a memorial

Tim Scott was one I regularly described as my greatest mentor, and he’s also the person I most hope my life will honor.

Through his Scouting the World endeavor, he took me to the American West and into the mountains for the first time (with olallieberry pie after, of course).

He took me to Germany, among my first international friends, though even graduating with a major in the German language hadn’t gotten me to travel.

It was also an honor judging next to him in a German language contest, though I mostly remember the experience for him helping me correct my pronunciation of Mütter.

He let me hear Sister Helen Prejean and Martin Luther King III, which connected to his own statewide teaching programs on the Holocaust, endorsed by his law firm, where he concluded with the prompting questions: Where is the spirit of the Holocaust alive in our world today? Where is it alive in your city or school? Where is the spirit of the Holocaust alive in you?

But he also could make us all laugh by talking about “your fat face,” looking faux-hurt when the banter returned as he stuffed his own fat face. (And many of my photos of him happen to show him doing that.)

He told the worst ghost story, but still it had “two boys you’ll always remember. Hor. ror. You’ll never forget.”

He taught me “Blowing in the Wind” before I knew who Bob Dylan was—and also taught us “the bright elusive butterfly of love” long after anybody knew whoever wrote that. And about Lisa who met the train and became pizza. And a rooster who came into my yard. And that Tombstone from Medford tastes better, I hear; ja, ja, ja, ja! And that “Alle Strassen dieser Erde führen jede nur im Kreis” (“all the streets of earth just lead in a circle” and of which I promised to do an English translation but never could). And that Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine… He’s the reason I have a guitar…even if it doesn’t have 12 strings.

When seeing a photo of a too-stern over-militarized Boy Scout, he suggested I could pose slouching with my shirt untucked and my finger up my nose. It made me very happy to find just such a photo of him, since I have sadly so few photos. (Even now, he’s reforming my life by recognizing I need more good photos of good people.)

He was the reason I wrote “conscientious objector” on the form when I had to register for the selective service at 18. Or: his helping me understand Jesus as a pacifist was the reason.

Just a few weeks ago, I referenced Tim in my biography for joining the board of Lutheran Peace Fellowship by writing he reliably balanced the patriotic focus of Scouts with peace, nonviolence…and humor! In patient conversations, he helped me to consider the immorality of the death penalty, led me toward conscientious objection, and gave me a positive understanding of peace and responsible citizenship. 

A night at winter camp is one of my most common references of him, staying up in a barn until the middle of the night, listening to an 8th grader with dumb arguments favoring the death penalty. Years after I had come around, I credited him as my influence when I got to compile a statewide resource against the death penalty for the Wisconsin Council of Churches.

And even after staying up too late listening to an 8th grader, Tim was ready to lead a Sunday morning worship service before we could pack up camp, his Catholic faith a prime and pure motivator for who he was.

Even more: at that winter camp, he talked of an illness in his family. He said he didn’t need to scramble to say “I love you” in the dire moment, because he said it regularly.

I didn’t get to say it to Tim one last time, so I’ll say it to any of you now who will receive it: I love you.

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“A Big Figging Deal”

sermon on John 1:43-51; Psalm 139; 1Samuel 3:1-10; 1Corinthians 6:12-20, and Martin Luther King’s birthday

Among the least profound statements from Jesus—and, therefore, among my favorites—is the theological nugget “I saw you under the fig tree.”

It’s probably pointless, unlikely connected to other figs in the Bible, such as the prophet Micah declaring, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation; but they shall all sit under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (4:3-4).

Under the fig tree, Nathanael could’ve been preparing for nonviolent activism, or maybe he was there filching figs from someone else. Either way, it probably doesn’t make a fig of difference, symbolizing nothing about Nathanael, just an obscure, trivial detail.

But that would be just fine, because Jesus comes for regular life, in the silly moments and asinine details.

Similarly from our first reading, a 12-year-old boy heard God. It’s not because Eli was aging that he didn’t understand at first, nor because he was the religious leader that he should’ve gotten the visit. Samuel’s own pseudo-fig-tree came when he was mostly looking for some shut eye and not a divine vision.

That’s hammered home, into your home and your very self, with the Psalm and God’s presence wherever you are. Since nothing you do can separate you from God, no special pieties or practices or prettiness get you closer to God. Notice this is about your body, from fetus to grave: your skin, bones, lips, limbs, muscles, intestines, brain, thoughts—all known by God for God’s marvelous creation. By no stretch of the imagination (or stretch of the sore ligaments) could a blemish or infirmity make God stop loving you. The wrinkles and the aches, imperfections you stare at in the mirror, the parts that don’t quite work how you want, to perform at championship levels, the idiosyncrasies that make you you—these aren’t bad in God’s view. God made you, made your body, your self. From before your birth until long after death, God accepts and surrounds you.

Just as you’re coming to terms with the goodness and acceptability and blessedness of your body, Paul offers you and the Corinthians the expansive reminder, “You are not your own.” Your body is a temple, the dwelling place of God’s Holy Spirit. Wow! You are not your own. You are claimed by God.

And you are claimed for others. Through these eight or so chapters, Paul will emphasize what it means to be the body of Christ. We are linked to each other. You are not individual, nor even one in a community. Your existence is so deeply, directly intertwined that you are not your own.

It can be apparent reality. If Roanna practices piano, it has an impact on our shared ability to worship. Lindy had hand surgery this week, in part so she’d be able to continue playing flute for us. Her health, then, is clearly tied to our mutual wellbeing. I know my sleep on Saturday night affects how I’m able to be your pastor on Sunday morning. Those are obvious connections.

Paul takes it deeper, with sexual morality. Notice this issue of sleeping around isn’t about marital ethics, but is what it means for the church. Again, how you use your body relates to who we are together.

More specific to Paul’s point: in the original Greek, this word is actually “porn,” for prostitutes, clearly related to our word pornography, and also to fornicating. We could think of an individual (mostly, we might as well say a man) seeking his own pleasure. But since we are bound together, there is no isolated way to do that. It may affect how he looks at women and how he is able to be in relationship.

Now, maybe the Corinthian church didn’t have any members who were prostitutes, and I wonder if that’s part of why Paul could write about them as so other and not part of shared wellbeing. Likewise, Jesus hung out with prostitutes, or sex workers to use their preferred title, and didn’t tell them they had to find another profession before he was willing to associate with them.

For us, the point isn’t to feel good about ourselves with judgmentalism that makes outsiders, not for easy categorical condemnations that don’t really affect us. Taking Paul’s guidance is about pondering how we’re doing in relationships, with our bodies for the sake of the body.

To consider that better, let’s ratchet it down to be less titillating, not sucked into alluring sex talk. See, Paul even relates it to your stomach and food. So eating junk food has bigger implications than just your waistline or cholesterol.

