Searching for a Hidden God?

Sermon for 1st Sun. of Advent, Isaiah64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37; 1Cor1:3-9
My sister and I used to play hide-and-seek when we had babysitters. As the search started, the call was shouted, “ready or not, here I come!” Was that announcement good news, or not? If you hadn’t yet found a hiding place, it could mean you’d quickly get caught and lose. On the other hand, the seeking and finding was the point of the game.

That question might lead us into this Advent season, which announces expectations of God coming. Is that good news, or not?

There are, of course, plenty of times we’d prefer not to have an all-knowing, all-powerful heavenly being show up or be watching. Worse than a Santa who knows if you’ve been naughty or nice, and less preferable than the eavesdropping, email-scanning of a spying government, there is simply no escape from what we imagine to be the repercussions of God’s stern, judgmental view looking down from heaven. It isn’t even that we’d try to get away with being so bad. We just know we fail to live up to our own standards, so our imagined God would have to be frowning down at us, too.

Yet there are other times we indeed long for God to come, to come to our aid, to find us, to be with us. Our first Bible word from the prophet Isaiah starts our Advent with exactly that prayer: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That’s probably pretty accurate for our expectations of God. On many occasions, it is fitting for our lips, or aching hearts, or hurting lives. Come down, God! O that you would tear open the heavens! Break apart the barriers that are keeping you at bay, that restrain you from helping me, that are giving my enemies a false sense of success! We’re ready! Please come!

This certainly was Isaiah’s setting. His people had been captive in Babylon, exiled in a foreign land. But at this late part in the book of Isaiah, the Persians had beaten the Babylonians and were preparing to let the Israelites return to Jerusalem, to the temple, to go home. Yet this generation was born in the foreign land and had never lived at home. Facing a change of political power and a move on the horizon caused reasonable anxiety.

So they looked up at the sky, yearning for a mighty deliverer to rush to their rescue. They wanted to feel not so helpless, wanted a strong indicator that God was on their side. Tear apart the heavens! Shake the mountains, God! Come like a raging fire that consumes the brush and branches blocking the way!

In longing, they even throw in the melancholy and always-suspect “used-ta.” You used-ta do awesome deeds! You used-ta lead in a pillar of cloud and fire. You used-ta drive back the Red Sea and swallow up Pharaoh’s army. You used-ta make the mountain smoke and shake with thunder when you talked to Moses. You used-ta show up and there was no doubt about it!

For us who can feel like our entire faith is used-tas, that really resonates. We, too, know the old Bible stories that evidently don’t happen anymore. All of the exciting stuff seems to be in the past. We’ve been sitting in the dark, scared and waiting for God to come and find us. Has God forgotten? Why can’t we get an answer? Why are things the way they are? If only we had a sign! If God would just show up in a big, apparent way to straighten out this whole mess. O that you weren’t shut up in heaven, God!

You’ve probably prayed this prayer—hoping, longing, pleading. Casting wishes toward God. Wanting God suddenly to appear, to come be with you. Your reasons for such yearning may be so personal, so fragile and scary and tender, that you can hardly dare to hope for them. Perhaps you dreamed of some supernatural phenomena. Or were you simply asking for a little something to go right, a change in life, to be better?  O that you would come from heaven and be present, God.

Now, if you’re stuck in the used-tas, then you can only figure that it doesn’t happen, that God frustrates you yet again, fails to show up when and where you need it, leaves you to your own devices and dark disappointments. With no shaking mountains or blacked out sun, that kind of expectations go unfulfilled yet again. If we’re waiting for the mighty arm of God and an angelic army to drop out of the sky, that quite plain and obviously hasn’t happened. It doesn’t happen.

So was Isaiah wrong? Was his prayer worthless? Will there be an hour of redemption, a day when God finally is ready to come help us? Or is it just foolish, our prayers whistling in the dark? In our seeking, does God continue hiding, refusing to be revealed?

Let’s reverse the question:  what if God is not the problem? What if God is faithful, but our hopes and expectations are misdirected? It’s not that you’re waiting for something that won’t happen, but that you’re ignoring what does happen, seeking in the wrong sort of places.

There’s a story to start the book of Acts of Jesus ascending into heaven. The disciples are grouped standing around on the ground slack-jawed staring at the clouds, getting kinks in their necks, trying to spot some distant, disappearing speck. It finally takes an angel to show up and say, “hey, what do you bozos think you’re trying to see? Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Well, today I’m your angel, your messenger, with good news that you can stop craning your necks, trying to read signs in the stars. That is not where you’ll spot God, so stop bothering with it.

