Unclear Signs

sermon on John 2:1-11

 

This story gets me into trouble.

The first instance was when I was maybe in middle school, and with this Bible passage made my mom even more upset than she had been at me before. See, I had called her “woman.” She wasn’t too pleased about me referring to her that way. I pointed out that Jesus called his mom “woman,” saying “woman, what concern is that to me and you?” so she was discounting Jesus as my role model. That odd biblical trivia from a time in life when I wasn’t paying much attention surely is an indicator I’ve always been a smart… something. (A smart aleck.)

Now I have more reason to know Bible stories, and I find this one getting me into trouble for a different reason. See, this story of turning water into wine is the second most typical request or pseudo-expectation of what being a pastor might mean. With the odd presumption that I’m closer to Jesus (which I’m not), this turns to the playful suggestion that I also could liven up the party by conjuring some wine. If Jesus could suddenly make 180 gallons of primo wine out of stale water, well…I can’t. (If you’re wondering, in this sort of category the most typical request of pastors is to do something about the weather. I can’t do that, either.)

But how this story most gets me into trouble is because I just don’t get it. If this is the first of Jesus’ signs, signs are supposed to indicate something, to point us in the right direction. But what exactly is this miraculous sign pointing to? It’s not clear.

For me, there’s at least a hint here that Jesus loved a party and the delights of life, that following Jesus isn’t about struggle and cross-bearing all the time, but is also about celebrating loving relationships and enjoying plenty of good drink and making merry. I figure his attitude is some of why we ourselves celebrate at weddings.

Or maybe more than permission for us to cut loose, it could signify that God is not a God of stinginess but of abundance. The finest abundance, not to keep cellared but breaking it out to share flagrantly. That metaphor seems like it could fit our Creator.

Or maybe it’s more direct than God providing our general festivities. At the end of the next chapter, in his last appearance, John the Baptist will refer to Jesus as the bridegroom. So is this miracle supposed to be a celebration of us being wedded to Jesus (as it has it some places in the Bible)? As I hold onto those possibilities, I’m not sure exactly what the sign means.

And if I consider those might be what this sign is indicating, for the kind of Christian who would frequently put a lot more stock in miracles than I do and who would be eager to accept each word of the Bible as factual accuracy, they may actually point away instead of following this direction. There are some of those literalist and fundamentalist sorts of believers who don’t approve of drinking and so would have to explain away this first sign or ignore something of what it might be indicating.

It’s not only piety that could shape an aversion to this or that our sense of propriety seemed to be (rather backwardly) of a higher standard than God’s interest. There are good reasons to object, obviously foremost including too many instances of alcohol abuse, where an abundance of wine would not be so positive a sign. We distort gifts of God’s goodness in our lives by overconsumption. This sign has that ambiguity, other problems complicating the clarity of its goodness.

But, to reorient, this isn’t probably best conceived as a sign to tell us what God thinks about drinking wine.  This is a sign pointing to God in Jesus.

So maybe we are meant to see God incarnate in Jesus since Jesus can do God’s work of making wine, which we could superstitiously take as the magic of turning grape juice into a fermented beverage. Or maybe more scientifically we appreciate the aspect of God bringing rainfall and growth of grapes. Or God’s work in the mystical edge of how people fall in love. And so on.

But even before trying to figure that out, I can’t help but notice that if this sign is supposed to be showcasing something about Jesus, it seems to do kind of a lousy job. It says this revealed his glory, or made it manifest. Good words for this Epiphany season—reveal and manifest. After his arrival at Christmas, this is a season about helping us understand who Jesus is.

Yet within the story, he’s not really revealed. All of it happens behind the scenes. The closest is a parenthetical comment that the servants knew where the winey water came from when the chief steward tasted it, who then went to congratulate or praise the bridegroom. Jesus gets no credit. So much for his glory. Nobody really seems to know this miracle could be attributed to him. It could’ve just as well been claimed by Wanda the Wondermaker, seated across from Jesus at the banquet table. Maybe Jesus needed to work on his magician’s showmanship and throw some big Voilas and TaDas with a swish of his cape or something.

The thing is, this notion of signs is a pretty big deal in John’s Gospel, but it never really resolves to be clear indicators, at least in the way we’d expect. Signs get mentioned 17 times through the story, but mainly seem to add to confusion rather than clarity in revealing the work of God in Jesus.

The multiplication of bread and fish to feed 5000 is one of the signs, but mostly it increased the people’s appetite for bread rather than making them hunger for Jesus. The healing of a man blind from birth is described as something never done before, but that sign created an argument over whether Jesus was a sinner. And the final and greatest sign of Jesus’ life was calling four-day dead Lazarus out of his tomb, but this resuscitation from death didn’t resolve that Jesus was the giver of life; rather it made the authorities determine to kill him. Against the whole purpose of the signs, and of the Gospel of John itself—that these were so you may believe in Jesus—the summary word at the end of his ministry was “Although he had performed many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him” (12:37).

The reverse troubling side to me is that while they had signs that didn’t make a difference, we want signs we don’t get. We may say that if we could see, we’d believe. We just ask for a sign from God, a clear indicator, something that can make us know and trust. So people would like it if I could change water to wine. Following that advancing pattern in the Gospel, being able to multiply bread and feed the hungry could provide great relief. We deeply long for cures to our illnesses and infirmities. Finally, in a question of proliferating signs already asked in the Gospel story itself (11:37): if Jesus could call Lazarus out of the tomb, how come Jesus isn’t still doing that now?

