Lord of Flies, Lord of Life

sermon on Matthew10:24-39; Romans6:1b-11
Having returned from the Boundary Waters, I can quickly admit we are not always at our most presentable. After a week of not showering, scraggly facial hair and using my only comb once, bug bites all over and mud smears on my clothes, that’s not how I generally (for example) try to show up on Sunday mornings.

But from that wild unkempt sense, I also want to start with “Lord of the Flies,” especially since the name “Beelzebul” in our Gospel reading gets converted to mean “Lord of the Flies.” (It sometimes is also referenced as “Master of Dung.”)

Anyway, I toyed with the notion of bringing “Lord of the Flies” along to read to my Boundary Waters group, but I decided that a story about a group of young people off in the wilderness who turned to the worst possible outcomes of being murderous maybe wasn’t the most sensible reading choice.

Yet now, returned from the wilderness, I’m nevertheless confronted by the same situation in this difficult Gospel reading, as it’s not only about the least presentable Bible reading we’d like to have, but it seems to embody some of our worst tendencies or outcomes. Maybe that it makes us uncomfortable is a good sign, at least.

So for those who don’t know the story, “The Lord of the Flies” is a book about a group of boys stranded on an island. They begin organizing themselves with systems to establish order—for who takes care of shelter and fire and food and cooperating on decisions. But they then veer toward laziness and fear and brutal aggression. We might tend to label the boys’ decline as returning to primal instincts from civilized behavior. We’re apt to describe society as good and the wild as bad. We also get diverted to believe our flesh and bodies and daily existence in this world are sinful and that we’re trying to escape to a more religious and spiritual and heavenly existence. But we can’t quite agree with those labels. The boys in the book had been scared of a beast, but it isn’t separate from them or part of nature. The island isn’t to blame; we get the much more terrifying insight that the Lord of the Flies is inescapably among and within them, dehumanizing themselves.

Against that, let’s consider what it means to be truly human, to be seen as good creatures of God, made in the image of God, to live with the life God intends for us. That is really what’s at stake here in the diabolical confrontation of what controls our lives.

To understand that, we can start to dive into this hard Gospel reading with one of the most important biblical distinctions for what it means to be human. Brace yourselves, because this may be uncomfortable. If you have a sense that someplace inside of you is a soul, that there’s a divine little spark, waiting to rejoin God even though the rest of you will decompose (and has already begun to decompose and rot and wear out as you age), if you think that flesh is corrupt, but there’s an ideal truer inner self, then you are not on track for how the Bible sees your humanity. In the Bible, there is no separate soul. Your soul does not go to heaven. You don’t have an invisible spirit that flies away when you die. That isn’t how the Bible talks about this. That is Greek philosophy. That is Plato and is a perversion of the Bible’s sense of God’s good creation.

That’s why it’s so important to understand, because that dualism incorrectly labels life here as bad, as ungodly. That directly contradicts God who says this is good, who says this is so good and loved this world so much that God wanted to be part of it, to come and share our existence, to be incarnate in Jesus. This is also why we talk about the resurrection of the body, because you’re all you. There isn’t a piece that can be separated out. If something of you will exist after death, it needs to be—and God wants it to be—the whole you.

Now, if you’re not only uncomfortable with that but are also the argumentative type, you may point out that the Gospel reading mentions your “soul,” as “fear the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”

Well, that shows an infected translation. The original word there is “psyche.” It’s a word we know as part of “psychology” (which we obviously don’t define as the study of souls). It may be helpful to know that psyche is also in the last verse translated as “life,” (“those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”). Life is a better sense of what psyche means in the Bible. It’s about truly living, about the life God intends, about being who and how we’re meant to be.

One example* I read this week illustrated it by saying that the loss of life during World War 2 isn’t only measured by the body count of soldiers, but also by Germans following Hitler and being corrupted by Nazi ideals in a way that truly defaced humanity, chasing after power and seeking to exterminate their siblings instead of loving and helping them in their time of need. (We do use the term “soul” in this sense, too, for when a nation is so misguided it has collectively “lost its soul.”) And in that sort of instance, we could pretty readily say that that’s not the sort of life that God intends. In a very honest way, life was being destroyed, thrown out to trash heap of burning refuse.

World War 2 was also a stark instance of the division that these tensions create. For Jesus’ notion of bringing a sword to strike against those who would abandon the goodness of life, some might take even so much as the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in that light. That may be too stark, though, as I’d wonder about the cure being as bad as the disease. Still, it leads us to the sense of divisiveness Jesus describes. If we are standing on the side of life, it must mean we are opposed to what would steal it away or destroy it. In the early Christian community, some of that difficult sense was likely even present in families, so the divisions Jesus names weren’t prescriptive but descriptive for those who were having to face the hard realities of life not going as it should.

This soul-threatening destruction is also the sense in the book “Lord of the Flies.” Those young people on the jungle island turned from supporting each other and caring for each other instead toward Beelzebub and that corrupting influence. Even while they still lived, they lost what the point of life was. They didn’t need to bow down to idols to lose track of the goodness God intends in their lives. The way of death came to hold dominion or dominance in their existence instead of the way of life.

That brings us directly to the reading from Romans. Alongside the divisive Gospel reading, this may feel quite pleasant. But I also want us to pause with it to continue hearing some shock. As it talks about baptism, and as we are preparing to turn toward the font for Rakesh Allen in just a minute, I’ve been feeling this passage this week not only with our standard Lutheran ears but also with Rakesh’s mother’s ears, with non-Christian Hindu ears. As we said to begin, this may not present ourselves with our best foot forward, because it could be terrifying that the reading proclaims what we’re doing in these waters is putting her son to death, co-crucifying him with Jesus, killing his old self. For this nine-month old, we probably maintain a notion of innocence and original blessedness, of the goodness of God’s creation. For Rakesh, we’d likely be ready to argue against Plato who wanted to claim that this life is corrupt.

