All Saints 2019

a sermon on Daniel 7; Luke 6:20-31

hans holbein

Woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (c.1497-1543)

These readings surprised me. When things are supposedly saintly, I expect them to be cleaner, cheerier, with pep and joy, like “when the saints go marching in.” I want to be in that number!

But the characteristic here is suffering. Jesus focuses on those who hunger, who weep, who receive hate. After that dour collection, he turns to declaring woe. Not much pep or joy. And that’s the pretty reading!

Daniel himself says his creepy visions worried and alarmed him. No kidding! Multiheaded beasts crawling out of the sea with wings getting torn off and beachside heart transplants and a mouthful of ribs, all before the final pyromania. It makes you wonder whether this freaky, gory reading was chosen more for Halloween than for All Saints Sunday. Oh when the saints go marching in, I don’t wanna be in that number! Leave me out of it!

That’s the surprise, the shock in these readings. We presume we’d want to strive for being a saint and actively pursue the parade. But these are a bit lackluster in their appeal. It sure doesn’t market very well: You, too, can be hungry and tearful and the least popular! If that’s not enough, act now to be threatened by terrifying beasts!

Jesus says, congrats! Good news! You can rejoice and leap for joy! And you’re practically unable not to leap up now clicking your heels with a big ol’ WHOOPEE! You can hardly wait to start loving enemies and turning the other cheek and facing persecutions. Sign me up! Where’s the line! I want to be in that number!

Now, I want to say directly and clearly that that is not commended to us in these readings or in faith. You are not to go on the hunt to seek out suffering. Don’t extrapolate. If you are being abused you should not just put up with it. If you’re oppressed you shouldn’t be patient. If your leaders are beastly you it’s not just to suffer through the chaos and violence. The message is NOT that such endurance will make you better. Yes, God wants you not to succumb, but to survive. But God is not telling those already hurting that they should be further humiliated or that pious quietude is the path ahead.

What is reinforced here, rather, is where we look for hope when things are bleak (which, after all, is when we look for hope). This flips our notion of sainthood on its haloed head. It’s not about achieving special spiritual status to move up the ranks of holy hierarchy. This isn’t primarily what you should choose to do, not for taking justice into your own hands. It’s certainly not about how good you are at suffering. The question is what will ultimately help. And the focus is on God’s will and Jesus’ work. That is where hope is.

So, again, I trust it’s apparent that when Jesus is saying “blessed are you who are hungry,” he’s not commending that you go on a diet. He’s not talking about fasting. As much as today we want our offerings to change lives, these words from Jesus aren’t really supporting emptying your cupboards for the food pantry. For people who are hungry and starving and lacking, Jesus says: you have a place in my kingdom. Even if you’re not receiving what any human should deserve, you have a place with God, in God’s household, as God’s children. You are not forgotten, not left out. That’s no small hope.

Luke particularly helps us know in Jesus this God of reversals, lifting up the lowly and casting the mighty from their thrones, God born to homeless refugees, who fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty, who includes the outsiders and speaks peace and won’t let death wreck our relationships.

So “blessed are you who weep” may resonate today, when you’ve been invited to bring grief and sorrows and confrontations with loss. Again, Jesus isn’t suggesting you chase after sadness in order to get blessed. But when that is your reality, when you’ve encountered death that would seem to swallow up life’s goodness, when depression traps you, tears overwhelm you, when you know this much much too well, Jesus assures you remarkably—practically impossibly—that laughter will be yours. Joy will come, especially when you’ve been too long denied it.

It’s a strong reassurance, a really good word of hope, even without any specificity of details: when will we laugh, and why, and how? I don’t think Jesus is so imprecise as to be vague. He’s not promoting a notion that things change and life goes on. He’s sure not saying, yeah you may be sad for now, but you’ll get over it and forget the bad stuff. You’ll move on. It’ll get better. Those are dismissive platitudes, not God’s hopeful promises.

If it’s not directly clear in those verses that God is one who gives joy and laughter and love and satisfied appetites and your proper place and undoes all evil, Daniel makes it clearer that God is our hope, as after four beastly kings then God sends one like a Son of Man, the right leader forever and forever and ever, which sounds like a long time.

A little background: this story of Daniel is set in about 553 BC but is describing the course of events in 167 BC. It’s historical fiction, like if you wrote a story about having a vision when Abraham Lincoln was president that alluded ahead to Donald Trump.

So in 553 BC, Daniel’s people were in captivity under the Babylonian Empire. After that came the Medes and the Persians, the first three beasts. By 167 BC, they had been suffering under the Greeks. The particular emperor in power was represented by that little horn with a big mouth, bragging and bragging. Calling him little was a put down, but the bragging came from him calling himself “God Manifest.” This story proclaims that his rotten rule would be overthrown, that God wouldn’t let that stand. God would set things right. This vision is for encouragement to live with hope in God.

We might relate to a little man with a big bragging mouth claiming to be much more than he is coming to power. We can flee a beast and move to Canada. We may want to imagine if enough of us fight back, we could take the beast down. We may try to take comfort that the next beast to come out of the chaotic sea may be a bit better. “Impeach the beast” has a fun ring, but it shouldn’t be our best hope.

