Me & Ignorant Agnostics

sermon on Mark9:30-37

I have two confessions that may sound shocking at first: One, I am an agnostic. The second confession may sound subsequently less surprising: that I am agnostic is also to say I’m ignorant.

You probably suspect that I’m going to qualify these confessions, and you’re right. See, we normally equate the term “agnostic” with one who doesn’t believe in God. To use it more precisely would be for somebody who’s uncertain, who doesn’t know if they believe in God. And “ignorant” we take to be the same as stupid, a dummy, a half-wit, nincompoop, a doofus, a little slow…Sorry, there are so many synonyms! But ignorant doesn’t exactly fit that list.

Ignorant and agnostic are both from a Greek word, and that word was part of our Gospel reading. It is a word that really means “not knowing.” So to be ignorant isn’t to be idiotic, but just that you don’t know (though we’ll also discuss whether that’s from not having all the facts or if ignorance is related to what you ignore). And again, we typically call somebody an agnostic when they’re leaning toward not believing in God, but at its core it’s just that they don’t have all the knowledge.

Which should be something we’re all able to confess, that we are ignorant. We’re agnostic. We just plain don’t know everything about God and faith and church and life in this world. I’m guessing when I said I was ignorant, you were thinking, “yeah, tell me something I don’t already know.” But I know that I’m also implicating you, that last week I called you losers and this week I’m saying you’re ignorant. So I’ll beg your indulgence, to hang with me and maybe find grace in this.

To dig in, let’s start back in the Gospel reading, which got all of this going in the first place. The reading has the 2nd of 3 so-called “passion predictions” from Jesus. We heard the first last week, where Jesus went on to invite us also to take up our own cross, to follow him in losing our lives, and denying ourselves. In this 2nd time, just a chapter later, Jesus says he will “be betrayed into human hands, they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

Now, we may take those as fairly basic details about Jesus. We go back to saying our creed today that sums up for us that he “was crucified, died, and was buried…On the third day he rose again.” We’ve got these details down, at least enough to repeat them back.

The disciples, on the other hand, seem caught off guard. Even though they also had just heard it in the last chapter, still this is coming as a fresh idea to them, or is shocking enough that it won’t sink in. It says “they did not understand” (that’s the Greek agnostic or ignorant word right there) “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.”

They don’t know what’s going on, but instead of trying to figure it out or simply being willing to question, they take our typical illogical human tack and change the subject. This is the ignoring part of ignorance, of not trying to understand, of giving up and turning your attention to something else instead. So the disciples start arguing about who’s the greatest. Which must’ve been an interesting conversation, filled with bluster, each trying to seem better and brawnier and brainier than the rest, all while entirely refusing to admit even just a tiny bit that they don’t know.

Thinking about bluster among the ignorant may make us think these days of politicians, particularly in the contrast with Jesus’ notion that to be truly great means to be a servant of all.

But it’s not just a television problem. We good people here are also prone to fall into distractions instead of focusing on the heart of the matter. Even here at church, we like to talk smart and prefer to think we know plenty and imagine it’s better to have answers than to have questions. So congregations and, yes, even pastors are diverted into talking probably way too much about budgets and forms and lightbulbs and emails and attendance numbers and straight up gossip about people.

All that when there are much better things to be focusing on and pondering and wondering about, even to be asking questions of. Like Jesus, God in Christ, what in the world the Holy Spirit is and what she’s up to. Or why it’s so great to be a servant and whom we should be serving. Or what resurrection means or why the cross or how this passion prediction compares to other Bible readings. These are great kinds of questions, but we get stymied all too quickly because we’re recognize they don’t have easy answers.

This is especially obvious as Sunday School resumes, and may be a reason that Jesus talks about welcoming children today. A case in point: at the wedding I officiated a week ago, a 5-year-old boy was there, whom I had baptized. He was sitting with his grandmother during the wedding and evidently found himself in a situation sort of like the disciples, because this boy didn’t understand what was being said. “Who is Jesus?” he asked. “God’s son,” the grandmother whispered back. “Oh, I didn’t know he had a kid,” the boy pressed in questioning. “We’ll talk about it more later,” the grandmother tried to conclude.

My first response was relief he was asking her and not me. That fits with the start of Sunday School. Kids ask darn hard questions that seem to get right to the point. Rather than trying to ponder theology with wee ones, we’d prefer the distractions of talking about art projects or about lunch plans or sports or school. We’re reluctant to engage those huge, deep questions.

But it should be obvious that we’ll be left with such questions, since God is huger and deeper than anything contained in our universe. There’s no way we can fully get a handle on God.

And even what we can grasp is bound to raise more questions. Jesus today tries to point to the truest revelation we have of God—in the cross and empty tomb, embodied in one who humbled himself and took the form of a slave. That can’t help but leave us confused and wanting to ask questions: was Jesus really God in the flesh? What’s the deal with the virgin birth? What about other religions? Did God die? Why did Jesus pray? How did he come back from the dead? Where is he now? Why aren’t there more miracles today? What’s supposed to happen in Communion? Did Jesus have to die? What about other deaths, and cancer and genocide and extinctions? What about all the tough ethical and moral dilemmas we face? These are honest and faithful questions, that agnostic part of our confidence, the doubting part of our belief. We don’t have just blind trust; this pondering is part of who we are.

