Football, MLK, and What Matters

The Packers aren’t going to the Super Bowl. This adds to much writing about it, although from a less popular perspective—not to be contrary but out of concern. Among the many social media posts, my brother-in-law commented that he took out the loss on his punching bag in the garage instead of hitting his wife, my sister. It was an honest comment, one that was trying to be healthy in assessing the many positives of his life and declaring that the outcome of the football game didn’t lead to more negatives. But the note made me sick to my stomach. So did many other comments about the game.

It is, after all, a game. The point of games is that they should be fun and should probably build community or strengthen relationships, contributing to emotional health (if not physical fitness). It may be argued that the many voices of lamentation are some sort of commiseration—literally, of sharing misery, a collection of grief. Yet that strikes me as falling short of community with compassion or sympathy, words that are about sharing suffering.

Of course, I see most things through a theological lens. I can’t quite shake questions of god being where ultimate devotion and allegiance are placed, seeming to make of sports a pantheon of polytheisms. More importantly and directly, yesterday morning I preached about making distinctions on what is beneficial. I believe this is a question of caring for ourselves paired with loving and serving those around us. Is a team more important, for example, than family? What is worse than this loss?

So I’m sad and disappointed in the passionate investment over the football game. It is misplaced priority, wasted emotion. It is fruitless hope and misperceived tragedy. Notice how much happiness people put at stake: even if life hasn’t seemed that great, if only the Packers would go to the Super Bowl that would make things good. How is life actually, really, honestly better if a team you like plays another game? In the meantime, I hear of many yelling throughout the game at their TV screens. What is that anger accomplishing?

With the observance of Martin Luther King day, reflecting on a dream that continues to be deferred, on what he called the “fierce urgency of now” and the “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism,” what if we invested that passion instead into improving the lives of each other, of our society, of our planet?

Instead of this being a moment where somebody—anybody—wanted to abuse his spouse, what if we were to strive and celebrate that no spouse should be abused for any reason, that we stand with those who really are hurting, that games may be fun but ‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬, that there is more to life? What if our loyalty and our knowledge and dedication were invested instead in helping each other, and we refused diversions or distraction from what is truly important?

If the question even arises in your mind whether life is less valuable or fulfilling after a sports loss, shut off the game.

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Pants, Fig Trees, & Beneficial Distinctions

Sermon for 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, 18 Jan 15

John1:43-51 Psalm139:1-6,13-18 1Samuel3:1-11 1Corinthians6:12-20
Since a bunch of you asked about them, here’s my much ballyhooed pair of pants, the ones made famous by Tim’s sermon last week.

2015-01-18 12.31.50

The story is I crashed my bike riding to one of our Monona outreach events. They’d been a gift, were still pretty new and hadn’t gotten used up, so I patched ‘em. Mostly I dress nicer for work, but I did wear these for the “God’s Work. Our Hands” project on Homecoming Sunday since we were going to get dirty serving at Winnequah School. Nate McConnell saw the red patch during worship and was worried I was bleeding.

Today I wore them not just to showcase but to make a point, or to raise distinctions of what counts as a distraction versus being central to faith, a question of what’s appropriate and right and beneficial.

It comes up in part because of our Gospel reading, with one of my favorite Bible verses, because it seems so random and quirky (which, you probably know, appeals to me). The line is when Jesus tells Nathanael “I saw you under the fig tree.” Yet Nathanael reacts with a ridiculously astounded confession of faith: You saw me under the fig tree? Wow! You’re God almighty! It’s goofy. Almost no commentators in the history of Christianity give it any special value or meaning.

Sure, figs pop up on occasion in the Bible. In a different strange story, Jesus cursed a fig tree because, out of season, it had no snack for him. Adam and Eve made the first clothes by sewing together fig leaves. Through the Old Testament the sweet fruit of fig trees, along with grape vines, signaled an established home. Maybe that’s what this fig tree is doing located here in the Gospel of John, signaling that Nathanael was at home. Instead of being a fisherman out in his boat as we’ll hear with calling disciples from Mark next week, maybe Nathanael is a landlubber hanging around the farm. Or maybe he was lazy and taking a snooze in the shade. It could even be that it was someone else’s tree and he was stealing figs.