I don’t use these political statements lightly. I use them on behalf of people who don’t just dislike or disagree with our president, but are suffering, whose families are being torn apart, whose farms are lost, whose housing is taken away, who are being threatened and killed. On their behalf, it is false hope to say that they should suffer patiently and wait for the next election. Our hope needs more.

When people are hungry, real hope isn’t finding five dollars to buy a fast food burger. Not being drug tested for food stamps would be some step. But an assurance that they will be filled, that the God of the universe is on their side, that is ultimate and is necessary.

For many of us, these are very hypothetical. We live secure as the rich and full and laughing, those who are spoken well of. It’s easy for us not to hope.

But when we face mortality, that may remain our clearest moment of needing hope. Our physical fitness regimens no longer pay out. Vitamins don’t revitalize. Doctors and insurance policies and medical miracles prove vain. I’m reluctant even to name the situations, because this is the suffering that we privileged people still do know, and don’t need our noses rubbed in it. I can talk of destruction and hunger and persecution and those words may pierce us less. For however terrible our suffering is, really it still happens to be small. But weeping and death we know.

We, too, know we need hope. I can’t fully articulate the hope for you. I am reluctant to remove it only to some endtimes heavenly banquet, though I’m also certainly against dismissing that ultimate hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Hope is bigger than my visions or my words.

But if I can’t say how or when, I can still say that our almost impossible hope comes from God, who came as a human one, the Son of Man, who takes your hand, to institute God’s kingdom among us, loving enemies, bringing reconciliation, the first fruits of life that endures forever and forever and ever. You want to be in that number. And you are. Congrats! Good news! Here’s the promise of Jesus: you will leap for joy. Can I get a big ol’ WHOOPEE?

 

 

from Daniel 7                                                           CEB, adapted

Daniel had a dream—a vision in his head as he lay on his bed. He wrote the dream down:

In the vision I had during the night I saw the four winds of heaven churning the great sea. Four giant beasts emerged from the sea, each different from the others. The first was like a lion but had wings of an eagle. Its wings were plucked and a human heart was given to it. Then I saw a second beast, like a bear. It had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told: “Get up! Devour much flesh!” I kept watching, and there was another beast, this one like a leopard. On its back it had four wings like bird wings. This beast had four heads. After this, as I continued to watch, I saw a fourth beast, terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power and with massive iron teeth. As it ate and crushed, its feet smashed whatever was left over. It had ten horns. I was staring at the horns when, suddenly, another small horn came up between them with eyes like human eyes and a mouth that bragged and bragged.

As I was watching, the Ancient of Days took her seat.
Her clothes were white like snow; her hair was like a lamb’s wool.
Her throne was made of flame; its wheels were blazing fire.
Ten thousand times ten thousand stood ready to serve her!

 I kept watching. I watched from the moment the horn started bragging until the beast was killed and its body was destroyed, handed over to be burned with fire. The dominion of the beasts was brought to an end.

As I continued to watch this night vision,

I suddenly saw one like a human being, like a Son of Man,

coming with the heavenly clouds.
His authority is everlasting—it will never pass away!—

his kingdom is indestructible.

Now this caused me, Daniel, to worry and the visions of my head alarmed me. So I went to one of the attendants who was standing ready nearby. I asked for the truth about all this. The attendant spoke and explained to me the meaning of these things. “These four giant beasts are four kings that will rise up from the earth, but the holy ones of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess the kingdom forever and forever and ever.”

 

SCRIPTURE ACCLAMATION             Alleluia! Jesus is Risen               ELW 377, refrain

 

 

Luke 6:20-31                                         NRSV

Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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Re-Reformation 2019

 

a sermon (sort of) on Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36

 

These are risky readings, warping our view of Reformation Sunday.

The risk arises since, even at the ripe old age of nearly 536 years old, still Martin Luther is a raucous hilarious mic-dropping butt-kicking no-holds-barred headline-grabbing cultural-innovating brainiac wise-cracking ninja kung fu dynamo rockstar superhero…at least according to the psycho diehard metal head over-the-top Lutherans. Which may taint our view just a wee smidge.

With that, these readings, always assigned as lectionary readings for Reformation Sunday, don’t function like Bible readings normally would on a Sunday. They’re not here to speak for themselves, but are intended to point us back to Luther, back to 1517 and the years following, to the disputes of that time and the core theological argument.

…Still, I want to pause and note that it’s not the theological core of a few Reformers. I would reiterate and reinforce that, if anything, it’s recovering the biblical core, the center of the God we know in Jesus, the heart of this good news faith, the kernel of who we are in relation to God. This isn’t a Martin Luther deal. It’s not a Lutheran identity. It’s not just Protestants. This is Christian, but also proclaimed in our Old Testament, the Jewish scriptures.

One way I like to make this distinction is when I’m asked if the ELCA is the liberal or the conservative kind of Lutheran, compared to Missouri and Wisconsin Synods, I get a kick out of answering that we’re the conservative ones, because nothing will interfere with our total insistence that God loves you. We recognize this as the beating heart of our faith. The word “evangelical” in E.L.C.A. comes from the word for good news, and we strive foremost to maintain that good news. The indispensable component is absolutely grounded in and flowing from God’s love for us. That’s our core. That’s what matters.