In the verses of Mark’s Gospel we skipped past since last week is contained a line, a prayer that is somehow among the most real lines anybody has ever said. A father of a sick child cries out in confession, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Today we are invited to live with that honesty, with an expansive and questioning faith, struggling with our uncertainties and wrestling with wishes and wonderings. I believe; help my unbelief. I know; help my ignorance. I trust; help my agnosticism.

The disciples don’t ask because they are afraid. But when you’re worried, asking questions of God is the last problem you should be having. God is especially there for conversation in your fears or confusion or insecurity or doubts.

So as a moment of reflection here and honesty in what we don’t know and would really like to know, I’m going to invite you to take out your slip of paper and a writing utensil and write your question. Be inquisitive or demanding, but don’t be afraid and don’t just hold this in your head; be serious and write something down. As they say, there are no dumb questions. But if you don’t ask you’re sure to remain ignorant.

When you’re done, you have three options: first, if it’s really personal and private, you can keep it to yourself, between you and God. Second, you can put it in the offering plate in just a few minutes and maybe we can do something more with these shared questions in coming weeks. Third, if you’re hoping for conversation or an answer or my sharing in ignorance, you can write your name. Ask your questions of God and Jesus and life.

Hymn: Unexpected and Mysterious (ELW #258)

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a wedding sermon

Those are absolutely beautiful Bible readings you’ve selected, Megan and AJ, among the very best and truest and dearest verses we hold onto, maybe right up there with “The Lord is my Shepherd” of the 23rd Psalm and “for God so loved the world” of John 3:16. 1st Corinthians 13 does so well at capturing the essence of love, giving details that are typically too hard to explain without poetry or the emotions of movies or just simply having the chance to live into it and discover that love is indeed what it’s like to be patient and forgiving and enduring, and, yes, that to be kind and hopeful and harmonious is to be in love, which is better, really, than anything else. These readings get it. And, obviously, they do a better job of putting words to your love for each other today and what that will mean for the years ahead than anything I could come up with, nor is it ever effective to try to give a lecture on how somebody should be loving; it just doesn’t work that way, and it’s especially unnecessary right now.

So I’m going to go ahead and talk about something else, or at least a slightly different perspective. See, the Bible reading talked about what will abide, what will endure, what lasts and lasts, maybe forever.

But from that trajectory years and decades into the distant future or even eternity, I want to go in the opposite direction and reflect for a moment on the start, the beginning, the stuff that’s brand new. For that, I’m also going to throw one more brief biblical idea into the mix, which from 2nd Corinthians (5:17) says, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Or from the end of the Bible (Revelation 21:5) of God saying, “see, I am making all things new.”

It’s not just the endurance of love or condition-less infinity of love, but also this brand new-ness of love. That’s been easy to see and to celebrate for the two of you, of looking back to days new lives and choices in LA when you were getting to know each other and really finding a good and comfortable pairing in that faraway place. Or maybe we fast-forward to the newness of choosing to move to Madison, back to the Midwest but with an entirely new place to be, plus a new home and new people and a new job and new surroundings. Or maybe we think of what was new and different in the past year and a half as you were back in school, Megan, and living in Indiana and as you two were trying to discover how to be a couple across that distance.

And looking forward a bit from now, we think about what’ll be different with a new job and new commuting and new schedules to share between you and new income that changes what you’re working on and accomplishing together and the dynamics of your relationship.

More than all these details is how you relate to each other. Within your relationship it’s so beautiful and exciting that—sort of strange for a guy—you are such a good listener, AJ, and always ready to engage with each new situation that Megan is facing. And Megan, perhaps unusual for a woman, that you are such a good doer and eager to learn how to do oil changes and the projects AJ is up to.

Maybe that, then, becomes the heart in reflecting on all this newness. It isn’t that this wedding day marks such an innovation, such a totally new beginning for you two, that everything will be absolutely different after today. Though I’m guessing you won’t wake up feeling quite the same tomorrow or in these next weeks as the awareness dawns on you, “we’re married!”, still, you’re right, there’s plenty that won’t change. Yet you won’t be just waking up to the same boring person or having the exact tired old disagreements. Rather, each moment together is one that hasn’t happened before, that invites you to live into it with each other, to live it fully. As you are with each other—really with each other—through all of these moments that are to come, there will be continual newness and, as God spoke in that Bible verse, always being made new, always renewed.

Indeed, this is the sort of thing your vows are going to promise to each other, to share all that is to come, to listen and respond, in all circumstances with your whole life and all your being. That you’re already living into that with love is great. And it will be exciting and delightful that each day will continue to be new.

And then, as your vows conclude with the word of death’s parting, then in faith we trust there is yet again something new to come, one more surprise. So as you’ve already experienced, as you’ll continue to see day-by-day, and as we can only imagine into eternity, we trust that God in love is making all things new.

Thank you for inviting me to be part of your newness, and congratulations and all blessing on the way you’re experiencing it together.

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Lela Josephine Kuehl (6 October 1913 + 3 September 2015)

Psalms 46 & 23; verses from Romans 12; Luke 17:5-10

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

Okay, I have to make a confession right off, because I know that doesn’t feel like a very complimentary ending to that Gospel reading to say, “we’re just worthless slaves.” My confession is that two Bible verses always get mixed in my mind. There’s this one, about doing the tasks that need to be done, no grumbling or questions asked, but ending with the denigrating, worthless word. Then there’s another one where the commendation is, “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt25:21, NIV). That is a nicer statement; unfortunately the rest of the passage is about doing work in order to be rewarded for it, which doesn’t seem as fitting for Lela.