But if we don’t see babies as bad, why is Rakesh being put to death? Why do we claim he needs a new life?

For that, the importance of this sacrament is in its proclamation of dominion, of who or what is Lord, and who can control our existence. This precisely is a statement against the corrupt and defiling ways. In the baptismal service, we state it as a rejection of sin, of turning away from the forces of evil, the devil, and his empty promises. You’ll be invited to join in that rejection with a hearty and lively “I renounce them!” As much as they try to convert and spoil you, to subvert the goodness, to turn you toward fears and frustrations and feuds, baptism gives you the power to say “No!”

In a strange sense, our Christian theology proclaims that those powers of evil are defeated at the very moment they seemed to be victorious. Jesus can risk sharing with you that “those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose life will find it” because in the ultimate sense that’s exactly what happened to him. The death-dealing powers of oppressive might and greedy influence put Jesus to death. In that would be the clearest example that their dominion won, their lordship prevailed. But in the resurrection, we proclaim that their way of death was only a lordship of stink, the mastery of dung. Death had been undone by the Lord of life.

And what we proclaim in baptism for Rakesh and for you is that those deadly powers are now impotent. They have no control over you. The Lord of the Flies has lost, has been exterminated. Since you have died with Jesus to evil and sin and live now only to God’s ways. The only thing that can rule for you now is life. That is what finally has control. So even while the old ways continue to try to corrupt or cause consternation, you can retort that you have been baptized and can find encouragement and stand steadfast that God’s goodness will not be undone, that resurrection gives you confidence in the Lord of life. With that assurance, you are free to join in sharing the risk of the struggle for life, not just for yourself in the survival of the fittest, but on behalf of all of God’s good creation.

So let’s get ready for it, as it’s renewed in ourselves and as we witness Rakesh Allen is enlisted not only for the struggle, but celebrating that he is alive, now and forever.

 

* http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-a/proper_7a/

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sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday

(Matthew 28:16-20; 2Corinthians 13:11-13; Genesis 1:1-2:4a)
Get ready to puzzle and puzz ‘til your puzzler is sore, because this is Trinity Sunday. We start with an invented word. Trinity is a term made up to combine tri-unity, for three-in-one and one-in-three, talking about God in a mysterious way that can’t be resolved.

Aside from the approximation in images of a shamrock or the stages of water, steam, and ice, or Jed’s apple, this name and identity may actually be better pictured by items Jed couldn’t have grabbed from his garage: a three-wheeled unicycle, or a one-wheeled tricycle. Or—worse still—both of those at the same time. I know: that’s impossible. You can’t figure it out. It’s maddening. No one would want to stand up and say, “I believe in the existence of a one-wheeled tricycle” because it just sounds foolish. Most feel similarly about confessing our belief in the Trinity.

Yet if we tried to get rid of this explanation of God, in an effort to sound more reasonable, we’d not only lose out on our faith but also on the fun of foolishness, that stimulation of making our brains puzzle. As Justo Gonzalez—a Christian historian—and his wife Catherine write in the book Heretics for Armchair Theologians, “we know we are supposed to believe [this]…important element of Christian faith. But we really cannot make heads or tails of it, and we would much rather just mention it and move along to something else…But mystery has beauty and power only as we seek to penetrate it, as we see its far-reaching implications, as it overpowers and engulfs us” (78).

Still, if you’re uncertain whether  we should be considering how to speak about the Trinity and what in the world difference it makes for what we’re doing here, then you may not be excited to realize that not only is Trinity a made up term, it’s not in the Bible! That really may have you wondering if we couldn’t just as well fuggetaboutit.

But you’re probably not going to like that solution much either. Even though Trinity is a later term, and even if it feels like it causes more confusion than it resolves, it’s trying to comprehend what is described in the Bible. We heard two of the most concise forms of that, naming God as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” There’s your alternative. If you’re trying to ditch the nonbiblical term “Trinity,” then you’re left with the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” That seems unfortunately masculine, and if we’re trying to avoid exclusive lingo, we’re stuck with this name.

So what do you do about it? Well, first, we should notice and reiterate there’s no good reason to use the pronoun “he.” While Jesus seems inescapably to be a boy, God isn’t. We’re limited in pronoun options, but “he” doesn’t cut it for God. On the other hand, while the nouns for God were masculine (and gave us “he”), the Spirit is a feminine noun in the original language, so that should expand our sense of possibilities.

There are also plenty of examples of images for God that aren’t exclusively male, and we should be using those. (And at MCC, we are.) I’ve also been reminding people this week it’s not only about images of God as mother or nurse or hen. When we think of a judge or potter, those roles shouldn’t represent just one gender. Even warrior metaphors, as the U.S. military is so slowly understanding, are not for men alone. So some of the problem isn’t with the church but with more insidious human systems (as we’ll discuss more in the Faith, Sexism, and Justice study a week from now.)

There is even diverse gender identity available for the clearly male Jesus. The church Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was once the biggest church in the world. Its name can mean “Saint Sophia.” But that name Sophia was actually referring to Jesus as “Holy Wisdom” (which we pick up on with the Benedictine nuns across Lake Mendota). The idea of Jesus as the eternal Word, the Logos, the shape of God’s plans, rests in this feminine tradition of Lady Wisdom.

So instead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit could we use “Mother, Sophia, Dove” or a generic “God, Wisdom, Breath”? I’d say it’s presumptuous for us to re-christen God with a nickname or decide God needed some updating, as if God’s name were the old-fashioned Mortimer, Buford, and Brunhilde and we jazzed it up as Matt, Buffy, and Bryn to make it sound fresher and hipper.