I suppose there’s an edge of being able to say that we know from the story that he did it, so we are able to believe in Jesus, that it’s not about changing all the water to wine or about resuscitating every last dead person. Or maybe we say that these are isolated indicators of God’s larger work, that God is striving to feed the hungry and will indeed raise us all from death into eternal life.

I guess my final difficulty with signs is that I distrust them. That’s not where I want to hang my theological cap, since signs seem so much to be the opposite of what we’re up to here. Scripture says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Hope and faith don’t have clear revelation. They remain bound with doubt and uncertainty, as unsettling as that is.

It may rightly make us wonder how we can be so assured and convinced when we have no proof, no clear sign. With that surprising sense, I want to share words from Martin Luther King. He said:

In recent months I have also become more and more convinced of the reality of a personal God….In the past years the idea of a personal God was little more than a metaphysical category which I found theologically and philosophically satisfying. Now it is a living reality that has been validated in the experiences of everyday life. Perhaps the suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments which I have had to undergo occasionally as a result of my involvement in a difficult struggle have drawn me closer to God….In the midst of outer dangers I have felt and inner calm and known resources of strength that only God could give. In many instances I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose.*

There’s surprise in that for me, because Dr. King’s sign pointed the opposite direction we’d expect. He doesn’t say that he can believe and trust God because the efforts for justice in the Civil Rights movement were advancing so well, much less because he was inexplicably saved from the assassin’s knife. It wasn’t in abundance or what we call blessing that he was convinced of God and confident in hope, but rather in suffering, frustration, and agonizing moments.

I wouldn’t try to commend struggles to you so that you could have a sign of God. But I suppose that with Dr. King there are many of us who admit that that can be the case, who know that when the going gets tough, that’s exactly when faith is such a strong and apparent resource.

Maybe that’s also why the Gospel of John doesn’t find Jesus manifest in glory as one whom everybody understands and likes, where it’s a party whenever he’s around, and who does just what we want and gives us everything we ask, but instead says that the clearest sign of God is as Jesus is lifted up on the cross. That is glory. That is our sign.

So might it be that we usually look the wrong direction? We figure the sign points to an end result. But maybe these stories aren’t that the sign is more wine, more bread, more health, longer life. Maybe it’s that through Jesus we’re also supposed to see God showing up in the lack, when we’re in tears and confronting death, amid the exclusions and disabilities of our bodies and of culture, when we’re hungering for more, and even amid the shame and social distress and hospitality failure of a spoiled party when the wine has run out. At those moments of despair, large and small, maybe we’re realizing God’s presence comes to those low and hurting and deadly places.

And further in that way, rather than a faith that goes hunting to discover God in each little glimmer or that tries to attribute the coincidences of fermenting yeast and healing of cells and averting of death, rather than that guesswork and chasing after our own imagined signs or their lack, I trust the God who is with us in sorrow and torment, who isn’t waiting to show up in odd phenomena, but who has promised to be found fully and infinitely present in a remarkably small tidbit of bread and non-abundant sip of wine, in the water of the font joining you to death and the hope of resurrection, and this Word of God—that was from the beginning—speaking to you even with the voice of a wisenheimer who was rude to his mother. That’s our revelation, the sign of this hidden God, as unspectacular and unclear as it may be, and those very regular and inglorious places are just where we need God to be found.

 

* in A Testament of Hope, p40

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Earl John SchoffThumbnail

December 16, 1943 + December 28, 2017

Matthew 2:1-11, Psalm 23

 

My two tasks in this sermon are, first, to remind us the good news of God with us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and that his life, death, and resurrection are connected to and blessing for John’s own birth, life, death, and what is still to come.

My second task is to keep it short. Because in a worship service John always had the timer running, pointing to his watch, and so it wouldn’t be right if I failed to honor that sense of him now at his service.

So before the clock ticks too much, I’ll jump straight in with my first task. It probably seems like an unusual Gospel reading to hear about the wise men and baby Jesus at this funeral service, so I’ll explain why it seemed fitting to me. See, today is January 6, the 13th day after Christmas. You may be more familiar with the 12 days of Christmas. That’s because the season stops on day 13 with a new festival called Epiphany. And Epiphany is marking the visit of the wise men and how Jesus is made known in a shining star and adored by these gift-bearing visitors.

I suppose I have to admit I’m kind of a church nerd and since this used to be one of the biggest celebrations of the year, outshining even Christmas, but since it passes with almost no attention these days, well, you might think I’m just inflicting this on you since you happened to show up today for a church service here at the funeral home.

But it’s not that I’ve got a captive audience. No. With this coincidence of the calendar, I was thinking that this story applied well for John, that those gifts that the magi brought, of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, fit with his life and his relationship with God.