So if absolutely anything gets in the way of that, those interruptions and interventions displace the vital central message. As soon as it becomes an implication that God loves you…except. Except if you’re divorced, except for your financial status, except you’re not very nice, except you’re not trying hard enough, except you’re not really repentant, except if life’s not going well, except if your faith isn’t very certain, except if you fit (or don’t fit) into society this way or that way or any way, except you’re, well…you. As soon as any exception starts to creep in, giving you lessons and telling you you need to be different somehow, and it infringes on the core message of God’s love for you, then we’ve lost our center. It makes you or culture or your worries or sin more powerful, more important than God.

So the ELCA—certainly not always, never exclusively, but with strong focus and intention—the ELCA conserves this message of God’s assessment of you in love as the primary declaration. We keep it when many others allow the good news to be overshadowed. At least on our good days, we recognize as most ultimate God’s passionate work for you. We don’t have a corner on that market. But it does mean other things shouldn’t become more imperative, like our sense of self or our pet projects or institutional preservation or social justice passions or views of the Other or past or plans or whatever. God loves you, beginning and end of story. Thesis statement. Main point. Anything else is a footnote.

For all those things that can mess it up, it’s ironic that it ends up being the focus on our history that’s problematic for us today, when we look to Luther and want to hold his superhero tradition so central, as if he’s an essential, banner aspect. Oops!

Back to the point about these Bible readings: they are intended to highlight the theological theme that Luther so clearly lifted up. But whereas we can find that theme reverberating under every Bible passage, these today are chosen not really to keep us centered in the message, but to remind us of Luther keeping us centered in the message.

So we have Psalm 46, which we sang just to remove any vague pretense; this Psalm was assigned for today because Luther’s paraphrase of it became a popular hymn. Sure, it’s a great Psalm, proclaiming that even when society is shaking and natural disasters storming, still we are held by God, “a refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Hopefully you got some of that as we sang. But maybe you mostly thought of Martin Luther.

The other readings do it, too. The end of the Romans reading is there as the direct language for the 16th Century framing of this. When the Evangelical Protesters were threatened with excommunication and possible death and had to give an accounting of their beliefs, this verse summarized the core, the doctrine on which the church stands or falls: justification by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Of course, that’s awful church-speak and not very illuminating to hear. Even if it is our alleged core, “justification” isn’t a helpful term. In our re-translation, it came across as “correct,” that there’s nothing you can finally say is wrong with your life, since you’ve been set right or deemed correct with God. Whatever was wrong has been corrected, and this flows into your other relationships.

That perspective is also the point of the Jeremiah reading, that what sets us right and renews our relationships isn’t the law, isn’t finger-wagging of shouds and oughts, isn’t that you’re so brow-beaten into doing exactly what you’re supposed to and threatened with punishment if not. It’s not that you’ve finally learned your lesson and try hard enough to love your neighbor. It’s simply that God won’t give up, won’t let you fall away, and God’s love flowing into you flows also out from you. You’ve got a new heart, brought about and effected by God having an awful memory when it comes to sin, even though God excels at remembering the promises for you.

But this reading about right relationships gets corrupted and corroded into antagonisms, with a disparaging view claiming that the old covenant was Catholicism versus the Reformers’ new faith. Still worse is to claim that Christianity is the new covenant, superseding Judaism. We keep falling into the old traps, in service of what we should be rallying against.

The language of Jesus, then, is that you’ve been freed. Trying to climb out of sin is like trying to climb out of your skin. There’s no way you can wriggle or squirm or run fast enough to do get away. In fact, trying just sinks you further in. But you’re no longer enslaved. You’re freed. Not having to earn your keep, but given the gift of inheritance, life, freedom from God.

So they’re all great Bible readings that lead to some very central stuff for us. But the pointer gets skewed because we end up using them to point to Martin Luther, point back five centuries.

That’s not okay if today becomes a history lesson, a rearview mirror, a self-congratulatory party, a retrospective, if the story stops at Luther.

But it can be okay, or better than okay, when it helps reinforce and resonate the core message of what God does for you, when you thank Luther on the way past, then continue to Jesus. It can be great when it gives you new life, when you are inspired and invigorated and ready to live. When you are comforted in knowing you are eternally loved. When security isn’t built on being the in-group but rests in Jesus.

See, this is still a word for today. Another of the ideas handed down to us is semper reformanda—always reforming. Reformation Sunday is because Jesus is still working on us, because this central message needs to be spoken and lived into our own time and place, into our lives, into every day and each moment.