This Lord of yours is not one for pyrotechnics or loudspeakers, much less trying to communicate through natural disasters.  Instead, he comes as a thief in the night; and what thief in the night loudly announces herself? It is quiet and subtle and surprising. He comes like a leaf slowly unfurling itself on a fig tree.  He comes as the gift that preserves you through the night and rises as each new dawn. Even as your days pass and wither like a dried up leaf, still his breath fills you with life, for today and forever. This one like a careful potter formed you from the dust of the earth and still continues to shape you for his good purposes. His work is so constantly with you that you can’t even begin to be alert to it all, to stay so constantly vigilant. The best you can do is occasionally recognize it.

Still more than that, this is of course the God you know in Jesus.  He doesn’t drop out of the skies, tearing open the heavens. After nine months of waiting, God arrived from a womb, through a birth canal. With that, we have to break apart an old notion:  Advent is about Jesus coming, and we’ve often said that means once at Christmas, and when he will return again. That has ended up sucking us into some impression that two different Jesuses come, that Jesus was humble and meek the first time he came to earth, but when he comes back he’ll be taking numbers and knocking heads, that last time he was killed and next time he’ll be the killer, that last time was the Lamb of God, but next will be the bloodthirsty lion.

That may fit some of our yearning, but that isn’t the most faithful portrayal of God in Scripture. Even Revelation says Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s not playing a cosmic millennial game of good cop/bad cop. Rather, he arrived as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother, wrapped to stay warm and snug, no room in the inn for the poor family, left out in the cold and surrounded by livestock and lowlifes. Our hope and expectation is in that same Jesus, in his returning to be with us, and also his presence among us still.

This news is earth-shaking and heaven-shattering, but not how we usually envision with action movie melodrama. That birth has changed the course of nations and enlightened history, but not by overwhelming, insistent miracles. It is amazing and revolutionary that God comes to dwell with us, but it’s in a quiet and humble way. All barriers are broken down, but not by violent might. He conquers death for us, but by going through it. It is almost unbelievable that God sees your iniquity but doesn’t let you get swept away by them or just abandon you to keep suffering the repercussions. Here he comes, not because you’re ready but because you need it.

Today, Jesus says his words will not pass away. It’s not that they are so loud they reverberate and echo in sound waves across the rolling spheres. It’s that this song still needs to be sung, because we need to hear this good news, and simply because his promise remains good forever. His word is good and stands firm, even though it comes in the confusing voice of your preacher. It searches you out and finds you. Again and again he shows up to say, your iniquity is forgiven. I’m not keeping score. I’m not waiting to pounce. I’m here for you, sharing all the gifts you need. Still his presence is with you, sneaking into your life, stolen away inside crusty homemade bread and too-sweet cheap wine of communion.

One final word to assist your searching and know where he may be found. Our 1st Corinthians reading says you were called into the fellowship of Jesus. That’s koinonia, like our Koinonia Place. It does mean fellowship or sharing, like cookies and coffee. It is also community and communion, like this supper. It is uniting together, becoming one with each other.  And so it means Jesus gives you all he has, that you share in everything of God’s, even as he takes all that is yours. You lack nothing, even as you wait and yearn and hope for something more. All that he has he gives to you, still giving even his life.

Hymn: As the Dark Awaits the Dawn (ELW #261)

Standard

Jesus vs. The Wolf of Wall Street

Sermon for 16Nov14  (Matt25:14-30; 1Thes5:1-11; Ps90:1-12)
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The all-too-common take on this parable equates God with the slavemaster and makes the term for money, “talents,” equivalent with our “skills,” and then claims you need to be using them rightly, or else a grumpy God will toss you out, leaving you to grumble and eternally grind your teeth.

If you think that’s what’s going on here, then you wouldn’t need a sermon, because evidently you wouldn’t really need Jesus.  All you’d need is a kick in the pants, to grab a pen and a new pledge card, write 100% on that financial giving plan, and then you’d better head out the door and bust your tuckus getting to work on it.  That’s the only reasonable result if this parable is a reprimand, with God as the biggest taskmaster, the harshest critic, the most demanding loan shark the universe has ever known.  If you didn’t proceed to double the proceeds, to return twice the investment in you, then you’d be out of luck.  God as boss would be just like the old boss, except bigger and badder and eternal and so actually a helluva lot worse.

But this parable is not trying for that view of God.  And I believe you do need a sermon, because you do need Jesus.

To begin clarifying, let’s put it in today’s context, updating what was already a caricature when Jesus told it.  For us, a rich white man, getting ready to leave for his winter home on the Mediterranean, would call in his undocumented immigrant housekeeper.  He gives her control of half a million dollars, and tells her to be careful and not blow it, but to use it as he would.