We can discern the body of Christ, or simply see ourselves amid systems: your diet might have responsibility for the safety of immigrant workers in meat packing, or land use of clear cut monoculture poisoned with chemicals, to name just a couple possibilities.

Here’s another approach from Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached:

“Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation; and this means…no individual can live alone; no nation can live alone…We must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools…

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

(Dr. King continued with examples that may be outdated or even racist, but let’s take his point.) “…You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s from China. Or maybe you’re having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world.

“This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.”*

Paul saw how we share and depend on each other as the body of Christ. We expand and see this “inescapable network of mutuality” and “single garment of destiny” in relationship with all humanity, all creation. So what are we supposed to do in that?

On the one hand, your location, your age, your body type, your choices neither determine or prevent God’s blessing for you. Is it alright, then, to hang out under fig trees? Could Samuel just as well have gone back to sleep, preferring that over waking to the word of the Lord? Could you pleasure your body as much as you prefer and abuse it as much as you want?

Well, technically, yes.

Even if it’s not helpful, you have the freedom to do anything (1Cor6:12). Your identity is held in Christ. You are claimed as a beloved child of God. That will be true no matter how you look or how you act. You can’t flee from God’s goodness, can’t stop your body from being a temple of the Holy Spirit.

But maybe you also yearn not to litter the temple with junk, instead for that goodness to radiate, to be of further benefit, to live well and fully in this body of Christ, with those who depend on you, in this inescapable network of creation.

With that, I suspect in this inauguration week you may be trying to reflect on what current events mean, of our government and fellow citizens and glaring ostensible divisions, with violence and those you’d prefer not to be connected to. You may be trying to figure out how to be in the midst of that in these times, pondering complex relationships. There’s no simple answer.

Maybe not based on our abilities or inabilities, not from fears or past failures, nor overwhelmed by the frayed fabric and stained spots in the single garment of destiny, maybe you yet look with hope. Dr. King ended the sermon we were hearing before by saying,

“I still have a dream that one day [people] will rise up and come to see that they are made to live together as [siblings]. I still have a dream that one day…brotherhood will be more than a few words at the end of a prayer, but rather the first order of business on every legislative agenda…I still have a dream that one day [we] will beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, [that all] will sit under their own fig trees and none shall be afraid.”**

Whether you’ve got those big dreams or are just wanting God to find you in the sleepless nights or pointless moments of life, your big worries or miniscule personal discontents, whether you’re considering yourself on the right side of history or preferring to escape the network of mutuality, remember you are not your own. You belong to Christ, claimed for each other.

Hymn: “We Shall Overcome”


* abridged from “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” A Testament of Hope, p253-54

** p258

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“There’s a…WHAT?!”

sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, on Acts19:1-7, Mark1:4-11, Genesis1:1-5

“We hadn’t even heard there was a holy spirit!” You might’ve gotten the sense that I find such lines funny.

It’s like when the little Hobbits leave the Shire, venturing among larger humans for the first time and discover that beer can be served in a bigger mug. “It comes in pints?! I’m getting one!”* Something good you didn’t even know possibly existed, suddenly seeming so available and obvious.

Did you get the Holy Spirit when you were baptized? Paul inquired. What?! We didn’t even know there was a holy spirit! And you say I can—just like that!—have a pint?! I’m getting some!

Of course, you may order spirits that way, but a helping of the Holy Spirit may not seem so simple as walking up to your bartender and asking for a pint-sized serving.

Still, the Spirit’s unpredicted availability stood out to me for the first time this week. In the past, I’d always believed John the Baptizer when he said that he baptized with water, and another one was coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

But is that really how it went?

Imagine a TV report on John the Baptizer, beginning with an intro off to the side: “We’ve been hearing how everyone—urban and rural—is going out to John in the wilderness. He’s in hip waders over in the Jordan River as he is baptizing with water, but he awaits someone else who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Let’s go have a closer look at John’s baptism.”

Then the camera pans to Jesus, splashing into the muddy current. Out of hundreds of others referenced, his is the only single baptism of John portrayed in the story. John plugs Jesus’ nose, dunks him into the water and—Eureka!—down comes the Holy Spirit!

John the Baptizer had just declared authoritatively that he wasn’t the one baptizing with the Holy Spirit when poof! no sooner are there shredded heavens and hovering down comes the Spirit.

Yeah yeah, John didn’t do it; God did. But still, for all of his role as a prophet pointing toward God, John apparently was over-confident in his declaring how the Holy Spirit operates. After all, Jesus himself says in another place that she blows where she chooses (John 3:8).

If she blows where she chooses and she showed up in John’s baptism even when he said she wouldn’t, how in heaven’s name are we supposed to connect with her? How do you order up a helping of Holy Spirit?

Certainly we do what we can to offer assurance and confidence. Your baptism promises the presence of the Holy Spirit with you, the seal of adoption as God’s holy child. With baptism are also offered the words of blessing that will close our service today. They go with a laying on of hands—maybe to mark that you are ordained into the life of discipleship, or maybe (since there’s both baptizing and laying on of hands that go with the arrival of the Holy Spirit in the Acts reading) just to hedge our bets.

We do these things so you may have this holy comforter, this advocate, this abiding presence with you, this living breath and divine inspiration. Or not so that you may have the Holy Spirit, but as a way to trust that you have the Holy Spirit, that she blows where she chooses and she chooses you.

So why would she do that? If the Holy Spirit is so unpredictable that John the Baptizer couldn’t pin her down and she’s always out in front of our holy intentions and predictions, why would she be with you, your large serving of Spirit arriving even before you knew to ask?

Generally, I’d say it’s because you’re breathing. She gives life and breath to you and all things. She’s what sustains. She’s the binding force of love. That’s all true and good and I cling to it dearly.

But today I feel I should more directly proclaim you can know the Holy Spirit wants to show up for you because of where she is in our first reading. She’s moving over the waters, out there sweeping over the deep. Hovering, floating. Maybe again with a sense from Jesus’ baptism, of the dove alighting. Or a soaring, watchful eagle. An opportunistic seagull, even, ready to dive to scoop up what she wants.

Mainly with the point that the Holy Spirit has her attentive eye on you, her ready presence as you bob along, tossed about over the deeps, through the raging floods, in the violent volatile waves that crash around you.

This was a matter of chaos in that creation story, the vacancy and abandon of astonishingly empty depths. The fearful unknown, probably reflecting the dangers of boundless waters that bore storms and came to claim life from those who tried to hazard through it. An image of threatening chaos.

In all sorts of ways, you know chaos. You knew chaos in watching news from the Capitol with horror on Wednesday, when the order you thought was in place for our institutions of power seemed so tenuous, even if only temporarily before the fever of pandemonium subsided and things (hopefully) move on more as intended.

You know chaos as the orders of your life have been upset these months and you’ve had to figure a way forward through the upheaval, or are simply swept along by it all. You know chaos in the loss of life, in the death of loved ones, in not knowing what a new day will bring, not being able sometimes even to set simple expectations of what will happen around you or within in. You know these threats to wellbeing.

