The Binding of Isaac

sermon on Genesis 21:1-3,5-6; 22:1-14
Word of God, word of life? This is a hard reading so near the start of the Bible and of this Narrative Lectionary year. We’ve just gotten past the sort of mythical ancient events and characters, starting to arrive at people who will provide the context of our specific story. Yet here may be one of the hardest stories in the Bible. That says something amid this book that doesn’t shy away from the human horrors of war and slavery and starvation and rape and pride and greed and politics and family feuding and all the rest. Still, this story is among the hardest, not least because it’s not evils that are against God’s will, but appears to be requested by God.rembrandt angel abraham

Knowing the context makes it even more tragic, even harder. Abraham is really the first main character in the Bible’s story. He’s a progenitor, an ancestor, the forefather for almost the entirety of what comes afterward. But identifying him in that role of forefather was absurd because he had no children. God had promised he would be the father of many nations, but he had to protest and argue and wonder and keep trying fruitlessly. Even up to age 86, the father of…nobody.

His wife Sarah sent her slave Hagar as an alternative effort toward the promise. These women drive the story at that point, while this central biblical character Abraham is like breeding stock from ABS bulls. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, whose name means “God hears” and through whom Muslims trace the story. But this firstborn son of Abraham wasn’t chosen, either by God or by Sarah, who resented Hagar.

13 more years passed until three guests, three angels came to visit. Abraham fed them a meal and they said he and Sarah would have a son. Sarah was eavesdropping and laughed, perhaps delighted, perhaps incredulous (since she herself was 90 years old at this point).

Though they’re old—“as good as dead,” they’re called later in the Bible (Rom4:19)—we heard today that Sarah gave birth to laughter, literally—the meaning of the name Isaac. Finally, the promise is coming true! Of God’s word that they would be matriarch and patriarch of the faith, of a great nation, this blessing that would extend more than the stars of the sky.

And yet instantly piled onto that story and stifling the laughter comes the binding of Isaac, the near-sacrifice. God tells Abraham to kill his son, his only son, this son whom he loves. It’s a remarkable story, for its sparse details, for the little bit that is said and for all that isn’t. We have no idea how old Isaac is, for example.

It says they walk for three days. At the end, Isaac himself carried the wood that would burn. Did he expect what would happen with that knife? What were Abraham’s thoughts on the three-day journey? Much less the question: what did he or didn’t he say to his wife, the mother of his child, before leaving?

At the crux of the story Isaac and his father talk to each other for the only time. It’s often pointed out there are no words of them speaking to each other after this horrific event, but there were also none before. Their only dialogue is the question, “Where is the lamb to be sacrificed?” And the answer, “God will provide.”

As they walked on together, one commentator says it is the longest and heaviest silence in the Bible. What does Isaac suspect? What does Abraham fear or hope? What is going on within and between them? Is Isaac resigned or overpowered when Abraham ties the ropes around him? We can’t understand it. Presumably Abraham didn’t really understand it. Certainly Isaac couldn’t have understood.

It’s cruel and unusual. After that century of waiting for the promise to be fulfilled, as Abraham continued trusting God, kept hoping this dream, this expectation of parenting would come true, for that to be revoked so suddenly in the story, not only as those who have lost a child to tragedy but demanded at his own hand. Awful.

And Sarah’s absence in this part of the story feels glaringly painful. She had trusted and hoped in the promise with Abraham. Just as the dialogue between parent and child ceases after this story, so also between spouses. We have to wonder if Sarah’s laughter departed forever, even if her son Isaac came back from this experience without a scratch, if it annihilated her joy and may even have extinguished her life itself; the next mention of Sarah in the story is at her death.

So what to do with this?

There have been many explanations. That it’s an old violent patriarchal culture is a bad excuse. Some have said it’s a story for the Israelites turning away from neighboring nations’ practice of human sacrifice for animal sacrifice instead. This spot is later labeled as the location of the Jewish temple, that center of sacrificial worship (2Chr3:1). Others observe it’s inappropriate to view sacrifice as the animal substituting for a human death. But even if this is a story about animal sacrifice, why—for the love of all things good—was it told like this? Couldn’t the story have been less brutal, less fearful, somehow not hinting at horrendous child abuse?

Accentuating that horror, the model has been perversely flipped by Christians, moving it back to human sacrifice. Jesus gets labeled both as the ram who is substituted for you, dying in place of you. But he also gets labeled as the son, that where Abraham didn’t kill his Isaac, God the Father didn’t spare his Son. Awful, awful stuff. Correctly labeled divine child abuse. Terrible.

Let me be clear that I don’t believe or agree with that view of Jesus. But it’s reinforced by our appointed paired Gospel verse—even though the Narrative Lectionary is a recent innovation, and shouldn’t have some old lack of awareness—that verse pointing to Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, words we’ll sing again at communion, a meal about sharing life, not taking it. Yet that verse is applied as a thread to connect this story from Genesis into the Gospel of John’s theological lens for the year. I disagree. And I’d prefer a different paired verse. Maybe Jesus saying, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice” or “Let the little children come to me” or “save us from the time of trial.” Instead we’re pointed again to slaughter and sacrifice and innocent suffering.

The most terrifying aspect of this story isn’t confronting death. For a long time we’ve dealt with situations of war or capital punishment or extreme self-protection or the routines of our daily meals. Any of those, we might trace as logical causes for death. But that it’s God’s request here just seems senseless and capricious, impossible to understand. In a similar moment, Job declares, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). But we might well be more like Job’s wife who suggests he “curse God, and die” (2:9).

This perhaps honest yet troubling portrayal of an unpredictable God wanting a random test leaves us wondering about God’s will, with two competing edges in this story—God tests, and God provides, the opposites of a God who would give and a God who would take away, promising versus demanding, desiring life or death.

In that way, this is the ultimate intense story of that struggle and that constant question of our faith: How does God relate to things not going how we want? What we even term as the “miracle” of childbirth is especially fitting for this emotional question, for the enormous hopes and fears, for all that goes right and the catastrophically tragic that can go wrong. Some of you, some of us have held this question of God’s nature around longing for children and through pregnancies and as children grow and things go well in life, or they face problems. If getting our hopes fulfilled is a blessing from God, when the opposite happens, is that a punishment? A test? Simply an outcome of a capricious God? Would we say through every situation that it happened because God chose for it to happen, that God is in control?