I wanted us to be hearing the Gospel reading about one who does the work at hand, simply taking it as the right way to live. That fits with Lela. In her great new book, she says, “when I was quite young I already knew when I grew up I wanted to get married, be a good wife, be able to cook and bake, take care of my family.” All of that food preparation, her recipes, her care not to waste, she just expected to do it. So that goes with the verses about serving a household.

We may take a similar example with the resolution to move off the farm and down to Janesville, to be closer to son Jim as he attended the State School for the Visually Handicapped. It couldn’t have been an easy decision, leaving behind livelihood and a sense of home that still continued to draw her northward even long later, to the cabin on Tuttle Lake and even now the graveyard at Manchester as her final resting place. And yet, in spite of moving away from home and saying good-byes and changing life, it seems that Lela simply figured it was the right thing to do, as she did so much in caring for Jim and for the rest of you.

Again, thinking about another transition in life, we may mark the time when Lela had to go back to paid work to support herself and keep her home. It wasn’t just that she had to do it to earn some money; she also discovered those less tangible benefits of meeting people and helping them in their needs with the Coalition for the Aging. Such characteristics name a simple, dedicated work ethic, striving to do what was necessary, not for acclaim but just because it was right.

But that also brings us, for this moment, to that other Bible verse. If we say it that Lela just did what she was supposed to do, or had to do, that doesn’t speak very well of her life. Better, she should be celebrated! It’s not often we come to a funeral service like this, marking the end of nearly 102 years, and not just the expanse of time but years well-lived. There were struggles and illnesses and various hard times she had to overcome, and still she could continue to surprise us with her resiliency. And in the end, on her last day she ate breakfast, and died peacefully in her sleep. For this woman and a time such as this, our oldest congregation member, at the conclusion of this life, the other Bible verse better fits our emotions, to say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

So maybe it’s not just in my confused, mixed up mind. Maybe also in Lela’s life, we see reason to mix together these two Bible passages.

With a bit different perspective, we can also witness in her life details of the Bible reading from Romans. It seems to have good bits of Lela in it, as she lived out her faith and became an example for us. It calls for us not to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. It encourages compassion and cheerfulness and generosity, to love one another with mutual affection. It says to be patient in suffering. These are traits we’ve been given to recognize in Lela’s personality and presence among us.

Still, Lela was honest and didn’t sugarcoat things, so I’ll also acknowledge I heard her grumble and grouse a fair amount, about living situations and such. I expect there’s no reason not to tell the truth in this moment. Really, we don’t need to say that she embodied every virtue always or that she was a perfect saint. That isn’t where our confidence needs to rest. It isn’t in how fully we’ve met the duties entrusted to us or how exuberantly we say, “well done, good and faithful servant.”

More than all the details of 101 years, of great memories and more than any of us know or even that Lela could recall, there’s one verse in the middle of that Romans section that speaks for us now. It says that we in our various roles and functions are like different body parts, each doing our own part. But all together, we are connected to each other as one body.

That’s for us now because it explains the pain we feel. We don’t just say that Lela lived long enough and did enough, that she was our right hand that served well and now gets to rest. No. Rather, because we’re joined together and united with her, we know the pain of not having that right hand with us any more, as if it’s been severed from us. If we are members of the body, this is then quite literally a dis-member-ment we suffer without Lela.

Some of that is healed in sharing stories, again literally re-member-ing.

But the larger resolution is not just that we’re connected to each other, but that the body we’re joined into and united in is the body of Christ. This is a body that doesn’t stay dead, won’t be kept in a grave. It is a body of healing and wholeness. This is a body of life.

And so, as Lela did throughout her life, we continue to trust: we are joined together in Christ. God will raise us up to new life. No separations are forever. It is joy and peace and love that last. This faith sustained Lela for her life, in the many good times and through difficulties, in all of her hard work and in coming to rest, in days long gone and to the end. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” Psalm 46 declared and Lela’s life proclaimed, “The Lord is with us.”

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Jesus is for Losers

sermon for 13Sept15 (Mark8:27-38; James3:1-12; Isaiah50:4-9a)

There are Christians who believe that blessing from God means getting more and more, an increase in wealth and status and power. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian.

There are also Christians who see that you may not always find success in life, but claim that faithfulness merits eternal rewards, that you’ll receive a larger mansion in glory or get another jewel in your crown or gain some bonus bit of heaven. But we Lutherans are not that kind of Christian, either.

See, we Lutherans waste too much time listening to Jesus and following Jesus to be that sort of Christian. Jesus, who instead of pointing us to success or victory or prosperity points to suffering and death with the commandment to “deny yourself.” It’s not about winning much at all, because Jesus is for losers. I’m not trying to cast aspersions that you’re hanging out with the wrong crowd, but being here you definitely have guilt by association. You’re in the company of losers.

We could quibble over how that term is applied. Being a loser with Jesus isn’t the same as the Revenge of the Nerds or Rebels without a Cause. These losers aren’t synonymous with being dweebs or geeks or freaks or queers or outcasts or the feeble and meek, though there’s possible overlap in those categories.

