Subverting Authority with Love

Sermon for 28Sept14

Matt21:23-32; Ezek18:1-4,25-32; Phil2:1-13: Ps25:1-9

With this reading, I could just about repeat my last sermon, telling you to get off your kiesters and get to work, that simply paying lip service to faith won’t cut it, won’t count as devotion. But I don’t really want to re-give that sermon; it’s available if you need it.

Again, with talk about tending the Father’s vineyard, I could describe the People’s Climate March last weekend, and how, as God’s creation is faced with catastrophes of climate change, our civilization is at last turning from non-action toward caring responses, as 400,000 people focused on energy sources and agricultural ideas and political adaptations and technological innovations and concern for resources for the poor and compassion for all kinds of creatures and creative resistance and humor and being guided by faith, with delight and hope. But a travelogue isn’t a sermon, so I’ll thank you for your support and leave it to the photos on the TV and the words of my new hymn this morning.

Instead, let’s bite off the other part of the reading. By the time we got to the parable of two sons, disobedient each in their own way, but still striving to please the Father, perhaps we’d already overlooked what came first. This reading began with an obscure debate in the temple about authority.

The question for Jesus is, “by whose authority are you teaching?” As he’s trespassing on their turf, it’s a question of permission, like “What gives you the right?”

It’s not a bad analogy still to imagine yourself coming up here, pushing me out of the way, and starting to give your own sermon. (Perhaps that has already occurred to you, anyway!) If you tried to preach, still I might be expected to ask what gives you the right, what makes you think you’re so qualified and authoritative, what gives what you’re saying any credibility at all? In our times, you might say that you had a special spiritual insight to share, or maybe you’d been studying and had learned some things.

But in the ancient world, it didn’t work that way. There was no claiming credentials for yourself; it had to be given. And, in spite of how highly we think of him, Jesus just plain didn’t have that authority. He wasn’t a religious official or connected to the Roman government or well-educated or wealthy. He was poor and working class and rural and didn’t have a powerful father, or maybe didn’t have a father around at all. “Who gave you permission?” the muckety-mucks ask. It’s a trap. By their standards, Jesus had no claim to authority.

But, as usual, the sneaky Jesus reverses the trap, with a retorting question that begins to subvert their old standards of authority. So here’s what we know about Jesus’ authority: It’s not the old models, that he was of aristocratic lineage and born into a place of importance. It’s not the authority of the crowds, in an ancient popularity contest, because Jesus ends up pretty well abandoned by all. The authority of Jesus, plain and simple is from God.

But that still messes with us, really subverting our own views of authority, of credibility. The Christmas carol we sang this morning (Once in Royal David’s City) ties into these readings and themes. The image of Jesus in a manger challenges authority, changing our view of God. He’s not born into a palace, nor even a sterile and tidy hospital room. He’s born to a poor family, stuck where ox and ass are lowing. Lowly is definitely the word for it. A “humble life begun in scorn,” as another hymn says.

Still, even that takes extra noticing for us. We are people nursed on and enamored of the so-called American dream, that even with such miserable beginnings, he might pull himself up by his bootstraps and really become something.   We love those sagas with surprise endings where the poor barefoot child went on to become CEO.

And so we’d fashion ourselves as bystanders at the manger, pointing to a helpless infant, “He may not look like much now, but he went on to become a better teacher than the temple priests. He became a mightier ruler than the emperor in Rome.”

Except that’s not the point. His ending was that he died on the cross, still weak and poor and powerless. It would appear to justify the question of the religious authorities: Without lineage or prestige, no special training or upbringing or prominence. With no typical credibility. And then killed as a criminal, so lonely that he even cries out that God has forsaken him. We’d have to say that’s about as low as he could get.

And yet what we confess, what we trust, is somehow that’s nevertheless, in spite of it all, where God chooses to be registered! From fragile birth and messy cow stall, to peasant family, associating with lowlifes, surrounded by the sick and unliked and oppressed, and finally dead, buried in a borrowed tomb. That’s how God wants to be known, and in that is exactly what our God’s authority looks like.

Which sounds miserable. But it also sounds like good news for miserable people, for broken and hurting people, for a sorry world. Jesus says today that it’s for prostitutes and tax collectors. It’s for those who don’t even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. The sick and those who feel they’re no good. This God is for those who make mistakes, the wrong, and the wronged. This God is for you, even if you’re only as good as dead.

