles,
in faithful deeds of the righteous, with the starlit heavens, the glorious sun’s life-giving rays,
the radiance of the moon, the splendor of fire, the swiftness of wind,
the depth of the sea, the stability of the earth around the old eternal rocks.
God’s strength to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me from temptation of vices,
and against every cruel and merciless power.
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me,
Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all who love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Amen

Standard

“The Temple of His Body”

sermon on John2:13-22; 1Corinthians1:18-25

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our strength and our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14) Amen

(That’s the concluding verse of today’s Psalm, and is spoken by Pastor Sonja and many others to start sermons.)

To start this sermon: this is about Jesus.

Maybe that would seem obvious, because I talk about little else. But let’s recognize what this is about Jesus.

The closely attentive might notice this Gospel reading came from John, even though this is allegedly the year of Mark. We’ll be hearing lots from John through the rest of Lent and Easter, not getting back to Mark until June, unless we pick up a bit of Mark for Palm Sunday or Easter (when there’s a choice of that or John). I don’t know for sure why the lectionary bigwigs decided to do this, but I’d say it’s partly so we know something more directly that this is about Jesus.

This story is in all four Gospels. They could’ve picked Mark’s version of the cleansing of the temple, but they didn’t.

The other Gospels have this story at the end, during Holy Week, really as probably the deciding factor of why the authorities wanted to kill Jesus: he was too disruptive, too provocative. John has it earlier, right near the start, so it has a different flavor or maybe reasoning.

Clearly we’re always interpreting, always trying to understand. If you’re sorting through why I’d ride my bike in the winter, for example, you might think it’s about climate change and not using fossil fuels. You might imagine I like the exercise and the fresh air. You might say I like adventure, or perhaps term that as saying I’m crazy. It could go on.

Forget my biking, though. It’s bigger for church. This project has been defined for 1000 years as “faith seeking understanding.”* I believe the biggest question for us as Christians is “Why did Jesus die?” But we could ask Why questions with everything, including Why cleanse the temple?

For trying to interpret what Jesus was doing in this, sometimes it gets tied to a saying from the prophets, about a den of robbers, that the thieving aristocracy was abusing the holy place as a hideout. Sometimes it’s thought Jesus was trying to be bold and provoke a response and start a revolution. Sometimes we might say it’s because he was angry, that even Jesus got upset.

One interpretation I believe we should set aside is that Jesus was against spending money in there. That can get twisted nowadays so that our Confirmation students shouldn’t sell crafts at church as fundraisers for a community organization. I hope we can be fairly certain that’s not what Jesus is against. Drew Hart’s new book has this line: “Do not miss it: the problem wasn’t merely that there was buying and selling in God’s house.”**

Still, another aspect of interpretation is that Jesus was protesting injustice, that he didn’t like that those moneychangers were taking advantage of the poor, that the religious system had gotten commodified, that selling doves and sheep was extortion from people without enough to spend.

Now, if I tried to say that you had to give 10% of your income in order to participate in this congregation, that might match such a notion. (Let me say as a sidenote that I believe tithing is good and well worthwhile, for you and for our work together, and I’d encourage it. But not demand it!)

In Jesus’ time, though, it wasn’t so clearly that the expense was obstructing people’s spiritual practice; rather, buying animals was how they practiced their religion. So rather than offerings you don’t want to offer here at church, a closer parallel might be if we took an axe to the grand piano and had a book-burning of hymnals, poured out the communion wine and threw the bread out for the birds.

Well, that’s normal time. Now, maybe it would require shutting down YouTube or hacking away Ethernet cables to dismantle you from these ways you are trying to connect to God.

But that all leads to another point: why would Jesus disrupt the temple, where people were trying to connect to God? The Gospel of John’s interpretation of why Jesus is cleansing the temple is because God isn’t found in that building, but in Jesus. This is about Jesus! Jesus shuts down the religion of the temple not because it was so rotten and unjust, but because it’s point was moot. The building wasn’t where to look for God; you find God in Jesus, particularly in the destruction of his body and as he was raised on the third day.

