“Sacrilegious and Holy Images”

sermon on Matthew 22:15-22

The issue here is not taxes, per se.

Kathy Henning raised that in BYOB Bible Study this week, that she couldn’t see why Jesus would be opposed to paying taxes—when taxes pay for water lines (aqueducts, she said) or the roads we need, or help fund schools that care for our children who will go on to help care for us, or serve our common safety and security, or whatever.

I regularly recall a retired English teacher in my internship congregation declaring he would never vote for someone who wanted to cut his taxes.

In those ways, I say clearly God is working through our government for the good of loving our neighbors. That is how it should work.

Martin Luther wrote similarly in the Large Catechism, reflecting on daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer, saying:

The greatest need of all is to pray for the civil authorities and the government, for it is chiefly through them that God provides us daily bread and all the comforts of this life. Although we have received from God all good things in abundance, we cannot retain any of them or enjoy them in security and happiness were God not to give us a stable, peaceful government. For where dissension, strife, and war prevail [we might add: illness], there daily bread is already taken away or at least reduced.

It would therefore be fitting if…a loaf of bread were stamped on coins, in order to remind both [authorities] and [citizens]…that without the [government] we could neither eat nor preserve the precious gift of bread.*

An image of bread stamped on money as a reminder for leaders and the people of what’s important, of trying to sustain life: I like it! A helpful sense of the role of government as we move toward an election.

But that’s very clearly not what Jesus was dealing with. To peel back what was going on in the conversation with Jesus, maybe begin by picturing if our money had not bread but Donald Trump on it. Then picture that we had conquered Mexico and forced those people to use this money to pay tribute to the U.S. because of how great we are. The Romans conquered Palestine and required everyone to pay with this coin with an image of Roman Caesar.

Oh, and in our updated version, it would declare Donald Trump to be the son of god on the money. You can begin to see why this is a bit more pointed discussion than simply paying taxes?

Another important aspect of the offense, then, is to take the top ten commandments in Jewish faith and realize this little coin was breaking a restriction on having other gods and on making graven images. This is top tier offensive stuff.

We could also mention this conversation is happening in the temple.

There’s plenty of history for this mega commandment-breaking idolatry in the holiest place. The biggest politico-religious revolution 200 years before Jesus’ time is the story of Hanukkah, when the Maccabees reclaimed the temple after a horrendous Greek emperor had changed it to worshipping Zeus and maybe even sacrificed pigs in there. The desolating sacrilege or desolation of abomination, it gets called in the book of Daniel (or, in the Good News translation, the capitalized Awful Horror).

Again, just before Jesus was born, Herod the Great was a local ruler but was always trying to show off for Rome. He doubled the area of the temple, which could’ve been doing something nice for his people, but that was offset as another building project to impress Caesar—clearly the predominant point, since over the entrance to the temple Herod put up a huge golden eagle, again a symbol of Zeus. Again, a desolating sacrilege, a breaking of worshipping other gods and making images to them. Some people of faith chopped up the golden eagle with axes, so Herod executed them.

That’s not all. In between the time of Jesus and when the Gospel of Matthew was written, a subsequent Caesar, Caligula, wanted a statue of himself put into the temple. One of Herod’s descendants was maybe a little more nervous about Jewish revolt and convinced the emperor to back down.

A statue may seem more than a coin, but this today is basically the same offense. Meaning: Jesus is, at is says, trapped by the questioners. Should you pay the tribute coin, submitting as conquered captives, foregoing your religious convictions? Or should you obey the only true God and therefore resist Rome, likely be punished, perhaps executed, for standing your ground?

Jesus flips the trap, with a first trick of asking them to show the coin. They fall for it, right there in the temple, and hold up the graven image of this foreign idol. They desecrate the temple by this action, turning the people against them. You could practically hear the gasps and astonished shudders.

Not just winning an argument, Jesus also makes an important theological point here, a matter of faith. He asks whose image is on the coin, and they say it is Caesar. Jesus seems almost dismissive and says, well give the coin to the one whose image is on it, then.

But! Give to God the things that have God’s image!

That makes us ask: if engraving and carving images was forbidden, if you especially weren’t supposed to make idols of foreign gods, but were just as restricted from representing the one true God, then what things would have the image of God?

The answer is right at the start of the Bible. What has the image of God? You do! You are created in the image of God, humankind, of all genders.** Much more than some silly little coin with false claims to divinity, you yourself embody and bear the image of God. In your very existence you mark God’s presence. You are God’s reflection. Not because of what you do or don’t do necessarily at all. Because that’s who you’ve been created to be, and in Jesus also who you are destined to be.***

Clearly we could turn this into an ethic, and ask what it is that you are giving back to God, what you are rendering with the image that is placed upon you. By the end of the Noah story, for one example, this commands that, since each human bears the image of God, you shouldn’t hurt any human life, because that is somehow equivalent with hurting God’s own self.

That’s true and good. But this is less about expectations from you. Where Caesar demands payment of allegiance, God reassures a gift. This is not about what you owe to God. This is that God owns you, identifies with you, embraces you, cherishes you, and will give you everything.

God’s stamp is on you. When God looks at you, God sees God’s own reflection. In these days when you’re perhaps especially confounded by trying to do it right, when so much seems to be going wrong, you may be confident in this assurance: God sees you as good. You are created in the image of God. You belong to God. That’s larger than any demands of a lousy leader with an inflated ego. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, you are destined for the fullness of what you already are: the image of God in Christ. You are God’s.


* Book of Concord, p450 / Large Catechism 74-75

** Genesis 1:26-27

*** see Romans 8:29, 1 Corinthians 15:49, 2 Corinthians 3:18

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“Will he put those wretches to a miserable death?”

sermon on Matthew 21:33-46; Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-13

“Let us kill him and get his inheritance.”

My first impression on that line in this parable from Jesus was that it was gruesome.

In BYOB Bible Study this week, Paul Kent’s perspective as a lawyer indicated “that’s really bad legal advice.” Killing the heir is not how it works to get the inheritance. It made me laugh to beat the band. But it also got me thinking.

In parables it’s always worth pausing to see whether we should include God. As Jesus told these stories, landowners and slave owners and masters were the bad guys, terribly oppressive to most of Jesus’ poor friends and neighbors. So Jesus doesn’t often give a favorable view of those rich people, nor is that how he’d want us initially to picture God.

In this case, though, it seems more reasonable, what with Jesus building his story around the passage from Isaiah with God as the one with the vineyard.

The allegorical interpretation of this parable, where each component has a direct equivalent, is that God the owner first sends slaves, who are the prophets, whose message from God was frequently ignored and who themselves were not infrequently mistreated—put in the stocks, chucked into a mud pit, threatened, hunted down, etc.

If the people didn’t listen to the prophets, then, as God asks in Isaiah, “what more could I have done?” God sends the Son. We presume that when the vineyard owner sends the son, we should equate him with Jesus. In the story, Jesus seems to be predicting his own impending fate, that he’ll be arrested and killed.