So an easy place to start is with frankincense. It’s often understood that the wise men brought it as a religious symbol, representing the holiness of this baby Jesus and how he would be a priest on our behalf. The frankincense was marking the sacrifices of the temple and prayerful devotion. “Let my prayer rise as incense,” it says in a Psalm. Such religious devotion was apparent in John. Always identifying with his family’s Catholic background, I recall him sitting in the back row of the congregation during the Lutheran church service, quietly praying the rosary (which Lutherans don’t normally do!). Like a wise man bringing a gift of frankincense, John showed holy devotion to God.

That brings me to the second gift: gold. This one we don’t need to think of as a metaphor for something else; we can take it as plain old gold or wealth that the wise men brought as a gift in adoration of Jesus.

Since we’re keeping track of John’s timer for the service, I can tell you that as he pointed to his watch, telling me even before the service got started that I should be quick to wrap it up, sometimes John’s timekeeping came with an observation something like, “Those slots won’t play themselves.” If you’d say that in addition to his devotion to participating prayerfully at church that he was a dedicated participant in the casino, it also came back around and the two meshed together because he’d also report back that he was going to be adding to the offering plate as it went by because he’d had a good day of winning. John didn’t value wealth only for its own sake but understood its place amid his commitment to God, as a response to God’s blessing and goodness for him.

That brings us, finally, to myrrh. Of the gifts that the wise men brought, this one may be the strangest. If you don’t really know what myrrh was, you’re in a pretty good place to understand it, here at the funeral home. Myrrh was used as an embalming oil, an aromatic ointment to anoint the dead. Within the story, from his birth it is a marker that Jesus would go on to face death, and that he would suffer for our sake, but that not even that could separate us from the love of God.

For John, it marks in another way the finger pointing at the watch, that our days are numbered and eventually our time is up. We in some ways can cherish that with him because he survived through some pretty desperate medical moments in the decade I most knew him. But we are also confronted with it now because his life was over too quickly and suddenly.

And yet, with that reminder of myrrh, we remember that even in death, as much as that has temporarily severed our relationship with John and we consider it a terrible loss, it has not cut him off from God and, therefore, not finally separated us from being reunited with him. John is bound to the death of Jesus, and also to his resurrection. The anointing of myrrh, the embalming of death, is not the end. In baptism, where John was anointed as a baby with the chrism oils by the priest, in that was a gift from God to him. We repeated something of that long ago baptismal promise as we voiced together our Psalm: You anoint my head with oil, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

That’s about the shortest sermon I’ve managed to give, and with that, I’d better stop, because otherwise somebody will tap their watch. But remember, the best is yet to come.

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No Year’s Resolutions

sermon on John 1:19-34

 

Last week it was angels and shepherds. This week it’s John the Baptist.

Last week, angels were directing our attention toward a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And then shepherds brought us along for a visit as they shared the news.

This week, John the Baptist is out in the wilderness, with a similar role of pointing to Jesus.

I don’t want to spend all our time this morning on Bible study comparisons of the gospels and on recounts explaining history, but will say that for a while, we understand John to have been more popular and attractive, to have more of a following than Jesus. The other gospels say crowds were going out from Jerusalem and the surrounding country to hear him. Somewhat like Jesus, John was arrested and killed for being seen as dangerously revolutionary. That level of acclaim and influence seems to have persisted even after his death.

The other gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—give more of a portrait, with descriptions of John’s curious wardrobe and peculiar diet, and his message with baptism of repentance drawing the masses out to the wilderness.

With that message about sins and calling for radical reorientation in our life, I’d note that we usually hear these passages about John the Baptist in the middle of Advent. They can be awfully demanding and dour words in a season when we want to focus on cheer and all being merry and bright. With odd disjunctions in how our usual lectionary and liturgical year fit together, if we think about Advent as preparation for Christmas, remember that John wasn’t pointing toward a Messiah by getting ready for a birth; this is already when Jesus is an adult. And John’s preparing the way of the Lord isn’t the adornment and accumulation of the holidays, but is about clearing things away.

So maybe it actually feels more appropriate and fits better today, as you’ve cleared away some of the Christmas detritus and perhaps begun to clean up and pack away the ornamentation. Maybe that makes you feel ready to address straightening things out.

Indeed, that version of John the Baptist from other gospels may seem especially timely for us starting a new year, in these days that cause us to look back in reflection, to assess our lives, to take stock and resolve what needs to change. This transition to the new year can be a repentance moment.

And that may be some of the reason for John’s enduring popularity. He’s the self-help sort of figure. Evidently it’s not just us, but those ancient crowds also that like self-improvement projects and find them to be an endless diversion. There’s always something about ourselves we’d change, that we wish were different, that we feel to our core is a little rotten, is not quite right. Those ancient crowds could head out for a retreat of wilderness renewal, for the washing of water to give a sense of a fresh start, with assistance and direction from a guru instructing them exactly what they needed to do and how to practice being better.

The thing is, though, that’s not why we mark the enduring legacy of John the Baptist. And the Gospel of John focuses more directly on his importance for us as a secondary sort of character. In the Gospel of John, the main point isn’t his background baptizing or his potential in preaching repentance and radical reorientation of our lives and values. His central identity here is as John the Testifier or John the Witness. He is sent by God so that everyone might believe through him, it says. Which is saying something pretty big.

And yet for the huge importance of that role, he spends his time pointing away from himself. It’s emphasized and reiterated in our reading today: “he confessed and did not deny it, but confessed.” I am not! He said he was not the Messiah, not the anointed and chosen one.