If that seems like you’re stuck with a consolation prize, if you’d prefer some other sort of God who is on the winning team and does everything right and is fancier and shinier and mightier than all the rest, if you imagine that the old authority of success was better than how things end up with Jesus, then you’d better keep listening.

Our reading from Philippians lays out this whole trajectory for us in such a stunning way: God didn’t want to be known as the biggest boss in the sky, and so God became human, though it would seem like a poor idea. As a human, Jesus didn’t seek the old style glory, but humbled himself, like a slave, a servant, like one who pours himself out for others. What he did was love, love those who weren’t even all that loveable, love you. And that got him killed.

But on the third day, that love was proven as God’s vision, raised from the dead, trumping those old powers of selfish preservation who thought they had such exquisite control. And the surprise ending is, as Philippians says it, that this crucified Jesus is worshipped above all. His way of suffering love, of pouring himself out, in the long view is proven as the shape of God’s will. Not the old standards of authority, going for fame and fortune and our American dream of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, for mustering the crowd to revolt and take control. Somehow, as we ourselves continue to see the kingdom spreading, Jesus is the way. Finally, in Philippians’ vision, everybody will agree with what God has already decided in Jesus. In the end, he’ll receive universal acclaim, as all creatures on earth and above and below will come to the authority of loving service in him.

This morning there are two saints of St. Stephen’s highlighting that for us, first in the baptism of Alice Elizabeth. Baptism is connected to Jesus’ resurrection, a promise of life. But the Great Commission for it, the shape of it comes from the end of Matthew’s Gospel, worth repeating today because of this theme of authority. Jesus says, “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We baptize Alice Elizabeth into a life of discipleship, of learning to follow Jesus and being a representative of his authority of love. So it’s not saying, “here’s an extra boost of blessing so you can really make something of yourself in life.” Instead, she is chosen and commissioned to be Christ-like, to “care for others and the world God made and work for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Also this week, we mourn the death of Carol Wiskowski. More than most of us, she understood and embodied this life of pouring herself out in loving service. She was extraordinary in community work for seniors and abused women and on and on. Here, she wouldn’t even put up with being thanked for overseeing Easter breakfast, organizing Christmas decorating, taking care of our Foundation, donating lead gifts to capital campaigns, filling in weeks for secretary vacations in the office, and more even than I knew she was up to. In these past 17 months of cancer, she would say that the doctors thought they had the answers, but she preferred to trust herself to our God. “The Lord is my shepherd,” she’d repeat.

In the baptism, in an upcoming funeral, we see the true value of what Jesus was up to. For a baby and a dead woman, we celebrate and continue commending ourselves to live with love, and to be loved even beyond what we live.

Hymn: Rise Up, O Saints of God! (ELW #669)

climate hymn14

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of  Elaine Faye Braley

21July31 + 18Sept14

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; verses from Luke 13

I’d like to begin this sermon or reflection by looking back to just about six weeks ago. Back in the middle of August, there was a fairly urgent call to head up to the hospital. See, Elaine and David had been out to eat fish fry, which was nothing unusual, but then things took a terrible surprise turn, and all of a sudden she was in the hospital on the ventilator, or what we often call life support. And I got there at the time of the decision to take her off life support, to stop filling her lungs with artificial breaths. We could only guess that her lungs weren’t going to respond on their own.

So I was there for prayers. In some traditions, it would be called “last rites.” For us Lutherans, it’s a chance to say good-byes and to remember that Elaine was at that moment, had always been, and will continue to be in God’s care. See, there’s nothing we can do to add to blessing, because there’s nothing that can take us out of God’s embrace in the first place. Even today, when we commend her into God’s care, it is really just a reminder that for all of our love and concern and best efforts to be with her and to help her, she’s been in God’s hands the whole time and will rest there safely and securely and will never be separated from that love or that eternal party. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

See, Elaine had another surprise. As we concluded those prayers for the dying, we were expecting that that was about it for Elaine. But several days later, she was still around. So I got to go out for a visit at the Hospice center, and I walked through the door of her room and my jaw actually did drop open. I was speechless. So much for the commendation of the dying. Instead, Elaine was sitting up in her chair, had been able to feed herself lunch. And as all the others of you who got to visit with her would probably say, she was back to her old self. She was laughing and making jokes and sharing memories and making introductions to be sure everybody was familiar with each other and able to relate, and she was insisting to me that we need to take care of Travis and remarking how proud she was of what an amazing young man this grandson of hers was growing to be.

