Homily for a Hymn Sing

with Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19,25-30

There’s a lot I try to guess each week.

I try to guess or gather which of the Bible readings might be striking your attention, leaving you with questions, or feeling most helpful.

That relates to my guess or hunch of what’s on your thoughts through the week, and for the next week, and in this particular moment.

Are you thinking about the holiday weekend? And, if so, are you enjoying plans and celebrations? Or missing fireworks? Giving a salute of patriotism, or lamenting the Indigenous and Black lives at the expense of which these United States exist?

Or are you thinking most about the coronavirus? And, if so, is that because of restrictions on life, or because of anxiety about death, or because of all the uncertainty you’re left with, or judgmentalism against those not wearing masks and causing the spread, or questioning your own habits, or for worry about vulnerable communities? I try to figure out what is hitting you each week—the virus and other realities—as you prepare to receive this word.

Today, I also wonder if you are focused on the hymns, and maybe are self-conscious about singing at home with less ability to join or get lost in congregational song? Or remembering favorites? Or maybe there’s a message to share about the hymns that fits this day and finds application in your life.

I could tell you that the writer of our next hymn, “You Have Come Down to the Lakeshore” (ELW 817), was a Spanish priest who served as a chaplain for cyclists. (Which, I assume, means bicyclists, and is surprisingly disappointing to me, since it would actually have more appeal to be a chaplain to a motorcycle gang). If that fact doesn’t especially resonate with you, maybe it would be helpful to share that the hymn has been translated into over 80 languages, even though it’s less than 50 years old. That international feeling may be a reminder not to over-Anglicize this 4th of July weekend.

Or there’s the perennial MCC favorite, “This is My Song” (887). As I prepare each week, I find myself wondering things like how it would strike you that the Methodist minister who wrote the words to that hymn opposed nuclear weapons. Would that kind of detail about her matter to you?

My professor Paul Westermeyer says about the hymn: “This is a remarkably apt hymn to begin [the “national songs”] section of the hymnal […since] though the Christian faith encourages citizens to hold deep allegiances to their respective countries, it also refuses to allow those allegiances to be idolatrous and is committed to the welfare of all citizens of the world.”*

But I also realize you may not want to have to contemplate catastrophe and the ethics of nuclear warfare on a Sunday morning. You may well prefer to dwell in “Yes, Jesus loves me” (ELW 595). And I won’t argue with that. Jesus said God has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants,” so this best-loved Sunday School hymn may be just the way to offer comfort and sweetness.

And actually, that is my primary goal: to give you good news. To share some comfort. To help you know that God is for you, that Jesus is for you. Yes, Jesus loves you. That’s the main thing. Since you are weary and heavy-burdened. That actual word for “weary” related to doing hard work with difficulties and trouble, and had a figurative meaning of being discouraged, emotionally fatigued, and losing heart.** I suspect you’re no stranger to weariness in these days, and you relate to discouraging difficulties and tiring troubles. And so I suppose you’re eager for whatever might offer to lighten that load, and I hope you hear goodness in Jesus’ invitation.

But still stuck in the efforts of your hard work, I’d guess you got hung up on the Romans reading, and may need to have that bad news sorted out before you can hear Jesus as good news.

Romans seems to have a pretty bleak outlook on our abilities. You may be there already, wishing you could do better. Or you may be feeling pretty good about yourself and sort of be offended that it would describe you that way, or else bothered at that outlook on humanity. You may look at the headlines and not be surprised at a dour assessment of human nature and our sinfulness and the amount of evil we perpetrate. Even if you feel broadly positive about humankind, still I know there are individuals with whom you have a hard time, about whom it’s just plain tough to think nice thoughts or see them in a kind light.

Romans isn’t just for the clinically pathological. When it talks about “selfish desires,” you likely have your own things that come to mind—indulgent purchases or treats that lure you in. There’s likely also something you attribute to others, again perhaps the young adults in bars without masks as an example of selfish desire. I’d say Romans also could hit on entrenched white privilege; we know it’s not right or good, but still we find it nearly impossible to do much of anything about it.

Though I don’t want you to be too depressed and plagued by saying “what a miserable person I am” or fixated on Amazing Grace’s version of “a wretch like me,” I do hope you can be honest and not whitewash it. From problematic peccadilloes to institutionalized systems, these are, indeed, heavy burdens we carry as individuals and as a country. It is hard work, with difficulties and troubles, leading reasonably to fatigue and discouraged emotions.

The point of Romans is that that’s not the end of the story, and the other point is that you don’t need a lecture or wagging finger to work up worries. Simply telling you to be less selfish actually backfires and makes you more self-obsessed. What’s the answer, then? Romans asks.

Jesus says, “Come to me. I will give you rest.” This is the rest of sabbath, of creation’s fullness and completion, living as it should be. This is the way between sinner and saint, of feeling less immobilized than invigorated. You become not a prisoner controlled by sin, but a prisoner of hope, yoked to Jesus, tied to him, in step with his work for the world. By the end of the next chapter, Romans will come around to assure you that nothing will separate you from the love of God.

Simply put, whatever work you’ve been up to and however that’s been going, Jesus has come to call you and invite you. However successful you feel or how miserable and weary this week, yes, Jesus loves you.

* Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p774

** http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt11x16.htm


Meditative Reflections (28June2020)


Jeremiah 28:5-9 (part 1)

On my first trip to Palestine, we were with an Anglican priest from Nablus as guide when we hit an inexplicable Israeli road block, right in the middle of the road, within Palestinian territory!

It was clear the young soldiers with massive guns were only there to be obstacles. First they offered to let us pass without Father Ibrahim. Then they said he could go, but not us. Totally nonsensical and the frustrations of daily life for Palestinians.

In devotions and reflections that evening, one group member was pleased with himself for going up to those Israeli soldiers and saying “shalom,” the Hebrew greeting for peace.

Well, I was spitting mad that he wanted to whitewash over the injustice and put on a smiling face. I knew the prophet Jeremiah railed against those who would say “peace, peace” when there is no peace (6:14, 8:11).

Sometimes we need to name injustice. We need to be honest about the difficulties. Jeremiah spoke of pestilence against many countries, even great ones. We certainly know lots of this today, in the spreading death of coronavirus. Prophetic voices remind our society that Black Lives Matter. We cannot ignore climate disruption. We need to be able to grieve, honest that our lives are not perfectly right.

It would be nice if it were better. But glossing past it with a quick “shalom” won’t do, claiming “peace, peace” when there is no peace. Sometimes we need to lament and can only begin by saying, “Kyrie. Good Lord, have mercy.”


Jeremiah 28:5-9 (part 2)

Jeremiah said not to, but we do look for and listen for the prophet of peace. Joyce Anderson skipped to that in Bible study this week and wanted to hear more about where the prophet for peace is. It’s what we yearn for.

Mary Rowe asked if it was fulfilled in Jesus. It’s not that Jesus stopped calling out the oppressors or striving for justice. He did know the brutality of war. In the passage right before today’s Gospel, Jesus said he came to bring not peace but a sword. But we know him as the Prince of Peace. We expect to find balm and ease for our burdens and peace at the last. Scripture says the peace of God “surpasses all understanding” (Phil4:7). Jesus himself says that he has peace the world cannot give (John14:27).

I’m not sure what the right answer is, including between the prophet Jeremiah preaching war and Jesus bringing peace. I know where I want to fall. And I trust the words of a hymn that say,

When our song says peace and the world says war, we will sing despite the world. We will trust the song, for we sing of God, who breaks the spear and sword and stills the storm of war.

When our song says free and the world says bound, we will sing despite the world. We will trust the song, for we sing of God, who opens prison doors and sets the captives free. (ELW 709)

We’ll say in our statement of faith, “The resurrection of Jesus is a reality that is beyond our comprehension; it cannot be explained rationally, but it opens up an uncharted horizon. Sickness, violence and death no longer have the last word.”*

So we do look for and listen for and speak peace. We find it to share. In spite of it all, we know what more to expect.


Romans 6:12-23

The wages of sin is death.

We use this translation for seeming a smidge more understandable, but we missed out on the classic phrase, with us in English 400 years from the King James up to our typical New Revised Standard Version: the wages of sin is death. “Sin pays off with death,” we just heard.

With a free market economy, wages make sense to us. Our next reading has language of reward, like it’s what you deserve or earn. We are accustomed to getting what we pay for and paying for what we get, and we think that includes minimum wage workers or CEOs who increase the value of a company.

What you deserve… Sin pays off with death. That may connect with the prophet Jeremiah. (That’s prophet, not profit.) We’re slaves to sin, and it keeps paying off with violence, sickness, and death. It’s a brutally hard fact these days that pestilence is paying off. The virus spreads with our refusal to listen to life-giving suggestions. Lifestyles put other lives at risk. Some choices have bad consequences.

Notice that Romans doesn’t tell you to choose better. It’s not to work harder for improved wages. It’s not that you find your way to something that will pay more and pay off in the end. Romans recognizes we’re trapped. That’s what slavery is.