So four quick examples of how we’re still and always reforming:cassock.jpg

  1. I’m reading a book recommended by Sarah Key called Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (That’s us, folks.) Pastor Lenny Duncan talks about having a prison record but coming into a Lutheran congregation and being told he was welcome at the communion table, no strings attached. That’s grace, and it changed him. But he also says if that’s really the message, we’ve horribly excluded and put down African Americans, and for the sake of the message we need to fix it. He points out that too long has “white is holy and black equals sin” (67). It’s at his suggestion that I’m wearing this black cassock today, among the ways God’s working and this church is still and always reforming.
  2. This afternoon, the synod Reconciling in Christ team is celebrating 10 years of the ELCA vote to be more inclusive to LGBTQ people. It was a step, but we need more. Still there’s way, way, way too much from the church that makes people not feel okay, feel at risk, feel incorrect because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. God loves you and that’s what makes you correct, so we need to figure out how everybody gets to hear that message. We’re still and always reforming.
  3. 500 years ago, some of the focus straightened out our relationship with God. Now we’re straightening out our relationship with all the other creatures, not thinking humans are the only important ones or that only we are loved by God. We practice this at the MCC, sometimes referred to as an Eco-Reformation. With our Earthkeeping liturgy today, we have some reminder of the spread of this work, which invites us to be still and always reforming.
  4. God loves You. You’re the last example. I don’t know how you need that message today, what difference it makes, what other insidious demonic voices it might shut down that have called you wrong, how this good news might well up inside of you, what it will do with your heart and what exactly is the new life you’ll live. But that assurance is your core: you’re always being made new, always given a fresh start, set free as a beloved child of God, still and always reforming.
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Health-to-Go

 sermon on Luke 17:11-19 and 2nd Kings 5:1-3,7-15c

 

What are we doing here? Where do we go from here? And where do we place ourselves in this reading? It makes a difference for our expectations of what is happening here.

These stories of course don’t directly fit our dividing lines as transferable to our setting. There’s the place of institutional religion, where priests operate and prayers and gratitude and devotion may be offered and things can be set right.

But Jesus is not in the place of religion. Neither was the prophet Elisha. So the people in these stories looking for healing didn’t go to the institution. They didn’t go to the priests. Even though we usually consider this our place of institutional religion, that might not be the equivalent encounter in the stories.

To make it one notch more complex, the church is not our parallel institution, by and large. Our place of medical healing—our institution—is the hospital or clinic. And the priests of the institution to pronounce who is well are the doctors or nurses. But, again, the story doesn’t have healing from the institutionalized professionals. It has Jesus.

That points us back here. Maybe we can ignore church as institution, and not focus on the so-called religious professionals (which is part of why I try to come across as pretty unprofessional). Maybe this is the place to bump into Jesus and be surprised by an unexpected word of blessing and healing.

Before we hear that word of blessing and healing, though, let’s pay attention to what we’re listening for. Neither Elisha nor Jesus has a stethoscope or MRI machine. They prescribe neither surgery nor pills. That’s not what Jesus needed to diagnose as the way to get healthy.

I’m going to try to draw a foggy line here by saying Jesus shows God is not most concerned about your illness or disease; God is most concerned about you. That’s a tough contrast because in many cases a sickness or health problem feels like the biggest worry, the thing you’d most like to have addressed or resolved.

In this distinction, it’s not that Jesus is ignoring or doesn’t care about your illness. But he doesn’t treat it in isolation or as superseding everything else.

In faith, we recognize health and healing as a matter of wholeness, not a matter of cure. Jesus isn’t isolating illness as if that’s all there is to you, as if what’s wrong has taken over everything about you. It’s not just treating an injury or removing germs or patching up parts. You’re not the sum of your vital signs or test results. Jesus is addressing the whole of you. He’s not saving you just from a single thing; he’s saving you for life.

I have heard some of you say while you’re sick that you don’t only want to be treated as sick, don’t want to be identified only by cancer, don’t want to be known for the problem, don’t want your relationships restricted to revolving around receiving for a small set of needs.

That’s what this sense of wholeness is about from God in Jesus, that you may have life and have it abundantly. It’s more than a doctor checking on a surgical follow-up. It’s how all of your life goes.

I know some health problems can be all-consuming, and our culture tries convincing us to expect we ought to be totally cured, and that’s what’s right. We do pray for those specifics, for direct relief, for successful procedures. We celebrate fine-tuned laparoscopic skill attending to the precise details, the science and wisdom for better alleviating pains and hurts.

But even when you’re not sick, it fosters such a narrow view of health and life—that food is only for balancing nutrients and counting calories, that exercise is for cardiovascular gain, that you need the right amount of this and not too much of that, and have to follow the rules and you’ll keep yourself right and then be fortunate enough to stay alive.

But this Jesus-model of fullness of life is sometimes embodied for us by those who can’t be cured, whose ailment may never change, who may even end up dying (just as all of us eventually will), but who are still vibrantly engaging life and know who they are.

Again, to draw a distinction: this isn’t about putting on a happy face even when you’re miserable and feeling rotten. It’s not about pretending nothing’s wrong. Our God of compassion is suffering with you. When things aren’t going well, I cry with you. That is our community responding with assistance, just as Sarah Key mentioned, so much that she wouldn’t wish away her ankle injury.

That also leads us to note that not everything is ever wrong. There is more to life, and there will be still more to come. Even in the worst, you are beloved by God and held by God and sustained in God’s promise. You are worthwhile to community. You are you.

The ten lepers in the story had a very particular version of this. Sure, their skin disease was problematic. But it may not have been all that much physical suffering. It may have been itchy ringworm or flaky psoriasis, which qualified among these skin diseases in this category.

The larger issue was that they were identified and entirely confined by the term “leprosy.” They had no other interaction with society besides being defined as lepers. They couldn’t work. They couldn’t live in town. They couldn’t go up to others and have a conversation. They had to call out from a distance with the disparaging yell, “Unclean! Unclean!” Imagine being required to claim that awful label for yourself! Being defined as wrong. They were quarantined from life’s goodness.