He said he was not Elijah, the prophet we met this fall in conversation with the still, small voice of God, who was taken up into heaven and expected to return. That’s an interesting one, since the other gospels specifically try to associate him with Elijah, including as the reason he’s wearing that curious wardrobe. It’s so strongly connected that our Old Testament is arranged to end with the book of Malachi with the final words, “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” which leads into the appearance of John the Baptist at the start of the New Testament in Matthew.

But here John says he’s not Elijah. And he says he is not the prophet. Even though he was out at the Jordan River to guide people back into the Promised Land, he distances himself from being identified with the prophet Moses said would follow in his footsteps as a leader. So there could be reason to see John in those roles, enacting those expectations.

But he says he’s not. He’s just a pointer to Jesus. That is his central role and identity, as a witness to the light. A billboard, and advertisement, as Linda said. John the Testifier. A penultimate, secondary character, who ranks lower.

The point of all of this is Jesus.

Well…so you may not be entirely surprised by that, at least until you stop to consider it. I think there is a fair amount of presumption that church and the practice of faith is really about making you a better person, that we think primarily of our self-improvement projects and resolving that we’ll be a little nicer and more helpful and holier in the coming year.

But that is pretty hopelessly self-centered, and with fairly bleak prospects. The reason we keep making new new year’s resolutions is because we keep failing. The reason there are always new diets and new workouts and new tips for healthy living is because we remain so unsuccessful, frustrated even at convincing ourselves we’re doing fine.

And I suspect a fair amount of our prayers and ponderings as we gather here weekly to confess are reflecting on the parts of ourselves we’d like to improve, and that there’s a broad sense of sermons as encouraging little pep-talks to send you back into life motivated to try again, with some notion that maybe by the end you’ll be able to sneak by as good enough to make it in to heaven.

But that’s not the point. That’s not the central message or why we’re here. That’s not why John is important to us. He points, points away from ourselves, points to Jesus. And as we continue in the weeks ahead with this fourth gospel, we’ll have the benefit of having our gaze continually refocused on Jesus. He himself is our core, the reason we’re here, the point of it all.

But that keeps coming with surprise. Last week those angels and shepherds pointed to the surprise of a baby in a barn, which pointed directly away from the usual expectations. The proclamation about the birth of a savior, the lord, and the son of god were words that usually indicated Caesar, the leader of the Roman Empire, the absolute ultimate central pinnacle of power. So an outcast baby in a backwater barn at the edge of the Empire, visited not by wealthy aristocrats and fierce generals and influential politicians, but attended only by shepherds, well, that would’ve been the opposite of any indicator of prestige or power or potential.

The Messiah who will come to save us, and the sign is a baby?! That’s certainly not the mighty new King David that the people were anticipating and yearning for. We get it wrong not only in thinking that it’s about us and how well we’re doing by society’s standards or God’s measurements, but also wrong in what we hope for or expect when God shows up for us.

So in a similar surprising way today, we get the same reversal of expectations with John’s pointing personality. We have the sense of what the people are looking for in their questions to John—they want a Messiah, probably meaning one to come and drive out the bad guys. They want an Elijah, a mystical undying miracle worker who drops down out of heaven to bring about God’s final vision. They want a prophet like a new Moses to guide them out of wilderness wanderings and lead them into a Promised Land. That’s what the people want, and we probably could agree with wanting a messiah to straighten out society and get things running right again, or somebody to show up with all the answers, to save us from our troubles, to be a great leader, with some sort of moral revolution, with panache and power and in whom we can be proud.

But not only does John the Baptist reject the claim to be any of those things, he won’t point to Jesus as fulfilling them either. He sees Jesus walking by and points his long bony finger and says, “There’s the one. Jesus. He’s the lamb.”

The lamb?!

Lambs aren’t especially known for their military might. They’re weaklings. They’re not known for their leadership capabilities, since they’re mostly apt to roam astray. They’re common, regular livestock not known as much of anything special. What they are known for is dying, for offering blood for a Passover marker and serving as dinner. With our ongoing surprise, John points to Jesus and says that that’s him, and that’s what this is all about.

As I was visiting family and friends in Eau Claire this past week, almost every conversation turned to assess the state of our lives and world through this past year and deeply asking what we can change or do about it. I know this congregation holds those concerns dearly, too.

But the pointing of John the Testifier doesn’t give us much resolution. This doesn’t come with a step-by-step how-to manual. It’s not explanation but proclamation, pointing to Jesus: Lo, unto you is born a savior, a tiny left-out baby who will die. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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Grinchy Joseph, a Christmas Eve sermon