A couple more thoughts about that. First, this is not about what Jesus does, but about God in Jesus. It’s not trying to tell you to do what Jesus does, to find your own versions of where to cause a ruckus and throw people out. There may be occasions for that, just as there are economic injustices and thieving hierarchies we should stand against. But that’s not what this story is for. This story is for connecting you to God.

Second, then: about that old building. As we’re making distinctions, I strongly say this isn’t anti-Jewish. Jesus wasn’t against Jewish practice. By the time John was interpreting it, the temple had already been gone for a quarter century. Which is like asking if you cheer for the 1995 Atlanta Braves and if you like Hootie and the Blowfish concerts and would never miss an episode of ER. Such interpretation is anachronistic, doesn’t fit.

Another version: the story isn’t itself anti-temple, but politics of today that would reconstruct a temple in Jerusalem (and inevitably tear down the Dome of the Rock) I think is a bad idea. But not because of what Jesus did in the story.

And, again: in the Holy Land, there are constant references to “this is the holiest location for Jews; this is the third holiest site for Muslims.” For Christians, this reading alters that understanding. It’s not places that are holy; it’s a person, a body. It’s God incarnate in Jesus. And then maybe extrapolated to the presence of Christ in each other, or in the vulnerable, or with creation.

For this abnormal time, maybe there’s some good news that it’s not about a building, since you are not only not in Jerusalem, but can’t even be here on the west side of Madison. I suppose it raises questions of why we invest in and work hard to renovate this building, if that’s not particularly where or how you’re connected to God.

Maybe we’d say it happens more personally, like in a sermon to connect you to God, proclaiming God revealed in Jesus’ death and resurrection—the foolishness of our preaching, as Paul called it.

But I hesitate on that, too. I’m not the embodied presence; I’m recorded and far away. I’m not “live” (an interesting word with “living”), so there’s extra disconnect. Even you aren’t live with each other.

I guess to connect with God, you somehow still need Jesus himself.

I don’t know. We’ll keep working on the interpretation, faith seeking understanding. And when our wise discerning is thwarted, maybe when we again encounter the crucified Christ, we’ll remember after his resurrection and believe about him.

For now, the peace of Christ be with you.


* Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109): “fides quaerens intellectum”

** Who Will Be a Witness: Igniting Activism for God’s Justice, Love, and Deliverance, p65

Standard

“Not a Pep Talk”

sermon on Romans 4:13-25; Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Mark 8:31-38

Sometimes a caricature is insightful; other times the incomplete picture is perhaps misleading.

Maybe you’d caricature my big ol’ nose. Or maybe a frosty beard from winter biking. I don’t know what single characteristic you might pick out, but to know me by that one trait would leave something out.

Paul writes of the characteristic of Abraham’s faith. Paul, of course, means well. But he maybe overstated his case, caricaturing it.

BYOB Bible Study discussed Paul’s line that nothing made Abraham “waver concerning the promise of God,” and no external evidence could make him “weaken in faith.” Whether or not such dedication is emblematic of Abraham, when it’s overblown, it can be misleading.

Paul promotes it so highly to offer encouragement. Similarly, the statements from Jesus about dying and living were like what military leaders would give before a difficult battle to bolster scared soldiers.* I suppose our models are halftime locker room pep talks, for a boost of energizing. Paul is trying to invigorate the troops with his bold descriptions of faith.

Now, if a model of strong faith as unwavering devotion is helpful for you, you can take that.

On the other hand, if you need some assurance that you’re not the only one who does waver, then you certainly have that example and guarantee when we move beyond the quick caricature of Abraham as eminently faithful.

Instead of thinking of him as so strong, we might call him Waverham. The guy wavered constantly. He had promises from God. He had signs like the stars in the sky and sand of the beach to go with the promise. He had marks of the covenant. He had dreams and discussions with God. He got out of tight situations, partly as a sign of God’s favor. Still it wasn’t enough.

We buy into Abraham waiting for a son as the only way God’s promises could move forward. But Abraham already had a son. He and his wife Sarah were scheming on how they could make God’s promises happen, so Abraham slept with Sarah’s slave. Ishmael was Abraham’s son with Hagar. This offspring of a slave and master received big promises from God on his own. Hagar herself, though victimized, traumatized, and oppressed, still argued with God almost as an equal. So the story isn’t quite so simple as Paul puts it, that Abraham believed and trusted God and everything turned out just peachy.