The healing, the wholeness, the salvation, the restoration from Jesus, then, is more than fresh unblemished skin. It’s the opportunity to interact in life and in relationships. This, and not mere remediation of medical maladies, is God’s intention.

That’s highlighted further that this is the God of all creation. So certainly the search for healing and wholeness won’t stop at national boundaries or be limited to the preferred insiders, but is exemplified by expanding to include enemy Syrian generals and heretical Samaritans, those who would be rejected as having no business receiving good from God or knowing God or praising God. Jesus’ mission will not allow anybody to be left out. It includes the the ill and immigrants, the unfaithful and the unkind, the proudly pretentious and the desperate and unknowing. We are all held in God’s intention for abundant life.

So God meets us sometimes not with showiness or miracles. It turns out miracles are too small for this big purpose. God comes with remarkable restoration and reassurance, with words of blessing and healing. This isn’t the fancy latest expensive technocratic highly-researched procedure. It can be a simple unspectacular washing in water, maybe like the small splash of this font that incorporates you by baptism into this caring community. Maybe it’s the spoken reminder that—of course!—God in Christ wants fullness of life for you, that just as it’s not ultimately dependent on your genes or your physical regimen or your attitude or your insurance plan, neither is it allotted in proportion to your faith. Your abundant God lavishes this gift of life on you and all creation. It may later be the whispering word that wakes you from the big nap, calling you into a new day of life, even beyond the grave, calling you to come out, blown along by the Spirit into a fresh breath of air.

Today it’s simply in the word “Go.” You have come today to this place not for medical diagnosis, not for small miracles, but to find an encounter with Jesus, to see how he addresses you and your needs. And his word is “Go.” Go back to life. Go live. Go be in relationships. Go into the world. Go away from the confines of culture and the limiting sense of illness. Go away from the identity that you did it wrong, that you need to do something else, that you should be different. Go. Just go and be. Go and do what you will. Go live in the world. Go experience God’s intentions.

Nine of the lepers heard that commission and they went, went off to live at last. One remained to supplement it with some praise and thanks to Jesus.

At this point, you too can listen to Jesus, sending you back into life. For some, that may be enough, that you got what you came for, and you can go on your way today and live. I mean that as an honest offer, for sure. Others may need more time, to give thanks or to pray and encounter Jesus and interact with God about illness and health and wholeness and life. Whichever is right for you today is what’s right.

I realize there’s a risk 90% of you might get up now and leave, that you listen to Jesus and Go. But finishing the service—the institutional rule-following with a religious professional—isn’t what’s important. It’s not the point. Just as we’re not here for minute medical management, we’re also not here for the religious institution. All this is always only in service of life, so that you can know God’s work is that you and all people and all creation may live.

So you can stay. Or, in the words of our commission from Jesus, you can “get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.”

 

 

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Youth-led Global Climate Strike interfaith rally

In my religious tradition, Jesus says “Let the children come to me. Do not hinder them.”

Today, the children are coming.
They are coming out from school.
They’re coming from around the state.
They’re coming from around the world.
They’re coming up East Wash.
They’re coming on strike.
They’re coming to make their voices heard.
They’re coming to confront our fairly ignorant and greenwashing power company,
and coming to confront a governor steeped in education who in this instance has yet to recognize their youthful value and validity.
They’re coming with strength.
They’re coming with courage.
They’re coming with audacity.
They’re coming to change the future.
The children are coming to help us all.

As Jesus suggested, let’s not hinder them.
Let the children come.

Though Jesus didn’t and I don’t mean it as a put down, some of the youth involved in this day might not prefer to be called children. That’s because there’s still a notion in society that children should be kept in their place, that they don’t have the standing we adults do, that we’ll take care of business, that we know better.

Well, these youth today are saying we don’t know better. Or maybe more clearly that we know plenty and haven’t done anything about it. It’s not business as usual.

Jesus says don’t hinder the children, but that’s what we’ve been up to. We’ve hindered them by not paying attention. We hinder them by not paying attention to their future or their children’s future on this planet we’re leaving them. With our fossil fuel pollution, we are reducing the potential for their lives and for any life to flourish. Not only hindering, we are contributing to death, an enormous cost for our cheap present.

If we consider ourselves protectors of children, we’ve just about blown it. If we claim to want to keep our children safe, we’re falling down on the job. If we say we want them to succeed in life, we’re actively obstructing that pathway.

70618276_10156662548288785_5465442362010370048_nInstead, they’re picking up the pieces and taking care of us. They are the responsible ones. They are the faithful ones. As our house burns, they sound the alarm and act like it’s an emergency. In this moment, that’s our source of hope, and so Jesus is exactly right: let the children come.

Jesus also spoke of scary times, of destruction and devastation. He talked of natural disasters and conflicts and hunger and war. He spoke of darkened skies and when powers will topple. He didn’t say it to make is desperate or focus on the negative. It was a warning to put the powers on notice.

We’re at that kind of moment now, of so much apparently bad news. We watch it happen around us in so many headlines and sometimes in our own backyards. Jesus says this is just the beginning and tells us to keep awake.