Almost all who(m) we know like Christmas a lot.
But Joseph, who lived just north of Jerusalem, did not.
The guy wasn’t sold on this whole Christmas season,
and I’d say he had some pretty good reasons.
It could be, perhaps, his taxes would jump.
It could be forced travel to Bethlehem, the old dump.
But I think the most likely reason, no maybes,
was his fiancée was soon expecting a baby,
which came with the added perplexitive bother
that a messenger said he wasn’t really the father.
So, whatever the reason, the trip or the tot,
helpless old Joseph knew he disliked it a lot.
He growled to himself, carpenter fingers drumming,
wishing he could stop all that bad news from coming.
“Life is pretty hopeless,” he snarled with a sneer.
“There’s not much I could do, it’s quite crystal clear.”
The dread fate grew closer, hour by hour,
the pressures of violence, of money, and power.
And the more Joseph thought of the terrible stresses,
life seemed to slip further away from successes.
And the more that he thought, with his furrowed brow,
the more he was distraught at what he put up with now.
But this wasn’t the time for grinchily moping about
since he had strict orders from one with huge clout.
Whether he felt a grump or people-pleaser,
Joseph had been commanded by Augustus Caesar
to make himself known and register with the empire
as demanded by a government filled with old liars.
He had to get his donkey in gear and start the long journey
to go and report to the district attorney.
So he gathered their bags and young rotund Mary
on a ramshackle mule, though still feeling contrary.
Curmudgeonly Joseph started them down
to Bethlehem, his ancestors’ sleepy small town.
When they arrived, it was dark. Quiet snow filled the air.
Behind the warm windows, they felt no one would care.
Then they came to the first little house on the square.
“This is stop number one,” the step-papa said,
as he slunk nervously and began creeping ahead.
With humble politeness, he tapped on the door
but was disheartened when he thought like before
that kindness was rare; no one was a neighbor.
Hard times had stifled most generous behavior,
leaving all feeling they were lost and were least.
Hope was dim on this night not fitting man nor beast.
Yet! the door cracked ajar with a breath of warm air.
Joseph curtseyed and asked, “Please, ma’am, would you dare,
to allow us inside? We just need to sleep.
My pregnant fiancée and I won’t make a peep.
We’ll be unintrusive, as quiet as mouses.”
Her answer was the same as at many more houses,
with refusals, “We can’t. I’m sorry. No room.”
The light disappeared, leaving Joseph in gloom.
Though he kept knocking, persistently begging and bummin’,
nobody could make space to allow them to come in.
Joseph wasn’t surprised. He thought it might be the case
that people were feeling too worn out to embrace
some strangers in need and smelling most unpleasant
when they’d prefer to feast and open their presents.
Some doors wouldn’t open, because folks were busy,
on errands and tasks and worked into a tizzy
as they pursued the happy seasonal distractions,
with shopping and parties, cookies and snacks, ‘n
others felt stuck in distress, and so hunkered down
to guard their own interests in their own small town.
“Life isn’t easy,” Joseph muttered in his beard,
“when there’s so much uncertain, so much to be feared.”
So they knocked and they knocked and they knocked!
Knocked! Knocked! Knocked!
But every door that they came to was shut up and locked.
As he was scheming if by creeping very nimbly
he could sneak them down in through a chimney,
well, that’s when young Mary got a sensation, an awful sensation.
She got a wonderful, awful sensation.
With no thought left for tough problems of society
Joseph knew it was urgent to find someplace quiet, he
guided his fiancée and dearly he held her
and gave up on knocking and searching for shelter
gave up on the houses and all of the people,
gave up on the holy folks under the steeple,
gave up on kindness and sympathy from strangers,
gave up on police to protect them from danger,
gave up on the inns, hostels, and hospitals,
gave on the beds and simply forgot it all.
He rushed them in to the back of a barn.
She labored until a small baby was born.
(Don’t like the barn/born rhyme from this alleged St. Nick?
Then write your own, if you’re so smart and so slick.)
They swaddled the baby to lay in the hay
trying to keep the cold and livestock far enough away.
Though tiny Jesus was poor, so greatly deprived,
still it was a relief that he was safe and alive.
But before Joseph breathed that sigh of relief,
again he was overcome in his disbelief,
at the struggles of life and feeling depressed,
at how all of existence was such a sad mess,
and he was stuck with the lingering frustration
at bringing new life into that disgusted nation
where any hint of improvement seemed awfully bleak
in the grind to make it through, week after week.
Yes, for poor Joseph, hope seemed far distant
as Mary cradled and nursed her newlyborn infant.
But then he heard a sound, coming over the snow.
It started out low, then it started to grow.
And Joseph cupped a rough hand to his ear,
and strained: what was that sound he could hear?
To guess, it sounded like an angels’ tune
coming drifting in from under the moon.
Joseph’s spirit lifted and so did his eyes
at this song, a delightful and shocking surprise.
This didn’t sound sad. It sounded merry.
It couldn’t be so! But it did sound merry. Very!
Yet while this sound sounded glad,
it was not quite angelic—a little more bad.
And then his wondering eyes saw the sight
of some figures drifting in through the night.
The not-heavenly earthy chorus Jo-seph’ heard
came from a band of dirty, vulgar shepherds.
They stumbled right into the maternity barn,
giving the mother some fright and alarm.
As she pondered what the strange sight meant
they shouted out in great excitement,
“We bring tidings from God of great joy
at the arrival of this here little boy!”
They hollered and cheered disrupting his snooze
while passing around a flask of celebrative booze.
Then, gone in a flash, and just as crazy,
they went into town, singing and praising.
As they left, Joseph had a big beaming smile
beaming-er than any in quite a while!
He puzzled and puzzed ‘til his puzzler was sore,
and Joseph thought of something he hadn’t before.
Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store—
maybe the answer, perhaps, means…not more
but Less!
The spirit, the season, life isn’t assessed like usual success.
The good news came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags—
Well, that much you probably already knew.
But Joseph realized something simpler was true:
the start of changes, the hope of all earth
arrived in a lonely barn through this lowly birth.
The heart of God’s blessing, packaged in Jesus
who comes to love and save and free us.
So it’s not in how you ensure your security.
It’s sure not in chasing holy-seeming purity.
Neither is it in tallying what you’ve done
or in how you find diversions for fun.
It’s not in how well you extend season’s greetings,
how well you sing, or the people you’re meeting.
It’s not in the hunt to keep yourself happy
or what you put inside of bright wrapping.
It’s not measured by all that you’ve gotten,
but is just because life gets downtrodden.
The truth is, it’s nothing more th’n
that God’s favor comes to you as he’s born.
You are always in his grasp, and his aid’ll
hold you closely, just as he was cradled.
That’s no quick fix or instant solution,
it’s not that saying BooHoo’s done.
So Joseph began to trust, with no maybes,
that goodness was born to share with this baby.
As Mary’s heart grew, we, too, can treasure and nurse
the hope that saves us from whatever curse.
Like inbound outcast shepherds we can be shout-y
with rejoicing that even gets a little rowdy.
On Christmas, we can really celebrate.
With that, I’ll stop, since it’s getting late.
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Word Made Flesh

