Changes

sermon for Reformation Sunday (Jeremiah31:31-34; Psalsm46; Romans3:19-28; John8:31-36)
Things are sure different these days. I know that’s cliché or even trite to say. That today is not exactly the same as yesterday should go without saying.

Yet today, for this Reformation day, for this moment in our faith life, this is an appropriate time again to note that things are different.

Partly it comes to mind because of Confirmation for our 10th graders. There are those among us who look back to this day long ago in your lives and remind the younger of us that you had to recite the Small Catechism from memory and risked the pressure of failure in front of the congregation and also that you couldn’t have communion until after you were confirmed and you feared your pastor and hated these classes at church, and—we’re sure—that you also had to walk uphill both ways miles to get to church.

So we’d have to say “good riddance” to “good old days” of that sort! We can well celebrate that church is now a place of relationships and not just rote memorization, more of nurture than fear, of reinforcing God’s blessings rather than threats. Some change is indeed good. And there’s some change that’s not as good, as we know.

For perceptions of change, let’s go back to the Old Testament, starting with our Psalm, since it describes vast changes. The early verses portray natural disasters, maybe with earthquakes or flooding like in Texas and Hurricane Patricia. Perhaps Luther’s paraphrase of this, on losing house or life itself, calls to mind recent wildfires. Or these may be words about the very earth in peril, of its foundations falling apart, as we have to confront in the reality of climate change.

The Psalm goes on to more apparently human destruction, of wars between nations, the hordes and tyrants in Luther’s wording. The Psalm’s fearfulness in Jerusalem pairs with those suffering in the Holy Land today, encountering threats of violence and intimidation and oppression. There’s a perpetual theme of access to God—the practice of religion—being cut off by those with weapons.

That’s enough parallels from ancient to modern that we might claim nothing ever changes. And yet the point is, amid the various ongoing threats to life and wellbeing that would take away what we need or count on, that God won’t be overcome. We proclaim with the Psalm, “we will not fear; God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble!”

That’s also a worthy reminder as we encounter transitions here, in the changes at St. Stephen’s. We rely on God who is with us to give us assistance and ability.

To move ahead, the Jeremiah reading also encounters change. It was written during a period of exile, far from that temple in Jerusalem, when people were without the usual comforts of life and home. Picture when you have moved someplace new and unfamiliar, or imagine what that moment will bring. That’s already enough instability and trepidation.

What made it more so for Jeremiah’s people was that they saw this dispersal from home as a punishment from God, a result of their failure to obey God’s laws and to follow God’s will for our lives and our communities. Though we may want to stop to argue about that view of punishment and consequences of disobedience, to move on to what this prophet is saying is an amazing and wonderful change.

Jeremiah says because God changed God’s mind, God will change your heart. God’s ultimately given up on lectures and to-do lists and sets of rules to try to get you to love your neighbor or to trust God’s goodness. Instead, God is just going to put a new heart in you. For those who remember Dick Mueser’s heart transplant eleven years ago and how much it changed him and gave him life, this is what God is up to in all of us, the work of faith, a faith that isn’t about forcing you into anything but about giving you a heart for service, for love, the heart of Christ.

That, then, points to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Also a time of change, this was when good news of God creating in us what we need was first understood as being also among outsiders, for categories of those who hadn’t been labeled as God’s people before. The old order was circumstantial: being born into the right genealogy, practicing the right habits, about what you had to do to be in right relationship with God.

But in an enormous change of understanding—one still causing us to expand our vision and reexamine our prejudices—this good news of the early church threw open the doors to all who had been excluded, had been excommunicated, been told that their access to God and participation in community was restricted or forbidden. This has repercussions both for our own anxieties and for how we interact with others. It says there’s nothing you can do that would make God abandon you, cut you off, give up on you. As Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about a woman in her new book:

“God loves her now. Not just after she manages to start making better decisions, not after she [cleans herself up]. God loves us now, all of us, as we are. Sometimes the simple experience of knowing this, of knowing that our sin is not what defines us, can finally set us free.”*

That woman was a meth addict who had just miscarried a pregnancy and was blaming the social worker, taking no responsibility herself. God loves her.

This is how all of this expands. It’s for you when you don’t fit in with your peers, and it’s for classmates who just seem weird or like jerks. It’s for when you’ve got a bad diagnosis and treatments aren’t doing what you want. It’s for the family whose son is transitioning to become their daughter. It’s for the dead and for the killers. With what I believe has especially been heard too little, it’s good news not just for humans but all God’s creatures. It’s that God loves the world. Jesus dies with you and for you, and will redeem all of our mess by raising it out of death. None of the hurt or tragedy can separate you from God’s love. Nothing that goes wrong indicates God has forsaken you or withheld newness of life or decided not to bless you. On the flip side, no amount of what you learn or credits you’ve earned or things you try to do right get you any closer to God, because God is already with you, as close as God’s new heart living in you.