Instead, it breaks apart the market economy for God’s gift economy. When you were trapped in death, the free gift of God is life in Christ Jesus.

Again, when the world says war we don’t say peace because we’re so diligent and hard-working. It’s because God doesn’t work in our economy, doesn’t operate in our systems, won’t abandon you to get what you deserve, instead gives gifts of just what you need.


Matthew 10:40-42

This nice little passage, is probably best served without too many words in response.

We’ve heard three weeks in a row from this chapter of Matthew, of Jesus sending out disciples, “to make their lives radiate the hope of peace on earth and a wholeness for all creation.”*

You are sent with good news. And it is good news even that you are a representative of Jesus. He refills and refreshes you and associates himself with you so strongly, so deeply, so fully, that Jesus himself goes where you do.

You may embody it as a prophet, speaking honestly of a present situation, not playing favorites or giving the undeserved blessings of shalom, a prophet who doesn’t offer faint hope merely to say, “aw, it’s gonna be okay. No big deal.” You may fully recognize the problems, but be a prophet of peace beyond understanding, from God alone.

You may embody it as a righteous person, the same word in the Bible as justice. That means God’s justice, not the exchange rates of our society and economy, not the wages that depress and enslave and kill, but God’s freely given justice for life.

You may embody it in no impressive way at all. Even little ones, without grand abilities, without deep theology, with the faint glimmer of trust and hope, are claimed with grand gifts associated with Jesus. You’ll be part of blessing the world with what it deserves in God’s eyes—gifts!—even as a little one, the minimal one could be considered a Christian, unfit hardly to be called an apostle, but still a means of extending God’s blessing. You.

* https://www.taize.fr/en_article27804.html

With grim news besetting us every day,
        we ask God to come to the help of our humanity.
We entrust to God all who have fallen ill,
         their loved ones and those who care for them. 

We implore God, but God is also imploring us.
Yes, God loves each one of us. It is because God loves us that God speaks to us.  

The resurrection of Jesus is a reality that is beyond our comprehension;
         it cannot be explained rationally, but it opens up an uncharted horizon. Sickness, violence and death no longer have the last word.
A new light dawns.
Not only does it completely change the way we perceive life,
         but it transforms us and liberates in us undreamt-of energies.
It leads the disciples of Jesus to form a community that radiates the very life of God.
We discover that changing our personal and collective behavior is possible,
         in view of another future for us and for humanity.
The necessary imagination rises within us to put new solidarities into practice.
The Risen One sends his disciples out into the entire world,
         not to bring all humanity into one religious system,
         but to make their lives radiate the hope of peace on earth
         and a wholeness for all creation. Amen

Jeremiah 28:5–9

5Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD; 6and the prophet Jeremiah said, “Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles. 7But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. 8The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. 9As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.”


Romans 6:12–23 (CEV)

12 Don’t let sin rule your body. After all, your body is bound to die, so don’t obey its desires 13 or let any part of it become a slave of evil. Give yourselves to God, as people who have been raised from death to life. Make every part of your body a slave that pleases God. 14 Don’t let sin keep ruling your lives. You are ruled by God’s kindness and not by the Law.

15 What does all this mean? Does it mean we are free to sin, because we are ruled by God’s wonderful kindness and not by the Law? Certainly not! 16 Don’t you know that you are slaves of anyone you obey? You can be slaves of sin and die, or you can be obedient slaves of God and be acceptable to God. 17 You used to be slaves of sin. But I thank God that with all your heart you obeyed the teaching you received from me. 18 Now you are set free from sin and are slaves who please God.

19 I am using these everyday examples, because in some ways you are still weak. You used to let the different parts of your body be slaves of your evil thoughts. But now you must make every part of your body serve God, so that you will belong completely to God.

20 When you were slaves of sin, you didn’t have to please God. 21 But what good did you receive from the things you did? All you have to show for them is your shame, and they lead to death. 22 Now you have been set free from sin, and you are God’s slaves. This will make you holy and will lead you to eternal life. 23 Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord.


Matthew 10:40–42  (CEB)

Jesus said to the twelve: 40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.”


Hairs, Sparrows, Dads, and Death

a sermon on Matthew 10:24-39; Jeremiah 20:7-13; Romans 6:1-11

Among characteristics in a bio I occasionally use, I refer to myself as a mediocre birder.sparrow

That shapes my pondering of what to do about a nesting sparrow at my house. On the one hand, bird eggs are always amazing to find and see, and there’s a celebration of new life.

But then…they’re house sparrows, really an invasive species, and they’re aggressive. The photo shows some likely evidence of that. I’m wondering if this was actually a grosbeak nest and the sparrow drove out the bigger bird and maybe got rid of some of those bigger eggs and now has laid five of its own.

If I were more than a mediocre birder, I’d know and I’d probably clear out those eggs and try to sustain native species. But I haven’t convinced myself…yet.

This Bible reading worsens my internal debate. Jesus says not a sparrow will die without God knowing about it. “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he’s watching me.” It could sound like a threat, as if God is keeping track of sparrows (and their eggs), and knows who’s been up on a ladder disturbing them.

It’s my little moral dilemma, the better or worse of sparrow egg snatching (sparrow-cide?), complete with necessary theological turmoil.

But you probably don’t care. I mean, you may now want to ask how I could be so cruel. Or you may want to press me to help other birds. But, I’m nearly certain, this wasn’t your conundrum or cares coming into this.

You’ve got lots on your mind. But probably not sparrow ethics. Instead it may feel like the prophet Jeremiah, that “terror is all around” and you’re crying “violence and destruction” all day long. You may be weary, with it not just on your mind, but burning inside your bones. It’s thick these days, with stuff like coronavirus and all that goes with it. And stuff like racism and police reform and Juneteenth. And protests and rallies and politics. And the economy. And speaking out for the vulnerable. And the Supreme Court and DREAMers and LGBTQ folks. And your family’s concerns. And how to navigate summer break and distancing. And various grievances and grieving. And some life or lives you want back. And the agenda for the rest of the day. And, and, and… It’s lots, lots on your mind, lots to deal with, lots to cry out and stumble through.

Oh, and it’s Fathers’ Day.

It may be great. Or it may be a hard Fathers’ Day without hugs, or with the general strain of relationships, and pressure to observe it rightly, to be as you should in families. To complexify what it is or isn’t already, we happen to have a reading where Jesus talks about setting father against child and child against father. As you’re trying to figure out how properly to be and act and what to do, you’re confronted with the contradictory question of whether Jesus wants it all undone anyway.

If you’re doing religion right, is the point to get in arguments and pick fights? Are you supposed to be scorned and miserable? Is Jesus’ metaphorical sword to hack away at your relationships, or to die impaled on it yourself at the end?

No. Again, you don’t need to hear these as instructions from Jesus, but simply indicators of what may happen.

Even taking up a cross isn’t sending you out as a martyr on a suicide mission. Crucifixion was a punishment that couldn’t be given to citizens, reserved for the poor and outcast. Jesus may simply be talking about privilege and—as he humbly did—associating with those who could be crucified, identifying with the marginalized. You do know that view and seriously try to practice it.

That may be further commended since none of Jesus’ followers got killed with him. Either that means they weren’t listening and were doing it totally wrong, or that it wasn’t actually only about getting yourself killed.

And it sometimes strikes me that getting killed is the easy way out. If you wanted to go clash with police as an act of solidarity, you could probably die before too long. If you wanted solidarity with those with coronavirus, you’d wind up needing to be taken care of. If you wanted to go on constantly about politics with others while disregarding their positions, that’s a fairly self-righteous and minimally helpful way to get victimized like Jeremiah.

I know you take your responsibility seriously.

But to go back to fathers and children, what if it’s not that Jesus is instructing you to blow up those relationships, but offering a word for when that does happen? For when you’re feeling the burning in your guts. For when things aren’t going well and you don’t seem to make a lick of difference. For when you know people are hurting and you feel responsible to help. When the weight of the world is on your shoulders, or even just the weight of your family, which is still plenty. What if it’s not that Jesus is recommending you start a fight, but acknowledging that even if there are fights you can’t fix, still there’s something more. If you can’t overturn the oppressive powers and instead they scorn you or metaphorically crucify you, maybe it’s okay.

And not okay because you can always try again. Not okay because you tried and gave it your all. Not to vindicate you for having been so right all along.

In the end, it’s not bigger than whether or not I decide to smash those sparrow eggs, whether they die or live. Or, it is exactly bigger. Not one of those nasty sparrows would fall apart from God’s notice or care.

There’s nothing you do apart from God, nothing where you fail your responsibility, nothing that happens. Nothing will separate you from God’s care. I know it’s a big deal. I know you take it seriously, deadly seriously, because it’s all a matter of life and death. The virus. Racism. Elections. How you use your voice. How to make it through each day. But if your family relationships are right: great. If they fall apart: still fine.

