a wedding


Grace and peace. Faith, hope, and love from God our Father and the Lord Jesus be with you all!

My name’s Nick, and I’m a pastor at Chad’s home church, St. Stephen’s Lutheran in Monona. And I get to offer that churchy welcome though we’re not gathered at church but out in this beautiful spot, or especially here, I get to offer that greeting for this day. This is the perfect place to be right now. Thank you all for being here.

It is a good place to be, not only as we’re enjoying what’s probably some of the last gorgeous bit of a beautiful autumn. Even more, it’s good to be here for a special moment, a good focal point of life, as Chad and Kari join themselves together and make promises for the rest of life in their wedding vows.

It’s an extra special and exciting thing because it’s not just these two. They’re very excited for Sylis, Isabel, Ava, and Kenzie to be up here with them, celebrating and also joining together in a new way. This day, this wedding, isn’t just about the love of Kari and Chad, but also about the love and commitment that makes family, and so it’s not just appropriate but awesome that their kids are right here for it.

Beyond that, it also involves all of you. You’ve all got history with Chad and Kari. You’ve been important in their lives, from bringing them up and teaching them how to live and love, through all the ups and downs. And you’ll continue to be important to them going forward, so it’s good that all of you broader family and friends are here, too.

Plus, as we gather, we also gather with a greater love that surrounds us for now and for eternity. We gather in an official wedding service because we believe that God’s love is a guide for us, a reminder of how we should live, not selfishly, but dedicating ourselves and sacrificing ourselves for each other. Even more than what we do, we remember God’s love as the blessing that has sustained us through every heartbeat, that fills us with love to share, and that keeps us in a firm embrace never ever to let us go.

With that reminder to start by expecting and listening for God’s presence in our lives and God’s love in our relationships, let us pray.

Gracious God, you sent your Son Jesus Christ into the world to reveal your love to all people. Enrich Kari and Chad with every good gift, that their life together may show forth your love; and grant that at the last we may all celebrate with Christ the marriage feast that has no end; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen


Only once in your life, I truly believe, you find someone who can completely turn your world around. You tell them things that you’ve never shared with another soul and they absorb everything you say and actually want to hear more.

You share hopes for the future, dreams that will never come true, goals that were never achieved and the many disappointments life has thrown at you. When something wonderful happens, you can’t wait to tell them about it, knowing they will share in your excitement. They are not embarrassed to cry with you when you are hurting or laugh with you when you make a fool of yourself.

Never do they hurt your feelings or make you feel like you are not good enough, but rather they build you up and show you the things about yourself that make you special and even beautiful. There is never any pressure, jealousy or competition but only a quiet calmness when they are around. You can be yourself and not worry about what they will think of you because they love you for who you are.

The things that seem insignificant to most people such as a note, song or walk become invaluable treasures kept safe in your heart to cherish forever. Memories of your childhood come back and are so clear and vivid it’s like being young again. Colours seem brighter and more brilliant. Laughter seems part of daily life where before it was infrequent or didn’t exist at all.

A phone call or two during the day helps to get you through a long day’s work and always brings a smile to your face. In their presence, there’s no need for continuous conversation, but you find you’re quite content in just having them nearby. Things that never interested you before become fascinating because you know they are important to this person who is so special to you. You think of this person on every occasion and in everything you do. Simple things bring them to mind like a pale blue sky, gentle wind or even a storm cloud on the horizon.

You open your heart knowing that there’s a chance it may be broken one day and in opening your heart, you experience a love and joy that you never dreamed possible. You find that being vulnerable is the only way to allow your heart to feel true pleasure that’s so real it scares you. You find strength in knowing you have a true friend and possibly a soul mate who will remain loyal to the end. Life seems completely different, exciting and worthwhile. Your only hope and security is in knowing that they are a part of your life. ~ by Bob Marley


Probably among us only Chad would’ve expected such lovely words from Bob Marley, so fitting for what marriage is, in commitment and in benefit. And so that you may officially enter that together, I invite you to hold hands and exchange the promises of love in your wedding vows.

In the name of God,

I [Name] take you [Name]

to be my wife/husband,

to have and to hold

from this day forward,

for better, for worse,

for richer, for poorer,

in sickness and in health,

to love and to cherish,

until we are parted by death.

This is my solemn vow.


I give you this ring

as a sign of my love and faithfulness.

Kari and Chad, by their promises before God and in the presence of this assembly, have joined themselves to one another as wife and husband. Amen. Thanks be to God!


As we said to start, it is not just these two who are coming together, who are joined in this marriage. We also celebrate that for their children.

Chad and Kari, let’s start with you.

