A “Just God” and wrong deaths


“No just God would stand for what they did” – this was President Obama’s assertion regarding the extremists who killed journalist James Foley.

I don’t stand for the killing. But I also won’t stand for—and don’t believe in—the sort of God it characterizes. The God of the President’s statement—this so-called God of justice, the God who will show up to do something, or maybe to stop things from happening—couldn’t help but be a parallel version of what we’re trying to get away from, and soon becomes another dominating terrorizer.

The American view is that this same God who wouldn’t “stand for” executing a journalist would have to enforce the other side, using airstrikes and drones and police troops. It’s simply about another kind of killing. The President’s “just God” is nothing but our own version of the hooded executioner we want to call in, the masked enforcer, the hidden but powerful threat. We’re realizing all-too-well these days that your good cop is somebody else’s vigilante. The appeal to a just God will not right our wrongs, but only entrench self-justification.

Further, how do we reconcile a just God with a claim to favoritism, among nations or religions, maybe among classes or colors? We’d be condemned to proliferating tragedy, with such a God’s fleeting favor. We can’t help but let down that God’s standards, fail to live up to what we’re supposed to, break the rules and the law, end up on the wrong side. That puts us on the wrong side of vengeance, the casualties of our own holy war. That God’s “eye-for-eye,” indeed, is liable to leave the world blind.

We can only say Hallelujah, Praise the Lord, that such a view mis-characterizes God. See, we can and should strive for justice, not only calling for an end to isolated violence of terrorism but also striving for an end to sanctioned broadly-supported state violence that breeds it, directly or indirectly.

But that effort, that mission does not come from a God of justice. It comes from a God of compassion, of mercy, of love. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” That doesn’t claim more value for one life than another. It isn’t even about loving enemies. That is primarily the love of God that is long-suffering, patient, understanding, pressing forward in spite of all that opposes life.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” this God says. Or, more to the point, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”


Abundant Antichrists and Persistent Faith — sermon on Revelation 13 for 17 August 14

My reading and research preparing for this week were different than normal.

See, I began looking around, counting horns and heads. I looked at President Obama, but couldn’t find any horns, so guess he must not be satan. I realized I have seven screens, of computers and phones and TVs, that I look at a lot, and wondered if those seven faces of technology matched seven heads of the beast.

It got worse: it talks about one who looked like the lamb but spoke like the dragon, uttering blasphemy, using godly language but in reverse, for falsehood and leading astray. With that, boy, did I worry that was actually talking about the church, the ELCA. What if we ourselves are the beast?!

Although stuff on the internet could support any of those hypotheses, to me it was leading in an unpleasant direction, so I tried another approach. I investigated 666, playing biblical cryptoquote by assigning a number value to each letter. Nevermind that interpreters have long figured that 666 was the value for Nero Caesar, a terrible Roman emperor at the time Revelation was written. It’s more fun to keep adding, discovering that people have found 666 to be the value of popes and of Hitler and of Ronald Wilson Reagan for having six letters in each of his names, and also for Barney, the big purple dinosaur. With all of those speculations, it seems the beast is really on the loose, tearing through history, spreading its progeny, even infecting our homes. Lord, help us!

If that seems maybe a little silly in its wild guesswork, that’s right where we should be for this hard, strange chapter from our Bible’s last book, not thinking we’ve got the accusations figured out, but using it to question and redirect our lives to God.

Like much else in our Bible, we benefit from using something that wasn’t written for us. It was written for a time and place of persecution, when Christians were oppressed by the Roman Empire and were actually being thrown to the lions in the gladiator pit.

Yet, many somehow still claim the exact opposite about Revelation. In trying to decode the symbolism of a many-headed beast and expecting it predicts the future, that means that anybody who read Revelation before Hitler or the United Nations or whatever had no idea what it meant. It would’ve been useless.

That’s precisely the reverse of the repeated refrain throughout the book: Let anyone with an ear listen! The book isn’t written as a secret for only one future point in history. It’s written trying to disclose a secret, to broadcast the good news, to continue a reminder.

And the amazing thing is that the message continues to be useful. Somehow, this crazy book with all of its strange imagery of wrath and terrors all around continues to have a message that speaks good even to us now.

Yet a sure way to screw up the message is to treat it as a forecast instead of a metaphor. Think of it this way: If we say, “it’s going to rain cats and dogs,” metaphorically, that is understood as a fancy way of saying that when you look out the window, it’s really going to be raining heavily. If you tried to treat it as a forecast, however, you’d be waiting for dogs and cats literally to be falling from the sky.