Which brings us to the crucial turning point. Jesus asks, “if they kill the Son, what do you think God is going to do about it?” The chief priests and Pharisees eagerly answer, and maybe we’d reasonably offer it, too: “he will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

But we need to ask: is that actually the right answer? A powerful landowner may, in fact, respond with such violent retribution, especially when so provoked by some sharecroppers thinking they could benefit from murder. But is that what God would or will do? Is that the outcome we expect from Jesus’ parable? Will God, indeed, put these wretches to a miserable death?

I guess we can wrap this up pretty quickly because we know that’s exactly what happened. The authorities killed Jesus and thought they could get away with it and that it would even do them good. So God was furious and had no choice but to send the heavenly host, that famed angelic army, to unleash the repercussions on the people with spiritual warfare of an immense nuclear blitz, and annihilated those wretches with a miserable death. Case closed. The end.

Except…No. Wrong. That’s not what happens after Jesus is killed. That’s not at all how God reacts. The chief priests and Pharisees have the outcome all confused, and so do we, if we’re expecting vengeful violence. Throwing them out is exactly not what God would do. They are proclaiming a false god.

How does God respond when the Son is executed? With resurrection, of course! Not with death and more death, but with new life.

And what does that mean for you? Not that you dread punishment, but exactly that even though we killed the heir, God still decides to bring us into the inheritance. Jesus bought the farm to give it to you. In our regular affairs, Paul Kent is exactly right: this is really bad legal advice. But evidently God isn’t interested in good legal advice; God is interested in showering blessing on you.

It’s so different than our normal conception that Jesus says it’s a scandal, a stumbling block. And yet it becomes the foundation of God’s shape of the cosmos.

When Jesus asks what will happen, he gets the wrong answer back. He doesn’t finish his story here with the correct answer. That waits until Easter Sunday, or until we enter his promise. But here’s one writer’s retelling of how the story would continue or conclude:

Imagine being one of the workers in the vineyard of this vast estate, who is sweating profusely while a well-dressed boy coolly walks by with his father on his tour of the place. Imagine further being caught up in the rebellious fervor that spreads among the workers so that you go on strike and allow the grapes to grow wild. When the son, grown into a young man, comes to collect the produce, you join in the attack and kill the heir.

Then comes the reckoning. You and your fellow workers are brought to the magistrates, and you expect to suffer a grim fate for what you have done. To your shock, the owner of the vineyard shows up in court with the son you killed. The young man is very much alive, although the wounds inflicted on him are still bleeding. This really has you shaking in your boots.

But to your further shock, the father gets out his will and announces that the vineyard was bequeathed, not only to the son but to all of the workers. More shocking still, the father and his son welcome all of you back to work in the vineyard as joint owners. As fellow heirs, you are ready to act like heirs who will work to keep the grapes from growing wild so as to produce so much wine for the wedding feast that it will never run out.*

If you’re wondering what this means for you and your place in this story, I’d say this meshes really well with the end of the 2nd reading. The anticipation, joining in what you know is coming and the promise of it all, is what Paul’s talking about in Philippians. He hasn’t obtained it yet. None of us has. The feast where the wine won’t run out is still waiting, and at best we have a foretaste.

But we can be confident. We’re confident not because we’ve been such hard workers, or because we have the genetics or the lawyers that would guarantee us the inheritance, not because we’ve earned our place or that our crackpot schemes will pay off or because we’ve restrained ourselves so well from most bad behavior to act as pretty good as proper servants.

We live with confidence only because we’ve got a God who’s bad at legal advice but very good at generosity, and even better at celebrating, and just so, so, so much wants you to join in.


* Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire, p268-69, cited on http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper22a/

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On Gentleness and Self-Control

mini sermon on Galatians 5:23; Matthew 11:28-30

Self-control.

Evidently not exactly a favorite of mine and, in my mind, not a glamorous ap”peal”ing fruit. (That was a joke. Where’s Larry Henning when you need him?)

“The starfruit of self-control,” Jay and Steve will sing for us from the Christopher Grundy song, which certainly sparkles more than it appears in my head.

When we chose this series on the fruit of the Spirit and thoughts on how God is with you through quarantine and the struggles and blessings of these days, I’d kind of rolled my eyes that the list needed to end with self-control.

In dividing up this final of reflection slots among your pastoral staff, Intern Lisa is still settling into the loads of schoolwork of a semester that started last week. So the reflection tonight fell to me, and I could hardly self-control my excitement. Oh. Boy.

I think part of my lack of enthusiasm is that it often comes across as lecture on prudishness. Technically the word relates to having the power to govern. But besides “self-control,” the other term that gets used in translations is “temperance.” In spite of my great-grandmother’s participation in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, I’m enough of a German and Wisconsinite and whatever else—or maybe just thirsty—so that notion of temperance doesn’t grab me, since “temperance” usually winds up meaning not temperance but abstinence. Personally, I’d tend more toward the suggestion of “in all things, moderation—including moderation.”

If you’re wondering if I’m self-out-of-control, we arrive back at the central concept that this isn’t about lecturing you. If some of your habits and desires feel less controllable during the pandemic, this isn’t about telling you to drink less or put down that snack you’re craving or pay better attention to the things that matter on your screen and stop goofing off.

Again, this isn’t a magical fruit you conjured by your hard work. This is the fruit of the Spirit! Produce produced by God! Made a channel of God’s goodness. Having the power to govern yourself, or having capabilities in you, is itself the gift of the Spirit! So in small ways, maybe we figure the Holy Spirit is enabling you to keep yourself confined to your painted circle and at a distance from others, to skip the hugs and handshakes your humanity begs for, to put up with yet another encounter of awkward face-to-face-ness on Zoom, to stop you from screaming out with frustration at those around you who seem not so governed by self-control, to know that you’ve got what it takes to make it through another day, and (as we’re at the cusp of it) another month, and another season, to keep going.

And when you may be doubting that self-control, doubting your capabilities, begging for something more of the Holy Spirit to give you what you need and what it takes, then maybe that’s the moment I’m praying that the Holy Spirit shows up for some fruit of gentleness. That’s some of what you need these days: the ability to go easy on yourself. Be gentle. Take it easy. God is working it in you and wants it for your own sake.

Last night during BYOB Bible Study (see: so much for my temperance and self-control; I can’t even hold a dry Bible Study), last night Mary shared the old phrase “please be patient; God’s not finished with me yet.” Or a version that came up in a session on trauma during the intern and supervisor retreat was “be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

Those are reasonable thoughts on being gentle to yourself and to others.

But again, since this is a gift, a fruit, and not just a task, I want to press further. This word for gentleness is related to the word for meek and connected to humility, but since those imply getting stepped on, putting up with whatever happens, I want you also to know that we could think of these with nonviolent resistance. It’s not gentle = passive, but can be gentle vs. aggressive.