What about when our faith conflicts with what we like or desire or would choose? Some ancient rabbis tried to explain away the story by saying that Abraham didn’t actually hear the voice of God telling him to kill Isaac. But God does ask us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise. We wake up Sunday morning, setting aside this time in our schedule. We put money in an offering plate. We offer peace to each other. We eat with strangers and call them siblings. Today we have events about imprisonment and immigration. We address those issues not through legal wisdom or economic insight, but because we believe God is calling us to stand against society’s norms, though this request from God may be inconvenient for us and unpopular with others.

But that isn’t exactly conceding how horrendous this story is, of God asking for the death of a child. I want us to trust and declare that faith should never lead us to violence, to say that God asked us to kill even an enemy, much less a family member.

That raises the confounding question of why Abraham didn’t argue. Three chapters earlier, he had a long debate with God, arguing that God should spare and not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. But for some reason Abraham doesn’t bother to argue for the life of his son. I think that could lead to seeing that, rather than God testing Abraham, there’s an element in this story of Abraham testing God, proving whether God would stand by God’s promise, whether God would remain faithful to Abraham. I like that notion certainly better than of God testing us, though I’m not exactly sure how testing God has application in our lives, other than perhaps finding confidence in Abraham’s results.

In the end, I don’t have and don’t want to offer a resolution to this story. It needs to remain perplexing and even fearful, to stay challenging. Though I always wrestle to find and share good news in the Bible passage, with this one I can only say thank you for holding onto the hardness with me. With this one, I’m just left wondering how honestly we need to face our struggles, wondering whether the promise was worth it, if Sarah’s laughter ever returned.

 

PRAYERS

Faithful God, we yearn to trust in your goodness, that you provide in our needs. Reassure us of the promise and save us from the time of testing. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Your relationship with us is connected to the land and specific places and through animals. Give us wisdom to treat them honorably, as we honor you. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

You extend your blessing to the nations. We pray that where threats of violence and patriarchy and intimidation still reign, that we can be your people of love and peace. We pray today for conversations about criminal justice and how we welcome our immigrant neighbors. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of sacrificial love, we pray for those who have lost their laughter. We pray for those who struggle with pregnancy. We pray for those who deal with any kind of abuse. We pray for the hard relationships in our families and with loved ones. We pray for those overcome by natural and other disasters. We pray for all who are ill and grieving, especially for … Amid all these situations, hold us in your loving presence. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

God of our ancestors, we thank you for the faithful stories of our forefathers and foremothers. We pray that your stories of promise continue through the generations, especially today as we begin a new year of Sunday School. Lord, in your mercy, you hear our prayer.

Holy, holy, holy God, fill us with discernment and compassion, that we may understand your will and strive for justice and love on earth as it is in heaven, now and forever. Amen.

 

 

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a sermon for River Sunday

Season of Creation

on Genesis8:21b–22, 9:8–17; Psalm29; Revelation22:1–5; John7:33-34,37-39a

A lot of thisriver Season of Creation seems to have been confronting where our perceptions don’t square with the world around us as God created it. I hope those have been worthwhile considerations, but they have meant less living with creation this season.

So today I want to begin by taking you to Otter Creek. Otter Creek was down the slope from my house outside of Eau Claire where I grew up. It gave a chance to explore the woods, from ice cracking under my booted feet to the musky musty skunk cabbage as the first green thing in those woods, and frog song to crunching fall leaves. Among memories along those waters were jumping down sandy ledges and too many stinging nettles, slowly finding cool liquid relief. The best memory is the first trout I caught, still my biggest brown. I can recall how my spinner moved through the eddying water of that bend’s pool and still feel the surprise of that smooth skin and soft belly in my hands, after having only held fish with rougher scales. But as a reminder encounters with nature are not all splendor, it was beside our Otter Creek swimming hole that I tried chewing tobacco for the first time.

Friends and I regularly talked about following the creek up to its source, a project we never really attempted, partly because it was slow progress with so many meanders, but also because, why would we need to find an origin when already every place we found ourselves had so much to engage and delight us?

Still, for tracing to origins, I also go back to my family’s first house a block from the Yellow River up in Spooner, and continue tracing those flowing waters here along the Yahara River chain of lakes. In between, some of my identity and existence emerged from the confluence of the Chippewa and Eau Claire rivers. Like when I lived in Washington, also where the Wenatchee River began to flow together with the great Columbia, confluences are said to temper the weather and have lore of serving as native American gathering places. From that pre-history, and long after rafts of white pine lumber floated past, below dams that generate power for our lives, these still are places of new beginnings as that merging of rivers in Eau Claire, for example, has given rise to Phoenix Park, from industrial wasteland to become again a gathering place to exchange goods like vegetables and artwork, and a new music center to serve for education, enlightenment, and enjoyment, all flowing up and emerging from the rivers.

I can’t take you for a tour of Otter Creek or soak you into my history with these rivers, but I’m hoping these stories call to mind your places, the waters you have known and how amid your life “a river runs through it.” As Al Heggen said at the Capital Brewery Bible conversation Tuesday, describing his own affinity for the Upper Iowa River in Decorah, we each hold dear such places where our lives have flown together with the streams. Carrie McGinley spoke of the Mississippi starting so small and visiting the Great River museum in Dubuque and maybe to travel the length of it. See, our very selves are part of the confluence.

Amid these currents that flow with our past, to now, and time yet to come, we know it’s not always peace like a river. There can be turbulence. It seems like a long time ago that earlier this summer I was complaining of the trickles of water soaking into my basement and my CSA farmer worrying if plants would survive in fields inundated and saturated by rainfall. Much more clearly, we’re holding horrors from Houston as rivers poured down streets and people you know were trapped by rising floodwaters.

Those news reports and images create for us another understanding of confluence. Rivers not only flow along with the story of our lives. Not only human culture has been at the confluence of waters, from the development of agriculture by ancient Mesopotamians (whose identity is summarized in the name that means “between rivers”), or those native Americans wintering in intertribal peace, or how our cities have arisen from the life of waters. Besides those forms of confluence, we also notice confluence in meaning of the waters themselves. They are not unequivocally peaceful or universally beneficial. In waters and with rivers, the value or worth mixes and intermingles, swirling to engulf with surprising depths beside the wading stone-skipping calms. The good and the bad flow together.

In simple natural terms, for example, we have to observe that flooding can’t be equated only with the bad, damage or destruction. The Mississippi was used to spring thaws that swept waste from the backwaters and renewed habitats for a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. As we’ve installed dams, we think we’re minimizing negative outcomes of ebbs and flows in river level, but our manufactured environment has meant loss of diversity and wellbeing in the river’s wetlands.