She breaks instantly into a sweat, knowing he got that money not because of hard work but through shady deals and manipulation and tax loopholes and extortion and buying off politicians and a corrupt system and simply, as Jesus says, because those who have will get even more.  With that money, she can’t dream of playing the lottery or getting a new car or even paying for her daughter’s needed medical procedure.  She can’t risk that, can’t risk a run in with the law, can’t afford this game of monopoly, so she hides it in the safest place she can think of.  And yet she still loses.

Remarkably though, when scornfully accused by the master, she has the audacity to respond with the fiercely negative truth.  The line in the story describes the bullying boss like this:  “I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid.”  She gives a valid assessment of his greedy maneuvering.  And he doesn’t argue; he acknowledges his immoral behaviors.  That’s perhaps the most shocking part of the story.

But it’s also appalling to know the extreme values.  A talent was worth 6000 days of work.  Imagine our housekeeper slaving away at minimum wage to try earning the $500,000.  She’s legitimately fearful, since she couldn’t possibly be able to repay 20 years’ worth of salary.  Yet for him, he was just toying with his underlings.

The idea of the story, though improbable, is no less familiar for us than it would’ve been in Jesus’ time.  We know those whose greed knows no bounds.  They blow millions on another lavish island mansion or even a single crazy, crazy night out on the town.  For a disgustingly true view of this, watch the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.  Even more disgusting, think about elections in our culture, with big money flying around as a game of trying to purchase even more privilege.  In the 2012 election, one man threw away $53 million on the losing side.

The issue is that in the meantime, at the other end, lives literally hang in the balance.  This week in my office I was visited by numerous people so poor as being unable to make life function, like a woman stuck in the catch-22 of needing a bus pass to get to a new CNA job but not being able to afford the bus pass until a paycheck arrived.

To some extent, it is a zero-sum game, where having means taking from others.  Ancient society saw it as even more limited and finite, so capitalizing only came at another’s expense.  This character would have been further flagged as a horrible boss with his instruction to have “invested my money with the bankers so I could’ve gotten interest.”

Though seeming okay to us, it was against Torah; it broke religious law.  Collecting interest was illegal and shameful since it was always unearned, taking what you didn’t work for.  Our Martin Luther biography described him similarly railing against interest rates, and in his day excessively high amounts meant 3%.  That’s blown out of the water by credit card debt and payday lending.  And our margins are worsening; the wealthiest .1% in this country now have as much as the bottom 90% and the .01% have the highest share ever in our history.  Even more, we could go on to corporate earnings versus employee wages.  The rich get richer.  We know this reality of our society.

But that doesn’t mean it’s God’s will.  This is not what Jesus is promoting in our Gospel reading.  To be clear:  this parable is not an allegory for God and the end times.  You can tell from her harsh critique that the greedy overlord is nobody you’d want to spend eternity with, much less dependent on.  If you still doubt this rich ruler is opposed to God, wait until the next Bible reading, where Jesus says, “as you did it to the least and weakest of my sisters and brothers you did it to me.”

So while we may linger in imagining that God unpredictably throws us into bad things, it doesn’t take much faithful reflection on the Bible to realize the fiend of this parable is not a representation of God, but of our society’s faults.  Jesus critiques these wrongs, even by living and dying to undermine them.  As Mari Mitchell pointed out this week in Confirmation class, in the next chapter after this reading, Jesus gets arrested and crucified.  What he says here leads to that.  The very embodiment of God in Christ was against those perpetrators of injustice and inhumanity dwelling in places of power, and it got him killed.  If anything, this reading says that even when others go along with a corrupt system (like the first two slaves), Jesus invites you instead to resist with him, no matter the cost.
More, it is vital for you to know that rather than a demanding, lurking autocrat, God strives always to be there for you in grace and mercy and love and forgiveness.  For example, even as our 2nd reading encouraged you to be ready and awake and sober, it still promises welcome for those who have fallen asleep.

Notice that kind of abundance in our hymns today also.  Our opening hymn on the Wideness of God’s Mercy tells us God is more gracious than we could imagine, and “there is no place where our failings have such kindly judgment given.”  Contrast that with a tyrant prepared to toss you to the hellish darkness.  Again, as we come to the Lord’s Table, we freely receive his body and blood, without demanding our life in return.   Our first communion hymn realizes that not only this meal but all the details of our existence are “gifts [for which] we did not labor.”  So much for working to double your investment!  And in our sending hymn, it’s not a despot who has abandoned you with threats to return.  It’s a greatly faithful Father who gives “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow” and offers his “own dear presence to cheer and to guide.”