Well, Revelation is like that. If we tried to break it down to its simplest message, cutting through the metaphor and fancy imagery and lots of special effects, essentially it’s trying to say: following Jesus is worth it, so keep at it.

With that, let’s return to our reading for today, not trying to decode and dis-cover, which isn’t the point, anyway. Let’s listen for the basic message.

So there’s a powerful entity, and it seems everyone is excited about it, thinking nothing could be better than this. Now, that which you love and trust above all else is a pretty fair definition of what your god is, right? And this so-called god makes that even clearer by blaspheming the true God, making false claims. It’s aided by another, who can do miraculous stuff. Further, the so-called god makes demands. It affects the economy. It creates fear and causes death. It lays claim to people’s lives.

Unpacking that, we can see that calling it a beast intends to repel us. The so-called god appeals to many others; only our insight enables us to see it as repulsive. Again, as metaphor and symbol, it remind us that this ugly so-called god is not our good God.

It works that way with numbers, too, 666 and 42 months. If 7 is a number of wholeness (like 7 days in a week), then 666 and 3½ years emphasize imperfection, a lack of godliness.

The same with the term antichrist. It’s not literally looking for red horns and a pitchfork. Instead, antichrist is a term that just means against Christ, anti-Christ. So if we’re being led away from God and astray from following Jesus, then no matter what it is, it is anti-Christ and is evil. (Actually, the term antichrist isn’t in this reading or anywhere in Revelation, but only in the letters of John, where it describes allegedly corrupt other Christians!)

Again, rather than expecting that we’ll see some multi-headed beast emerging from the ocean and then be able to say, “uh oh,” or claiming it needs to be a massive dictator misses most of the point. It’s a question of competing loyalties. To return to our list that included Obama and an entertaining dinosaur and technology, any of those have potential to lead us astray, to distract our attention from God, even if they work what we’d call miracles, like the amazing things that our cell phones do.

So do you need a sermon about putting away your cell phone, about not trusting that more than all else? Or not calling a political figure a savior? Or about not getting so distracted by the things that entertain you?

Or think about the economic restrictions in our reading, where the saints fared worse. What if being a Christian meant that old pattern of taking sabbath and resting on Sunday? Or what if it meant not profiting from exploiting workers or causing violence or destroying the environment? What if it was wrong to benefit at the expense of increased inequality for the poor? Any of those would make it harder for us to fit into the dominant global economy, to make money on retirement investments, to make purchases without hardly thinking about such consequences.

So do you need a sermon warning you against the beastliness of finance?

We are asking those questions, because we live in such a different culture than when Revelation was written. We might say that it’s easy to be a Christian now. We don’t worry about getting killed. We’re not ostracized or shunned in a marketplace. Mostly we fit in with the rest of culture.

But maybe that also should make us realize it’s hard to be a Christian now. If we don’t stand for a different economy, if we don’t oppose killing, if we’re not standing against oppression. If we look so much like everyone else that they can’t recognize our lifestyle as different and we can even forget at times that we’re Christian.

In that way, the clearest line of our reading might also be the most helpful. Verse 10 ends, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” That’s a calling, a message, a sermon we do need. And it’s also the shape of the rest of Revelation. See, just picking the hard, scary chapter out of the cycle leaves us without the assurances, without the constant reminders of good news. This is really a beautiful book of blessing and encouragement for times of crisis.

For the people at that time, the question was whether faith was worth it.   If they could be killed for their trust in Christ, if they suffered because of it, was there any point in continuing on? If God didn’t stop their enemies, did it mean those violent forces had won?

That fits our questions of illness and death. Should we put our faith instead into medicine and hospitals that can at least prolong life, if not save us? Is God too weak to be of any assistance? Is our faith pointless in those times, since it doesn’t offer a cure?

Why continue in faith, why trust, when it seems pointless? That’s even broader nowadays. When there are so many good distractions and fun activities, church often tries to respond by being as entertaining. Or when so much seems helpful and rewarding, when so many offer education and edification, the church often claims that we teach values best and we truly enjoy a life of loving service.

Yet with that, we have to admit that this all gets complex. Cell phones are not strictly evil. Church is not always the best for service projects. President Obama may do both good and bad.

But none of that is the center of our faith. The central message of Revelation is Jesus. In him, evil has been overcome, is already getting knocked out. That is the mortal wound in the reading. Jesus has brought the end of evil. It’s still persistently struggling to get its way, in spite of the cross and even until now. But it will not, cannot triumph. What is wrong in the world does not have the last word. In spite of death and suffering, in spite of horsemen that seem to spread war and disease and disasters and economic injustice ever more broadly across the earth, that is not what is ultimate.