Again, the Nile was a dwelling place for civilization precisely because it was prone to flood. When the rushing waters rose, they carried along and deposited fresh soil on the floodplain. Sure, water was up in the fields. But that was what brought life, brought the nutrients that allowed another season’s fertile farming.

Such paradoxes or confluences of good and bad come in the Bible, as witness to the flow of our lives. Psalm 137 laments that it’s impossible to sing faithful songs of joy by the rivers of Babylon while in enemy captivity. But the prophet Isaiah (ch2) expects nations will stream together, and down by the riverside we ain’t gonna study war no more. These opposites co-exist.

With today’s readings, as we require fearful storms to gain the beauty of the rainbow, the terrifying story of Noah and the flood annihilating almost the entire earth in some way exists so we can get the promise. As people who didn’t have to live through that flood and as that calamity recedes into the background, we’re met mostly by the message of abiding love, the assurance of providence, that the good God intends for our lives will continue. That, and not devastation, is the focus.

At least that’s the intention. It’s rawer and a harder word this week when we’ve witnessed more stormwaters and are left wondering where God’s presence or intention has been in Texas, if God has forgotten, if the promise was true.

Or maybe the terrifying conclusion is that we can combat God’s goodness and drown out the blessing God voiced in Genesis and intended to continue. Maybe Hurricane Harvey is less an Act of God than an Act of Humans: climate change warming the oceans multiplied its power, coastal development tore out shoreline buffers, and harm is even in the way we construct cities.

Similarly of our ruin, the waters that give us life and gave rise to our civilization we not only pollute, but slurp to parched, causing goodness to wither. My vacation travels followed part of the course of the Colorado River, in many ways the lifeblood of the southwest. But we suck those waters dry, straining out all the goodness of life. The river is diverted to the desert to grow iceberg lettuce in California, and to gaudy fountains of the Las Vegas strip, and to evaporate from Lake Mead piled up behind the Hoover Dam. This river carved us the Grand Canyon, yet now infamously goes for years without even reaching its mouth, every last drop taken by humans along the way.

This may be a repercussion of our lives, simply of our existence, or it may be due to a result of our sins. But saying that means we must fearfully confront whether we’ve overruled God’s goodness with our badness, the promise with our curse, the intention for life with our deadly mistakes.

Of course, that is not the message of our faith, though. We proclaim that evil will never have the last word, that even death is not final, that God will not give up on life. Holding this tension, we have that peculiar observation that waters are neither unambiguously good nor explicitly evil. That is the message of your baptismal waters, as well. Those are life-giving waters, by also bringing death. As Luther says in the Small Catechism, in baptism “the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned daily, and on the other hand daily a new person is to rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” Drowning and new life, dying and rising, death and resurrection: two sides of the same coin. This is not merely the ending of what has been wrong in our lives and interactions with the world, but also the promise of a new creation. Neither can you have the new beginning without the end of the old. You can’t be cleansed and made fresh without being rid of old stains and rottenness. If you imagine you’d prefer not to die, then you won’t be met by new life. If you pretend you’re doing fine, then you can hardly imagine or begin to grasp—much less live into—the gracious goodness God is striving to bring about for you and for God’s earth by this way of living wet.

Our Revelation reading may be the Bible’s culminating picture in its final chapter, the river that flows out from God, nourishing the tree of life, without interruption bearing fruit to feed and heal. Again for paradox, even in this final image, we still need healing among nations, to reconcile relationships. But that opportunity is ceaseless. The flow of grace will not be stopped. The crystal clear and bright waters of the river contain no corruption, nothing wrong. Picture the Colorado, flowing and free.  Picture the Jordan River bringing life even into the Dead Sea. Picture a brook babbling and laughing with glee. Picture the green, stinky Yahara purged and joyful. Picture Otter Creek or your own streams, not only a memory but the locations of your future. Picture yourself, splashed clean and fresh, emerging from the water for new life and endless potential. Picture the confluence where your life mingles and flows with all of creation.

This is where God’s current is carrying us. All creation recognizes it. Already we know and expect it, we anticipate and believe it. We brim with God and all creation in this promise for life. Shall we gather at the river?

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a sermon for Wilderness Sunday

Season of Creation texts Joel1:8-10,17-20; Psalm18; Romans8:22-27; Mark1:9-13
Common question: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Less common question: Why did Jesus go out to the wilderness?wilderness

I suppose some answer: it was to prepare for the rest of his ministry, seeing this time in the wilderness as a spiritual boot camp or something, that he had to go do his Ignatian exercises to visualize conquering the rigors to come, or that this tempting by the devil was spiritual weight-lifting to get him honed and toned and ripped, ready and rearing to go.

In a related but more substantial sense, some see this time alone in the wilderness parallel to native American (and other indigenous peoples’) practices of vision quests, a formative time of extraordinary experience in finding himself and coming back fully developed.

A totally different answer to the question “why did Jesus go out into the wilderness” is prompted by terms in the reading: he went because he didn’t have a choice; it says the Holy Spirit drove him out. Compelled him. Or directly in the original Greek, he was ek-balled, thrown out. It’s an interesting term, because when Jesus does exorcisms to get rid of the bad and unclean spirits, he is ek-balling them, throwing them out. But here the good Spirit, the Holy Spirit is reversing the process by ek-balling Jesus.

As Jesus gets exorcised from society, we could attribute wild explanations amid the Season of Creation and on Wilderness Sunday and looking for special meaning for non-human parts of the story. It could be, for all we attribute to civilization as marking positive progress, that instead city life contributes to our distance and separation from God, giving us false senses of security and misperceptions of what is good or right.

So, like a person is restored to wellness when an unclean spirit is thrown out, from this ek-balling of Jesus we might claim getting driven away from culture and back to the land, back to wilderness provides restoration of sanity, of spirituality, of our wholeness, healing us and our integrity, getting away from corruptions. We might also notice that out there in wilderness we have to face something so much more powerful and majestic than our small selves, which contributes to a better understanding of God.

That’s an easy view of wilderness, and one that Jesus also seems to have persisted in as the story continues. Later on, he’s not forced into the wilderness, but regularly flees up a mountain or out on a boat to pray, for quiet, to reconnect with God perhaps, or with his friends, to rest and rejuvenate when he’s drained by the demands of trying to love people. I like those reasons for “getting away from it all,” as we say, or maybe getting away from the constrained view of what our existence is. But more on that later.