And because you know chaos, that is why today I am certain that you may know the Holy Spirit of God’s very presence is hovering over you, floating down to wrap reassuring wings around you in blessing, to counteract whatever comes to claim life from you.

In never just doing what we’d wish, I’d guess she may not come scoop you out of the stormy chaos to security and order. But through the chaos, that benevolently wily, unpredictable Holy Spirit is never-failing and she will bring you to the place God intends, to the fullness of life, to this creation that God sees as good, and will give you peace, even with every quiet or gasping breath.

What’s still more, just as John the Baptizer astonishingly discovered after he’d sworn it wasn’t going to be through him—but Poof, down she came!—you yourself might unexpectedly convey the Spirit to offer life and comfort and peace to others. Praise be to God.


* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bmFnv-TZzRs

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Mary Amanda (Wee) Maxwell
Dec. 19 1935 + Dec. 28 2020
Psalm 42, Ephesians 5:13-16a, (and Aldo Leopold’s “Draba”)

“Awake, O sleeper, rise from death.”

A refrain that I heard regularly from Mary in the past three or so months—and maybe you’d heard it, too—was that each day she was surprised she’d awoken in Madison, Wisconsin. She kept thinking she’d wake up in heaven and wondered why she hadn’t.

Before that phrase, she was already looking that direction. This past summer, even though her doctor said her test numbers were looking good, that the cancer drug was effective, still Mary kept saying she was feeling closer to the end.

Further back than that, this spring Mary cheerily described her diagnosis and said “not many of us know what we are going to die from.” She said it to me while on her hands and knees picking spinach from the food pantry garden.

So, going back through the ending wind-down or the further sense of her impending death while still very much alive, Mary displayed an awful lot of acceptance. Awful in that I know some of you felt more like it was resignation, and wanted her to think about it differently, to fight harder, to keep going.

I don’t argue with that. When Mary wondered to me why she kept waking up in Madison, I had some twinkling inkling, thinking partly I wasn’t praying for her death; I was praying to get to keep her around longer, to keep living, with us.

I guess even in the end of her living, she did it well, a completion of life.

But Mary is hard to let go because she lived so beautifully, making the most of life. I counted her as a kindred spirit, but she was so much more than I that I certainly can’t lay extra claim to her. Her kindred spirit of living was also for the children of the school forest. She was kindred with almost everybody who moved into Oakwood, eager to get to know them.  And, in broader community, it was for the native plants of the Oakwood woods, and for the MCC prairie restoration she so regularly tended with Lois and Hildy. She shared that spark in her presence for most every adult ed session, eager to learn and engage, whatever the topic.

Mary’s LBW

She did much of life that way, but maybe particularly her faith. As one example, some of the shape of this service comes from a list five decades old. But in another list from two years ago, she had her #2 hymn choice for her funeral as “This Is My Father’s World.” We ended up not singing it today, though, because in her own old hymnal, it was all marked up. The title was crossed out and changed to “This Is My Mother’s World,” and then that was crossed out for “This Is Our Wondrous World.” Instead of “He shines in all that’s fair,” she jotted in “with hands I give it care.” At the top she noted “sexist,” while at the bottom it says “But I still like it.” Ha! That’s Mary’s engagement.

Especially dear to me was that about three years ago, when we had such a large group of youth interested in going to the Boundary Waters we kept pleading for adult chaperones, and it was Mary who stepped up, questioned and maybe even challenged by her friends in circle, but also celebrated. At the first portage, she lifted a canoe onto her shoulders, but after decided her doctor probably wouldn’t approve of putting that stress on her replaced…was it hip?

Reflective with her little book of poetry, her knowledge of the natural surroundings, and reflective of the expanse of her life, she talked much of her first trip up there as a teenager with her dad and uncle and cousin, when (as the only female) she had to do all the menu planning, including being sure the men had good coffee.

She carried her own as she paddled along with and engaged that batch of teenagers, sleeping on the ground next to them in a tent. In our last campsite of that trip, she was still reflecting on other trips and said with tears in her eyes that that was probably her final trip to the Boundary Waters.

I keep finding my own tears as I recall that of her, and much else.

Mary, who could have tears in her eyes, and then her beaming smile.

Mary, who this summer was relieved to be able to get to the cabin, even if she wasn’t going to have strength to swim or to paddle, but still to be in that good place with good people.

Mary, who tried to sing along from the 4th floor when a group of carolers stood in the woods to sing up to her a week before she died.

Mary, who loved you and was loved by you, Max and Everett and much more family and friends.

Mary, the mother who shaped you, Beth and Amy, and whose reflection lives on in you.

Mary, who was the wife who always knew what she wanted and told you how things would go, Ken.

And there’s much more I could say. On the other hand, what more can I say?

Mary showed us, I think, how to live, making the most of the time. Hopefully there are some elements of that in songs and her spirit in this service today, in poems and words she loved.

Mary showed us, perhaps, how to die.

Still more even than that, Mary showed us faith, confident in the one who held her life, her death, her eternity. And so maybe today some of what we gain isn’t just remembering her or celebrating her, nor finding room for our own grief, our own smiles and tears.

Maybe today we understand and appreciate and find our own inkling of trust that Mary had in the One whose love and life hold her now and forever, and her son, as well. And maybe that confidence can grab hold of us, too, for our days now, and with Mary forever to come.

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On Carols and Singing

1st Sunday of Christmas Carol-Sing Reflection, including on Luke 2:22-40; Psalm 148

They’d sing! And they’d sing! And they’d SING! SING! SING! SING!
And the more the Grinch thought of this Who ChristmasSing,
The more the Grinch thought, “I must stop this whole thing!”

I already got to reference the Grinch on Christmas Day, but he fits today, too. I’d say what makes the Grinch particularly Grinchy is that he doesn’t like or want the ChristmasSing, while these are songs and hymns and carols that we mostly know and love and cherish.

I was reflecting outdoor Christmas Day worship as probably the only time it would work to sing together without any accompaniment to assist. These are familiar and dear songs we know very much by heart. That’s some point for our own ChristmasSing today, whether the Grinch likes it or not.

Now, some of you can more quickly get quite enough singing. Others can never have too much, in worship or otherwise: in the car or while doing dishes or with commercials on TV or who knows what. This year may be more missing out on it—besides no congregational singing, also not having concerts and no Take Me Out to the Ballgame or alma mater-hailing Varsity amid crowds. Maybe extra gatherings around fires have pulled out a few guitars for old folk songs. I don’t know.

Anyway, today there’s quite a bit of music, though I didn’t even get in all the requests. I know it’s not the same, as we’re not gathered, and may be harder to feel festive and part of the chorus at home, and I have no idea whether you’re joining in heartily or just listening. I hope it hasn’t gotten to a Grinchy point where you think it’s just sing! Sing! Sing! Sing! and that you must stop this whole thing!