That this good news is spreading and unstoppable may take us to another mark of our historical trajectory of looking at change. We went from Old Testament times into the start of the church and its welcome of outsiders, failures, sinner, bullies, and weirdos. That radical total inclusivity of the good news of God reforming us takes us up to the Reformation, to that October day when Martin Luther posted discussion points on a town bulletin board. Those 95 theses sparked much more than a debate in setting off enormous change not only to the church but to western culture and the shape of our lives still. There’s more cultural geography lesson there than we could go into.

For our arc today, we note that although we live with Luther’s heritage, we live in a very different time. Luther got copies of the Bible into people’s hands by translating it into their language and using the new technology of the printing press. But that’s a long way from the comic book Bibles we’re giving kids today or Mari Mitchell’s Bible app she reads during breaks at school on her iPod.

Among other changes, we could also consider the different place and role of the church. In Luther’s time, the church was so central and so present in people’s lives there was almost no escaping it. There was no choosing not to be part of a church. But to be kicked out of church (like Luther was) made you exempt from society, an outlaw, literally outside-the-law, a life that had no value, where if somebody killed you they wouldn’t even be punished for it. A single hierarchy of the church controlled much of society, as opposed to so many denominations now and our very regular interactions with people of other religions or no religion.

And the problem in Luther’s time was that the church, this institution that was so constantly present, was proclaiming the wrong message, was undermining the good news from God, and so people weren’t able to hear it and get the relief and blessing they so desperately needed.

I suspect we’ve got partially the opposite problem now, that the church disappears so far into the background of busy lives filled with choices amid bustling society and all kinds of news and advertising and stresses and that we’re overwhelmed by these dominating messages from the world around us, and that is the reason we aren’t hearing the good news from God and getting the relief and blessing we so desperately need.

Which brings us to this Confirmation class today. This is a milestone in their different and changing lives, with all kinds of new experiences and exciting opportunities and developing identities and lots of pressures. Along with all that, Confirmation itself has regularly marked a big change in life. We have good reason to celebrate their completion of all kinds of requirements and the end of sermon notes and, in many families, the transition when young adults are given their own decisions on how (and sometimes even whether) to participate in church.

But it’s also a reminder from Jesus, who tells us that remaining with him is what liberates us. As this group largely understands, this isn’t a moment to escape church, to be excluded from this gathering. Rather, as so many voices bombard you by saying you’re not good enough and need to work harder and act differently and be somebody else—voices that come even amid some very good parts of life—yet that can be what confines you, enslaves you, is what you need to be set free from. And that’s why we continue repeating the good news that’s an old, old story, what we share here of a Lord who is willing to die for you—yes, you!—just because he loves you and he’ll take tender care of you and bring you through it, for today, and for whatever changes tomorrow brings, and forever.

* Accidental Saints, p135

Amid God's Flock

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Servanthood over Dominance

sermon on Mark 10:35-45; Isaiah 53:4-12; Hebrews 5:1-10
A Dorothy Day quotation to frame the day:  “What we would like to do is change the world–make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute–the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words–we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

I know people who just can’t believe in God, some of them are even in my family. I’m sure you can relate. There are folks who just cannot embrace the notion of an ancient grandpa-figure perched up on a cloud with a great big beard.

Or maybe it’s less of the feeble old guy they can’t quite imagine, and instead they have trouble with descriptions of a stern and vengeful God, the ultimate authoritarian trying to control and manipulate, eager to smite any who refuse to obey. That idea just doesn’t work for some people.

Or, to geek out a bit, from the original Star Wars movie maybe Han Solo speaks for macho atheists. Luke Skywalker says to him “You don’t believe, do you?” And Han Solo, the swaggering starship pilot replies, “Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there’s one all-powerful force controlling everything. There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny.” That sort of rationality-focused, science-y explanation claims there’s no obvious facts and so that must prove there’s no God or divine influence.

Any of these images of God can indeed be tough to swallow. But that’s small potatoes. With that refusing to believe in God, what proves really objectionable or bizarre isn’t so much trying to conceive some vision of the invisible or version of the supernatural. Much worse is what Jesus has to say today: to be great you have to serve?! The best thing is to be enslaved?!