We’ve also got this Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon concept that we Midwestern Lutherans are humble and bashful. It’s a good joke that the definition of an extroverted Lutheran is one who looks at the other person’s shoes when they talk. But this Public Radio caricature of our personality likely emerged because we are so steeped in Jesus, in the cross, in being losers.

And so, trying to get a sense of what in the world Jesus is talking about and questioning if you really are hanging out here with losers, you may be ready to sneak a glimpse out of the corner of your eye at the person sitting in the pew next to you. There’s a good chance they’re dressed just fine, and may even be well-bathed. They may look a fair amount like you. They may even seem respectable and upstanding.

And that may make you think more, about what this congregation is. You may view this as a good and vibrant place, with dedicated folks who’ve been here for years, plus plenty of young faces who are newly and eagerly engaged here. You may care about these people and also think that we’re pretty nice to newcomers, that we are welcoming, kind, and compassionate.

You may even take pride in what we accomplish together, that our Food Pantry meets lots of needs in our community. Or you may be ready for the service projects today, to help at the school and to care for seniors and to spread education and health around the globe with relief kits.

You may think about all these things and, failing to find them offensive, you may think we’re doing pretty well here at St. Stephen’s and it may even make you wonder whether we could actually qualify as a batch of losers.

But that just shows how corrupted you already are, that your definition of being a loser has been warped by Jesus and your presence in this congregation. See, your do-gooder-ism and your compassion and sympathy and your efforts to make the world a better place, these aren’t things of victory. It’s not the typical model of achievement and success, nor are you doing these things only to feel better about yourself. That external focus that cares to be invested in another’s wellbeing—much less puts them first—is not what society tells us is good. It is good from Jesus. These are exactly part of what it means to be a loser, giving your life away, giving it up for somebody else.

With that, I want to digress briefly. Last week I was mentioning some of the ways we as a congregation and as the broader Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or ELCA are making a difference for children near and far, from those school kits and meals to helping refugees and ending malaria. Those are among the reasons we’re eager to give away our financial resources, in offerings and what we term benevolences, a great word from the Latin that literally means goodwill. Another of the beneficiaries of these benevolences that we want to make sure we can catch up on and fully fund is Lutheran Campus Ministry at the UW. It was the country’s very first. The Lutherans here at Madison had this idea and understanding of caring for college students before any others. I mention it partly so you know there’s a new campus pastor, Emily Tveite, who is welcoming students this semester.

I also mention all of this because Emily’s immediate predecessor, Brent Christianson, remarked about this Lutheran identity of associating with losers. He said that the Lutherans never get asked to be chaplains for the sports teams because we Lutherans are too adept at seeing God’s presence and God’s work in the times of loss and sorrow and disappointment. We just aren’t very good at claiming that God wants us to win, that there’s a spiritual association with triumph, that God’s will is for us to be victorious, and if God is really blessing us then we’ll beat others.

That highlights some irony in our traditional kick-off rally day at this time each year that we call Homecoming. We may still say it’s good to support our “team” here. We may find it encouraging to sing our so-called fight songs. But even those are stuck with the peculiarity of our position. Lift High the Cross has militaristic and bombastic words of following our captain in conquering ranks, but it doesn’t even mention resurrection. There’s not a lot of glory there, but death in baptism and—over and over—the cross. Even the old Onward Christian Soldiers, banished from our hymnals for having too much pomp, still is focused on following Jesus even through loss and tumult and problems in the world.

So for following this captain, it’s difficult to compare that endless devotion and dedicated faithfulness even while facing loss after loss and having to give up so much. How long would Paul Chryst last as football head coach if the team never won? And yet Jesus Christ proclaims straight off that he’s not in it to win it, and that if you’re not willing to lose then you’re not with him.

This also shows how tough it is for us to give pep talks. There are some who claim sermons should be motivational speeches, to get you revved up for the week ahead. But this isn’t stuff that you get revved up for. That’s just not how we naturally work.

As an example of that, notice our reading from James, with twelve verses talking about how dangerous speech can be and how frequently our tongues cause problems, starting fires in bearing false witness and gossiping and just plain out of control. Twelve verses just trying to remind you that if you can’t say something nice, then you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a message we’re taught back in elementary school, and yet it evidently won’t sink in. Twelve verses just about how you use your words.

Contrast that with Jesus, telling you to take up your cross and die. If you can’t even control your tongue although you’ve constantly been told to, how in the world do you expect that a pep talk will motivate you to give up your life?!

It would seem we’re at a dead end, that Jesus is trying to motivate you to do something you don’t want to do and aren’t very good at doing, and that you’re skeptical of the loser label that goes with it anyway. It would seem—both from your experience and from Peter’s reasonable reaction in the Gospel reading—that Jesus is on his own on this one.

But then we also need to realize that this one who advocates death, who loves losers, who says you need to lay down your life, is not some mediocre coach or self-destructive nihilistic warlord with a deathwish charging into the maw of a pyrrhic victory. This is Jesus, the Lord of life and author of creation. So he’s not commending to you a peculiar option; he’s telling you the shape of his creation and the goal of his kingdom. It’s only when you try to reject that or imagine life to be something different, only when you seek value and meaning elsewhere, that you’re bound to be the loser who sees that you’ve wasted your energy on what doesn’t matter.