But I rush on to point out that it’s not just our ability, our song, our voices, our feelings about all of this. We are certainly invited to join in the chorus, to add our harmonies and own pitches, but this is a much bigger unstoppable song.

I like that we happen to have today a reading with the song of Simeon. On a day with lots of singing, even the Bible tells of singing, maybe with an old man’s wobbly warbly voice offering a lullaby to the infant in his arms and the God known in that baby Jesus.

I like it also because Simeon’s song reverberates, repeats, echoes onward. It’s a song we’ll sing at the end today and is standard repertoire for communion services at our dismissal and parting from each other. It’s also prescribed for night prayers at the close of the day, the Gospel canticle that fits that moment, of time passed and the day fulfilled as we go to sleep and on to next things.

For marking transitions, as Simeon sang of his life fulfilled and able to end, I’d say we really miss such songs right now. It is a sad deprivation that we can’t gather and sing for Jean Loichinger’s life, in praise of the God who gave her to us to know and to love, to sing of that servant dismissed in peace, seeing the salvation prepared for her.

But, again, this isn’t just our song, our voices, our limited abilities in this time. It’s not only up to us, because the song resounds and reverberates more. We, of course, have been singing with angels recently, the gloria in excelsis and glory to God in the highest Christmas birth song that is also part of our ordinary worship routine. Echoing the angels gives our song supernatural connection, transcending even out of our realm of existence. Maybe that speaks to the sublime power of music to transport us, to lift us.

But let’s not set our sights so otherworldly that we miss out on what’s here. We started by singing that love shines forth in the Bethlehem skies and all heaven has come to proclaim it (“Love Has Come,” ELW 292). That’s not just angels, but also a star and dark skies to join in the song, the music of the spheres. We went on to sing of flowers and trees who also proclaim (“Cold December Flies Away,” ELW 299 and “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” ELW 272).

I’m grateful for such reminders. We may observe singing ability of birds, or whales and cicadas sounding musical to each other. But it’s so much more, as our Psalm reminds us. This Psalm, indeed, has the stars and the whales of the deep and the singing birds and chirping creeping insects, also the lowing cattle (“Away in a Manger,” ELW 277) and the hills that are alive with the sound of music, the snows and all humans, of all ages and abilities. We join the hymn of all creation, absolutely no tryouts required!

I hope that harks back to the nature of song, namely that it’s natural. And it’s unstoppable not just because everyone has a part, but because it’s who we are. It happens in joy. It happens in sorrow. We come up with this notion that we’re supposed to praise God, as if it was demanded, and make it into a chore to be done—or resisted and think we must stop the whole thing.

But when it includes fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains (“Joy to the World,” ELW 267), evermore and evermore (“Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” ELW 295), then we have a good indicator that by existing our lives sing, each with our own part from God. It’s simply and naturally how and who we are. Even when we can’t hear our congregational voices together, still we can know that we are in harmony, in tune, resonating along with all creation.

Since that is how creation exists—solo and in chorus with each other—it’s exactly perfect that we have so many beloved songs of Christmas, this occasion when our God fully came to join us in this world, to take part and live into the song.

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Creation Care Commentary for 1st Sunday of Christmas 2020

Divorced, Together: Nick Utphall reflects on the connections in the family of creation

Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

For creation connections, it doesn’t get much clearer than the Psalm for the day, Psalm 148. I reprint it here just to refresh and maintain your contact with these globally, cosmically full words:

Hallelujah! Praise the LORD from the heavens;
praise God in the heights.
Praise the LORD, all you angels;
sing praise, all you hosts of heaven.
Praise the LORD, sun and moon;
sing praise, all you shining stars.
Praise the LORD, heaven of heavens,
and you waters above the heavens.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
who commanded, and they were created,
who made them stand fast forever and ever,
giving them a law that shall not pass away.
Praise the LORD from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps;
fire and hail, snow and fog,
tempestuous wind, doing God’s will;
mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars;
wild beasts and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds;
sovereigns of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the world;
young men and maidens,
old and young together.
Let them praise the name of the LORD,
whose name only is exalted, whose splendor is over earth and heaven.
The LORD has raised up strength for the people and praise for all faithful servants,
the children of Israel, a people who are near the LORD. Hallelujah!

For a sense of “let all creation praise,” this Psalm voices it all! It covers the whole of creation, top to bottom. It reminds us that the creatures joining our praise are not just the tweets of sparrows or the submarine songs of whales, but that even creatures we’d consider inanimate (note: a word that means “without a spirit” or “without a soul”!) are still joining the hymns of praise and fully in relationship with God—the weather, the rocks, the solar system, and all!

It may be reading into it to a degree (anything is liable to be an interpretive framework, anyway), but I also appreciate that the Psalm isn’t promoting one standard order in creation. Plato instilled in us a sense of the “Great Chain of Being,” which was a hierarchy to rank creatures, including indicating a sense of proximity to God. So God was at the top of the staircase, and angels a step lower. That was followed by humans—generally with a presumption that males were higher than females (or a boss higher than the workers, a pastor higher than the congregation members). Depending on your preferences and debate abilities, maybe subsequently following were dolphins or dogs or chimpanzees or some other mammal. Eagles or chickens came next. Lower still were ensuing lizards and fish and those belly-crawling apple-offering snakes. Then maybe insects, which were at least higher than immobile trees. And those, in turn, must be higher and have more connection for the life and soul in them than water or asteroids or dirt.

But it seems to me that the Psalm doesn’t follow the descending staircase of that hierarchical value. When it does descend, it’s more a matter of sightline and observation, from looking up to the skies, and the clouds, and the hilltops, on down to those of us wandering about at ground level. It doesn’t see separated status; it sees community together. If this is the hymn of all creation, it strikes me that it’s less about the ego of a superstar lead singer who’s got backup singers and a band for accompaniment than it presents a choir in fugue, trading off the melody from section to section and voice to voice, supporting each other in mutual harmony and rhythm.

Of course, for all of that, it may well be that the Psalm gets little attention in your worshipping gathering this weekend. It may be a preference to make more room for the limited opportunities of Christmas carols. It may be that you don’t particularly feel you need the Psalm’s echo of the gardens springing up in Isaiah 61. After all, Isaiah is a direct echo of Isaiah’s own self, since we hear some of these words just two weeks ago on the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

But for the more Christmas-focused direction, you might still tie in Psalm 148 and notice the typical “star of Bethlehem” fits as one of those voices of praise. The same for the angels that arrived to proclaim glad tidings not just to shepherds but also sheep (though the Psalm has a limited translation of “cattle,” instead of the broader and probably more-intended “livestock” or domesticated animals). And we should be sure that those sheep almost certainly went to meet and praise the baby Jesus, because the shepherds weren’t just going to leave them in the fields at night!