And all of that sounds just like her old self, right? That enjoyment of the company and getting to be social, I think even some talk of cards and of tasty food, and most especially that delight in family and concern that insists they are well cared for.

If we’re looking for a glimpse of God in Elaine’s life, I’d say we see God’s love reflected in her, like the Bible reading of extravagant welcome and Jesus as the mother hen, wanting to gather the little ones under his wing, keeping them safe and sound. With Elaine, it was in the delight in relationships, in persisting with compassion even through difficult circumstances, which showed in her career with the hard lives of those out at Central Wisconsin Center or maybe shows even more in almost 64 years of marriage, of dedicated, persistent love through thick and thin, for better or for worse, right David?

But if we’re looking for glimpses and reflections of God in Elaine’s life, or our lives, or our world, there are places where that runs out and we’re left with only questions and with mystery. In the month since that amazing recovery, there were further downs, and more ups, and ultimately going back to Hospice for the end. We’d certainly like to attribute the healings and recoveries and wonderful moments together this last month as God’s blessings. But does that mean the sadder times and being here today, again having to confront death, mean that God’s blessing fails for some reason? No matter what, in this moment of loss and sorrow, we have to miss all the old days of snowmobiling and screaming at the disappointments of the Brewers and all.

There are indeed hard questions we can’t know answers to. We can keep asking, “Why?” Even in prayers of lament and of weeping, it’s a good question. It may be our brokenness too often gets in the way. It may be life is fragile. Even our love, as much as we strive and struggle to keep at it, is incomplete and imperfect.

But we gather here this evening, not just to lament and grieve together, but also because this is not the end. We expect something more. Rather than the good having been all in the past, we trust the best is yet to come. And we need constant reminders of that hope. “Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again,” we heard in the Bible reading, “even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.” In the cross of Jesus, we see that things don’t always make sense, that suffering and death may appear to prevail. But there is a third day, on the third day he rose again. There is resurrection. There is more.

With that, as a concluding note, it’s amazing to look at these photos, a small sample of Elaine’s total collection, with her camera always with her. I notice a theme in them, seeing all the food. In backyard picnics and over anniversary cakes and probably some birthday cakes with that crazy Mickey Mouse birthday song, and outings with friends and with family, at restaurants, from Culvers to supper clubs and more, right up to that last fish fry. Those seem to be a lot of really good memories and meals to cherish. But even there, we expect something more. So to conclude, I want to point out the theme of banquets that also ran through our Bible readings. Maybe for now we literally get a small taste of what’s to come in the heavenly party, the eternal feast, when our lungs will be filled with new breath, with the very Spirit of God, in eternal life.

It’s something we can’t fully understand. But we hope and believe and trust that God’s got it figured out in Jesus, for Elaine and for you, for now and forever. Amen

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a wedding sermon

I’m going to start, Karly and Brian, not with the Bible reading, which would usually be the basis for a sermon. Instead I’m going to start with the Velveteen Rabbit, because it’s been occurring to me how fitting that reading is for the two of you. I really like that idea of “real” along with love, particularly as I think about the two of you.

Maybe to begin with that in a more general way, we contrast “real” with an “idea.” The way these words work is that what’s realistic is contrasted with what is ideal or idealistic. One is only in your head, imaginary, while the other is in action, is tangible and touchable and factual.

So as you are embarking on your wedding day, it’s great to see that you two are not thinking about your marriage and your wedding only ideally, but also encountering this day in a real way. It’s not about having the perfect ceremony (otherwise, of course, you wouldn’t have asked me to be here!). More important than pretend things is what is real, like the tangible, touchable fact that you get to stand here and hold hands with each other. It’s delightful that you know that that’s what’s important about this day.

That’s one way to think about what is real with love. Another aspect of that is just how real the two of you are in conversations with each other. I’m grateful that I got to witness and share in it in our pre-marriage sessions. I admire and enjoy how you relate to each other, that you’re able to admit to each other that you get into silly arguments and can laugh about it. Other couples I’ve worked with have also talked about personality differences and ways of looking at finances and frustrations with habits around doing the dishes, but you’re the first in those conversations with me to bring up the etiquette of toilet paper role replacement. That’s keeping it real.