Will you strive to the best of your ability to be faithful and caring parents to all four of these children,

supporting and nurturing them, encouraging and guiding them as they grow and throughout their lives?

I will and I ask God to help me.

Kenzie, Ava, Isabell, and Sylis, it’s your turn for some wedding vows, now, too!

To the four of you,

do you promise to join in this family with care and respect,

for fun and for serious support,

for hard times and good,

as best you can? I do!

Here’s a prayer of blessing for all six of you, family together:
Faithful God, like a compassionate father you give your children all we need; like a loving mother you gather us into your embrace and hold us in your household. We give thanks for these children who come together and for these parents taking them to be their own. By the power of your Holy Spirit, unite them, fill them with trust, understanding, and affection; bless them as you bless us all through the abiding presence of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

group hug!


Again, we broaden the circle. This days isn’t just Kari and Chad. It’s also their kids. But even more than that, it is all of you who have guided them to be the people they are, who have cared for them so far in their lives, and who will abide with them in love. They are grateful for you.

To give you a chance to voice your ongoing support and declare your intention to help them in whatever way possible, I now ask:

Families, friends,

and all those gathered here

with Chad and Kari,

will you support and care for them,

sustain and pray for them

in times of trouble,

give thanks with them

in times of joy

honor the bonds of their covenant,

and affirm the love of God

reflected in their life together?

We will and we ask God to help us.

PRAYERS   For our prayers, each petition will end “Gracious and faithful God,” and your response will be “Hear our prayer” We will conclude with the Lord’s Prayer.                   Let us pray.

We praise you, O God, for the joy that Kari and Chad have found in each other, and pray that they may reflect your gracious love and enrich all of us.

Gracious and faithful God…

We are grateful for our shared lives, and for your abiding presence. Use us as family and friends to support Chad and Kari in their lives together. We pray for Sylis, Isabel, Ava, and Mackenzie, as well.

Gracious and faithful God…

Continue to give this family gentleness and patience, readiness to trust one another, the grace to comfort and to listen, to acknowledge faults and to give and receive forgiveness.

Gracious and faithful God…

We pray for places where love is lacking, where love’s healing presence is needed. We pray for all who suffer in any way, for victims of disasters, violence, and oppression.

Gracious and faithful God…

We ask for your blessing on all who are joined by bonds of love. We pray for those separated from us or who couldn’t be here today. We give thanks for the loving example of those who have gone before us, remembering Michael, Laverne, Josephine, Karen, Eileen, Mark, Marjorie, Rose, Verna, Mike, Jim, Jeni, Kristi, and others in our hearts.

Gracious and faithful God…

Creator of all, you make us in your image and likeness and fill us with hope of everlasting life through your Son’s love. Hear the prayers of your people and grant to Kari and Chad grace to live in unity and joy all the days of their lives until they breathe the promise of everlasting life through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen

Our Father, who art…

It is my pleasure and honor and joy to introduce to you Mr. Chad & Mrs. Kari Zebell!


a funeral sermon

For Daniel John Banda  22Apr1957 + 16Oct2014

Is25:6-9; Ps23; from Rom7-8; Mt5:4

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

Life doesn’t go how we want it to. That’s an obvious statement right now, certainly true in this tragic shock of Dan’s death, which we can only call untimely and unfortunate. It should not have happened. We can’t give any good reasons or explanations for why it did happen. And there’s really nothing we can do to change it.

This week, we’ve also been reminded that the end of life is not how we’d want it to be. This moment should not have come now, when Dan was happy and settling in to new rhythms of life in Platteville. It shouldn’t have come when Maren was so far away. It shouldn’t have come as a knock on Josh’s door, just as he was actually looking forward to a visit on parents’ weekend, activities planned, details worked out, even a shirt picked out for him. It is untimely and tragic.

It highlights the fracture of loss, taking one so vibrant away from us, and also it magnifies what was unresolved, the other moments in Dan’s life, for your shared lives with him, and for each of us. There’s plenty that doesn’t go how we want, how we wish it would, and we seem largely powerless to change it.

A month ago Dan wrote to me with that type of thought, reflecting that he’d worn out several mirrors looking for the cracks, as he said, in his thoughts and actions, feeling he couldn’t really understand a bunch of the “whys” in life, that it just remained a mystery.

One of our verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans captures this sort of sentiment, seeming so true to our realities: “I do not do the good I want, but what I do not want is what I do.” In some of the most central roles in his life, that has to summarize Dan’s reaction. He tried to be a good spouse and partner. He really, really wanted to be a good dad. In his mind he always wanted to be a father first and foremost. But those relationships nevertheless had difficulty. They didn’t always go the way he wanted, or the way you wanted.