There’s also risk in ditching this name. After all, Jesus himself tells us to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reason we have baptism at all is based in this commissioning from Jesus. He says, “Go do this.” So we’ve gone and done it. And if baptism can be compared to God staking out God’s territory or turf, of God claiming you as God’s own, imagine a geographic explorer taking a flag she had just redesigned, planting it in the soil, and saying “I claim this land in the name of Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam.” We’d suspect it wouldn’t be as valid with a made up or altered identity.

So if not a change, what about a substitution? In trying to remove the gendered nature from “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” some have taken to using “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” Now, it’s said you can hardly you’re your mouth about the Trinity without treading into something sticky the church long ago discerned to be a heresy. While I figure my feet are pretty well stuck in heretical muckiness and I even provoke that, still the kind of revision that labels God as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” is the old heresy known as modalism. It either means there’s only one God who wears different masks (overemphasizing one, ignoring the differences of three), or else one part of God gets stuck with different jobs while the other two sit on their duffs (too deeply dividing three at the expense of one).

The real problem is that defining God by tasks is not how the Bible has it. We’re not inventing these concepts from scratch, but trying to make sense of what we’ve received and experienced. Even aside from a name, throughout the story of Scripture, God is referred to as interactively relational. It’s not like Jesus was on his own for redeeming or saving. He prays to the Father and receives the Spirit and—as we heard last week—shares the Spirit. We heard the reading from Genesis today because it is seen as portraying three different aspects of God, including Spirit and Word of God, amid creation. So trying to say only one part of God works as Creator wouldn’t cut it.

Maybe a helpful step forward comes from the 4th Century theologian Athanasius (whose name is attached to the longest and most insistent of the three ecumenical churchwide creeds*, even though they aren’t his words). In Athanasius’ view, the Father isn’t called that for being the Father of creation, but for being the Father of Jesus. Again, we are somewhat stuck with this language of God as Father because Jesus called God Father and taught us to pray “Our Father in heaven” and because Scripture refers to us as adopted children, too.

Notice the point of that relational terminology may be less about what it means to think of God in a fatherly way and more what it means for us to be counted as children of God. It’s more for our sake than God’s. The term Father (often more precisely and dearly called out to as Abba, the equivalent of Papa or Daddy) definitely shows us the relationship better than a term like Almighty or something indistinct like “Source of All.” If we’re describing God as caring and tender, or offering guidance and discipline, or fostering life by placing food on our tables, or whatever we might take as essential roles of parenting, that could just as well refer to God as Mother, which would keep or enhance the intimacy of the relationship. Jesus certainly could’ve called God “Mother.” But he didn’t. And I think it’s weak to blame that on the culture of his time. As we’ll notice, he’s plenty countercultural, so it must be intentional he used “Father.”

So a key aspect of the term Father, perhaps obvious to ancient ears but less so now, is that fathers had an inheritance to hand off. That would not have been true of mothers in Jesus’ time. Our use of the term “testament” connects with “last will and testament,” that when we gather here, it is about disbursing God’s estate to God’s heirs, of you coming to possess what’s been promised to you. That is probably central to why Jesus and the New Testament call God “Father” and why it’s so important that you are children of God. You inherit all that has been God’s—all the earth, all responsibility, all forgiveness, all authority, all life.

At the same time as these terms are trying to define your relationship with God and your relationships with each other—that you are siblings always equal in possessions you’re given—that clearly stands against other patterns. Jesus explicitly declares that you should call no one else “father” (Matt23:9). It may seem harsh a week out from fathers’ day, but that firmly declares that calling God “Father” is a protest against of every other patriarchal authority. The whole point is that God’s will is counter to human culture and is anti systems of oppression. While we imagine we’re doing the right thing by abandoning the masculine term “Father,” the baby that gets thrown out with the bathwater means we concede the argument since God loses that definition of overturning all hierarchies that subjugate and dominate and claim exclusive rights.

Since you are heirs of God equally there is simply no way to say that one is better than another or worth more than another. You are all children of God. Through a creating and a created and incarnate Lord, you see God present in the complexity and diversity and ordinariness of our lives, see your bodies and all creation as good. And with God as Spirit breathed out and alighting on all flesh, we are bound together and see the glory of God. That is where God will be found—not in a popularity contest or as the biggest boss on the highest throne—but always with you, always among you, always in relationship, for love, for life, and always opposing what would steal that.

It may seem utterly foolish to proclaim that that’s our purpose, and not only ours but the shape and goal of the entire universe. And yet that foolish notion that comes from trying to comprehend a triune God, we call the good news and it’s the very thing we’ll risk spending our lives to figure out.

* https://www.ccel.org/creeds/athanasian.creed.html

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Kissing Jesus

sermon for Pentecost 

(John20:19-23; Psalm104:24-34,35b; Acts2:1-21; 1Corinthians12:3b-13)
Perhaps you’ve noticed I occasionally get around to pairing titles with sermons. If you’ve noticed that, you may also be wondering about this one, perhaps whether it pairs with the ignominious category of Christian rock praise songs disparagingly referred to as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. They come with lyrics like: In the secret, in the quiet place…I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more. With such over-the-top sentimentality, they are the type where if they didn’t mention Jesus by name, you’d think they were love songs about a boyfriend. Although I’m pretty sarcastic about things like that, and though on the flip side I wouldn’t want to disparage nuns who view their chastity as marriage to Jesus, still my title isn’t about poking fun. I’m not trying to commend that you should be so passionate you want to kiss Jesus.