There are also less “natural” explanations of why Jesus is driven to the wilderness. We might observe this is what baptism does to us: it gives us the assurance of connection with God, that you are called a beloved child of God, but then you’re also thrown out of your regular rhythms and are trying to muddle through what this promise means for life. Figuring out faith may persistently feel like a wilderness experience of being not-quite lost and not-quite in place.

That also points to echoes of earlier scripture. Jesus is in the wilderness 40 days. That number and location probably should make us think of the Exodus from Egypt and waiting to enter the Promised Land. This is exactly the image that John the Baptizer was also trying to foster, with the symbol of crossing through the waters of the Jordan River to live with renewed connection to God’s promise. Well, Jesus becomes the embodiment of the faithful experience: like Moses and Miriam and the people who spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness waiting for fulfillment, Jesus parallels that in his 40 days, embodying God’s commitment to bring God’s people into the promise, a sign of godly new beginnings.

Or maybe instead of the whole Exodus account, it’s a smaller portrait comparing Jesus to the prophet Elijah in the wilderness amid a drought, fleeing from enemies, being renewed for another mission, another sending back into society. In Elijah’s 40 days and nights out, he encountered God not in terrifying wilderness grandeurs of fires and storms and tectonic shifts, but in the sound of silence, while the ravens were with him to bring him food. (1Kings17:6, 19:1-17)

That prompts the next important direction this morning. I really cherish the detail about ravens bringing Elijah food because amid that same drought there’s a story about an angel that feeds Elijah. So I claim this gives reason to see black wise ravens as angels, as messengers and servants of God. That can feed into this gospel reading, too. Nothing says these angels are ladies with white wings and harps who show up to be deacons to Jesus, to be waitresses serving him some food. It could’ve been crows. Or raccoons.

For this transition, we have to adjust our sense of wilderness. Just like we have a rather confined image of angels, it’s the same of wilderness. We picture large and foreign places—snow-capped peaks, acres of forest, caribou tundra, forbidding desert, remote island. Those and their inhabitants we see as wild. A crow or raccoon we see as not quite that. Though they may not be domesticated, not house-broken, they don’t count as wild. We draw this line that wild things and wilderness must be stranger, purer, further.

There’s a line that hangs around national parks: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It might fit parks and wilderness designations, that if we set aside those areas, and in sufficient quantity (which premier biologist E.O. Wilson says needs to be ½ of the planet for the survival of our species*), then we’ll have preserved or saved the world somehow.

The thing is, though, that quote comes from Henry David Thoreau. Not so much a wilderness warrior like Teddy Roosevelt roughing it or John Muir who on his two little feet “walked away into the mountains with his old overcoat and crust of bread in his pocket,”** not some polar explorer or high adventurer, Thoreau is belittled for close proximity, that he only lived far enough away to make it home to see his mother. I read this week Thoreau’s specialty was to “focus on the human need for freedom in the beauty of ordinary places…The scenes he describes are on a smaller scale than most wilderness writers. He finds epic drama and wildness in the…overlooked corners of life, ants and mice, for example… Thoreau’s wild places…were his neighbor’s apple orchards and berry patches.”***

So today let’s expand our view of wilderness—or maybe I more precisely mean let’s contract it, to find it not just in the wild west and the great outdoors, but in the small weed cracking through concrete and the birdsong through a car window and in the day’s clouds and a houseplant. Those bits of wildness may be accessible and may be your preservation amid this world.

Beginning there also reorients another perspective: we’re so trapped into seeing wilderness as other. Again, the U.S. legally defines it as places “untrammeled by man.” But in this small world with its finite beauty and potential, we can no longer claim there are places on earth that are other, that are separate, unsullied, nor even that are bigger than we are.soc-a3-wilderness.jpg

In the Badlands, I wandered off into the official “wilderness” area, up slopes and down tight wash crevices, the sort of places we can imagine we’re pioneers, the first to set foot there. But everywhere I turned and stretched to climb, I found a piece of litter. The best find was this ballcap. There was no place that was isolated or inaccessible or pure.

Whether with our probing personalities or the proliferation of our pollution, there are few places we don’t find traces of ourselves. And as we change the climate, that soaks into soils and ocean deeps, into the wild diversity of coral reefs and under the bark of the forest. There is no place untrammeled by man. Nor are humans separate from the wilderness any place, even in urban life, as Houston knows: our weather cycles depend on ocean currents, the oxygen we breathe is breathed from the rainforest, we depend on the unexamined microbiotic systems in dirt.

So we need to see wilderness all around, because we’re connected to it. That was the meaning I took from the prophet Joel, who observed that all welfare—or its reverse in despair and suffering—are interwoven, the priests in the temple, the farmers and their cattle, and the burning trees in the wilderness. In Joel’s time, he was seeing that the sin, the fault, the failings of the people, and their lack of understanding in connection with God meant that there came a plague of locusts, seen even as a destroying army. In our time, we can easily frame this image as the repercussions of our burning fossil fuels, feeding the heat of Hurricane Harvey, hurting ourselves, our livelihood, and life far from us.

But I want us to hear today this connection is not only a matter of threat. As Jesus went to commune where the wild things are (and since, after all, there is no venue or site separate from his presence and love), I don’t want to leave you with the dire words of Joel, but pick up another better-known outlook from a prophet, seeing our bond with those same wild scenes, but looking toward God’s goodness. Here from Isaiah (35) are words of encouragement and hope, driven by the Spirit, for you and for the groaning creation that is waiting for you:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly,

and rejoice with joy and singing.

4Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God who will come and save you.”

6then the lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

7the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

10And the ransomed of the LORD shall return with singing;

everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;

they shall obtain joy and gladness,

and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

 

* cited in Terry Tempest Williams The Hour of Land, p359

** Greg Brown “Two Little Feet” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3-fh6cLvpo

*** http://www.wilderness.net/NWPS/Thoreau

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sermon for Pride Sunday

on Psalm139:1,13-18; Luke10:25-37

ric

It strikes me that this story—even more than most—prompts us to locate ourselves, to see our place amid the it and which character we feel like.

We take the point that we should strive to be the Good Samaritan and so reflect on experiences saying, “Yeah, I did pretty well. I stopped and was helpful in such-and-such situations.” Or we may disappointedly recollect when we passed by and didn’t help, seeing ourselves more like the deficient religious officials.