We’re here because we’re awake.
We look to the children, the youth, because they’re awake.
We know the hour is late because we’re awake.
We watch it happen with open eyes because we’re awake.
We know the ripples and far effects because we’re awake.
We are reasonable and realistic and we’re awake.
We are eager for action because we’re awake.

Maybe you’re here today because, like me, you’re often scared of what this beginning is. It’s already so dreadful that I fear it getting any worse, and it stands to get a lot worse. I know it’s mostly not affecting me. But it is hitting the vulnerable already—the young, the poor, people who don’t look like me or live like me, and millions of other species. The whole world is shaking.

And this could be the beginning of the end. Or it may mean that this shaking world will shake up things and topple those power structures, that the death of some of that old will give birth and give rise to new life. It’s the 11th hour, 11 years remaining for meaningful action. Time is short, so we’d better not be asleep on the job. We need to be awake.

So we don’t shut our eyes to this reality. We don’t look only with fearful eyes. We gaze wide awake at the difficult present with visions of the vibrant hopeful future. We’re going to be part no longer of hindering, but now enjoy the role of fostering life across this big beautiful world. We look even with joy in our eyes, knowing this can be fun, that we’re in it together, that life is the best. We’re here today and we’re going to keep awake.

A better future is on the way. Let the children come.

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Dishonest Mammon

 sermon on Luke 16:1-13

This is almost the kind of Bible reading I like. I appreciate when there’s difficulty and we really have to wrestle with it to find some good news from God for our lives. I particularly dislike readings that become simple lessons, like that we should be nice to each other.

I say I almost really like it because even with trying to wring out stray drops of God’s goodness, this remains confusing and obscure. Liberation theologian and historian Justo Gonzalez nicely summarized:

It is not uncommon to see on our church windows portrayals of a father receiving a son who had strayed [which was the story just before this], or of a sower spreading seed, or of a Samaritan helping the [person] by the roadside. But I have never seen a window depicting a man with a sly look, saying to another, ‘Falsify the bill, make it less than it really is.’ Yet it is precisely this sort of man that the parable turns into an example…a man who is undoubtedly a scoundrel; and yet it praises him and his wisdom!*

That idea of a sly scoundrel in stained glass rejuvenates some of my fondness for this odd parable. Again, anything that smacks of too much holier-than-thou piety doesn’t get traction with me, but finding a down-and-dirty God tussling through the real muck of our lives is exactly what we need. We’re in trouble and God isn’t much help if God can’t operate in shady deals or keeps God’s hands clean from the sly scoundrels and remains removed from fraud and other suspicious economics.

And this is definitely economics. The actual Greek word for this manager is economist. A direct explanation from that word is that he keeps the household in order. This economist, however, may not have been keeping very good order. It’s said he squandered the resources. Maybe he was an old-time embezzler or the new model of self-serving capitalist.

Or maybe he was actually doing things right and the accusations against him were false. This is still the place of vulnerability: the boss has power to fire the workers. Without some sort of union muscle or labor law, there’s little protection for those underdogs. Positions are terminated without cause. Whole plants are shuttered at the whims of the stock market or of CEOs. Boards redirect funds. Prejudice plays into performance reviews and people are scorned.

Whether or not the guy in the story was actually squandering the property, the master decided to get rid of him. In this ancient case, the relationship was even more fraught and dangerous because the employee was a slave, which we’d quickly say doesn’t provide ideally supportive conditions.

This desperate and so-called dishonest manager decides to reach out to his peers. He knows others who are in dire circumstances as well. These peasant farmers and laborers were indebted and maybe indentured to this master. It’s estimated that in that time and place 35-40% of agrarian produce had to be given over in fees and taxes.

And even though it was directly prohibited by biblical law, still one writer observed that “Rich landlords and rulers were loan-sharks, using exorbitant interest rates to amass more land and to disinherit peasants of their family land.”** Perhaps that’s also economically familiar?

This manager knew these people could hardly afford to live. He knew it because his was that uncomfortable position of having to collect from them, to reach deep into their threadbare pockets and demand what they owed.

He offers a startling reversal of that. Nobody knows what the numbers mean, why he reduces 450 gallons of olive oil and 75 bushels of wheat, why the manager took ½ off one and 20% off the other.

It may be the similar value of 500 denarii, equivalent to a pretty unpayable debt of 500 days’ wages, maybe even owed by a whole hungry village barely scraping by.

It may be that he was eliminating the hidden interest, in which case the master’s praise could’ve been putting on a show of gratitude for paying attention to the law of God and of the land.

It may simply be that those amounts were all they could afford to pay. In that case, it could’ve been that the master’s compliment meant it was shrewd to get cash-in-hand versus a lingering IOU.

Or maybe the master just observes it was a clever plan to get on somebody’s good side, but it’s not a compliment and fires him anyway.

The place of the master and what is resolved in the story remain confusing.

For one thing, it’s worth noting that the Gospel of Luke is always on the side of the poor, the side of slaves, the side of the dispossessed. The constant refrain is forgiveness of debts, reversals of fortunes. The righteous are those who support the poor, and justice means sharing.