Slightly more focused on our personal neighborhoods of creation (at least as we commonly conceive or attend to), and yet keeping within the song of community together, today’s readings might point us to the broad expanse of human family.

Where the Psalm spans classes and generations, we might also expand across geography and remember that Black Lives Matter and hear Indigenous voices, and notice those who have been historically oppressed.

Not to be too abstract or broad, we should also really notice depictions of the scope of our families—and quite quickly see that that’s not limited by biological family.

Of course, there is the newborn child and the parents. We remember them; they’re not done just because we’re through Advent and the feast of the Nativity. Indeed, most often we think of the expectancy and the arrival, the time of pregnancy and the night of birth. Today’s Gospel reading tells us a short time later of the new family, as the parents are trying to figure out the right things to do now that they have a baby.

And in this reading, as they are going about their business (perhaps in the details of the days like other parents of newborns navigating shopping aisles for diapers), they encounter two others who happen to be there in that same space. Two old people—at least we regularly presume that age about Simeon, with the note that death was being kept temporarily at bay, and for Anna we’re told that she had lived a long time. Simeon and Anna are strangers, but did not remain strange for long. These two who encounter the baby and the new parents resemble a familiar category in many of our churches: they are adoptive grandparents. They scoop the infant into their arms, congratulate the parents, cherish and celebrate the birth, claim its goodness for their own or relate dearly to it.

The family has expanded. It has crossed the generations. It is no longer just those who will live together in a household or can claim to be related to each other. There are new relatings and relationships. New bonds are formed. The kindness of the kin-dom finds more kin.

As we’re noticing all these relationships, the 2nd reading continues to expand our awareness. By a rare Pauline highlight of human birth, of a very real mother, Paul also points to other adoptive relationships. Not just those out of kindness as church family cares for each other, but of legal adoptions.

In this, we might begin by observing the identification of Jesus as the Son of God. He rightly and directly calls God “Father, Abba” (Galatians 4:6). On the one hand, that means that of those parents who took him to the temple, Jesus maybe would come to call Joseph something more like “stepfather,” one who legally took on care for Jesus at the same time he was taking Mary as his lawfully wedded wife. It became official that Jesus was Joseph’s adopted son.

And there’s a happy exchange, a blessed swap that occurs with that pair of relationships, according to Galatians. Jesus received a human adoptive father, and we who are under the law receive God as an adoptive parent. Through this expanding family, Jesus became our sibling and brings us to be lawfully connected to his Abba who is in some way legally obligated to the care of us!

(Note a clear reminder that caring for creation also includes laws and legal structures for how families are maintained and children cared for!)

For our lives being bound up into the family of God, I also want to observe one verse from the song of Simeon. In the phrase about “now you are dismissing your servant in peace” (2:29), the word for “dismissed” occurs in the New Testament almost only in the Gospels and Acts. At its most basic, the Greek word apoluo just means “release.” It is used when Jesus sends away crowds. It is for releasing from debt and for forgiveness. The biggest concentration for this verb is around the debate about releasing Jesus or Barabbas from arrest on Good Friday.

But one of the most common uses for the verb is as the word for divorce, because a husband was “dismissing” his wife or releasing her.

It’s playing with—or a play on—words, but let’s take Simeon, holding the baby Jesus and the fulfillment of God’s promise, with him then being “divorced” in peace.

Divorce is frequently a hard reality in our families, and usually characterized by animosity more than peace, and with forgiveness maybe almost more than could be hoped.

But here, the divorce is exactly about being incorporated into God’s family, being connected in these human relationships, including for all the peoples, all nations, the whole earth (Luke 2:31-32). The odd character of this divorce is that it only binds Simeon closer to the families of the earth, and simultaneously us with him as we sing his song and welcome this baby into our embrace and are welcomed into his circle.

Again, that is care for creation, not in some abstract sense, but in the very daily reality of our families—families that may be separated and have conflict in a normal holiday season, and also families that are separated and distanced through this year of pandemic. Even as we can’t care for that in the way we might like to, this sense assures us that God binds us closer together than we’ve been able to manage.

One final practical thought on how we attend to our human lives and relationships during this time:

The parents in the Gospel reading were following a common ritual after the birth of a baby. There are also markers for the other end of life, as Anna and Simeon find a rite of passage in their old age. Perhaps this commends to us a question of what we are doing about such transitions during times of quarantine. How can we be intentional about marking rituals and celebrating very real and regular moments of life, and not leaving them isolated? When we can’t gather babies into our arms while milling about the aisles of our religious gathering places, and as we are unable to join in visitations after a death and share a funeral service, how will we properly observe these very real and regular changes in our relationships in this human family?

Perhaps one answer could include something from the practice of the liturgical rhythm of the song of Simeon. Each of the three occasions of daily prayer takes a song from these early chapters of the Gospel of Luke. Morning prayer joins the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). Evening prayer repeats the song of Mary, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). And the prayer at the close of the day (compline or “night prayer” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship) joins the chorus of Simeon’s song, which has also been used as the canticle after a communion service as the congregation is about to leave from each other and rejoin the rest of the world.

Just as a day may close, marking the finality and transition, with this song of divorce and of connection, maybe we echo it and reverberate with this reality where in our separations we are still bound together. In our song of fulfillment, completion, and transition, we join the hymn of all creation, even in our release and sending away still finding that we are ever more united in the relationships of all life in this grand family.

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Creation Care Commentary for Christmas 2020

Displaced and Found By God: the place of baby Jesus in a pandemic

Isaiah 9:2-7
Psalm 96
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14[15-20]

At worship planning in early November, some members of my congregation raised the idea of renting a barn for our Christmas Eve worship services. Here in Wisconsin, some location that could offer a little shelter from the cold of the night probably seemed like a good idea. And maybe the ambience was intended as much as the practicality.

In this year of the pandemic, we prepare to celebrate Christmas with physical distancing at the very least and perhaps many other alterations to Christmas traditions. I’ve also been hearing about drive-thru living nativities and candle delivery routes. My uncle’s congregation got a grant so that their barn worship could also have heaters and porta-potties. Not quite the cozy feel of a congregation in their usual church building, dressed up around Christmas trees with an organ softly playing Silent Night!

While many are lamenting that Christmas this year will not be what it should be, I can’t help but reflect that maybe it’s more meaningful this year and grounding for us. More meaningful not in a we-really-cherish-it-extra kind of way for finding more appreciation in the loss. More meaningful because somehow it seems closer to its origins, to a night in the little town of Bethlehem when a baby was born, and in that we came to understand God with us.

Those ideas of worshipping in a barn aren’t just because it can be outdoors and we might be able to gather more safely with our aerosols and droplets dispersed. A barn was the natal place (or, more accurately, probably one of the limestone caves around Bethlehem, where shepherds could corral their sheep). Even a porta-potty is fancier than those origins of human life mixing with animal waste. Nicholas Blincoe’s Bethlehem: Biography of a Town reminds us that the village was barely a rural outpost, a crossroads for livestock more than offering human population or resources or culture. The location was less about what it WAS than about what it WASN’T. And it is there, to just such a place, that our attentions are turned when we observe Christmas.