That’s not to say there isn’t a lot Dan did very well, that did go how he wanted. His passions and creativity and his inquisitiveness could be inspiring to be around. His teaching was an especially energizing and enlivening spot for him, the recent time in Platteville being one of the strong examples of it. In that letter last month, after excitement for Josh, Dan told of how very happy he was, being busy with the diverse course load. He was back in his element.

And, of course, in his filmmaking he was extraordinary and so talented. Yet notably there, too, he tended to find themes and topics that were not easy, talking to veterans or entering war zones, places of disputes and conflicts, prejudices, oppressions, and inequalities. That again shows how life so often is not what it should be.

There are some who view all this with a negative summary. For that they may be called pessimists, or realists. They see struggle and disappointments and tragedies, and summarize it with something like, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” It could even square with our verse from Romans; if I try to do the right thing, but somehow just can never get it right, that’s a pretty dismal outlook overall.

Yet that is not the theme of our faith, finally, and that is not the refrain Dan voiced. Much truer and more faithful is Dan’s motto, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” It’s one he used a lot. It’s a phrase I heard from him at low moments. He used it to describe places like Mexico and the Congo and our fear of the other that would break apart human relationships on large scales.

And, indeed, it could be used in Romans to describe our place. As much as we fail and fall short, as much as things won’t go right and with sudden finality of death, still that’s not it, it’s not over, not the end, no period. That is not all. It’s among the most amazing transitions possible, from Romans 7 looking at our bleak brokenness, going on to say that it’s not just us, that all creation groans in travail, and yet turning in Romans 8 to a breathtaking word hope. It says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” It points toward the promise of life through the love of Jesus. And nothing can ever separate us from that. This is the core of our faith, then, that even at the lowest point, we cling to hope of something better. Even in the face of death, we hold the expectation of more, of resurrection, of new life in Jesus.

That’s what can give us confidence to keep working on relationships that seem to be at dead ends. It’s what allows us to confront places of deep despair, whether in the news of our world or in our own existence. Even now, the bad is merely a comma.

The Isaiah reading that Maren selected for us was written during a time of terrible oppression by a foreign army. Yet it allowed God’s people not to yearn for or gloat in their own triumphalism, but to hope for reconciliation with those enemies, when all would be brought to celebrate together at a rich banquet, when shrouds and graves and weeping and death would be no more. It’s in Jesus’ words of blessing from the Sermon on the Mount, that even in the midst of our sorrow you are blessed, for you will be comforted.

It’s always in the assurance that no matter how far we’ve gone astray, how badly we’ve blown it, how brutal a rupture death is, how much we live in the frustrating struggles of Romans 7, still there is Romans 8 to come. Nothing can separate you, there is no way you can be taken from, you will always be kept in the arms of God’s mercy, in the heart of this Father, in the love of Jesus our Lord, for this life and more to come.

That’s a promise Dan cherished through the commas of his life, and it persists for him now. It remains a promise for you, too. And for Christ’s sake it will be forever. Period.

Romans 7 & 8

7:15 I do not understand my own actions. 17b I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 8:2 [and] the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let us pray.

God of all creation, we praise you for the vastness of your blessings, for friends and colleagues that stretch across the globe and through different languages, for arts and all knowledge, for the tenacity of love and the gift of memories. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

As we gather this evening in shared grief and loss, give us grace to know that you hold onto us still through tragedy and sorrow. We pray for the healing of brokenness in our relationships and across the globe. Continue your work of reconciliation and peace in our lives. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Give courage and faith to all who mourn, and a sure and certain hope in your loving care, that, casting all their sorrow on you, they may have strength for the days ahead, remembering especially Josh and Maren. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Grant to us who walk as yet by faith, that, where this world groans in grief and pain, your Holy Spirit may lead us to bear witness to your light and life. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Amid things that end too soon, sustain us in the promise of a grand banquet to come, with cups overflowing at the table of your eternal feast. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

Help us in the midst of things we cannot understand, to believe and trust in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, and the resurrection to life everlasting. God of mercy, hear our prayer.

God of all grace, we give you thanks because by his death our Savior Jesus Christ destroyed the power of death and by his resurrection he opened the kingdom of heaven to all. Make us certain that because he lives we shall live also, and that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen


Traps and Captivation, of Empire and of God

Sermon for 19Oct14

Matthew 22:15-22; Isaiah 45:1-7


Sneaky, evasive Jesus has a tendency to answer questions with a question, when opponents are trying to trap him, but also to make us think for ourselves. Today it’s not a question, but more of a riddle, and you have to say it just sounds better in the King James Version: Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.