But lest you’re concerned that you aren’t good at following Jesus and can’t get to where he wants you to be, you can literally rest assured that he’s bringing you as his creature into his kingdom. He’s not just drawing you to eventual death, but has already joined you to his death in your baptism and already begun the work of filling you with his eternal and gracious life. Since there’s no real fixing your misbehavior, he decided to continue forgiving you instead. At his table, he’s removing any notions of your self-sufficiency with a reminder that you are fed by the gift of creation and sustained and renewed by his very presence with you. And in this sermon, he’s not just giving you a pep talk, but giving you his very own self, worming into your ear to take up residence in your heart and take over your hands to do his work.

So welcome home and welcome to work, you whose lives are oriented by the cross, you losers of Jesus.

Hymn: Lord Jesus, You Shall Be My Song (ELW #808)

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a wedding sermon

Since I’m pretty much in charge right now and since there’s not a whole lot you can do to stop me, here’s what we’re going to do as we get going with this wedding service: Jeri and Steve have chosen a couple Bible readings. But I’m not going to just read them straightforward. I’m going to interrupt to offer my running commentary as we go through them.

We’re going to start with two verses from a part of the Bible called Song of Solomon. Solomon was the greatest king of the time, like we’d think of Elvis now. The name Solomon gets associated with this because he was the premier lover of the Bible. It said that “among his wives were 700 princesses and 300 concubines” (1Kgs11:3). Now, that’s neither a Disney version of princesses nor is polygamy a helpful idea to put into anyone’s head right at this occasion of holy matrimony.

Nevertheless, this Song of Solomon book of the Bible is a love poem. Not only that, it especially appeals to middle school boys because it’s fairly graphically sexual. The couple of verses we’ll hear today may seem tame by comparison, but actually they’re describing the passion and intensity of love that we’re foolish if we think pales for not being NC-17.

These verses start this way: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. I tried to convince Steve that he should arrive for the wedding by water-skiing up onto the shore here. And similarly with the lake in the background, I thought it would be cool if I could arrange for a seal to swim up and sit on my arm, since the Bible verse said, “Set me as a seal upon your arm.”

Obviously, this is a different seal. Neither is it quite like when we think of sealing an envelope, meaning putting it off limits. While we’re going to wrap this up with Stevie Wonder singing “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” which may make us think of the marriage license getting to the county clerk over on the other side of the lake, this is more a like a seal of approval, an official marker. You’re exchanging rings, Steve and Jeri, an official marker of being bound together, a seal of approval for each other.

It’s much more than that, too. It’s about conviction. The Bible verse continues: for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Your vows will mark this relationship for “as long as you both shall live.” This love is a key part of who you are, of your identity, but even more of what it means to be alive, of what your existence is committed to. That’s serious passion.

Which is where the verse goes next, saying love’s flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. Maybe that’s another good reference to the lake, with a visual symbol, of a fire burning so intensely that all this water couldn’t put it out. Or maybe we take it more literally and think if rainwaters flooded the basement of your new house. As you’ve said, even that bad stuff won’t wreck your marriage or stop your love.

Our portion of the love poem summarizes this investment in each other with financial terms: If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned. It can’t be bought, it can’t be sold. By economic standards, all we can say is that your love is a gift.

Let’s move to the other reading, a few verses from a book of the Bible called Ecclesiastes. This is a teacher trying to impart wisdom. Whereas the love letter was filled with passion and lofty statements, this wisdom isn’t. It’s got observations like: “It is good for people to eat well, drink a good glass of wine, and enjoy their work for however long God lets them live” (5:18, NLT). There’s nothing really wrong with that, to enjoy your job and to have a drink, or to celebrate today, but it’s still kind of dismal or morbid and not very hopeful to say, “enjoy it now because soon you’ll be dead.”

To be fair, that wasn’t the verse you chose, so maybe I shouldn’t even have mentioned it. Your reading starts with this: Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. Again, that’s a good, simple, wise observation that teamwork is helpful, that you can share the load and celebrate accomplishments together. It continues: For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. I think this is being metaphorical, but again you could look to the future when you’re both really old and somebody falls and breaks a hip, but the other is there to call 911.

Here’s more: Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? The Bible was written before electric blankets, but we could say that it’s better to have somebody to snuggle up with.

It goes on to say, for whatever it’s worth, you’ll be good together in a fight, that though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. If nothing else, maybe that’s a reminder to try taking each other’s side as much as possible.

From all that reflection on being a pair, a couple, partners, two. all of a sudden the Bible verse adds something else. It concludes by saying, A threefold cord is not quickly broken. Now, do we figure that number three is Hank the French bulldog? Or is it saying that as good as two is, that to get through the worst moments of life you need the support of all these family and friends who gather around you?

There’s one more explanation. Both of these Bible readings are interesting because these are two of the only books in the Bible that don’t ever mention God. But we may nevertheless expect that God shows up and is there in the mix of your lives together and all. Maybe we recognize God’s presence in love that is passionate even in the face of death, that cannot be quenched and will always be there for each other, the love of Jesus that assures us of more to come. Maybe when you need the extra support and life feels frayed almost to breaking, that is God’s presence showing up to strengthen you, the mysterious third part that is wound around you and binding you up.