Probably the fig tree doesn’t really symbolize anything about Nathanael or his relationship with Jesus, remaining an obscure, trivial detail.

But that would be just fine, because the overall point is that Jesus is concerned about you, in all the obscure, silly, trivial, asinine moments and details of your life. Nathanael could’ve been in a boat. He could’ve been in school or in a jail or at a store. It just so happens that he was under a fig tree for whatever reason, and that’s where Jesus found him.

Which brings me back to my pants. I usually dress up more, and believe there’s still value in “Sunday best” clothes fitting God’s extreme goodness to us. I try to look nice during the week to respect and acknowledge that the Lord is with you (just as we declare in our greetings), making all the moments of your life important. Still the reverse side of it is needing to remember that God is with you even when we don’t look our best. Even in hospital gowns or shabby sweat pants, still the presence of God abides with you. Are you getting the feel for these distinctions?

To go beneath your clothing, our Psalm proclaims that your body is created by God with care and delight. There’s no regrettable part of you that so ultimately disappoints God, no blemish or infirmity that would make God stop loving you. God declares that you look marvelous. We could probably extend that to your clothes. You don’t need to be embarrassed of your clothes, or put extra weight onto them as if something fancier will make God like you better.

Again, we could look at the official garments for worship. Our white albs that we wear to lead worship are actually not supposed to be fancier garb (or pajamas as Jim Wiskowski suggested this morning). They’re supposed to be equalizers. They symbolize all of us being washed clean in baptism, that we’re all pure in Christ. On the other hand, in 11:00 worship, Tim and I don’t wear these white garments. Since these seem more formal, or specialized, we dress instead to look more familiar. Between these two sides, it’s tough to say that one is right and one is wrong. Neither is a petty choice. Both are trying to make a connection between faith and our lives.

One more similar example: Today I put on my red Chuck Taylors. That’s not to match the patch on my pants. To coordinate I would’ve actually preferred wearing green to go with the liturgical color for the day. I chose these because at one point a dozen years ago, I’d written on the bottom “Ephesians 6:15.” That verse says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever enables to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Clearly these shoes aren’t the only thing fitting for proclaiming peace in Jesus. But they can fit the bill, even here and now.

To take a bit different approach, let’s return to our 1st reading, of God speaking to a young child. We learn God may call us even when we don’t understand it. God may have something to say not only when we’re sitting in church alert and listening for it, but also in our sleep.

Yet that raises further distinctions. The reading doesn’t mean that the only place you can hear God’s voice is when you go to bed. It doesn’t mean that every dream you have is God trying to call you to a new way of life. It doesn’t mean you can only perceive God’s voice when you’re young before your hearing goes. Again, as the Psalm nicely says, God knows your sleeping and your rising up, watches you as you roam and as you rest, from before your birth until long after your death, God surrounds and holds you.

Martin Luther King covered similar ground in writing, “the worth of an individual does not lie in the measure of intellect, her racial origin, or his social position. In the ultimate and final Christian analysis, human worth lies in relatedness to God. An individual has value because he or she has value to God. Whenever this is recognized, ‘whiteness’ or ‘blackness’ pass away as determinants in a relationship and ‘sister’ and ‘brother’ are substituted.”*

It’s into the midst of this kind of difficult and vital question of society and ethics under God’s unconditional love that Paul tries to navigate in our 2nd reading. If God’s love will never let you go, if your clothes or your body type or your age or your personality don’t determine or prevent God’s blessing for you, then what? “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes. Nothing can cut you off from God, won’t make God punish you. From the smallest harmful choice like junk food to even something so extreme as fornicating with a prostitute can’t take you away from Christ. As he says in another place, clean or messy is nothing, law-breaking or law-abiding is nothing, but that we are a new creation in Christ is everything! (Gal6:15)

So does that mean anything goes? Are holey cords—that is, corduroys with holes in them—really the holiest choice? Is it alright just to hang out under fig trees? Could Samuel just as well have gone back to sleep, preferring a bit more shut eye instead of having to pay attention to the word of the Lord? If Christ has freed you from the bonds of sin, should you really feel free to sin against other people, or your loved ones? Should you abuse yourself and creation?