Ultimately, you are redeemed in Christ. Not the powers of the world, but the Lamb who was slain, is the one on the throne forever. And unlike beastly powers that try to conquer by killing, it is by dying that the Lamb is victorious. Jesus died for you, and conquering death he lives for you. He will bring you through all of this, holding on to you, you and all creation, and he will be with you eternally, in spite of any current evidence to the contrary. That is why Easter hymns proclaim things like, “the strife is o’er, the battle done, now is the Victor’s triumph won” and “Thine is the glory, Risen conqu’ring Son. Endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won.”

The point of this is for you to cling to that promise when you need it, when things seem so terrible and hordes of devils fill the land. Just as much, it’s for when you’re so distracted that you’re not enduring in the faith.

And with that, we point toward the baptism this morning, because it ties in closely to Revelation. We heard about people bearing the mark of the beast on their hand or forehead. Exactly counter to that will be the mark of Christ on baby Matthew’s forehead, which is mentioned at the start of the next chapter after our reading. By later today, the smell and signs of that oil will no longer be apparent. But God’s mark, God’s claim on Matthew will last forever. It will persist through his struggles in school. It will be there when he seems like a little demon and is driving his mom crazy. It will be there even if it seems like he’s been attacked by an illness, or even if life gets so messed up that he could wonder if he’s cursed. It will be there as a reminder if he’s ignoring faith and not living as a saint. It will be there many long years from now when he dies. And it will be there as we rise together to experience the new life, the fullness of the new creation, that Christ has won for us eternally. That mark of Christ claims him and you, to be an assurance through it all.

That’s what Revelation is about. That’s what faith is about. That’s who Jesus is for you.

Hymn: Awake, My Heart, with Gladness (ELW #378)

We also used images from The Brick Testament to help with visualizing the unfamiliar story!


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of  Helen Vivian Otillia Cattell 6Sept21 + 5Aug14

Psalms 13 & 23; Hebrews 11:13-16, 12:1-2; John14:1-7

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

Well, this is another of those moments we knew would arrive and yet didn’t know when, and didn’t want to happen. It was just over 15 months ago that we gathered for a service for Ray, the man that Helen continued infamously to claim she slept with on their first night together, meaning on the trainride from Chicago. It was a marriage that caused some unexpected surprises for that city girl, as she had to live in the northwoods and discover the joys of an outhouse during winter. Though, we’d have to admit that she took to it all pretty well and adapted to life with Ray.

And some of what we’d say about him, we could also say about Helen. Which could begin with—boy—did she know how to give a person a hard time! She was also great at pretending to take offense when you tried to retort, until eventually she would call the truce and get you both out of trouble, saying, “I’ll be nice to you if you also behave.”

The fun-loving Helen had plenty of good days knitting and antiquing bowling and speaking Norwegian at you and playing cards (and she also enjoyed acting as if that were a shameful vice). Really, she enjoyed most anything as long as there was a good circle of laughter around it, and maybe some cookies and coffee.

And we should certainly recognize for her that those joys of life continued even after her move up to the Heritage. The move provided company at meal times, some old friends, and some new faces to get to know and enjoy, a new sort of home.

Yet in some ways the time of the move also marks a turning point, as some of her memory issues got worse, and as she kept on insisting she’d prefer to be back home. She always continued recalling memories of all the kids who grew up on Midmoor, the close friendships, the many fond delights of the neighborhood.

And that’s a pretty defining trait of Helen, the way she continued to encounter memories and to negotiate with the past. In some ways, they were simply happy recollections. But in other regards those confrontations with the past caused Helen a theological conundrum.

First and foremost was her grief for Marty. She raised the question repeatedly in conversations with me for a decade, and I’m sure she was pondering it for the decade before that, as well. Occasionally, she was struggling with who God was. But more often, even as she would lament missing Marty and how it didn’t seem right, still she simply declared with a deep trust that it’s a mystery we can’t yet understand, how our God works.

A similar side note with contemplating God and loving her children, another really regular conversation with Helen was concern about you, Spence and Wade, and being part of church and being able to trust this God. I think it’s worth giving voice to this serious hope (and sometimes) worry of your mom’s, for you and for all of us in younger generations who haven’t yet found faith to be the resource or the assurance that she did.