In the central point of the festival of the Incarnation, our God comes to be with us. It is worth celebrating with all the cheer and gladness we can muster. Certainly that can be reveled with fancy clothes and joyous gatherings and offering cheery gifts. But it is far from dependent on that. Just the opposite.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of life-as-it-should-not-be, times of loss and death. That is precisely when we need a counselor and bringer of peace (Isaiah 9:7). Miracles aside, even a birth, a child born for us can be a sign of new beginnings, of God’s continuous work on behalf of life, a marker that it is not the end, no matter how bad things are.

Jesus was born in a time of oppressive forces, forcing behaviors and practices that wouldn’t have otherwise been chosen. This year, we may feel confined at home, restricted in what we can do. Joseph and Mary, similarly, were restricted, but in their case it meant they couldn’t stay home and had to travel. Oppressive reality may be an empire or it may be a contagion; either way still impacts our ordinary lives.

And when the baby Jesus arrived, it’s good to remember it wasn’t in a cozy birth suite. In these days when we hear much about medical systems at a breaking point and elective procedures postponed and not enough doctors and nurses to staff the hospitals, we also know that Mary’s delivery didn’t come with assurances of insurance and ready amenities to care and assist. Maybe we understand something more of her reality.

For our limited gatherings in days where we may not even gather with family and are told not to have guests into our homes to minimize the spread of the virus, we may better recognize circumstances of the ancient lonely birth when the family was not welcomed into anybody’s home but had to make due on their own. Clearly, it was a less than ideal environment.

In this year when all of our standard accretions are swept away, maybe it can offer the opportunity to focus on what is left, then and now.

There isn’t a guest list. There isn’t apparent assistance and aid. There isn’t freedom and ease for what we wish life to be. There aren’t the eventual festivals and crowds and bright lights.

There are sheep. There are stars. There is hardship. There is a child given to us.

God comes to be in our real reality. Not our wishlist reality, our ideal. Not just where everything can feel right and is briefly decorated and dressed up.

Of course, that’s the case in our other real Christmases, too. When baking is a frustration of imperfection and burned edges. When family squabbles and sometimes cries. When arguments don’t just get in the way but define. When songs are off-key. When lights burn out. When somebody is missing. When it doesn’t feel alright. Christmas is never about the ideal, but about the real. Because our God comes for our real lives.

Maybe this year we notice more our need, our longing, our lack.

This is an odd commentary, because it is about the intersection of ancient details with everyday details for life now. I can, then, only comment generally. You’ll observe for yourself and your congregation. But whatever you faithfully and compassionately observe, remember that the need and the lack is not a separation or diversion from what is supposed to be; it is at the very heart of Christmas and why God intends this.

I also hope there is a silver lining, one of those rare pandemic benefits, that as other things are swept away or are not possible, maybe we also notice what remains. There are sheep. There are stars. There is a child given to us. There are parents. There is hay. There are the realities of governments and roads and human life (and maybe essential workers, in those shepherds and the reporters who come to them).

In an example of rare incidents of noticing what remains, I almost never give attention to the psalmody assigned for Christmas. But maybe this is its time. This year, state parks and outdoor activities and enjoyment of nature have found a new and cherished place in our lives. So, again, as other things are cleared away, we might particularly notice in the psalmody a location away from our familiar sanctuaries and cozy living rooms. Here it is broadly proclaimed that all the earth is a special location as God comes to be with us and with all creation. This can be an occasion for us to attend to verses of the Psalm where it is not about our decorations or festivities, but is that all creation has decked itself and leads the hymn of praise.


The lectionary proceeds sequentially through three Psalms for Christmas (the only time it is set up that way).

First, from Psalm 96:
Sing to the LORD a new song;

  sing to the LORD, all the earth.

Let the heavens, and let the earth be glad rejoice;
    let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

  let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
    at your coming, O LORD
    for you come to judge the earth (Psalm 96:1, 11-13)

Second, from Psalm 97:

The Lord reigns!

Let the earth rejoice;
    let the many coastlands be glad!
Clouds and thick darkness surround the LORD;
    righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne.
Fire goes before the LORD,
    burning up enemies on every side.
Lightnings light up the world;
    the earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
    before the Lord of all the earth.
Light dawns for the righteous,
    and joy for the upright in heart (Psalm 97:1-5, 11).

Finally, from Psalm 98:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
    break forth into joyous song and sing praises.

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
    the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
    let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the Lord,
    who comes to judge the earth (Psalm 98:4, 7-9a).

Or maybe you are ready for Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive its king;
let ev’ry heart prepare him room
and heav’n and nature sing…
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy.

In a year when we can’t do much of that to which we’re accustomed and with those with whom we’re familiar, maybe we find especially the opportunity to tune our songs and our attention to the joy of the world, joining with fields, rocks, seas, clouds, dawn, sheep, and all of the realities. It is here that God comes to be.

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Christmas Day 2020

John Wesley, the Anglican priest who started the Methodist movement, said it all came about while hearing from one of Martin Luther’s writings and finding his heart “strangely warmed.” I hold some irrational Lutheran pride with that little ecumenical historical tidbit.

I admit, though, it doesn’t relate directly to Christmas. Except that I’d love to help your hearts be strangely warmed on this day, and not only because you’re out on the coldest morning of the year. I expect you could use some warming. And, if it happens this year, it’s apt to be strange warming.

To begin, this may be a strange way for Christmas to come, a strange thing to be doing, unusual for you to be loitering in a parking lot, maybe with longjohns and warm boots instead of your typical festive wear, “donning your gay apparel,” as the song has it. Rich Olson said he can now check 0° worship off his bucket list! Plus, there’s the part that has become so routine we hardly observe its strangeness: not only are you in a cold parking lot, but you’re not huddling for warmth and instead are standing distant and separate from each other.

The strangeness may even simply be that you’re at a Christmas Day worship service. Jean Einerson pointed out this is more people than we had for the service last year! You may prefer to be present with family, traveling, with plenty of other celebrations and traditions, many of which this year has obstructed.

We frequently figure all of that is how Christmas comes and is what’s heartwarming, which raises a question whether your heart is left chilled this year, or whether there comes something to warm it strangely.

I’ve watched a lot of Christmas movies this year, maybe with more time, or maybe seeking warm seasonal spirit. About five versions of A Christmas Carol I’ve watched and read culminate that “it was always said of [Ebenezer Scrooge] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” With no mention of Jesus’ birth in the whole story, for him, keeping Christmas seems to be in getting past his miserliness and giving generously.