Instead, I’m pointing to the kissing being done by Jesus. There are interpreters who understand this breath and giving of the Spirit in the Gospel of John as being a french kiss from Jesus.

But, having set that odd image in front of you, I’m going to leave it aside for a moment. From that extreme intimacy with a sense of giving the Holy Spirit as so personal it involves a kiss, I want to back up to the most generic view of how you’re given the Holy Spirit. It’s generic, but incredibly awesome in its abundance. That’s the view from our Psalm. In the Psalm God’s Spirit is the breath that gives you life, and life to all humans, and to all creatures. (You might be well-served by the play on words that in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and Greek of the New Testament, the same word can mean either breath or Spirit.) This passage says God is giving each and every creature the Holy Spirit with each and every breath. Far from Pentecost being a one-time phenomenal event, this is supramundane. God is with you to sustain every respiration, over and over again literally in-spiring you, putting the Spirit into you, and into cattle, and birds, and sea monsters, and (we’d understand more fully than the Psalmist) even into trees of the field, which also breathe (with the Amazon rainforest being called the “lungs of the planet”), and soils and oceans also inhaling in vast global processes of trans-spiring, the Spirit moving through and across our world.

I first want to pause so we can hear how astonishing that is. If we understood God’s Spirit as the breath of life for our world, it seems impossible to arrive at a conclusion to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. Climate change is in a strong theological way the earth losing its breath, being so winded it just can’t catch a breath, being exhausted (for a different play on words, with the fumes from our tailpipes and smokestacks). It is directly causing respiratory issues for the poor and ill, the elderly and children who continue being born. Now, if the earth can’t breathe, it means it is suffocating for God’s Spirit, gasping for it, but since we are choking off God’s intention, earth is unable to breathe in, to be renewed, to sustain life.

Having said how remarkable that is and what an enormously faithful perspective, that in the time I’ve uttered these sentences, God has been replacing God’s Spirit, God’s breath within you over and over and over, as exhilarating or inspiring as that thought is (and I truly am hoping you’re receiving it that way, as a gift more than you can appreciate), I also want to realize that that’s not enough. God works constantly to renew, to rejuvenate, to revitalize you by filling you with the Holy Spirit. But even though that happens day and night, constantly and by definition through your whole life, still that’s not enough.

Because mostly you’re not aware of it. You’re not exhilarated by it. You’re not sustained by this constant sustenance. You don’t observe it everywhere you go among people and in nature. And that’s why you’re here. Or at least part of the reason you’re here. The Psalm says that we praise God with all our breath, and maybe you’re here to praise for God’s lifegiving care. But I suspect you’re here also because you forget it, because you doubt if God cares, wonder about God’s presence, because you need reassurance.

That connects with the two readings about the followers of Jesus gathered together. They are there because they’re worshipping, yes, and because they need each other. And they need more than each other, they need an assurance of God’s striving for life, even through and beyond death.

So then that breath of God, a Holy Wind of the Spirit comes whipping into the room in another way, comes to refresh, to re-enliven them, comes so that their young people may dream dreams and their old people may again envision the future, comes to release them from captivity, from all that binds and confines them, to forgive so that they may share that blessing with others.

In the Gospel reading, it is a direct application of the Spirit so that they may have confidence. Now, the reading itself just says that Jesus breathed on them. But is this more than letting them sniff whether he remembered to brush his teeth on the way out of the tomb that morning?

Rather than just blowing toward them as a little symbolic gesture that God’s breath was in them, it has been suggested that Jesus may have kissed the disciples.* In ancient culture, a kiss meant sharing the spirit or breath of life. When you kiss someone goodbye, it is so that a portion of life, of spirit, of being remains shared with each other. Even if we don’t express it, we retain some of the sense. There on Easter evening after the resurrection, when Jesus was going away to ascend into heaven, as the readings tell us, through this kiss and sharing of his Spirit he would still be present with his followers, with his beloved even after he said goodbye. This is exactly how the Holy Spirit is described; we heard a Gospel reading from John 14(:18) two weeks ago where Jesus says he’s going away, but he’ll give you his Spirit to remain with you and in you.

It may be from this kiss of Jesus as he says “peace be with you” that the church also got into kissing. Four of Paul’s letters end with an instruction to “greet one another with the kiss of peace.” For 1200 years, the church was trying to figure out how to honor that without giving in to promiscuity and having too much smoochy-face in the worship service. I think that reaction probably overdid it. We could probably use more sense that we are supported in life, that we share life with each other, that we are cared for by God, by Jesus, and through the Spirit of Jesus, within this community. We need to be here for that reassurance, to be bound together, to breathe together, which, for our plays on words is literally the word “conspire”.

And since we’re being conspiratorial here together, since that’s what comes from having the Spirit of Jesus within and among us, that propels us on to the next thing. We come because we need that reassurance and blessing for life, but when we come here, we’re also sent. In Acts, the followers of Jesus are sent to share good news with those who didn’t even speak a language they knew. In the Gospel reading, those followers are hiding behind locked doors, but Jesus directly sends them. He won’t let them stay locked up in fear; and the forgiveness may explicitly be for those whom they fear! That’s what this blessing of peace and life lead to when you’re inspired by God.

I don’t often do direct applications in my sermons. That presumes a sermon can be resolved, while I believe God applies the Word to you as you need it, often in miraculously unexpected ways. But today may call for some direct application, so I want to conclude with a word about our sanctuary meeting. After worship today, the MCC will be discerning our readiness to serve as a sanctuary site for an undocumented immigrant at risk of deportation and separation from her or his family and tearing up the fabric of our community. This isn’t an easy conversation. It could be likely the person doesn’t speak the same language we do. With ambiguous and unknown outcomes, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, to be afraid, to keep closed up by ourselves behind these doors and not be opened to God’s mission of offering peace and life. But I am truly hoping we can catch our breath, can confront the risks, and can be on the side of blessing.