Thinking of those non-believers, this stuff seems like the really difficult thing to grasp. Way harder than just trying to believe in God, this is what’s complex, confusing, even offensive. In fact, it’s not just hardcore disbelievers who have trouble comprehending this. It’s for many in power in our society, and those who try to take advantage and get ahead, and those who are trying to get a leg up, and people who are seeking some small acclaim and recognition. You know, people like you and like me. This seems not at all what we expect or want or would think to choose.

Jesus says God doesn’t demand or even want our worship, but is all about service. And that couldn’t have surprised us more if he had claimed that God were a massive Tyrannosaurus Rex who’d come bursting out of a volcano and ravage the earth to swallow up everyone who had ever used a swear word. In fact, that’s actually more in line with what we imagine God to be. Not the dinosaur part exactly, but the one who is mighty and merciless, keeping track of our wrongs and holding to account, who has power over our puny, insignificant, little lives. If we were trying to guess our way to God and blessing, we’d get this completely backward.

To put it in more human terms, think about those we look up to and those we think of as pretty great. Think even of those terms—looking up to someone versus looking down on them, being great is mastering your abilities, being better than your opponent. We’re trained to think of power as “power over.”

To put more flesh on this, let’s zero in on one person: the President. In these days of politics and fierce debates, an old rarely used term is of “public servant.” That title seems in line with what Jesus is commending, the important role of assisting people. Now think about that title of “public servant” with another frequent notion that the President is the most powerful person on earth. Would we say that power is because of being the Commander in Chief over the military with the most nukes and highest firepower and biggest budget? Or is the President powerful in regards to being so responsible for the care and wellbeing of so many people, both citizens in this country and those in need around the world? Jesus seems to say that one of these is the right type and role of power, which means the other is not.

But these words from Jesus on servanthood don’t affect only our views of or expectations for political leaders. It hits closer to home, too. Next Sunday, a half dozen of our 10th graders will be affirming this faith we share. They’ve put in the hard background work of the Confirmation program and will be looking forward with an understanding that this faith shapes our attitudes and behaviors, our worldview and what we do with our lives. But are we actually interested in that for these young adults, whom we’re preparing to send out from here?! Isn’t what we normally plan for them to be successful and achieve their dreams, to go to college and do well?

How do we square any of that in the frame from Jesus? We can continue to strive for wisdom and education and a degree, but it’s with the question of how what we’re learning will be able to benefit others. The shared benefit is the same for what we consider a good job. And to do well isn’t just about how big of a paycheck to expect, but is then further backed up with how wealth and income is released, is given away, is a tool not for self-gain but for helping others. Even notions of career advancement or security aren’t analyzed in isolated individualism.

Now, before we claim it’s too counter-intuitive and that our minds don’t work that way, we should notice natural ways this does occur. Mothers cradling babies, caregivers in times of dementia, nurses responding amid sickness, firefighters encountering danger and risk, teachers who forsake salary for students, stopping for an accident, giving blood, offering forgiveness, listening, all of the volunteering that radiates out from this place—these are a few among many obvious examples of un-coerced serving, of responding to a calling, of living out vocations that are about striving for the greater good.

More broadly, recall trees that give us air to breathe, soils that filter groundwater, the pollination of plants by bees (who, in the words of the Easter Vigil service, are precisely labeled as “servants” who give us candle wax and so follow the will of God). So we can observe how giving away our lives for others may be an obvious or, indeed, natural part of our identity. God-given, we might say.

But we also probably find it is countercultural, since we’re surrounded by settings and stories of aggression and violence and competition, in awe of celebrities while denigrating those in prison or on welfare. We buy into that dominant version of our economy and we hypothesize wildlife is “red in tooth and claw.” We may feel that’s what shapes most of what’s around us. And Jesus himself says that we know the way of the world is for rulers to lord it over and act like tyrants.

Not so among you, he says. And not so for him, either. He is Lord not as master but as servant, not as high and mighty but stooping to serve and wash feet. With that, we should notice this isn’t only a rigorous expectation for our lives. It’s not only to redefine cultural standards. It’s not just challenging us to examine how we live. Most fundamentally, this is not counterintuitive or countercultural but counter-theological. It is against faulty statements about God.

Even within our Bible, this still, small voice of lowly serving continues calling out against those others threatening to overtake it and drown it out. Take, for example, our Hebrews reading that marked Jesus’ suffering. It rightly proclaims that he came to know our weakness and cry with us in the face of death and even that he was willing to die for our sake. But Hebrews labels this as a result of “reverent submission.” That subverts the whole thing Jesus actually came to reveal among us. Rather than wanting to give himself for our sake, that verse tries to say Jesus only did it because he obeyed when his big bossy heavenly Father told him he had to do it. That undoes the whole notion of servanthood, again trying to put some ultimate divine master in charge. What Jesus says today argues with that claim from Hebrews. Jesus calls that wrong, a bad understanding, not the truth about God! He embodies and reveals for us God’s motivation not out of fearfulness but because of love and devotion.