This is why it’s so vital to have the unconditional proclamation: you are inextricably bound to Christ. You don’t seek a cross and crucifixion; you’ve already been crucified with Christ. And since you’ve been buried with him, you certainly will walk in newness of life, raised with him. The death you died in him can’t be lost, and much more surely neither can it be undone that you are raised to new life. Your shortcomings aren’t excused; they’re killed. But you live!

That assurance of love and life may free you to take some risks, to be more bold, to do what needs to be done, to take your responsibilities seriously.

Or maybe it just frees you to live, to be confident that it’s okay, to hear those wildest words “do not be afraid,” and to live in grace, that it’s not finally up to you, because ultimately you are valued no matter what, and you will live.


Proclaiming the Kingdom

sermon on Matthew 9:35-10:8; Romans 5:1-8


“When he saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matthew 9:36)

This week, as I first read about those crowds, I was thinking about protesting crowds, about people of color, about those around us who might be described as harassed and helpless, who have suffered undue violence, who are neglected in the pursuit of justice, whose voices and even cries for help are often disregarded. I was thinking about the amassing of crowds who’re fed up.

As sheep without a shepherd, I was remembering that a shepherd was a common biblical image for leaders or rulers. Those ancient crowds without a shepherd were stuck under Caesar and the Roman Empire, certainly not a ruler who was mindful of caring for the flock, but only for self-interest of power and personal glory. The local toadies were no better, henchmen put in place by and to please Rome.

So for current crowds trying to insist that “Black Lives Matter,” we have to recognize that leaders and shepherds have failed them, doing little to improve their situation or care for their plight. The current shepherd of this nation directly verbalizes his view of law and order, using his rod and staff against the sheep instead of on what hurts them, proclaiming his intention to keep the sheep away from green pastures and still waters that would be sustenance of life, clearly not trying to comfort them and lead them through valley of the shadow of death.

For Jesus’ reaction then and perhaps his reaction now, we shouldn’t be surprised: it says he had compassion. This isn’t a little rosy tender-eyed Hallmark card, though. The original word relates to intestines or guts. When Jesus saw the crowds, he had a visceral reaction. It was gut-wrenching.

Now, we could ask if the news has been gut-wrenching for us and whether we’re really having compassion. But I don’t believe that’s actually the helpful place to start. Let’s stick with Jesus and the Gospel.

Jesus is proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of heaven, and he is curing and healing and driving demons away and bringing in outcasts. And he sends his followers to do exactly the same thing.

Let’s unpack that: The good news of the kingdom of heaven. That’s absolutely not a sales pitch, like “Hey, if you sign on the dotted line and become a card-carrying Christian, then you’ll get to go up to heaven after you die.” Please don’t make Jesus into that. Please don’t diminish or distance his good news. Hurting lives aren’t helped by being told to convert to a new religion because it could help after death.

With Jesus as a shepherd having compassion is how we should approach this language of the kingdom. This is contrasting the bad shepherds or rulers who are careless or even malevolent with the shepherd who does care, who seeks to protect the sheep and give them life. If Caesar and Herod and our society are kingdoms of bad shepherds, then the kind of compassion from a good shepherd is what Jesus means by the “kingdom of heaven.” It’s not a place, but is God against harm, is the rule that cares for those who are helpless and harassed. Jesus and his followers do have good news to proclaim, because the oppressive empire is being opposed. The selfish who harm life won’t so simply get their way anymore. The lives that were ignored receive the attention they need. That is good news. The kingdom is a movement.

We should also primarily hear that for what Jesus and his followers are doing. They’re healing. They’re bringing in the outcasts. They’re keeping forces of evil at bay. To picture these as extraordinary spiritual powers is the same as relegating the kingdom of heaven out of this life: it dismisses and distances. It makes it otherworldly and not happening around us right now.

We, of course, know that disease is being healed right now. We know that when some would ignore sickness and just want to get on with their own business and pretend everything is okay, others are doing the hard work of caring and curing through coronavirus. We know it’s not simple solutions. We know there are those opposing evil, trying to block it, to keep more harm from being inflicted. We know there are those who seek to bring in the outcast, even if it risks their own status.

Doug Johnson this week made one such association: a business owner in Monona has caught attention* and some negative publicity for allowing a homeless man, named Bob Limbach, to sleep behind his building.

A situation like that, or maybe a feeling as people joined the march last Sunday evening, helps point us to the verse in Romans about boasting in our sufferings.

This confusing line made me think of the scene from “Grumpy Old Men” where the two old guys are trying to outdo each other with health problems**:
I need something for my lumbago. The pain is killing me.
Ah, he doesn’t know the meaning of the word pain. I had a gallstone the size of a baseball.
Gallstones, yeah. Gallstones are for [wimps.] When I had the shingles, did you see me in here complaining?
Shingles, schmingles. When I had my ulcers…
The biblical form of suffering gladly isn’t that.

Maybe instead it’s the way we intentionally associate ourselves with the suffering of others. Taking on the notoriety of the outcast homeless person. Trying intentionally to understand the disparities for black people. Adapting to what it means to be a trans person needing health care, or a bathroom. Extending ourselves to assist those whose livelihoods are displaced, or who can’t keep up with change. Identifying with immigrants. Certainly in these months we’ve known it as restricting our own lives so that others don’t risk infection as much. When we connect ourselves to others who are in a tough place, when we suffer somehow by choice, I’d say that’s a closer version of suffering gladly.

You may recognize this, not only in the world around us but maybe in your own life. You may know solidarity. You may count yourself an ally. You may well want to help.

But I also suspect you’re a lot like me and not really all that glad about suffering. You may find a lot of the news gut-wrenching, but you may not be all that eager for literal compassion, meaning “suffering-with.” It wears us out to go much further than tokens of change. We want a break.

Besides, we’ve got our own suffering, our own helplessness. Admittedly, we may be privileged rather than prejudiced against for the color of our skin. And in the end we may voluntarily give up not much. We may not be the most vulnerable to the virus and may expect top-notch treatment if we got it. We may be comfortable enough in our basic needs. Three pandemics of coronavirus, racism, and climate change may not impact us much. Yet we’re not separate from the crowds. We’re not our own shepherds. We’re all are trapped in a system that fails adequately to care for us. Even if we don’t have it that bad, sometimes we don’t know how to help and sometimes don’t really want to help and sometimes we need help.

We are sinful and helpless, it says.

Which is met by the good news that this isn’t about telling you to get gladder at suffering, finally to condescend to giving up your privilege, coercing you to risk yourself to sickness, to imagine that you’ll instantly choose to be selfless. It’s not waiting for special powers.

Instead, this is about the love of the Holy Spirit poured into your heart. This is about Christ who died for you while you were helpless and sinful, not a pat on the back for your minimal efforts at proving yourself so acceptable or helpful. This isn’t that you could go it alone, but that you needed a shepherd to care courageously and tend tenderly, reaching out to heal, to love.

The Romans passage goes on to acknowledge that God’s love for you is proven because God reconciled you while you were still enemies. That may be an enemy of black lives, an enemy of those suffering, captive to empire and you cannot free yourself and sometimes don’t even want to. So God shows up to free you, to proclaim good news to you, to heal your heart, to pour love into you, to give you guts of compassion, to reconcile you to Godself and to all else, making it possible that you can be sent as a healer and maybe even one who suffers gladly. This is God’s work in you and the world, the spreading good news of the kingdom of heaven. Welcome to the movement.

* https://www.channel3000.com/anonymous-letter-to-monona-business-asks-owner-to-get-rid-of-homeless-person-behind-building/

** https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9vB4TFXCrss


God in Relationship

sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday 2020

(Genesis1, 2Corinthians13:11-13, Matthew28:16-20)


Let’s start with describing relationships.

You might pursue relationships. Maybe you thought, I want to be married and have children, or had ambition to move up the career ladder or to make a difference. Other relationships are just a result, like that you worked hard and happened to wind up promoted. A relationship might even be enforced. For example, a court could mandate a toddler needs a parent or guardian to preserve the necessities of life.

Describing relationships could be like somebody trying to guess by peering through your window right now, or sorting through old mail in your recycling bin, which might include trying to make some extra pieces fit, like the mail I keep getting for Nadifa Mohammed. Is there a Nadifa in my household? What’s my relationship to her?

Other relationships are ignored. The Genesis reading places us back into a locus of relationships. With domestic animals and plants we eat, but also with the creepy crawlies and birds and those fearsome sea monsters again from last week. (Being in relationship doesn’t necessarily mean we want to be in relationship.) We shouldn’t have missed our relationship with the sun, since life depends on it. But we also can no longer overlook our relationship with the dome of the sky, as we alter its composition and character in climate change.

For this expanse of relationships, one thing is clear: we’re all in ‘em. The self-made man of American myth (and the myth is almost always masculine, which should tell us something)? It’s a lie. From birth on, none of us is truly independent. Even if you live alone or work alone or are on a deserted island.

Which calls to mind 400-year-old words of John Donne:

No man is an island,

Entire of itself,

Every [one] is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

[the land] is the less…

Any [one’s] death diminishes me,

Because I am involved in [hu]mankind,

And therefore never send to know

for whom the bell tolls;

It tolls for thee.