God in Christ won’t threaten punishment, but suffers for you and with you.  Not one with all the power in the universe to lord it over you, but so great that he stoops to serve you in love.  God’s investment in you is not to see how much you can gain in selfish striving, but to encourage you to give it all away, to share abundantly following God’s care for the sake of broader benefit and the life of creation.  When it feels like life is just 70 years of labor and sorrow, as our Psalm voiced, know and trust that God stands for something different, something better.

This is not another same bossypants.  You are invited to live into the kingdom or society of Jesus with this “different kind of king.”  But, with that refrain from our next hymn, I want to conclude with a word of caution.  That hymn ends with a risk of getting perverted back to reigning on high, returning Jesus to a typical kind of king.  Even those who recognize his humility of service can still be in danger of corrupting again to the old domineering controllers.

So our calling today is twofold.  First, to be grateful for what we have and find ways to share, to struggle against greed and the desire always to have more.  That’s a reasonable practice for approaching Thanksgiving, but also a challenge to our consumer Christmas patterns, and even more when society is turned against the poor and away from God.

The second calling is to proclaim the good news.  We see today that means rejecting wrong views of God.  With abundant promises of joy, we cannot leave lies that God is violent, capricious, strict, absent, demanding, authoritarian, and so on.  We are called to cling to and to celebrate the God who is merciful, just, compassionate, loving, giving and forgiving, present, serving, and sharing life forever, the God we know in Jesus.  That is why we are here, and that is the sermon for you.

Hymn: O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us (ELW #431)

Standard

Reflections on People’s Climate March for Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light webinar

Picture1

Thank you.

I’m really excited for this chance to share with you, partly for the effort of trying to take you on sort of a virtual trip to the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, but also it’s a great chance for me to re-live it.

Picture2

You know how getting to tell stories after you’ve been on a trip takes your memory back to that locale and in some way makes your body actually feel like you’re back there…well, that’s how this feels for me now.

And it’s a great thing to re-live, to have the happenings of that exciting weekend freshened and reinvigorated in my mind.

Picture3

That’s sort of our point of this webinar, to inspire you or to reinvigorate you, and to have that be motivation for our ever-ongoing work. We’re people who need occasional good news and refreshment and re-creation, so I’ll see what I can do.

Picture4

If I’m trying to put you in my shoes and take you to the streets of New York, it’s only fair first to load you on the bus with me.  Sierra Club helped fund buses all over the country, and for us in the Madison area, that meant three Van Galder coaches. My wife Acacia and I loaded up on Saturday afternoon with about 150 others and hit the road. We stopped late in the evening in Indiana to brush our teeth, at a rest area in Pennsylvania in the middle of the night with the season’s first glimpse of Orion, and then arrived in the morning in New York. Overall, we were gone less than 48 hours, and all but 8 of those hours were on the bus. Yipe.

Yet all that sitting and trying to sleep on the bus wasn’t the hardest part for me. What was most difficult was getting through the Lincoln Tunnel that morning and into lower Manhattan and trying to get to our dropoff point.

Picture5

It felt like it was taking forever, the city was so crowded. There were a bunch of good faith gatherings and worship services that morning, and I’d hoped to be part of that stuff, but traffic was just too thick and progress too slow. That would become a mark for the day, as we would discover.

Our dropoff, see, was at the back of the staging area. The plan was that it would go by bloc, or by shared interests or involvement. Many from our buses were connected to the Madison 350.org efforts against the Enbridge tar sands oil pipeline that is scheduled to ramp up through Wisconsin. (This slide shows the hovering pipeline octopus from our bus.)

Picture6

By now we’ve all heard the number 400,000, but originally we had no idea to expect anything like that. The organizers were sort of talking around 100,000, maybe hoping 150. There were more than 1500 organizations, though, connected and involved (including some other groups, I’m sure, that you each participate in), so with that spread, there was no real way to survey everybody and get good estimates on who was going to be there.

I just want to show you a little bit of the planned map.

Picture7

The whole length along Central Park West was just to get people ready.

Picture8

That’s a mile-and-a-half of staging, and Acacia and I started trying to make our way forward through it, since the interfaith groups were all gathering together way up at the front of the march, up at 59th Street by Columbus Circle.

Well, I’ll tell you now that we never made it. It took us almost two hours to make it that far, the crowds were so thick.

Picture10 Picture13Picture11 Picture12

So I’d intended to represent Wisconsin Interfaith Power & Light along with the other states’ IPL groups, and the Lutheran advocacy group, and so on. But instead I got to represent Wisconsin IPL amid the vegans and socialists and students and wind energy advocates and people for indigenous human rights and Citizens Climate Lobby and brass bands and bicyclists and Seattle Raging Grannies and those calling for military reform and health advocates and clever signs and amazing art and kids and on and on and on.