The same problem shows up in our Isaiah reading. It’s an amazing passage that we use on Good Friday, words we apply to Jesus as one who suffered on our behalf, “crushed for our iniquities,” wounded because of our sin, a punishment that strives to be for our healing and wholeness. That’s very fitting with how Jesus describes serving, of laying down our lives for each other.

But the Isaiah reading slips in a phrase that undermines it, the insidious assertion that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.” Again, that is wrong. Out of a hard but beautiful reading on willingness to suffer and intercede for the sake of others and trying to make bad situations better, with all of that gets added one lousy phrase. But to crush someone is not the God of Jesus. That is not God’s will being done. That is not how the Spirit of the Lord is operating.

That’s the final word for today: in the all-too-many times when the world seems to be about dominance and oppression, or about hurting someone before they hurt you, or about getting ahead at any expense; for the perspectives that even pop up in faith claiming that God is removed from any sorrow or suffering, much less that God takes sides with the mighty and against the weak or that a terrible thundering God goes about causing pain and destruction, over and against all of that comes Jesus and this amazingly beautiful and caring truth of the God who shaped the world for loving service, a God who serves, who gives God’s own self for you, for the sake of life, through death, and beyond.

Hymn: Will You Let Me Be Your Servant (ELW #659)

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Jesus, Marriage, Divorce, and More

sermon on Mark10:2-16
Acacia’s family had a priest who would preach before reading the Gospel, to help with what was going to be heard. I almost did that with this reading, since these are not easy verses, especially for some of us. It can sound like a commendation or a condemnation. Some of us hear blessing in these words and some of us indictment, while some of us may not feel Jesus address us here at all.

Yet to hear the heart of the message of mutual benefit—and not just be self-congratulatory—we need background. In Jesus’ society, women could not initiate divorce. A man was permitted, however, to divorce his wife about as simply as handing her a note saying “it’s over.” So this was actually a strong word on behalf of women. To kick a woman out of the house would leave her without resources, without support, cutting her off from life. Within these words, Jesus is advocating for women.

So the question was about the law, but Jesus was trying to remove it from a legal framework to appreciate life and the value of relationship. To move us in the direction of focusing on blessing and relationship rather than restrictions and curses, and because of the different ways we hear it, I want to start by considering our many situations in life or the various stages through which we could be transitioning, trying to catch at least some of our enormous complexity and diversity.

Among us gathered together in this congregation, some are happily married. Some may be still in that honeymoon bliss kind of feeling, and others have found benefits in that pairing for 60 years and more.

Among us are also those who have not found marriage to be blissful or maybe even beneficial. Some of us think of it more as an inconvenient slog.

Again, some among us have ended marriages because they were no longer life-giving. There are also some who did not choose divorce but were nevertheless subjected to separation. So together we know divorce can be a painful fracture and feeling of brokenness, and at other times can be relief or fresh opportunity. Quite likely, it is all of that together—the good and the bad, the sense of being a quitter and of necessity. It’s hard and complicated, which (as we’ll say more about) means we don’t need a hasty churchy condemnation about it.

To continue on, there are others of us here, as well. We have dating relationships or long-term partnerships without marriage. Given that it’s a new reality in our state and country, we also recognize that there are those among us who have been long told we couldn’t be married, people whose sexual orientation or gender identity have been too much excluded as unusual. And we’ll return to a bit more on what Jesus is or isn’t saying about that.

There are also those among us who are single. That may include the young among us who anticipate or yearn for relationships to come. It may include widows among us continuing to live with the memories of a partner or spouse. Singleness at any age may be with a sense of fullness or of emptiness, either that life is missing something without a partner that society seems to declare is the standard pattern, or else that it’s not necessary, that life is good and full and rich without being coupled.

That perspective helps us all to recognize how we define ourselves and how we determine what is the fullness of life and what relationships are good and beneficial. Clearly none among us finds relationship with only one other person. Life doesn’t come only in pairs. We know richness of relationships are shared in an enormous web of blessing, in types of connections with the variety of so many people and groups, as well as (we must remember, especially on this St. Francis day) with pets and trees and cows and all the creatures that make our life, our life.