But here is a strange twist where the manager is called dishonest, a word that can also be translated unrighteous or unjust. Is the manager “unjust” for breaking down the abusive economic system, but following God’s justice? Jesus’ mother Mary sings before his birth how the hungry are filled with good things and the rich sent away empty, how God’s arm scatters the haughty. That word scattered is the same word in today’s reading for squandered. But was the manager’s squandering that he dispersed and redistributed his master’s wealth to others? In the end, did this manager manage not to squander and scatter but to gather and support?

Then there’s the capper line. Jesus says, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth—or unjust mammon—so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Is he being sarcastic: “Sure, go ahead and make friends with cheats and see how well it helps you in the end”? Is it a comment on subverting an already corrupt economic system? Is the suggestion to make friends an emphasis on community instead of exploitation for selfish gain? Does Jesus just like sly scoundrels?

I know that’s a lot of thoughts, a lot to sort through. And we ask, so what?

Certainly we can feel the relief, the surprise, the amazing grace of debt forgiveness. You may know burdens of student loans or bad mortgages, of regrettable credit card purchases. You can almost certainly feel the emotional weight of indebted feelings, of not being able to repay somebody and not being good enough to earn your way back to an equal standing, even if it’s just because of a small kindness or your thinking you don’t measure up. We shouldn’t forget developing nations saddled with loans from the International Monetary Fund where they can’t even pay the interest with 100% of their GDP.

Jesus may commend subverting those systems, to offer surprising forgiveness, to be part of the reversal of debt structure, to shock others with generosity. He knew the manager was in a risky place and there is an element in this story of sabotaging the dominant structure for a new form of justice. With conniving grace, Jesus will make friends with the sly scoundrels. And Jesus longs for that relief for you, especially when things are desperate.

 

mammon

Mammon, from The Infernal Dictionary,
by Louis Le Breton, 1863

Without direct clarity from the story, or the emphatic insistence of Amos, we do have the final sentence: you can’t serve God and Mammon. It’s more helpful to keep that old word than to try to translate in money or wealth. Mammon is connected to a Hebrew word for profit and becomes its own god.

So we may realize that worshipping our God cannot be equated with bowing down to profit. Whatever this story is of cheating and tricking and trying to come out with friends while eliminating debts, in the end a structure that is built on profit is proclaimed by Jesus to be in direct opposition to our God.

This, of course, implicates our economy immensely. We’re sometimes convinced that the purpose of life is making more money and that equates success or failure. We are living in the reality of a system built around profit. Workers suffer because the system is built around cutting costs to maximize profits. Families falter because student loans are more about profit than about education and potential. Nations linger in hunger because of interest and debt. Even our identities are subjected to marketing that tells us we’re not good so that a profit can be made by selling us products allegedly to improve. The #GlobalClimateStrike led by youth on Friday is exactly caused because quarterly profits of fossil fuel companies and shareholders have been seen as more important than life on this planet.

It is clear and easy to see the sin, to see that such reckless selfishness is not God’s way. If our pursuit is profit, is the bottom line, we are serving Mammon and not devoted to God and not following Jesus.

But when you’re indentured to the rich landowners, what are you going to do about it? How do you get away from oil companies and bosses and corporations that lock you in to an economic structure of subservient debt?

Jesus says you can begin being faithful in very small things. That’s something.

The challenge we have today is that this system is big and mean.

The blessing you may wrestle from today is that our down and dirty God is invested in overturning the rotten corrupt selfish system. “The captive to release, to teach the way of life and peace, it is a Christ-like thing” (ELW 686). And even when it doesn’t go as God intends, still from the beginning to the end, this is God’s creation, God’s world, God’s kingdom. We are living in God’s economy, God’s household, not fending for ourselves, but held in God’s trust fund of life.

 

 

* Justo Gonzalez, Luke, p190-191

** Barbara Rossing at https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982

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Finder Keeper

meditative reflections on Luke 15:1-10 and Exodus 32:7-14

 

“They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them.”

The sad assessment comes from our first reading, which is going to give us the story of the golden calf. It’s set at the base of Mount Sinai. God had just done powerful miracles with conviction on behalf of the people, announcing God’s people should be free from slavery, and trying to force the government to stop abusing these resident aliens, then finally busting through the armed forces and bursting past impenetrable barriers. God parted the Red Sea. They were free but hungry, so God gave bread from heaven. They were roaming without direction, so God called Moses to give commandments and order.

While Moses is up on the mountain, a mountain shrouded in fire and smoke with thunder rolling and the trumpet blast, right there under that very visible and convincing presence, the people nevertheless grow skeptical. He’s gone. So they turn away. Quickly turning aside, they look for something else. They gather their jewelry and have Moses’s brother make a cow. In theatrics that would have been as ludicrous then as now, they start genuflecting and prostrating and bowing down to this gilded graven image and saying “O, this shiny little toy we just made saved us from Pharaoh!”

Yup, pretty foolish. Somebody should’ve elbowed them and said, Uh, the real God is right up there on the mountain, see? Don’t you think God might notice and get a little peeved? A little bit of credit for all the hard work seems well-deserved. Or at least wait until God’s back is turned before mocking so blatantly.