As we gather here for Pride Sunday, we may be prepared to assign the role of the beaten-up, hurting, injured person to the community of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning, intersexual, and identifying in other ways as queer. We may think this parable sets out a fairly simple process, then, of reflecting on the degree to which we can count ourselves as allies vs. where we’ve been slow to relieve oppression and injustice, when we should’ve done more.

I won’t say that that’s a bad question, but I think it also oversimplifies this amazing story from Jesus. If we boil it all down to a message of “I should help more,” it isn’t very alive as a story, it doesn’t breathe much, doesn’t call to us. Continually looking for how we can be self-justifying experts (like the man who questioned Jesus) or wanting to be the hero ends up eclipsing other meanings. (I had to get “eclipse” in here somehow.)

So another way to read parables from Jesus is to ask where he is or God is in that narrative. For example, when a story includes a rich landowner, we have often presumed that was a stand-in for God. In this one? Would we presume that Jesus himself could be the Good Samaritan?

Well, one of my favorite authors, Robert Capon—a favorite for tweaking our understanding to have to reconsider the story afresh—says: “The defining character—the one to whom the other three respond by being non-neighbor or neighbor—is the [one] who fell among thieves. The actual Christ-figure in the story, therefore, is yet another loser, yet another down-and-outer who, by just lying there in his lostness and proximity to death…is in fact the closest thing to Jesus in the parable.” Have you heard it that way before? Capon insists that this means our usual title for the parable is “egregiously misnamed” and continues “that Good Samaritan Hospitals have been likewise misnamed. It is the suffering, dying patients in such institutions who look most like Jesus…, not the doctors with their authoritarian stethoscopes around their necks. [And] it would have been much less misleading to have named them Man-Who-Fell-Among-Thieves Hospitals.”* Maybe you can sense why I like Robert Capon’s playful challenges and reconsiderations. For a Jesus of compassion who is identified with the cross, a man of suffering and acquainted with sorrow, he almost must be seen as the victim in this parable.

But with that degree of probing, we also need to ask again who the Samaritan character is. While generally we church professionals like to complain about biblical literacy and grouse how little “people nowadays” know of the Bible, in this case it might be the opposite: It’s a bit unfortunate that this is such a familiar story, since “Good Samaritan” has merely become synonymous with “do-gooder.” Yet the point in Jesus telling this is that the Samaritan should’ve been the least likely person to help. As opposed to our era of too much sexual abuse where clergy are immediately suspect, for the original hearers, it would’ve been presumed that the religious officials were the good guys. In the updated version, they would be cast as more like a firefighter and a nurse.

In that way, I remember hearing a version of this parable maybe a decade ago (though I couldn’t find it again now) that had a Robert Capon-esque twist. The Samaritan unlikely to stop to help in that version was portrayed as a rich businessperson in the back of a big black limousine, behind dark sunglasses. What really made me go searching for it this week was more specifically that that loaded limo-rider had been pictured as none other than Donald Trump. Again, this was before Trump as president and so much of what we know now. But in the last week, when he hasn’t done well even to speak kind words for the hurting, it may be even more shocking and unimaginable that Donald Trump could be bothered to aid the victim.

Yet that’s a representation of what Jesus’ story is depicting! The least likely one. The one you were sure would’ve wanted nothing to do with you. The one who, from any of our prejudices or presumptions or preconceptions, certainly would’ve passed right on by. But he stopped, inconvenienced himself, set his own interests and ambitions and profitability aside: he cared.

In still starker terms, the Bible conversation at Capital Brewery on Tuesday suggested a parallel that it’s as if an African American were injured in Charlottesville, and the person who came to help were wearing a swastika. The instant response to that offer of aid wouldn’t be gratitude but would be “get away from me.”

So, beginning to come back around with different conceptions in trying to recast this story to fit with Pride Sunday, we might have to say that the LGBTQ+ person is not the one injured. Instead most of us in the broader straight community might have to recognize ourselves as needing assistance, needing help, with the surprising (but I hope not offensive) shock that the gay or lesbian or otherly-gendered person is the one to offer aid. Extra surprising, because not only are we injured, lacking in goodness and righteousness, we are also the robbers who have caused the damage in the first place.

See, as we keep turning this story around, I believe today it’s not the most helpful so quickly to presume the LGBTQ+ community is the victim needing us straight folk to work up our do-gooder muster and come to the rescue. Instead maybe we should see the injury that we’ve caused, but also that we are in need of healing. Even though it should go without saying at this point, we’ll reiterate anyway: a non-conforming gender identity or non-heterosexual orientation is not the problem. That is not what needs healing or fixing or redemption. Instead, the queer community in our country, in this congregation, in many relationships has for so long born the load in giving with patient endurance and tireless persistence to bring the rest of us along as they offer us the vision that justice is worth struggling for, to redeem us from hatred, to help us value—each of us—our God-given identity, to help us see that our inherent worth isn’t because we match some societal standard but comes always and simply as a gift and blessing from God who knew us and held us from the time we were formed in the womb.

With that, I want to call your attention to one last parallel in the story. Just as we ask which character we are, let’s ask where the story itself is now, where we are on the road. Martin Luther King cleverly used to talk about the “Jericho Road Improvement Association” and said that acting as good Samaritans is only an initial act but “One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that [people] will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”**

On this Pride Sunday we pause to lament that it is not safe passage still for too many people—not safe passage into bathrooms or locker rooms, into public places and places of employment, recruiters’ offices and doctors’ offices, courtrooms and nightclubs, in encountering the words of the president and the words of family. And obviously way too many churches are the Jericho Road when for every possible reason they should have been sanctuaries, places of safety, refuge, support, good news, and love. That is what God intends and people need, but we have robbed that.

The actual Jericho road in Palestine is still a scary and intense place. Now closed off by a so-called security fence that’s also known as the apartheid wall, this ancient highway descends from Jerusalem up in the mountains, winding down to the lowest place on the face of the planet, 800 feet below sea level. From the air conditioned comfort of our bus, the travel group last fall experienced the modern version of this steep and rocky road, twisting sharply through sparse desert, bleak with parching heat. It was not easy to travel, this forlorn, precipitous, treacherous route.