In turning more directly to ask what this Bible reading means for us and our lives in all these relationships, I’m interested to note that the version from the Gospel of Matthew was used at my cousin’s wedding in Tacoma last weekend. The surprise is in that her husband had been divorced, which the reading declares to be problematic. Yet at the wedding service we certainly celebrated and listened for God’s blessing for them. That’s vastly different from using this passage as a club. We need to be cautious of warping these words from Jesus from being about life into the opposite. We can observe that the pope, even as he talked on his visit about family, pivoted from the narrow structure that labels “family values,” as if other forms and shapes of families had less value or were depreciating it for others.
In that regard, it’s worth exploring these distinctions that contrast the legalistic and institutional view with what seems more in character for Jesus and therefore for us as Christians.

One typical problem begins in elevating marriage to an undue degree, making it an important sign of blessing or even a way to get closer to God. For Roman Catholics, it is one of the sacraments, a means to receive grace. But it’s not just Catholics that try to make marriage into something it shouldn’t be. Too often a passage from Ephesians gets used that says a husband is head of his wife like Christ is the head of his church. It’s a bad analogy to begin with and is poisonous as a prescription. Even Martin Luther mistakenly wrote on occasion that marriage was a blessed state fulfilling what humanity was supposed to be in the Garden of Eden.

The problem is quickly apparent that marriage is no Paradise. Being married quite obviously does not automatically make us better people, much less holier people. We fail in trying to embody love and grace and forgiveness. We fall short. None of us can bear the burden of having to be Jesus for each other. We need Jesus because we aren’t Jesus. Rather than marriage being what gives us strength and grace and blessing, we need blessing and strength and grace in order to keep going in marriage.

And we also need it outside of marriage. That’s the second and larger problem when we’ve overestimated and elevated marriage beyond what is should be. If marriage is seen as so highly blessed, then divorce becomes so wrong as to exclude a person from blessing, from God’s goodness. That gets it completely backward: we need God’s grace exactly because we are broken, because we are imperfect in our relationships.

That also returns to the original difficulty with this Gospel reading. We come to church seeking grace and blessing and God’s goodness and help for the week ahead. But this risks excluding some of us who need help and forgiveness and love. It even gets institutionalized as a policy that divorce means you can no longer be part of the church, that it directly separates you from what you need. Some of you may even have been told that you weren’t welcome to receive Communion because of divorce. That is an effort literally to dismember you from forgiveness, from community, and from our Lord Jesus himself. And it’s wrong! That excommunication is not from our God of welcome and of healing!

There’s something similar in the question of homosexuality here. This may be the closest Jesus indirectly comes to addressing same-gendered relationships, while quoting Genesis about the two becoming one flesh.

Yet before we restrict that understanding of unity, it bears noting how much we judgmental people enjoy quoting Scripture against others, again as a cudgel. Rather than letting it speak or apply to us, the energy is invested instead to exalt ourselves by condemning others, trying to tell them they’re wrong and we’re right. That’s another of the self-promoting efforts to claim that something we’re doing makes us inherently closer to God. Just as when we say marriage is right and divorce is wrong, we also try to say one kind of relationship is good and another bad. But that once again ignores and undermines the fundamental truth that we are all dependent on God’s grace and on Jesus for life.

With all of that, these words from Jesus would be better used in pondering how we are called to appreciate and foster life and blessing and relationships. That is, after all, the central point from Jesus: our relationships aren’t solely for our own benefit. He cautions us against being so hard-hearted, so stubbornly self-centered, that we lose sight of the greater good we are intended to share. We are called to attend to and take care of each other, to be responsible and aware of how we affect others, to seek the good and strive for the best in our relationships. We should be mindful of what it means to be united, to be joined together, to be so inseparably connected, and to recognize this as God’s work for and among us. We can observe that to be true in marriages and as couples, and being tied together and dependent on each other is also true in our families, in community, as part of neighborhoods and nations, and being sustained by creation. Existence is mutual and communal. So Jesus isn’t just setting a strict legal standard. He’s opening our eyes to the goodness, the richness, the broad extent of what God intends in our relationships, to be caring and cared for.

One final note, turning toward the second part of the reading that we’ve only touched indirectly: by again welcoming a child into his arms Jesus insists once more that all need access to his grace and love and blessing. So it’s one thing to say we should be nice to kids or understanding of youth. It’s another to be proud of a vibrant and growing Sunday School program. But to take up the ethic of care and the promises we make in baptism, we should probably be asking in our families where other activities or selfish priorities are obstructing our children’s access to Jesus and God’s blessing. We should ask how our worship is indeed welcoming them and where it impedes that. We should ask if we ourselves are making use of the means of accessing blessing for life, of being sustained in relationship with God and this community and the fullness of creation.

Hymn: This Is a Day, Lord, Gladly Awaited (ELW #586)

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