The Darn Old Self and God’s Reconciliation

sermon on Ephesians2:11-22; Mark6:30-34;53-56

We’ll clean up the mess later, but let’s get ugly straightaway.
To get your brains going and emotions riled up we can start with adversaries, like Brewers vs. Cardinals, or Packers and Bears, or World Cup soccer against Japan, or Muhammad Ali taking down Joe Frazier. Big time opponents.

Or maybe instead of sports, you’re more of a historian, and your “us vs. them” is about jihadists or terrorists or nukes or goes back to Soviets or Nazis or the news illustrating that the South versus North still smolders from the Civil War and is just one of the sorts of violence and unrest we’re forced to face these days.

You may feel your blood pressure beginning to rise, but obviously it gets worse. Our Gospel reading says Jesus had compassion for the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. That’s biblical imagery, set against last week’s reading. We’d heard King Herod was selfish, abusive, egotistical, elitist, power-hungry. In our own partisan environment, you may have that same feeling of being a sheep without a shepherd, whether your aspersions are cast toward Governor Walker or President Obama. You may feel unrepresented and ignored, as if the guy is totally the opposite of you.

But it still gets worse than that, because your archnemesis isn’t the fan for another team. Your worst enemy isn’t the soldier at the other end of our country’s gunsights. The most threatening to your existence in day-to-day life aren’t rampagers or authoritarian tyrants. More likely, it’s somebody in your family you argue with, somebody down the hallway at work whose failings feel irredeemable, somebody across your property line who frustrates you, somebody in your own household who can make your blood boil and knows exactly how to push buttons. Or your own darn ol’ self, as we’ll say more about.

Now that I’ve aggravated your ulcers and made your brain fret, now that you’re aware of this hostility and the animosity that you harbor or that can even overwhelm your better intentions, now that you’ve got an image in your head, now hear again the words from Ephesians: “Christ Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, that is the hostility between us.” He creates unity and peace, building you together as the household of God.

Let that sink in for a minute, and see whether you feel relieved or ticked off. See, this isn’t saying that Jesus thinks you should work on forgiveness, or that God’s will would be for you to reconcile with opponents, or some larger theological justification that in the cosmic sense your fights are awfully petty and small. No. This is already over and done with. Those biggest disagreements and deepest held angers and most terrible resentments, this says those are already gone. Christ has broken them down. He has already reconciled you. His forgiveness is already active. It’s not something waiting for you. It’s not dependent on you. It’s not even up to you. Your fight is over by his proclamation. How do you like them apples?

I suspect not all that well. Little enough that you may try to explain it away or offer a counter-argument, or simply dismiss it and claim that God’s work in Jesus isn’t that big or that helpful or that important. And I’d want to agree with you. I don’t like it, either. I’d just as soon keep God as a security blanket or personal bank account to draw on when needed. We’re not in the market for God to upset our whole worldview like this, making us share and even become something we wouldn’t choose.

Really, God should’ve known better. When we’re most wanting to dig in our heels, how can God just declare that the enmity is over and the brokenness restored, ex post facto? What about our stubborn resentments and all the ramifications? South Africa needed the Truth and Reconciliation commission to overcome the wrongs of apartheid. So what is this proclamation of Jesus supposed to mean for Palestinians and Israelis? We throw law breakers in prison. How would it work if sufferers were suddenly confronted with those trying to cling stubbornly to positions of oppressive power? Indeed, for one perspective of mine, I couldn’t hardly admit that all is square between the fossil fuel corporations and extincting polar bears, not to mention that I’m not justified in my occasions of grouchiness at Acacia.

Yet our faith proclaims that Jesus is resolving all of this! Just imagine what that means that the terrible dividing lines are eroding!

Clearly this is exactly where Jesus has his work cut out for him. We’ve been built, our brains are trained, in these divisions, to make it the world split into this binary structure. We’ve done the exercise of how dominant this dualistic thinking is.  I say black you say (white). Insiders vs. (outsiders). Male (female). Rich (poor). Happy (sad). Good (bad). So what Jesus is doing is re-forming you, renewing your mind, changing this entire structure of your brain, reconstructing your whole worldview.

In the Ephesians reading, this is about Jews versus non-Jews. You may feel that’s the small potatoes of an ancient religious dispute. But for our identity of dividing, this is the essential one, because one side had been given and held claim to God’s blessing. Yet the remarkable revelation is that being these ultimate insiders wasn’t an exclusive right. The wall or dividing line that kept out the outsiders was torn down. Your disagreements and divisions must indeed pale in this word that nobody is outside the realm and reach of God.