Gentle: a word we heard Jesus use to describe himself, and he was no pushover in standing up for life. So you may recognize the gift in being able to retaliate, to resist the virus and all that could be destructive in these days, to fight against what steals life, and the ability to do it without going bat guano bonkers.

Or, again, if you find yourself going a little nutso with rage-ahol, into hateful debates and not feeling very meek or self-controlled, then maybe you need again the assurance that God is working in you, that this is the fruit of the Spirit for these days and always, that you are yoked to Jesus.

You are carrying heavy burdens: true.
You need some rest: probably true.
All this is difficult: yes, indeed.

So you are yoked, connected, bound up with Jesus. Your self-control is shared as he steers with you, and channeled in his way, following his gentle heart. In that, gently find rest for your soul.

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“Prove it.”

sermon on Matthew 21:23-32; Philippians 2:1-13

Last week’s parable with laborers in the vineyard had those hired at the end of the day nevertheless paid for a full day. It presented a question of fairness, particularly in relation to our American economy and work ethic.

I’d like to observe that sometimes this has been called the Protestant work ethic. Without investigating the whole idea, I’ll just say that such a concept of work ethic wasn’t really Protestant as a whole, but Calvinist. So I say only partly jokingly that you can rest safely as a Lutheran in not needing a work ethic, since your assurance of God’s grace and blessing is entirely separate from what you have, what you do, what you prove. That’s some of where we’re headed today.

From last week’s question of whether it was fair giving the latecomers the same payment, we continually want to base it on earning, that you should be rewarded for what you do.

So we’re tempted to take today’s parable to ask: which son are you? Are you the one who shirks work and just tries to look good, or the one who gets the job done? With trite aphorisms, like “actions speak louder than words,” we reinforce our concept of the answer.

But if we want to make this about earning recognition, doing the right thing, we should step back from our own cultural presumptions. In Jesus’ time, the answer wasn’t nearly so clear. The first son publicly shames his father by opposing him, which was a worse offense in that culture than not accomplishing a task. That son doesn’t begin to repair the damage by secretly helping later on. In fact, there are versions of this story where the answer is given that the second son, who publicly preserves his father’s honor even though he privately fails, is better. (The GEMS and others reading The Book of Longings have vivid portrayals of the implications of such public shame in that culture.)

Given a lack of clarity on the answer generally and since it’s not very helpful to you particularly, let’s set aside concepts of what you’re supposed to be working on and how to prove your faithfulness.

Let’s instead investigate that Jesus himself is being asked to prove it, to verify that he’s right, to demonstrate his validity. He’s backed into a corner in the temple, told that he needed to answer for his authority.

It’s worth noting the context for their challenging him. Though it feels for us like a very, very long time ago, this is the same chapter of Matthew as Palm Sunday. Jesus had arrived in Jerusalem on a donkey, gone promptly into the temple, drove out the money changers and released the doves, and then welcomed the blind and the lame and healed them, while also saying that the noisy children who were interrupting worship were actually offering praise.

For the chief priests and elders who wanted order and wanted things to run properly and wanted to be recognized for their own authority, this disruption from Jesus might well be questioned. He should prove why he thought he was allowed to do these things, why his actions were right.

Jesus is notoriously bad at answering questions, though, at responding directly to a challenge like this. We’d also frequently extrapolate that God is bad at answering demands, at giving in to requests for proof. “If you do love me, God, then please do such-and-so. If you do exist, show me a sign.” That just plain doesn’t seem to be how God in Jesus operates.

Which turns us to Philippians. This beautiful little passage, typically called the Christ Hymn, turns our theologizing and demands for proof on their heads. The Christ Hymn starts with an expectation that we know what it’s like to be God, to act like a God, to be in that place. It’s our version of authority and hierarchy, being at the top, being in charge, with power.

Except that Jesus didn’t hold that, and instead emptied himself, poured himself out, became humble and obedient. What he does looks like the opposite of an almighty God.

At that point, we really need to pause and pay attention to what the Christ Hymn is saying. Because humble obedience is mostly used to reinforce hierarchy, to re-enshrine the powers, and to put God the Father at the very top of that heap. But the Christ Hymn exactly reverses and subverts that.

To whom is Jesus a slave? In whose presence is he humbled? For whom did he pour himself out?

Why, for you, of course! He poured himself out in love, took on all of humanity and even went into death, all because he loved you so much, because he was serving you. He did it for you! That is what it’s like to be God: not to be in charge, but to give himself up completely. Not to be the one obeyed, but to serve in love. That’s how we know God, because that’s who Jesus is for you.

It means the clearest place to look for God, to look for power, to find authority, is in the one dying on the cross, giving his whole self for love, not for the world’s type of victory.

A precursor of this is exactly what happened earlier in the chapter of Matthew on Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. The phrase about a humble king subverts the entire notion of who kings are and what it means to rule. Kings aren’t supposed to be subservient. Kings don’t diminish themselves in the presence of others. Jesus upends the whole direction of roles in relationship.

In the temple, Jesus isn’t going to prove his authority, because his authority paradoxically comes from giving up authority. His power is not in control but in serving. His dominion is love. As it says in an Advent/Palm Sunday hymn:
His is no earthly kingdom; it comes from heav’n above.
His rule is peace and freedom and justice, truth, and love.
So let your praise be sounding for kindness so abounding.
Hosanna to the Lord, for he fulfills God’s word!
(ELW 264)

That’s why Jesus is really a challenge to Pontius Pilate and the Roman Empire, why siding with the ill and children and the poor is a threat to the economy of the high priests. If Jesus were just competing in the usual way, he’d lose. But because he turns the system on its head, they can’t win at his game.

That makes some grateful: the powerless, those left out. They were declared losers by the old hierarchy. They’re not trying to cling to power; they didn’t have any! That may be why Jesus says tax collectors and sex workers are going into the kingdom ahead of the priests and elders.

But we also notice he says going in “ahead of.” Those who are used to being first will have to follow along. Not that they’re excluded. That’s may be my favorite result in the vision of the Christ Hymn, that all creation comes to acknowledge this way of God and agree with this regime of love, that this is the only way to play the game. They all take a knee, everyone in heaven and on earth and under the earth. That means living and dead. I take it to mean human knees of all statures, and cat knees and bees knees and spider knees and crane knees and fish knees (whatever those are). And your knees, original or replacements!

That leads to the rest of the Philippians passage, about what this means for how we relate to each other. We already said that the one Christ was obeying and was humbled to was not God the Father but you. But because we’re so infected by this notion of having to measure up and trying to prove what’s right and so subjected to hierarchy, it keeps finding its way back into the mix.

There are two bold capitalized highlighted words in the reading in the bulletin: ME and HIS. (“Just as you have always obeyed ME…to work for HIS good pleasure.”) Neither of the words were put there by Paul. They were added in the English translation. We needed to make Paul the authority who should be obeyed, compelling us to do these things for God’s good pleasure.