Picture14 Picture17 Picture16 Picture15

That diversity was the most surprising and really the most exciting thing. I would’ve loved to have been among the religious sect and our focus of shared passion, but instead it was so amazingly hopeful to have the broad perspective. I mean, we interfaith folks have our own access point for this work, and it is probably among the most intimate and heartfelt of connections, to find this as a spiritual imperative and a connection to creatures and our shared Creator, with the vast communities of our congregations in prayer and inspiring each other.

Picture18 Picture20 Picture21 Picture22

But seeing all the ways others were also already addressing climate change was amazing. Instead of the meager and infrequent actions that our government musters, and even though we were there in New York to bolster the work of the United Nations as they were preparing to meet and have another round of conversations on international agreements, that has for too long failed to make much progress, really even with Obama’s China announcement today. But out on the streets were thousands and thousands of people who were excited about this work, who shared a pause of silence that day and shared cheering, who learned from each other and gave hope to each other, who were ready to make a difference and were already making a difference.

Picture19Which seems like almost a perfect segue into the next part of this webinar, except that I also want to tell you about the conclusion—or the non-conclusion—of the march. Along the way, it seemed appropriate to go past Trump Tower and get to show off how wrong and foolish deniers like him are. It also seemed meaningful to march past the memorial to Teddy Roosevelt at the Museum of Natural History with an inscription to “a great leader…in love and conservation of nature and of the best in life and in [humankind].”

Picture24

But besides what we marched past was also what we didn’t get to march to. Altogether, from that far-back starting point to the destination would’ve been just under 4 miles. Not counting that distance of the staging area, the official route for the march was about 2.5 miles. Well, we only made it about half that distance.

Picture9 Picture23

One of my last photos shows a view just before entering Times Square. And at that point we were stuck. My phone buzzed with a text message from the march organizers, saying that the police were asking us to disperse. They had no place left to put us. The front of the march had reached the end, and there were so many of us we couldn’t even fit through the streets of New York. There was nowhere left for us to go.

Picture25

That seems like a good metaphor and also a beautiful vision for our work together. We haven’t reached our destination, we’re still on our way, and have a long way ahead of us in taking care of this earth and mitigating the worst of climate change. That’s the metaphor. The vision and my last words of hope and inspiration is in the idea that there are so many of us connected and abundantly engaged that we entirely overwhelm the system.

Thank you.

Picture26

Standard

Don’t be Worthless. Hope.

Sermon for 9Nov14  Matt25:1-13; 1Thes4:13-18; Amos5:18-24

Don’t grieve so hopelessly, you morons.

I do mean that in the kindest way, but I should explain the harsh word. In describing these bridesmaids, the word for “foolish” gives us our word moron. So this parable from Jesus says that there were ten maidens waiting for a bridegroom to come and celebrate the wedding. Five were wise, and five…not so much. Now, if it were simply that five girls were dumber than a bag of hammers, that wouldn’t really matter much to us. But Jesus says that this is about helping us know what the kingdom of God is like, which gives it extra oomph. It makes us ask if we’d also be labeled so foolishly worthless.

In the parable, we’re told several things about the whole group of ten young women: All ten arrive with lamps, expecting it may get late when the groom comes. All ten end up falling asleep. All ten wake up when the alarm sounds that the bridegroom is arriving.

What first distinguishes the morons is that they didn’t bring along a back-up jug of oil for the lamps. Now, if we’re trying to allegorize and reinterpret these details, we take it that the groom is Jesus. We presume this is a story about expecting he’s coming to be with us, leading to a big, eternal party. But we also recognize that so far Jesus hasn’t shown up. We keep waiting. And so, if we’re the virgins in the story, the next question might be what “oil” represents, what we need to have plenty of. Some have said that oil means faith. Or it’s patience. Or good works. Or the Holy Spirit.

But along with the ridiculous question of how you’d get an extra jug of the Holy Spirit is another detail: when the alarm sounds, the morons get convinced they should run to the store for a refill. First, if they’re trying to go purchase patience, they’re going to be out of luck. But even more is the story’s strange detail that they decide to run a quick errand…at midnight? It’s 1st Century Palestine; 24-hour convenience stores didn’t exist. There was no place to buy oil at that hour.

Still more ridiculous, already the bridegroom is arriving, and they leave then? What wedding party wouldn’t be able to go on because there weren’t enough lamps at the gate? In the story, he arrived just fine without them and the festivities commenced, regardless of their lamps. So these moronic maidens had run off, only to end up missing out on the party. When you go to weddings, you know that the festivities honestly don’t depend on how nicely you’re dressed or what gift you bring or really anything you would do. Instead, the point is that you’re invited to celebrate. The main object is just being there.