This is acted out, as well, in the Gospel reading, in Jesus’ compassion. For those people left out, neglected by King Herod as insignificant and punished by the Roman occupation and denied by all the systems, for them Jesus has compassion. In their need, in their longing, in their poverty, in their sickness. He brings them in to God’s household, to the family table.

And for you, you will not be excluded from God’s blessing, from Jesus’ compassion. There is no wrong that does not find forgiveness in him, no brokenness he will not restore. This is why, for small grievances or burning regrets, every week God is eager again to welcome you here with the announcement of forgiveness and you’re fed with the very stuff in this meal and nourished by it. This is also why death—that tries to cut you off from each other, from community—is the last enemy to be overcome, the last brokenness to be healed.

So is this just the rhythm of life, to need dose after dose of gracious forgiveness, week in and week out, until you die and God at last raises you to new life? Well…would that be such a bad thing?

You may also recognize that God continues this work in you. Even now you are being raised to new life. Your old self—the selfish, conniving, hateful one—is being put to death, strangled and having its existence cut out from under it, as that foundation of trying to compare and contrast yourself against others is eroded as worthless and pointless. Instead, we gather and practice a new way of being. As we share peace with each other, we try out what Jesus has already accomplished in ending the hostility, proclaiming peace to us who are near and have always been here and peace to those who have never felt incorporated into receiving blessing before. We share peace with those we love and with those who are estranged from us, who have angered or hurt us, who are far from our love. Even in handshakes and hugs and greetings, we find ourselves living together into the reality that Christ has already established.

Some days you may even understand what it means to be Christ’s ambassadors with this message of reconciliation (2Corinthians5:16-20).

As it says later in Ephesians, “You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by your lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourself with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:22-24).

We can also compare that new creation with former delusions another way: stop thinking you’re able to go it alone, self-contained, individually-responsible, in competition, a lone wolf. You are a sheep, tended amid this flock, not so much by your pastor, but by the Good Shepherd. And with him, you may know your place is always secure.

Hymn: The Church’s One Foundation (ELW #654)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Louis Don Nowicki

2 July 1957 + 1 July 2015

Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 23; Acts 10:34-36, 39-43; John 14:1-6

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

“I go and prepare a place for you.” These words from Jesus are good words, good news for us and for Louis, at this time now for him, and for all of our lives held in God’s caring embrace.

Much as the disciples ask Jesus, “What is the way, and how can we know it?” we may well want to ask where our place is. In our lives, and for Louis, we can label some of those places that are ours, that we call our own, call “home.” For him it began on the farm up north, and it is near there that he’s going to return as at Wednesday’s graveside service we commit him to his final resting place.

We might also well say that the place for Louis was in a kitchen. For a family that loves food and has hardly finished one meal before you’re already talking about what might be part of the next, Louis was in the right place; his talents and skills were well-founded. Yet it wasn’t only about meeting the needs of hunger. Louis was not just sharing the nourishment of serving food but also the meticulous creativity and care of décor, from winning dishes displayed for school and on to his dedicated work for the charter train that carried celebrities and special guests to Super Bowls and all over the country. With his careful, artistic eye and attention to those details of meals, Louis could transform even something plain and regular into a beautiful dish, spectacular and extraordinary. Yes, Louis found a passion and a good place for himself in the kitchen.

And again, in thinking of his place, there was also the house in Greenfield, the place he called home with David, a relationship that was also his place for more than 25 years. To change our perspective a bit and think about the place of that type of relationship in our society, we’re only now coming around to the place where the rest of us should be. When Louis invited me in to his apartment to show me photos of his life, I delighted in it. But I could tell it was still a nervous thing for him, going out on a limb even to be able to talk about this partner whose death he was still grieving, still in deep pain over.

There are too many even yet in society who would want to put Louis in his place, to label sins and to cast stones. Well, I’d say those stones are being cast in the wrong direction. Rather than being the one needing forgiveness, Louis embodied a gentle and forgiving presence toward the sort of people who too long condemned him and made life more difficult, less than what is should fully have been, those who would have tried to exclude Louis.

And that’s a fitting place to turn again to our words from Jesus. He goes to prepare our place, and in his Father’s house there are many rooms. If we try to insist that you have to love the right person or act the right way or believe the right things in order to get into the house, we not only limit God’s work and welcome, but also push Jesus himself out the door, disabling him from being our gracious host by our partiality.

Jesus prepares the place for us, no matter who we are. And in this household there is much room, for everybody, not just those who are alike or who fit into each other’s company. The many rooms, we must believe, aren’t so that the Father will tuck us into to our own little individual compartment. It seems more likely that there are people in the Father’s house who are so different they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other, but nevertheless they are welcomed, with a place secured for them by Jesus.