Maybe even as you turn next to pour sand to fill a jar, bringing those colors together in a totally unique and vibrant, inseparable way, maybe we think of God as the spaces of invisible air that still surround it, or as the molecules that make it up, or the forces that bind it together. Maybe that’s how we see it.

At any rate, God loves you, and thanks be to God for your love.

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Arguing with Jerk Jesus

sermon for 6Aug15 (Mark7:24-37; James2:1-10,14-17)
With a lucky volunteer from the congregation, let’s act out the 2nd part of this Gospel reading, the healing of a deaf man with a speech impediment. It’s in five steps:
1. Jesus took him aside.
2. He stuck his fingers in his ears. (In this case, we’ll presume he-Jesus put his fingers in his-the other man’s ears.)
3. He spat and touched his tongue. (Hmm. So is Jesus spitting on this other guy? A wet willie?)
4. Looking up to heaven, he sighed. (Actually, the better translation there is “groaned.”)
5. And he said, “Ephphatha.”

With odd abracadabra words and arm-waving and trance-like states and potions of saliva, this sounds an awful lot like witch doctor, medicine man, wonder-worker magic healings. If that’s what you’re hearing, then, really, you’re hearing it right. Though it’s unusual for us to think about Jesus in that way, in his time period, these would’ve been regular elements of healing.

If you’re not convinced this weirdness is normal, think of similarities in our medical industry, where doctors move their hands over you, feeling for things you can’t sense and even able to look inside your body with machines. Is spit so gross compared to tissue grafts or penicillin that comes from mold or even aspirin originating from a swamp plant? Should we be picking on a word like “ephphatha,” when most of what comes out of medical mouths is unintelligible mumbo-jumbo to lay-folk?

That framing for the second part of our reading is an effort to help in hearing the first part, because it feels like such a nasty interaction Jesus has with the Syrophoenician woman. He refers to her as a dog. To put that vulgar insult into perspective, we still have a female dog-related term used as a crude expletive. I’m going to leave it as the “b-word.” C’mon, Jesus!

It sure doesn’t feel like the Jesus we’re used to. He just finished feeding hungry crowds. Two chapters later, he’ll take a child in his arms. We expect Jesus to be sympathetic to our needs. What a friend we have in Jesus? Not here; this seems like Jesus the jerk.

Now, there are various explanations for this out-of-character behavior. Some say that Jesus is testing to see if the woman will continue to advocate for her daughter. The problem with that idea, though, is that there’s nobody else Jesus tests like this, pressing them to “prove their faith” or something.

At our pastor’s Bible study this week, we were speculating of another cause. The city of Tyre, where this is set, is on the Mediterranean coast, and it says Jesus didn’t want anyone to know he was there. We wondered if the woman was interrupting when Jesus just wanted a day off to have some vacation free time for himself to go to the beach.

Probably the most obvious explanation is that Jesus didn’t live with our standards of etiquette, nor do we understand the relationships of his time. It was against the law for a man and woman to be alone together. Plus, she was a foreign woman. Plus she was from people who were among the worst enemies of Jesus’ people.

And though there are plenty of occasions that give the opposite perspective, some look at this passage and remind us that Jesus wasn’t a feminist, that that kind of identity was still millennia away. Jesus did lots to encourage and involve and care for women. The early church provided some of the biggest leadership roles regular women had had in the history of human culture to that point. There’s lots about Jesus and Christianity that was and is changing culture. Still, this passage with jerk Jesus may show how he was also a product of the culture of his time, and so he remains outside our comfort zone here.

And the foreign woman might be, as well. Even called derogatory names, she still won’t give up. She wins an argument with Jesus, the Son of God. How do you like that thought for a persistent, dedicated woman, that she’s able to beat God in a debate?!

So in these verses, it may be that jerk Jesus makes us uncomfortable. And it may be that the resiliency of this woman in her contentious disputing makes us uncomfortable. That discomfort may be good for causing us to re-examine our faith and our attitudes. So we’re going to reflect a bit more, placing ourselves both in Jesus’ situation and in the woman’s, to try on the discomfort and find what it means.

Let’s first assume jerk Jesus’ place in this story. Honestly though, when it’s us instead of Jesus, it’s not nearly so surprising. We disregard people in need fairly frequently. We say nasty things to or about others when we should know better. We don’t like to be interrupted or argued with. We’re also part of our culture, which tries to tell us that people’s problems are their own—their own fault, their own responsibility, not ours to worry about.

In this reading, again, we want Jesus to be nice and caring and welcoming. That’s supposed to be his job, we want to claim, and not ours. With that, there’s some thought that this story served as a mirror for the early church; they met in secret in homes like Jesus was here. What, then, when outsiders came for help or assistance or wanting to be part of the community? The story reflects inhospitable, exclusionary attitudes back at the church. When Jesus shows us what that judgmental nastiness looks like, we have to recoil and ask ourselves, “Is that really what we should be?”

That’s also the setting of the reading from James, a letter attributed to Jesus’ brother. It points out that we fall into favoritism and privileges that cave to the world’s sin and that kill the faith we proclaim.

And yet we still wish to keep out people who aren’t like us or avoid those who are different and maybe even justify our refusal to help on religious grounds, that they’re unclean and not following the rules or they’re foreign and outside our bounds or they’re the ones with the problem and not us. But this story of Jesus and words from James make us question that reduction of God’s blessing.