But without those words, it allows us to be community together. Our obedience is to each other, to those who need our love, to serving one another. And the good pleasure isn’t because God wants you to do it and you have to try to keep God happy; it’s because we find the joy in this way of life. We find it, along with all creation: this is how the universe is intended to be. Not in lording it over but in living for the sake of, pouring ourselves out, not in coerced humility, but in love.

One more word on being humble, then. This isn’t to humiliate those who are already low. It’s not telling the lowly to keep their place. It’s not that the tax collectors and sex workers should grovel even more before the alleged authorities. Rather, it’s inviting the high not to keep thinking more highly of themselves than of others. It’s inviting to love as Jesus loved, and never losing that you yourself are so honored and respected and cherished and adored that Jesus poured himself out in love for you. Once you know that, nothing can humiliate you, and you’ll be ahead of a lot of people who think they’re a lot better.

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Taizé Meditative Reflections

Jonah 3:10-4-11 (part 1)

The silly slapstick book of Jonah gets it all backward.

Its start has God calling a prophet, just as God usually would. Prophets are often reluctant. But Jonah goes further backward, not just with reluctance but refusing the direction God intended, going completely the opposite direction, trying to get to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea, the farthest possible known place from where God intends.

God, of course, catches up with Jonah. There’s a storm on the boat. In a second reversal, it’s the sailors who pray to God, with more faith than the prophet. They beg him to pray. Jonah won’t, but instead throws away his life to drown.

Then there’s the famous whale (or fish). The silly backward part I like is that God appoints this sea creature. It’s one of four appointments from God, with the other three in today’s reading. Rather than creatures given a special task, we think first of the prophet probably, or of humans generally being the ones chosen by God to do something special. In this story, God appoints a whale. God appoints a shrub and a worm. And God appoints a hot wind.

Where the human fails at doing what God wants, the other creatures follow through and obey God. Such natural righteousness of creatures shapes my beliefs. I still find it strange Saint Francis thought he needed to preach to birds when he probably should’ve listened instead. I believe I’m more of a sinner than my dog. But such may not always be true. Along with these appointed fish, shrub, worm, and windy characters in the story, I wonder whether Asian carp and buckthorn and jumping worms are doing God’s will as they invade, much less the scorching Santa Ana winds that risk fanning awful flames in California.

There are some big sinners. Maybe humans specialize in sin more than others. Maybe we’re not alone.

Whatever the case, it makes it all the more surprising how God reacts next.

Jonah 3:10-4-11 (part 2)

Forgiveness before confession?

That’s not our normal rhythm in worship, and not how we expect these things normally work. You’re supposed to say you’re sorry, supposed to mean it. You may even have to prove your regret, that you feel bad and really own up to your wrong, your error, your mistake, your problems. Only then will you be forgiven…Maybe.

So how did we get to this point?

We left Jonah inside a whale. He gets yakked up on shore, which conveniently changes his mind about listening to God. But the silly backwardness doesn’t stop there. He goes to Nineveh, the foreign capital. Enemy headquarters. He wades far into the middle of the city and delivers a one sentence sermon, able to be summed up in three words: Repent…or else!

They’d have no reason to listen to Jonah. Prophets (and preachers) are used to not being heard. God directly told Isaiah he had a message but the people wouldn’t care. Jesus spoke woefully wishing people had listened. We heard a couple weeks ago that Ezekiel had to deliver his message, not because it might change the people, but because otherwise he’d be liable and accountable to God.

Well, Jonah didn’t have the ideally receptive audience, but his one sentence sermon stuck, ricocheted through the huge city. From the king on down, it affected every person. Even the cattle listened and were repenting. (So maybe they were sinners?)

A typical preacher would be grateful or maybe even pleased with him- or herself for that success. But not Jonah. Jonah didn’t want an effective message. He wanted fire and brimstone. Not to be reconciled with his enemies but for them to be destroyed. He didn’t want to listen to God, but then those wicked irreverent skeptics listened and believed in God.

That’s when Jonah really runs into trouble. He’s stuck with a God who prefers mercy, love, life.

Jonah argues, accusing God: “I knew it. I just knew it. I knew you’d be gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, just like you always are.” It’s a hilarious accusation. This scriptural refrain is a constant confession, and everywhere else is filled with praise and gratitude and relief.

When it’s about us, we want grace and mercy and love, to be spared any negative repercussions coming to us. On our own, it is good that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

But I’m a Jonah; I find myself wishing ill on Mitch McConnell, or not having to go on myself. We don’t want God’s grace for our enemies, for those who hurt us, for those we dislike. They should be forced to repent more severely and be threatened with the punishment we think they deserve. We don’t want to see they are also created in the image of God, held in God’s unconditional love, part of God’s redemptive work. We get ready to exclude and condemn, either them or us.

What to do about this remains literally an open question at the end of Jonah. God asks, “shouldn’t I be concerned about these moronic dimwits, the spiritual nincompoops failing so dismally to understand that the arc of the universe bends with love? And furthermore, what about the cattle? Won’t somebody please think of the cattle?”

The question at the end of Jonah remains for us: will we adapt and repent of our punitive preferences? Are we ready to embrace God’s broad concern for even repulsive humanity, plus the livestock? Or do we want to sit and skulk for eternity?

Philippians 1:21-30

We got a sense of Jonah’s politics. And mine. What about Paul’s? And what about yours? Do they match the politics of Jesus?

It’s not just timely phrasing it as politics; the actual word is in this Philippians passage. We get the bland translation “live your life in a manner,” where the Greek word is “politic yourself according to the gospel of Christ.”

If we’re stuck confessing that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, then what’s our shape of relationships, our conduct and politics to match? How are our interactions affected by having this love as our core belief for our lives and for the shape of the universe?

In Paul’s case, this letter keeps reinforcing the commitment and joy of love. He’s loved by God, so he can’t help falling in love with others. His great pain is that he’s not together with his congregation, a pain I relate to, the deep longing of missing you so much, wanting to be together.

Paul recognizes it’s not all good, though. God’s love is the best, and other stuff can be frustrating. Sometimes we think we can just be with God’s love and avoid the rest, saying I don’t need church, the fights or the gossip or bureaucracy or boredom or whatever. It would be better just to recline into God’s love and promise, Paul admits. But if it really is love, then we stay and keep working. We do it together, committed even at a distance, because living is Christ. We politic ourselves like Christ.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was striving to live at 87, for the important work for justice. In her Jewish faith, she wouldn’t have said “living is Christ,” but maybe we take some of the meaning in political effort, as we also strive for relationships near and far. It’s how we politic our lives, living as Christ to love others.

Let’s notice that’s not just about tolerating differences. Love isn’t just an attitude of what you put up with, but an action. In the run-up to the election, you might hear more from Lisa Hofmeister about the “With Malice Toward None” campaign that pledges not to hate, ridicule, or disdain those on an opposite side.[1] Though it’s more than just good sportsmanship, this may be a way to do the difficult work of long-suffering love.  