That also rings true with Martin Luther King’s sentiment in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”

His words have potency echoed in our days, as he continues about protests nearly 60 years ago responding to policing that enforced racial disparity and white power, saying “You deplore the demonstrations that are taking place. But I am sorry you did not express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being. I am sure each of you would want to go beyond the superficial social analyst who looks merely at effects, and does not grapple with underlying causes.” (in A Testament of Hope, p290)

Now, I’m grateful that our Madison mayor and many business owners have been able to see causes this past week and see that we should be doing something to change the effects. With others who are waking up, I’m personally grateful to understand more, that George Floyd’s death diminishes me. We’re not unaffected. The bell tolls for all of us.

But I’m not here for feeling self-congratulatory from my easy place. I really want to get on with talking about God, because in the end that’s also what matters for our relationships.

So, God is sometimes perceived for being before everything, existing apart from all else, as the single, solo, highest authority—the quite literal monarchy. And we think independence at the top means power and will to dominate. I’ll just say it: that’s a bad notion.

Next on relationships, this day for the Holy Trinity is often approached as if it’s prescriptive doctrine, that councils of bishops got together 1700 years ago to decide and declare what God was going to be. That presumes the Trinity is a human invention.

We’d do better to recognize our theology as the gradual piecing together of going through God’s recycling bin of old mail, trying to figure it out from scraps and fragments, with occasional stray bits mixed in that throw us off.

We don’t actually have to start our wondering about God with Genesis or the Big Bang. We begin with Jesus. We wonder what it is about God he’s trying to help us know, with the biggest question of what dying on the cross means. Jesus talks about his Father and says he’ll send the Holy Spirit. What do we do with that? Such detective work to figure how the pieces fit for God and where we fit in, this project carried on for a few centuries after Jesus, and of course continues still.

Today’s readings give a couple scraps and fragments prompting this puzzling, as Jesus tells us to baptize and teach “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” And Paul, who would never have read the Gospel of Matthew, somehow still arrived at a similar sense in the final words of his letter referring to our Lord Jesus Christ, God, and the Holy Spirit.

We might begin to reflect that God has relationship even with Godself, that there is some sort of divine dance happening.

It does also mean relationship with us. We receive, partly in that we were created, that God loved us into existence, wanted relationship with you, blessed you to be. We receive a role and a commission in creation. We stand in relationship not just to the human community and the rest of creation, but in relationship with God, with Jesus who promises to be with you always.

In these readings of relationship with the Trinity, the core isn’t control or domination. Even when Jesus speaks of obedience and authority, it’s not how we typically use that as oppressive or dictatorial. Our relating with God and each other is “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit,” a foundational phrase, the greeting that sets out how we gather each week. Marily Crews noticed this week we can boil it down to grace, love, and communion. Relationship.

I really like that observation, which for me takes some unpacking. Grace is connected to the word “gift,” and we’ve already observed that we receive in this relationship from God. Jesus gives to us, gives himself. We could probably understand love as where giving and receiving come together. And communion, like our word “communal,” means sharing. Having received from Jesus, we also share. So Paul commends his congregation and commends us in receiving, loving, sharing.

Because it’s who God is, Paul expected the church to live with receiving, loving, sharing. We aren’t based on old relationships like master and slave (or boss and employee), man and woman, cultural insider vs. outsider, citizen vs. not, rich and poor, skilled and incompetent, able-bodied and unsuccessful, or any gradation that ranks relationship. We are reciprocal in love, receiving and sharing, joining the divine dance.

We know at good moments that that’s what happens at church. We can feel that grace, love, and communion embodied around us. It’s also hard, then, to be separated from each other, since we lose some of the ultimate godly goodness of these church relationships.

Even though we’re still learning this in the church, it’s amazing that we have managed to set these expectations for those outside the church, too. Maybe it means we’re conveying Jesus’ teaching to all peoples, as he commissioned us. We believe every voice should matter and every vote count. We want society to care for the sick and protect the vulnerable. We believe that children are beautiful and vital. We sometimes have trailed in understanding the value and validity of LGBTQ persons, but we’ve got really good grounding for seeing the image of God in those relationships, too.

And we expect that racial distinctions shouldn’t leave anybody out, much less inflict harm. Even as we’re still needing practice as church, we have these expectations for society. We believe the whole world should operate with receiving, loving, sharing. Power shouldn’t get its way in preserving privilege, as if that could even work.

We are not islands. We are woven into a single garment of mutuality. Sometimes we can stop the bell from tolling. And that shouldn’t need to be enforced. We want to recognize and delight in these relationships, just as God does. Because we trust God is so good, so kind, so unstoppably compassionate and inclusive, we go on receiving, loving, sharing.

Yesterday in my inbox I got the poem from President Obama’s first inauguration. Here are a few good lines to conclude, and to continue creation and relation:

Each day we go about our business,

I know there’s something better down the road.

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

Praise song for struggle,

praise song for the day.

What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

[Today] any thing can be made,

any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.*


* https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52141/praise-song-for-the-day


Fighting Leviathan?

sermon for Pentecost 2020 (Psalm 104; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13)

God gives breath to all living things. God is concerned about your breathing, putting the Spirit into you, sustaining life with every breath, for you and all creatures. I know some you are lamenting and angry about the breath taken from George Floyd. We’ll come back to him, and back to you.

Giacomo Rossignolo

Leviathan in “The Last Judgment” Giacomo Rossignolo (1524-1604)

But I want to start with Leviathan.

The first image seems to be among very few pieces in art history trying to portray Leviathan.

(The other shows it’s become a popular reference in Hollywood, though.)

movie leviathan

the titular Leviathan of a 2015 short movie described on IMDb as apparently a giant future space whale

Leviathan came into the Bible, picked up from other near Eastern religions. It’s the biggest creature, the most fearsome. As a sea-dweller, it gets looped in with or recast as the dragon or greatest among sea monsters or the hugest whale, for modern minds who need to fit it into a scientific taxonomy rather than leave it as mythically marvelous. Jewish rabbis portrayed the horror of Leviathan by saying no living creature could endure even a whiff of its odor. So, not a very pleasant creature to be around, for sure.

The sea was a place of fearful chaos for ancient humans, and Leviathan ruled that realm. It also, then, gets simply associated with evil. In some of those stories from other religions, a god has to fight the evil sea monster and defeat it for the goodness of life to come out of the sea. Even within our closer heritage, a passage from between Testaments figured that in the most fantastic fish fry ever, God would serve the slaughtered Leviathan to the saints to start the endtimes feast. At last, it would be conquered and be the one devoured.

But then there’s the way Leviathan pops up in our Psalm today. God made Leviathan for sport. Fun? Humans find it scary and ugly and evil and chaotic, to be avoided at all costs, ultimately to be overcome. But God created it, gave it breath, gives it food, and evidently even enjoys it.

This same notion comes at the end of the book of Job. Job had been suffering. He swore it wasn’t punishment that he did something wrong. It’s so bad, he demanded an answer from God. So God gave a speech out of a whirlwind that put Job in his place, by which I mean God reminded Job he is a small part amid this big creation. The capper of God expounding is a whole chapter on Leviathan where God says things like:
“Can you catch Leviathan with a fishhook?
Will it beg you for mercy?
Will it agree to work for you,
to be your slave for life?
Can you make it a pet like a bird,
or give it to your little girls to play with?
Will merchants try to sell it in their shops?
If you lay a hand on it, you’ll certainly remember the battle that follows.
You won’t try that again!
Check out] Leviathan’s limbs and its enormous strength and graceful form.
Its teeth are terrible!
The scales on its back are like rows of shields tightly sealed together.
When it sneezes, lightning flashes!
Its eyes are like the red of dawn.
Flames shoot from its mouth.
When it rises, the mighty are afraid… gripped by terror!
Iron is nothing but straw to that creature.
Stones shot from a sling are like bits of grass and it laughs at the swish of javelins.
Its belly is covered with scales as sharp as glass.
Nothing on earth is its equal.
Of all the creatures, it is the proudest.
It is the king of beasts.” (NLT)
Yowser. That’s how God’s speech ends! You can tell that God is a little over-the-top excited about the Leviathan. And it’s exactly this creature that humans dislike so much, find so fearful and repugnant. God still delights in it and enjoys it. At the very least, it is part of the creation God sees as very good and sustains with each breath, with the gift of the Spirit.

What about Leviathan now? We encounter Leviathans, uncontrollable, chaotic, fearful beasts that can’t be overcome. Leviathan may be the coronavirus. It may feel like racism. It may be violent destruction of property. Leviathan may be all the other evils in your life, or things you just wish were gone and can’t control.

So what is God’s perspective, as you deal with Leviathan? Certainly I assert God’s sorrow at death, the loss of life, the fear and suffering you are dealing with, and some people more than others. God’s compassion is always for life. That is the ultimate promise we’ve held for 50 days of this Easter season and more.