They ask Jesus if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the empire. It’s a trap. If he says don’t pay, the Romans would arrest him for provoking rebellion. But if he says yes, pay, his people would be upset he’s encouraging the oppressive occupying powers. He can’t say yes and can’t say no. He’s trapped.

But sneaky Jesus flips the trap, catching them in their own snare. We’ll see more of that in a moment. First, though, we’ll try resolving the riddle. When Jesus says, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s,” we’ve usually figured there are two separate categories, and Jesus leaves it to us to discern which goes in what box. So we start compartmentalizing, breaking it down, maybe first that ultimate devotion should go to God and not to our government or whatever.

Money comes in a second layer of the divisions, with less direct certainty. We have generally determined that it’s okay to pay taxes, that they don’t interfere too deeply with our faith. We may grumble, but also see them as worthwhile. In fact, we should recognize they may serve consistent with what we do in faith, for example in programs of social uplift and concern for the least—very clearly a biblical ethic. As an example, picture school lunches resolving hunger and caring for vulnerable children, a Jesus-y kind of project, which just so happens to be run well by government.

That’s an important reminder for us. When Jesus tells us to render to Caesar or to God, it’s not just a matter of two columns on a budget sheet, one or the other. Some of it we simply cannot divide. Jesus is not drawing a distinction between sacred and secular. It’s not a separation of church and state. God is not relegated only to the realm of what happens at a church or with a religious logo affixed to it.

Obviously, God’s work is immensely bigger than those small categories. Our Isaiah reading declares that God’s work was being accomplished by the Persian king Cyrus, even though he didn’t know God and didn’t know he was doing serving that role. It even names this foreign ruler as God’s Messiah. Wow! Similarly today, God is not waiting for faith-based organizations with faith-healers to treat Ebola patients in Liberia, but is certainly striving through health care workers regardless of religion. So just because it’s government doesn’t mean it’s opposed to God’s good work.

Of course, the reverse may be true, too. Tax dollars may also get used contradictory to our beliefs. It’s in the debates about how abortion services are or aren’t funded. It could be in a question of subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It is in centuries of Christian conscientious objection to paying the portion of federal taxes which funds violence and military and war, by some measures almost 50% of the total.

That points also to the sneaky Jesus reversing the trap to ensnare those malicious, conniving opponents. It begins when Jesus says, “Show me the coin that is used for the tax.” See, this tax was due from everybody under the empire and it had to be paid with Roman money. But notice Jesus doesn’t rifle through the loose change in his pockets to pull one out. He asks them for it, and they produce a denarius. And Jesus asks, “Whose image is on that, and whose title?”

If they were onto him at this point, there’d be a long, dumb pause: “uhhhhh…the emperor.” See, simply using this coin was forcing you to swear allegiance to the emperor, to Caesar. Right on its face, it gave him the title “son of god.” By using that coin, by having it to show off, the so-called religious authorities demonstrate their hypocrisy. They claim to be devoted to God. Daily in worship and prayer they would’ve proclaimed, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you in your heart” (Deuteronomy 6). Well, they might have had those words in their hearts, but in their pockets they were holding onto a second so-called god, his face engraved on the coin.

That shows the shape of the debate is not about politics so much as theological worldview. In telling them to render to Caesar, Jesus might mean “purge yourself of that filthy heretical coin.” In some regard, while bearing that image, it is dominating their lives, that is their lord, and so they aren’t bearing the image of the Lord their God. It highlights their bondage to their enemy, the occupying army, that we can’t escape the systems that ensnare our lives. Again, rather than a question of religion versus government, a larger issue here is two competing powers, for the empire’s kind of control or God’s kingdom in this world.

Even though our bills don’t call George Washington the son of god, this makes it hit home. If our dollars claim that “in God we trust,” how much do they really do that, and when do they render us captive to another force?

For us, we may figure it’s appropriate to begin trying to resolve the riddle by making this word from Jesus into a lesson on how you use money, especially as we prepare to share our financial pledges next Sunday, encouraging you to give more to church, that you should render more to God, return more of what you’ve been given. Yet what does that mean? Is it giving 2% of your income instead of 1%? Or giving 10% and reaching a tithe, can you think you’ve done enough?

After all, God has given you 100%.   It may be right and good to ask what you give at church, yet if we’re working with this passage that tells you to render to God what is God’s, how do you pay back 100% of all that you have and are? Putting tokens in the offering plate wouldn’t cut it. Maybe we return gratitude and praise, that if we’re given a beautiful autumn day, we remember constantly to thank God. Maybe we ask about our vocations, of how we’re using our time and skills to press toward the goals of Jesus. Yet as vital as those efforts are, they also reveal it’s not just the hypocritical opponents in the reading today who fall short in their loyalty and devotion. It’s all of us.