Jesus, after all, changes in the story. He concedes the argument. He helps the little girl and listens to the woman.

So, transitioning to her perspective, God bless her for sticking with this fight and not giving up for the sake of her daughter. She’s even more impressive when we realize she might well be a single mother, since there’s no man there in the story who would’ve been better able to approach Jesus.

Putting ourselves in her shoes, I’m sure there are plenty of you who would go or have gone to the mat and refused to back down in pursuing the good of your children or those you love. As I’ve gotten to share some of these moments in your lives, I’ve been around those contentious conversations on behalf of family that have taken place in schools and hospitals, in courtrooms and in lines at government agencies and, yes, in church.

Instead of individually, when we think about it broadly and corporately, this isn’t just about how we stop a bully or treat a sick child—much less how a daughter gets more playing time or a son a better shot at college. In society, sharing this unrelenting concern is what makes us fight together to fund education and to make sure kids have something to eat and are safe. It affects how we vote and how we treat the planet for future generations. It opens our eyes to refugees on the other side of the globe, including as we are moved by the drowning of a three-year-old boy, whose family was incidentally leaving not far from the setting of an ancient worried and hurting family in our Bible story.

As I point out that Lutheran Disaster Response is among those who are and have been striving on behalf of Syrian refugees, maybe that helps us integrate the two sides of our discomfort and mirror back how Jesus responded when confronted with the need. We can see lots of amazing things that the church is doing to respond. Together, we become demanding for children, as we write letters to Congress for childhood nutrition and as our Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wis. tries to maintain budget funding for school lunches and as we served this summer at Monona Munchies. Soup for Schools steadily provides scholarships with peaceful opportunity for Palestinian students stuck in Occupation. The insistence and persistence is there in the ELCA Malaria program: 2½ years ago malaria had been killing a child in Africa every 30 seconds and we’ve cut that rate in half. Still every 60 seconds is not good enough, so we’ll keep at it. These are among the vital reasons we need to get back to our congregation’s benevolence payments, and I’m confident you’ll keep responding to the needs we face.

That’s the big picture, but as we’re integrating our lives and this story we have to recall the intimacy of the Bible story, too, that the mother is confronting Jesus. This is what prayer is at times: an argument with God, though that can also make us uncomfortable. You may not feel you win as quickly or that God gives in like in the Bible reading, but still there are plenty of times and those reasons to be demanding, not to say, “Dear God,” but “Hey! God! You promised to love me and this doesn’t feel much like you care at all right now. Hey, Jesus, if you’re forgiving me, why am I still dealing with this shame and guilt? Hey, I’m just trying to be a parent, a vocation you put me into! I’m laboring to love my neighbor. Are you working with me? It should be better than this!” Prayer as insisting on God’s promise to you is not only acceptable but is absolutely the point of the promise, the covenant, the relationship. Something good is bound to come from those arguments with God.

That synthesis may be an ongoing reflection point for us on this Labor Day weekend: How are we a church or how are we Christians who meet people in the midst of struggles and suffering and the mess of everyday life? How do our attitudes or behaviors keep others away? How do we stop the name-calling and the denigrating? How do we welcome and listen and do what we can to help? Where should our prayers be interceding, arguing with God to keep the promise of an abundant blessing? Where do we need to be more persistent in our caring?

Hymn: There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy (ELW #587)

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a funeral sermon

With Thanksgiving for the Life of Nora Jane Dohler (19 August 1938 + 23 August 2015)

Isaiah35; Psalm23; 1John4:7-12; Matthew25:31-40

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

Given that this service is for somebody so deeply Lutheran as Jane, I’m going to start with a characteristic Lutheran paradox. In our distinctions, we don’t see things only as black and white, nor just a lot of gray. Rather, we see black in the white, good even amid the bad, and life amid death. If it weren’t a sad occasion, you might enjoy calling us oxy-morons. We have this heritage that rightly identifies the horrors of death on a cross as exactly the source of blessing from God and eternal life breaking free. It’s with these sorts of reversals and odd distinctions that I want to reflect for Jane and for us.

Now, we are accustomed to the dichotomy of saint versus sinner; a category used a lot. But we Lutherans, of course, don’t use it the obvious way. Mostly saints are viewed as those who do nice things, who are generous and not selfish. Sinners, on the other hand, tend to tally up a long list of our vices, the various peccadilloes or problem-making or debaucheries. Sinners are seen as corrupted by the flesh, while saints are somehow more spiritual.

In that typical usage of sinner versus saint, we’d count Jane firmly in the saint column, hallowing her as one of the good ones, far from evil and whatever we’d term as the haunts of sinners.

But before we get too far into admiring Saint Jane, we have to pause for that Lutheran distinction that looks at these categories differently. In our definition, rather than saints being those who do good and sinners as those who do bad, a better shorthand in our tradition would be that sinners are those who try trusting their own abilities while saints rely on God, a God of grace and mercy and love and forgiveness and life. At some point our abilities fall short, and if we had to rely on even a little bit of our own merit, we’d be in trouble. Instead, we recognize our dependence on the gift of God’s goodness in Christ.