When we encounter Leviathan, the huge, terrible other, the bad we want to get rid of and, if we can’t deal with it, we’d just as soon that God would, some of God’s words about Leviathan from Job fit for us: don’t get too close. You won’t forget if you do. You can’t control it. It’s bigger than you and is deadly. Those may be cautions from God, about knowing our place. But I’m not ready to say that God is dismissive of what terrifies and overwhelms us, simply treating it as sport or delight.

But it definitely makes me reconsider our language. I’ve noticed how our interaction with the coronavirus, for the main version we share in these weeks, is so typically in martial terms, that we are at war with this enemy, fighting it while it attacks us, with people who are on the front lines.

I get nervous about anything that too sharply says there are good guys and bad guys, and wanting to be on the winning side. It can be stirring and motivating and helpful for some people, but I avoid the language of fighting cancer or disease, for example, partly because it can seem like some didn’t battle hard enough and lose the war.

Such stark divisions also categorize racism and brutality against black people by police officers, that presume excessive force is not only necessary but all too acceptable and common. On the opposing side, it invites people around me downtown yesterday to be shouting “F*** the police!” with some going on to cause damage.

Fighting fire with literal fire, or watching anger on one side of a fence being hurled at shields and weapons on the other side, doesn’t seem like the way to resolve this. Even if there are reasons on either side—and I would clearly justify one over the other—still I’m not sure it’s helpful.

When seen in my clergy collar and asked by a young African American woman why I was there, I said because I was sad. The violence. The injustice. The fear. The unheard cries. That it didn’t need to turn out like this. She and a friend said they were sad and tired but felt they had to stay. In one ironic awareness of common humanity, one young man was yelling at a line of police officers “Go home to your families.”

I wanted to be there to instill a pause, a break in the division, something that helped people stop seeing the other as an enemy, that could make voices heard without destruction, especially of life.

In interactions trying to subdue or control we find we can’t dominate the other slide and enslave it, just as Leviathan. Suffering compounds. It seems only to lead to regret.

If we want to say we are at war with the virus or racial violence, what about the collateral damage for those who don’t resist as well? What about ways the violent sense of the disease has amplified to violence against people who look Chinese? What about businesses and homes caught in the line of fire? What are the costs, and who is being drafted and forced to sacrifice? What if it’s not something that can be defeated, as our winner-take-all culture frames it? What if we don’t win?

If the Leviathan has been set loose among us, and as we try to find our place in all of it, where’s God?

Our God hears and responds. Our belief is not ultimately of a good god defeating the evil, of God slaying the dragon, vanquishing the beast, killing for the sake of life. Our God known in Jesus was dying for the sake of life, and that, then, is about restoration and healing and reconciliation, about the power of love and not of hate, not of vindictive retribution but of justice and peace, of the fullness of all things.

And in that fullness, each thing has its place. I’m clearly not saying in God there is no bad or good, no wrong or right, but that our perspective and judgment are limited. More fully, as it said it in our 2nd reading, “each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” The Spirit is enabling us each for life.

In these days of striving on behalf of the common good, I want you to hear that you have been given the Spirit in your own way, your own place, and that is worthwhile and in service of life.

There are a variety of gifts. Some are given through the Spirit gifts for healing, or gifts for order, to another is given a rigorous attention to science, or gifts of utmost planning to envision months ahead, to another through the Spirit striving for justice, to another is given care in sending cards, some through the Spirit are parenting and trying to find energy to make it through the day okay, to another is given the voice of protest to rally for life, and to some is given prayer through the Spirit, or calm and patience, or appropriate anxiety and frustration and even anger, or a work ethic, or courage, or sense of risk, or of beauty, or concern at current events, or tears of compassion, or the lift of laughter, or dreams of the future.

Whether young or old, of any gender, you have a variety of gifts, various services, a variety of activities, allotted individually, chosen and activated by the Spirit.

Somehow the Spirit is working through just exactly who you are in your place, the parts you claim as your best traits and the stuff you wish were different or are maybe even ashamed of. And it’s not because you’re good or bad, but through it all, the Spirit is working on behalf of life and to delight God. It’s constant, with every breath, until you breathe your last. And then that’s still not the end of the Spirit’s work.

That is what you may know and trust. So thanks be to God, and Hallelujah.


Hymn: “God of the Sparrow, God of the Whale” (ELW 740)
prayers of intercession
Lord, listen to your children praying.
Lord, send your Spirit in this place.
Lord, listen to your children praying.
Send us love; send us pow’r; send us grace.

We lament. We cry out as we face Leviathan. In things too big for us, too scary, too chaotic, too deadly. We lament.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We shout. In anger at what should not be. In death that should not happen. At systems that are broken. We shout.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We beg. For clarity on what to do, for some assurance that we have gifts for such a time as this, for your Spirit to be with us, and again inspire us. We beg.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We speak. On behalf of black lives, for peace with justice and justice with peace, for better social policy, in concern for our neighbors. We speak.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We remember. These in our community who are ill, suffering, or shut in… Those with work difficulties and discernments. Those hoping for healing. Those changing medications. Those in stress, in depression, in mental illness, under abuse and the work of Domestic Abuse Intervention Service. Our families who are in harm’s way, and those whose lives are always in harm’s way. We remember.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We remember more. Students finishing school years, especially graduating seniors. Those missing friends and family and events like swimming. Our synod, as they also remembered us in prayers in this week. These members this week… We remember.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We praise, with the places we find joy in these days, in a beautiful day, with green growth and bright sun. At outer space excitement. At the birth of a grandchild. We praise.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We cry, with a family on the death of a niece, and as an aunt nears death. We cry with ongoing grief at the deaths… We cry at the death of MCC chicken Naomi… We cry at the death of George Floyd. We cry at the 24,079 deaths from COVID19 this week. We cry, and We hope.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

We pray. For all this, we can only commend ourselves to our risen Lord Jesus and pray, Come, Holy Spirit. We pray.
Lord, in your mercy,
you hear our prayer.

Lord, listen to your children praying.
Lord, send your Spirit in this place.
Lord, listen to your children praying.
Send us love; send us pow’r; send us grace.




What now?

a sermon on Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 66:8-20; 1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11; John 17:1-11


The Easter season began with Jesus showing up. On Easter Sunday, he met the women on their way back from the tomb and said, “Howdy! Greetings!”

The next week, he showed up behind locked doors, speaking Peace, breathing the Holy Spirit, letting Thomas poke at the holes in him.

Then he wandered along with two random disciples on the road, asking them what troubled them, responding with Scripture, being made known in the breaking of the bread while vanishing.

That already moves away from direct presence. Rather than the touchable Jesus, he was disappearing Jesus. He was known in Bible stories and placed in our hands with bread rather than being himself one we could hear and grab.

Now 43 days into this 50 day Easter season, Jesus is further gone. In fact, in our 1st reading he floated out of sight, like when you let a helium balloon go and watch it become a red speck and track it and track it and then can’t spot it anymore. However it happened, the risen Jesus wasn’t with them anymore.

We probably feel hundreds of years further removed from Jesus, without access to him. So, now what?

We do celebrate resurrection. The promise persists. The reality remains relevant. We have the good news.

But it is paired with the bad news of no presence. We don’t have Jesus with us, for reminders, for reassurances, for the clarity, to poke with our fingers and to probe with our questions.

So as we approach the end of the Easter season, it seems appropriate that we’re left asking what we look to if we don’t directly get to look to Jesus. We’ll eventually encounter seven *now what* possibilities from our readings.

The disciples in Acts start with our own anxiety, our anxiousness, our impatience. “Is now the time?” they ask. Hey Jesus, if you’ve got power and you are the answer, to which this world and this universe is headed, is now the time?

It’s not an unreasonable question that they ask and we ask. We’ve had enough of this. We’re ready for things to change, for the incompetent not to be in charge, for disease not to be running amok, with injustice that takes the wrong lives, with struggling economy, for death to be done, we’re ready for life.

The disciples expect having Jesus would equal a kingdom. They wanted a theocracy, godly empire, instead of the Roman Empire. Maybe it would mean they’d no longer be trampled underfoot, with expendable lives, simply used for the sake of others. Maybe it would mean strength instead of weakness.

Their attitude is, Hey Jesus—aren’t you going to do something about all these problems we’re facing? But Jesus was more like, I’m outta here. He wasn’t going to take an emperor’s throne, as the king who ruled like they wanted. Instead Jesus was about to leave.

But for them seeking strength, he said that in his absence they would be clothed with power from on high. They’d get the Holy Spirit. Here’s a first place we look without Jesus. *Now what?* You have the Holy Spirit instead.

We had Jesus’ assurance last week that the Holy Spirit is in us, always with us. She advocates and comforts and gives us faith. That is huge strength, the best confidence, but it is still indistinct and nondescript. If we’re looking to look to something when Jesus is gone, finding the Spirit inside of us may not be all that clear for “now what.”