If it’s important to you, I hope you’ve enjoyed efforts of figuring out how to shop, wrapping gifts and giving them to those you love, offering part of your heart. Or maybe it’s manifested in broader giving of donations to Freedom Inc. and Salvation Army and such.

But if that’s not the thing to warm your heart, the opposite take—with an anti-consumerist pulse—comes in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, with the Grinch’s bewilderment that Christmas “came without ribbons, it came without tags, it came without packages, boxes, or bags.” He’s amazed that “somehow Christmas came, it came just the same.”

Well, that again is the question for us with our feet ice cold in the snow. It certainly hasn’t come just the same. But Christmas does come. Ellen Roberts reminded me that in exactly those words on the phone two nights ago, as she was lying in a hospital bed. This will be her first Christmas without her husband, and probably the first she’d be spending in a hospital, much less a hospital that doesn’t really allow visitors. But Christmas comes, Ellen said.

On the other side, Fred Loichinger has lamented that there’s something of Christmas that’s not coming for him as Jean is on hospice. He says they have celebrated all over the world, but that this is not the right time to put up a tree or any of that. I agree with his sense and his focus. And Christmas won’t come just the same.

But does Christmas come for Fred and Jean, come into Ellen’s hospital room, come to quarantined households, come to this chilly parking lot?

In the Grinch, Christmas comes without packages, but what it does come with is singing. So maybe you’ve found it with Christmas music playing 24/7. Or maybe Christmas is coming to you more as we have a chance to sing together today, an opportunity mostly non-existent in these months. This celebration seems inherently to need music, from the angels’ song of Glorias echoing to how we know it by heart because of how it’s formed on our lips.

For returning more to your bodily presence and coming together for Christmas, there’s something good just about seeing each other (if you can tell who’s who under all those layers and behind masks), being with people you know, being physically here, even if it’s not totally together with hugs and huddled warmth and all those good and natural things.

Truly, this is a bodily, physical holiday. God comes to be present with us, not only as an inner warmth, a strange spiritual feeling, but even stranger as putting on flesh, God coming to be born, cuddled to his mother’s breast, all with living, breathing, loving bodies.

And that can’t be changed by sad situations or circumstances, by decorations or by what we do today, or ending a pandemic even. It’s not in gifts given or not, in how well we sing or how we keep Christmas, not kept out by cold feet or kept from hospital rooms and death beds. That’s a coming of Christmas that is unavoidably present.

I can’t strangely warm your heart. I could shut up and get on with it so you can get out of the cold. Mostly all I can do is again proclaim to you the strange good news of great joy: to you is born a Savior, for peace on earth. God has come into our world. God comes to be with you, “close by you forever” to love you. Your heart—your life—you are forever in the tender care of this one who was born baby Jesus. He has come. Merry Christmas.

Carol: “Away in a Manger”

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“Don’t Test Me”

sermon on Luke 1:26-38

We make this a story about Mary, but should actually hear it’s a story about God. Kathy Henning observed that this week. She points me—and therefore maybe you—in the right direction.

That this is telling us something about God came in a conversation pondering what was special about Mary. One answer was that she said Yes, and we’ll come back to her consent. Of course, others presuppose it was her purity, maybe even from before her birth.

But that’s not it. It wasn’t that Mary tried so hard or was so good or looked pretty or was whip smart or came from a good lineage; in spite of whatever hearing of King David may seem to imply, it’s more to subvert the legacy than to reinstate his dynasty.

We should recognize Mary as ordinary, from a tiny village, part of a common family. Given marriage customs, she was likely a fairly young girl, an adolescent by our standards.

Certainly Mary didn’t expect she was special, for God’s messenger to arrive in a stretch limo with a corsage to ask her out to prom. Mary’s just Mary. It’s clear she didn’t expect it. She wasn’t considering herself deserving, thinking, “Well, it’s about time God showed up!”

Instead, she’s surprised. I suppose we’re likely to be surprised when God shows up. And when the greeting is, “Rejoice, O highly favored, for God is with you!”—well, I’d be confused as to what that was all about!

Mary didn’t earn favor and sure didn’t feel that way about herself. It’s that God called her right, called her favored and honored her by the promotion. God wanted to be with her. That choice from God is what would cause her to rejoice.

And you. God favors you. God wants to be with you. Because God likes you. God loves you. God chooses…you! That’s probably surprising, unexpected. Maybe confusing.

And it’s also good news. So rejoice!

While you start to wonder what that could mean, let’s go back to Mary’s yes and consent. One of our Confirmation students, I hear, raised the question whether this relationship resulting in a baby was consensual. I appreciate that concern and wary attitude.

On one hand, we might say it was consensual. Mary said yes, said Let it be. Poet Denise Levertov phrased it like this:
we are told of meek obedience. No one mentions
courage.
The engendering Spirit
did not enter without consent.
God waited.
She was free
to accept or to refuse, choice
integral to humanness.

It can be noted that this was an enormous ask and an enormous Yes for Mary. The shame certainly to come. The strain of childbirth—even now, but especially without proper medical care. And how she was supposed to be part of a poor, subsistence life with a big belly and swollen feet and all. Dangerous; so yes, it took courage. Saying Yes to pregnancy seems—if I have any voice to say so—a hard thing.

But on the other hand, let’s question the consensual part. Not that Mary was faithful and responded in readiness to deal with it. But whether consent matters (besides when the Spirit is changing us and God’s favor is creating new possibility in you).

This comes back to you.

It may well seem like Mary is special because she bears the son of God. Pretty clearly Gabriel has not arrived with any such mission for you. But let’s hear more from that poem by Denise Levertov. She asked:
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
(I want to agree: there are annunciations. God comes to you, calls you favored, blesses you to face daunting tasks. Back to the poem:)
Aren’t there annunciations…
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a [person],
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
Again, she deals with the question of consent. Mary had courage to say yes, but mostly the rest of us wind up saying no and miss out, she claims.

But I wonder: is this about God asking before? If God shows up primarily to offer blessing, favor, to assure you that God loves you and is with you, then that declaration seems more important than the question of whether you want to go through with it. Our willing agreement—much less our eagerness or preference or stamp of approval—seems not to matter much.

It would sure be nice if there were a lot more opting in in life. For the most apparent example, imagine if Gabriel would’ve come to ask whether you wanted to live through this 2020. Would you have jumped at the chance? Or gritted your teeth and then tried hard to make it turn out okay? Or declined, either politely or with a terse response to God: “Don’t test me, buster.”

A pop assurance declares God won’t give you more than you can handle. Maybe God knew that about Mary. I’m not sure about me or you. I think it comes from a verse in 1st Corinthians: “God is faithful, and will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but God will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure” (10:13). It still seems dubious to me.

A lot is beyond my strength, beyond what we’re ready to handle. I have plenty to be grateful for this year, but it is taxing my abilities. Others are faring much worse. We’re frequently at or beyond our limits, including of endurance.