So I’m not sure that it’s because they ran out of oil or were short on some other intangible quality. It’s certainly not because they behaved any worse than the others. After all, all of them fell asleep. Even the admonition to “keep awake” isn’t a warning against the morons. I think they were just fools. Though called to serve as bridesmaids, they failed in welcoming the groom. So they were worthless.

With that, I want to turn to two other biblical references to morons, with their opposite side being what’s worthwhile. First, back to the Sermon on the Mount, just after the beatitudes we heard last week, Jesus says salt which has lost its saltiness is worthless. Literally he says it’s moronic salt. You can’t add new flavoring to old salt. Really it has just stopped being salt. Like bridesmaids who don’t celebrate at the wedding and aren’t fulfilling their role.

Second, the place where the words wise and foolish are most used is at the start of 1st Corinthians. In a shocking reversal there, Paul actually says we want to be fools, but of a certain kind. We are morons for Christ. Though foolish, he says, God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and the center of this is that we proclaim Jesus Christ, and him crucified. That center can’t be improved upon with the self-help section of the store. Rather than trying to make ourselves worthy and so well-prepared and add to our saltiness, we take it as an already accomplished gift. We put our hope in Jesus.

That brings us back to my harsh greeting, telling you morons not to grieve as those who have no hope. That is the absolute center of who we are, because that is who Jesus is. We fulfill our role as people who hope, even in the face of life’s worst circumstances. It’s who we are. It’s what we do.

Our starting point is that Jesus gave up his life for you, that he was willing to die for love. In spite of shortcomings and imperfections, the very regular ways you are a fool, running off in the wrong direction, for how much you feel unlovely or even have been told you’re worthless, still Jesus claims you as worthy of eternal love. And if that’s our starting point, it shapes the rest of our lives, too. We live as morons, because we believe that a dead guy loved us and lived for us and died for us.

We foolishly believe that makes a difference for us now, and for our world, and for the fate of all existence to come. And we invest ourselves in it further, claiming that we live in a different kind of kingdom. We assert that blessing and honor and power and glory and might aren’t the kind claimed by our world, aren’t revealed in profit margins or in beauty pageants or in corporate boardrooms or war rooms or in athletic clubs or country clubs or election results or popularity contests.

“Do not grieve as others do, who have no hope.” Of course it’s a foolish word, since our catalog of worries and griefs and frustrations and despairs these days is long. My list starts with the impending global catastrophe of mass extinction, of flooding coastal areas, the end of Glacier National Park and coral reefs, of weather patterns and agricultural reliability that have made our way of life. We also name racial tensions that continue in official killings of black teenagers and of people termed as illegal and deported from their families. We cite the disregard for other whole categories of life, discounting the value of women or of youth or those trapped in poverty. We name debts and a rampaging consumerism that tries constantly to convince us we don’t have enough, that tells us we’re in the holiday shopping seasons and must keep the economy humming or else, that our phone should be newer and do more, and without it we are worth less.

But we don’t buy into that, and that is what makes us fools, at least in our better moments. There’s more we don’t believe. We’ve been told that might makes right. We’ve been told winning isn’t everything it’s the only thing. We’ve been told that if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. And our language assesses the ultimate and final worthlessness in the term, “As good as dead.” And yet, we claim that even in death is still actual good. Even that is merely a sleep, waiting for the resurrection to life everlasting.

Obviously to stay so foolish takes help and reinforcement. In 1st Thessalonians Paul tells us to encourage one another with these words. It takes constant reminders, against what happens in our world and against the evidence of flat-lining EKGs and embalming fluids and crematory fires and worms and decay that seem so triumphant and so final. Here again is your encouraging word: Jesus lives. Death has lost its sting. You have hope.

And not only for that final day when the bridegroom comes, rousing you from the slumbers of death. We continue to live in this community of encouragement. We grieve, but we do not grieve like the hopeless. Instead, we follow a Lord who loved us to the end, to the utmost, to eternity. Facing fears and overwhelmed by apathy, we unleash not a trickle of hope or a frugal faucet of good news, but a flood of mercy and grace and love that’s unstoppable. “Let justice roll down like mighty waters,” the prophet calls to us. This phrase from Amos was a favorite of Martin Luther King—who suffered jail and beatings and fire hoses and police dogs and his house being bombed, and not just him, but thousands who were threatened with him—for living toward a dream. Through it, he held hope in the brother- and sisterhood of this broad family.  And even death couldn’t stop it, and still can’t.