Some find strength in special spirit-y speaking in tongues or holy healings. They believe that’s what this power is about. It works for them, and that’s okay. But it leaves me with worsened absence. The Spirit giving me quiet inner strength may be good, and enabling my trust in Jesus may be best. But if I’m looking for evidence in my abilities, then I feel I’m lacking even more.

Still, that’s tough because the next *now what?* is that Jesus says we’ll be his witnesses, to the ends of the earth. Other passages describe that role as being ambassadors. We represent Jesus. So I am supposed to look for Jesus in me, in what I say and do.

The Tuesday Beer and Bible group pondered our role as witnesses, especially right now. One of the main thoughts was about masks, that we wear masks out of love for our neighbors, as a particularly Christian thing to do, in some way bearing witness to Jesus.

Such concern for the vulnerable fits with the Psalm, which describes God as a parent to orphans and defender for widows, who seeks liberty for prisoners. Those were the most at-risk people in that culture, so maybe we emulate it.

This language will be echoed by our statement of faith, from the Belhar Confession, on a God known for the poor, who is also made known as we give bread to the hungry and justice to the oppressed, in supporting the downtrodden.

Again, I usually feel like a shoddy representative of that. And if I’m left looking for the absent Jesus behind your masks, that’s neither very obvious nor really much of a burden. 1st Peter said it would involve discipline and steadfast resistance. It’s not even clear what we’re resisting today—we might say the harm of the virus?—and, anyway, I don’t count myself very disciplined.

For the reverse perspective, 1st Peter also says that we’re recognized not for the good we do, but are associated with Jesus because—*now what?*—we suffer. Luther considered this a “mark” of the church.* Though we right now know the church isn’t best marked by our building, since we are dispersed community, we probably still think much about church being a worship service, with Bible readings and such. Luther’s ultimate mark of the church, though, was to look for suffering. He said we know the cross and endure hardship and are “inwardly sad, timid, terrified.”

Certainly these days involve hardship and sadness, and I trust and proclaim that Jesus is with us in any suffering and fear and is there in the face of death. But we don’t seek out persecution or glory in it, and we’re probably not really suffering the pandemic worse than others just because we’re Christian.

Yet it’s not just suffering, it’s what we do with it. For one thing, we encounter it with prayer, just as Jesus did in our Gospel reading, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, as he was moving toward his death. *Now what?* We pray. You “cast all our anxiety on God, who cares for you,” as it offered in 1st Peter. We hold our own worries and the struggles and stresses of our neighbors and the world in prayer, and we trust that God hears and receives us. Our prayer may be a way we draw near to Jesus.

And he also draws near to us in his word. He says that his words came from God and he gave them to us, and he is present with us, even now in these words. *Now what,* when we don’t have Jesus? He’s in his word.

Still, words are fleeting and transient, even when we take them to heart and it’s not in one ear and out the other. We really need the Word that becomes flesh. That was why we looked to Jesus to begin with, and it leaves us looking now.

So his prayer also recognizes his presence in community. *Now what?* We are the Body of Christ. Jesus directly acknowledges that he is no longer in the world, but we are in the world. We’re his presence.

I hope you retain some confidence in that, as you gather now in worship, and as you remember the broader relationships of church community. That is difficult in these days. You may rely on these connections and admit that is central. Brian Kuhn isn’t wrong when he feels that one of the most important things about church for him is getting to see his friends. We’re dependent on each other, and Jesus knows that, knows that in each other as church, we find him.

Maybe the last place to look for and to have a hint of Jesus today, the last *now what* is in the waiting, in our patience. 1st Peter had phrases like “for a little while” and “in due time.” And we come back to that opening from the disciples, asking Jesus, “is now the time?” Those disciples only had to wait 10 days for Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would come. There may be some of it that feels like a longer wait for us, and we may have just as much uncertainty. But we also have confidence.

Lisa Johnsen posted a Jan Richardson poem** the other day written for Ascension and serving for now. It includes this:

and see what comes

to fill

the gaping hole

in your chest.

Wait with your hands open

to receive what could never come

except to what is empty

and hollow.

You cannot know it now,

cannot even imagine

what lies ahead,

but I tell you

the day is coming…

Wait for it.


* On the Councils and the Church lists seven marks:

First. This Christian, holy people is to be known by this, that it has God’s Word. Second. God’s people, or the Christian holy people, is known by the holy Sacrament of Baptism, when it is rightly taught and believed and used according to Christ’s ordinance. Third. God’s people, or a Christian, holy Church is known by the holy Sacrament of the Altar, when it is rightly administered according to Christ’s institution and is believed and received. Fourth. The people of God, or holy Christians, are known by the keys, which they publicly use. Christ decrees, in Matthew 18:15 that if a Christian sins, he shall be rebuked, and if he does not amend his ways, he shall be bound and cast out; but if he amends, he shall be set free. This is the power of the keys. Fifth. The Church is known outwardly by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices which they occupy. Sixth. The holy, Christian people is known by prayer and public thanksgiving and praise to God. Seventh. The holy, Christian Church is outwardly known by the holy possession of the Holy Cross. (Luther’s Works, vol41, p149-164)

** https://www.facebook.com/JanRichardsonAuthor/posts/2614718488847514


STATEMENT OF FAITH                     from the Belhar Confession, South Africa, 1986


We believe in the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

      who gathers, protects and cares for us through Word and Spirit.

      This, God has done since the beginning of the world

            and will do to the end.


We believe that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest

      and that this unity must be active in a variety of ways:

            in that we love one another;

            that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another;

            that we share one faith,

                  have one God, are filled with one Spirit,

            are baptized with one baptism,

                  eat of one bread and drink of one cup,

            work for one cause, and share one hope;

            and that we know and bear one another’s burdens.


We believe that God’s life-giving Word and Spirit

      has conquered the powers of sin and death,

      and will open new possibilities of life for the world.


We believe that God is revealed as the one

      who wishes to bring about justice and true peace among people;

      that God is in a special way the God of the poor and the wronged;

      that God calls the church to follow in this,

            for God brings justice to the oppressed

                  and gives bread to the hungry;

            God frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind;

            God supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger,

                  helps orphans and widows, and blocks the path of the ungodly;

      that God wishes to teach the church

            to do what is good and to seek the right.


Jesus is Lord.

To the one and only God,

      Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

      be the honor and the glory for ever and ever. Amen


“Proclamation to Imprisoned Spirits”

sermon on 1st Peter 3:19

There are a lot of lines with good news in these readings, and I spent a lot of the week wondering what to do with them:

  • There’s the stuff from Acts about the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who creates and sustains, giving us life and breath and everything. That we might grope after and try to find this God, and how the unknown God is made known in Jesus and his resurrection. (17:22-31)
  • There’s the Psalm, with tough language about God as we go through tests, but how God hears us and has never-failing love. (Ps66)
  • There are similarly challenging words in 1st Peter, on suffering for doing good and having a clear conscience. The Beer and Bible group on Tuesday was intrigued by the notion of speaking and acting with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:13-22)
  • The Gospel is tongue-twistery full of good news, chock-conundrum-ingly-packed with Trinitarian ins and outs, on how the Father loves you, and God is in Jesus and Jesus is in you and you are in God, and the Holy Spirit abides with you forever and serves as an Advocate. There’s the word my uncle shared at my grandmother’s graveside service, that you are not left orphaned. There’s amazing Easter promise that because Jesus lives, you will live. (John 14:15-21)

There’s all this really good stuff, good news that I hope you can hear and would be worth reflecting on. If it grabs you, go ahead and let it grab you and reflect away, absorb those things.

But at Beer and Bible, I was told I could preach on what grabbed me and moved me, so I’m going to take that advice and do that. For me, that’s the line in 1st Peter about Jesus, after he died and was made alive, making “proclamation to the imprisoned spirits.”

Proclamation to the imprisoned spirits…

With that line, my mind goes first to people who are actually in prison. It goes to Bruce Burnside, my mentor and friend and our former bishop, who is at Oregon Correctional Center now. A previous parishioner called this week to ask if I knew whether Bruce was safe. But it’s not just him; it’s Sheriff Mahoney trying to keep inmates in Dane County healthy, and it’s the outbreaks all over the country, where the virus ricochets ferociously in the confines of those walls with little social distancing except by keeping people in solitary confinement. The same for detention centers at our borders. Those people in prison need proclamation, need to be preached good news, need spiritual care to sustain their spirits and give hope.

My mind next goes far from that literal version of people in prison. The next place is into your home, into a notion of being confined in your house. Overall, you may be pretty content, and certainly not in the same shape as those in actual prison. But Christ does come to make proclamation to you there. That’s certainly true.

Of course in Wisconsin we’ve hit a rougher edge of this this week. There are some who claim they were forcibly kept at home, who protested against it, and fought to overturn the practice. There seems to be confusion for them that it was the government keeping them at home and not the coronavirus. They saw quarantine only as a bad thing and not a bad thing for a good end.