Well technically you could.

Your identity is held in Christ. You are claimed as a beloved child of God and member of this family. You are fundamentally a citizen of his kingdom, a creature of his new creation. You are a Jesus person. Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. That will be true no matter how you look or how you act. There’s no lightning bolt coming to expel you from this place.

But it’s also true that you’ll serve your neighbor and glorify God by not graffitying up or littering the temple with junk. The question for the day is not if you’re a better disciple than somebody else, if your behavior is more important or holier. It’s more a question of distinctions on what’s beneficial. What will most enable you and others to live into this new reality of God’s abundant grace. What inhibits and what encourages following that beautiful invitation from Jesus of coming to see?

Hymn: Baptized and Set Free (ELW #453)

* “The Ethical Demands for Integration,” in Testament of Hope, p122. Edited for inclusivity.

postscript:  It was with full irony that I talked about my trivial clothes after starting worship with this word of MLK’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail:
“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon blacks, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern,’ and I have watched so many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which made a strange distinction between body and soul, the sacred and the secular.
“So here we are moving toward the exit of the 20th century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading us to higher levels of justice.”

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Dorothy Jean Anderson  23 April 1927 + 1 January 2015

Psalm 23; Romans 8:35-39; John 1:1-18

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

We gather this moment in loss, the person you knew taken away. Death steals a loved one from you. That sad fact is also true in strong degree about dementia and Alzheimer’s, about bad illnesses and diseases that ravage somebody to an extent that you know longer know them, can’t recognize them as familiar.

I know this case has been in process since Dorothy moved to Wisconsin, at least since she became less capable and more dependent, since her mind deteriorated and her personality changed. The final fall into weakness and visit to the emergency room and her body finally deciding enough was enough has just been the last stage, even to an extent a stage of relief, for these many months of having your mother slip away from you, Chris and family. She was no longer the woman you had known.

There is blessing in many wonderful memories, the stories shared that make you who you are. With your mother and grandmother, there are things from long ago, of growing up around her. There was her care and guidance and watchful eye and all she taught you. As you grew, the memories change, but it is still the same woman you know and remember. For those of you who knew her at other times, you have your own recollections and cherished moments. Those are things that, in spite of what it meant to be losing her and even facing this larger loss of death now that nevertheless cannot be taken away. That part of her abides with you.

Yet as I’ve been reflecting on that, also striking me is how difficult—or impossible—it is really to know each other fully. Think for a moment on how much you don’t know: all the things you heard only second-hand, almost as tall tales or legends; the secrets that you heard about much later, as well as those that remain undiscovered; all the vast and long details of Dorothy’s life—from her childhood to daily routines to internal emotions—all that you just plain have no way of knowing.

I’m thinking about that because even as much of her as you knew and loved and have in some way lost, it still means you knew her only in part.

I’m also thinking about that because it echoes our Gospel reading, in discussing what we may or may not know of God. It says there’s plenty we don’t know, since nobody has ever seen God. But it’s not left to mystery or our imaginations. It says what we have known of God is Jesus.

That’s important for us, for this time of death and this time of holiday. At the end of the Christmas season, on this 12th day of Christmas, this reminds us that we know God as a baby in a manger, cradled and nursed by his mother Mary, as one born to be good news for Bethlehem and for shepherds and for kings and for the sick and despairing and for Dorothy and for us. Jesus is the heart of this good news, the core and crux of what we need to know about God. We know that God has come to be with us, to dwell among us and live with us, that God cares for us. That is the Word calling us into being, creating life in us, and then entering our life, the Word that becomes flesh.