One more example: We hear about foreign Cyrus doing the work of God without even knowing it. The opposite comes on Good Friday, when Jesus has a conversation with the Governor Pontius Pilate, the representative of Caesar. The conversation emphasizes our point, that not just his property or palace, but even his position of power has come from God. If he’d rendered to God and not to Caesar, Pilate would’ve pursued very different path. Maybe he would’ve stopped the crucifixion of Jesus.

Yet even in that, God’s work was done. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we know the fullness of God’s compassion and God’s abundant and amazing forgiveness and the work of God for life that just will not stop.

I’m going to conclude by suggesting you are hypocrites, but you are faithful hypocrites. You are sinners, but you are simultaneously saints and sinners. You render to God, but you also render to Caesar and the corrupt powers of this world. Even more, you are rendered by those powers. They render you helpless or trapped, in bondage, captive to sin. You are stuck supporting systems you’d prefer not to, trapped by taxes you don’t want to pay, ensnared by a consumer lifestyle, captive to carbon emissions by which you cause climate change, to prejudices and racisms you may not even always realize exist. For your life and for the good of others, it is indeed a terribly important choice to struggle against those oppressive forces that are rendering you an agent of evil, or of Caesar, opposing God.

But also know you are rendered an agent of God. The God who has given you 100% of your blessings and sustains you through every breath will continue striving for you, and with you. God doesn’t wait for you to perfect yourself, won’t repay you for your actions, never renders evil for evil, but always will be the God of life. You don’t get more just when you’ve proven you can do the right thing. It’s not taken away from you when you do wrong. God in Christ receives when you’re at your most considerate and devoted and doing your best, but God in Christ will just as much pursue blessing when you’re malicious and miserable and selfish and broke and broken.

Even when you’ve squandered 100% and given it to exactly the wrong place, the God of our whole universe is still working with that total. You can’t take anything away from God. God recycles and recreates you from the ashes of your past, from dead ends and even rising out of death. This is the true power. You are entrapped by Jesus, held captive and kept tightly in God’s love. It doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. When God looks at your face, all that shows is the image of Jesus.

Hymn: Take My Life, That I May Be (ELW #583)


RSVP for the Party…Or Else?

Sermon for 5Oct14

Matt22:1-14; Is25:1-9; Ps23
A year ago, I got to go to Wyeth’s birthday party. She was turning 3. I heard a month ahead that she put me on her guest list. I thought that was cool, though I was still nervous.

See, I walked through the door, into a crowded house, and knew only her parents and recognized her babysitter. In spite of feeling out of place among the others, I quickly felt welcome when Wyeth spotted me and exclaimed with a big smile, “Pastor Nick!”

Reflecting back on that party, I’m really glad I went and had fun celebrating with Wyeth. I also have to admit I didn’t even think to invite her to my own birthday. I’m used to parties as small gatherings of my family.

Which says that Wyeth probably can teach me about gospel and about our Bible reading today. This is a reading of outstanding, radical hospitality, an extravagant invitation. It’s about there being a place for you, even when you feel out of place. The only thing keeping you from this celebration is your own reservations, because Christ has indeed secured your RSVP for you.

Let’s go back through the Gospel reading again, with the lens of Wyeth’s party alongside. There will be places it fits, and places we have to adjust (because, after all, even Wyeth is not exactly Jesus).

The parable starts with inviting the typically expected guests. For Wyeth that would most likely have three important traits: 1. kids also about 3-years-old. 2. they come bearing gifts. 3. ready to have fun. For the king in the story, there might be some overlap: he probably expects they’ll bring gifts to celebrate the wedding. The king, though, is likely inviting landowners or officials, the wealthy or the successful, the popular and the pretty, the “haves” of the community.

But then they don’t come. That happened for Wyeth, too. As you may know, even by her age life is busy, so there were 3-year-olds with all sorts of other commitments instead of the birthday party. They had sports games or play dates or appointments or distracted parents. Some of the excuses to the king are like that, too: one had to check on his farm, another was at work. They also had worse excuses; I don’t suspect any of Wyeth’s intended guests were busy with murder.

Another difference is that some of her original guest-list did arrive. The king has an entire party of no-shows. And there’s no distinction between legitimate regrets and the worst offenses. We’ll come back to that with some more interpretation.