For them, then, there is a false sense of breaking free, encouraged by the President and the Tavern League. But that is false freedom, most especially from the real issue. Unfortunately, they are actually causing themselves and us to remain even more captive to the spread of the virus. Even as the claim is for reopening, they’ve functionally delayed all of our chances at having that happen. I understand it’s a bad idea, but this isn’t about condemning them or ridiculing or shaming them, since we’re all trapped in death. We’re not better off.

So another form of captivity that I know was pretty miserably imprisoning me this week was grief. It had me immobilized, in the current news and in looking ahead. I’ve felt maxed out, run down, and at the edge of tears. It magnifies and amplifies any of the other bad news, like the deaths we’re marking this week. It’s not just me; I saw our 7th graders morose and hardly able to talk, and have felt that desperation from others of you, too.

I know that it’s partly my personality, but it’s enough for me to deal with this day by day, and so those who are trying to plan ahead make me feel terribly down. The Wisconsin Council of Churches, for example, has a really solid document about what it will take to reopen churches; it’s even been cited in ELCA resources. But to me it is unbearable sadness in how far away it really is. I can’t begin conceiving and facing the distant idea that we might not be together for Christmas.

Some want to talk about it as the new normal, but I think the more definitive perspective is that it’s a new abnormal. Of course there are bright spots, and I’d invite you to take a moment to think of one of those from the week… I have plenty of those good thoughts, too. For the concern some of you will voice: I’m taking care of myself and you are, too, and it’s okay. It’s just there’s plenty that is not life as it should be.

Dorothea Torstenson shared a New York Times piece this week* that made comparisons to life after 9/11, including all of the screenings and metal detectors at airports that are part of our routine now (well, not now, but when it was possible to fly). I also hate that stuff. It traps us in fear, makes us feel that every plane we get on could become a weapon of death and destruction. It’s a restriction of life and is also an imprisonment. It wasn’t a new normal but a new abnormal.

So we’ll see how we come through the virus. And it’s still a long wait for us actually to see. But we know we’re not going to emerge for a shared MCC worship service on Pentecost as I first imagined. We’re not going to have cake for the intern starting in June. We’re not just going back to how things were.

Tom Stolzenburg pointed out that later on there will be things we miss about this time and which we’ll wish we could experience again, but Tom also notices he’s losing patience and that we have difficulty accepting the permanent change.

So I feel that’s a way that we’re quite imprisoned now. But our hope, then, isn’t in getting back to normal. We need Christ to come and make proclamation to us.

harrowingWith that, the fullest sense of this verse grabs me. Christ going to make proclamation to the spirits in prison is one of the places that gave rise to the line in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus descended to the dead, or into hell in the previous language. This belief is known as the “harrowing of Hades” (a good name!), and it is celebrated on the Saturday before Easter, that Jesus didn’t just spend that day hanging out dead in the tomb behind the unrolled stone. He was busy going to make proclamation to the spirits in prison, to the dead, to tell them the good news, that they were freed from death. Maybe he was giving a heads up: Hey, you’ll want to pay attention tomorrow at dawn, because on Easter, we’re all going to start saying “Alleluia! I am risen!”

The icon is a representation of this harrowing of Hades, that the chains of death have been broken, the strong doors that closed and confined in the dead have been knocked down, and Jesus reaches into the grave to pull others out.

What I cherish so much about this, in the face of death, and in these difficult days, is that no place is beyond the reach of Jesus, nobody is left out from the proclamation of his voice that sets us free.

pantocratorThe other image, from the dome in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the temporary tomb of Jesus, is of Christ as the ruler of all, that all things have to submit to him. It means he gets his way, and his way is love and life. No prison bars, no bad news, no rotten choices, no bygone reality and no new abnormal reality, no virus, no sadness or grief, not even death itself can stand against him. They are all brought on board to his way of love and life. After all, as the readings said, he is the creator and sustainer of all, giving you everything, with never-failing love, with you forever, and because he lives, you will live. That is the proclamation you have the benefit of hearing right now, as it begins to set your spirits free.




“Going and Getting in the Way”

sermon on John 14:1-14; Acts 7:55-60


I want to work backward through this reading, since the first verse seems maybe most helpful, and the last least helpful, with other pauses inbetween.

To start with the ending, Jesus wraps up by saying, “I’ll do whatever you ask me to.” He even repeats it. But that doesn’t feel helpful to me. It doesn’t feel true.

Dear Jesus, I’d like to go fishing and I ask for it to be warm and sunny but no sunburn. Thankyouplease! You might say Jesus was aiming more about asking for things that have to do with him, just as we wouldn’t ask a plumber for sewing advice. But he probably shouldn’t be limited in our lives, and he himself doesn’t give qualifications. He says whatever we ask in his name.

So…I dunno. I mean, I probably won’t spend much time in prayer about fishing or the weather. I am going to keep praying that coronavirus goes away. Or at least that we respond to it faithfully, and for your lives.


Backing up, the next verse that catches my attention is Jesus saying, “if you have faith in me you will do the same things that I am doing. You will do even greater things.” It’s less dubious than the last bit, but I’m not going to claim I’m bigger than the Beatles, much less doing bigger things than Jesus. He’d been welcoming outsiders and healing the blind and raising the dead. I’d settle for changing water to Leinenkugels. Heck, even to coffee.

What helps me with this saying, whether it intends to or not, is our 1st reading. I even thought of rearranging so we heard it after the Gospel. Stephen had been serving the hungry. That’s a pretty good Jesus-y activity, following the one who fed 5000. Also for being Christ-like, Stephen preached an amazing sermon, with what we might call less-than-fortunate results. (The reaction to his sermon is at least one reason I’m glad you’re socially distanced at home; the worst you can do might be to turn me off.)

But even as the hearers are preparing to stone Stephen, he extends what Jesus did—asking for forgiveness and grace, seeing life to come, and commending himself again to God. Some of it is word-for-word of Jesus on the cross. I’d take that as a pretty huge example of doing what Jesus did. Such a death will hopefully not be your experience, but maybe that forgiveness and graciousness can be, as you continue to commend your spirit into God’s hands.


The section on Jesus revealing the Father may leave some discomfort, but I think you probably overall agree with it. That our closest glimpse of God is in Jesus is something I reiterate to you over and over. If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus.

More, I think you appreciate the notion that the works he does do reveal God, just like our works do, or at least ought to. Of course we frequently fall short of that standard. But we want to be loving like God is loving. We want our actions and demeanors to be judged as godly. We generally hope “they will know we are Christians by our love.” In these days that require so much of us and are so challenging as we seek to adapt in sharing and helping in needs and caring for each other at home and across society, we’re trying hard to do what’s right. At our best moments, especially which involve the most self-sacrifice, we trust it isn’t because we’re so inherently benevolent but God is working that goodness in us.


Backing up further in the reading, we get to Jesus’ statement, “I AM the way, the truth, and the life.”

It’s one of the great I AM statements that filter through the Gospel of John. Last week we had one: I AM the gate. He also says I AM the good shepherd, the light of the world, the bread of life, the vine and you are the branches. Maybe we all just like bread and wine, but this one seems to cause more consternation. The others don’t bear as much concern as this does, to carry the risk of exclusion that rules out other people, or whole other religions.

Certainly it gets used along those lines. Like if you don’t accept Jesus, you can’t go to heaven. On the other hand, we’d clearly not claim special treatment, like privilege against the virus. Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t spare you or give you a free pass. We know life doesn’t work that way.

Rather than reading it as a bonus reward for finding Jesus, we can read it the other direction, which is more natural and, actually, more obvious, particularly if we look to Jesus for a clear image of God. I find it’s often helpful to read from Jesus as descriptive instead of imperative. It’s not about something you have to do, but about how he is for you.

So Jesus is the way. Just as we’d heard of him on the road with confused and grieving disciples, he is with you as you journey through this. He’s not some special secret treasure map. Thomas’s question may well be ours during these strange, confusing, hard days: How can we know the way ahead, how to go, what to do? But there isn’t a mysterious restricted answer to be discovered on how we get through it; instead there is assurance: Whatever your way is, it is not apart from Jesus. God is with you as you go (or as you mostly stay put), and there is no part of your pathway that could be separate from God’s presence.

Jesus is the truth. He’s not different from other truths. The rest isn’t fake news. It’s not that he’s a religious answer to be believed in, distinct from a scientific one. As we consider the truth of science, of medical wisdom, and reality around us, that is where Jesus is. He is exactly not opposed to it.

Jesus is the life. In these days as we strive so heartily on behalf of life, this is the struggle of Jesus, and this is the gift. As God is life, it’s far beyond bits of health we care for. It is every breath and heartbeat from the beginning. On this Mothers’ Day, we look to God as the Mother of all life, nursing our existence (1Peter2:2). For a huge expansion, the Greek word Jesus here uses for Life is Zoo. God gives all life, animals we’d see at the zoo, all creatures, like the pets worshipping with some of you on the couch right now or the cats that walk in front of Pastor Sonja’s screen during Hope worship, the birds singing so exuberantly, bright rhododendrons and asparagus from the garden to nourish other life at the Lussier pantry, the fish I’m not catching and cells that deal with infections and microbes in the soil and honeybees and all life. Where we see life, there is Jesus, God is there, birthing and sustaining.