Overall, with her faithful kind of trust, it seemed that Psalm 13 was fitting for today. It ends with very confident words, “I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. The LORD, has dealt bountifully with me.” Such strong confidence, though, such deep faithfulness seems almost misplaced after the first two-thirds of the Psalm, that began with raising the insistent question, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?”

Both sides of that Psalm were Helen’s voice. She never doubted the goodness of the heavenly promise, but she most certainly questioned it. Her faithfulness wasn’t only blind acceptance, but an ongoing wrestling. She continued to feel lonely, not only because of Marty, but continually as she watched her close circle of friends die, as she was feeling like the only one left. She would ask why so many others had gone but she was still around, why her time hadn’t come yet. But then she’d answer her own question, in a way, by saying that it wasn’t up to her but up to God, and God knew the time and God was prepared and God would be ready.

That fits with our Gospel reading, words from Jesus of the blessing he has prepared for Helen and for you, “in my Father’s house.” There is still so much of this we can’t see, that even when we trust, it nevertheless remains mysterious. But here is the bold promise of Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you, that you may be with me.” That promise of Jesus, that God was with her, kept Helen throughout her life, and continues to hold onto her in a new way, a new place now.

Being home with Jesus was and remains a good word for Helen. It was long at a house on Midmoor. It fit in a new home at Heritage. That home-making presence continues through valleys of the shadow of death. It fits her life among the saints of St. Stephen’s, a church family for 55 years, a place to call home, as the LORD prepares this table before you, as the communion of saints gathers around, as the heavenly feast is shared, as you dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

And with all of these details of our lives, all the races we run together, through the pains and the joys, amid our worst losses and all the amazing riches, it is a promise we will all arrive at together, the guarantee that we will all be remembered in God’s kingdom, with Helen, and with Ray, and with Marty, with all those who have gone before and all those yet to come, all welcomed home together forever.


Church Work isn’t Just at Church. But Some is!

Our Life Together — The Other Stuff at Church

(a newsletter article for somewhat later in summer)

At the start of summer, I wrote to you about the benefits of being in church, that this is where you get to know God in Christ, and that you are missed when you’re not here.

Moving toward the close of summer, a variation on those thoughts continues on my mind. Tim and I are thinking and talking about it, with your staff, and Ministry Board, and in other conversations.

I’ll admit, it’s a conundrum. It’s a both/and paradox, of your life here and your life away. See, I firmly and wholeheartedly believe that Jesus is the center of who we are and what we do. Our basis is not in being spiritual or seeking God. Neither are we the same as a service organization, social club, or self-help support group.

We are here because we are Jesus people, and because we so continuously fall short as Jesus people. In worship we effectively meet Jesus. We are formed and re-formed, inspired and restored. It all can happen in an hour, once-per-week. Even briefer, God’s word can be proclaimed for you in short phrases, with splashes of water and hardly a taste of bread and wine.

But we’re not a religious drive thru. You can’t exactly pop in for a helping of Jesus, a dose of grace, a serving of forgiveness, and then be on your way. It’s more than a spiritual pit-stop to fill up your depleted reserves and rejuvenate the empty tank.

Joined together as members of the Body of Christ, community is essential—necessary for our very being. Never merely isolated and individualistic, we are dependent on the wellbeing of relationships and working together, in the local place of this congregation and with all creation. Neither can it happen only staring at computer screens; it is incarnational, flesh-and-blood.

So, the conundrum: Mostly your vocations—your living as Jesus people—happen away from “church,” in your very busy days, in families and workplaces, in zillions of interactions, in purchases and conversations and voting booths and food choices and on and on. It’s impossible to be a Christian primarily at church. Life is so much more.

Yet if this is where you are formed and how you practice being a Christian, if this is where we share peace and welcome the outcast and give thanks for natural cycles that grow grain, if it is here that you come to know your fundamental identity as Jesus people…then we need this place, this work here together.

And parts of congregational life don’t happen in an hour on Sundays. In newsletter there are lots of activities and invitations we share. Or that we are supposed to share. In July, we had to cancel a youth Boundary Waters canoe trip, the children and families olympics and potluck, and the men’s Minocqua retreat. We struggled with help on weeding gardens and praying for peace amid the Gaza conflict. We’re slow on sign-ups to serve homeless families at The Road Home and, looking to the fall, could use more Sunday School helpers.

On the other hand, our Food Pantry continues great ministry. WilMar, too. Monona Munchies has been serving hungry kids all summer. Concerts on the Square had a large St. Stephen’s contingent. A great group is headed to Mallards baseball this weekend. Our nursery is mostly staffed through the summer.