I invite you to spend sixty quiet seconds now to consider how you might like to practice the politics of love in this political season.

Matthew 20:1-16

Is this fair?

In the view of the American work ethic, it’s not. A paycheck, we’d like to claim, is about getting what you deserve, what you’ve earned.

Of course, that’s not how the economy actually works. Some get substantially more than they deserve, while others work terribly hard and still can’t afford rent or health care or school loans. And, as in the parable, some want to work and at the end of the day are still waiting on the sidelines.

A broader perspective: in my background were two hardworking but poorly-compensated grandfathers who nevertheless were able to have some leftover as inheritance to be handed on to me. Partly from my white privilege, I was able to start the day not having to work as hard, not as desperate to earn, at unfair advantage.

So we shouldn’t pretend the current system is really fair, and shouldn’t presume that our way of doing things is better than God’s way.

God is not interested in fair or what somebody allegedly deserves. God is abounding in steadfast love, interested in life, in helping each and every one to have what you need. Even those who seem lazy. Those who have been left out. Those who were evil sinners. The resentful. The cattle. That is God’s concern.

And there’s good news it’s not too late. It’s never too late. At the end of the day, God’s work is still expanding.


[1] https://braverangels.org/what-we-do/with-malice-toward-none/

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“Love’s Labor. And Loss?”

sermon on Matthew 18:15-20; Romans 13:8-14

It’s Labor Day weekend.

On this occasion, we can connect the biblical sense of sabbath to social movements making space for that sabbath, voiced by the clever phrase that “labor unions are the folks who gave you the weekend.” It’s valuing the image of God in humans and creation. It fits in with the Fight for $15 minimum wage (though we as Christians could rightly question why we’re so focused on being able to do or pay the minimum and minimize somebody’s contribution or identity). It’s justice when some would dominate and boss others around, oppressing and demeaning people, which is clearly against Jesus.

But broader than workplace grievances, our theology has a wonderful focus on vocation. We mostly think of vocation equaling your profession or occupation. It’s sorta sadly reflected in the question, “What do you do for a living?” Vocation and living or life itself get summed up in your job. Sure, we spend lots of time preparing for careers and many of our waking hours at work or with our thoughts and worries occupied by it.

But in Christian terms, your vocation is a lot broader and better: your calling from God is to love your neighbor. Your vocation is love. You embody and re-present God’s presence for the sake of the world in your loving, so it is a holy vocation.

That’s important because sometimes it’s been seen that only clergy or church professionals have a calling. They’re the ones to say, “I heard God calling me to do this.” But it’s not special. God is calling you to labor in love.

That’s clearly a big task, much more than a job. It can be unending responsibility, in the opportunities to love and efforts to love and people who need to be loved, near and far, and all creation.

Our readings seem to approach this huge task through what goes wrong and repentance, about the failure to love. For such failing at being a Christian, the BYOB Bible Study group brought up the word “excommunication.” Generally, we describe failing at a vocation with the term “fired” or maybe “expelled” for the vocation of a student, or “sacked” in fun British English.

I’ve gotta tell you, one person has been especially on my mind these days for failing at his vocation and he should be sacked. And that person is…Jeff Bezos. The founder of Amazon is the first human to have wealth over $200 billion.* I’ve been incredibly frustrated and sad after learning this, especially since $87 billion of his fortune—nearly half—has come this year, during the time of global pandemic. That means he’s failing at his vocation. Extraordinarily. Disgustingly.

Although it’s good you didn’t have to go to stores and risk catching or spreading the virus, and Amazon would deliver to your house, and that part of Jeff Bezos could be called succeeding in the vocation of love, and even as our standard economic model would say he’s the most successful businessman ever, the fact that he’s personally hoarded so much money, stuck in his selfish desires means he’s a blatant failure in his vocation.

The other person I’d vote to fire is the President. This week as he continued talking “law and order,” it leaves us to ask at whose benefit and whose expense he means these things. And if Paul can tell us that love fulfills the law, then divisive hate-inducing rhetoric fails in love, and so exactly fails at fulfilling the law. The President, then, is a failure at his vocation.

Of course, by Jesus’ standards, I’m also failing right now, naming these two high-falooters and talking about them instead of to them. I’m rejecting Jesus’ advice for calling people back to their calling, returning us and reconciling us to our loving purpose in community. Talking about them as jerks and failures and wicked isn’t directly serving love. Though I do hope this indirectly serves love by illuminating it for us.

We fret lots about headline names and huge problems in our world. But the important reality is smaller. It’s why, for example, Luther says the 4th Commandment names honoring parents as central, and only gets extrapolated to the government and others in authority. Think of it: the Commandment could’ve said, “Honor your leaders and officers.” Instead, it talks about your family.

See, this vocation of love finds its most basic locus in your most basic relationships. We like to think Christian love is shown because we gather food for the pantry, or we swing hammers to build a house, or donate to disaster relief, or advocate for policies that disrupt racism. Those are good, of course. They’re just not the main thing. We can tell because of how little time you spend with them, and they’re optional.

If you really want to go on a mission trip, it mostly just means going home and your daily tasks. God’s mission is mostly where you already are. That is where love is needed and God is active, where your vocation and your presence are most living out God’s purposes.

As we pray our students into a school year, we typically conceive they are there to learn for their own opportunities, studying to better themselves and prepare for the future. But the vocation of a student also means they are there to be in community with classmates. Neither are they preparing only to be the next political leader or rich businesswoman, but being prepared to help society, to be a member of this broad community that cares for each other. Or, again in a small way, maybe they’re being most prepared as students to be a human, to do what it takes for those nearest-by. We love young people into being so they can love us back, or can extend love.

This is what God’s blessing is for.

So for all of us, first, I just want to say thank you. So much! Into each of your households, in all you’re doing through these days! For God’s sake, I want to affirm all your efforts to love. It’s never easy. But it’s usually least easy with those closest to us, because it is such a day-in, day-out relentless task. It’s demanding and not very voluntary. It’s complex and can change by the minute. There aren’t right answers. There’s no way to do it completely or perfectly. Much less in a pandemic!

With that, the answer of faith doesn’t seem to be simply to pat you on the back and say you’ve done enough or done your best or given it your all. God knows you need more than dismissive acceptance or excuses. Since this involves love, you take it seriously. You’re trying hard. You want to do it right.

And so Jesus acknowledges that things can go wrong, that it won’t be perfect. We have disagreements in church and in any kind of caring community. So repentance isn’t about feeling ashamed or miserable, but is simply living with the reality that things don’t always (or maybe even often) go how you want them to.