I haven’t mentioned our reading from 1st Corinthians yet. Mostly we use this as a passage about each of us as individuals having diverse gifts—that Sybil can play the piano and Jean can organize the garden and Brian can be our president and John can swing a hammer and children teach us. But we can also hear the gifts of our congregation within the larger body of Christ. In asking the question of sanctuary, we may well have gifts that other congregations, other groups of eager people don’t. We may be in a better place to say yes, with facilities that will serve well, and your daringly faithful young staff, and a congregation who is accustomed—when facing hard issues—to offer leadership to the wider church.

And when trepidation remains, when we need another dose of assurance, that is why we are here together, brought into community by this kissing Jesus, and we’re inspired filled with fresh breath, with new life of his resurrection, moment by moment, week after week, and on toward the promise of eternity. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

 

 

* Pagan Rome and the Early Christians, Stephen Benko, p82

 

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Thoughts in Solitude conf17 w poem

a new hymn

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“…Clap Your Hands”

sermon on Acts17:22-31; John14:15-21

 

It strikes me that we’ve got an interesting pairing today. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says, “if you love me,” and talks about recognizing him. But that sits alongside the reading from Acts that’s about people worshiping some unknown God.

On the one hand, it would seem hard to love something you didn’t know. Like (in a somewhat smaller way) if you’d never tried rhubarb cobbler, could you say you’d recognize it, much less in any possible way that you loved it?

On the other hand, it also seems like if you do know you love something, it shapes things for you. If you love rhubarb cobbler, you’ll want to bake it. You’ll look forward to rhubarb season. You’ll want to share it with others. You’ll choose it over other desserts (or at least in addition to other desserts).

Along with knowing and loving and that shaping our actions, since we’re celebrating our children today and they’re leading us in worship, rather than a typical sermon, I figured we could do this more in the style of a children’s message. So I’ve got a song for you, and we can keep adding stanzas to it. You might know this tune, but we’ll do it with new words from Jesus:

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, clap your hands.

That verse, besides being close to the original song, might make us say that loving Jesus is a reason for celebration. We clap our hands and rejoice because this is good news. Knowing Jesus and loving Jesus is worth cheering. In fact, it’s not just us; the prophet Isaiah said that even the trees of the field clap their hands (55:12)!

If our hands are in on the action, let’s use another old verse to add our feet. After all, our faith clearly means we put a foot down. When things are unloving and against God’s good will, when meanness or injustice seems to be taking control, we have to stomp it out. So let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, stomp your feet…

I’m going to ask for your suggestions in just a minute after a couple more I’ve got ready. How about this one: make a cross? A great Bible verse declares, “We love because God first loved us” (1John4:19) and the cross is our go-to place for witnessing that, that Jesus took on our sorrows and sufferings and confronted injustice and even was willing to die because of loving us. Our Gospel reading talks about Jesus going away into death. But the cross also marks that death does not win, that God’s love in resurrection wins. The cross says a lot about God’s love for us, and that prompts our love. So we can sing:

If you love me and you know it, make a cross…

The people in Athens in our reading from Acts weren’t recognizing or knowing who God was, but Paul pointed out the beautiful things about creation and told them God made the whole world around us. So it seems that some of loving God is paying attention to and taking delight in this wonderful world God made. For that, maybe we sing:

If you love me and you know it, look around…

What other verses should we add?

[suggestions included:

…show your heart…

…welcome all…

…make a friend…

…work for peace…

…come along…]

Our reading from Acts is pretty serious about learning and what we reflect on, which is a great message for the end of the Sunday School year, a year spent searching for God and finding that God is very near to us. So let’s sing about our pondering and thinking:

If you love me and you know it, use your brain…

That using your brain is tough to fit into a song. Maybe you’ll need to spend some more time in families or conversations or just remembering for yourself what you learned about God this year.

Almost to conclude, I want to go back to the stunning Gospel reading. It’s one of those that can seem like a tongue-twister but is saying something so astonishing: it says Jesus shows us God, and even when we don’t have Jesus with us, still the Holy Spirit is, and even if we feel like we can’t see the Holy Spirit, still she’s with you, and you are living with the life of Jesus which all leads to the remarkable thing that you can see God because you see each other. Wowee! For that, let’s sing:

If you love me and you know it, you’ll see God…

A closing verse to seal the deal and proclaim our confidence that it’s just as Jesus says:

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

If you love me and you know it, well, your faith will surely show it.

If you love me and you know it, shout “Amen!”

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Mothers’ Day and Matters of Death & Life

sermon on Acts7:55-60; 1Pet2:2-10; John14:1-14

 

If your faith is going to get you killed, you might like to anticipate it and know why. That’s just one question of life’s trajectory as followers of Jesus in the surprise our first reading presents.

In Acts, we heard the very end of a story. Not even catch-as-catch-can to pick up in the middle of things, the lectionary drops it, leaving us with a shocked “what-the-heck-caused-that?!” No sooner had Stephen opened his mouth than the mob was dragging him out to stone him to death. It’s violent, and jaw-droppingly, abruptly so. You can’t even avert your attention, it hit so suddenly without the rest of the story.

As it happens, Stephen seemed ready for it, even if we weren’t. Our snippet gave practically no indication of what led to his tragic fate. From this ending, Stephen is identified as the first Christian martyr, usually meaning the first to be killed for following Jesus. Now, if one can evidently be brutally lynched not only for being Jesus but for following Jesus, we might want to back up to figure out why to anticipate that.