a sermon on John 1:1-18 for the 4th Sunday of Advent

 

In the beginning was the Word.

Before we ask what that Word was, what it spelled out for us, the first thing we might notice simply about it being the Word is that it means organization. Letters grouped on purpose, for a reason or with reason. Logical.

Indeed, that’s exactly the original Greek word here: Logos, Logos—logic.

That’s a remarkable notion, that there was logic and order, the Word in the beginning. Remarkable the Word was there from the start, partly because it was so long—billions of years until us, many millennia then until we had words for that beginning, much less had developed any language at all, and generations more of pondering, then coming to understand, and even now still studying and trying to explain what happened, what brought this about, what this order is. But the Logos says such sense was there before the first moment.

And it’s remarkable because we’d have no reason to presume there was order or logic to the universe. From a Big Bang explosion and the hot plasma that eventually birthed galaxies and nebulae of hydrogen and carbon and gold and water and single cells. Or logic for how we attempt to make sense of the world around us or organize our week or search for meaning in life. There is no apparent defining logic, through the end of a telescope, in a survey of cultural patterns, in trend reports, in navel-gazing.

Addressing a smaller question of logic, it may seem backward that we’ve been through 14 weeks of the Narrative Lectionary, through centuries of the Old Testament and progress of the story and development of relationships…and suddenly we’re starting over? After all of that, we’ve rewound and find ourselves back at the beginning?

Looking for the logic, maybe we return to the beginning now for 20/20 hindsight, a way of reorienting the past and reframing the history that also allows us to understand better what is coming in our own lives. Maybe we see something different about the Old Testament because of the reminder that the same God has been working in the same ways with Logos since the start.

And maybe this isn’t that those who forget the past are condemned…but is about the arc of the universe, about knowing the grain so we’re not going against it. I’m not sure we’d say this Logos sets a pattern that must be followed, an order or rule to life. It sure doesn’t feel like any of this is quite that insistently compelling, but rather feels almost optional, as if you could get away with doing whatever you want. While it’s a conundrum that we’re apparently able to work against following the directions of the universe, still, maybe in being properly oriented we find assurance or wisdom or our values. Maybe we find it a way of saying that it does, after all, matter who we are and what we do.

In the beginning was the Word. Logic. Cohesion. Intention.

It’s all the more remarkable because our sense of God couldn’t be so orderly. If we’re trying to uncover evidence by looking at the overall blueprint or shape of our lives, there’s a birth on one end but death on the other. The form of that pairing reveals or tells us nothing about God to discern the logic of life. Similarly, there’s beauty around us, but destruction also confronts us. Loving caring relationships stand versus the unknown stranger with our uncertainties, insecurities, fears. Evolution and progress, but certainly not on a clearly upward trajectory. No, from all of that, if we were trying to label God, we may well not come up with the insightful clarifying Word of timeless logic at all, but merely an odd jumble of letters.

Let’s try that as an experiment: give me six letters right now… [I think we ended up with something like M-R-X-T-A-Q.] Nonsense. Not a word. Made up. And if we added much more than that little bit, it would be utterly confusing.

plensa

In a similar feeling, I’ve been stuck deliberating about an art exhibit at MMOCA, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The pictures in your bulletin show this exhibit by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, made up of random letters from eight different alphabets: Arabic, Chinese, Cyrillic, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, and our own Latin alphabet. The letters are totally disorganized, intentionally unintentional, broken apart from our normal sense of letters forming words. They are lumped together to be nonsensical, to take the letters away from their usual purpose of language and communication.

It becomes a reminder of global diversity and differences. The sculptures are described as breaking through cultural, linguistic, and geographic barriers. In a way, I like it—the sense that we may be standing next to and connected with somebody we don’t understand and can’t hardly comprehend.