And, again, I love how well you listen to each other in those conversations, not stubbornly holding your own point of view, but hearing each other and recognizing that you can change to be better for each other.

When we talk about “real love” with the Velveteen Rabbit reading, that’s what it means. Typically, we wind up thinking about love as what the other person does that’s attractive, that you fall in love because they are lovely or loveable. But that’s just a response, and an easy response. Real love is about taking the initiative. It’s just the sort of thing your vows will promise to each other, not only to be there when things are happy and simple, but to abide with each other in all circumstances, to continue striving for the sake of the other person. That you’re committing to that for each other in marriage is what makes all of the celebration of this wedding day worthwhile.

But also, since you decided to have the wedding here in this church, I have the benefit of pointing out something else. You talked with me about how God is confusing, or mysterious. You’ve said you’d guess God is supportive of your relationship and eager for you to do well, and I’d certainly agree. But as Christians, we don’t believe it’s all mystery or guesswork or, in our earlier words, that God is only about our ideas in our head or even that God is what is ideal.

As Christians, we believe God is real, and God’s love is real. For a three sentence long Bible study, it’s interesting that you chose the Bible reading from Song of Solomon because although the Bible is about helping us know who God is, that’s one of only two books in the Bible not to mention God. Instead, it is plain old love poetry, and pretty visually graphic love poetry at that. But people figure it got to stay in the Bible because as we look at a couple in love, that reveals something to us about how God loves us. Your love for each other, Brian and Karly, makes God’s love real. God’s love is realized in you.

But that’s not all. See, as Christians, we also point to the physical embodiment of God’s love in Jesus, as God in the flesh, God made real for us. Much like your vows, the love we see in Jesus is the kind that reaches out in times of need, that doesn’t only look for things that are happy but abides even through sadness, a responsive love, giving of himself and even giving up life, but giving in such a way that death cannot stop God’s love, but brings you to the feast of eternal life. It is that love that holds and sustains you today, in the years to come, and forevermore.

So for today, congratulations. And forever, know that you are really blessed in love.

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Stop Dis-membering the Body

Sermon for 7Sept14        

Matt18:15-20; Ezek33:7-11; Rom13:8-14

Welcome home.

That’s important to say first, because no place else is home quite like here. The family of God, with all of you sisters and brothers, is not the same when you’re not here, nor is it the same anyplace else you’d go.

I begin there as clarification for our last words from Jesus. He said, “wherever two or three are gathered, I am there among them, in their midst.” We like that verse. It gets used a lot.

But here’s something of what he’s obviously not trying to say. Yesterday, two or three of you (and a few more) gathered at the Badger football game. I’m not arguing that Jesus was not there; indeed as the ruler of the cosmos we expect that he’s everywhere—within every cell, in every tiny tree leaf as Luther said, even in this table’s bread and wine. That’s omnipresent, in the old official terminology.

Yet Jesus being there mostly didn’t matter to you who were gathered at Camp Randall. Again, I won’t rule out that it could matter, that at the game you may have been clinging to the promised presence of Emmanuel, God-with-us. But likely not so much. You weren’t reacting to his presence with you by saying, “Yo, Jesus, I’m going for nachos. Can I grab you a brat?” Even if you pray for the Badgers, still that is not what Jesus means in this Gospel reading, as he promises his presence where two or three are gathered.

Another thing this passage does not mean is just exactly how it gets used at a lot of church functions. As church, we sadly become used to some pretty low expectations, and so when turnout isn’t great for whatever the event might be—the monthly peace prayers, or volunteering to clean the kitchen, or holding a prayer group, or gathering leaders to work on stewardship, or taking families on an outing—in the many circumstances of our life together, if we face disappointing numbers, we then go on to quote Jesus, not confidently but as a joking, shrugging consolation. “Well, wherever two or three are gathered…”

I’ll tell you right now, though, that low expectations and lack of involvement was not what Jesus was aiming for when he said this. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. His words are intended as the strongest of encouragements, the reminder of just how important and powerful our gathering together is.