It is also this Word we know in Jesus who will never leave us, who is God abiding with us. In Jesus, we know a God who holds us close, who is there to nurse and assist us in our weakness and help us in our needs. (With that, we should well note that the point of this gathering was in gratitude for the caring staff of Heritage Monona, who are serving as an embodiment of God’s work. Thank you for doing it.) We share in this God knowledge of compassion, since Jesus suffers with us, goes through loss and cries out in feeling lonely and forsaken. So we know a God who won’t abandon us even in the face of death. Ultimately God brings us through that, out of his tomb and out of our graves to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Again, the core and crux of what you may know about God at this moment is that God is not distant or unconcerned or powerless. In Jesus you have a God of love, abiding with you for life. You are brought into God’s family, an assurance for Dorothy long ago in baptism that she was claimed as a beloved child of God. As the beautiful Romans reading reminds us, nothing can stop that love. Nothing can stop God’s work. Nothing that interferes with life. Nothing that goes wrong. No diseases or struggles or brokenness. Not even death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

That, finally, reminds me of one other Bible passage. It’s one we don’t usually relate either to Christmas-time or to funerals, but mostly to weddings. The “love chapter,” 1st Corinthians 13, works well at the start of a marriage, when families begin together, encouraging us to be patient, kind, and enduring in love. It’s guidance that can serve well in all of our relationships. But, as we said earlier, even at our best and closest, still we only know in part. As it says in those verses, we see in a glass darkly, or have a fuzzy view through a mirror. It’s not complete yet.

“But then,” it concludes, “then we will know fully, even as we have been fully known.” Those are words of promise for you and for Dorothy. She was fully known by God, recognized and loved and held throughout her long life. In faith, she clung to trust in this God through Jesus. And now she rests in the promise of completion, that she will know God fully, face to face.

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Jesus & Our Priorities, Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas

(John1:1-18; Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14)

Here we are beginning a new year, turning calendars to 2015, thinking ahead of resolutions and what needs to change, and I’m foolishly going to suggest we need to use this opportunity to look backward.

Furthermore, we have this gospel reading from the start of John’s Gospel, the Prologue, as it’s known. It’s an intro, an opening. It is there for us to look forward, to set the tone of all that is going to come in the story of Jesus. Plus, we’re on the cusp of Epiphany, when for six Sundays we’ll encounter the next parts of Jesus’ story, the ways this light is revealed to the world, of how people got to know him and how we get to know him.

But for now, as we have maybe a pause, a hint of what’s coming, we also need a reminder of what came. We gather today on day 11 of the 12 days of Christmas. The Christmas season officially concludes tomorrow. And it’s worthwhile that we have to think back to Christmas Eve today. As we gather amid falling needles and poinsettia debris, our world in so many ways has already moved on. The gifts are unwrapped and put away. By December 26, radio stations had already switched off the holiday hits. Focuses changed to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Decorations come down as we tidy up. We return to work and school, to regular rhythms. We go back to life.

Yet today, interrupting again, we are compelled to recall a baby born in a barn. And just to be clear, that isn’t a cuddly and sweet story endeared to us because it is set well to music. It isn’t just a holiday pause. It’s not a diversion from life, but a reorientation of life. And Christmas must be that because centrally what we believe and continue to proclaim is that God was born.  God was born. Again, our understanding of Jesus isn’t just that he grew up to be a nice guy, or that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who could be a thorn in the side of the world’s most powerful empire, nor even that he knew a lot about God. What we believe is that Jesus was—and is—God.

As the story continues, it gets even more disturbing. Beyond the Prologue, all of John’s Gospel could be seen as a commentary or an argument about how Jesus, a particular person could make God present for us and, more, actually could have gone on to be killed. God, even though he’s human and not unbroken and, yes, even though he was executed on a cross. It’s just plain outrageously foolish.

But then we amp up our foolishness to the nth degree. Our peculiar readings for today expand our perspective, identifying in Jesus God’s eternal wisdom that provided the shape and pattern for the existence of our universe since before anything came to be.  Since we’re looking back, we’ll look waaay back. The readings step back from the Bethlehem stable to say that the one who was born there was with God, was God, since the beginning, speaking all things into existence. “No one has ever seen God,” it said. Only Jesus has made God known. That’s a no-nonsense statement with oomph.

So, aside from the fact that this has been scriptural understanding and that Christians have held this belief ever since there were Christians, still Jesus as God has gotta give us some pause and make us uncomfortable. It is so direct, so particular.