This is who we are. We’re not here in worship to offer trifles and to mumble utterances of praise. We’re here to be shaped into a community sharing hope, a people who continue refusing to give in to despair, as beloved ones who keep living past grief. Stomachs keep getting hungry, but our Food Pantry volunteers keep feeding. This week at Confirmation Extravaganza, students joined in the too-often fruitless work of peace for the Middle East. I keep pedaling my bike, though that can’t hardly stop climate change. People keep dying, but we’re still gathering here. We expect more. It’s foolish, but we believe it’s right.

See, we are people of hope, Jesus people. Even death cannot stop us, much less the obstacles of other comparatively piddly injustices or the daily grind of bad news. There’s a party coming, and we’re ready and eager to share the celebration.

Hymn: Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers (ELW #244)

Standard

a wedding sermon

You know, one thing that I’ve noticed about weddings—heck, I’d go so far as to say my gripe about weddings—is that the attention seems to be zeroed in on the bride and the groom. That may seem appropriate, but let’s ask who’s really most important here. As lovely as you are, Michael and Lisa, I’m going to steal your spotlight and direct the camera back on me for a moment. (Knowing your humor, and trying to make a larger point, I hope it’s okay.)

So to begin with the risk of drawing too much attention to this sermon, and realizing that I’ll never live up to the standard anyway, I’m going to highlight a line in the Bible reading you chose. It talked about speaking in the tongues of angels. Obviously there’s nothing in the lame words that I put together that could attain those heights, so I guess I am indeed left in the opposing category of the noisy gong or clanging cymbal. Having realized that, where it might make you think I’d go ahead and shut up instead of blathering on, making noise up here, instead I’ll foolishly press on, since I still cling to my “childish ways.”

Which leads to the next line with prophetic powers and understanding mysteries and knowledge. And, boy, even if I couldn’t articulate in the language of angels, at least here I’ve got the chance to…well, let’s face it, I’m not going to stack up well in this category, either. I mean, I enjoyed our pre-marriage counseling sessions together, but whatever good you managed to glean from any of that had nothing to do with my wisdom or insight. So prophetic powers are definitely out of my weakling reach.

The list continues on from there in even harder ways: moving mountains, sacrificing bodies and life itself. Even the bit about patience and kindness and not being rude, not boasting, not insisting on my own way. Maybe my strategy here of taking this time to focus on myself was a bad idea.

But that’s okay, because I really wanted to turn it back around to you two, anyway. See, in these categories, you two stack up much better than I do, not least because of the love you have for each other. You really are eager to listen to each other, to try to figure out the right words and the right tone. You bear with each other quite naturally and indeed rejoice in each other. Your love is a beautiful thing.

Still, though, if this is only about trying to measure yourselves on not getting irritable or always being patient, obviously I’m not the only one who’s going to fall short. All of us do, including you two.

So how do we proceed? Do we lower the bar and just say we’re not perfect and then go ahead and put up with a mediocre, marginal kind of love? That doesn’t seem like a very preferential option, especially today. It would leave you with vows that sounded something like, “Well, I mostly like you pretty well, and we’ll generally kind of get along, and it will be okay to spend the rest of our life together, probably.” You’re not here because you want to say that.

A bit different, you could use your vows to set the high standards, to hold you to account, to keep working at love, trying to improve.

But there’s something still more in those words of love. I get to remind you, because this is a sermon, that you are here because this is a church. And that points to the better, fuller solution, to the true embodiment of this love. See, what 1st Corinthians is describing sure isn’t best seen in how good of a pastor I am. It’s not best in our families or communities. It’s not even most in how loving you are to each other; though that is a very good reflection, in the words of that reading, it is still kind of a hazy image in the mirror.

The fullness of this love is revealed for us in Jesus. This is how we know who God is, and what God means for our life. In him, we learn that love is reliable, is trustworthy, and really is always worth it.

God is not about to abandon you when the going gets tough, much less to cause you pain or distress. This is what we know in the cross of Jesus and in his resurrection. This is the long-suffering love that brings you through it to the other side. It’s a love that fits with your vows that promise to share all the circumstances of life together, but it even goes beyond the partition of death to bring you to something still new, a reunion, a grand eternal wedding feast.

This is the heart of love. Sometimes we reflect it well, and sometimes not. Even the church too often distorts that image of love. Yet the best of our relationships are guided and sustained by it, even if imperfectly. Still more, this love of God for you and with you, it never ends.

But there I will end. So for your love, and for this even grander promise, congratulations, Lisa and Michael.

Standard

Bad Blessings for Imperfect Saints

Comments for All Saints Sunday (and Confirmation) – 3 Nov 14

Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

T: “Praise to you, O Christ?!” It’s one of those Gospel readings that makes you wonder. It really doesn’t sound much like good news.