That’s what the earlier verses were about. Brokenness in this family causes such deep harm to our shared mission, making mutual accountability an absolute must. Jesus began by saying that if a brother or sister sins against you, have a conversation him or her about it. That’s already a persuasive and perhaps scary suggestion. When we know we’ve done wrong, we usually believe the remedy is to bow our heads in confession at the start of the service. We confess to God our list of the week’s sins, or our more general sinfulness, and await God’s response of forgiveness.

In this reading, however, it’s not kneeling before God in silent prayer that Jesus tells us to do, but is about talking to each other, about saying aloud what the sins are and then forgiving each other, with all the authority of God in heaven.

In some way, that’s what is intended as we share the peace, not just for saying “howdy,” but for reconciliation, to turn to each other, not obstructed by your errors or faults, to mend any brokenness. We’re able to do that, not because we’re so perfectly caring for others or, said another way, because we’re so careless about our own rights or feelings or opinions when wronged. What we share, what mends us, is the peace of Christ. We recognize that what brings us here and what keeps us together isn’t that we agree on every topic or that we’re such whole-hearted, devoted folks, or even really that we’re at all likeable to each other. What binds us together is Jesus.

With that, today I’d suggest that Jesus is talking more specifically. Besides exchanging the peace of Christ as a remedy for when you’re grumpy at somebody, or even straight-up pissed off, this is also for something else. If we’re united here together in the Body of Christ, this is about things that may directly harm the health of that Body, or that fail to exercise the Body’s parts, or that ignore our unity.

Along those lines, I will directly tell you right now at the start of a new program year that when you fail to show up, when you decide to put other priorities before this gathering, you are hurting our Body, it dis-members and dis-integrates us, making us all something less by your absence. When you fail to pay attention to announcements and the newsletter, when you ignore what is going on, you dis-able us and cut off some of our good work, some of God’s mission. When you forget your prayers, when you don’t take part in Bible studies or classes, you are leaving the Body less agile, weaker in faith than we could be. When you shortchange financial devotion and do less than you could or should, it leaves others needing to compensate, to pick up your slack. When you fail to step forward and leave it to the same old cadre of volunteers to teach Sunday School or to ring handbells or pull weeds or help our service projects today, you are sinning, offending the church, giving insult and injury to the very Body of Christ.

I hope all of you feel implicated somehow by those words. I do, too. And if you have other grievances with me, for Christ’s sake you should tell me.

But the purpose of this isn’t to be ashamed. It’s not to guilt trip or point fingers or rub your noses in it. Ezekiel says God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Rather, these are good and reasonable expectations. It’s to help you recognize the relationships and the blessing, to inspire you in faith, to hold each other accountable.

Because this is so important. It is so very good that we are here together. And not only when you personally need the feeling of peace from all of life’s stresses, but so much more. It’s life-changing. This practice of community here is a kind of love and openness and welcome that is even more than in our families, maybe especially there, where brokenness is so difficult to get past. Still more, this neighborhood and all of God’s good creation needs the love that we have to share. It needs what we can accomplish together.

That is why we gather here in Jesus’ name, gathering sometimes in too small of numbers but still with his presence among us. That’s why with his presence in this meal, we practice being in communion, sharing, receiving exactly what we need. And before that, that is why straight off the bat, no questions asked, you are assured once again of forgiveness, of grace, that it is all right, that for the sake of Jesus Christ, your sins are removed, so we can proceed forward together into his new creation.

And again for his sake, you are sent, to use all your skills and talents and abilities, and also your quirks and your foibles and all whom God made you to be, sent to love your neighbor and to care for this whole wide world.

I started with a word of Homecoming. I want to end with what seems like perhaps the best word out of all three of our Bible readings for this rally Sunday. Paul wrote, “you know [that] salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.” Instead of the expectations, like a syllabus to start a new semester, this is an indicator of graduation, the commencement of Jesus’ rule breaking into our universe and our own lives.

God’s work continues to spread across this world in more ways than we can fathom, broader than we can understand, through channels and means we never could have expected. It’s reaching out to people we thought were unreachable or unforgiveable or untouchable. It’s at Winnequah School today, and also tomorrow, spreading across the globe, across the cosmos and, yes, even at Camp Randall. The love and peace of Christ is on the loose and at work, with you or without you, whether you’re ready or not. But seeing how good this is, and how the kingdom of God is already in our midst, it’s good that you are here to be joined in the work and the blessing of Jesus.

 

Hymn: God, When Human Bonds are Broken (ELW #603)

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