I’ll also commend to you two saints: Most every time I greet Don Jambura, he asks, “What can I do for you, pastor?” Frequently, I don’t have a task in mind, but he is always available. Again, I just got off the phone with Joann Esser. She noticed a mess and asked how she could be part of the caretakers.

I’m so grateful for God’s blessing that gets lived out as vocations in all the locations of your lives, being Jesus people. But we’re also asking for your involvement here, in these programs, responsibilities, and activities. Please give that a renewed consideration on how you can participate. Volunteer. Talk to us. Engage this faith.

Thank you, dear saints.

+ nick


a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Ronald Holton  29Sept50+20July14

John 6:16-21, 14:1-7

It is a privilege and honor to be with you for this gathering today, to serve you, to bring a word for you.

Other than a conversation with sister Carol the other day, and a little bit of what I’ve heard this morning, I obviously didn’t get to know Ron, though maybe I did at sometime see him out walking Libby. I’m also told that he was a pretty private person, that it was kind of tough for much of anybody to get to know him.

In that way and more, I would say that Ron could be a metaphor for God for us, could perhaps help us understand who God is a bit more, which may be important for this moment now, and also for life going forward. And that’s what I’m here to focus on, the word I get to bring.

See, in that first detail of being a private, reserved kind of person, a quiet intellectual, we may envision some pretty clear parallels to what you could say about God. God isn’t so easy to get to know. In conversations, if you try to talk or pray to God, you don’t get much in the way of clear answers. If you wanted to spend time with God, to be together and hang out, where would you go? God doesn’t really show up as the life of a party, cracking jokes. Instead God is more hidden, apparently off someplace else, mysterious certainly.

That can be difficult, making it hard to get to know and relate. Again, for a similarity, we refer to God as Father. But this isn’t a Father who plops down next to you, asks about your day, gives you a big hug. We have assurances of this Father’s love, but somehow that remains somewhat invisible, it can only be trusted, believed.

Yet we’re not left only with the quiet, somehow secret love of the Father, whether we’re talking about God or about Ron. It’s not just the invisible, hidden God we have to guess our way to, or struggle to uncover, that are constantly left questioning or just have to wish into being.

Our Bible reading from the Gospel of John reminded us that, in Jesus, God is made known to us. In him, the unknown, uncertain God is revealed.

And that pieces together with the other Bible reading in a really vital, important way. The other reading talked about a storm at sea, and some people in a boat, fearing for their lives. Now, we could look at those things and wonder where God is. Some even refer to violent weather events as “acts of God.” So, is God causing the storm and suffering of life? Is God driving the people to fear? Is God so careless about our lives?

In fact, as Jesus makes God known for us in the story, God does care. God calms storms. God preserves life. And God in Christ says, “Peace, do not be afraid.”

Those may be important words as we reflect on Ron’s life, as well. In his career with the Coast Guard, he also embodied caring for life on the waves, striving to drive off danger and to rescue and protect amid the storms, helping ships and boats get safely to the ports where they were going. In that, we could say that Ron was doing some of God’s work, going through danger at times, searching and trying to save, to help life run more smoothly.

Maybe the other thing we notice as we hear those Bible readings is less the direct connections of the details of those stories, but that it is a story in and of itself. See, part of how we continue to know who God is, is by retelling these old stories. Part of how God is a blessing and a resource, how God brings peace and life, is by living again into these old words, by remembering, by listening, sharing, and telling.

And that’s a worthwhile thing as you gather at this moment. Part of what’s helpful in this time of loss is to reclaim some memories. I heard of Ron loving the music of Woodstock. I heard of hitchhiking through South America, and also along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. with your mother, Sharrie and Michelle. I heard that his own favorite memory of the 4th of July in Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, his favorite Independence Day celebration. There are memories of Vietnam, of good times and much harder times, of strength, and of sickness—all of it coming to bear now and to be redeemed in our Lord.

I heard of being known for walking along the bike path with Libby, always out for those walks with the dog he cared for so much, and flashing his signature peace sign at those who passed by.

Maybe that story, that memory, is an appropriate conclusion for now. On the stormy waters, Jesus spoke a word of peace and of blessing. And he spoke an assurance that your place is always with God, that nothing will ever separate you from that love, and that life will continue forever. In the care of one beloved and close, and the fleeting signals of peace, there is also the purpose of me being here today, to offer you again the promise that you are cared for, that God is bringing you through the storms, working for love and reconciliation, to bring you together again for the good of life in your Father’s home forever.