Last week, I mentioned how—in spite of their best intentions—the food pantry of the early Christian communists wasn’t running fairly. Chapter 6 of Acts described ethnic discrepancies that meant certain widows weren’t getting their share in the daily distribution. Without explaining too much dynamics, it’s as if German-heritage Lutherans like me neglected responsibility to Scandinavians for somehow considering them inferior or secondary. (Nevermind that—both in Acts and our own history—things continued to spread exponentially past those kind of restrictive confines, since the Holy Spirit always plans beyond the stubborn barriers we erect).

Besides the first problem of dumb injustices of ethnic boundaries, it also turned out that the core group of 11 (or 12) apostles who had been closest to Jesus said they were too busy to worry about the food pantry, saying they had to preach sermons so others needed to be found to staff the pantry.

That’s where Stephen came in, as the central one along with six others hired or commissioned to be deacons. It’s a word literally for “waiter,” for one who serves food. (We’ve continued to use the term for distinctions in church. Last summer at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly it was adopted as the term for official roles other than pastors. Pastors are responsible for Word and Sacrament, while deacons are those officially involved in Word and Service categories of ministry.)

Like that, Stephen is chosen with Philip and five others especially to serve food. But no sooner were they in the role than Stephen wound up a preacher anyway. This pattern is consistent in the book of Acts and is kind of funny. I mentioned in Bible discussion a couple weeks ago that, even though we know this book as “Acts of the Apostles,” it could better be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit,” since she’s constantly undoing the Acts the Apostles have done!

In this case, the apostles said they had to focus on sermons so somebody else should serve food. But Stephen got put on trial and needed to defend himself, and so the guy selected for food service wound up chosen by the Spirit to preach the longest sermon in the whole book of Acts. In the chapter after this, another deacon, Philip, ends up fulfilling Jesus’ words about being witnesses to the ends of the earth as he preaches to an Ethiopian eunuch.

So much for the apostles trying to stake out their turf or for Peter’s central place in charge of the church’s hierarchy! We constantly learn that the Holy Spirit isn’t too interested in the center, much less who thinks they’re in charge, but keeps pushing to edges of new beginnings.* Stephen’s sermon proclaimed that humans all too often reject as unpopular how God has chosen to act. As if to prove his point, they kill the messenger.

For the original question of what got Stephen killed, what prompted the unleashing of this aggression against him, a basic answer is that he was trying to take seriously what faith meant in following the God of Jesus.

Maybe more to the point for us, the model isn’t that you should be getting folks so ticked off they want to crush you. Though his words commending his spirit to God and responding to the hatred with a prayer for forgiveness echo the model in Jesus’ own crucifixion, Stephen’s faith isn’t just for the ending. Though we might wonder if we’d be ready to die faithfully, it’s also good to practice long before the end. Stephen is a martyr in the fuller biblical sense, not merely for getting killed, but as a witness, that commending your life into God’s care is the greatest power. The rejection and being driven out by people cannot rupture that relationship, since nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

This week I happened across an essay from Luther suggesting when frightened or attacked by anything—not just an angry gang—to resist by saying, “No, you’ll not have the last word!…If you can terrorize, Christ can strengthen me. If you can kill, Christ can give life. If you have poison in your fangs, Christ has far greater medicine.”**

And yet, maybe we need to step back a bit. If you’re not awaiting a moment when a mob will seize you and drag you out of town, if testifying by confronting heresy isn’t really the epitome of what seems to matter about faith, if your main question isn’t really even whether God’s love is stronger than death, if it’s not so much about standing firm in the face of horrible fears for some ultimate ending, then you may instead have questions about getting to the middle of the story.

That pairs with our Gospel reading. In fact, it’s almost directly what Thomas asks and another Philip reiterates, a question not so concerned about the final endpoint but about the meantime, the middle of the story. Thomas says it this way: “Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way to get there?” It’s tough to arrive at your destination if you don’t even know which roads to take.

But Jesus doesn’t reply with pointers to start those disciples down the right path of living a bit more faithfully. He doesn’t say, “Well, why don’t you try to be nicer to your family? Maybe you should gossip less? Or isn’t it about time you check the list of volunteer opportunities to see where your skills could be helpful?” He doesn’t ask what injustices you’re confronting and certainly doesn’t prompt, “So…how are you doing on your goals and five-year plan?”

In a way, we like those sorts of mileposts to measure progress, though. We might not feel so saintly as Stephen, but certainly must be doing better than the murderous mob. When things aren’t going the direction we’d want, we perversely even like those directional indicators for offering blame, even when it lands back on ourselves for straying from the straight and narrow, or failing to make the improvements we’d intended.

Instead of giving directions, though, Jesus says I AM the way. Now, that’s not as Jesus himself is directions or instructions or measurements of comparison. Neither is it that he is a means to your end, as if he’s the rocketship you climb aboard for a ride to heaven. No, Jesus is saying: don’t try to get elsewhere because I’m already with you.

That’s still not satisfactory for the disciples, though. This other Philip asks for something else: “Show us God and we’ll be satisfied.” Jesus says, that’s what I’ve been showing you this whole time, throughout the story! Don’t go looking for something different, waiting for more spiritual sensations, wandering off after shiny new and improved-ness, expecting you’ll get it all figured out, all mapped out. I bring God’s presence for you, Jesus says. And just after this he says, when I’m not here, you’ll have my Spirit. God always with you! That’s what you need! That’s it.