Today, in our humid August weather, we also have the opportunity to travel figuratively what has been a dangerous road. We as a congregation march in the Madison Pride Parade maybe not to show how good we are, maybe not bearing much direct risk, but also to show we need healing, as the surprising Samaritans to confess that we Christians have far too long caused the problem and made the road harmful and fearsome. We march realizing that the Jericho Road needs improvement for all life’s travelers. We go down that road as witnesses expecting to encounter suffering and difficulty.  And that is why we will certainly find our longing and hurting Jesus today on the walk, and with him the amazements of healing, of reconciliation, and of overwhelming joy.

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p212

** in “A Time to Break Silence,” A Testament of Hope, pp 284, 241

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a wedding sermon

for the Wedding of Colleen and Roanna

 

This is a rather formal event for in some way being a formality. Neither does it quite fit the traditional definition of a shotgun wedding, though there’s some element of that pressure and being under the gun here.

Which is to say that I’ve been reflecting on why we’re here today, what we’re doing, what this is about.

In the most basic regard, that might actually be a question about location. See, we know that you need to have a lawful signature on a piece of paper stored in a government building. We know that the previous way you’d been registered and officially partnered together is going away and so you need this new-fangled thing: a marriage license. Although for the question of why, we might first think to answer about insurance and legality. But for the simple sake of that signature, this could well have happened downtown in an office room. That it’s here instead extends the why question also to involve “where.”

As I told you Roanna and Colleen, I’d identify the central part of a wedding usually as the exchange of vows, those promises of love for each other. And though that captures some of the insurance sense of things with the standard promise of “in sickness and in health,” still after seventeen years (or so?), it doesn’t really seem like you two would need to do that formal promising. You’ve already been practicing those commitments and dedications of giving yourselves to each other in love for a long time, so this would seem like something not so new and doesn’t seem like exchanging those words will really change your relationship.

I suppose I also have to concede that even though I define the vows as the central moment of a wedding day, there’s probably at least as much validity in the popular notion that weddings are about parties, about getting the family and friends closets to you and dearest around to celebrate. So there’s strength to that explanation for this day, since something like your love for each other is indeed deserves enjoyment and to be praised and enlivened with good music and your relationship is well worth toasting.

We could also do well to notice that festivities and celebrations were where Jesus hung out. Though we don’t often think of him as a party animal, that was sort of the reputation he had in his own time, that he wasn’t one to avoid a good time. Particularly, we could observe that the only story about him at a wedding wasn’t to lecture on how to love or what is right or wrong, but simply as the beverage service to make sure the wine kept flowing. That Jesus!

While we’re on that track, we could—and should!—say that a very worthwhile reason for this wedding is because this is exactly what God wants. God is pro-love. God is in favor of your love. God celebrates your love and nurtures and sustains your love and accentuates your love. God blesses your love for each other, Colleen and Roanna, and God enables your love with God’s own love. As your Bible readings declare and proclaim for us, when we think of love, we’re envisioning godliness and practicing what God’s will is for our lives. You two bear God’s presence for each other, and then also extend God’s goodwill to our lives and to the world. The rest of us depend on your love as sharing God’s love for us.

And though that’s the message I am most eager to announce to you today, I feel it also needs to be paired with another word. As a straight white male and an official of the institutional church, I want to apologize. We or I must confess that part of the circumstance for this wedding and this moment here, once more on the “why” of today, is that places like this and people at least sort of like me for far too long have warped and controlled church and society to say your love was not right. I’m so sorry for that and am also very grateful, because you still asked me to be here today, because you are rightly faithful and you recognize and you continue to show us—through 17 years, in this moment, and on into the future—that you are engaged in the godly work of love, that your love is not only for each other but also makes our lives better, and, yes, God encourages your love, celebrates your love, and God blesses your love.

So thank you, Roanna and Colleen, and congratulations. Now let’s get on with this formal stuff to the heart of the day so we can party.

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sermon for Land Sunday

on Genesis3:14–19,4:8–16; Psalm139:7-10; Romans 5:12–17; Matthew 12:38-4020170806_100140[1]
As good as vacation was—and I’ll say more in a minute—I lament not being here with you last week.

Partly that’s just because I never like to miss. What we do here together is so important and so meaningful and so worthwhile that it’s hard to be away from your lives and our community and the growth of big bluestem in the prairie. I particularly missed being gone for the start of this Season of Creation. I would’ve loved to have been here for Larry Henning’s forest reflections and trust that you were well served by the Spirit’s work through his good words.

Had I been here, I would’ve probably done some explaining for you like this: the Season of Creation was developed by a Lutheran theologian in Australia intending to fill a gap with the usual lectionary, which can leave us thinking much too much about people. It’s not even theological at that point; it’s anthropological, not God-centered but people-centered. We close ourselves inside these doors, thinking about Jesus as fully human but not as fully creature of earth. We ignore that God’s work is almost infinitely more vast than us. As Psalm 8 declares, when we look up at the unfathomable cosmic distances it’s awesome that God could be mindful of us and relate to us and care for us, but God does! We need that promise, need it in the context of our small spot amid a creation that delights God and is delighted by God. It’s so faithfully vital for us, so vitally part of this faith. Without this locale and cosmic setting, our faith wouldn’t begin to be what it is. God wouldn’t be who God is. It’s not an add on, not just that we pause from other things to think about creation and nature and the environment for four weeks out of the year.

And yet, amid my excitement about celebrating these weeks of the Season of Creation and finding them so core to what we should be always understanding, still this week comes as a shock. Instead of setting out to explore the gift of land, of the amazing diversity of how it encounters us, how it is formed and re-formed, instead of the delights and the blooming desert in Isaiah or the quaking earth of Elijah or the fertile soils of the Promised Land or even the stuff that inches out to be separate from the waters in the beginning and is seen as good, instead I come back from vacation to a curse and a struggle. A double whammy from the book of Genesis. Gee, thanks Genesis.

It’s not just me being thrown into this on my return from vacation. The whole story could feel that way. Life had barely begun in the Garden of Eden. We would’ve preferred more time to lounge around in paradise before the problems, but that’s not the function of the story. I would contend it’s less of an origin story and more intended to portray the current state of things. It’s not trying to cast blame back to some prototypical Adam and Eve, but is simply addressing the realities we already know to be true, the struggles we regularly exist amid, voicing that things just won’t go right in our relationships. As it’s set up for us on this Land Sunday, the main focus is what our relationship to land ought to be, but also where that’s gone wrong.