So, with apologies for being part of church that has too long been a place of shaming and excluding, I’m eager and delighted to proclaim that these words from Jesus are meant for Louis, “Behold, I go and prepare a place for you.”

I also want you to hear how these words are meant for you. Particularly as his family, you’ve said that you could spend lots of time worrying for Louis, about how he never planned for rainy days when things would go wrong, about how you worked to care for him and put life back together for him.

When you told me, Ed, this terrible, shocking news that Louis had died, you were struggling with grief and questions of failure, that you had tried to help him, that you all had made it work for him to move here to Madison, that so many of you—including this church community—worked to help him have a good place here, to fit in, to find friends, to be active and healthy.

But that didn’t always seem to go well, as Louis continued to confront dark and sad days with a troubled soul. There were times he withdrew from everybody, so quiet, losing track of any delight in life. Through that, you continued to encourage him, to try to motivate him, to make things better, right up until now, when we can’t do any more to care for his wellbeing.

But for your frustrations and worries of failure, for preparations that fell through, for your wishing you could’ve done more, for the loss now in this time of separation and hurt, the word of Jesus is for you, too. Jesus prepares a place for Louis. As much as you tried to make life succeed for him here and elsewhere, ultimately it isn’t your care and concern but God’s embrace that holds onto him, especially now.

And the same as you walk through dark valleys and face death, as you feel attacked by so many hardships and concerns, in the places where life won’t go as it should. Your Lord finds you wherever you are, serves you, and fulfills every need. He has prepared this table before you and offers himself to you here. And he continues to make a place for you, to welcome you home. God’s forgiveness and unconditional love and eternally abundant life is not only more than you can manage, but more than you can imagine.

Thanks be to God.

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SuperApostles and a Lousy Preacher

sermon for 5 July 15 (2Corinthians12:2-10; Mark6:1-13)

I may not be much, but today that’s all you get.

I mean, I could have more insight or experience. It might be helpful if I had funnier stories or connected this more directly to your life.  You may wish I had a nice deep baritone voice or was more suave and eloquent. You’ve got reason to be frustrated that I’m not more spiritual, that my faith may seem like a dry confidence, that I won’t suffer saccharine schmaltz. Maybe even if I could just get to the point and not be so complicated!

Which is all to say, again, that I’m not great, but really I’m not the point.

This is the situation for the Corinthian congregation, too, though Paul’s diatribe about it is played from the opposite direction. He says he’s bolstering his credentials in foolish farce. From that angle, I could also assert that I’m pretty smart about this stuff and study it hard, that I pray about my sermons, that I’m really careful on my words. I’m dedicated to you and refuse to play favorites because I’m utterly passionate about connecting all of your lives to Jesus and the big picture of God’s kingdom, so dedicated to it that for your sake I sacrifice other opportunities and possibilities, even interrupt my own selfishness and the good of my family to keep at this work. I wake up in the middle of the night concerned about you. Besides that, there’s the detail that genealogists in my family say there’ve been Lutheran pastors in every generation since Martin Luther. I could lay those credentials in front of you. But, with Paul, I agree that a pile of foolishness, a heap of malarkey, that really those credentials don’t amount to a hill of beans.

The situation in Corinth two millennia ago seems to have been that some so-called “super-apostles” showed up and began distracting the congregation from God. With self-commendation, they claimed to be more rigorous, more elite, holier. They used the fanciest rhetoric, and in delivering this allegedly fancier product thought they deserved a richer paycheck. In this boastfulness, they poo-pooed not only Paul but his preaching, the very God he was proclaiming. They claimed that he was weak compared to their own super-apostle-ness.

(That name “super-apostles,” by the way, gives an interesting parallel for today. We’re distracted by superheroes, not only in summer blockbusters but as such a constant part of our culture. We’re fed this image that even regular heroes aren’t good enough, that to rescue us, we need superheroes. At some point, that’s got to give us the impression that the problems are too big for us to confront, that we ourselves are too weak to resolve the dangers facing society and we need somebody better to swoop in to save us.)

So against the claim that he’s inferior to the super-apostles, Paul goes into a long list. He says that if he needed credentials, if it were important to judge by human standards, he’d have those guys whipped. Today’s reading has spiritual stuff with heavenly visions and maybe an out-of-body experience. Earlier he describes his heritage and quintessential Jewish ancestry.

Another mark of success in ancient culture was mastering adversity. (That, too, might parallel the battles our superheroes have won and the villains they’ve overcome.) Again, Paul says his list takes the cake:
“with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once…a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked;…I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” (11:23-28)
Yet none of that list is what qualifies him to be a minister, to preach to them.

What qualifies a preacher is Jesus himself. Except even that needs some clarification. It’s not that Jesus appeared to me in a dream or put it on my heart or any of that. That would still be to claim the authority for myself.