But in another way, it was disturbing to me. I suppose partly because I’m a person of words and explanations, scientifically-minded, who likes logic. This exhibit, then, picked that apart and left it disintegrated, as if words don’t have meaning. Or maybe the reverse of that, the reminder that when letters float off by themselves out of any context, they are nonsense and emptied symbols until re-formed into a word, and then can communicate and share meaning and provide understanding. But if not rationally assembled, then are left like our six unprounceable letters as pointless, arbitrary, and literally insignificant—refusing to signify anything.

I’ve been contemplating this exhibit for several weeks now in light of today’s Bible reading. There, rather than an amalgam of random alphabets formed into a sculpture of the universe, of creation, of humanity, of something that would only have meaning by inventive happenstance, we are told this all came into being with logic, by the Word, that God has an organizing principle for creation, and that you, too, have significance as part of God’s Logos.

The Word for this logic of God’s creation, for our lives, and for God’s own self, this Word isn’t law, or order over chaos. It isn’t life. It isn’t growth or expansion or development, though we might label those in our community projects and in the complexification of the galaxy. God’s Word isn’t fundamentally even love.

God’s logic, the Word of God, is Jesus. In him is the embodiment of what God intends and conveys, is spelling out for us to understand. With hindsight from Jesus’ birth, we can see not just one star over a manger but that the cosmos from the Big Bang sings for him. The highest host of heaven condescends to kneel before him. Lowing cattle give way to make room. All of this as big flashing arrows pointing as signs from God for us. In Jesus, we come to comprehend God’s logic for creation, of healing and welcoming, of teaching and serving, of putting down and lifting up, all to save.

And looking ahead to where this story ultimately leads, the shape of God’s order in Jesus, finally, is cruciform, shaped by the cross. God’s order for the universe bears the marks of suffering for another, and of rising to new life beyond that suffering.

I don’t know which you may find more shocking and stunning, that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to you, or that Jesus is the Word that defines and gives sense to God.

Jesus is the shape of your life, not because you are ordered to emulate him, but because in a happy exchange, at this table and more, he takes on your flesh, gives you his Spirit, dwells with you, becomes you, so that your own life embodies God’s Word. Your significance is shaped by Jesus.

And Jesus is the shape of God, because the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him, and he alone has made known to us God’s heart, a heart filled with sacrificially dying and yet endless, eternal, infinite love. God’s significance comes from Jesus.

The reason we go back to the beginning is for the ongoing clarification: If you want to understand your life, listen to the Word Jesus. If you want to understand God, listen to the Word Jesus.

 

 

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Ezekiel: Valley of Dry Bones

sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14
We hear from 2nd Isaiah next week with the Sunday School program, but this is the last preaching on the Narrative Lectionary’s sweep through the Old Testament. Then we’ll be in the Gospel of John from Christmas until Easter, with the life of Jesus.

From the trajectory of this autumn, we remember back to origins, stories of progenitors, sources of family connection, in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, Jacob and Esau. That family took us ahead several hundred years to the population explosion outnumbering the Egyptians, with stories of Exodus on the way to the Promised Land, and settling to increase their institutions of government and religion. That brought us to prophets who called for reform and justice, and (at least in their suppositions) being conquered as punishment for misbehavior.

We’ve been in exile for three weeks now, and Isaiah next week will see a path toward home and restoration. Though I recount those details as human narrative, with people as the main characters, this is actually God’s story, the account of God’s ongoing goodness, God striving in God’s world.

So once again, with that sweep of history, with today’s reading still more than 500 years before Jesus, we repeat in the story’s plot: these people weren’t waiting those 500 years for the Messiah to show up, twiddling their thumbs until Christmas finally came. There are words of hope, but not with sights set on a Messiah a half millennium later.

Rather, it was simply a longing for home. Indeed, as Isaiah makes rare use of the Hebrew word for “Anointed One,” the term is applied to a foreign leader. That’s good to keep in mind as we’re wrapping up our time with the Old Testament. Isaiah called Cyrus a Messiah—the king of Persia, the next in the line of empires, this time to knock out the Babylonians and allow the Hebrew people to go home (45:1). That was its own moment of salvation.

With that one example, I really, really hope throughout this fall you’ve been hearing God’s striving for the sake of the world, and investment in all circumstances of our existence. It gets it terribly wrong to claim an old god was angry or could care less, so we were waiting for the nice and loving Jesus to bring a divine alternative. There aren’t two different gods. The God embodied by Jesus is thoroughly and absolutely the God encountering us in the faithful probing of these Old Testament accounts.

Yet, just as this God shows up in hidden and surprising ways—like as a baby and on the cross—God tends to work without blatant and apparent showmanship. The promise seems inevitably paired with doubt, the expectancy amid darkness, God’s blessing where we have all but given up hope succumbing to despair.

So as Ezekiel set his eyes toward God’s vision and the hopes of home, he saw only a dead end. A very honest dead ending. A valley of bones. An abandoned cemetery. The entire family tribe, lifeless and piled in a heap. Ezekiel had begun to figure there was no way out of exile, no return to the life they had known, no possibility for the future.

With that, besides the overall trajectory of the Old Testament story, I also notice a smaller trajectory—the arc of your life—in three of four weeks of these readings.