The question about curse, then, traveled with me on vacation through all kinds of lands. For the most obvious, I was last at Badlands National Park. With a name almost verbatim declaring curse, there’s wide and long agreement on the badness of these lands. For hundreds of years the native Lakota referred to them as makoshika: land of bad spirits, or bad land. French trappers concurred with the name les mauvais terres. Park service publications say these names “invoke visions of a harsh and inhospitable landscape, where dangers lurk down every canyon.” While they do warn of rattlesnake bites (which I won’t overemphasize as connection to the serpent in Genesis), the broader set of safety concerns amid the Badlands listed includes thirst and sunburn and stubbed toes and slippery-when-wet slopes and getting lost.

None of that seems awful enough, though, to account for the curse in Genesis. Those lands aren’t bad just because they offer extremes of dehydration or risk of fall; these difficulties in the Badlands paradoxically highlight their endurance. We go to the difficult-to-traverse Badlands specifically to traverse them, to wander the trails, to strain our muscles and bruise our knees. Our nation hasn’t thrown them to the trashheap but has especially set them aside, saving and conserving them as a nationally celebrated location, drawing a million visitors per year.

But our relationship to these lands is also in portrayed by my favorite historical phrase about Bryce Canyon National Park from its original white settler: “it’s a helluva place to lose a cow.” Our stock phrase is that it’s a good place to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. We are stuck with some view of land, then, as its utility or profitability to us. If farming can’t easily happen in the Badlands, that is precisely what makes them “bad.”

This tension is still sharper in Utah, with over a million acres of land set aside as wilderness, a term defined in law as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” (Again, we’ll leave aside for today the connections to Genesis’ curse of that sexist language that doesn’t say anything about how long women might stay in wilderness.) We’d have to admit that the wild lands of Utah and elsewhere, though rich in beauty and sometimes fragile in ecological value, are mostly set aside because they weren’t viewed as useful to us otherwise. Basically, they didn’t have farms on them.

We could pause to say this has been an exceptionally long trend. This is mostly how the Bible parses land, as well: that there’s desert that isn’t a place for people but is a haunt of jackals and ostriches (eg, Isaiah 34:13). On the other side is good land, even Promised Land, with orchards and fields. We’ve simply gone on to transpose that sense into our setting. Here in “God’s country,” with the rich loams of the Midwest as garden to feed us, we figure we must be amid promise and not curse.

More ambivalently, Utah’s land is not farmed or dwelt in, not humanized, so it can be set aside as wilderness…right until it can’t. Then we fight over land’s meaning. I’ve been reading Edward Abbey describing Glen Canyon as the most beautiful ever* with all the animals that called it home, until we decided we could have our use for it, which was to destroy it under a reservoir and the beautiful canyon was dammed and damned. And we cherish Arches National Park and Canyonlands, observes Terry Tempest Williams**, until we find that there is natural gas we could mine under the park, and then we’re eager to get rid of the wilderness designation and make use of the place.

The point is to question cursedness. Instead of anything inherently making locations bad lands—the topography or soil quality—it’s about our relationship and when we try to claim away from it instead of preserving and caring for it as it is. Amid the struggle—these thorns and briars, we lose sight of the land as good and focus only on what we can get out of it. It’s not just western abuses, but how our corporate farming practices are extractive industries pulling life from the soil. That’s not God cursing the land. It’s us.

And then we finally pull our own life from the soil, extracting ourselves from the ground where we, too, were meant to be planted. That is such a fascinating detail in the account of Cain and Abel. Even when he’s dead and gone, Abel’s blood can cry out from the ground. Something of his life remains there in place. But Cain is displaced. Genesis is compressing generations of human development (or, as we usually call it, progress), where the lifestyle of the nomadic herdsmen goes away and the farmer comes to dominate, but then the farmer leaves the land and—in the last verse—moves away. The ultimate point in the reading is that he’s gone to the city, from rural and land-connected to urban and separated from God. Again, this is the pattern we still see. Ultimately in cultural conversation, it’s not a struggle between Wisconsin agriculture and Utah wilderness. Both are derided in the popular term “flyover country.” They’re diminished, as if only the cities are the place of culture, the place for humans, while the land—all land—is oddly separate and remote and problematic. That is the final characteristic of the curse: not only are our relationships with each other broken down, between genders, in families. The ground cries out as our very relationship with it is lived out as a struggle, as something to be overcome, as we see it not as garden gift but as curse, as something to get away from.

For the good of life, we need to realize our humanity with and in the humus, connected and dependent, as earthlings. But instead we’re quite literally uprooted. This has implications for our sense of place, for governmental policy, for the food we eat, and on and on. That’s huge and dire and I’ve said terribly little of good news.

Even though the readings leave us here, we know this isn’t the end. If we speak of curse without getting to redemption and reconciliation, our Christian message is incomplete. For brief forecasts of that blessing beyond condemnation, we might take it as actually good that “to dust you shall return,” that you aren’t forever estranged but in your end are reconciled with the earth and recycled and recreated. Maybe in the words of Jesus’ burial we see a godly replanting, that life is meant to be in and of earth for good, even then of God putting us back in our place, that God kills the curse and redeems death.

Finally, then, is the place of God in Genesis. I want you to notice that although all kinds of relationships—with neighbor and with creation—are seen as struggle, as broken down, as accursed, that is not a description of relationship with God. The relationship with God is not described here as cursed. Though Cain may stray and find himself in a place where the relationship is strained, and God’s presence feels further, God will not cut you off. Jesus comes to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

(Hymn of the Day: Joy to the World)

* The Monkey Wrench Gang, p64

** The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks, p253-299

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Sermon on the Best Verse of the Bible

Romans8:26-39; Matthew13:31-33,44-52

A couple weeks ago as we gathered for staff meeting, Jen was consterned and consternated (both!) about what seemed to her a trite lyric from a kids’ song that said, “If God is for us, who can be against us?!” I instantly blurted, “That’s from Romans 8! The best chapter in the Bible!” At which point, the staff sort of stared at me, maybe generally surprised that there is a best chapter in the Bible, or that I thought everybody should know which that is.

It should go without saying that not all Bible passages are created equal. Nobody would argue that Leviticus 18 is as vital as Psalm 23. You’d be silly to the point of offensive if you claimed the “wives be subject to your husbands” of Ephesians 5 was at all comparable to Easter resurrection of Jesus in Matthew 28. As folks who are reading through the Bible this year are all-too-regularly reminded, plenty in there is hardly worth reading. But other stuff is so important—the best of news!—that we want to keep re-reading it or hearing it again and again.