For now, notice that the next step is to cast a broader net of invitation. (That metaphor of a net is appropriate; it is about drawing everybody in, a real catchall.) Wyeth did it by inviting a schmoe like me to her party. I clearly didn’t exactly fit in, but she wanted me there anyway. The story’s invitation is a notch more insistent still, simply yanking in passersby off the street, “the good and the bad,” it says, flagging down traffic, pulling over bicyclists, stopping people with yapping dogs, grabbing the Mormon guy by his tie and the Girl Scout selling cookies, pushing in the person in the wheelchair and carrying in the stumbling drunk, not offering a single criterion for entry, but simply encouraging them to join the party. That means even if they think they’re worthy and fit to be there and have every right and are appropriate and fun to party with, still they have the same place as the boors and the bores and the broken and every other loser.

God doesn’t want to keep anybody out. Neither will God let you kick others out, or let you be blocked. The point with God is never how good or how right you think you are; it’s that God loves a party and wants to celebrate. All are welcome. You are welcome.

Let’s try applying the parable at three locations. First, assume that Jesus’ party is heaven, the eternal banquet, with infinite life in the house of the Lord and cups overflowing, where your enemies may be there, but all are celebrating together, redeemed and welcomed by our loving Lord. You may not feel ready to spend eternity with some folks, but in our times it may not be all that shocking to imagine heaven is broadly and equally open for all.

As a second location, think about this worship gathering. If this is a foretaste of the feast to come and is where we practice for the party, we can look around this gathering and estimate how we’re doing. We’d probably guess we’re okay at saying “all are welcome” and not drawing lines that keep some out. But we should also admit that if we’re really extending Jesus’ hospitality and living out his grace, then we should have a lot more people here and really be celebrating.

With that, I also want to come back to the rejected invitations. With Wyeth, those who couldn’t be there missed out on a nice birthday party. With the king in the story, it got them permanently crossed off the list, as one author says, in an A-Team with bazookas blowing up BMWs sort of way.*

I want us mostly to notice that there were no good excuses, no legitimate or worthy regrets. In the story, being interrupted by the details of daily life was just as bad as bumping off the messengers. Not the reasons, but missing the party is the main problem. If worship is the practice, getting us ready for God’s big fulltime party of the kingdom, then we should take that more seriously here. Or we should take it less seriously, and show up for a raucous, abundantly loving dress rehearsal.

For a third location, we must presume that the location isn’t just heaven. It isn’t just at church. The kingdom of God is taking on flesh in your lives. This practice of enjoying life with others, of radical welcome that will leave no one a stranger and celebrates God’s extravagant blessings really is at Wyeth’s house, and yours, from now on and for eternity to come. Which raises a final question: if we consider heaven so open and easy to get into, why are we still so resistant to living that out even in small ways here and now?

* Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, p458


Wicked Tenants, Wicked Masters, Parabolic Grace

Sermon for 5Oct14         Matt21:33-46; Is5:1-8; Phil3:4b-14
Begging your pardon, but I’m going to start with algebra, trying to turn the diabolical instead to the Lord’s service.


Actually I want to play with an algebraic word:  parabola.  A parabolic curve, you may remember, looks sort of like a U.  Not incidentally, is related to the word “parable.”  Both are from the Greek meaning “to go alongside.”  For the math symbol, we can literally see two arms side-by-side.  We could think of the spoken parables as analogies, as illustrative examples.

But moving toward my larger point—and here’s where we get a bit math-y—is that parabolas start out going one direction, then all of a sudden turn the other way.  On a graph, the values would get smaller, smaller, smaller, then reverse and get bigger, bigger, bigger.  If you were expecting a trajectory, this is a complete reversal.

And what I’m really meaning is that Jesus’ parables are often parabolic.  They start out going one direction, then flip to the other meaning, catching you off guard.  I’m not sure if that’s exactly the intention in using the word parable for them (but there’s a fair amount I’m not sure of this morning).

So think of the most famous parables, both in Luke’s Gospel.  In the Good Samaritan, we listeners expect that the nice, holy people will stop to help the beaten up half-dead guy.  But it’s the miserable, foreign, heretic Samaritan who is the hero.  Or in the Prodigal Son, with that lousy son as the main character we think it’s going to be a morality lesson, of him repenting for squandering his father’s property.  But before he even gets a chance to apologize, with a sudden change of direction the father has run out to welcome him, bringing him home.

Instead of thinking of parables as straightforward explanations, actually it repeatedly says in the Gospels that Jesus used them for subversion, or confusion, maybe to make people ponder.  As one author says, “Far from being an illustration that shines understanding, it is guaranteed to pop every circuit breaker in their minds” (Capon, “Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus,” p6).  Which makes sense, since if you’re trying to talk about what God is up to in the world, there’s mystery and uncertainty, right?

The surprise flip-flop is in a lot of parables. Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven as yeast, a ritually unclean substance for his people.  He says that it’s like a mustard shrub, hardly the largest of trees, and actually a pesky weed for farmers.  And the very birds that Jesus praises for dwelling in it would be the ones to gobble up the farmer’s crops.  We’ll come back to that agricultural reality in a bit.