Jesus uses the word “sin,” which basically means “miss the mark.” There are all sorts of reasons you may miss the mark. Sometimes it’s a moving target or just won’t stick. You may have tried hard and your aim was off. You may have been in a bad mood. It may have been quarreling or jealousy or partying too hard, as Paul lists, and I think those things are all too possible when we’re worn thin by a pandemic and not as good as we’d like to be. You may have had no energy for one more thing. You may have done well in some area, but missed in others. That’s why our confession covered so much territory of relationships close and far and dear and impersonal—not to reinforce a guilty feeling, but to concede that even if your love missed the mark there, still you are kept in relationship, held in forgiveness, given grace, not stuck in past problems but living toward the future.

See, you’re not a failure. It’s not the end. It’s not three strikes and you’re out. It’s not that you need to try harder next time. Jesus recognizes that we’ll miss the mark. You’re not perfect, not going to be perfect, and don’t need to try. None of us is. Yet we keep loving. Reconciling when it hasn’t gone well. Admitting that that’s okay.

We keep on loving, keep on with this calling, this vocation. Not only because God told us to, but because God first loved you. And through it all—in the great phrase from Romans—Jesus will remain nearer to you than the clothes you wear. That is his love for you, and that is what loves you into a vision and practice of life as he intends it, already nearer even now than it was before.


* https://www.msn.com/en-us/finance/companies/jeff-bezos-becomes-first-person-ever-to-have-net-worth-of-more-than-24200-billion/ar-BB18rs9G

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mini sermon on Peace

Galatians 5:22; John 14:23,25-27

Peace and quiet.
Peace and harmony.
A peaceful, easy feeling.
All we are saying is give peace a chance.
A bumper sticker says: Visualize whirled peas.
War and peace.
No justice, no peace (as we’ve chanted at recent rallies).
As we’re here in the memorial garden: rest in peace.

We continue our fruit of the Spirit theme from Galatians 5: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” It’s to look for this fruit in our lives, in bearing what the world needs and what we need through these days. Pastor Sonja gave us love and joy last week. So we’re up to peace.

We could first ponder what sort of peace this means. Peace as a synonym of calm or tranquil? Like if the wind dies down. Peace when tensions die down? Except we’re often told that peace isn’t just the absence of conflict—not just when the President leaves Kenosha. There is, then, a larger peace. Sonja preached in shared worship on Sunday about God’s shalom—salaam in Arabic—which is the larger peace, the complete wellbeing across creation.

This biggest peace is clearly more than we can manage. We can’t fix our world right now. We can hardly control our small corners, with the unknowns of each day and trying to figure it all out and make it through. We may want to make the world a better place, and may feel like in our own little ways we are able to do that. But we can’t take care of healing the globe, can’t singlehandedly stop the pandemic, can’t make life right for our young people, can’t fix a broken economy, can’t end racism. I’m not quibbling about what that means for us trying; I’m just saying it’s larger than us if peace is God’s shalom and salaam and wholeness, perfection, bringing everything to its goal and completion.

But in that ultimate end of peace, we also have the very good reminder that this is God’s work.

So, too, the fruit of the Spirit isn’t because you’re incredibly active or resilient or dedicated or have a certain feeling of peace, but because God is working it in the world and in you yourself. God is striving for peace, in big ways and in little fruits.

I think next, then, of peace vs. war. I’ve said peace is part of what appealed to me when I was young about the Christian faith, and about Jesus. To be peacemakers. Not to return evil for evil. To love our enemies and find nonviolent responses. It was the fruit of the Spirit that such faith of peace and pacifism grabbed me, in this God who doesn’t act with violent vengeance, who rather than destroying or smiting seeks creative possibility and reconciliation. God likes peace, and works not war but peace.

At home this week, we’ve been watching “A Hidden Life,” by Terrence Malick. He’s probably my favorite filmmaker, with such beautiful and introspective movies. They’re often, indeed, peaceful—for their serene pace and views of the natural setting.

This one is less peaceful, because it’s about an Austrian farmer named whose faith led him to be convinced it was against God and was wrong to serve as a Nazi soldier, even as his neighbors told him it was self-defense. Franz was, of course, arrested and punished. It’s hard enough I’ve had to watch the movie in short pieces.

Peace isn’t always peaceful. The work of peace isn’t necessarily serene. In the striving for God’s larger peaceful purpose, Franz’s small fruit of conscientious objection wasn’t easy.

I’m not sure I could do it. I’m not sure I’d personally be so strong or willing to sacrifice or committed to counter and resist. But maybe I don’t have to think that way about what I’d do; maybe Franz is a clear example of the fruit of the Spirit.

That goes with making it through these days, the sacrifice and strength that we’re all striving for and called to embody. To adapt to new roles and be trying hard to help our society and to live in our families. Sure, it’s smaller stuff than global shalom. It’s not even being tortured by Nazis. But you still may not feel that resilient or willing or prepared to put in effort right now. That may leave you without a peaceful easy feeling.

But the Spirit is bearing fruit in you so you can find some confidence, so you can know it will be okay in God’s wholeness and wellness. Peace isn’t really about you doing anything perfectly and isn’t about you navigating a pandemic unscathed and isn’t about feeling comfortable.

In your discomfort you may still know peace through the Spirit, and in your imperfection you may recognize peace from the Spirit, and through any harm and hardship peace will still find and hold you through the Spirit.

At the end of a day and at a more final end, I trust you will rest in peace, because even when you can do no more, you are part of God’s larger peace, shalom, salaam, whose fruit is for you and all creation. Peace be with you.

Jesus said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.

“I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

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“Messianic Sacrifices”

sermon on Matthew 16:13-20; Romans 12:1-9

 

♫“You and Jesus, You and Jesus

go together like a…”♫

Well, I don’t know what you go together like. I don’t think “horse and carriage.” Anyway, carriage doesn’t rhyme with Jesus. A bunch of sneezes? Cheddar cheeses? A Savior frees us?

I don’t know what the answer is, but today’s readings seem to be about how the two of you fit together.

It jumped out at me first with the words of being a “living sacrifice” as a sensible way to serve God, sort of seeming to ask for your effort and how much you’re willing to give up. Yet that intriguing phrase of “living sacrifice” doesn’t seem totally clear or easy, so let’s come back to it.

I was also noticing the relationship between you and Jesus in the Gospel. “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks. It struck me since the answer to that question is what leads Jesus to say, “and you are…” It’s not just Peter. Who Jesus is relates to and is bound up with who you are.

It’s also important for those identities to go in that order. I’m not saying you’re narcissistic or anything, but you do have a tendency to make it about you. You first want to say who or how you are, what you’re doing, how good or bad you’re feeling, and what that means in your relationship to Jesus. In terms of sentence structure, you place yourself as the subject and make Jesus the object.

That gets dangerous in relation with God and Jesus. If I’m controlling too many verbs, I start to worry—if it’s about I worship God, I have faith, I am spiritual, I believe in Jesus. The question isn’t so much, “Do you love God?” The important direction is, yes, Jesus loves you.