Again, with melodramatic theatrics in the story, we might tend to shake our heads at the dolts. We at least have the good sense not to go ga-ga over a gold calf. The golden goose that grabs our gander is usually less flamboyant. We’d like to belittle those ancient people for treating something they just created as if it were the thing that had saved them, as if what they manufactured were better than they were, while we throw our devotions and attentions all sorts of directions and offer ourselves to all manner of silly things.

But I don’t want to bother enumerating where our wealth or our praise or inventions or time or interest goes. I just want to highlight that we find ourselves in the same result as the story.

They were at the foot of Mount Sinai, divine pyrotechnics blazing away over their heads, blisters of salvation still on their feet, Passover supper still winding its way through their lower GI tract just as they were winding tracks through the wilderness. But they forgot. They turned away. God seemed absent, and God’s goodness seemed distant.

It probably shouldn’t have. But it did. So they looked elsewhere. They looked to Moses’s brother. They looked to a lump of gold. They looked to a new party. They weren’t awful people. They weren’t trying to be idolatrous or blasphemous. They weren’t wanting to get it wrong. They didn’t intend to create a false new god or stray from their religion or forget goodness. They maybe should’ve known better. But they didn’t.

So God responds by sending Moses to preach to them, to call them back, to remind them of the relationship.

We gather here, reminded of the relationship, to have God’s goodness preached to us again. Our attentions and devotions have been elsewhere. It isn’t our repentant religiosity that restores us. It isn’t that we are so contrite, that we pray our way back into grace, that we bow even more heartily to the correct God. Our “Kyrie eleison” is understanding for ourselves that we are quick to turn. And then we sing the glory of God who welcomes us back with joy.

 

 

Sinful sheep and repentant coins. Odd characters, these.

If you’re like me, a first reaction to these lost parables may be a perturbed disappointment. I guess I place myself with the flock of 99 sheep and wonder why there isn’t joy in the presence of the angels of God over me.

Of course that’s self-justifying and a presumptuous view of myself. In the end, there really are no 99 sheep. There is only the one sheep, repeated at least 100 instances. We learned that from the gathering at the base of Mount Sinai, turning so quickly astray, following our appetites and our desires and losing track of the God who would seek always to save and bless us.

Though even that is not quite the right picture. That still leaves us to blame, feeling guilty that we couldn’t keep focus. Or maybe we get argumentative that the other things weren’t just idle distractions but were worth our attention and dedication. We may either be filled with regret, feeling that we’ve done too much wrong. Or we may resent if we’re told to repent.

But that doesn’t match these odd characters Jesus sets in front of us. As Emmy Kegler reminds us in her book titled for this passage, the coin didn’t do anything wrong to get lost. The sheep is just being a sheep.* If we’re identifying with these odd characters, it really isn’t about repentance as feeling regret. It’s not that we did something bad. About the only detail we have to hold onto is about relationship and about separation. If we can’t say it was a particularly sinful coin or especially evil sheep, if we can’t say why they got lost, if we can’t say whether the shepherd God or the homeowner God should’ve kept closer track, we don’t know. All we know is that she wants them back. She wants the separation to end, to be in relationship with you, to have you near.

This is a God who goes on the hunt for you, sweeping into every dark and dirty corner, a God down on her hands and knees to push aside the dust bunnies and questions of how good a housekeeper she is to begin with, persevering after you, a God even born into this messy world to come find you.

As complex as it is, as easy as it is to find yourself lost over and over again, still our statement of faith will recognize your glimmering feeling that you want to be found.

And though I believe this God is so persistent that she’ll find you wherever you are and will not let you remain lost, still I would also say that here in church is maybe the best and easiest place to be found. It’s here that you again and again have the promise that God loves you, is looking for you, won’t let you remain lost.

 

 

“This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Some grumbling people think that that would shame Jesus, would be an indicator that he’s doing something wrong. They were trying to keep pure, to follow not only etiquette but also the way they allegedly could be closer to God. It involved details not only of who but of how, how was the food prepared, in what. It came with lots of risk of contamination and loss of holiness, especially from those who should’ve been kept out. But here Jesus flagrantly was disregarding the health code and putting himself on the wrong side of his religion.

But Jesus wasn’t ashamed. Of course, that’s exactly where he wants to be. Some people say that any time you try to draw a line of who is in or to put up a fence, Jesus is going to be on the other side. Jesus exactly wants to welcome and eat with sinners.

This table we’re turning to now was originally set by Jesus on the night he was betrayed. It was for his betrayer. It was for the closest friend who would shortly deny three times even knowing him. It’s for those who would flee when their faith turned to fear.

This meal he set was recalling the meal on the night before Moses led those people into the wilderness, commemorating God’s relationship with a people who wanted not only to be free from slavery but often even from God and each other. Of course Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. That’s exactly the kind of God we have.

The best thing you can do, then, as we gather at this table is to find yourself among the sinners. Don’t draw the line that would claim you’re so good that you wouldn’t have a place at this banquet of sinners, this feast for finding the lost and bringing us back in together, even the grumblers. Jesus wants to eat with you. He’s been on the hunt to find you, to bring you back, even over and over, to keep you in God’s goodness and eternal embrace.

“When she has found you, she calls friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me.’” That’s what’s happening here at this table. Our God has found you, welcomes you, and she wants us all to rejoice at this party feast that you’ve been found again.

 

* One Coin Found, p2-4

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