The first was Isaiah declaring hope in the gift of birth: “unto us a child is born.” Whether Hezekiah or baby Jesus or the young ones around us, or yourself in youth, there was a promise of God’s possibilities and blessing simply in that fragile existence, in the imperfection of not knowing what lay ahead, in small capabilities, yet with God’s care and potential with the birth of a baby.

The following week, Jeremiah moved to the middle of life. Even in captivity under a hostile government, when life was far from what people wanted, still the word of the Lord for the exiles was to build houses, to make their gardens grow, to celebrate marriages. You know, the regular sort of stuff that has kept you busy most of the time since you were born. The stuff you’ll go back to doing this afternoon, and maybe more seriously when the alarm clock goes off tomorrow morning. It’s the stuff of sustaining relationships and tending your spot amid creation, which often involves vacuuming it (as we’re stuck with typically un-thrilling aspects of the not-so-showy God). And it means not pretending you can escape to some utopia, but striving in the place where you are, simply since it’s not perfect.

So we had the start of life, the rest of life, and with Ezekiel come to life’s end, or to be precise, beyond the end.

That God’s concern for and potential in a baby would be a surprise may take a little extra pause for us to appreciate, to remember infant mortality rates and the insignificance on a scale where 255 babies are born onto this planet every minute. But in such small ways, God’s work persists.

And continuing for unspectacular daily lives, God sees potential. That doesn’t mean you could really make something of your life, that you could go on to win a Nobel prize or be a volunteer of the year for some organization or have your picture in the news as a hero. Rather, God is invested in your daily life as it already is, at home and at work and in your family and at the grocery store. God isn’t waiting for something to change, but trusts the potential with you right now.

Okay. So it’s fine that God sees what’s possible in the birth of a baby. It may even be realistic that God would find potential in the course of your life, even up to your dying breath.

But once you’re dead, could God really be seeing any potential then? Isn’t it too late? Relationships over? Isn’t death the point where all that’s left is to go through their clothes and look for loose change, as they said in The Princess Bride? Or for science and the conservation of matter, how your elements are recycled, not just as worm food, as Luther liked to point out, but returning to the soil and becoming crops that go on to feed the hungry? Is that all? Could God possibly plan more of you than that?

That hard language may well be considered morbid. Most of our discussion of death doesn’t really look at it, but euphemizes and ignores, and we say we lost someone or they passed and try to whitewash over how terribly terminal and critically fracturing death has been. There is nothing more to say or do about it. It is ultimate. Sad. Final.

Except not for our God. God will be stopped by no dead ends. Hope will not be overcome, ever. Death is not final. These dry bones will live. They have potential and a future. And so will you.

In Ezekiel, this is brought about by a sermon (or actually three sermons, if you like). Ezekiel preaches to those bones, offering them God’s word. Well, God has a word for you, too. Though none of you today are in the exact physical circumstance of Ezekiel’s sermon—none of you are dead, dry bones—you may either factually or figuratively find yourselves at any of these points in life—young, fresh with potential. Amid the flow and mid-stages and regular rhythms. At terminations where things look worse than bleak and all seems lost. Throughout, the sermon is that God is relentlessly filling you with life for God’s purposes.

In what to me is an utterly astonishing faithful declaration, this is an assurance that with every breath, God is renewing and refilling you, recreating goodness in you. It’s been a few weeks since we’ve done any Hebrew, so here’s another good one for you: ruach. It means wind and breath and Spirit. And with this from Ezekiel, as you are filled with each breath, it is God’s Spirit filling you. In respiration you are inspired; you are re-Spirited as the Spirit is put into you over and over. And even when you expire, even when you breathe out and breathe your last, still God will call for breath to fill and renew you yet again.

I started out saying that the prophets weren’t predicting Jesus. But we should still most definitely see their vision of God directly embodied in Jesus. With life to dry bones and the Holy Spirit that will take victory from death, probably our clearest understanding is in Jesus and the empty tomb, that the forces of enemies and powers of death were defeated, not only once, but for all. Even amid the season of Advent, even as we aren’t ourselves today facing death and the grave, even as we may be closer to birth, still this is always an Easter faith, always with its soul in the hope of resurrection, from birth, through life, and beyond death. We don’t need to and we shouldn’t pretend like we can’t talk about that as we’re getting ready for Christmas. That is the overall shape of our story, the fullness. Though it remains so totally unclear and prone to doubt and without visions of grandeur, with our God who shuns glitzy showmanship, still we know the ending. The end, finally, is life.

And though it risks confining that message and not allowing you to live into the full expanse, I want to tag on a word about Israel and Palestine for these days. Ezekiel’s people were captive under empire. Mary and Joseph were captive under empire. Again this week, we were reminded of the violent claims to power by an occupying empire. Even as our siblings at Christmas Lutheran in Bethlehem are preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, they are left more and more with a reality of the valley of dry bones, as people confined by razor-wired walls and the dead end of life. As our President worsened the obstacles on the path to peace this week by shortsighted and single-minded declarations on Jerusalem, this reminds us that the word out from death, a word of hope and the breath of life still needs to stir in us all, of a God who understands our weakness, who comes to inspire and to break down barricades, who will not be confined. Our God remains against all that would kill or remove life. The point of our story is not just to look back to one who was coming, but to see that the God of Jesus still comes into our midst and our troubled world now, with every breath, for the sake of life.

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