Peter, who is there to help us understand, again ends up receiving misdirection as a poster child. Just as two weeks ago we could misfocus on how he was so faithful to walk on water, here we want to make it about him having the right answer, being able to say who Jesus is.

But if we take that as central, then we’re missing the point. When it’s about our response, then we miss what we’re responding to, undercutting the foundation of what church actually is and who God is.

Jesus is God’s chosen and anointed, the Son of the living God. Even on his path to be executed by the Empire, he is what prevails against the gates of Hades and the powers of death. It’s not that we’re choosing sides in a partisan squabble. It’s not even that we’re for or against God. It’s just a confession, a simple admission that Jesus is the source of life.

For an analogy, we might pause and take a deep breath. Or we could’ve ignored our breathing. But it still happens. You might claim you’re breathing helium. But the only, simple, right admission is that you breathe air, life-giving oxygen. And you could try to assert that you’re the one doing the work because you have to inhale, but honestly it’s the oxygen doing it in you and for you.

That’s what the confession of Jesus is like, too, and his work in you. He is life.

It’s even more evidently vital when we get to the 2nd reading, as it talks about your gifts, with Paul making a quick little list of ways faith could be active in you. To stick with our breathing example, Paul could say: well, you might use your breath to sing, or to say something caring, or you might blow up a balloon, or puff a dandelion, or give CPR.

Yet we can end up taking the list as if there’s a right thing to do. It turns the gift into a curse, or at least a burden. Instead of saying, Wow! There’s all this oxygen constantly around for me, and look at all the ways it’s useful! we instead go back to the self-centered concern that adds the word should. I should be doing such-and-so, and I should be doing it more. If you’re not blowing up enough balloons, then you’re wasting the gift.

I don’t like to argue with Martin Luther King, but this week I was reading Living Lutheran’s April issue (I’m always behind) and there was a nice article on our vocations with an MLK quote: “When you discover what you’re going to do in life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it… If it falls to you to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures… Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept [her] job well.’”* I mean, the guy’s articulate. And valuing things that might not seem exceptional I certainly agree with.

But that’s a heckuva burden to put on a street sweeper. You may have oxygen to be able to blow up balloons like Beethoven composed music, but maybe it’s enough that the oxygen filled the balloon and got the job done and you don’t need the critical pressure. It takes what is descriptive and makes it into a rule, from indicative to imperative. It’s enough to say that street sweepers are using their gifts, faith active in love to make our society better. God is working through street sweepers, whether or not they realize it. It isn’t only if the streets become a masterpiece with their effort.

Let me make a distinction. Jesus says “flesh and blood” don’t do this work. Clearly, Peter’s vocal chords needed to speak the confession. Clearly, balloons don’t inflate themselves with oxygen. Clearly, streets won’t get cleaned up just by magical holiness of the Spirit blowing through, but need an actual street sweeper. But we can just as clearly say that the good is effective because of God. Your gifts are not that you’ve mustered enough power and energy and wisdom to know just what’s needed and then to do it so effectively. It’s not that flesh and blood don’t do it, but that flesh and blood don’t do it alone.

Partly I’m hammering on this because it’s the truth. But also partly because I worry about you, particularly as we return to the phrase “living sacrifice.”

You likely feel these days as sacrifice, as forsaking so much. Dorothea Torstenson repeated the quip of the early pandemic that we didn’t expect to be giving up so much for Lent this year. And this seems like an endless Lent. If only quarantines really were only 40 days. Life is stifled and hard; you may still be alive. But it’s not much of a living sacrifice. It’s more of small deaths, a sacrifice by a thousand cuts, and for some—in job difficulties or school routines or vacation plans or our capabilities to socialize and be in relationships—some cuts go deeper.

The message today, the message of faith, is not that you should deal with the pandemic like Michelangelo painted pictures, not that you should be the best darned pandemic responder there is. It’s not that you’re required to register your burdensome gifts so you can give up more. It’s not waiting for your right answer.

The word “sacrifice” is from the Latin and the direct translation is “doing a sacred or holy thing.” Paul rightly adds the word “living” to that because it isn’t about killing something off, not about taking life, that is how to do God’s thing. The Old Testament prophets reiterate that slaughtering things is not how to please God. This is that your flesh and blood is doing the holy thing, is sacred and filled with gifts because the God of life is operating in you through all of these moments. It means the holy thing is street sweeping and is being a family and is playing with friends and is eating lunch and is painting pictures and is sharing caring words and is in all you do. With all of your living, with surviving these days, with every breath, God is doing a holy thing in you, in your flesh and blood. That is your relationship with Jesus. And the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.

* https://www.livinglutheran.org/2020/04/tap-into-your-vocation/

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mini sermon for outdoor worship

on Revelation 21:2-6a

 

This is the end.

Well, we decided to extend these shared MCC outdoor worship gatherings through September—because how could we waste the opportunity to be together on a gorgeous evening like this?! So although this would’ve been the last one, it’s not that end.

Still, it’s the end of this series. Next, we’ll switch to a new theme, around the fruit of the Spirit. This ending set has focused on the theme: “Surely, God is in this place.” Not just this place around the memorial garden, or in pretty summer evenings, but through the pandemic and all, with a vision offering assurance through these days.

With that, our reading tonight goes to the end of the Bible, nearly all the way to the back. This is the end, my friend.

Now, I don’t want to sound fatalistic about the end and things ending. You’re maybe overwhelmed by that already. Death looms large: the big end. The way things used to be is gone in the past and will we ever do such-and-so again. The end of summer, the end of being outside, the end of warm weather. That also means school is starting, which is its own struggle and ending of freedom and loss of one bit of leisure or ease or having had things figured out.

Plus, there’s the dire sense of politics with an impending ending lurking through all of it, that problems we face are bad enough already and we’re in danger of even worse trouble. You don’t need that scare. You don’t need to be dredged and dragged through that sludge and sorrow.

But those are important realizations as we encounter Revelation and the end of the Bible. Revelation knows our real worry.

See, the most typical view is that Revelation is about The End, the endtimes, predicting what is finally going to happen…eventually. Our faith does have a component of that. With the good news of the resurrection at our heart, death does not have the last word, and evil does not win, and no lie will live forever. We don’t just believe the long arc of the universe bends toward justice, but that it is all held in God’s caring and powerful, redemptive embrace. This biggest picture is good and worthwhile.

But I suspect you would like something besides that it’ll be okay longterm eventually, while you go back to the grindstone and back into the trenches. You don’t just want endurance for these days and hope for the distant future, but you probably would like some possible hint of goodness now.

And that is actually the more important message of Revelation. Not only about a distant weird forecast where an earthly wasteland will have a few happy survivors. What the story is more importantly trying to reveal or un-veil is a truth hidden but real for us right now, a vision for living our lives when we’re worried and scared and sad and trying hard.