But first let’s presume for a moment that the regular reading of today’s parable is “right,” that it’s an allegory for the Bible’s story, each detail stand for something else.  In this analysis, the tenants in the vineyard are God’s people, but they aren’t providing the good things God expects.  So God sends servants, interpreted to be Old Testament prophets, but the laborers don’t listen to them.  Instead they beat them up and kill them.  (Indeed, there are stories of prophets like Jeremiah or Elijah having it pretty rough.)  Finally, God sends the Son, whom we identify as Jesus, who is also killed.  Thus far, the extended metaphor works okay.

Though we could be skeptical about calling God an absentee landlord, what comes next is not at all how we characterize our God.  It says that the owner “will put those wretches to a miserable death.”  Really?  Do we expect God is out to murder us if we haven’t produced enough fruits, haven’t paid up what we owe?  If God stands for the owner in this parable, it would really alter our view of God.  Which also brings up that the owner sends the son thinking that surely the misbehavers will listen to him.  But would we claim God expected that?  Shouldn’t God have known the son might end up getting killed?

So what if that’s not how we’re supposed to hear this story?  Let’s try another line of interpretation. To get a whole different set of images in your mind, picture a place far away from centers of power, where it’s easy for a small group of extremists to seize control.  They militantly take over the resources of villages.  Then they behead an American journalist.  And you know how the parable ends:  the Americans will come and unleash even more violence on them and “put those wretches to a miserable death.”  The facts and details really are the same with hearing the Islamic State in the story as when Jesus tells it, but it’s a dangerous adaptation.

Yet again, what if the parable is literally about tenant workers in a vineyard?  When the master tries to collect, either the workers refuse, or else they simply can’t pay.  Maybe it was a bad harvest.  Maybe the price of rent was too high, and the price of grapes too low.  Extreme debt was the biggest social problem in Jesus’ time (which is why the best translation of the Lord’s Prayer wouldn’t be about trespasses or sins but about debts and debtors, prayed by people who literally had no bread stored up for today).

But that situation of debt is just as epidemic in our time.  It’s true for farmers with low corn prices this year.  It’s true for Scotch Hill Farm, that can afford to rent less land each year because the cost keeps going up.  It’s true of us as individuals, plagued by credit card debts, blindly imagining we can keep consuming, which is the central reason we’re offering Financial Peace University again.  It’s what caused the Great Recession, with Wall Street greed of the big banksters and too many of us sucked into bubbles, getting in over our heads.  It’s even true on international scales when lesser developed countries go bankrupt over interest on loan payments.

Backed into that corner, what’s the answer?  Personal responsibility is fine and good, but when it’s predatory and institutionalized, then what?  Some reforms may come from the ballot box, but such comprehensive solutions weren’t possible in Jesus’ time.

So the story goes on that the workers revolted.  With escalating violence, they killed those who were sent, trying to stake out a little claim and keep the inevitable at bay.  But the inevitable has a way of catching up with you, and so the powerful master—quite obviously, of course—isn’t going to put up with it, but will come and kill them.  It was the story then.  It was true of feudal lords or sharecroppers.  It is bleeding to death by a thousand cuts still with debts today.  At the Poverty Summit this week, it was in stories of lives that completely fall apart because of being short just $50.

So where’s the point of the parable?  Does it side with the master, who may even represent God?  Is it in favor of the poor, oppressed workers, whose fate may be the same as the friends and family of Jesus?  For context, remember that African American slaves and plantation masters were both Christian, but with vastly different directions for their faith.  Or does trying to decide the meaning and find an answer just highlight our selfish prejudices or needs?

Let’s step back to notice something else:  Either way there are sides, and both sides turn to violence in trying to get their way.  Any of these decisions to act come as a response for feeling at a loss, short-changed and abused.  It sets up a competition, a conflict that is never resolved.  Even when you’re ahead, you feel like you’re behind.  There’s just no end to it.  That is called, plain and simple sisters and brothers, the rat race.  On this weekend of St. Francis, we may say that rats have a place in God’s creation, but God did not create you to be a rat in a race.

No, as Philippians sets before us, the race and the goal is not any of those competitions.  It’s not in how you can get ahead.  It’s not in the violence of trying to oppress others.  God did not create you to count your credits against others’ demerits, to compare your surplus over another’s lack, to measure your gains by what others lose.  No, if you think those are gains, you’ve already lost, because the goal, the destination, and even the course of your race is none other than Christ.