What’s more, Abraham himself can at times come across as almost irrelevant. Paul says that his 100-year-old body was “already as good as dead,” and we might wonder how sharp his mind was, either. For being called a patriarch, including of three religions who trace ancestry back to him, he almost is a prop. Sarah shuffles him around and tells him what to do. He has tricks played on him, and is foolish in return. In the verse after our reading today, where God yet again promises a son, Abraham laughs at God. Maybe it’s that not very much of his faith matters, and his mind doesn’t matter, and only one part of his body matters for having a son.

It actually seems Sarah is the one who matters. Again, Abraham already had offspring, but Sarah didn’t. The reading declares God will bless her, “and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Interestingly, in the next chapter this is retold, but instead of just reporting dialogue from God, it’s a story, given a setting and a plot. Three visitors come as Abraham is sitting in the shade of the Hebron oaks. Abraham offers them a big meal (which, of course, Sarah and a servant had to prepare). And then the visitors say that Abraham and Sarah will have a child, and from the other side of the tent flap where she has been eavesdropping, Sarah laughs. The visitors say, “Why did Sarah laugh that she’ll have a son” (as if it weren’t obvious, what with her being 90 years old and postmenopausal), but Sarah still feels a need to retort, “No no no, I didn’t laugh!” And they say, “Ohhhh yes, you laughed!” Kind of a back and forth “Did not.” “Did so.”

The end result is that the child will be named Laughter. Isaac.

An opposite of unwavering faith, their son has a mnemonic moniker that will reiterate every time they say it that when God made a promise, their response was to doubt. To chuckle. Far from a firm “Amen, it shall be so, let it be with me according to your word.” Old Abe, the father of faith, is the parent of Laughs-at-God.

Which may assuage your sense of your own faith, of doubt and uncertainty, of feeling weak or like a loser or just not getting it. And if I prompted a notion of your biblical camaraderie, I admit I regularly fail at pep talks, encouraging you to buck up and be confident and give it a go.

But let’s remember that it’s not really about you. It’s about God, and how you’re invited into God’s story. God was making this covenant with Abraham, not waiting for Abraham to sign on a dotted line, much less for it to be validated by the generations to come. God simply made the promise, long before Isaac or any of the others were even born.

This is, we’re told, the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Abraham was as good as dead, mostly dead, but Jesus was all dead. Yet in his death and resurrection we see not an ending but our new beginning, calling faithful possibility into you where it didn’t exist.

It may seem strange I’m excusing your lack of valor, your weakling efforts, your failures at faith, while Paul tries to commend the righteousness of faith over distrust, and when Jesus himself tells you to take up your cross and follow him. I know those words can weigh heavily, as you’re trying to live faithfully in the way Jesus wants you to, to be a good disciple, to dedicate yourself to following him. You may wonder what is your cross to bear and whether you’re suffering enough for his sake.

But I want to pause and flip that around, to say that it’s not about trying to convince you to do more for Jesus. He invites you to set aside the repercussions, and to live with that grace, that openness of faith. It’s not at all for how you need to prove yourself to Jesus, but exactly how you don’t need to give in to society’s standards.

See, crucifixion was the worst threat that the powers of Jesus’ time could inflict. It was public shaming, deep humiliation, and finally death showing you lost and the empire won. But Jesus says you don’t need to think of that as losing, don’t need to avoid humiliation, don’t have to measure your loss, don’t have to succumb to being threatened into isolated fear.

It’s just this sort of possibility from God that frees you to live in grace. Abraham didn’t need to claim his faith was tip-top firm; he could identify himself as feeble old Waverham. Sarah didn’t need to deny her laughter, but could say You’ll never believe it: I’m the mother of Laughs-at-God. Peter, the rock, not because of his firm foundation of faith but because he was a stumbling block-head, even with his downright denials nevertheless could come to proclaim resurrection and the expansive blessings of God.

So even if you’re a wavering weakling doubter who scoffs more than you trust God and can’t muster a good work with all the efforts of your flesh and can’t prove anything and mess up more than you get it right, hey! No problem. Check out your ancestors in the faith. Even more than that, look to your God, the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”


* Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, p246

Standard