N: Yeah, agreed. If this is what a blessing from God is like, we may ask if we even want to be blessed, or if it’s more of a curse.

But we should pause, since these are among the most famous sayings of Jesus. They’re his first public words in the Gospel of Matthew, the very start of the Sermon on the Mount. We call them the Beatitudes. The name actually comes from the Latin in this passage, beatus, blessed, and it doesn’t take long to realize the Beatitudes are probably the opposite of that old Crystal Cathedral book about the “be happy attitudes.” These blessings definitely don’t seem like they’re designed trying to make you happy.

But maybe that’s a worthwhile thing to remember as we get going today. Blessing isn’t something we choose, and following Jesus isn’t about just getting what we want. If we’re simply seeking happiness and some sort of self-satisfaction, then this says we’re barking up the wrong tree. We’d go running the opposite direction. See, nobody would say, “I’d be more fulfilled in life and really be an achiever if only I could suffer some. I think I’ll go out and really find something to make me mourn and grieve. That’d be great!” Right?

So the beatitudes could seem like real buzzkills and downers. But we also need to recognize that Jesus isn’t exactly giving a motivational speech here, at least not like we’d normally picture it. These first words of his first sermon aren’t a mass-market advertisement trying to make his listeners happy, and they certainly aren’t about telling them how they can get more from God, how they can manage to be more blessed, to squeeze more blessing out of a reluctant God.

Instead, this is already what his listeners were dealing with, and what we’re dealing with. It’s about God and our reality, real life. And it’s still remarkable to hear. There’s something inside of us, or something about our culture, that still wants to claim that if you’re suffering, if you’re sad, if people don’t like you, if you’re weak, if you’re not rich, then you’re doing something wrong. It claims that if God really liked you—or even if God really existed—then you’d be pain-free and happy and strong and have a bigger house and no worries.

Jesus says that’s a lie. God does not abandon us in the hard places. God’s blessing is especially where you need it most, when you need it most. And not only that, but all that rotten stuff of persecution and hunger and war and injustice and poverty and all that makes us so sorrowful and even death are not the end of the story and that doesn’t define you. Jesus not only says, but shows that there is more. Even death, as completely terrible as it is, cannot separate us from God’s blessing and love. That’s the point of this message especially for All Saints Sunday.

T: the ordeal and Revelation

ending with Rolf joke for confirmation – “Who are these robed in white? The ones who came through the great ordeal!”

N: That’s a great line, though I have to stick up for Confirmation here at St. Stephen’s. Especially for those of older generations who with fear and trembling faced tests on memorization in front of the congregation, you should know that students at St. Stephen’s really do enjoy this program. We have students wanting to be here, Sunday School students begging parents to get to go to church, even dragging their kicking-and-screaming parents here!

For this set of Confirmands today, they did talk about the ordeals earlier. I even heard that when he was 7-ish, Nate made a little sign to hold up in worship that said, “I hate church.” And they’ve all faced questions and struggles, wondering about how the science of evolution fits in with belief, for example. This group is also concerned for justice and angry at how exclusionary and oppressive some churches and those claiming to be Christian can be, and part of what makes St. Stephen’s work so well for them is that we’re Reconciling in Christ, welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Nate, Sydney, and Jordan would be quick to point out the ordeal of being in the Boundary Waters with me through a fearful lightning storm. And Travis certainly has had more than his share of ordeals, as today among the saints we are remembering the death of his grandmother and last year his father.

Yet, again, it’s not just the ordeals and struggles and doubts, but also many great moments of community. And that’s part of what makes these four students exemplary saints for us today. We can look at them as our examples, as reminders of what faith means and what it can do as we share it in community. They describe great relationships with each other.

Even more, they’ve been broadly important in this community. I love thinking back to my early days, when I’d be leading Time for Children and as soon as I started to ask a question, Sydney’s hand would be up, and I’d call on her and there’d be a pause. She didn’t have an answer; she just liked being called on. Still my office door is decorated with sketches from Jordan, including a favorite of mine from an early one of our annual Martin Luther King observances, portraying his victories for racial equality and justice. Travis, or Lars as he was known during Confirmation classes, was always good for some humor and laughter, but you shouldn’t let that fool you because he’s tremendous at caring for young children and is eager to teach Sunday School. Nathan not only brought his pet snake Steve to VBS, but also connected with the Senior Ministry Team and did a presentation at Seasoned Saints.

All of that shows these four saints can’t be isolated by age group, or restricted in our view of them. They are very fully saints, sharing the struggles we all have, and also being a benefit to this community in at least as good of ways as the rest of us.

T: baptism as tying all of us into this promise and sainthood

Cloud of Saints

Standard