Yet that brings us even further back. If we aren’t confronting the ultimate end like Stephen, of needing to declare faithfully that our lives are in Jesus’ hands, and if like Thomas and Philip we’ve received the assurance that Jesus is with us even though we’re not sure where we’re headed or how to place our next steps, then that brings us all the way back to the first verse from 1st Peter: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation, tasting that the Lord is good.” Like newborn infants, you are nursed and nourished and nurtured and raised by this mothering God’s goodness. Commending your life into God’s care or committing to God’s pathways isn’t something you even need to do because you are carried already and always in God’s arms, sustained by God offering herself for you, from giving you birth, through life, beyond death, to new beginnings.

That’s tenderly wonderful good news, but it also comes with an ongoing awareness: you may wish it were so quick and simple as going down defiantly in a blaze of glory, with a heavenly vision as you’re confidently facing foul villains. But faith isn’t about Stephen’s ending. Even he witnessed that the Holy Spirit continued to abide with him. His life was already and always in Jesus’ hands. Neither, then, is this about changing your path, about needing to reorient your life. I find the term “followers of Jesus” generally helpful for us these days, but that isn’t trying to indicate that you’re following Jesus off elsewhere. He is with you.

Yet for this elusive assurance to be most effective, you probably need constant doses of it. If you’re longing for the pure, spiritual milk like newborn infants, a newborn nurses like eight or a dozen times per day, right? At best, you’re getting communion here and tasting that good gift from God once a week. Not that being away from here removes you from God’s maternal, eternal care or excludes you from God’s embrace. Far from saying that at all. But if you have to wait a week, you’re probably starving, longing, bawling and crying out, or just feeling so faithfully vulnerable, in desire for another feeding of this pure, spiritual milk to fill you with what you need to live, to satisfy your spirit, and revive your growth.

So, to continue to nurse and nurture you for the days ahead, here’s once again the assurance: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.  And why don’t you turn an become surprising preachers for each other. Make the sign of the cross on each other’s forehead with those words: you are a beloved child of God and nothing can separate you from that.

* See Justo Gonzalez Acts: The Gospel of the Spirit on these observations

** Luther’s Works, vol43, p128 “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague”

 

I believe there are worthwhile reasons Jesus refers to God the Father. But today some of those reasons are offset by Mothers’ Day, which gives us good reason to hear this passage with its very Father-heavy language instead in a motherly way:

The holy gospel according to John.

Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said,] “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Mother’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.” 5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Mother except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Mother also. From now on you do know her and have seen her.”

8Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Mother, and we will be satisfied.” 9Jesus said, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Mother. How can you say, ‘Show us the Mother’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Mother who dwells in me does her works. 11Believe me that I am in the Mother and the Mother is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Mother. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Mother may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”

For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God within us, for the Word of God among us, thanks be to God.

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Abundant Life

sermon on Psalm23; 1Peter2:19-25; Acts2:42-47; John10:1-10

Jesus gives a great purpose statement today: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Yet it makes us ask, what does he mean? What qualifies (or quantifies) as abundant life? Is it about longevity, as if the number of years is what makes life abundant? Do you imagine it’s having abundance in your life, of food on your table and square footage of your dwelling space and of possessions? Or is abundance in satisfaction, in enjoyment, in feeling accomplishment? Might the abundance of life come in relationships, in types of friends or delight in family? More, is it abundant through relationship with God?

We don’t need to guess at understanding what Jesus might mean by living abundantly, since each of our Bible readings today hits on considerations of abundant life, to give a sense of what Jesus wants for you.

Let’s start with the 23rd Psalm, since that is such a definitive statement of our faith and hope. We sang before, but join in if you know these words:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want; he makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil, my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

We may hardly need say or reflect on more for a vision of abundant life than those beloved words. God abides as your Shepherd. Goodness chases after you so you lack or want for nothing. God guides you to calming waters and lush fields of peace and plenty. Even when life itself seems threatened in deadly dark valleys or by the presence of your enemies, you are comforted and safely kept in house of the Lord.

Still, as true and meaningful as those words are, we can’t stop there, because I don’t want you left thinking abundant life amid this faith of ours is just about you and Jesus, through your good times or troubles you endure or in some eternal heavenly home sense. As much as Jesus is your Good Shepherd and you are a sheep, you are a sheep of his fold and lamb of his own flock. You aren’t alone, but are among a gathering of sheep. And, as Jesus will go on to say later in chapter 10 of John’s Gospel, he has “other sheep that do not belong to this” group. It can’t be individualistic. We need to look broader and recognize more to understand what Jesus intends for abundant life.

To begin considering God amid our relationships, let’s take a fairly negative example. You may have been squirming in your seats during the reading from 1st Peter, and Joyce didn’t much seem to enjoy reading it or calling it “Word of God, Word of life.” You may have been protesting and arguing in your minds about unjust suffering. I concur that there’s much disagreeable there. This is the sort of passage the lectionary normally skips past without giving us a chance to confront it. In this case, what we didn’t hear makes it worse, since this lectionary skipped the first verse of the section, which began with addressing “slaves, accept the authority of your masters,” even if they’re too harsh. Yikes! Probably worse still, the next verse after our reading says, “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.” Double yikes! This among verses that commend enduring abuse and beatings!

We must quickly declare how wrong this is, but we first have to pause with an odd caveat. The author of this letter is trying to make sense of what the resurrection means, including in the course of life’s difficulties, and in some way understands that suffering is not the opposite of abundant life. 1st Peter says our worst difficulties in relationships don’t necessarily cut us off from abundant life.

Using suffering in service of life by breaking oppression was the method of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. Dr. King cited exactly this Bible passage, realizing that “unearned suffering [can be] redemptive. Suffering…has tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” He liked to say, “The tension is, at bottom, between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory, it will be a victory not merely for [African Americans], but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice [he said] and not white persons who may be unjust.”* That’s a message of striving through intentional suffering on behalf of abundant life, that one side can’t win alone (as violence presumes). True victory for life needs to be shared by both sides. In Dr. King’s example of nonviolent resistance, it may make sense to commend that pain should be endured.