God is not waiting and letting all the suffering run its course only eventually to come in for final clean-up. Revelation wants you to know the important message that God is with you right now. The home of God is among humankind. You are not waiting to escape the vale of tears and be escorted off to heavenly clouds. God comes to you. God’s home, God’s power and commitment are here for you. The presence of God is with you to wipe away every tear, from the beginning to the end.

Even as we expect more. Even as we expect more opportunities like this. Even as we enjoy quiet, pleasant evenings. Even as we expect good things will come as we figure out months ahead. Even as we expect elections and hard work ahead. Even as we expect a vaccine and returning to the life we like and need. Even as we still have sorrows and pains and tears that need to be dealt with. Even as, finally, we need death to be undone. Even waiting for the capital E end, still you know the ending, with this vision: God is with you, making God’s home in your home, with you, to be always present in promise and love and wiping away tears and confronting sorrow and leading the way to life.

This is the end. And it’s only the beginning. Alleluia.

 

And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her spouse.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is among humankind! God will live with them, and they will be God’s people, and God will be fully present among them to wipe every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, and sorrow or crying or pain will be no more. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And added, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And that One continued, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End.”

 

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Pride Sunday

sermon on Isaiah 56, Matthew 15, Romans 11

Not exactly warning labels, but two caveats for this sermon.

First, it’ll be kinda PG-13, but I hope you don’t take that as meaning inappropriate. If you have younger children or it’s otherwise uncomfortable, I hope we do discuss this anyway.

Second, it’s Pride Sunday, and I struggle with how to approach that. Most of us may identify as straight and as cisgender, meaning what our bodies look like is also how the inside of us tells us who we are. I look like a boy and feel like a boy, and I’m in love with a girl.

But that’s not all of us, and praise God for that! Talking about “us” includes people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer in whatever way. (Those are what the letters LGBTQ+ stand for, if you needed a reminder or clarification.)

So my second non-warning-label caveat is that I want this sermon to be for the real “us” and not further “us and them.” But I’ll have to invite you to stick with me to get there.

See, these great Bible readings happened to arrive along with Pride Sunday. They deal a lot with “us and them,” insiders and outsiders. But they also queer the meaning, making it not so easy to presume who the insiders are and what it’s like to be an outsider.

Romans takes the group known as “the chosen people” and wonders if they’ve been un-chosen, superseded by the Gentiles, the new converts, and if the Jewish people have been rejected by God. For one reversal of insiders and outsiders, Paul says another reversal will bring in everyone. God’s promise is unbreakable.

The prophet Isaiah beautifully portrays insiders, too, with two categories of people who had been excluded: foreigners and eunuchs, people with a genital deformity.

This part of Isaiah was after returning from exile, as life and worship were resuming. Broad xenophobic tendencies in the culture then were maybe not without reason, as the nation was trying to recover. There also might’ve been an encouragement to “be fruitful and multiply” to restore the population after it was depleted, and so those who couldn’t reproduce could’ve been viewed adversely with reservations.

Yet Isaiah says they’re going to be totally welcomed in. God’s house is a house of prayer for all people, all nations. The eunuchs weren’t as good as dead for inability to reproduce, but have an everlasting name, even more than being called sons or daughters.

Here is where the caveats come in, my non-warning-labels. I’m taking a deep breath, because it’s unusual for me to talk about. Even without having to look you in the eye, I squirm. Yet both for relevance today and for understanding Isaiah, it’s important to know that a eunuch is a person with no penis. Someone without a penis would usually be considered a woman. But this is not a woman. We could say a eunuch had their penis cut off. But I described them as a person and not a man, because they were not identified as a man. A eunuch was an other, not a man or a woman. They didn’t fit the standard binary of gender.

That was my first PG-13 caveat.

Now to the second caveat for Pride Sunday. Isaiah proclaims that these otherly-gendered people are surely part of God’s family and have a place in the worshipping community, fully included. Not only that; it’s a special place, more than typical daughters and sons (notably, that’s standard binary gender).

Since the church has been so awful to LGBTQ+ people, not only to exclude from the worshipping community much too often, but being the loudest voices of condemnation within secular culture, as well, a tendency on occasions like Pride Sunday is to work on explanations about how we should include people who are LGBTQ, singling them out. It makes another us and them, which may not leave outsiders but still “others,” which seems to not really be a full inclusion but sort of a peripheral admission.

So I want us to hear Isaiah. Isaiah says our gender norms are too small to identify insiders. More than that, these people are centered. If Isaiah’s culture and then the church was slow to understand and act on that, God wasn’t. God says, this is exactly who I want. I want you.

The Gospel has more us and them, more questioning of who is the insider and outsider. It’s in the first part about Pharisees. (That section was optional, but I kept it in so we would hear the reminder of caution on what comes out of our mouths.)

We probably most notice the story of the Canaanite woman. She wanted to be brought in to Jesus’ goodness, or wanted her daughter to be.

We could ask where we see ourselves in this story, and what role we end up assigning to others.

That might direct us back to the second caveat. One lens on Pride Sunday would say Jesus and his followers came around to inviting in those who had been excluded, and to use that on gay and trans folks. Remember, though, they were already “in” by Isaiah’s time 500 years before Jesus, so let’s take that off our agenda.

Instead, let me tell you about my mother. I was in a fairly fundamentalist youth group in high school. It was popular, my friends were part of it, the youth director ran with our cross country team practices, and so on. After I graduated, because I was into church and stayed in town for college, I kept on as a leader. That group made me pretty fiercely anti-gay, or as we’d more fully say now, anti-LGBTQ.

First, I apologize. Maybe that’s part of what leads me to work diligently as an ally and advocate now. But I was messed up and was part of the problem.

My mom didn’t appreciate it. She didn’t feel that was right. It was the wrong way for me to be. She tried to argue and convince me and cut out newspaper clippings to get me to understand differently and change my adamant attitude.

I don’t know much about my mom’s prayer life, other than she considers prayer important. I don’t even know fully how I define prayer. But in this instance, I’d at least regard her persistence as prayer. With a Gospel story about a woman pleading for her child, I’ll also say the Canaanites were seen as outsiders and opponents of God’s work. So my mother was pleading for the inclusion of me, the rotten little Canaanite.

God could’ve given up on me, as not worth goodness. Somehow, grace came toward me, and I got brought in. The demon was driven out. I was healed to be part of God’s work.

I hope you hear that as a story of redemption and inclusion. But I don’t like leaving a sermon as a story about me, because sermons are for you. Each of you.

So maybe a moral of the story is that people are praying for you, hoping, wanting life to be full. And you have a God for whom nobody is ever too far outside the bounds to be brought in. Your God does not see you as needing to be kept excluded, for any reason, but is continually working for fullness of life, to celebrate you. Systemic oppression and a global pandemic and the stresses of life may get in the way. Worse, the church and I may sometimes interfere with what God is striving to do.

But in the end, know that God’s plan is to celebrate you, to delight in you, to ensure that you are brought in to exactly the good place you should be.

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