There is still a grace word in that verse, about God providing. I believe that’s the important thing about God, about this story being of God favoring and choosing a common girl. It’s a model for God choosing poor, insufficient you and promising to be with you, to provide for you, striving to help you endure. You sang: “Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me.” And still more, that “engendering Spirit” finds new beginnings when all human potential is lost and choice at dead ends.

It’s not that you say yes to God. It’s that God says yes to you.

The most perplexing verse of this story is also the biggest: “nothing is impossible for God.” So why? Why this? If God could do anything, why choose Mary? Why come to be born as a poor outcast who would go on to be scorned and executed? Why would God bother with you? If God is going to cast the mighty down from their thrones and feed the hungry poor, why choose this way, with you? Why in all of this not just snap God’s fingers (if God has fingers) and make it all right?

We don’t know. We don’t get to know. It’s somehow what God chooses. And, for whatever reason, God chooses you. It doesn’t promise to be easy. It doesn’t mean you’ll get your way. But you have the assurance that matters: God is with you. So rejoice, highly favored one.

(Hymn: “Canticle of the Turning,” ELW 723)

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“Oh, joy.”

sermon on 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Well, I really hate to do this to you.

Last week, I offered a whole truckload of commiseration, knowing and sharing your misery and need for God to come offer some comfort. Comfort, comfort my people. I got to proclaim for you last week the promise of God’s comfort. I appreciated hearing how helpful that word was for many of you.

This week seems the opposite, practically ignoring your reality. This week the key word is joy. I’m sorry. If I asked for your emotions and feelings and reactions to the world, if you typed how you’re doing into the comments or sent me a note to check in later, I doubt the term “joy” would appear in the listings.

Still, it’s inescapable. See, today is Joy Sunday. This 3rd Sunday of Advent always has lectionary Bible readings full of joy. Technically, it’s known as Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for Hey-Everybody-Get-Joyful-Now-Because-I’m-Telling-You-To Sunday.

If you happen to have or can picture a set of Advent candles where they don’t all match, this is the odd candle out, the solo pink one surrounded by purples. Advent started as a penitential season, more somber, repenting of sins, the fast before the feast of Christmas, just as Lent is the fast before the Easter festival. Advent was even originally also 40 days, and instead of the lovely hopeful blues we have now, the color used to be penitent purple. This 3rd Sunday was a little pause from penitence, the rose or pink colored warmth of a break for joy.

Typically, we wouldn’t want a somber Advent. We prefer pretty and festive, not stark and severe. So usually we’d probably favor more joy and less penitence.

But this year has been a purple year. Even the hoping blues may be a bit much. So certainly the pink of joy feels ridiculous, out of the question. The radio keeps singing it’s the “most wonderful time of the year.” Even if this is the most wonderful time of it, still the overall sentiment seems it’s pretty terrible. The most wonderful part is like asking what is the tastiest section of a moldy old boot.

So I didn’t ask for it to be Gaudete Sunday, to be You-Better-Watch-Out-You-Better-Not-Pout-You-Better-Rejoice Sunday.

If that weren’t tough enough, our reading from 1st Thessalonians seems downright silly: “Always be joyful,” it begins. Laughable—but not in an especially joyous way. More like sarcasm: ha. Fat chance.

Incidentally, this little nugget is the shortest verse of the New Testament. We often hear that “Jesus wept” is shortest. But in the original Greek, that compassionate commiseration weighs in at three words and 15 letters, whereas this “rejoice always” sneaks in with two words and one less letter. If we wanted a synopsis, a shorthand sentiment of the New Testament, it might be this joy. Even if we don’t particularly want to be joyful and don’t enjoy it very much.

See, I’m pretty sure this can’t be a commandment about your moods. If this were telling you to put on a cheery face, “sing Hallelujah, c’mon, get happy,” good luck with that.

Rather, for the place of joy in faith, I’d like to share a bit from Henri Nouwen, a popular devotional writer. He wrote:

Joy is not the same as happiness…Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that love away. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us…[S]orrow and joy can exist together. That isn’t easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences…I dare even to say: ‘My grief was a place where I found joy.’

I appreciate that sense of joy as deeper than a happy mood, more like a state of being. I’m not as crazy, though, about part of how Nouwen continued:

Still, nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It is a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.*

If that works for you, great. Go ahead and work on your spiritual life and choose joy. I shouldn’t argue with one of the most inspirational and popular Christian authors anyway. So it may resonate as helpful for you to think of choosing joy every day.

But the challenge of my task is that I can’t give you joy or make you joyful, and I risk having it backfire by trying to say what is supposed to make you joyful. Joy, after all, can’t be compelled; it is a gift! I think in Greek, the two words are even related—gift as charis and joy as chara. And joy is also related to thanksgiving, eucharist. We give thanks for the gift of joy. So if you’re longing for joy, how do you add this to your year’s gift wishlist?

If it’s a gift, joy isn’t first about moods or feelings. It’s not circumstantial, caused by current events like the weather or a song, nor prevented by sadness, or being worried or anxious. Maybe more surprising, joy isn’t about you personally. As a gift, it involves relationships.

In the New Testament, Paul is often joyful because of his congregations. He writes to the Thessalonians that what brings him joy is you, you, you! Over and over in this letter, he repeats it (2:19, 2:20, 3:9). And today’s invitation to be always joyful is for them to recognize the relationships, too. Maybe joy finds an entrance by recognizing this together. It helps me; simply remembering you fills me with something more, and that’s in spite of the sadness and grief of how complicated it is to be in relationship this year.

Still more, with what Henri Nouwen focused on, it’s also about God being in relationship with you. Again, in the New Testament, this is joy that is about Jesus coming and relating to you. Joy comes with the greeting of Gabriel before Jesus’ birth, as we sing in Holden Evening Prayer: rejoice, O highly favored, for God is with you (Luke 1:28). At his birth, shepherds are greeted with good news of great joy (Luke 2:10). It continues that we rejoice even in suffering with Christ (Acts 5:41, 1 Peter 4:13), yet finds more after the resurrection, racing from an empty tomb (Matthew 28:8) when his followers touch the nail marks in his hands and rejoice to recognize him with them again (John 20:20).

With that unbreakable insistence on relationship, because God so loves you, Jesus repeats that he wants his joy to be in you and for that joy to be complete (John 16). And so he is like a shepherd who goes after a lost sheep so that there may be rejoicing, so he can carry you back with joy (Matthew 18:13, Luke 15:5). He will find you, wherever you are—today, this year, ever—and not even death can take you away from him. Bringing Joy to the World, “he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found,” and that is how and why we “repeat the sounding joy.” If God said it, God will do it (1Thess5:24). Maybe at least, even if you go out weeping, you can trust that you will be brought back and come again with joy (Psalm 126:6).

Hymn: “Joy to the World” (ELW 267)


* found on https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/excerpts/view/14116

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