That proximity is one of the sticking points for us. We think of those disciples sent by Jesus in the gospel reading, as if he gave them special powers or a lesson, or as if they had extra insight from being so close to Jesus. We’re apt to think of it like a game of telephone, where the message gets tainted. We don’t want an intermediary. We don’t even really want Jesus, imagining that God somehow will show up to speak directly to you.

But the point of all of this is that God _is_ showing up to speak directly to you, but today that voice sounds like mine. Christ is speaking in me to build you up. It doesn’t take super-apostles. In another letter Paul says that any different message, even if delivered by an angel from heaven, would be a cursed lie. You get me.

And this is God’s message for you: that in Christ you have been set free from those strivings by human standards. The false hierarchies set up to make some ready to boast and others feel excluded, those distractions and errors and jealousies and gossip and quarreling, all of that is forgiven, and just plain ended. Done. Over. You are a new creation in Christ. That is the message. It’s a message we cling to especially when we know we need it—when we’re weak or hurting or oppressed, certainly when we’re dead. The message, though, is harder to sink in when you think you’re doing fine on your own and that your credentials measure up pretty good.

You belong to Christ and in him you are set free. In his grace you are secure, and in him is where your confidence can rest. The bad news is the rest doesn’t matter. Worse is that you have to hear it from the likes of me, and that’s all the message I have. The good news is that’s all you need.

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Unity and Brokenness — a newsletter article

I’ve been sad because of a loss, lamenting that a friend and seminary classmate has decided to leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Partly I’m sad because I’m convinced the ELCA is right. We live the liturgy, we embody our faith in loving service, we embrace Jesus.

Yet I’m not so naïve as to whine, “Can’t we all just get along?!” After all, I’m darn adamant in what I believe. Try saying that Jesus doesn’t matter, that crucifixion and resurrection aren’t important, that creation’s life is no big deal, and I’d be eager to argue. I’m disgruntled and disappointed that my friend’s decision involved homosexuality. But as much as I’d want to debate it theologically, scripturally, and socially, I couldn’t change his mind or convince him he’s wrong.

So much of my sadness is simply the brokenness. I don’t like separations, the pains and sorrows of our losses, whether like long-distance lovers yearning to be reunited or the harder grieving in death, waiting for the more consummate reunion in eternity. Some splits are stubborn disagreements that have gotten out of hand, while others for irreconcilable differences can be reasonable and necessary.

Amid such sorts of schisms, I also want you to know—for myself and for our community—that it’s a rupture or fracture in the Body when we’re not together here, even a single Sunday. Life is a busy balancing of priorities, but it still hurts to be away from you.

With all these dividings, we may wonder what we can do about it. How do we face brokenness in our relationships? If we can’t simply fix or correct what’s gone wrong, how do we move forward?

On the bright side, separations aren’t essentially the same as endings. I’m hoping my friend will remain my friend, in spite of our differences and this distancing. Transformations of the old may have good surprises. A new beginning may even be worth the steep cost.

Other times, we can only cling to hope. We heard John 17 a couple weeks ago, with Jesus’ prayer for us, that his followers would be one. Yet among both denominational and personal relationships, we’re pretty rotten at small “c” communion (being “united with” each other) or big “C” Communion (for the Lord’s Supper). We’re not unanimous (“one in spirit”).

But “uni’s” are not always desirable. We don’t believe that Jesus wanted us to be uniform, our voices in unison without harmonizing, for this to be monotonous. We’re reminded this Trinity Sunday that even God is not simply “One” but also distinguished as “Three.”

And in spite of it all, we believe and confess that we are indeed Unanimous, tied together by the one Holy Spirit, joined by God. Our fate, our hope, our existence is in God’s hands alone. Even when our divisions or barriers seem insurmountable, still we live in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. We are bound together in love—in a grand family and with all creation.

If that seems like an elusive wish, maybe our parting words—the terminology of going away—can be instructive and put flesh on it. The Germans say auf Wiedersehen, “upon-seeing-you-next-time,” sort of our “see ya later.” An adios or adieu commend somebody “to God!” in Spanish or French. That meaning is also hidden inside our “good-bye,” a contraction of “God-be-(with)-ye!” Our faith connects with the Hebrew shalom and Arabic salaam that say, “peace be with you.” Even the secular “farewell” bids the best, a salutation (meaning a “salve” for healing, health, wholeness).

Rifts in life are hard, but it’s not over until it’s over. When all else fails, maybe we practice prayerful separations, asking the best for the other. Ultimately God won’t fail. We can commend each other to God’s care and trust in what is to come; the finality remains with God who is all in all.

+ nick

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