It has been making me think of a phrase I hear too often from friends and others generally. In talk about raising children regarding faith, they say they’re “going to let them decide for themselves and choose what they want to believe.” It’s a strange thing to say. I mean, for simple starters, we don’t let kids decide whether or not they want to use silverware or have table manners. Going to school isn’t optional. We pretty well expect they’ll subscribe to our society’s ethics and norms. We even struggle with disappointment when they challenge our allegiances, to an alma mater or to a sports team. But God is up for grabs on doing whatever they might want?!

It seems so backward. Isn’t the whole point of God, being something that’s bigger than you? That you are among creation, and so don’t get to pick (or be) the Creator? Wouldn’t it be the height of presumptuousness to imagine you could set aside God for another deity, or that you could take-or-leave the whole spiel altogether? Isn’t this exactly what the 1st Commandment is about, and why it’s the 1st Commandment? That is to say, it’s a question of priorities—literally meaning what we put first.

Furthermore, it’s evident that we’re bad at making these so-called choices. The Prologue says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. It’s saying that they already had some knowledge of this God, but still couldn’t see it, wouldn’t accept him. Or, as it says a bit more gloomily after John 3:16, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”

Yet it’s not just our postmodern families, with lives overflowing with flashy options (even if they’re not truly optional and not all that good or bright). It’s not just those who want to sleep in on Sundays. Getting back to the main issue at hand, still even those of us who have spent our lives in church probably have difficulty with identifying God with Jesus alone.

I suspect for our children we need to re-focus this devotion, and we ourselves need to be more devoted. We would benefit from reclaiming this wisdom, remembering the true shape of our lives and what brings us light. We are people with myriad commitments and obligations and diffuse interests, scattering us in so many directions, and probably leaving us un-grounded and less enlightened, if not entirely self-devoted idolaters. I can say for myself, right along with the rest of you, that I certainly fall short in having this be the center of my life, with all the rest of who I am to be oriented around Jesus, structured out from that center, to know that life is marked from a manger to the cross and out beyond an empty tomb.

And there’s the core of why it matters. We look back to Jesus to know what God still plans and intends for us, what the shape of our lives and the goal of our universe is supposed to be. So it isn’t that we have a God who so sternly demands obedient allegiance, with threats of “or else.” It’s that there’s so much promise for us and for all creation around us in this God who has come to dwell with us. It’s worth being able to trust our lives, our hopes, our existence to Jesus. That’s what makes it the priority. This is what God wants for us, to offer assurances and to guide and fulfill our lives.

For starters with that, we’re not left aimlessly wondering whether the universe is against us, or if we just need to try a bit harder to have karma go our way, or if there’s any point to it at all or if our lives are simply irrelevant. We, instead, are given confidence in love and charity and community. In Jesus, we know compassion. We know that our lives matter, that we’re not just waiting for our souls to fly away, but that this flesh, this created stuff, this world is vital to God. God is utterly invested here. With Jesus as God revealed for us, from a lowly birth in Bethlehem to being with the poor and the ill, on to the end you may know that God’s good for you cannot be stopped even by death.

One last word of promise for today, a nice, tender image. I really cherish and cling to these during this Christmas season, because I find the image of Mary cradling and nursing the baby God so stunning and beautiful. This is a parallel to that. Our final verse from John had the stuff about no one ever seeing God, but God being made known only by Jesus. Along with that was the phrase that the Son “is close to the Father’s heart.”

That’s helpful already. That heart-felt image of knowing God by heart tells us of proximity, of shared emotions, of love, of Jesus revealing for us what is centrally important to know about God.

But rather than just heart, a more direct translation of that phrase would be that Jesus is held “in the bosom” of the Father. Just as Mary nursed Jesus, the baby God, so God’s own bosom nurses with tender care. And Jesus isn’t the only one held close in God’s bosom. Jesus brings you into this family, making us all children of God, nursed and sustained and held dearly, close to God’s heart and in God’s bosom forever. That’s good stuff, worth knowing, worth remembering, re-orienting your whole life. So, Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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