When Jesus said we know the place he’s going, it’s not into life. This is the night of his arrest. He’s going to die. And he goes to that place to prepare more beyond it for you, for life, in pursuit and preservation, in establishment of more to come, for the spread of that goodness. This work continues far beyond what we can manage, then. With Stephen, we say Alleluia! Christ is risen! In the face of death, we know life still wins. So we’re able to give more of ourselves, not scraping and squeezing and hoarding life as if we have a scarce, finite amount. We live abundantly, graciously in huge community of creation.


That enormous abundance also is shown in the Gospel’s second verse “there are many rooms in my Father’s house.”

I’d say it’s restrictive to imagine Jesus preparing a place as a fold-down service in a heavenly mansion, though again it often gets read that way.

Part of the reason we used this translation today was for its spaciousness: “there’s lots of room!” It calls to mind the hymn “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” with lines like “There is welcome for the sinner, and a promised grace made good. There is grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this; there is room for fresh creations in that upper home of bliss. For the love of God is broader than the measures of our mind; and the heart of the eternal is most wonderfully kind. But we make this love too narrow by false limits of our own.” This extravagant love that is always with you on behalf of life is the point. It’s what God in Jesus is doing.


That brings us back to the beginning, to an assurance for right now. Jesus said, “Don’t be worried!” There is much fearful in these days. But this works against that, so that you may rest in the promise and have confidence.

Partly with Mother’s Day in mind, I want to close with a passage that is filled with assurance. It was used for devotions in one of my online meetings this week, from Henri Nouwen, with the way, the truth, and the life in it for you. He wrote:

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.

Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, “You are my Beloved. I have called you by name, from the very beginning. You are mine and I am yours. You are my Beloved. I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb. I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace. I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child. I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step. Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch. I will not hide my face from you. You belong to me. I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover, and your spouse…yes, even your child…wherever you are I will be. Nothing will ever separate us. We are one.”*


Hymn: “Loving Spirit” (ELW 397)


* Life of the Beloved, p30-31


Herded into Life

sermon on John 10:1-10; Psalm 23
Typically known as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” this 4th Sunday of Easter in all three years of the lectionary includes old reliable Psalm 23 and has a part from John 10. In the part this year, Jesus doesn’t say he’s the Good Shepherd. He kind of describes shepherds generally and says he’s the gate. But we probably wouldn’t find it as appealing to celebrate this as “Good Gate Sunday.”

Even though this comes around every year, we’re probably encountering it differently right now, just as we’re holding our theological ponderings in a more precious way, and as we’re cherishing community in uniquely, and as we’re even keeping track of our toilet paper supply more closely, and as we’re valuing the resources of faith more intensely and dearly while they are held over and against the coronavirus.

Clearly the virus remains front and center for us. Perhaps you also hear it like I do, that when Jesus talks about what comes to steal life and kill and destroy, that may be foremost in our sense. COVID-19 is a thief and marauder and robber, robbing people of life and wellbeing, taking away what we should have. That feels clear in these days.

That thought propelled me into this reading, in reflecting on what steals life, and how Jesus gives life.

The original sense was of turning to the true life-giving God and away from false gods or idols, bad religious paths that take away life. Jesus’ words were probably an indictment of the leaders of his day, that those who ran things were doing it for selfish benefit, not for the good of others. When they should’ve been caring, they instead were looking to enrich themselves or to enhance their power. Clearly, we would not have to think hard to come up with leaders we would indict for failing to care for the people under them.

domatilliaTo move ahead a couple hundred years from the Gospel of John takes us to the first image that was bulletin cover. That is still early in church history, as one of the first extant artworks with a Christian theme.

One of the things people notice about that earliest artwork was that the Good Shepherd seemed to be how the early church chose to represent Jesus. He wasn’t portrayed on the cross; maybe that was still too present and terrifying of a reality. He wasn’t shown with a crown as a glorious ruler. He was with his sheep.

The next thing is that these were usually found in catacombs, underground burial chambers. This painting comes from an enormous set of tunnels more than seven miles long. This all tells us something important about death and about having life in the fullest for those early Christians.

Partly there’s a thought that they had the artwork in those subterranean crypts because that’s where they hung out. That’s where church was. They gathered there for worship. Though it seems not to have been the norm, perhaps they did it to be in seclusion, when being out in public was forbidden, or put them in danger. Again, for those bad leaders who imperiled life, the Roman Empire was against the church and sometimes would even kill people found to be practicing Christianity. In turn, the Christians were a nuisance to the dominant culture, refusing the ways of empire. Maybe we think about that, how our pursuit of life means we reject dominant modes, and maybe even try to subvert them. Our caring and sharing models something very different from the careless death-dealing powers.

The larger more likely reason that church gathered in the catacombs, among tombs, was because that embodied their fuller sense of life as the church. They were still the communion of saints, the gathered community, even with those who had died. In some very important way, death did not separate or dismember the church. Even through that, they expected still to be led to fullness of life. The Good Shepherd painted in those places would be the one whose voice they recognized, calling them out from death into life. Or calling them to rise, to get up. Even the word they gave these places, “cemeteries,” was the Greek word essentially for a bedroom, a place for sleeping, literally a resting place. Death didn’t and couldn’t destroy life.

Maybe we share that sense now, as we are in strange places for worship, that we are nevertheless inextricably bound together as community, and nothing can separate us, even as we are socially distant. As death threatens and looms around, you hear the voice of Jesus, your Good Shepherd, calling you to join this flock as he leads you out of the shadows of death and even now you find relief and this resting place, a life-giving moment, a pause for the promise spoken here that interrupts the power of death lurking around.

sallmanFrom the intensity of that understanding, of Jesus very fully bringing you from death into life, the next images may seem trite and kitschy or silly. One is by Warner Sallman, who did what’s said to be the most ever reproduced image of Jesus, the Head of Christ, with over a half billion versions floating around, instilling in us that Jesus didn’t have dark skin like he did in the catacombs but was this blue-eyed bearded pious Scandinavian. And of course his sheep are white.

Now, there’s a lot about it that I would typically grumble against. So the third image portrays some of my standard sarcastic humor. Obviously the real version of that painting has Jesus cradling and gazing tenderly at a lamb. I found this version at a now-defunct brewpub, of Jesus with a velociraptor. I’m not sure exactly how to interpret that mix of paleontology and theology, except that it was maybe the ancestor of our MCC Chickens. velociraptorI do like that Jesus doesn’t hold out for only cradling the cute ones of us, but also scoops into his arms the ugly or mean or those facing the violent cataclysms of the exploding volcano in the background and maybe extinction-level events, through all of space and time. The Jesus who goes off in search of the one lost sheep to carry it home on his shoulders will track you down, no matter what.

Anyway, for the sweetsy Jesus, this week I was reflecting that he does have his place and I don’t need to put him down. If you need some comforting through hard days and just want something that feels pleasant and easy and serene, then you may find it in Jesus. Or, better, Jesus will find you for it.

To return to the beginning, though we recognize this week what steals life from us, what robs us, with our minds predominantly on disease, I don’t have as easy of a time saying what the life is Jesus is offering or how he is trying to encourage it. I don’t exactly know what to proclaim about having life to the fullest. I’m not willing only to have it be an after-life. It’s clearly not relegated to maximizing the number of days here, because then Jesus would only be about a long life; for example, by keeping the virus at bay. When Jesus is the gate, I guess it’s not about walling off the bad things and keeping you protected from any harm. I really like Mary Jane’s version of care and love for chickens, and I think that parallels Jesus, but I’m not sure how.

In conversation online for our weekly pastor’s Bible study, one person suggested we’re missing out on a lot of life right now, and that that’s disappointing. I’m holding onto that for our graduating seniors and our youth and for facing income loss and all the other diminishments I hear from you. Another pastor replied, however, that maybe the smaller and quieter version of things is actually helping us to see life better, or to know what’s important, to be mindful of what we value. Either side of that seems true, I guess! So life may or may not be the accumulation of stuff, or the accumulation of experiences, or the grounding of relationships, or healing for the length of days. The reading doesn’t really clarify. It just says life is the best with Jesus.

All I can finally do is to point you back to the old reliable words of the 23rd Psalm, to let those hold onto you and foster faith and be the voice finding you and leading you again beyond fears into life.

The Lord is your shepherd. That’s true even when you need or think you want something more.

Maybe you can find still waters to walk beside, or remember a favorite lake, and know some calm, like the calm of Jesus’ presence.

In all green pastures, the places of abundance in beauty and for nourishing your hungers, God is providing, to satisfy you.

Through dark valleys, the things that threaten, even in catacombs of death, you may rest securely, comforted.

And as it feels like you’re dwelling in your own house day after day without end, you are nevertheless in the family of God, a member of this household, to share blessings and to live forever.