But we have to admit 1st Peter isn’t really talking about that. When this letter says that enduring unjust and unmerited suffering at work or in family relationships means you have God’s approval, that’s mostly wrong. God may be on the side of people suffering and hurting, but if the letter means that God approves of being abused, that is wrong and it is terrifyingly wrong. This passage has been used to perpetuate domestic violence. In another example, there have been some awful racist offences at St. Olaf College in recent days, and 1st Peter’s model would be that those students in positions of weakness should just put up with insults, humiliation, denigrations, or threats. That should not happen. That is not commendable. It’s not godly. That is not abundant life.

Almost every source I read this week declared the need to understand this writing in its ancient context, that slaves and wives and children were property controlled by the authority of a man, that that society was shaped and limited by their economy—a word literally meaning the household order. But that doesn’t make it okay. 1st Peter has some very faithful and wonderful things in it, but this is just plain wrong. It’s wrong about Jesus, wrong about society, wrong for us.

As a counter-example, Paul’s writings were in the same ancient context but refused to endorse that economic or household order. He undid slave/master hierarchy to invite them to live as brothers (see Philemon). He saw marriages as a mutual relationship (see 1Cor7). In Paul’s understanding, “there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” and none should be treated as patriarchal fathers, because we are all counted as offspring and heirs to inherit God’s promise (Gal3:28-29).

So 1st Peter can’t just say that we need to put up with oppressive and abusive relationships or forms of society, because Paul rightly recognized that what Jesus was doing and is still doing for the sake of abundant life is to reshape our relationships and to confront unjust authorities, whether they be in economy, family, religion, school, government, or anywhere. The example of Jesus is not that he passively submitted to being killed but that he chose to risk his life confronting injustice, and even that not as a suicide mission but with God’s further insistence on life over death. Like Jesus, it may be worth confronting powers for the sake of abundant life. And in that way, amid suffering, you may trust that God intends something other than your pain.

Let’s move from a difficult passage to one that seems more obvious in its abundance. The reading from Acts is the same chapter as the Pentecost story, with the Holy Spirit is creating faith in crowds of new followers of Jesus. This is portrayed as the very early infant church. Just as 1st Peter was trying to figure out, then, what it means to live as the church, to live after Easter, how to encounter continuity of life in this world even while believing it is forever changed by the resurrection, that’s what the community is working on in Acts, too, trying to figure out what this way of life means. In this short reading, there are a couple ways they encounter the abundance of life:  they study, they join in prayers, they eat meals together.

Oh, and they’re also communists. This is a way of seeing the abundance of life, that we have enough to share, that it can’t really be abundant if we imagine it needs to be hoarded, but is best when offered for all. Yet this idea of sharing everything in common, of selling possessions in order to distribute the proceeds as anyone had need has been rejected by plenty of folks, as it’s almost as harmful as passive suffering in 1st Peter. Yet even as we’re skeptical about difficulties of living communally, and even as that ancient community struggled with it—where some wanted to keep their own things and where within four chapters the food pantry wasn’t running fairly—still we do practice this. We practice it in our offerings, bringing what we have, to share life in so many ways for our community (like helping the homeless) and around the world (like funds for ELCA World Hunger and welcoming refugees). We should note this is what happens with our taxes. Those funds are for sharing a common good larger than what we could possess or accomplish on our own. That is a vision of abundant life.

Besides financially, in another aspect of being part of the flock and sharing in this community, I had the privilege of hearing celebrations from Mary Rowe this week, of delight in the care and support and generosity of this congregation as she is recovering from her knee surgery. Now, being cooped up at home, stuck on pain medications, and wondering when she’ll be back into normal routines may not sound exactly like abundant life, but as she shares the joys of this community, Mary recognizes it. This is the koinonia, the fellowship, the sharing, the communion that binds us together in this meal today, and that finds expression as our lives commune and become one with each other.

Finally for our discernment about finding abundant life are Jesus’ words. He offers a strange image: I AM the gate. It’s easier to picture Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who will rescue you from trouble and carry you on his shoulders. Or as the Shepherd of the sheep who leads us and guides us together as a flock. But here Jesus also says he’s a gate. That’s an odd idea.

First, it makes us wonder whether we’re trying to get in or out. Is he a gate that protects us from marauders and harm? Or is he the way out from being trapped up so we can find freedom in green pastures of plenty? He says both: “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”

Perhaps we need both sides of that. We see that church is not about being insiders who disparage outsiders. There’s nothing exclusive about those in the church as better or more blessed. We’re not here to hunker down and shut the world out. And yet we do come in through the gate for a message of salvation. We need a word unlike the bad news that surrounds us, we need the peace the world cannot give. We need the reassurance of resurrection, that life in Jesus wins, that those injustices and pains and fears of scarcity and all that threatens or breaks us apart do not and, in the end, cannot define, confine, or conquer us and our world.

Instead, trusting the message of life that is stronger than death, trusting in Jesus who submitted to death in order to burst through it and undo its powerful grip on us, proclaiming that that is our reality, too, that nothing can stifle this goodness, we go out through the gate of Jesus to his world. We go out to share that good news. We go out to confront the nastiness. We go out to share our life abundantly. We go out to enjoy the blessing that nothing will steal that from us, nothing will be able ultimately to destroy God’s goodness. Life in Jesus is for all for always. We go out, because through him, we recognize life more abundantly. Alleluia! Christ is risen!

* “An Experiment in Love” in Testament of Hope, p18

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