With that, I’d say that Romans 8 is the top of the heap. If we were left on a desert island with only one chapter of the Bible (it’s a frequently raised puzzle), this would be the one to pick. And this passage today especially. In fact, the last verse of the reading, I would call the culmination of the Bible’s whole message: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. This verse could itself be construed as the mustard seed, the yeast that gives rise to everything else, the pearl of great value. I really hope it sounds almost unfathomably good to you, and gives you a little shiver it feels so wonderfully surprising to discover.

But if not, well, that’s where some of my challenge lies. If this is the best Bible passage and the most important for you to hear, then I’d wish this would be my best sermon. (In that regard, I’m not off to a very good start.) More, we’ve been listening to Romans 8 for three straight weeks now, but rather than a sense of you saying “wow” or “ooh, ahh,” I’ve instead had numerous conversations about the confusion. Even though I haven’t gotten to unpack any of it in preaching, I’ve tried to make it closer to a zero-entry wade-in kiddy pool instead of the roaring ocean depths. To help you appreciate what you’re hearing today, last week we did the section as a paraphrase and dialogue, so your own voice could capture and hold onto the persevering hope and you could acknowledge in your very being that you have been adopted as children of God. The week before, instead of the usual New Revised Standard Version, we used a different translation that I further adapted, trying to help this in your ears.

Before that, this is actually the seventh straight week proceeding through Romans. It’s hard to hold onto that continuity when it’s separated by a week inbetween worship services, harder still with summer schedules that pull us elsewhere. This chunk today is the crest of an eight-chapter-long wave in Paul’s deliberation, an enormous moment of resolution to a conundrum.

Which points to another hard part of this: it isn’t a story. It’s not a nice narrative. This is thick theological pondering. Paul has been working through huge questions like: who are insiders and who are outsiders and what does the story of the Old Testament tell us about that? What can get us into trouble with God and what can rescue us from that? How well do we need to behave, what is supposed to help us behave, and why does it remain so hard to behave? Why do we suffer, why is there suffering in the world? All of that is finally and in some way entirely addressed by this: nothing is able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If you’re having trouble wrapping your mind around that vast arc of Romans, here’s one specific example of this sweep through the book, from that start up to today’s final verse:  chapter 1 portrays sin and falling away from God and, in that, Paul happens to use a term that gets interpreted related to homosexuality. That place in chapter 1 has then been used in arguments to say that sex can separate you from the love of God, even though the reason Paul raises it way back there at the start of the letter is so that at this point in chapter 8 he can say “No!” there’s NOTHING that can separate you from the love of God. You’d think we could have that core message sink in and people could shut up about how evil this or that is and how it must condemn a person to hell. But the good news is continually interrupted and so desperately in need of reinforcement.

An obvious personal place to begin is in thinking of what’s been problematic in your relationships lately, where you know what your faults are or where somebody thinks they are: your stubbornness and impatience, that you work too much or too little, that you’re not quite trustworthy, a little dishonest, where you got angry or you just didn’t care. Amid any of those problems, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Less hypothetically, I’ll confess I picture faces with that. This past week I’ve been living alongside relationships breaking down and the fracturing of our human commitments and promises because of fights, and because of neglect, and because of dementia, and because of death. All those are wrong, and even as those dearest relationships and places you most wanted love to be true may fail, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Or if you’re not relating to individual brokenness and accusations of falling short and can’t see those in yourself, then think about us as a larger group and the hungry people we didn’t feed, the sick we haven’t been visiting with compassion, those we left locked up in something, those people or creatures from whom we took away life instead of helping and the way we worsen creation’s groaning. Yet, even when we recognize ourselves as too wealthy, too consumeristly-driven by comfort or convenience, too violent, too privileged and white, too mainstream, and could not be labeled as authentically Christian, still here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Again, from the theoretical to very direct examples, we have people among us—in our very congregation, you must hear me say—who need housing and are amid the crisis of homelessness when they should not be. Farther away, but still near to my heart, my dear friend Ali in Jerusalem reports worry for his fellow Palestinians during the standoff that kept Muslims out of the Dome of the Rock complex, and I have to realize that conflict should have no reason to have lasted so long, last month marking 50 years since the Six-Day War. Or, again, I’m haunted by images of the squirrel that died in my yard last week, and haunted by the terror of my farmer Tony of Scotch Hill Farm belaboring that the destructive rains are climactic change that we’ve brought on ourselves. Yet still, here it comes: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. God won’t be stopped by any alleged impossibilities.

But if that seems almost incomprehensibly huge, then think about what’s just not right in life. This is a big deal, because Paul is talking about what makes us right with God. So if things aren’t going right, that would ultimately concern our relationship with God. Think about illnesses, your uncertainties about how to live, what your purpose is, the doubts and struggles, the sadness, being too busy, when life doesn’t feel very special, when you’re bored or unimpressed, everywhere things just don’t quite go as they ought. Those aren’t indications you’ve been forsaken or that you’re fatally on the wrong path. If anything, these may become sacramental moments to serve as reminders, mementos, and more deeply reassure you that—here it comes—nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus. No matter how wrong you tell me I am, still my core identity cannot be changed: I am loved by God.

For those of you whose brains are built around storytelling, it might be that if I said more about any one of the specific examples I’ve listed, then you’d feel like you’d better appropriated and retained the message of love, that you were holding it more clearly. But Paul isn’t working in individual specifics. He’s not spinning a yarn or dabbling in metaphor or unfolding a narrative constructed for specific examples. He doesn’t want you to come away saying, “well, of course nothing about their gender identity separates them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” Neither should you to say it about somebody’s race or health or productivity or church attendance or nationality or marriage status or income or criminal record or job or political persuasion or attitude just because you heard a story about them that addressed an isolated instance. So much more, Paul wants you to hear it for you, and to live into this framework that’s bigger than  your story or any story, a framework with all of creation groaning, yearning, hoping, being born into a new reality. That is why Paul arrives at this point and proclaims the most abundant good news, and here it comes once more: nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

With that, if you’re thinking this conditionless love means none of those wrongs matter, that it absolves your opponents of all they’ve done to harm you and is forgetful about your own lackluster history, if that’s how this love seems…then you’ve got it exactly right.

But you still probably haven’t really appreciated it yet. If you become skeptical that this just whitewashes over the difficulty, then you’re not giving due credit to what love means and does in our lives. That complexity is exactly what Paul has been trying to help you comprehend, the ins and outs of how this love is unstoppably functioning in your life and across this world. And so—with him—I’m hoping we can continue to discover how we live into this love.

 

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