With this is a remarkable Lutheran paradoxical insight: we don’t fall into one category or the other; it’s not that you’re either a failed sinner or, if you try harder, you may become a saint. No, we are simultaneously saint and sinner; in ourselves desperate, yet in Christ redeemed and blessed eternally.

To get more to the point and to the heart of this service for Jane, I want to tweak those categories. Instead of a distinction of saint and sinner, either in its old form of subsequent or separate categories or in the Lutheran version of simultaneous identity, for Jane I’ve been thinking about God’s work in both our abilities and our inabilities, in strengths and in weaknesses, in health and sickness.

For Jane’s many achievements and all of her diligent work, there’s plenty to celebrate, with much gratitude. This is the stuff that would typically make us to label her a saint. We could mark that in her early career as a teacher. We notice it even more abundantly amid family, in her decision to be with the children as the taxi service and party host and gardener and chef and the whole other cadre of tasks at home that can be at times thankless but are so important. And besides kids, we can also celebrate her interest in and role for grandchildren, as a friend, and most certainly we give thanks, Dave, for all those anniversaries and so much effort shared over the nearly 53 years of marriage. These are miraculous God-given vocations.

Beyond that, what comes quickly to mind with the abilities of saintly Jane are her many, many, many roles around this building, on behalf of this congregation, for the mission of God in this community and beyond. Though the obituary is a brief synopsis of highlights, it nevertheless reads almost like a summary of 50 years of St. Stephen’s history. From burning the mortgage of an old building expansion to leading in the initial steps and designs of our most recent capital project that gave us Koinonia and Jubilee and the Agape Annex and better hospitality in this place. That hospitality and welcome with a smile was characteristic for Jane herself, and was embodied in the caring outreach of funeral lunches and for the Food Pantry and on behalf of our shared Lutheran jail ministry in Dane County, from the inspirational and creative with singing amid the choir and acting in the 2nd round of Last Supper dramas and affectionate interactions of children’s education and feeding VBS kids or encouraging the friendships and faithfulness of a next generation of women’s groups, down to the very nuts-and-bolts tedious details of policy and church councils and year-after-year of stewardship campaigns and the comings and goings of pastors.

Jane received the St. Stephen’s Award in 1988, “for gracious and faithful service to this congregation and beyond in the name of Jesus Christ.” And yet, really that was only half-way through her ministry and hard work among us. She continued at it for much of another 25 years.

But that mark is what may be most on our minds. As we’ve been thinking about all Jane was capable of and the many things she shared with us of her abilities, we end up so strongly marking these recent times of her inabilities or disability. The moods in encountering Jane seem to have been sorrow or even pity. From our human perspective, that’s logical, losing something or someone we’ve cherished and counted on.

But in faith we’re pressed to declare that we shouldn’t and can’t write Jane off or discount her. Some of that shows in the days right before her death, when Sandy and Janice got together with her once more for birthdays and she and Dave had good moments together. And Jane knew this. She couldn’t speak or get her functions to cooperate, couldn’t quite make the connections, but she was still Jane.

More, what we need to observe is that we would eagerly declare Jane was doing God’s work when she was so productive on behalf of our congregation and community—that God was working those good fruits in her on behalf of the church and us—but then we’re too quick to presume that God’s good has been stopped or that Jane was no longer capable of doing God’s work and we’d lost her sainthood.

Jesus wants us to see otherwise, though I also struggle with it. God is not only working in us when we are accomplishing big projects or when we’re feeling blessed by our many achievements or think we’ve earned our keep and done valuable duties and merit the celebration or a heavenly reward. God’s economy is not that simple.

Indeed, just the reverse, in some ways scripture would proclaim to us that God’s work was even more operative in Jane as her frontotemporal dementia affected her worse, where power is made perfect in weakness and grace is sufficient. It’s not to dismiss the disease or call it good in itself, but to call God good and proclaim the Shepherd who comes to save us.

As much good work as Jane did in many years, we don’t comprehend our faith if we don’t see that the Lord’s Supper was particularly for her when she was no longer able to dip the bread into the wine. That is precisely when Jesus is there for her and for us in the communion of the saints. And we lose the heart of our faith if, in this moment of sorrow and death, we don’t recognize the fulfillment of baptism and the flame of Easter and that this is most exactly where the victory is in Christ bringing about new life. Indeed, rather than death, this occasion traditionally marks the birth of saints. Even as her voice and actions were silenced, Jane’s life and now her death proclaim Christ crucified and risen, anticipating the fullness of God’s work in the resurrection, when with one more surprise her tongue will be loosed to sing again in joyful praise.

This amazing pairing fills our Gospel reading of caring for the least and lowest and lost. We can see also a mirror of it in the fullness of Jane, from earlier years through recent struggles and even now today: as the outsider is welcomed and the hungry are fed, we proclaim that Christ’s work is being done. But it is in that stranger, in the hungry person, in the one imprisoned and tortured and hurting, in all of our deepest needs that Christ identifies himself with us. The one who is Christ among us is not the one who does the most. Christ is with us amid the least of our sisters and brothers.

From this saint, we have been blessed in recognizing as Jane served Christ. And we have been blessed in recognizing as Christ joined himself to Jane in need and suffering and even death. And in this moment when no more can be done, we glimpse the fullness of Christ’s work for Jane and for us, the God of both the living and the dead, who brings us home forever.

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