And that makes everything else rubbish, garbage, crap, our favorite Greek word:  skoobala.  When everything you wanted to invest your best in turns out to be fit for the sewer, that stunning reversal flips all of life on its head, the parabolic curve that turns all of your intentions around.  Christ even changes the meaning of death.

Life, then, is in continual striving to be Christ-like, making us ourselves the vineyard.  The fruits we produce aren’t for selfishly storing up.  We exist in order to nourish others, as Christ gave himself that you may live, so may you share freely and abundantly what you’ve been given with all your life, joined with love into the enormous sister- and brotherhood of creation.

But here’s the ultimate parabolic twist and turn:  even if you don’t do it, even if you can’t, even if you’re stuck in the rat race, by God Christ still loves you.  Already he is with you, not just trying to nudge you to do more, to be a bit better, not waiting for you to achieve or produce, but already lavishing you with every blessing.

Hymn: We Raise Our Hands to You, O Lord (ELW #690)


What Do You Believe In?

(A newsletter article on “believing in” climate change)

2014-09-21 15.10.24

Acacia and I traveled to New York City for the People’s Climate March. Since returning from the whirlwind bus ride, I’ve heard numerous conversations about whether people “believe in” climate change. So I’ve been pondering our “beliefs” and how we use that term, a reasonable task during this Reformation month.

Often the frame is “beliefs against facts.” In this way, if 97% of scientists agree that human use of fossil fuels is adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing our planet to warm, then that is “factual” and disproves any other “beliefs.”

I’m not so sure about that. For starters, I don’t like that divide. A book I’m reading by Marcelo Gleiser agrees that both science and art involve “a process of self-discovery, as we try to capture the essence of ourselves and understand our place in the Universe.” Our culture, our worldviews, and the very being of our lives should not be so sharply split or bifurcated. Pitting science against arts, head versus heart, tangible over nebulous is bad for our educational systems and our overall wellbeing. Would we claim that Jim Reichling’s trumpet is more important in his teaching physics than when he’s making music?

Yet conversations about religion also get diverted into this compartmentalizing. Opposed to the answers of science, belief has meant “unanswered or unproven.” For the origins of our cosmos, the mystery of God as Creator allegedly gets replaced by the answer of the Big Bang. Sickness, believed to have been the haunt of demons, now is attributed to germs or viruses. This process led to a “God of the gaps,” that God was only an answer when there wasn’t a “better” rational answer. The place of God’s mysterious, unanswered territory diminished as we discovered more, leaving fewer gaps in our knowledge or understanding. Studies still try to prove whether our beliefs are “true.” It may be biology of healing with prayers, or archaeology and history of the Holy Land. Some even claim there’s nothing left to believe in, since science has proven our old beliefs to be false.

But what is true isn’t only about facts. For example, how could you prove true love? It can’t be quantified in the number of roses you give or how firm a hug is or how long your patience lasts. Love can’t be tallied or dissected. It is true because you count on it, day in and day out.

So a better category for us in this reflection would be trust, confidence. Scholar Marcus Borg describes our beliefs that way (though some of his ideas fall back into the other category of proof, as well). In his book The Heart of Christianity (available in our church library), he writes about the word “creed,” like Apostles’ Creed. From the Latin credo, we translate it as we say, “I believe…” The creed isn’t for agreeing to a set of doctrinal details, he says, but is better felt as “I give my loyalty and allegiance to this God.” It is about commitment, trust, love. Indeed, “believe” is related to the word “belove.”

We gather in worship to be reminded again of the God who so loved us and our world, enabling us to know this God as beloved, as trustworthy, deserving our loyalty. We identify this God’s character best in Jesus, and are committed to God by following him. Again, calling God “Creator” isn’t contrasting the book of Genesis with the Hubble telescope, but understands that God delighted to make, still cherishes, and desires the best for us and this world. If we believe and trust this God, that asks how we should loyally behave to belove this creation also.

Which comes back to the original question: Do you believe in climate change? Or, more to the point, do you believe in responses to climate change?

To me, that question is vital, with enormous consequences. The potential impacts threaten extinction for species on a scale not seen since the dinosaurs. More severe harmful weather can be expected to cause hunger, water shortages, and displacement for the poorest of our human neighbors, perhaps leading toward oppression and war. If we believe God loves God’s creatures and would drive out those demons that harm all health, then we are called to strive against this suffering. That is what our loyalty and commitment mean for believing in our God.

On the other hand, believing we don’t need to respond—not believing in climate change—seems to signal that our ultimate commitment and allegiance is to the profits of corporations and to selfish consumer lifestyles. Finally, I would say it’s incompatible to believe that that’s an acceptable way to act and still believe in the God of Jesus.

+ nick